Chapter 1: Brethren
Erik's side of Eggshell.
In the beginning, Erik saw his powers as an entity outside himself. If it was meant to be part of him, then surely he'd be able to control it like any other sense; surely it wouldn't just burst out whenever the cracks were big enough.
All it was good for was catching the eye of a monster.
The problem (one of the many, many problems) is this:
The first thing Erik ever saw with his overwhelming new senses was that barbed wire fence.
His power was an unreliable friend that didn't always come when he called.
It responded to nothing less than the deepest reserves of his rage. With the years, reaching for the memories began to feel like just another mechanism, the same as exercising a tangible muscle, but he could never truly separate the feel of metal from the knowledge of how he'd been taught.
The fruit of the poisoned tree will still kill, no matter how lovely it looks.
The first few years after Schmidt, he couldn't close his eyes without being back in the room with the table and the ceramic instruments. He slept in two, three hour bursts and woke up screaming, his forearm throbbing as if he'd only been tattooed yesterday.
It was on one of those sleepless nights that he picked up a tattered copy of Frankenstein, left on the coffee table of the drab apartment he'd broken into.
The next time Erik closed his eyes, his nightmares began to take on different shapes.
It was no bad thing, he decided, seeing himself in the Monster. Its desire for vengeance was justified, and it stopped at nothing to claim it, which was admirable.
His only objection was to the absurd ending of the book. Only the need to preach a tired and outmoded morality could have driven the writer to portray the Monster not basking in his triumph but instead feeling undeserved remorse for accomplishing its task.
For his part, Erik could only imagine the sweetness of fulfilling his goal, the satisfaction of finally allowing himself to rest once the enemy was dead.
(Maybe he could stop running, then, because there would be nothing more to fear, nothing at all.)
Once, his abilities had been a curse he never asked for. Now they were the greatest of gifts. He no longer wondered where they had come from, or what it said about him that they were only accessible through his rage.
It didn't matter, not while Shaw lived.
He dreamed of his senses extending until he could feel the whole of the earth, down to the core, layers upon layers of metal, and the magnetic field that wrapped all the way around it like a living thing.
In the dream, he lost control, and squeezed until it all cracked.
Then he meets Charles Xavier, and everything changes.
Oh God, you're in my head.
There's no wonder in that thought, only horror and the kind of fear he'd thought himself free of. If he's not the only one with powers, then he's not safe.
But there's safety in numbers, too, the kind of strength he never dreamed he'd believe in again.
"You're not alone," Xavier says, and the most surprising thing of all is that Erik believes him.
It had been one thing to suspect that there might possibly be others like him; quite another to meet one such man in full, confident command of his powers, who seems to use them as easily as he breathes, without a single ripple of fear or anger.
For the first time since he bent the gates, Erik feels a true sense of belonging, pure and powerful.
Men have fallen in love for far less.
The day before they leave the CIA compound to go recruiting - and Erik can't help but imagine them as birds about to leave an iron cage - Charles spends a full hour locked in Cerebro. When he emerges, he's smiling wide enough to show neat white teeth, eyes so unnervingly bright and full that McCoy spends their entire conversation looking off to one side rather than meet them head on.
He only folds back into himself - small, neat, English - when Raven hugs him, pressing a kiss into his hair. She's in her blonde form again, as if her true skin is something to be hidden away in shame and fear. The way McCoy's eyes alight on her pale form is almost as disquieting.
Wanting to be normal, to be like their genetic inferiors - he can't understand it. Not when they're so much more than that.
Charles' smile quirks, like he knows exactly the direction Erik's thoughts have taken. "Erik! You didn't need to be here. Could have slept in." It's kind of you to worry, but there's really no danger.
Erik shakes his head. "I wanted another look at the machine."
It doesn't count as a lie when Charles can read the truth as if he'd said it out loud. He doesn't trust the CIA. Not MacTaggert, not that petty little bureaucrat running Division X, not even McCoy, who's clearly brilliant and yet naive enough to have found himself working for the enemy. There's no way he's going to leave Charles in their hands unsupervised while they run their experiments.
Charles nods, accepting both the story and the underlying truth. "Will you walk with me?"
Outside, it's a painfully picturesque day. Charles falls into step beside him on the winding path, and the silence is - comfortable. Despite the setting, despite the urgency of his mission burning like a hot coal in the centre of his chest, he is risking becoming far too comfortable here.
A sense of fellowship, once gained, is difficult to let go of.
"I found a telepath today," Charles says slowly, as if testing each word out loud. "No, not Shaw's, unfortunately. Another one."
"For our list?"
They'd worked out a simple list of criteria between them, arguing it out over a game of chess on a makeshift board. Young, but not too young. Persuadable. Stable, more or less.
"No. Too broken. All he could hear were surface thoughts, Erik. And it was enough to drive him mad. I wish I could help him."
The last sentiment is very Charles - all bleeding heart and earnest tone. It makes Erik wonder how he had made it through those first few, no doubt terrifying months when his powers had manifested. His mind, always systematic, shelves the thought for another time in favour of new information.
They now know of at least three telepaths. All the other mutants they know of have unique powers. With a bigger sample size, could they find another metal-bender? Another shape-shifter?
"How many of us are there?"
Enough to survive the inevitable coming war? Enough to keep going if the others - the humans - were out of the picture?
Charles' gaze goes from sorrowful to sharp between one blink and the next.
"Difficult to say, given the size of our current sample group. More than I'd ever dreamed, certainly. No, no, not a viable population on its own like you're thinking. Give it four, five generations - if my hypothesis is correct, in time mutant will be the norm."
The last seven words go through Erik like a thunder clap, almost as powerful as the moment Charles found him in the water. It's the most genuine thing he's ever heard, as definite as magnetic north.
Charles nods, very solemnly. "When I first realized...it changed everything."
Of course it does. Humans continuously occupy themselves by using each tiny little difference as an excuse to treat each other like animals, remaining blissfully ignorant while history passes them by.
But one day, they'll have to understand.
The only difference that truly matters is the one between us and them, between humanity and mutantkind. That's the only fundamental truth of the world.
Travelling with Charles is difficult. He's nowhere near as fussy and spoiled as Erik had feared, and they make good time every day, but Erik is used to working alone. The presence of any other person would have been unnerving enough, without it being someone as clever and invasive - and distracting - as Charles.
"That's really quite remarkable."
"That." Charles gestures at the butterfly knife spinning in the air in front of Erik, folding in and unfolding like a particularly deadly flower. "You're not even paying attention, and yet the trajectory is perfect."
"Practice," Erik says, allowing a faint smile.
He'd taken the knife from the cooling body of a former SS officer. It had been spotless, perfectly sharp. Possibly never used.
No matter how lovely, a weapon is just a weapon. The use it's put to is what matters. It's true of Erik, who had been beaten into something sharp and deadly, and it's equally true of Charles, who has honed his power all his life, even if he works very hard to conceal it.
The mildness of speech and expression, the careless, unthreatening body language - it's almost perfect, as far as disguises go. Would be perfect, without the occasional slip-ups, when he stands too straight or strides forward with too much confidence.
Then there's the way he looks at Erik, unabashedly hungry, like Erik is newly discovered territory that he's busy working out how to conquer. Charles might fool the whole world with his harmless act, but Erik knows a fellow predator when he sees one.
"Erik," Charles begins, and Erik's never heard his name in that pleased, wondering, almost reverent tone before. He's almost afraid of what Charles is going to say next. "You know, I think you'd be quite resistant to telepathic manipulation. I've never seen anything like it."
Charles purses his lips. "Mm. Significantly."
"But not enough to keep you out," Erik says dryly. Still, it's useful to know. Shaw's telepath had succeeded in hurting him - maybe the option of controlling him hadn't been available to her.
Erik brushes it aside with a wave. "Don't apologize for things you can't change."
It's possibly Erik's least favourite thing about Charles. He does it often enough for it to be termed a habit, too. And now Charles undoubtedly knows exactly how Erik feels about it.
"That's a good rule. Still leaves me with quite a lot of leeway, though," Charles says thoughtfully. He's not wearing his usual mask of a smile. The cool amusement behind it is a lot more honest.
Charles has a power that makes all others look like inane curiosities, and he uses it like it's the most common thing in the world. Sometimes just looking at him makes Erik's head hurt.
His quaint morality only just balances the scales, makes him less than terrifying. Erik has pushed and taunted and tested as far as he can, and for all his efforts there seems to be no denting Charles' fierce belief in the possibility of change for the better.
(Which is fortunate, really. It means he won't consider changing people's minds for them.)
All of which is bad enough, and nowhere near the worst part. No, the worst part is this:
Charles has laid himself out like an open book in front of Erik, at ease with being inspected like a potential ally - or a potential enemy. All that honesty and trust and belief goes to Erik's head like heady wine, and he's been parched for a long, long time.
If Erik isn't careful, his fear of what Charles might do with it will melt away until there's nothing left, and although the power of an ally is something he's coming to get used to, even enjoy, it doesn't do to forget to be suspicious.
All of which only partly explains why he gives in a few weeks into their recruitment trip.
The first time Charles touches him with more than friendly intent, something inside Erik snaps with the sudden viciousness of bone crunching under steel. He doesn't remember the last time he wanted to hold something so badly without wanting to destroy it at the same time.
Everything, Charles says inside his head. I want everything of you.
His smile is so hungry that Erik finds himself believing it.
It's a fucking disaster.
After, Charles flops down on the narrow single bed - Erik's bed - his body a line of warmth all down Erik's side. He doesn't seem inclined to move.
Overcome by smugness, probably, Erik thinks viciously, and he doesn't care if he's shouting.
Why shouldn't Charles be, when he's cracked Erik open even more thoroughly than he had that first night in the water? His skin feels too small for his body, alive with receding pleasure and crawling with the discomfort he's always associated with vulnerability.
"Well? Is your curiosity sufficiently satisfied?" he snarls, when he feels capable of speech.
Charles opens his eyes to stare, his expression going from relaxed to tense in a split second. "Erik, don't. You know that's not how I feel. You know. Calm down."
"Get out of my head."
Even as he says it, he knows it for a lost cause. They've just had this discussion, after all, before all the - the sex - and Charles is honest enough that he'd never agree just to placate Erik.
"You're in mine," Charles says, and he might be joking, or he might mean every word. It's difficult to tell in the fading light.
"Your sense of melodrama is tiring," he settles for saying, gruffly.
Men like Charles only know how to demand without boundaries. To let them get their hooks into his flesh would only lead to pain.
Charles shakes his head minutely. "My friend, you've never met anyone like me. And I've certainly never met anyone like you." He brightens suddenly, grinning from ear to ear. "Did you know, there was so much static around your desire that I could never be sure your revulsion wouldn't overpower it. You're an impressively contrary man, Erik."
"I'm not repulsed by you," Erik says, blank with surprise. If he had been, they'd have an entirely different set of problems.
"No, you're not. Just by the implications of my power. It's all right." Charles waves a hand half-heartedly, nonchalant as if they're discussing the weather.
"It's not all right. How - how can you - "
Charles leans forward and touches his soft, bruised lips to Erik's brow. "I understand. It's only natural."
Things change once they arrive at the mansion.
Charles and Raven retreat into themselves, leaning on each other more obviously than they'd ever done in front of Erik. For all his initial distaste at the haughty grandeur represented by the Xavier estate, it quickly becomes clear to Erik that the gleam of luxury hid darker secrets.
The third morning, he almost walks in on Raven and Charles talking in the kitchen, and slows down to listen despite himself.
"What's that? Charles, show me."
"I'm sorry. Here. From the Institute."
He's never heard Charles sound like that before - infinitely tender and somehow coolly resolute at the same time.
Raven's voice, too, is full of old strength, even as it wavers.
"Yes. No change," Charles says, and then he glances up, raising an eyebrow at Erik in the doorway.
Eavesdropping on a telepath. Erik's surprised he lasted that long. He can't imagine Charles meant for him to hear - the man must have been truly distracted.
"Excuse me," Erik says.
Raven's face drains of colour. "How long have you - "
Charles cuts her off, talking very fast. "Some of this mail is years old, I don't know why Marianna kept it. It's all just boring old tossers with more money than sense, anyway."
"You're so terribly judgemental, Charles," Raven says reproachfully, her false eyes sparkling with mirth.
Erik raises his eyebrows. He recognises a routine when he sees one. What's really impressive is how quickly both of them launched into it.
Raven leans towards him, voice low like she's confiding a terrible secret. "Charles secretly hates upper class society. I think that one Russian boy turned him into a Communist."
"He did not," Charles says indignantly, trying and failing to hide his grin. "I simply find my family's social set tiresome in the extreme."
His rant about the general uselessness of New York State's high society is almost enough to convince Erik that Raven might be on to something. But it's not enough to make him forget about the letter.
He corners Raven in their makeshift gym the next day. She's bright blue and radiant, which is enough to put a smile on his face.
(It's the kind of expression that makes Charles trace the curve of his mouth and bite.)
Raven drops her weights to the side, closing her eyes. Her skin ripples for the briefest moment. "Cain Marko. Our step-brother."
"What happened to him?"
"We had to," Raven says vehemently, like it's an answer in itself. And maybe it is.
The coin Erik had been idly flipping between his fingers wobbles in mid-air. "Explain."
"There were - problems. Kurt - our step-father - he was an asshole. So Cain was already broken when we met him. He was always angry. Always - out to hurt."
Charles has far more scars than a man of his relatively sedate lifestyle should.
"What did Charles do?" Erik says, although the answer is already taking shape in his head.
Institute? Mental Asylum?
Raven's eyes snap open, bright yellow and blazing. "You mean what we did. Everything that happened since I arrived here, we went through together. You wouldn't understand. Just - don't mention it to him. Please. He doesn't like to think about it."
The human mind is endlessly adaptable. It's entirely possible to rearrange it in order to optimise function, if you know how, Charles had said, on one of their car trips. Making some memories easier to recall than others, as an example.
Erik doesn't mention it, not that it does him any good. His chess matches with Charles that evening are quiet affairs, free of Charles' usual absent chatter, or one of their vigorous political debates. Charles works his way through three glasses of scotch before he opens his mouth.
"We all do what we have to do. Isn't that right, my friend? Go on, I know you're dying to ask."
"No. You did what was necessary."
In his place, Erik would have done the same, possibly worse. Although there was little that he could do which could top rubbing a man of his sanity.
Charles smiles at the pawn in his right hand. "That was when I understood how easy it was. If I operated without limits, I could remake the world. Isn't that the best argument for restraint?"
Looking back, that should have been his first clue.
Charles is unquestionably a good man, by any measure Erik cares to apply and several he doesn't. That's not to say he's a kind man (although he sometimes remembers to try). Those things don't have to go together.
Erik leans forward. "No. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that you have a responsibility to use your power that way."
"Raven thinks that too," Charles says, carefully noncommittal, and takes a very delicate sip of scotch.
"She's sensible. You should consider her point of view."
When Charles glances up from the board, he could be a different man. It's the same face, with the same features, but Erik's never seen that expression before.
"I never said I disagreed with her. Mate in three, by the way."
He'd assumed that Charles took safety for granted because he'd never had to fight for it, not like Erik, who'd been taught early its absolute value. But Charles obviously has his own safeguards too.
"I won't let anyone hurt you," he says. Blurts out, really. He's not sure what drives him to it, only that he means every word.
Charles' smile turns sharp. "Don't make promises you can't keep. Rather, say that you'll fight for me. That's all I ask."
Days at the mansion go by too quickly. Or too slowly, he can't quite decide. The Shaw-shaped hole in his chest seems to be expanding with every day they spend in this idyllic bubble, training and chess matches and long evenings spent wide awake, trying to etch himself into Charles' skin, trying to get something of himself back in return.
Charles' study has some of the most ridiculous furniture known to man (and not nearly enough metal). One of the most ridiculous items is the enormous red armchair, of which Erik has become almost fond. Or at least he's getting used to Charles backing him into it and sinking to his knees, pointedly graceful, carrying himself like royalty even then.
He lets Erik take and take until Erik no longer feels the urge to run, to leave Westchester and go back to his hunt alone, and then he smiles that hungry red smile that freezes Erik in his tracks.
On one of the last days, Erik makes a decision.
Charles lifts his head from its resting place on Erik's thigh, gaze all heat and fascination. He's too honest to pretend that he hadn't known. "Could I - please, Erik, just this once - "
I'll stop as soon as you want me to.
Erik closes his eyes. "Yes."
He'd imagined the compulsion as something that could be easily felt, a violation that his mind would try to repel by instinct. It's nothing so crude as that. In fact, it's seamless. Charles' mind is like water, the way it flows through the smallest opening, the way its gentle and inexorable progress wears through even stone.
Charles is everywhere. Or he could be nowhere, and there's simply no way to know.
The problem, in the end, is this:
There is no way to know.
Anyone who could reach into his heart, tug on the strings until everything came loose, and leave him feeling grateful for the experience was no one he wanted as an enemy.
If only Charles really was nothing more than a foolish idealist. Idealism alone does very little damage - it's only when misguided ideas are married to intelligence and ability that they become capable of doing harm.
"It's not that I don't trust you, Charles."
On one level, the helmet is purely a symbol. Charles could still keep Erik from killing Shaw, by acting on any or all of the unshielded minds around them.
The helmet is his determination.
I will do this regardless of the cost. There is little else I'd lose your friendship for. You knew this was coming.
The helmet is his relief that Charles will never hear the mess of justifications and recriminations in his head.
The helmet is a dare.
If you value my life over his, let me do this.
Chapter 2: Equilibrium
Erik and Charles learn to work together.
There's a void in his chest where the satisfaction of killing Shaw should have gone.
But no matter. Erik is free of the shadow of the Monster. He's so much more than a madman's experiment gone wrong, and his goals have changed accordingly. Shaw's death was only the first step. Perhaps it's only right that he feels relief and not satisfaction.
Charles had helped give birth to his new convictions. If Erik's belief in the supremacy of mutantkind were a religion, he'd be one of the prophets.
"I can work with you," Emma says, a week after they break her out.
Erik is amused despite himself. "What would you have done, if you had decided otherwise?"
She smiles nastily. "Telepaths don't kiss and tell. As I'm sure you know."
He doesn't give her the satisfaction of a reaction.
Erik destroys most of a perfectly good safe house when Mystique returns with news on Charles.
Paralysed. All that power, and it only took a single bullet to cut him down. A single bullet fired by that human woman - never trusted her, and you shouldn't have either, my friend - and deflected badly, it had been careless of him, surely he should have been years past such mistakes.
His power is a source of enormous pride. The great Magneto, capable of raising submarines out of the water. And yet, he'd failed with one little bullet.
(That bullet has been a constant weight in his pocket since they left the beach, but it's never felt quite as heavy as it does now. Like an anchor, heavy enough to tug him into the depths.)
The rest of the Brotherhood had wisely vacated the room once the fixtures started vibrating. Mystique's the only one left, sitting calmly at the table even as everything around her rattles and spins.
She only moves when a fork sails perilously close to her face, standing with a clatter. "Stop. Stop, you idiot, he'll be all right!"
Erik jerks like a puppet with the strings cut. There's an enormous crash as he clamps down on his power. "How - how can you say that?"
"Shut the fuck up, Erik," Mystique snarls, in a voice he's never heard before. "He's my brother. Don't ever think you care more than I do, you don't even know him. If you did, you'd know that - that it's not going to slow him down."
"That's impossible," Erik says, and he hates the way it comes out. Hopeful.
"The humans broke his heart on that beach. There's no going back from that. I know my brother. He'll want to fight."
She's right, if only in part. It's hard to imagine Charles not being disappointed in his precious humans, but they're not the only ones who hurt him that day.
Erik is not in the business of lying to himself.
"Charles doesn't believe in fighting. Not like we do."
Mystique shakes her head. "He'll come around."
Erik lets his silence speak for itself.
"Fine, don't believe me. How long have I known him?"
"Your judgement is compromised for that very reason," Erik says carefully.
They both know that she'd spent her first week with the Brotherhood as a total insomniac, because she'd go to bed blue and wake up pale-skinned and blonde and shaking, stumbling into Erik's room and sitting in the dark glaring until she could be blue again.
Mystique rolls her eyes. "You'll see. Anyway, weren't we doing something about the Russian intel?"
According to Emma, who has no reason to lie about this topic in particular, the Soviet government has an interest in powered individuals, although as far as she knows they do not yet understand that mutants exist on a far larger scale than they think.
The Cuban Crisis would therefore have been a rude awakening. Or it would have been, if they had managed to piece together an understanding of what had happened on that day. Emma had been very surprised to find the minds of those present and close enough to see what was going on thoroughly confounded.
This is neat work, she had said, sounding reluctantly impressed. And done entirely on the fly, you say. Hmm.
All that remains to be done on the Soviet side is clean up, just enough to keep the Soviets from gaining a further interest in mutation-related research. On the American side -
"And the CIA?"
To his surprise, Mystique grins. "I have a hunch about that. Charles didn't say, but - I think we should wait. He'll be taking care of it."
And Charles does indeed take care of it, in admirably efficient fashion.
Mystique points out that one gesture of goodwill deserves another, and Erik can hardly bring himself to disagree. Once put on, though, the helmet isn't easy to take off. Besides, he doesn't have anything to bring to the bargaining table yet.
(Nothing besides himself, at any rate, and it would be insulting to both him and Charles to assume that this is merely about the two of them.)
So they go to Russia, and what promised to be a simple case of reconnaissance and the careful application of Emma Frost turns into a long, drawn out game of cat and mouse.
The Soviets, it seems, had liked the idea of Captain America quite a lot, and were busy trying to make enhanced humans of their own. All in all, discovering and then thoroughly destroying the program takes up six months of their time, during which both Erik and Mystique develop a healthy dislike for Leningrad.
When they're finally done, Mystique insists that they head back to the States.
"We need to be ready," she says, quiet and insistent, when Azazel asks why. They've grown close while he wasn't looking, which he finds extremely disconcerting.
(He's never forgotten where most of his subordinates' loyalties used to lie.)
Mystique picks a safe house in Massachusetts, bordering New York State, and Erik can't find it in himself to protest.
Two months after that, the Whitehouse story hits the news.
...16-year-old Whitehouse was beaten to death by classmates in suburban Pennsylvania after the sudden manifestation of his so-called mutation. The incident and the subsequent attempted cover-up has sparked a nation-wide debate...
Erik expects events to fall into line quickly, after that. And they do, but not quite the way he'd imagined. The president makes a speech with less fearful code words than the standard anti-Communist rant, talking about an overdue national conversation and his faith in the American people. It's all very nice and open-minded, and Erik has a few nasty suspicions as to why. Not that he'd get any answers if he asked.
(Besides, Charles is occupied. Hardly a day passes when his name doesn't feature in a major newspaper or on television. After all, he is the world expert on human genetic mutation on a population-wide scale.)
Then there are the politicians, preachers and pseudo-scientists crawling out of the woodwork to sprout poisonous, ignorant nonsense. That part goes more or less as he'd expected.
Rumours of unrest in other parts of the world begin reaching the ears of the Brotherhood over the next few weeks, alongside the reports of extraordinary individuals appearing, in Central and Western Europe, East Asia, South America, Africa. It's all Erik can do to keep up with developments in the United States, though, and for the first time he catches himself thinking if we'd been able to stay hidden longer, it would have been more strategically expedient.
It's followed furiously on its heels by well, sometimes ideology has to take priority over expediency, and then he has to spare a moment to laugh at himself, because Charles isn't there to do it for him.
By the time he gets a quiet moment to reflect and plan again, it feels like entire years have passed. Certainly long enough that the delay is close to unforgivable. He takes off the helmet. It's time.
Charles? Are you there?
It's late afternoon, he has no guarantee that Charles would even be looking in this direction, and yet a mere two minutes later -
Put the helmet back on.
Of all the ways he'd imagined this conversation going, this had not been one of them.
Unless you mean the gesture of trust for both myself and Miss Frost? There are less risky ways of communicating.
Erik narrows his eyes. It's not like Charles to ask for an apology where he knows he won't get one. Of his many regrets from that day on the beach, taking the helmet has never been one of them.
The risks are mine to take.
Of course, my apologies, Charles says archly. Keeping well, my friend?
Reasonably. As I'm sure you know. And - are you?
When he pictures Charles these days, it's not the brilliant young man, effusive confidence spilling over into his every movement. As much as he might wish otherwise, it's always of his broken body, blood on blue and yellow fabric and the look of a man whose world had just ended as he stared into Erik's eyes.
As well as can be expected, under the circumstances. Charles laughs suddenly, low and echoing. No, Erik, not those circumstances. I'm past self-pity on that front.
You feel different.
Still quiet and subtle and relentless like water, but a lake instead of a creek, an ocean instead of a harbour; there's a greater impression of stillness and depth.
I'm sure I do. A lot has changed since you left.
No accusation, only matter-of-fact ruefulness.
Charles, I - I'm -
Don't. Let's talk business.
Maybe this was to be his punishment - to never be allowed to apologize for causing, however, inadvertently, Charles' present state. It seems a fitting form for Charles' bitterness to take.
Erik squares his shoulders. Did you know that this was coming? With Whitehouse?
Of course not. How could you even - by the time I had any control over the situation, it was too late.
Charles has a frustrating tendency to be euphemistic about his powers.
Ah. I thought the story was a little too perfect.
Nothing's ever clean cut. Not like we needed this to be.
Do you think this will help? At best, they'll pity us poor cursed creatures.
Charles is silent for a long moment - an eternity in a telepathic conversation. The only thing that has enabled us to remain underground - before yesterday, at any rate - is the sympathy and good will of humans.
Erik bristles. The kind of sympathy and good will that killed Whitehouse?
No. The kind displayed by parents and friends complicit in the lie of a hidden mutant's existence. A human parent who forms an attachment to their mutant offspring will not stand for the threat of their child being beaten to death. My point being: this is an opportunity, and I will be taking it. If mutantkind is to live undisturbed, at least some humans will have to be sympathetic.
Surely we can do better than sympathy.
Given our current numbers, it's the least dangerous option.
Erik closes his eyes. They're no closer to agreement than they've ever been. It shouldn't be a surprise, and yet.
You have your ways, and I have mine.
I wouldn't accept anything else, Charles says crisply. But please, tip me off before anything large scale. That's all I ask of you.
Erik wonders what the shock ringing through his head feels like to Charles. He wants desperately to push at this new permissiveness until he can find the limits and judge them to be too soft, not enough for what has to be done. But the words refuse to form in his mind.
So you can prepare the aftermath for the consumption of humanity?
The management of perception is a fine art, Erik, Charles says dryly. Don't knock it.
So you change some minds, maybe. What about the rest? Even you can't be so naive as to think that everyone will come around to your point of view.
Charles' mental voice is unbearably warm with affection. Of course not. That's where you come in, my friend. The Brotherhood will be a fine sword, but mutantkind needs a shield too.
And that's you, Erik says, in the mental equivalent of a whisper, soft and surprised.
That's me. The harmless idealist.
Mystique begins to visit the mansion frequently. Or rather, as she now insists on calling it, the fortress. Apparently there's been a lot of renovation work.
"Charles wants the place armed to the teeth. Apparently recruitment's going well," she says indulgently, as if she's the older sibling, amused by the antics of her little brother.
It's a sensible precaution. Anti-mutant sentiment rose to an all-time high following the assassination of the President in Texas, and never really settled down even after the gunman was revealed to be nothing more than an ordinary human. While there's been no official pronouncement on what, if anything, should be done about the Mutant Problem, the heightened tension is working against them all on its own. If Charles is moving faster, it's a matter of necessity.
Erik suspects that not even Charles knows whether he's really recruiting for a school or a paramilitary force. Maybe both. It would be very him.
"It's not the radar system keeping that place defended," Emma says from the doorway. "Xavier's the only reason the government hasn't taken an interest yet."
Erik watches her stalk away imperiously with his eyebrows raised.
Surprisingly, Mystique, who's never shown any sign of friendliness towards Emma, breaks into a grin. "Didn't you know? Emma goes to Westchester almost every week."
Of course. Charles, you sneaky bastard.
"How long has this been going on? Should I worry?"
Mystique shrugs. "Emma's on her own side. It just happens to be the same as ours. She enjoys doing freaky telepath stuff with Charles, that's all."
Somehow, that's not at all reassuring.
...rumours that the Kenyan drought had been bought to an end by a so-called mutant calling herself the Rain Maker...
The date of the first anti-mutant rally in the United States is set two weeks after the legend of the Rain Maker (with accompanying editorial comment by local church officials as well as Dr Charles Xavier in Time magazine) reaches Erik's ears.
The chief backer is one John Stanton, an impressively opportunistic preacher whose organisation, Light of the World, held the dubious honour of being the first anti-mutant non-governmental organisation ever created. He spoke of the danger those abominations in the sight of God posed; how they needed to be registered, tagged and kept segregated from humanity for their own good.
There really is nothing new under the sun, Erik had thought, disgusted, when he first saw the man speak.
Three days before the rally, the headquarters of Light of the World are razed down to the foundations and set on fire while the rest of the Brotherhood stages a perfectly coordinated kidnapping of their leader.
Erik's settling down at the kitchen table to draft a statement for Azazel to deposit at the New York Times when the phone rings. He looks up in time catch Mystique's fleeting guilty look, there and gone in a second before she goes back to buttering her toast.
Charles sounds tired beneath his usual pleasant tone, in a way that most people would probably never pick up.
"Hello, Charles. What can I do for you?"
"Do you have John Stanton?"
Erik glances at Mystique, who's standing close enough to hear every word. She raises her eyebrows.
"...yes. How did you know?"
It couldn't have been Mystique. Whatever information sharing arrangement she has with her brother, she'd never talk about a mission in progress.
"Never mind that, what are you going to do with him?" Charles says. He doesn't sound concerned so much as impatient.
Erik lets himself smile. "I don't know, Charles. You tell me what you think dangerously ignorant scum like him deserves."
It's not a test. Not entirely, at least. He's genuinely curious about the answer.
Charles sighs. "Did anyone see you grab him?"
Beside him, Mystique bristles at the question. "We're not incompetent."
"That makes things a lot easier, then," Charles says briskly, as if they're discussing a grocery list. "Set Emma on him. Tell her not to over-correct, try not to do too much at once. Just scrape away what needs scraping. The end result has to be believable."
"You're proposing that we alter that human's mind," Erik says, very slowly, after a long pause.
"Well, yes. It seems the most sensible solution. Kill him, and dozens will spring up to take his place. This is neater."
Erik laughs helplessly. "When did you learn to argue for pragmatism?"
Is this you giving up on your precious humans?
"It's been a long year, my friend."
Which is true, but nowhere near an answer.
One of the first things one notices about Charles Xavier is his unflagging enthusiasm, especially when conversation turns to his favoured subject. After much prompting, he reluctantly admits that his insistent advocacy for the rights of mutants has caused him some social difficulties, but insists that it's nothing he can't deal with. The latter statement is accompanied by a self-deprecating smile, which remains on his face even when the topic of conversation turns to less pleasing matters, such as the proliferation of wild theories on how mutants managed to remain hidden before the murder of Stephen Whitehouse.
"If the events of the past year have proven anything, it's that such a conspiracy doesn't exist. Mutants have been around for at least a generation, very possibly more. They have friends, lovers, parents, and children, who in many cases know of their true nature and accept them."
"The only reason our society has remained blind to the existence of mutants is the convenience of treating mutation as if it is a dirty little secret. I believe the tragedy that befell - that befell Stephen Whitehouse proves that this approach is wrong. Stephen's parents are grieving because of fear born out of ignorance."
During our extensive interview, Dr Xavier only stumbles once, overcome by emotion. It happens when he invokes the name of Stephen Whitehouse, the young man whose death gave birth to the mutant rights movement...
Over the next week, a piece of fine paper mysteriously appears on the desk of every elected official in Washington DC, up to and including the President of the United States. The week after that, it's on the desk of the head of mission of every major state, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations in New York.
The words printed on the page are short and to the point. It's a list of demands, more or less, and a warning. Asking politely for the beatings to stop never worked for Erik.
...We will not run. We will not hide. We will stand up for ourselves, and each other. Wherever mutants are harmed or oppressed, you will find us. If you are a human, now is the time to evaluate how you treat us, for your own sake. If you are a mutant, take heart. You are not alone. - A Call to Arms: Manifesto of the Brotherhood of Mutants
A month later, Riptide goes missing on a routine scouting mission while checking out rumours of a new CIA-affiliated research facility.
Unlike Emma and Mystique, who keep their own schedules, it's not like Riptide to stop reporting in, especially when he's in the middle of something. With Azazel in Russia looking into the possibility of establishing a Brotherhood cell there, their retrieval options have become uncomfortably limited. Erik's contemplating sending Emma out anyway when someone knocks on the front door.
Their temporary safe house is nothing more than a glorified country home, chosen for its proximity to their next most likely target rather than any safety features. Not that they're in need of any such thing.
For a moment, she looks surprised, an expression so rare that it seems particularly ominous. "Answer the door, Mystique. Trust me, you want to."
Mystique gives her a dubious look, but she does get up. His curiosity now piqued, Erik follows, a few discreet paces behind her, far enough that he's not directly visible from the front door.
"Special delivery for Erik Lehnsherr," an oddly familiar voice says, and when Erik peeks around the corner -
Oddly, the first thing his mind processes is that the man is holding a very unconscious Riptide in his arms, possibly because accepting the rest requires a substantial leap of faith.
Mystique gets there first. Her eyes are huge, and when she speaks, it's in a strangled gasp. "Oh my God, Darwin!"
"Looking good, Raven. Miss me?" Darwin - and it is him, it has to be, there's no other reason for Emma to have behaved as she did - grins like coming back from the dead is something he does every other day.
Erik is not above staring. "How?"
Darwin nods at him in greeting. "I adapted. Was gonna go looking for the Professor, but he found me first. Same way he picked up this guy losing consciousness yesterday. Any idea what Riptide was doing in Fairfax?"
"He found that new paranormal research facility," Emma murmurs from behind him. "Which you already know, Professor."
"That's pretty damn rude," Darwin says lightly, tapping his temple. "I'm the one you're talking to, Frost. The Professor's just riding along. If you want to know where Riptide was, I can point you there."
"Sure, we'll take the details from you before you go," Mystique nods, brisk and businesslike, before her face breaks into the kind of smile he hasn't seen for more than a year. "Stay for dinner? Angel will want to see you."
"I guess I could," Darwin says, his smile radiant. "Now, is somebody going to take the unconscious guy off me?"
In the entry way, Erik holds out his hand. "Welcome back."
It takes him a moment, but it appears that Charles' students are in fact allowed to accept handshakes from the leader of the Brotherhood.
"Thanks." Darwin looks around, lowers his voice. "The Professor wants to talk to you before you do anything with the facility."
Erik stills. "He could call."
"He doesn't trust the line here. So could you, you know, give the helmet a rest for a few minutes?"
The helmet has become a constant companion since he took it from Shaw. In the beginning, he'd used it to hide from Charles, and then because he didn't trust Emma as far as he could throw her. Over time, wearing it turned into a habit, even if he's constantly aware that the safety it offers is barely there and mostly illusionary.
(He has to take it off at some point during the day, after all, and the minds around him are all constantly unshielded.)
More than anything else, it's become a symbol, one he's starting to be known by. The name Magneto has been in the papers a lot lately. There had been an initial spike when he'd sent the manifestos, and then another after he was photographed at a distance while dispersing a lynch mob with absolute, lethal force.
(The mob incident was still dominating headlines, weeks later. The mutant had lived - barely. Many of the humans present hadn't. Erik couldn't regret his choices, but he did catch himself trying to think of other, more efficient crowd control methods when more instances of anti-mutant violence were reported in the immediate aftermath.
Mystique hasn't been back to Westchester since. She claimed Charles was busier than ever, which was probably true - Erik's actions had somewhat dented his credibility. Still, Erik suspects that her primary motivation had been fear. Fear that she'd be judged harshly for her role. Or worse, denied entry.)
Erik swallows hard. It's about time. "I'll speak to him tonight."
Since when could you reach across three states?
I can't. Not without help.
Charles has been busy. It's tempting to ask for more details - however did they manage to build a new Cerebro in a year?
(They'd been careful enough to take all the relevant data when they left Division X for the Xavier estate, but the material and construction demands alone would have stymied most people. Hank must have exceeded himself.)
Tempting, and wrong. It's better that they know as little about each other's business as possible, at this stage, if only for safety's sake.
What did you want to discuss?
I trust Darwin filled you in on the subject of the facility?
He did. I'm going to raze it to the ground. Don't try to stop me.
He gets the sudden impression of a steely smile stretching across Charles' mouth.
I don't want to stop you. Just to discuss strategy. Make sure everything goes right.
If he puts particular emphasis on that last sentence, Erik's smart enough not to comment.
Go on. I'm listening.
Here's what I know: there's an annoyingly persistent man by the name of William Stryker heading up this new program. Top secret, nothing the American government wants the public to find out about.
William Stryker has been on the Brotherhood red list for a long time: observe and disable when the opportunity arises. He's near the top.
The list has shortened considerably in the past year as government rhetoric and policy towards mutants softened. Charles' influence, both aboveboard and below, is considerable. Some would say frightening.
The progress of water cannot be stopped permanently, only slowed down.
I take it you've already tried other means of persuading him.
Part of him still expects a denial, anger, anything but a brief, bright flicker of amusement.
You underestimate my resolve, my friend. This man's hatred of difference is rooted so deeply that it would destroy his personality if I were to erase it. My attempts to change his mind without turning him into a vegetable have been failures.
And so you turn to your last resort: me and mine.
Even to himself, he sounds bitter.
I trust you to guard the interests of our kind, Charles says, so gently that Erik feels something twist inside him.
This will be an act of war, Charles. Don't come crying to me when you realise the cost.
There's no war. We act in self-defense, and to expose an anti-American conspiracy. The people deserve to know what their government are doing with their tax money.
Charles almost sounds like he's having fun.
How do you expect me to do this without enough bloodshed to ruin your nice little story?
There, that's a laugh, echoing eerily between them. You're the criminal mastermind. You tell me.
Darwin's visit leaves Mystique in a much improved mood. She's always happiest when there's a clear task at hand, coming up with new and inventive ways to outwit humanity's best attempts at security, but this time the smile on her face seems to have an extra layer. It makes Erik wonder what message Darwin had for her that chased away her fears.
His own little chat with Charles had precisely the opposite effect.
Erik is not used to feeling uncertain. His life has lurched from one absolute to another; he's comfortable with extremes, always knowing exactly which side of a divide to stand on. When he left Charles - when Charles had refused his invitation - he'd assumed that to be the end of it, their personal friendship the only surviving component of what might have been between them.
Charles had sided with the humans, and that was surely that.
The past year had neither proven nor disproven the point. He's not so naive as to see Charles' forbearance of the Brotherhood as cause for hope, not when Charles still clings to the belief that war might be averted. On the other hand, none of their conversations have played out anything like what he might have expected.
His old certainties are slowly draining away, like sand shifting under his feet.
When he recovers from the unforgivable lapse of focus, Mystique is staring at him, brows furrowed with concern. "Erik? What's wrong?"
"I don't trust this truce of yours," Erik grits out. "If we do this, he'll turn his back on us again. It'll be too close to getting blood on his own hands."
"You don't think he has already?" Mystique says evenly. Of all the ways she's changed since that great and terrible day on the beach, this is the one Erik finds most startling. She carries her new certainty like a crown, as if its weight is comforting.
(The first time Erik saw her kill a man, her hands had been absolutely steady. She spent an hour locked in the bathroom after they got back to their safe house, and then she'd acted as if nothing had happened.)
"Here. He won't appreciate me showing it to you, but I think you should see it."
Mystique pushes a fancy envelope across the desk. Inside is a letter, printed on thick paper in Charles' carefully cultivated flowing script.
My dear sister,
I hope this letter finds you well.
You were right. Making ourselves small, hoping that being unobtrusive might save us from harm - that is a child's game, and we have all grown out of it. Hiding is a criminal waste of what we might do for this world.
For the longest time, I failed to see what should have been obvious. You have made yourself into someone strong and unafraid, and for that I can only be thankful. You no longer have any need of an overbearing older sibling. It is my fond hope that affection remains in place of necessity.
In the meantime, I will strive to keep my very first promise to you and make this world into a place in which our hopes and dreams may be possible. Although you may scoff at my methods, I believe they have their utility even if the events predicted by the Brotherhood come to pass.
As for your question: I am not yet ready. But it won't be long, now.
Erik inhales deeply, biting back the first five questions that come to mind. It's not his place - he -
He only notices that he's crumpling up the paper when Mystique clears her throat and makes a sharp beckoning gesture. "Sorry. Mystique, I don't know what you mean to accomplish by showing me."
She smoothes the letter out with care and puts it away before resting her hand on top of his again, the vivid blue of her skin a striking contrast to his.
"Because you need to understand. It's great that we're working together now, but there's so much more that needs to be done. This - the way things are now - this isn't the kind of peace he can tolerate, any more than we can."
There's a light in her eyes that he's never seen before, something that has nothing to do with Charles' little sister or even the girl who'd chosen to leave with Erik. Something entirely her own.
"Do you really think it's possible?"
Mystique's smile acquires a sad edge. "Some part of me always knew Charles would see things my way eventually. Erik, more than anything else I want us to be able to live proudly as ourselves. I'll support anything that brings that day closer, and that includes my brother's way, when I can see what he's trying to do. Do you get what I'm saying?"
Like light piercing through a fog, he's finally beginning to see a different - perhaps more complete - picture.
"Yes. Yes, I think so. Show me the blue prints again. We've got a show to plan."
Stryker's facility is well defended on the inside, but its greatest protection on the outside is in anonymity, faking the appearance of a run-down block of prefabs with all the operational levels hidden underground. The whole thing is a fine piece of engineering.
Alas, they couldn't avoid using huge amounts of metal. Erik has often suspected Charles-shaped foul play in the CIA's curious lack of data about the mutations of the Brotherhood. The design of the Fairfax Laboratories all but confirms it.
Beside him, Mystique grins. "All right, time to move. Let's burn this place down."
The plan is one of the more complex ones they've had to put together, due to the multiple objectives involved. Phase one had involved Raven infiltrating the facility in order to disable the crude video surveillance system, enabling Azazel to teleport in and rescue the few mutants who were being held captive.
Phase two is the fire. Except it's not a real fire, of course. They need the facility destroyed, but not too destroyed for the evidence of what had gone on there to be recognisable. Left to his own devices, Erik would have razed the place to the ground and salted the earth. He does, though, understand the value of propaganda.
Hence the illusion of a fire, projected by Emma. Azazel helpfully sets off the real alarm. Building one's secure bunker underground is really a terrible fire hazard.
The CIA's safety procedures leave something to be desired.
Phase three is when the panicked, evacuating skeleton crew manning the facility runs straight into Erik, Angel and Riptide.
The first thing William Stryker sees upon being shaken awake is Erik's wide, unsettling grin.
From the look in the man's eyes - what he can see of them with the purpling bruise taking over his face from when Mystique had knocked him out - it's not a pleasant sight to be greeted by. "God in heaven. You."
"You know of me. That's almost flattering," Erik says quietly.
He can see what Charles means about the depths of this man's hatred. There's something cold behind his eyes that's chillingly familiar, even as he speaks in quick, staccato bursts.
"You freaks - monsters - you won't get away with this."
"We're sending a message," Mystique says. "You're part of it. You should feel privileged."
She clicks the safety off her pistol.
"Mystique - "
"No, let me," she says calmly, and shoots him between the eyes, stepping back gracefully out of the way of the blood splatter.
Erik puts a hand on her shoulder. "Time to get out of here."
Good hunting, Charles.
"...destruction of a top-secret research facility rumoured to be owned by the CIA. Evidence recovered from the wreckage seen by this station points towards the use of human test subjects. Anonymous sources have indicated to us that this facility was dedicated to the study of so-called mutants, humans born with new features or even extraordinary powers..."
...in an interview with the New York Times, Dr Charles Xavier called for an official inquiry into the Fairfax Laboratory incident. Dr Xavier became a household name as the world's foremost expert in the field of human genetic mutation in the aftermath of the scandal sparked by the murder of Stephen Whitehouse...
Chapter 3: Hope
Sometimes face to face is the only way that works.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Erik. Wake up.
Erik wakes in a flash. It's been a month since the laboratory. A month since Charles' voice in his head, thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, I'll take it from here, matter-of-fact but fond.
That same voice had been in his head just now, calm as always, edged with only the slightest hint of alarm.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Mystique's at the door.
"Erik? Get up, we have to go. The mansion's under attack!"
Charles? Charles, are you still there? Is everything all right? Are the students safe? Erik thinks loudly, maybe a little frantically, all the while pulling on clothing as fast as he can manage.
There's a long, deadly pause, in which Erik can't help but think of every gruesome thing he will inflict on this foolish government, no - on every human unfortunate enough to cross his path - if they've done the unthinkable. If Charles is hurt - if Charles is dead -
Humans, Charles says, and Erik has no idea what that tone means when it's echoing through his head. They do try my patience. I'm fine for now, Erik. Unpleasantly surprised.
Erik unlocks his door with a flick of his fingers. Mystique is already further down the hall, knocking insistently on Azazel's door. It's sheer dumb luck that he's here - a day later and he'd have joined Angel, Emma and Riptide in Atlanta to prepare for their next mission.
Just hang on, we're coming to you.
He doesn't even think of taking the helmet.
Under any other circumstances, the sight of the Xavier estate bathed in the light of the breaking dawn would inspire a swell of mixed feelings in Erik. Right now, the sight of a neat perimeter of seven - no, eight - armed men around the side entrance just makes his blood boil.
Erik, wonderful. There are two men with those dreadful helmets holding one of the youngest children hostage somewhere on the third floor. If you could neutralise them for me.
With pleasure. Give me a second.
The metal used to construct his helmet is like nothing else he's ever felt, and even without the benefit of line-of-sight it's the work of a moment to find two just like it in the third floor drawing room. Erik considers crushing their skulls in, only to discard the notion as both inefficient and dangerous for their young hostage.
"Azazel. Fourth window across, third floor, south-facing side. There are two armed men in that room. I need you to disable them before they can harm the hostage. Don't kill both of them - I want to know what's happening in there. Understand?"
Azazel nods, disappearing in a puff of red smoke.
"Azazel could drop us inside somewhere quiet and we could work our way around," Mystique says. "If we have to storm the place."
Not his preferred course of action, not if Charles and his students are being held hostage, but a real possibility nevertheless. The thought is unpleasant, and he's glad when Azazel returns quickly, depositing a bleeding, no longer helmet-clad human in front of him.
Charles. It's done.
Thank you. Now, if you'll excuse me for a moment.
Erik turns his attention to the human. No identifying badges or emblems, not that he'd expected any. This isn't a law enforcement operation.
The man bares his teeth in a bloody grimace. "More of you? Don't bother contacting him, I imagine the cripple is safely unconscious by now."
Mystique laughs in his face. "Liar. He's fine."
"You should have sent an army," Erik says with his most unpleasant smile, and he's about to tighten the chain of the crucifix the man has around his neck when an odd chill goes through him.
"Do you hear that?" Mystique says, and she's grinning, fierce and pleased.
It's soft, barely a whisper in the back of his head, like a long, drawn out sigh.
"The sound of change," Erik says, and he lets himself believe it.
The hum resolves into a voice.
Try to destroy my home and take my children, will you, Charles says, and if it sounds like needles pricking his skin to Erik, he can't imagine what it's doing to the humans it's aimed at.
The perimeter guards drop to their knees as one. The man at Erik's feet has his mouth open in a silent scream.
The inside of the mansion is almost unrecognisable. Mystique hadn't been exaggerating the extent of renovations - some necessary to accommodate Charles' new condition, some for the sake of the building's new purpose. There's more damage than he'd have expected, too - the students must have put up quite a fight. Erik catches a quick glimpse of Hank all but carrying a visibly injured Sean as they move further inside, guided by Charles' voice in Mystique's head.
Hank doesn't smile, but he does pause long enough to nod in acknowledgement when Erik inclines his head at him. It's a start.
Erik senses Charles by the metal in his chair first. When he comes into view, though, the fact of the chair seems incidental. Just another detail, like the fact that he's almost certainly lost weight, and that his hair is shorter, probably recently trimmed. It's all small and irrelevant, next to the light in his eyes.
Charles slows to a stop a step away and looks Erik up and down, his lips turning up at the corners. "Really, Erik."
"You disapprove?" Erik says. He's relieved when the words come out smooth and amused.
"Most assuredly. I do like the cape, though. Lovely material." I've missed you. And just as something in Erik's chest tightens painfully at that - "And Raven, wonderful to see you."
"There's that look again," she says reproachfully, even as she's bending down to kiss him on the cheek. "Take your disapproval somewhere else, Charles."
Charles laughs. "Forgive me for being English about my sister's nudity. I'll get used to it eventually. Would you like to come into the study? Thankfully, the property destruction never got this far."
"Neat work," Erik says, because he needs to say something before the comfortable familiarity of sitting around in Charles' study kills him. "Earlier, I mean."
Charles - preens. There's no other word for it. "Why, thank you. Truthfully, not difficult when people yearn to be persuaded. Deep down, some part of them want to believe that what they're doing is wrong."
"Is that what you did? Sure looked painful," Mystique says from her perch on one of the armchairs.
If Erik didn't know better, he'd say she seems uneasy.
"I haven't before. It's quite unpleasant," Charles says, soft and utterly chilling. "But what they did - my patience is not infinite."
The silence that follows his words feels very heavy, as if the air is clogged with the barely disguised cold fury in Charles' eyes.
It takes Erik a moment to realize that the appalled-sounding whisper had come from him.
"Election year. I'm developing a healthy distaste for the democratic process, you'll be amused to know. These men with their grand plans - oh, if you knew a fraction of what I read in the minds of the men at Langley every day - "
"Charles," Mystique says, very gently.
Charles flinches, his eyes fluttering closed. "Right."
These men are operatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. While they held us captive, I came across these designs in the mind of their commander.
"Azazel said he'd heard something about those guys. Shadowy new government agency?" Mystique says.
Correct. Now, I'm going to protect the schematics into your minds. Brace for impact.
"Are those - "
Mystique has gone pale, blue draining out of her face like a canvas being erased.
"Robots," Erik says flatly. "Killing machines."
Very elegantly designed, highly efficient killing machines. Technology years beyond anything the public has ever seen. He'd be hard-pushed to believe that they were more than a madman's daydream if he hadn't already seen other wonders like - well, like Cerebro.
They're called Sentinels. Still in the testing stage. Nowhere near combat-ready due to their inability to distinguish between civilians and combatants, but the men who ordered them built aren't terribly concerned about that. They're for the rising mutant threat, you see. What's so funny, Erik?
"They're almost entirely metal," Erik says, and he even sounds amused, even though it's really not the time.
"So they are."
Mystique narrows her eyes at Charles. Erik's moment of levity did help - she's back to her usual unflappable self. "I know that face. That's your plotting face. Spill."
"This conspiracy goes deeper than I could ever have imagined. If we can expose the whole sordid tangle, my friend, sister mine, we might change the world."
Charles smiles, small and sharp.
Mystique leaves to go see Hank and help out with the injured, but not before giving Erik a vaguely expectant look. In lieu of deciphering it, Erik invites himself to Charles' liquor cabinet and pours them both a scotch.
Glass in hand, he finally feels fortified enough to ask. "So, tell me: what does a man do when he loses faith?"
"There's always hope left," Charles says, raising his glass to clink it against Erik's. "We'll always have that."
Charles has always been a man with the potential to be a monster, just like the rest of them. What sets him apart is the sheer scope of what he could do if he ever decided to cast off his human chains. For all his fear - and it is pure, honest fear - of the wonders made possible by telepathy, Erik had never previously believed Charles capable of stepping beyond those chains.
But perhaps he's been thinking of it wrong all along.
For Erik, the only limitation when it comes to means and methods is efficiency and relevance to the aim at hand. When the aim is shifting the world entire, there are a great many things he can imagine himself capable of. He'd never dreamed that Charles might feel the same.
Hmm. Well, I wouldn't put it in those terms. But you've seen what I'll do in defense of our kind.
There'll be more. You know that, don't you? We can't stop now.
I don't intend to, Charles says. He smiles, carefully self-deprecating, just as small and unassuming as the day they'd met, radiating goodwill and optimism. But Erik knows what to look for now. He sees what's underneath. In fact, I'm counting on your healthy terror of telepathy to tell me where to stop. If I ever stumble over the line...you'll know. You'll turn me away from the edge.
As far as declarations of love go, Erik can't imagine anything more heartfelt.
"I - I don't know if I would. But thank you."
Mystique finds him in the study exactly as she'd left him, still lost in thought. At some point in the last hour Charles had excused himself to go see to a few students who were having trouble sleeping and couldn't be placated with a quick mental touch on their frightened minds.
It doesn't feel like he ever left the room. The entire mansion is soaked in his mental presence, like high humidity before a rainstorm.
She sets herself down on the arm rest, looping an arm around his shoulder. "Hey. Everything all right? No epic, world-ending arguments?"
Erik shakes his head. "Do you think it's possible?"
"What, to stay here? There's definitely room," she says, deliberately light.
"To work together again. Our goals - "
Her fingers tighten around his upper arm, digging in. "Are not that different, Erik. Charles needs us. We work better together."
That's undeniable. More to the point, it's becoming increasingly likely that working together might be the only thing that could keep mutantkind from lurching from crisis to crisis with no prospect of better for the foreseeable future. Sure, there are other ways. As far as he's concerned - and he knows Charles would agree - they're too slow.
"If this goes wrong, it'll be catastrophic."
Mystique grins like he'd just agreed to a picnic.
"If it goes wrong, none of us will be around to worry about it. Come on, let's go see if they need a hand. If I see Sean stumbling around on his bad leg again - "
They find Charles arguing with Hank in what seemed to have been turned into a makeshift infirmary.
" - and don't lie. The headaches are getting worse, aren't they? That's why you were too tired to sense them coming."
"We've had this conversation, Hank. I can't afford to stop."
Hank makes a low, rumbling sound of frustration. "You need to rest."
"I'll rest when I'm dead."
Erik doesn't flinch, but every piece of metal in the room - including Charles' chair - does.
"Oh. We'll have to finish this discussion later, Hank." Charles glances at the doorway as if he'd only just noticed Erik and Mystique's presence. "Erik, Raven. Walk with me."
Hank smiles at Raven, the gentle expression incongruous on his face. The guarded look he gives Erik, on the other hand, seems it like belongs there.
Charles leads them to a room Erik doesn't recognise. High ceiling, airy, early morning sunlight streaming in through the (steel-reinforced) windows, neatly lined study desks and chairs. It's set out like a class room might be, if the classes were very small.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that," Charles says. He sounds exhausted, all of a sudden, in a way that makes Erik suspect he'd been holding it back for their benefit before.
Mystique crouches down beside the chair, laying her hand on his arm. "Don't say things like that where the students can hear you. They worry, you know."
Charles rubs his temple. "I know. I just - "
"Is everything all right?" Erik drags a chair closer, sits down so that he's close to eye level. Up close, Charles' fatigue is even more obvious.
"Just tired. I'm not used to my control fraying like this."
"You need to take better care of yourself," Erik says. "Running yourself into the ground won't help anyone."
Charles' lips twitch. "How much do you sleep, Erik? There's so much to do - all that's happening on the outside, and the school, too."
"You can't do everything by yourself," Mystique says, chiding and affectionate.
The way they act with each other, it's as if the past two years never happened. And yet he only has to look one of them in the eye to see everything that's changed. Most of it for the better, they'd probably both say, and Erik can only agree.
Charles turns his arm up, clasping her hand in his. The smile he turns on both of them is blinding, untainted by sadness.
"Isn't that why I have you? Both of you." You are the answer to the questions I've been asking all my life.
And in turn, perhaps Charles can be an answer for him, too.
Mystique snatches her hand back, flushing dark over her cheekbones. "God, you complete sap. Stop it."
Charles grins. "No. It's part of my brotherly duties to embarrass you. I take that very seriously. Now. Unfortunately, Cerebro won't be back online for a few days. We'll have to step up our more mundane security measures until I can be sure we won't be attacked again."
"Don't worry, we're here, aren't we? I'll talk to Hank, set up a timetable. You get some rest."
With that, she straightens, kisses Charles on the cheek, and strides out, straight and proud. The look Charles gives her retreating back is immeasurably fond.
"I've been unforgivably slow to understand her. It's my good fortune that she's willing to give me another chance. We need her, Erik. She's always been quick to see the crucial point of any problem."
"I'd wondered whether you'd ever forgive me for taking her away," Erik says carefully, because he's always believed in ripping the scab off.
If you had - no. She left because she had to. You didn't take her.
Whether Charles believes that because he has to or because it's actually true - is not a question he really wants an answer to right now.
"You should rest before Hank tranquilizes you."
From the way the argument had been going when they'd interrupted, it seems a distinct possibility. Charles' smile turns wry.
"Don't start. Do you have a way of contacting Emma and the others?"
"I already sent Azazel. He'll help me keep an eye out when he gets back."
"Good. That's - thank you, Erik," Charles says quietly, gratitude plain in every word, and it throws him for a second until he realises what Charles was actually asking.
Don't you know already?
Didn't want to look. I might be too tempted to change your mind. And I never would. You must understand that, Erik. I never would.
Maybe it's something in the way Charles is looking at him, as if he really is the answer to every question; as if he'd never want to change a thing about him. At long last Erik finds himself believing.
It takes him a moment to find words again.
"Rest. I'll still be here when you wake up."
Erik spends the next few hours going over the damage to the mansion with Mystique, who'd finally persuaded Hank to get some rest. They only stop when Alex shows up fully suited up, his entire left hand swathed in bandages.
"God, are you still at it? Go get some sleep. I'll wake you up if anything exciting happens, I promise."
The words are directed at Mystique; somehow surly and affectionate at the same time. She rolls her eyes in response, barely biting back a smile.
"Have you slept?"
"Got at least 3 hours while Darwin was up. Off you go. You too, er - Magneto."
Aside from stumbling over the name, the way Alex looks at him - a strange combination of challenging, untrusting and admiring - hasn't changed at all. Erik's often thought the two of them had certain things in common.
"I will, thank you. Try to play nice with Azazel when he shows up."
Alex snorts. "No promises. I'll give it a go, okay?"
He'd thought Charles might have left his room furnished, because it's exactly the type of thing he'd do, but the extent to which it's unchanged is astonishing. Everything is exactly where it should be, as far as he can tell.
(For all that he'd picked a room on his first day at the mansion, he's probably spent more time sleeping in Charles' enormous four-poster than his own bed here.)
The sheets are a little musty, but he's far too tired to care. Physically, he's endured far worse sleep deprivation than this. Mentally, though, it feels like he's run a thousand miles in a single day. A nap feels like a necessity rather than a luxury at this point.
Erik dreams of the iron gates, of being pulled away from his mother.
It's a common enough nightmare, increasingly so since the ones of Schmidt and the Monster began to fade after he put the Nazi coin to use.
He dreams of reaching out with his power and pulling open the gates, turning the weapons of the guards upon themselves, of razing the camp to the ground, pulling the building foundations apart - and startles awake.
What is it, Charles?
Sorry to alarm you. I only wanted to ask if you were hungry.
He's sweating through the sheets, his heart hammering in his chest - and yes, he's hungry. Ravenous, actually.
As a matter of fact, yes. I don't suppose I could get some breakfast.
Of course. Would you like to join me in the kitchen?
Even without the memories of being there, the old watch on Charles' wrist would have acted like a homing beacon, just like it had done when they'd been living here before, preparing for war. Going by the grandfather clock outside his room, he'd slept almost 3 hours. No wonder he feels so well rested.
The mansion is quiet, most of its occupants probably still sleeping after the excitements of the last 24 hours. Erik wonders idly how many of the students here would know him only as Magneto, the mutant bogeyman on the news, if they knew of him at all.
Perhaps that's why the corridors are completely deserted. Charles had obviously thought ahead; now that he's thinking about it, Erik would be quite surprised if all the students were sleeping naturally.
The kitchen is completely refurbished and almost unrecognisable from the one he knew. The only familiar thing in it is Charles, sipping tea and reading the paper at the small table.
"It's been so long since I've eaten a proper meal here, I've forgotten how much more comfortable it is. We have to use the dining room now, you see. There's too many of us." Charles looks up from his paper with a bright smile. "Good morning, Erik. Sean made scrambled eggs and toast earlier, help yourself."
Erik does. Sean's tendency to burn everything he cooks hasn't changed, but this particular attempt is still more than edible.
"Thank you. You look better."
"A good night's sleep does wonders. I've almost finished with the papers and I didn't think about abolishing all human forms of government once."
Erik is startled into a laugh, and startled again at how good it feels. It's been too long since they've made each other laugh.
"I can't decide whether your megalomania is alarming or admirable."
They're still talking around each other. Erik draws in a deep breath.
"Charles. You know what I want, and you know whether or not you can live with it. But I can't read minds. What do you want?"
Charles smiles like he's confiding a secret. "Humanity would stop at nothing in a war for survival, but they can be remarkably sanguine about subjugation, given the cloak of legality."
"Not for long."
Charles nods. "You're right, of course. Remember, though - time is on our side. The use of force won't be required forever."
"Still the incurable optimist," Erik says, and even he doesn't know whether he means to sound mocking or fond.
"You should see our new Cerebro, when we get it working again," Charles says suddenly, in lieu of answering. "Hank has outdone himself. Most of the testing has been ad hoc so far, but he believes that my range may be extended to cover most of the continent with a few modifications."
In the end, Cerebro is only an amplifier. Its power is in what the user can do with it. In Charles' hands, it can change the minds of men from across the country.
"Do you realize what you will have?" Erik's voice comes out hushed, almost reverent.
"The most powerful weapon ever created, most likely," Charles says lightly.
Erik narrows his eyes. "No one can know. The humans will stop at nothing to destroy you if they find out."
I won't let anyone hurt you.
He doesn't mean to project the thought. It just slips out.
Charles' smile twists. Remember what I told you last time you said that?
It's like being dunked in cold water. He'd been doing his best not to notice the chair; the fact that Charles can no longer pace around his study as he argues with Erik, or even walk away from a disagreement.
"Charles, you know I never wanted - "
"And yet, you have hurt me more than any other living soul," Charles says gently.
The part he regrets, Charles won't let him apologize for. As for the rest - "I did what I had to do."
And maybe one day Charles will stop surprising him, but not today. He'd expected at least bitterness in response to that, not this - this unbearable understanding on Charles' face, softening his features into youth.
"You always do. I spoke to Shaw, you know."
"When I was - "
The way Charles is looking at him feels like it should hurt. "When I held him still for you to kill, yes. Do you want to know what he said?"
Erik swallows. "Tell me anyway."
"He was gloating over what a fine job he had done with you," Charles says. Unexpectedly, he smiles, bright and clean. "I told him I'd never rest until you were free of him."
"You want to replace Shaw in my head," Erik breathes. He can barely get the words out.
Think carefully about how you answer, Charles.
Charles shakes his head vehemently. "No. I want to be more important to you than he ever was. Whatever it takes."
Erik laughs so hard that his chest feels tight. "Your arrogance is breathtaking."
"I hear that a lot." Charles taps one finger against his temple. "If you believe in nothing else, my friend, believe in my determination to succeed."
The most remarkable thing about Charles Xavier, above and beyond innate goodness or intelligence or sheer hubris, is this:
When he talks about things that should be impossible, they begin to seem within reach.
Anyone sane would have left Erik to die in the water.
"Do you ever think about what your life would have been, if we'd never met?"
The question is moot for Erik. He'd be dead. Whatever possibilities there are in his future exist because they'd found each other.
"No. I could never regret the gift of your friendship. No matter what has happened, and what will happen." Charles' eyes are brighter than the sun at noon. "Erik. Ask."
It's not really a question, is it?
Erik learnt all about the brutality of power as a child. Even then, he knew instinctively that the only way to stop it was to hold it himself. One day, he'd never have to kneel before anyone else, ever again.
When he kneels at Charles' side, it's a matter of choice. Nothing to do with power, except maybe in the sense of equals recognising each other. Really, though, he just wants to be closer, to see every minute shift of expression across Charles' face as clearly as Charles will allow him to.
"Work with me. I can't do this alone."
Charles takes his hand, twining their fingers together on his lap. He smile is wide and hungry. There are no limits to what we can accomplish together. That has always been true, my friend.
Together, they'll shatter and remake the world - and the world will thank them.
"You know, one day the government is going to realize how lucky they were to have Professor X on their side."
1. 'You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have a knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But in the detail which he gave you of them he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured wasting in impotent passions. For while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were forever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?' [Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley]
2. Butterfly knives were available in Europe in the early 1900s. Balisong USA didn't start making them in the US until the late 1970s.
3. Charles' secretly Communist Russian ex-boyfriend is part of his core headcanon when I write him. Mostly because the idea amuses me.
4. A great quote I recently came across about JFK, from Theodore Sorensen's biography: Perhaps his wife summed him up best as 'an idealist without illusions.'
5. The city of Saint Petersburg was known as Leningrad from 1924 to 1991.
6. When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." [John 8:12, New International Version]
7. The text quoted from the Brotherhood's manifesto is taken almost word for word from Magneto's speech in Civil War: House of M #1. [Which is a mini-series I highly recommend, by the way. Charles and Erik join forces for mutantkind! It's great.]
8. By 'election year', I'm referring to the 1964 presidential campaign. JFK was of course assassinated in 1963. The reference to Langley is my tip of the hat to CIA involvement in South Asia around this time.
9. As far as I'm aware, there's no firm date for the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All we know is that Howard Stark was a founding member, and that it's an American agency (as opposed to an international one).
10. I'm aware that I've moved the timeline around quite a lot in terms of the Sentinels. Um - comicsverse time is elastic?
11. The behaviour of both Charles and Mystique would probably make more sense to you if you've read the first fic in the series. Additionally, I feel like this conversation from The New Avengers: Illuminati#4 is illustrative:
Tony Stark: All you have to do is take the thought out of his head and -
Charles Xavier: That is not what I do.
Tony: Sure it is.
Tony: That's all you do.
Charles: I do not just reach into people's minds and change them.
Tony: Come on...I know you do.
Charles: If I did, mutants would be the dominant social and political force on the planet. If I did, my students would not be hunted and despised by society for the crime of being different. Mutant would be the norm.
12. There will be one more instalment, which covers some of what Charles was up to during the two year break-up, and offers a few glimpses of life under the occasionally benevolent rule of Magneto and the Professor.
Thank you so much for reading, and feedback is, as always, much appreciated.