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These Bridges We've Built

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I.
 
In the end, it’s Mystique who brings them all back together.
 
After years of fighting, of meeting each other on the battlefield with lines drawn across the gravel, all it takes is Charles’ little sister and a single request.
 
She and Azazel steal into the estate in the dead of the night, teleporting directly into Charles’ study. He’s not sleeping yet, (he hasn’t had more than five hours a night in months), and he looks up from the thick text he’s reading when they arrive.
 
His first thought, distressingly enough, is of alarm. Four years ago, immediately after that day on the beach, Charles would never have dreamed that he’d be frightened of his sister. But times have changed now, and after countless battles, after so much bloodshed on both sides, the likelihood that Mystique is here to do him harm is great indeed.
 
Azazel is with her, the smell of sulfur hanging heavy in the air. Charles incapacitates him with a thought, fingers going to his temple as quickly as he senses them land. He’s learned new tricks since they’d last fought the brotherhood; he’s had to.
 
Raven’s eyes are wide when she whirls around, hands open in surrender. “Charles,” she says. “We’re not here to fight. Please.”
 
But Charles remains impassive, staring at her with dull eyes. “The last time I believed that, you put Scott in the hospital for three weeks,” he says. “The only reason you’ve not been treated the same as your friend is because you were my sister once, and I respect that.”
 
He wheels forward slowly, not breaking her gaze. “Make no mistake, Raven,” he says. “If you attempt to harm me or any of the children here, I will ensure that your teleporter is in no position to help you escape.”
 
Mystique swallows hard, taking a step backwards. “It—it isn’t like that,” she says. “I just… I needed to talk to you.”
 
Charles comes to a stop in front of her. He’s forced to look up at her to meet her eyes, but it does not diminish his authority in the slightest. “I once promised you a long time ago that I’d never read your mind,” he says. “You’ve forfeited that right, Mystique. I warn you: tread carefully.”
 
“I’ve made another mistake, haven’t I?” Raven whispers, her eyes filling with tears. “I’m so sorry, Charles, but I didn’t know where else to go.”
 
She turns away, stumbling towards the immobile Azazel. Charles hasn’t released him yet, and after he remembers the way he’d cut Sean in the last battle, he isn’t sure he ever will.
 
He watches as Mystique reaches behind him, unsnapping the dark satchel on his back. Charles hadn’t even noticed it when they arrived. Raven holds it reverently, almost tenderly, and Charles is so wrapped up in holding Azazel, in guarding Mystique’s mind, that he’s caught completely off guard when the package begins to cry.
 
“Please,” Raven says, carefully holding what appears to be a tiny, blue baby. “I can’t bring him with us; war is no place for a child.”
 
Charles’ eyes shut briefly, and after a moment he frees Azazel. The other man takes a step forward, steadying himself, then puts a hand on Raven’s back. The baby reaches a chubby hand towards him, and Azazel’s stern face melts into the smallest of smiles.
 
Raven looks at Charles with a plea in her eyes, and suddenly, quite abruptly in fact, he finds something inside of him begin to shift.
 
For all that Raven has done, she’s still his little sister, and she’s still holding his new nephew. Charles swallows hard, smiling crookedly. “I see you’ve been busy.”
 
Mystique relaxes at that, and she steps forward cautiously. “Would you like to hold him?” she asks softly, and Charles nods.
 
She puts the baby in his arms; a tiny, precious thing, and Charles finds himself struggling for words. “He’s beautiful,” he says at last. “He looks just like you, Raven.”
 
“His name is Nightcrawler,” she replies, and after a glance at Azazel, adds: “And Kurt. We couldn’t decide, so we named him both.”
 
She leans down and presses a kiss on her child’s forehead. “Please take care of him, Charles,” she whispers. “He’s the best of both of us.”
 
She turns back to Azazel, and they tenderly clasp hands.
 
“Wait,” Charles says. “Raven, you… you’re both welcome to stay here. With us.”
 
Raven smiles softly. It’s an old offer, but one that he hasn’t repeated in recent years. “You know we can’t leave Erik,” she says. “What we do, it’s important.”
 
“More important than raising your son?” Charles counters. “If I can’t persuade you to stay, then you must promise to visit him. I won’t have your child not knowing who his parents are… you of all people should know how painful that is.”
 
Mystique flinches as if struck, but she doesn’t release her lover’s hand. “We’ll be back if we can,” she says.
 
“Not if,” Charles says. “When. You’ve made this child, Raven, and it’s your responsibility to care for him. I expect to see you—to see you both—back here next weekend.”
 
Mystique opens her mouth as if to argue, but it’s Azazel who speaks first. “We will return,” he says gravely. “Thank you for allowing it, professor.”
 
Charles nods, watching as he wraps an arm around Mystique’s waist and they disappear in a puff of smoke. As soon as he registers that his parents are gone, Kurt begins to wail. Loudly.
 
Charles winces, awkwardly patting the child. “My dear Kurt,” he says. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
 
 
II.
 
True to their word, Raven and Azazel return the next weekend to see their son. Charles tells the younger students that some old friends of his will be visiting, and that they shouldn’t be alarmed if he sees strangers in the mansion. He tells his X-Men, all five of them, that his sister and her mate are arriving under a flag of truce.
 
Scott is less than impressed, but he’s the first to crack a smile when Charles introduces Kurt. All of the older students are X-Men, and though they’re well-acquainted with the brotherhood, they realize that the child is an innocent.
 
Charles feels a flicker of pride as he watches them; for all that he has given up to build this school, he knows that these young people are well worth it.
 
“Professor,” Ororo says, smiling as she plays with the baby’s feet. “Who will take care of Kurt during the day? You can’t possibly care for him on top of teaching all of your classes.”
 
Charles clears his throat. “Actually, I meant to discuss that with you all, as well,” he says. “I’ve hired someone to come and help take care of Kurt during the day, and to generally help around the mansion.”
 
“Professor, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Hank asks, raising a brow. He’s been the least excited over little Kurt’s appearance, and it’s not hard to guess why. Raven hadn’t made a secret of her crush on him years ago, and Xavier had come to realize that it had once been mutual.
 
“Our security remains of paramount importance to me,” Charles replies. “Kurt’s new guardian is, in fact, also a mutant.”
 
“That’s awesome,” Sean says, grinning. “Another recruit for the X-Men!”
 
Alex clears his throat. “What’s she look like, professor?” he asks, and Ororo rolls her eyes.
 
“Boys are only interested in one thing,” she snorts. “Short skirts and pretty girls.”
 
Charles smiles faintly. “Actually, he’s a man,” he says. “And his name is Piotr Rasputin.” He presses his fingers to his temple, sending a telepathic message to the mutant waiting in the living area.
 
/You may enter, Piotr,/ he thinks, and the man pushes open the door and enters the room.
 
There’s dead silence as they behold Piotr, Ororo’s mouth dropping open as she stares openly at what could possibly be the most powerfully-built individual she’s ever seen.
 
Alex smirks. “Were you saying something, Storm?” he asks, laughing as she abruptly closes her mouth.
 
“Shut up, Alex,” she hisses. Charles watches his students in amusement, smiling a little as he catches a stray curl of jealousy rising from Sean. He’ll have to keep an eye on that.
 
It’s Scott who eventually leans forward, extending a hand to the newcomer. “Scott Summers,” he says, as Piotr carefully takes it. “This is my brother Alex, that’s Hank, Sean, and Ororo. Welcome to Xavier’s School for the Gifted.”
 
Piotr nods, smiling kindly at each of them in turn. “I’m very pleased to meet you,” he says, in carefully accented English. “The professor has told me much about you all.”
 
“And yet this is the first we’ve heard of you,” Hank says, looking at him curiously. “Can I ask what your gift is?”
 
“Ah,” Piotr says, laughing a little. “I can turn my skin to steel. Nothing special, but then, it’s handy when you’re in a bind.” He shrugs a bit, his skin rippling into gleaming metal before smoothing back into human flesh.
 
Ororo’s smile couldn’t get any wider. “That’s very impressive,” she says, batting her eyelashes. “Maybe you should train with us some time.”
 
Piotr shrugs. “Not as impressive as being able to control the weather,” he says, looking a little uncomfortable. “And to be honest, I do appreciate what the X-Men stand for, but… it is not for me, I’m afraid.”
 
Scott raises a brow. “May I ask why? Your powers would be quite useful in the battlefield.”
 
“Actually, Piotr was an orderly before he came here,” Charles cuts in smoothly. “And it makes more sense for him to remain at the mansion; we’ll need someone who’s capable of defending it should the need ever arise.”
 
“I have seen more than my share of war,” Piotr adds. “I prefer to help heal rather than hurt. I would be of better use assisting with the younger ones, I think.”
 
As if to demonstrate, he gently lifts Kurt from Xavier’s lap, bouncing him lightly on his hip. It’s a somewhat ludicrous sight, given the strength of his form, but no one can deny that Kurt looks delighted.
 
“Well,” Scott says after a while. “We’re happy to have you here, Piotr.”
 
The rest of them echo his sentiments, trickling out of the study as Charles hangs back. “Thank you for doing this,” he says earnestly.
 
He’d located the man just a handful of months before, and had been surprised when Piotr had decided to join them a week ago. It had been a case of perfect timing really, and though Charles could sense that Piotr’s abrupt appearance wasn’t borne of pleasant events, he respected him enough not to push. The man would tell him when he was ready.
 
“I know it’s a bit much to take in.”
 
The other man shrugs. “It’s I who should be thanking you, professor,” he says. “I’m too old to be one of your students, and the human world is not something I wish to return to just yet. Working with the little ones will… calm me.”
 
He lifts Kurt onto his shoulders, smiling as the little hands pull at his hair. “Now, I cannot wait to meet his parents,” he says, laughing. “If they are anything as precocious as Kurt, I’m sure it will be something to behold!”
 
Charles smiles thinly. “Something, indeed.”
 
***
 
By the time Raven and Azazel arrive, Piotr has taken Kurt to the kitchen for his dinner of warm milk and applesauce. They arrive at Charles’ study with clasped hands, and he looks up in surprise.
 
“I was afraid you wouldn’t make it,” he says. “Hold on, Kurt’s having dinner. I’ll have Piotr bring him by when he’s finished.”
 
He presses his fingers to his temple and sends Rasputin the message, Raven looking at him in mild amusement. “The nanny is named Piotr?” she asks.
 
“I think he prefers the term ‘guardian’,” Charles replies, nodding at Azazel. “You both look well.”
 
“As well as can be,” Azazel rumbles. “It was difficult to get this time to visit.”
 
Before Charles can think of a reply to that, there’s a soft knock on the door. “Enter,” he says instead, and Piotr enters with a sleepy-looking Kurt.
 
“Ah,” he says, catching sight of Mystique and Azazel. If he takes notice of Mystique’s distinct state of undress, he makes no mention of it. “You must be Kurt’s parents.”
 
He extends his free hand to Mystique and shakes it firmly, then grips Azazel’s. “My name is Piotr Rasputin,” he says.
 
“Hi,” Mystique mutters, and she gingerly takes her son from his arms. “He’s looking pretty blue today.”
 
Azazel nods gravely. “A good color.”
 
Charles stifles a laugh. “Piotr, I think my sister would like some time with her son,” he says. “Feel free to take your dinner and retire for the rest of the night. I can take over from here.”
 
Piotr nods. “Of course, professor,” he says. He nods at Raven and Azazel before taking his leave, shutting the door softly behind him.
 
“Well, Charles. You’ve certainly picked a very,” Raven glances at her mate, pausing. “Er, /impressive/ man to take care of Nightcrawler.”
 
Azazel snorts, pressing a kiss to Kurt’s tuft of blue hair.
 
Charles’ eyes narrow. “He has excellent credentials, Raven,” he says. “And Kurt is quite taken with him, as you can see.”
 
Raven coughs, something that sounds suspiciously like ‘he’s not the only one’ reverberating from her throat.
 
Charles flushes brightly at that, and he’s hit by a wave of nostalgia that burns so brightly that it chokes him. He can’t even remember the last time Mystique had looked at him with amusement dancing in her eyes. Charles is barely thirty-five and he feels like he’s just turned sixty. He has so many regrets.
 
“Charles?” Mystique’s voice has a note of caution now.
 
“I’m all right,” Charles replies, waving her away. “I’ll leave you three alone. Just call me when you need me to take him, will you?”
 
He wheels himself towards the door to his study, his latest text on his lap.
 
Before he shuts the door, he spares a glance back at the tableau that his sister’s small family makes. There are many things that he regrets, but he’s hit by the realization that this kindness he’s shown to his sister will never be one of them.
 
For better or worse, Raven will always be his sister.
 
 
III.
 
Charles doesn’t know when precisely it happens, but one day he’s obsessively guarding the students’ minds against Mystique and Azazel, and the next he’s honestly hoping that the two will stay for dinner. Six months have gone past with weekly visits from the couple, and though they had been greeted warily at first, the children had slowly warmed to their presence.
 
In hindsight, it had had everything to do with Kurt. All the students loved him and they’d taken turns babysitting whenever Piotr or the professor needed a break. The small kindness hadn’t gone unnoticed by Raven and Azazel, and thus they’d endeavored to be nicer to the students when they were there.
 
Charles smiles softly, watching the scene unfold. They had taken small steps, true, but they had been steps nonetheless. Indeed, evidence of their movement can be seen as clear as day, especially since it’s a Sunday night and Raven is sitting at the Xavier dining room for the first time in years.
 
“Peas, professor?” Hank asks Charles politely, offering him the bowl. Of all his X-Men, Charles had worried about him the most, but Hank had behaved exceptionally well in light of Kurt’s arrival. Charles can only surmise the turmoil that he must be feeling, but he has no desire to pry. He hopes that Hank will come to him of his own accord soon.
 
“Yes, thank you,” Charles says, taking the bowl. He spares a glance at the far end of the table. Kurt is in his high chair and Azazel is spooning mushy carrots in his mouth while Raven makes conversation with Piotr.
 
“Yes, I’ve been helping Charles with his physical therapy lately,” Rasputin was saying. “He is a very powerful mutant already, and yet he still pushes himself quite hard in the gymnasium. He’s a formidable man.”
 
“Oh, he is,” Raven says, smirking a bit. She raises a brow across the table at Charles, and in spite of himself, he blushes. /You’ve been busy, big brother./
 
Charles picks the thought easily from her head, and he fires back a short /We’re only friends, Raven./ before going back to his dinner.
 
Later, he and Piotr accompany them out to the garden, Kurt balanced carefully on his lap. He’s started growing a tail, and Azazel had been delighted to discover it. Charles can’t decide whether he’s a fan or not, as Kurt seems quite intent on using this new appendage to get into the most terrible of trouble.
 
Indeed, Xavier has a hard time fathoming how a baby who could barely walk could suspend himself upside down with a tail that was barely a foot long (and never mind how he got up the jungle gym in the first place).
 
Kurt blinks up at him with huge yellow eyes, and Charles sighs internally. Ever the counterfeit innocent, just like his mother.
 
“Goodbye, my little darling,” Raven says, leaning down to plant a kiss on Kurt’s forehead. After a moment’s hesitation, she leans over and brushes her lips against Charles’ cheek as well. “Thank you… for everything.”
 
Azazel nods. “You have our deepest thanks, professor,” he says gravely. “We know that our son is in good hands.”
 
It’s a somewhat odd thing to say, Charles thinks, but before he can reply, they’ve clasped hands and vanish in a swirl of smoke.
 
“That was strange,” Piotr remarks. “They’re usually not so… dramatic.”
 
“Mm,” Charles replies, frowning slightly. Kurt bounces on his lap, raising chubby arms at Piotr.
“I think he wants to be picked up.”
 
“Of course he does,” the other man says, laughing. He scoops up the boy, raising him high and bouncing him a little. “Kurt seems to have an affinity for heights.”
 
Charles watches in bemusement as Piotr carefully jiggles him above his head, laughing as Kurt squeals in delight. He watches as he bounces up once, twice, and then his mouth falls open in shock as Kurt disappears in a swirl of smoke.
 
Piotr’s large hands close on nothing, and he whirls around to meet Xavier’s startled gaze.
 
“Wh-what?” Charles doesn’t know what scares him more—Raven killing him when she finds out that he’s lost her son, or the fact that this is the first time he’s witnessed a mutant’s power manifest at so young an age.
 
He quells his scientific curiosity as he realizes the former is far more terrifying that the latter. Putting two fingers to his temples, he closes his eyes and stretches out with his mind, searching for Kurt’s familiar flickering presence.
 
“Professor?” Piotr’s voice is worried, and Charles breathes deeply, trying to concentrate. He can’t have gone far as he won’t be able to control his teleportation yet…
 
There.  Yes.
 
“At the jungle gym,” Xavier says, sagging in relief. “If you would be so kind as to retrieve him…?”
 
Piotr is off in a flash, and Charles massages his temples. At least that solves the mystery of how Kurt had always managed to get into everything…
 
He makes a mental note to ask Azazel how young he was when his own gifts had manifested, but the next Sunday comes and goes and neither he nor Raven show up.
 
Charles waits at his study, staring at his pocket watch and trying to tamp down his worry.
 
This is the first time they’d skipped a visit, and truth be told, with the constant moving around that they did with the brotherhood, Charles had been expecting them to do so much earlier. Even so, something about their absence feels wrong to him, and he can’t shake the dread that’s lodged in the back of his head.
 
After midnight comes and goes and the majority of the school’s residents have gone to bed, Charles wheels himself out of his study and into the quiet darkness of the halls. He reaches out with his mind, checking to see if Hank is still awake. He notes with some surprise that he still is, and that his emotions are colored with distress.
 
/Hank?/ Charles projects into his thoughts, already sending commands to wake to the rest of the X-Men. /What’s wrong?/
 
/Professor, come quickly!/ Hank’s reply is weak, as if heard through leagues of water, the connection stuttering before being blocked completely.
 
Xavier freezes.
 
He’s felt this suppression before, a lifetime and a half ago, in a ship across the sea.
 
Emma Frost.
 
 
IV.
 
It isn’t long before the X-Men are assembled in the hall, clad in pajamas and various nightclothes. Xavier briefs them quickly, eyes shut tight in concentration as he stretches his presence, trying to ascertain how many intruders have entered their home. He does not know of Erik’s motives, but he knows well enough that he wouldn’t send his precious telepath for Hank alone. Emma has masked others from him before, after all.
 
“Engage, but Hank’s safety is of the utmost importance,” Xavier tells his students. “You must try to remove her through peaceful means.” Charles can sense Emma’s presence in the bowels of the mansion, and it doesn’t take a genius to guess what she’s after. With both Hank and access to their new (but presently unfinished) Cerebro, she can find (or kill) anyone she wanted to on the planet.
 
“Understood, professor,” Scott says, leading the way to the basements. “Alex, Ororo, take the south wing’s descent. Sean and I will go through the main entrance. We don’t know how many of them are down there, so stay sharp.”
 
Charles watches them go, feeling a spike of anger lance through him as he realizes that Erik is using them… /him/… yet again. He presses fingers to his temples and signals Piotr, who has remained in the larger dorms with the younger children.
 
/I’m maintaining contact with everyone,/ he informs him. /If the X-Men are overpowered and I am unable to stop whoever comes up, take the children and go./
 
/How will I know when to do so?/ Piotr asks him, already rousing the children and helping them slip into warm jackets and shoes.
 
/If our connection gets cut off,/ Charles returns shortly. /Run./
 
***
 
Cerebro is truly a wonderful contraption. Even now, even in its unfinished state, the amplification that it gives Emma’s powers make Xavier’s students easy pickings for the brotherhood.
 
“Riptide, Mastermind,”she says tersely, nodding at the door. “South wing.”
 
The helmet is snug around her head, Hank unconscious at her feet. Once she’d ripped the information of how to run it from his mind, he’d been easy enough to command to sleep.
 
“The screamer and Cyclops are coming in from the north,” Emma continues, eyes falling upon the last member of their group. “But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?”
 
Destiny’s smile is dry. “Indeed,” she says. “I’ll take care of them.”
 
“Magneto doesn’t want anyone killed,” Emma says, but Destiny has already gone. No matter; Emma has bigger things on her mind to worry about. Holding Xavier’s telepathy at bay is easy enough with Cerebro’s aid, but having to search for their missing friends simultaneously is strenuous to say the least.
 
Her breath begins to come in short and fast as she concentrates, stretching her mind out to Azazel’s familiar presence. In her mind’s eye, she can see the brotherhood engage the X-Men on both sides, dispatching them with little difficulty. She’s struck at how young they look still, at how raw and uninitiated they are.
 
Mastermind has never been a kind man, and Emma notices with some distaste that he’s brought the weather manipulator down with the illusion of being trapped under boundless rock. She feels a moment for pity for the girl; Jason Wyngarde’s powers of illusion are nothing if not unpleasant, and she can do nothing but scream.
 
Cyclops is the last to go, brought down by an elegant strike to the back of his neck. Destiny’s power of foretelling has always been subtle, but extremely effective.
 
/Stand guard,/ Emma sends. /Xavier won’t be happy with his pets being put down, and I’m not done here yet./
 
No sooner does the thought leave her mind when she feels Charles’ presence bearing down against her. He’s angry, furious at having lost contact with his students, and he’s beginning to gain ground against her psychic shielding.
 
Blood drips down Emma’s face as she pushes back hard, all the while grasping for Azazel’s consciousness. She’s lacking finesse now, rifling through mutant minds like a stack of cards.
 
/Get out of my school, Emma,/ Xavier’s voice resounds in her mind, a cacophony of rage.
 
Emma’s palms dig into the helmet as she desperately removes her shielding on Riptide and Jason in an effort to recoup. Xavier pounces on them at once, holding them in place as he seizes the opportunity to enter the basement.
 
/He’s coming,/ Emma tells Destiny. /Get ready. I’ve almost located Azazel./
 
She can feel Destiny’s assent along the bond, and she redoubles her shields around her. Xavier has never met Destiny before, and she’s never gone against the X-Men in their numerous skirmishes. Her presence is easier to mask for its unfamiliarity.
 
“Finally,” Emma whispers. With the strain of shielding multiple people gone, she is able to find Azazel. He’s injured, and she can feel his rage at being so entrapped. She gets the location and sends it to Hank’s machine, coordinates printing out with a squeal.
 
Excellent.

Time to go.
 
 
V.
 
Charles is fuming as he moves through the basement hall, not even sparing a glance at the frozen men. The illusions have gone from Ororo’s mind but the terror has not; her claustrophobia has so damaged her that Charles sends her into a comforting sleep. The rest of his students are unconscious on the ground.
 
“Emma, I know you’re here,” he calls out. “Why have you done this?”
 
“What’s the matter, Charles,” Emma replies, a smirk visible in her voice. “Can’t read my mind?”
 
She emerges from the chamber to Cerebro, eyes hard. When they last met, they were almost evenly matched, but Charles has been training furiously since then. Without Cerebro aiding her, he’s almost certain he can defeat her.
 
He pushes two fingers against his temple just as quickly as she sends a telepathic assault, and they engage in a silent battle of wills that sends Charles reeling. Apparently she’d learned a few things as well.
 
“That was a handy trick,” Charles says, feeling blood begin to drip down his lip. “But I’ve got better ones.” He releases his contact with Piotr and the students upstairs, focusing all of his concentration on penetrating Emma’s mind. He can feel her shields begin to crumble as he pushes /hard/ against the mental blocks, and she falls to one knee.
 
“Destiny!” she screams, and all too late Charles realizes that he’s missed something huge. From the corner of his eye he sees a flash of silver, arms belatedly reaching up to shield himself before he’s caught a blow to the head so hard that he sees stars.
 
His mental grip on Emma slips as he sprawls on the ground, his chair sliding away as Destiny holds him down.
 
“Apologies, professor,” she mutters. “This was the easiest path for all of us.”
 
She presses a blade to his neck as Emma gathers herself, renewing her shields on both Destiny and herself. “Remove your hold on Mastermind and Riptide,” Emma says. “And we’ll leave you in peace. We have what we came for.”
 
“And if I did, what repercussions would that have?” Charles grates, baring his teeth as Destiny presses her foot harder against his shoulder. “Which poor sod are you after now, Frost? Who else am I condemning to die by letting you go?”
 
He keeps his control on Riptide and Mastermind as tight as he can, not letting Emma find any leaks. He’s at the disadvantage since he can’t do anything about Destiny, but he’s got one last card left to play.
 
Above him, Destiny shudders once and shouts a belated warning at Emma. “Watch out!” she screams, but Piotr is as silent as he is powerful.
 
Emma doesn’t even sense him coming because he’s reverted to his steel form, and he subdues her with ease. She crumples under his grip, unable to revert to diamond for fear of losing her shield on Destiny.
 
“Organic steel,” Xavier says. “It’s very handy for keeping telepaths out. Just like your diamond skin, really.”
 
“Charles, are you injured?” Piotr calls out, keeping Emma in place with a twist of his wrist. She’s held against the wall, her slender neck wrapped in steel fingers. “If you’ve hurt him, I’ll…”
 
“Relax, sugar,” Emma spits. “He’s fine.”
 
“And it appears that we’ve reached something of a stalemate,” Xavier mutters, wincing when Destiny digs her heel into his back. “Either you tell me why you saw fit to break into my home and surrender immediately, or I’ll—“
 
“You’ll what, Charles?”
 
The voice is quiet and achingly familiar. Charles’ heart clenches in his chest, and he realizes abruptly that their worst adversary has yet to make his appearance.
 
Erik.
 
 
VI.
 
In hindsight, Charles realizes that he should’ve been expecting Magneto to show up at some point.
 
He had been assuming that Erik would steer clear of this affair out of some misplaced sense of nostalgia, but apparently he had no such luck. Erik would make short work of Piotr, and then he would take his people and leave with whatever information they’d stolen.
 
Charles hands clench into fists. Not if he has anything to say about it.
 
He feels Destiny’s weight shift off of him, and he awkwardly pushes himself to a sitting position. “Magneto,” he says, as Destiny hovers behind him, waiting. “To what do I owe the displeasure of your visit?”
 
Erik’s face is inscrutable behind the gleam of his crimson helm. His robes are blood-red and spotless. “Release Riptide and Mastermind, Charles,” he says. “And we’ll be on our way.”
 
“I’ll do no such thing, Erik,” Xavier replies, glaring. “You have no rights here, not a single one.”
 
Magneto frowns, flicking a wrist towards Piotr. “How curious,” he says, tilting his head as he glances at the man. “It’s rare that I see a power so aptly suited to serve my own.”
 
He clenches his hand into a fist abruptly, smiling grimly as Piotr is ripped away from Emma and is slammed into the far wall. She falls to her knees, breathing deeply as Erik drops the larger man to the ground.
 
“You’re at a disadvantage, my friend,” Erik says. “We both know that I can flatten this man with a thought. Surely you don’t want his blood on your hands? We know how distasteful you find that to be.”
 
In response, Charles has Riptide push Mastermind against the wall, a bit of broken glass held against his throat. “Don’t tempt me, Erik,” he grinds out.
 
He has the distinct satisfaction of watching Magneto’s face cloud with surprise before he hastily schools his expression. “You wouldn’t dare,” he says flatly.
 
“Oh, wouldn’t I?” Charles asks. “Four years is a long time, Erik. I’ve learned to take care of my own.”
 
The fingers against his temple tense and he has Janos create the beginnings of a whirlwind in his palm, the threat hanging heavy in the air. Magneto straightens, his other hand rising as he hefts Piotr’s form.
 
Everything is coming to a head, the images in Destiny’s visions solidifying as the scene unfolds. Riptide advances and the dust and debris of the basement rise in clouds, Erik and Emma stepping forward to meet him.
 
Destiny sees the pop of dark smoke and the cloud of sulfur a split second before he appears, and she shouts “STOP!” and throws herself forward.
 
It is only Charles’ innate sense of control that allows him to pull Riptide’s power back in time, and Erik stumbles as he pushes back the wave of metal that he’s brought to bear. Piotr turns as soon as he hits the ground, morphing back to his human form.
 
“What’s the meaning of this?” Erik demands, a dangerous edge to his voice.
 
“A child,” Destiny responds, picking herself up off of the ground and cradling the baby who’d managed to teleport himself in the midst of a battlefield. Xavier has gone pale behind her.
 
“Kurt,” he murmurs. “You saved his life.”
 
“W-what is this?” Magneto’s voice is strangled as he looks the child over, taking in his blue skin and wide, yellow eyes.
 
His parentage is unmistakable.
 
“You didn’t know,” Charles observes flatly. “They kept it from you, from your war, and brought him here.”
 
He glances at Destiny, then at Piotr. The man moves forward gingerly, taking Kurt from her arms and walking to Xavier’s side.
 
Without breaking Erik’s gaze, Charles releases his hold on Riptide and Mastermind. “Go,” he says tonelessly. “Leave, and don’t come back.”
 
Erik says nothing as Piotr carries him back to his wheelchair, but Charles can feel his eyes burning holes in the back of his head. Kurt has begun to cry, and Xavier brushes his knuckles against his cheek, sending him calming thoughts.

 
He sends the rest of the X-Men a mental nudge, urging them to consciousness, and one by one, they begin to wake.
 
Scott manages to stand first, his surprise at seeing the brotherhood present palpable. He moves cautiously through the rubble, careful to face them at all times. “Alex, are you okay?” he mutters, helping his brother to his feet.
 
“Mmfine,” Alex huffs. “I feel like I got hit by a tornado, though. Oh, right.” He glares at Riptide across the room, who shrugs.
 
The rest of them pick themselves up, Hank emerging from Cerebro’s chamber with a dazed look on his face. “Professor?” he mutters, brows rising as he beholds the brotherhood standing at the far side of the corridor.
 
“Charles…” Erik’s voice cuts across the din, but Charles very deliberately turns his back on him.
 
It isn’t until he’s reached the ramp leading to the upper level, the X-Men close behind him, when he stops abruptly. The mind that opens to his is a maelstrom of thought, a discordant symphony of despair and longing.
 
It’s been so long since he’d last felt it that he’s almost forgotten its power.
 
Charles pauses, caught in indecision as he feels the ebb of a mind that had once been so familiar.
 
/Please./ Erik thinks at him, and it’s this simple word that breaks him at last.
 
Charles turns around. Erik’s helmet is off and his hair is sticking up a little in the back. The rest of the brotherhood is staring at him in varying degrees of shock. Charles would wager that this is the first time they’ve seen him without it.
 
“Raven and Azazel are missing,” Erik says without preamble. “Emma was using Cerebro to find them.”
 
And whatever Charles had been expecting him to say, this wasn’t it. He shakes his head. “In my study. Now.”
 
Erik follows without complaint.


VII.
 
“Tell me everything,” Charles says as soon as Erik shuts the door. “And don’t spare any details.”
 
Erik stares at him impassively, the helm still held loosely at his side. “It would be easier for you to read my mind,” he says at last, and Charles laughs disbelievingly.
 
In the past he would’ve asked for reassurance of some sort, double-checking for permission already given. But the time for finesse is long gone, and whether or not Erik is “sure” is a bit beyond Xavier’s purview.
 
“As you will,” he says, shrugging, and delves into Erik’s mind. He’s none too gentle as he rifles through the memories that Erik pushes to the forefront, watching the scenes unfold in rapid succession.
 
He watches as Mystique reports the discovery of a classified program pertaining to the weaponization of mutants, watches as Erik sends Azazel traveling across the country to verify its existence. There’s a passing memory where he sees Erik receiving their weekly reports via radio—Raven’s from the White House, Azazel’s from some far flung area in Canada—anger lapping at his consciousness. Humans and their incessant need to cage that which they do not understand, and somewhere deep down, Erik swears to make them pay.
 
The more recent memories are much clearer, and Charles sees the two miss their check-in times, one after the other, just last week. Erik summons the rest of the brotherhood, mobilizing them in search for Raven’s cover identity at the White House, but no one has heard from her. They don’t even know where to begin to look for Azazel; with his gift of teleportation, he could literally be anywhere.
 
In desperation, Erik turns to Emma. “We need to find them,” he says. “How far is your range?”
 
“Not enough. Not for this,” Emma replies. “But I can boost it.” Nobody asks how; Xavier’s school is never far from their thoughts.
 
A pause, then: “Do it.”
 
Charles feels Erik’s thoughts color with an apology, thin and reedy, but he ignores it. “Enough,” he says, pulling back from Erik’s mind. “I’ve seen enough.”
 
Erik nods. “I believe Emma has located Azazel,” he says. “If you would let us be on our way…”
 
“As that was Emma’s first time operating Cerebro, you’ll have to excuse me if I insist on double-checking,” says Charles. “Raven is still my sister, after all, and they may not be held at the same place.”
 
He moves forward, going past Erik to get to the door, but is stopped with a hand on his shoulder. “Charles,” Erik begins, but Xavier shakes his head.
 
“Don’t,” he says shortly. “I’ll work with you now for Raven and Azazel’s sakes, but this doesn’t change anything between us.”
 
He doesn’t need to read Erik’s mind to sense the disappointment that radiates from him. “I know,” he says. “I just hoped that we could…”
 
“That we could what?” Charles asks. He refuses to look at Erik, hardening his resolve against him. Hadn’t he just broken into his school, threatening the lives of Xavier’s students, all because he couldn’t bring himself to ask for something peaceably? “As reluctant as I was to admit it before, we simply don’t subscribe to the same school of thought. Your ways will never be mine, Erik, and our tenuous grip on past… friendship… was just that. Tenuous.”
 
“You can’t mean that,” Erik says, stricken, but Charles continues unrelentingly.
 
“How can you say that to me?” he asks. “Haven’t you been present at the battles we’ve had? Haven’t you seen the harm you’ve caused the children? Most of which you helped train, I might add, and that just adds insult to injury.’
 
‘None of them refer to you as Erik anymore, do you know that? Alex says it’s because it’s easier to think of you as just Magneto, just as an enemy, but I think it’s rather more than that. I think it’s because they’ve already given up on Erik, given up on him as long dead, and that’s far easier than accepting the fact that /you’re/ behind the knife that cuts us at every turn.” The last word comes out as a low hiss, and Charles feels the anger bubbling in his chest.
 
He pushes at his wheels, intent on leaving, but Erik holds him fast. Not with his powers, as Charles expects, but simply by moving to stand before him, hands braced at the arm rests of his chair.
 
“Let me go,” Charles says furiously. Color rises high in his cheek and he’s reminded again of that day in Cuba, forced to watch, to /assist/, as Erik takes Shaw’s life. Helpless, because he’d clung to an innocent hope that Erik would be the better man. Helpless, because he loved him, and couldn’t bear to put him in harm’s way by releasing Shaw. Helpless then, but not any longer.
 
He pushes hard against Erik’s arms, aiming a quick jab at his wrists and managing to dislodge him, quickly pushing himself forward.
 
“God damn it, Charles, will you just let me explain--!” And this time Erik does use his powers to hold the wheelchair back, spinning it in place so Charles can’t help but look at him.
 
“No!” Charles shouts, pushing at him as he tries to come closer. It doesn’t even occur to him to use his own powers to hold Erik back, his mind running hot as he tries to ignore the pure fear running through the other man. /Please please Charles please don’t/ and it’s not even a coherent thought, just a steady stream of emotion that begs him to stay.
 
But Charles has had enough. It’s been four years and too much blood has been spilled between them, and all he wants to do is get away from the maelstrom. Erik doesn’t try to fight him and Charles lands a sharp jab to his jaw, Erik’s head snapping back as a cut appears on his lip.
 
They both freeze at the sight, Erik down on one knee and one of Charles’ hands fisted into his suit. “I—I’m,” and Charles pauses, unwilling to apologize but unable to let Erik go.
 
“It’s all right,” the other man says. “I probably deserve much worse.”
 
“You do,” Charles replies. He pulls away from him then, running a hand through his hair. “Erik, this isn’t going to work. We’ll help you find Raven and Azazel, but after that… You’re not welcome here, not anymore.”
 
He pushes the wheelchair back, moving towards the door.
 
“I’ll be back when I have the coordinates from Cerebro.”
 
This time, Erik doesn’t stop him.


VIII.
 
Charles locates Raven at a facility in Three Mile Island, confirming his belief that she and Azazel aren’t being held together. He’s held deeper underground, several miles away from Raven’s location, and barely conscious. Something seems to be suppressing his abilities, and Charles’ telepathy is having trouble penetrating it.
 
“They’re in separate locations,” Charles begins. “Perhaps we should free Azazel first, and then have him teleport us to her…”
 
They’re gathered at his study, brotherhood and X-Men alike, planning for the coming mission.
 
“That would be problematic,” Magneto replies. “As we won’t know if Azazel’s fit to teleport until we get him out. And by the time we do so, it could be too late.”
 
“We need to extract them at the same time,” Scott speaks up. “If the others catch wind that we’ve freed one of them, they might move whoever’s left to another location.”
 
Magneto nods sharply. “Or worse, given Stryker’s reputation,” he says. “It makes more sense for the brotherhood to take on Mystique’s rescue from the main facility. It will likely have heavier guard, and we can bear the brunt of their forces whilst the X-Men use stealth to enter the lower levels to free Azazel.”
 
“I’m not letting you enter that facility on your own,” Charles replies flatly. “You could bring the entire building down if you were so inclined, and the loss of life is precisely something we’re trying to avoid. We have no wish to make enemies of the government, Erik.”
 
“They’ve already made enemies with you, Charles,” Erik says angrily. “They’ve kidnapped Azazel; they’ve taken your sister! What other incentive do you need?”
 
It’s an old argument, one that they began four years ago on a beach in Cuba, and Charles feels a dull anger rising in his chest. “Damn it, Erik,” he says, slapping his palm on his desk. “Won’t you ever learn? They perceive you as a threat because you make yourself one!”
 
He pushes his chair forward, not breaking Erik’s gaze. “Why do you think she brought Kurt here?” he asks. “It isn’t because she believes in this school or its ideals, but because she knew he would be safer away from /you/. You destroy everything you touch--!”
 
He reins himself in before he says the last part, but Erik hears it anyway. /Including me./
 
Erik’s paled considerably, but he flinches as if struck at Charles’ last words. They stare at each other silently, the tension so thick that someone could cut it with a knife if they so dared.
 
Erik looks away first.
 
“What would you have me do?” he asks evenly, and it’s only Emma who can feel the turmoil in his mind, the rage at being undermined in front of his people, the guilt at being the cause of their disappearance.
 
“We’ll split into teams,” Charles replies, jaw set. “X-Men and brotherhood together, and I’ll keep everyone in constant contact from the Blackbird. We should play to our strengths and powers and keep two balanced teams.”
 
“Wait a second, Professor, you want us to team up with /them/?” Alex bursts out, mouth dropping open. “You know we can’t trust them to watch our backs…”
 
“I don’t work with children, Magneto,” Mastermind bites out. “They’d only get in my way.”
 
“As much as I’d like to find Raven, I’d have to agree, Professor,” Hank says. “This is a terrible idea.”
 
“This is the only way it’s going to work,” Charles says evenly. “To be perfectly transparent—I don’t trust any of the brotherhood further than I can throw them. I won’t have them traipsing around a government facility without one of us to watch them. I have no desire to help you start a war.”
 
Erik’s jaw clenches and unclenches for a bit, and he takes a deep breath as if to calm himself. Finally, he nods.
 
“Do as he says,” he tells the brotherhood. “And you will see to it that the X-Men you team up with are safe. If any of them are harmed, you will answer to me.”
 
“We’re hardly children,” Ororo speaks up, a slight tremor in her voice. “We don’t need your protection.”
 
“I beg to differ, windrider,” Wyngarde scoffs. “All it took to fell you was an illusion of stone and rock.”
 
“You dare--!” Her fingertips begin to crackle as lightning emerges from her fingertips.
 
“Ororo, that’s enough.” Xavier’s voice brooks no argument. “The matter is settled.”
 
He nods at Erik. “We leave within the hour.”
 
 
IX.
 
Charles departs with a team comprised of Scott, Sean, Destiny, Riptide, and Mastermind. Upon conferring with Erik on the locations of their targets and the strengths of their teams, it had been decided that Charles would maintain a stealthy approach to freeing Mystique from the main facility.
 
He knew Erik had wanted to storm the main building, possibly to prove a point of some sort, but his sister’s safety was paramount. He would not let Erik do anything to endanger her.
 
Erik had taken Hank, Alex, Ororo, and Emma, and it fell to her to maintain contact with Charles. After landing, the timings of their escape would be crucial.
 
“Set her down gently, Scott,” Xavier says, giving his pupil a small smile of encouragement. Scott was by no means the regular pilot of the Blackbird, but with Hank on Erik’s team, he had no choice but to take the reins.
 
Scott nods, wincing a little as they touch down none-too-gently amongst a canopy of trees. Foliage and rocks are crushed beneath the jet, heavy rustling resounding throughout the brush.
 
Wyngarde snorts derisively from the back, Sean throwing him a dirty look. “I’d like to see you try flying this thing,” he says.
 
“I’ve been flying planes longer than you’ve been born, child,” Jason returns. “Don’t push me.”
 
“That’s enough,” Charles snaps. “From all of you.”
 
He brings two fingers to his temples, taking a deep breath. “I’m establishing my link to Emma now,” he says. “Prepare yourselves.”
 
He stretches out with his mind, looking for the sharp, brittle presence that he associated with Frost. The distance between the facilities is not great, and it falls within the range of both their telepathic reaches.
 
/We’ve landed, Xavier./
 
/Excellent. Scott and the rest of the team are moving out./
 
“We’ll see you soon, Professor,” Scott says, leading the way down the ramp.
 
Charles nods; his mind is currently linked to both Scott and Emma, and through Emma’s eyes he can see the other team’s location. They’ve landed several miles east of the Blackbird’s location, and the terrain is somewhat similar. With Erik’s powers, they find the concealed escape hatch to the underground base easily.
 
/Good luck,/ he tells Emma, and then pushes the connection further to the back of his mind.
 
He has to focus on getting his own team in for now; Emma will speak up if they need him.
 
/Professor, are you there?/ Scott’s voice. /We’ve found some sort of back entrance with minimal security. I think this is where we should enter./
 
Charles reaches out with his mind, gathering a better view of the area from the minds of the stationed guards. /Excellent,/ he projects. /This is the place, Scott. Give me a moment to incapacitate the guards./
 
He closes his eyes, gathering himself as he “suggests” a brief nap to the two young men guarding the entrance. They slump forward almost immediately; it’s been a long shift.
 
/Thanks, professor./ Scott leads the team quickly into the facility, swiping the guard’s own keycard at the door. It opens with a soft click, and then they’re in.
 
Charles himself hovers through the hallways, omnipresent as he skims the interior in search of Raven. He can feel her presence; now all he has to do is pinpoint it.
 
There.
 
Third basement, apparently, and in some sort of holding room. He sends her a brief pulse of greeting, and she recognizes him through some sort of drug-induced haze.
 
He sends her coordinates to Scott, and between Destiny’ precognition and Xavier’s telepathy, they manage to get to her location without a single punch thrown.
 
He spares a thought towards Emma and the others; fifteen minutes have passed and they should have located Azazel by now. /How goes it?/ he projects.
 
/We’ve found a manifest,/ she replies shortly. /We’re trying to make sense of it. I’ll contact you again once we have him./
 
She cuts off abruptly and Charles frowns. He contemplates trying to reopen the communication forcibly, but before he can do so, Scott breaks in.
 
/Professor? We have Raven./ Scott’s thoughts are in mild disarray, concern seeping through the bond. /She’s injured, but not overly so. I think she may have a concussion./
 
Charles forces himself back to the present. /All right, get back to the Blackbird as quickly as you can; use Destiny to foretell the quickest route. I’ll handle any opposition you meet./
 
Scott sends his affirmative and Charles blankets the rest of the floor in sleep. It isn’t particularly difficult; not counting the people in holding rooms, they’re running a skeleton crew of twenty-six people, most of which are already tired. Charles plants the suggestion in their minds, and he feels Scott and the others slip past the security desks and into the elevators.
 
He touches Raven’s mind; she’s floating in and out of consciousness and cradled in Riptide’s arms. He sends her thoughts of Kurt, and he feels her affection pulse through the bond.
 
/You’ll be all right, sister. You’re safe now./
 
Destiny leads them back to the Blackbird within minutes, and Xavier glances at the clock. Barely under thirty minutes. Erik and the others should be out soon, as well. He can’t delay the facility’s awakening much longer; someone on the outside is bound to notice.
 
“Professor, how’s the other team doing?” Scott asks, strapping himself back into the pilot’s seat. “We need to take off before you wake everyone up.”
 
“Hold on,” Charles mutters, brow wrinkling. Now that he’s broken his connection to Scott, he can sense Emma’s thoughts more fully.
 
She’s in some small amount of distress, but she’s keeping her emotions tightly down.
 
/Emma, what’s happening?/ Charles projects. /Are you all right?/
 
She does not answer, and in a panic, Charles projects himself more fully across their bond. Emma is so startled by the intrusion that she accidentally allows it, and for a brief moment, Charles sees what she sees.
 
Blood drains from his face.
 
“Oh my god…”
 
The connection cuts off abruptly, even the simple communication bond between them breaking. Emma’s turned to diamond form.
 
“What’s wrong, professor?” Scott asks anxiously. “What did you see?”
 
“We have to go,” Charles manages.
 
“They’ve been discovered.”
 
 
X.
 
They arrive in the middle of a full-scale battle.
 
Hank and Ororo are desperately herding what look like dozens of injured mutants to safety, and Emma and Alex are covering their escape. Guards are shooting at them even as they’re fleeing from the base itself, which looks like it’s being shaken by a massive earthquake.
 
“Scott,” Xavier says urgently, and the young man immediately snaps into action, guiding the jet down between the survivors and the running guards.
 
“Destiny, with me,” Scott snaps. “The rest of you-- help Hank and Ororo.”  They take off at a run as soon as the ramp is down.
 
Charles realizes that the brotherhood’s chopper is much smaller than the blackbird, and it won’t hold all of the mutants that Hank’s evacuating.
 
“Raven, I’ll be right back,” he says, swiftly pressing a kiss to his sister’s brow. Then he’s moving down the ramp himself, stretching his mind out to Hank.
 
/Lead them to the Blackbird,/ he projects. /Have you located Azazel?/
 
/Yes, professor,/ Hank sends back, not missing a beat. /He’s teleporting as many as he can to Westchester, but he’s injured. I don’t know how many trips he can make./
 
/I understand,/ Charles says. /Where’s Erik?/
 
/Inside the facility,/ Hanks replies. Distress leaks from his mind. /We found Azazel, but there were mutants guarding the prisoners—Erik was holding them off so we could get them out. I’m sorry, professor, he wouldn’t let us stay./
 
Charles swears softly under his breath. He stretches out, straining to find even a trace of Erik, but he senses nothing.
 
“That damned helmet,” he mutters angrily.
 
There’s a burst of black smoke as Azazel appears across the lot, and Charles wheels swiftly towards him. “I need to get to Erik,” he says. “Can you take me inside?”
 
“Are you certain?” Azazel asks, eying the shaking building. He’s holding his side, arm bent at an awkward angle. “It looks like he’s winning.”
 
“I have to make sure,” Charles replies, and the other man nods.
 
“As you say,” he says, and grips Xavier’s hand.
 
They vanish in a swirl of smoke.
 
***
 
When they arrive at the pens, deep in the bowels of the Stryker’s hold, the ground is littered with bodies. Xavier counts several human guards and two mutants, both wearing some sort of military uniform.
 
“Erik!” Charles calls out, coughing as a rain of dust and gravel comes down.
 
He presses his fingers to his temples and extends his presence along the dim corridor, noting with some surprise that some of the guards are still breathing. The other mutants, however, are already growing cold.
 
“Azazel,” Charles says. “These men are still alive. Please take them to the surface.”
 
The other man’s lip curls in distaste; these are the same people who held him prisoner for days. He would sooner leave them here to rot if he had his way.
 
“Please,” Charles repeats, and Azazel nods reluctantly. He’s not sure how many more jumps he can make; but he owes Xavier. He takes a knee and grabs the nearest guard’s wrist.
 
“I’m going to find Erik,” Charles says.
 
Charles hears the shift of rubble and soot as Azazel teleports one of them up. He pushes himself down the empty corridor and soon finds that it opens up into a large chamber ahead.
 
The floor is swathed in steel and metal cages are stacked one over the other, rising high into the upper levels. They’re empty, doors hanging open on brass hinges.
 
Erik is standing in the center of the chamber, teeth bared, hands splayed high above his head. The steel cages are rattling loudly but Magneto isn’t manipulating them; Charles realizes with a start that he’s tapped into the metal supports in the walls, barely wire-thick and encased in tons of silent concrete all around them. He’s trying to level a base supported by solid rock, on the strength of a handful of metal struts.
 
Charles gasps audibly, and the sound makes Erik turn.
 
“Charles?” he bites out, eyes widening. “What are you doing here?”
 
“We have to leave, Erik,” Charles says urgently. Part of the upper level support has already given way, and the concrete is beginning to crumble. “Please, come with me now.”
 
“Stay back,” Erik warns, and a stack of cages domino to the ground, crashing into the floor. It falls mere inches away from Erik, and a large chunk of concrete breaks from the ceiling and catches him in the shoulder. He staggers, his mouth stretching in a grimace of pain, but he does not break his stance.
 
Slowly but surely, Charles senses the lower level’s metal supports begin to work their way free as well, destroying the structure from the inside out. More pieces begin to break away from the ceiling, and Charles desperately thought-casts for Azazel.
 
He swears softly when he realizes that the man is officially down for the count. He’s gotten all the living guards out, but he’s depleted himself completely in the process.
 
Charles is on his own, and Magneto is mad with rage.
 
“Erik!” he calls out again, but the other man ignores him. Charles knows that he doesn’t have nearly enough power to bring the complex down and manage an escape on top of it; this is clearly a suicide mission.
 
Steeling himself for the worst, Charles emerges from the relative safety of the corridor and into the chamber. Chunks of concrete rain down but he manages to avoid all but a glancing blow to his arm. He can feel warm blood trickle down his sleeve, but he pushes past the pain and perseveres, finally reaching Magneto’s side.
 
“Erik!” Charles says urgently, clutching at the other man’s arms. He’s reminded of a distant ocean, practically a lifetime ago. “Erik, let it go!”
 
He’s not tall enough, he can’t even reach Erik’s shoulders to snatch the helmet away, but he
digs his fingers into Erik’s forearms and screams at him over the din. “Erik, you’ll die!” he shouts. “You have to let it go, my friend!”

Above them, more support beams shatter as Erik clenches his fists, bringing a fresh spatter of asphalt down on their heads. Charles desperately tries to cover his head, and he sees Erik double over with the effort of his exertions.
 
He’s down on one knee now, fingers splayed against the concrete floor. “Charles…” he gasps, and it’s then that Xavier sees that the front of his tunic is soaked with blood. The cuts are ragged, deep, and it hurts Charles to look at them.

“Please… help me,” Erik whispers. “Please.”


His eyes are wide, almost childlike, and even with the helmet, Charles knows his mind. He closes his eyes briefly, sensing how vast the facility truly is-- the labs and the disciplinary rooms and the innumerable cages that had kept so many of their kind imprisoned like animals.
 
This facility cannot be left standing.
 
“I understand,” Charles says finally, and reaches out, hooking his fingers under Erik’s helmet. The other man’s hands come up to grip his wrists, trying to stop him, but Charles shakes his head.
 
“I’ll help you,” he says. “Please trust me.”
 
And Erik nods, letting him pull the helm away, allowing Charles access to his mind. “Do you remember?” Charles asks. “The place between rage and serenity.”
 
Erik closes his eyes as Charles brushes his fingers against his temple. He realizes with a start that it isn’t the same memory as before-- his own face greets him as he brings the thought forward. It’s the last time they touched, Erik cradling him gently, on the beach in Cuba.
 
Erik cherishes the memory like a starving man would his last morsel. It’s the last time Charles looked at him devoid of hate.
 
“Oh, Erik,” Charles whispers, tears springing to his eyes. “Even after all this time?”
 
“Still,” Erik replies. “Always.” He reaches out to touch Charles’ cheek, trailing fingers tenderly across his jaw.
 
“Thank you, my friend.”
 
He closes his eyes then, rising to his feet as he bends iron and steel to his will once more. This time, the metal /sings/.
 
Charles watches as the cages beneath them crumple, supports practically ripping out of the concrete walls in their haste to follow Erik’s will. It collapses the massive complex well and truly within itself, walls shattering like glass.
 
Erik has begun to rise into the air, and Charles realizes with a start that he is, as well. He grips the arms of his chair, swallowing hard as Erik levitates them out of the crumbling base. He can feel Erik’s mind, the perfect peace that has enveloped it, and the sheer power of it is overwhelming.
 
They rise up, moving past endlessly falling debris, past sub-level upon sub-level where mutants were cut open, experimented upon, and hurt.
 
Charles is not sorry to see it fall.
 
When they arrive at the surface, both the Blackbird and the brotherhood’s chopper are gone. The clearing surrounding the remains of Stryker’s base is empty.
 
Erik’s blood drips steadily as he manipulates them out of ground zero, finally setting them down on level ground.
 
“You’re safe here,” Erik says, and collapses.

XI.
 
It’s six days before Erik wakes again, and Charles spends most of this time hovering over him at the infirmary.
 
Hank reports that he’s healing well, and though his metabolism isn’t particularly special, Erik is a fighter. He says that his daily progress is slow but steady, and Xavier doesn’t need to worry for him. Charles worries anyway.
 
The rest of the school has been given some time off of their studies; everyone has their own bruises to mend, and the sudden influx of new mutants warrants a settling-in period. Charles sees to it that the mutants who wish to return home have the means to do so, and those that wish to stay have a place here.
 
He wishes he could do more for them, but some wounds take time to heal. The trauma that they’d encountered at Stryker’s hands would not be forgotten so quickly.
 
Raven had recovered quickly enough herself, and after a somewhat emotional reunion, she’d launched into a report of the goings-on of the facility. Azazel had been shunted off to the other facility, joining the majority of the imprisoned mutants who were to be studied and experimented on. Raven herself was marked as a high-profile member of the brotherhood and was thus undergoing a special debriefing, but she had managed to hold out long enough for them to arrive.
 
Charles runs a hand through his hair, shuddering slightly. He didn’t want to think about what would have happened had they not broken in when they did.
 
“Charles…?” Erik’s voice rouses Charles from his ruminations and he leans forward, relieved to see the other man finally awake.
 
“How are you feeling?” Charles asks. His left hand is grasping one of Erik’s, and he feels a light squeeze on his fingers.
 
“Like a truck fell on me,” Erik mumbles. He glances down at his bare chest, eying the bandages tightly wound around it. “Chest hurts.”
 
“That happens when you try to stop a blade with it,” Charles returns mildly. “You had several deep cuts when we brought you in.”
 
A pause, then: “I wasn’t sure if you would make it.”
 
“Almost didn’t,” Erik replies. “I don’t do well against ceramic knives, apparently. I didn’t realize what they were until it was too late—I was too busy defending myself against the mutant who was throwing her own bones at me.”
 
“I’m glad you’re all right,” Charles says. His eyes are soft and rimmed with red. “I was worried.”
 
Erik looks down at their entwined fingers, smiling crookedly. He feels an unexpected swell of emotion, unable to quell it for want of his helm.
 
“Charles…” he begins, but the other man pulls away, wincing slightly.
 
“Erik, you know I…” Charles pauses, taking a deep, shuddering breath. “…you know I can’t.” He folds his hands neatly on his lap, and when he looks at Erik once more, his gaze is neatly shuttered.
 
“I’m glad you’re all right,” he repeats, trying to ignore the wounded look on the other man’s face. “But those mutants you killed… surely there was another way to subdue them?”
 
Erik’s mouth twists, just a little. “I did what I had to do,” he says. “To make sure they stayed down.” His eyes flick towards Charles, then focus on some vague point in the ceiling. His hand feels cold.
 
“Most of the guards survived,” Charles points out. “It seems you found another way.”
 
“Humans aren’t nearly as dangerous when you take their weapons away,” Erik returns. Weariness drags at the edges of his words. “Are you really so concerned about the fates of a couple of blood traitors?”
 
“We don’t know that they were,” Charles replies. “Raven said she uncovered some sort of… mind control experiment. One of the dozens that Stryker was performing on mutant test subjects, apparently. If you hadn’t killed those mutants, we might’ve had the chance to save them.”
 
“Those guards weren’t being mind controlled,” Erik says immediately. “I think I’d know the difference between a mindless automaton and a bloody soldier.”
 
He passes a hand over his face, wincing at he feels the tenderness in his jaw. “I’ve had quite a bit of experience with the military, after all,” he continues. “You can tell from a person’s eyes when they enjoy killing. They were soldiers, Charles. I’d stake my life on it.”
 
“As you say,” Charles says, sighing. “Though I’ve always subscribed to the hope of rehabilitation.” It’s an old argument, and the fire leaves his eyes when he realizes they’ve trod into familiar territory.
 
There’s a pregnant pause as Erik reins himself in, trying not to think derogatory thoughts about Charles’ naiveté. “Stryker’s still out there,” he says finally, changing the subject. “He needs to be stopped, and for good.”
 
And Charles finds that he has nothing to say to that, can’t bring himself to argue in favor of a man who so casually violates every principle he holds dear.
 
“You have to realize… there isn’t any hope for some.” Erik pulls the other man’s hand to his lips, kissing his knuckles apologetically. “People are incapable of change.”
 
Charles fingers tighten on his briefly, then pull away. “Maybe,” he replies, and Erik knows he’s not talking about Stryker. “But I’ll always continue to hope otherwise.”
 
 
XII.
 
Erik’s progress continues as the month wears on. Soon he’s on his feet again, able to take short walks on the grounds before the ache in his chest compels him to stop.
 
Charles accompanies him on most days, and they talk of Xavier’s students, Kurt’s progress, and Raven and Azazel. They steer clear of the topics they know they cannot agree on, and Erik allows himself to admire the school that Charles has built.
 
“Emma has been making herself exceedingly useful around the classroom,” Charles remarks one day. “She has quite the mind for economics.”
 
“I should hope so; she handles the brotherhood’s funds,” Erik replies. “And the hellfire club’s before it.”
 
Charles’ lips twist in a suppressed smile. “I shudder to think how she procured the money in the first place,” he says. “Still, I’m grateful that she’s offered to teach. I think she’s taken quite a liking to Scott.”
 
Erik nods thoughtfully. “Perhaps she wanted something with which to occupy her time,” he says. “I don’t imagine they’re finding much excitement in waiting for me to recover.”
 
“No,” Charles agrees. “Though Azazel and Raven seem content to spend time with Kurt.”
 
There’s a note of hesitation when he says this, and Erik gives him a small smile. “They’re welcome to leave the brotherhood at any time, Charles,” he says gently, and if it’s strange that he’s trying to reassure Xavier, neither of them mention it.
 
“They won’t,” Charles says, voice equally soft. “I’ve already tried to convince them to stay here.”
 
He looks at the setting sun, reminded of a brief moment years ago, suspended in time, on this same spot. The place between rage and serenity.
 
“They follow you because they believe in your cause,” Charles continues, dismissing the memory with some effort. “They wouldn’t abandon you, any more than you would them.”
 
Erik leans against the marble rail, staring at the satellite dish in the distance. He says nothing for a handful of minutes, and Charles does not need to read his mind. The longing is written in the slant of his mouth, the pain in his eyes.

 
“The cause,” Erik says eventually; a non-sequitur. Charles waits for him to say something else, but he just shrugs, tight-lipped, and they do not speak of it further.
 
***
 
It’s a Tuesday when Erik goes to each of the brotherhood, speaking to them in pairs or alone, as he finds them.
 
“It’s a distraction, Erik.” Emma’s reply is quick and measured. Her face is unreadable. “Nothing more.”
 
His wounds haven’t healed completely yet, but he’s well enough to travel. Well enough to leave. Stryker is still out there, after all, and the fact that he’s still breathing grates on Erik’s nerves.
 
Still, he hasn’t missed the way some of his people had taken to life within Xavier’s school, and he’s not selfish enough to rip it from them. It’s a choice, the same choice he’d faced on a beach in Cuba, and Erik would never presume to make it for anyone but himself.
 
“I wouldn’t take it against you,” he says to Janos, who he finds with Piotr in the rec room. The larger mutant excuses himself when Erik enters, but not before exchanging a significant glance with Riptide.
 
Janos has always been a man of few words; Erik figures it could go either way.
 
“You’re a better man than Shaw,” he says, and while it isn’t really an answer, Erik is unsurprised by it.
 
Raven and Azazel don’t even blink. “We’re with you, Erik,” Raven says, even as Kurt’s chubby fist tightens around her fingers. “Stryker can’t be allowed to do this again.”
 
Wyngarde looks bored by the question, and he raises a brow when Erik approaches. “Have you had your fill of these pacifist whelps, yet?” And it takes all of Erik’s self-control not to throw him into the wall; he was one of the few members of Shaw’s old network that had never completely stopped fighting Magneto. Erik finds his presence irritating, but the man is useful.
 
“Be ready to move out in two hours,” Erik snaps, and Mastermind gives him a mock salute.
 
In the end, it’s only Destiny who opts to stay. “I’m getting old, Erik,” she says apologetically. “Perhaps it’s time for me to retire.”
 
“You will be missed, Irene,” Magneto replies gruffly, reaching out to clasp her hand. She’d joined their band barely three years ago; he’d recruited her when Angel finally left them. He’s startled to realize that he is genuinely saddened by her loss. “You’ve been a great asset to us.”
 
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Destiny says, smiling wanly. “I’ve been doing this freedom fighter bit for far longer than you have; it’s time for me to leave it to the young.”
 
Before Erik can reply, there’s a timid voice at the door. “Ms. Adler? I’ve brought you some tea…” He releases Irene’s hand, nodding at the young woman in the doorway.
 
“Oh, Mr. Lehnsherr,” Rogue pauses, holding up her tray. “I didn’t know you were here. I only brought a set for one.”
 
“It’s all right,” Erik says. “I won’t be staying. Will you see us off, Destiny?”


Irene smiles warmly, and she reaches out to pat Erik’s cheek. “No,” she says. “No, I don’t think I will.”
 
Erik leaves them then, the child and the seer, sitting in the library. He watches as Rogue listens raptly to one of Destiny’s stories of her youth, her gloved hands clasped on her knees.
 
At least one of them, he thinks, has the courage to stand by what they truly want.
 
***
 
They say their goodbyes on the lawn. Not all of the students come to see them off, but most of them do. Charles is impassive when he says goodbye, and he offers his palm after a brief hesitation. Erik takes it, squeezing gently.
 
“Charles,” he says. “Thank you.” He’s holding the helmet in his hand but doesn’t put it on. Once he does, the lines will be drawn once more, and he wants to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.
 
Kurt begins to bawl when Raven presses a kiss to his forehead, handing him to Piotr. “We’ll see you again soon, little love,” she says. “Be brave.”
 
“Good luck, Ms. Frost,” Scott says awkwardly, crossing his arms over his chest. “We’ll miss your lessons.”
 
Emma’s smile is sharp. “Of course you will,” she replies. “I’m an excellent teacher.”
 
“Modest, as well,” Scott quips, and Alex rolls his eyes behind him. Neither boy is quite immune to Emma’s considerable looks, though Scott’s a tad more subtle. Erik thinks she’ll eat him alive.
 
Emma steps back and links hands with Azazel; the others following suit.
 
Erik heads to the line, sparing another glance at the mansion, gaze drawn inexorably to the dish in the distance. The memory is sharp, bittersweet, and he tears his eyes away with great effort.
 
“Erik,” Charles speaks up, hesitating slightly. He has the irrational urge to ask him to stay, logic be damned, but there’s still so much between them, so many wounds that haven’t quite had the time to heal. So the words die in his chest before his lips can form the words, and he says instead: “Safe journey.”
 
Erik doesn’t reply for a moment, as if trying to decipher the undercurrent beneath Charles’ words. But in the end he just nods; he’s not the telepath, after all.
 
“Goodbye, Charles,” he says quietly, as Emma takes his hand.
 
They disappear in a cloud of smoke.
 
 
XIII.
 
It won’t be long, now.
 
Destiny feels the sun set from the balcony, smiling as she catches flashes of the young people playing about on the lawn. It’s a made-up game, some modified version of soccer apparently, that has them laughing and shrieking “no powers, no powers!” every now and then.
 
Rogue is beside her, reading quietly from her book, and though Destiny was born blind, she thinks she’s never seen anyone so clearly. Her powers have never left her wanting for sight, and throughout the better part of her adult life, she’s seen visions of Marie many times.
 
Her power is a mystery to everyone, even herself sometimes, but the best she can explain it is that she sees the future. The immediate future and the possible ones, and when she was younger she could barely see five minutes into it. Her age has allowed her to hone it, push herself further, but even she is not infallible. There are many things that she does not know, that she cannot yet see. There are paths that she did not take, paths that would have lead into other places, and they are true things and lies at the same time.
 
Still, she knows what she feels when she is first introduced to Rogue. This is her daughter, in everything but blood, and even though she meets her for the first time (on this path, at least), she knows it is true.
 
Rogue feels it also, to a certain extent; she is fascinated by this stately, elegant lady with the fine hands and sleek hair. She wants to be near her, but she cannot explain why.
 
When Erik asks her if she wishes to stay, Destiny’s gift whispers terrible secrets to her. This happens, it reveals, and then this and this and this. Marie does not want her to go; Destiny’s no telepath, but she can hear the girl swallow hard.
 
If you do this—another whisper, another vision—this will happen. And then…
 
Destiny ignores the sight; it is useful, but she wants to follow her heart.
 
There was a moment, three years ago, when she’d met Raven for the first time. They’d shook hands and it had burned her palm, seared (possible, true) memories into her mind, and she had been so frightened by the enormity of it all that she had let it go. Had run in the opposite direction, practically.
 
Later, as weeks bled into months, she would catch glimpses of that path—of a Raven that was entirely her own. There had been a wide smile and soft, blue skin, an amused voice whispering ‘get out of my hair, Irene’, and Destiny knew that she’d made a terrible mistake. The visions had happened less and less as Mystique grew closer to Azazel, finally stopping completely when Kurt was born. The path was lost to her, then; it would never happen, not here.
 
Destiny still aches for it.
 
So for the sake of the girl who isn’t quite her daughter, she tells Erik that she’s staying. The visions become much sharper after the rest of the brotherhood leaves, and she dissects each divergent path with a tenacity that surprises her.
 
“Ms. Adler?” Rogue looks up shyly, all awkward limbs and curly hair. Irene thinks she’s never beheld anything so beautiful.
 
“What is it, child?”
 
“I’m going to get a snack,” she says. “Do you want anything?”
 
/More time with you/, Destiny thinks, but she doesn’t say it aloud. “Tea, my dear, would be lovely,” she says. She reaches out, gently gripping Rogue’s gloved hand, not missing the pleased shudder that goes through her. How long has it been since someone chose to touch her?
 
She scampers out, but not before Destiny feels her slim fingers squeeze back.
 
More time, she thinks, but she knows she won’t get it. The slightest misstep could bring about a terrible age, and she will not be so selfish.
 
“Be brave,” she whispers, and closes her sightless eyes.
 
***
 
Not even a week has passed since the brotherhood’s departure when Charles wakes in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and gasping. It takes him a moment to collect himself, struggling to rein in his erratic thoughts.
 
He reaches out to his students, finds them all still sleeping, and he wonders at the dread he feels in the pit of his stomach. The clock reads five minutes past two in the morning.
 
Charles puts two fingers to his forehead, concentrating, and stretches out further. He can’t read inanimate objects, not really, but he’s capable of a sort of ghost-walk through places—it’s how he was able to help Erik navigate on Shaw’s submarine, all those years ago. It requires plenty of concentration and it isn’t the same as seeing things with his own two eyes, but it’s enough to tell him that something is amiss.
 
There are dark spots to his telepathy, areas that his mind cannot penetrate, and he realizes with a start that they are /moving/.
 
He sends a jarring, telepathic pulse to his students to wake, to /defend/ themselves, before he pushes himself off the bed and falls to the carpeted floor. The blank area is right outside his door now, and there’s no time to reach his chair, no time at all, and he crawls to his desk and fumbles for his revolver.
 
He can hear Banshee’s wail from the second floor, the crackle of thunder as Ororo’s panicked mind connects with his. Useless, he’s bloody useless, he realizes, as his door crashes open. Their assailants have apparently abandoned their pretense at subtlety, and Xavier finds himself lifted by the throat, puppet-like, by large, clawed hands.
 
“Hello, professor. The name’s Sabretooth,” says the large mutant, smiling with a mouthful of canines. “William Stryker says hello.”
 
Xavier’s eyes are drawn inexorably to the gleaming circlet around his head; they’ve come prepared for him, apparently. “G-get out of my school,” he grits, clawing at the circlet, but Sabretooth merely laughs and shakes him hard. Charles stretches out telepathically in panic, grasping for any of his students’ minds, but they’re either unconscious or in the middle of their own fights. They’re in no position to help.
 
Piotr—Piotr is defending the younger children, thank god, but the X-Men are scattered, already locked in a losing battle. Their assailants are trained, ruthless… /military/.
 
His struggles slow as his air supply cuts off, Sabretooth’s large hands steady at his throat. “Won’t you scream for me?”
 
Charles scrabbles in vain at his hands, trying to knock the device from his forehead, but he’s fading fast and darkness seeps into the edges of his vision. Dimly, he hears a loud crash from somewhere outside, and abruptly, the pressure from his neck is gone.
 
He crumples to the ground, barely bringing up his arms in time to cushion his fall. He sees a swirl of red, hears a dull roar issue from his assailant’s lips as Charles’ metal safe goes crashing into him, and he allows himself to think /Erik?/ before passing out.

 


XIV.
 
Magneto is sitting at his desk in one of many of the brotherhood’s hidden bases, poring over stacks of files about Stryker’s Weapon X program. There’s too much data to sift through quickly, but he knows the Three Mile island base can’t be the only location. Stryker’s gone to ground, and Erik would wager his life that he’s gone to another of his facilities.
 
Shaw himself had had no less than a dozen bases scattered all over the world, and while Stryker may not have had his resources, he certainly wouldn’t be the type to put all his eggs in one basket. He’s far too careful for that.
 
Erik rubs at his temples, glaring when his vision doubles. How long has it been since he’s gotten any sleep? There are similar stacks of files with Raven and Wyngarde, while the rest are busy monitoring the various frequencies they’d managed to pull from the confiscated data. Azazel in particular has a sharp ear for these things; if the Weapon X program chances communication with its other cells, they’ll know about it immediately.
 
“You should get some rest, Erik.” He turns at the sound of Raven’s voice; she’s standing in his doorway, exhaustion coloring her features. “You haven’t slept in days.”
 
“I’ll sleep when I’ve put Stryker in the ground,” Erik responds, but his voice lacks his customary heat. “Have you uncovered anything?”
 
Raven purses her lips. “References to another base, but nothing concrete,” she admits. “Not enough to know where he may be hiding. It may not even be in the country.”
 
Erik nods, but before he can reply (and what would he have said, really?), Emma’s voice sounds in his head. /Magneto!/
 
It isn’t much, just the echo of his own name reverberating in his head, but Erik’s on his feet before he even fully registers it. Raven raises an eyebrow as he brushes past her, moving down the hallway at a run.
 
“What’s wrong--?” She cuts off as they round the corner and bump smack into Emma. It’s a testament to how frazzled she is that they manage to surprise her; it’s almost impossible to sneak up on a telepath.
 
“Report,” Erik says, grasping her elbow to steady her.
 
Emma is visibly shaken, her hair in disarray. “I’ve been monitoring Stryker’s frequencies,” she says. “There was something about an operation going on tonight— they used code words, but I think they mean to take the school. We need to leave, Erik. /Now/.”
 
“Oh my god,” Raven breathes. She takes off at a run, presumably to gather the rest of the brotherhood.
 
Erik clenches his jaw. “Get to the chopper,” he tells Emma. “I’ll try the phones.”
 
But there’s no answer, of course; the lines have already been cut. The rest of the brotherhood is already assembled by the time he gets to their helipad, and he swings into the shotgun seat with easy grace.
 
He half-turns, meeting Raven’s eyes. “We’ll make it,” he says. She nods, lips pressed together so tightly they’re almost white.
 
Riptide brings the chopper up and Erik lays his palms on the bulkhead beside him, urging the metal to the sky. He can’t push it too much; he has to be careful with the engine. But he can help it go that much faster, that much farther. It will buy them a few extra minutes.
 
He prays it’s enough.
 
***
 
They land on the grounds beside the east wing of the mansion. Erik can see nothing in the surrounding area; there are no disturbances in the grass or vehicles parked in the general vicinity.
 
“No visible entry points,” Riptide says quietly, powering down the chopper.
 
Either the attack hasn’t happened yet or… Erik’s hopes die in his chest as an unmistakable red beam breaks through a far window, shattering the glass. Sean’s scream resounds soon after, then is abruptly cut off.
 
“They may have a teleporter,” Azazel says grimly. “Be careful.”
 
Erik grits his teeth. “Split up and help where you can,” he tells the rest of them tersely, resisting the urge to rip the side door off its hinges.  “I’m going for Charles.”
 
Azazel takes Raven’s hand and disappears in a puff of smoke; the rest of the brotherhood scatter quietly into the darkness. They’ve made friends here, and they would not see them hurt.
 
Erik wastes no time in making his way down the hall to Charles’ room. He can hear the muffled sounds of battle above him, but here there is only an eerie quiet.
 
He allows himself to hope that Charles has overpowered his enemy, but knows that if that were so, the others would not be so engaged in battle. More likely, Stryker had targeted Xavier first, as he posed the biggest threat. With a bare thought, he would have had these interlopers screaming on the ground…
 
Erik reaches the heavy oak door, waving his hand at the knob and easing it open. His blood freezes in his chest when he realizes that someone’s already there, and that Charles is hanging limply from a hulking mutant’s grip.
 
Without thinking, running on pure adrenaline, he stretches out for the largest metal object in the room and hurls it at him. The safe crashes into the mutant’s forehead, and Charles drops from his hands as he falls to his knees, reeling. 
 
The mutant growls, low in his throat, blood dripping from his temples as he faces Erik, claws sharp and glinting. He leaps towards him, so quick that Erik can barely register the movement, and the safe drops from his grasp as he slams into the wall.
 
Blood wells in his mouth. There are claws on his chest, fisting the fabric, and Erik feels a sickening crunch as the mutant hauls back and punches him across the jaw. The helmet helps shield him somewhat; it’s the only thing that prevents him from breaking his nose when he ricochets into the wall.
 
Erik’s a hard man, he’s had to be after those years with Shaw, but this mutant is something else entirely. His strength and agility are unlike anything Erik’s ever encountered before. He brings both elbows up to block the next punch as he desperately tries to collect himself, to feel the metal, and the rage is bubbling in his chest like a mad thing.
 
He manages to brace himself against the blow, and he staggers but doesn’t go down. It gives him time to regroup, to think, and he hurls the safe again, levering it back and furiously bringing it crashing down on the mutant once more. He warps the metal with his fingers as quickly as he can—there’s no finesse in the movement, none at all—and uses it to bind the mutant’s arms to his sides.
 
He howls, blood covering the side of his face, teeth bared like a wild animal. Erik doesn’t even blink; he uses the metal to keep him in place as he runs to Charles side. “Are you injured?” he asks urgently, running his palms over the other’s bruise-darkened throat. “Charles, speak to me!”
 
But Charles has lapsed into unconsciousness and doesn’t reply; Erik’s heart freezes in his chest. He bends down and swiftly presses his lips to the other’s mouth, pushing air into his lungs and breathing for the both of them. It isn’t long before Charles’ hands twitch and he pushes Erik away, coughing.
 
“E-Erik, thank god,” he rasps. “Please hurry, the children…”
 
He points at the mutant’s circlet, and Erik understands immediately. It isn’t metal, no part of it is, and he has to pull it off by hand while the mutant gnashes his teeth. Charles’ eyes are bright in the dim light, and he pushes two fingers to his temples and the mutant slumps to the ground.
 
“There are more of them,” Charles says tersely, seconds trickling by as he rifles through the unconscious man’s memories. “Highly trained, very dangerous. I can take care of them if you get the circlets off. Most of the X-Men are down already—you have to hurry, Erik.”
 
“I can’t leave you here,” Erik protests, but Charles waves him away.
 
“I can sense their locations—none of them are nearby and you cannot bring me with you. Please go. I’ll communicate with you telepathically.”
 
Erik opens his mouth to protest but he’s already hooking his thumbs into his helmet and ripping it off before he realizes what he’s doing. There’s no time, no time at all. “You—I’ll be right back, Charles,” he says. “Be careful.”
 
Charles floods into his mind, a steady presence, and they share a tense nod before Erik’s gone.
 
 
XV.
 
By the time he gets to the second floor, Azazel and Raven are well into a fight with a large, monstrous mutant that seems immune to Azazel’s knives. He spins as Mystique dances around him, catching her across the jaw with a grace belying his bulk. Ororo is unconscious at their feet.
 
/They’re holding up for now,/ Charles projects. /I’ve already told them to try to get at the circlet./
 
Erik gets a glimpse of Azazel attempting to teleport above the mutant, fingers grasping, but he catches a punch to the gut in mid-air and tumbles to the ground.
 
Erik pauses, but Charles urges him onwards. /The others are worse off,/ he says. /Down the hall—Sean and Alex are injured, Emma’s alone…/
 
So Erik grits his teeth and moves past them, leaping over the scattered debris of a fallen wall and charging forward. Emma’s already in diamond form, standing between Sean’s prone body and a whirling dervish of electricity. They’re locked in combat, each blow crackling with light, and Erik can see the strain on Emma’s figure.
 
There’s nothing on the mutant that Erik can hold onto, so he brings his hands up and pulls the bars from the windows, sending them crashing down onto him. He falls to the ground and lays still; Erik plucks the circlet from his head.
 
“Thanks for the assist.” Emma disperses her diamond form just in time for a long, slim pike to go through her shoulder, blood fountaining from the wound.
 
/ERIK!/ Charles’ telepathic shout comes a second too late, and Erik whirls in time to see someone vanish in a swirl of atoms. Teleporter.
 
/Be careful of that one,/ Charles tells him, worry bleeding through their link. /Wraith’s teleportation abilities appear to be inexhaustible—unlike Azazel’s./
 
The mutant reappears behind him, but Erik dodges a vicious blow and lands one of his own. Wraith promptly disappears.
 
“Damn it!” Erik swears, the metal bars he’s brought to bear whisking harmlessly through the air. He keeps them high, circling him, and moves warily to Emma’s side.
 
Her mouth stretches in an uncharacteristic grimace as Erik kneels, putting pressure on the wound. “I’ll live,” she says. “But I’m down for now.” With great effort, she shifts back to diamond form, though her shoulder is still cracked and leaking something blue and viscous.
 
“It’ll slow it down some,” she explains. “But I can’t stop it completely.”
 
/Erik, I’m sorry, but it’s Piotr—you have to help them,/ Charles breaks in urgently. /He’s with Scott and the children; Riptide’s trying to help, but there are too many of them…/
 
Erik grits his teeth and lays Emma down as gently as possible, pausing to check Sean and Alex for a pulse. They’re both badly singed but mercifully alive, so Erik forces himself to go on. Charles guides him to the third floor and he’s halfway up the landing when he feels it—so much metal singing to him, /alive/.
 
He’s mindful of Wraith, and when he gets closer, he slows down, his mind completely attuned to Charles. The ground is shaking, Scott’s optic blasts breaking windows and walls and steel. Erik can feel Riptide’s whirlwinds from the staircase.
 
/What am I up against?/ he asks tersely, and Charles’ presence bleeds with worry.
 
/I only know what I’ve read from Sabretooth’s mind—but the most dangerous of them are ahead,/ Charles warns. /There’s a woman—Deathstryke—but you should be able to control her easily. Metal claws. And someone called Deadpool—regenerates, very dangerous. Possibly insane./
 
/Anyone else?/ Erik asks, already stretching out to the woman, getting a sense of the metal in her body. It’s rich, plentiful—Erik is shocked to discover that it permeates through her entire body. Exquisite creature.
 
/Someone called Omega Red… New addition. They don’t know much about him,/ Charles replies. /I can’t get a lock on the teleporter; keeping track of the blank spaces in my telepathy is hard enough, but he keeps disappearing./
 
Erik swears softly under his breath. /All right, I’ve got her./ he says. /I’m going in./
 
He steps over the threshold just as Scott’s optic blast screams past, catapulting Deathstryke past Erik. She twists in mid-air and lands on all fours, catlike, her claws fully extended. Scott staggers after her, bleeding from several places, half his face swollen. Only his grip on his visor’s dial is steady. Erik can see Beast half-buried in the rubble behind him, floor dark with his blood.
 
“Scott, I have her,” Erik calls out to him, and the young man blinks at him, dazed. Deathstryke has already rallied, leaping on Erik with her teeth bared. He digs his feet into the ground and clenches his fists, holding her in mid-air with effort. He can feel her shuddering in his grip, her bones creaking as she battles his will.
 
“Gaijin,” she spits, as Erik pulls the circlet from her head. She goes limp almost immediately as Charles does his work, and Erik drops her, grabbing Scott’s arm instead.
 
“Stay here,” he says, and Scott nods, already slumping down.
 
“Glad you joined the party,” he mutters before passing into merciful unconsciousness.
 
Erik is about to turn away when he senses a large metal mass ripping through the air. /DOWN!/ Charles’ command rings clear through his mind, and he flattens himself to the ground, covering his head as Piotr’s body whistles past. He crashes into the wall, concrete crumbling as he slams into it. He would’ve gone clean through and onto the grounds outside had Erik not slowed him, manipulating his metal form to an easier fall.
 
Erik rises to his feet, finding himself looking up into glowing red eyes that spark of menace and death. /Omega Red,/ Charles puts in unhelpfully, and Erik swallows hard.
 
He glances past the towering mutant, seeing that he’s made several holes through the walls and that Erik can now see straight through the other end of the house. He can make out Riptide fighting someone he can only assume is Deadpool, keeping him at bay with his buffeting winds.
 
Janos is the only thing standing between him and several frightened children, (all thankfully still unharmed), and Piotr rises to his feet unsteadily behind Erik.
 
“Your presence is most welcome,” he says, and Erik can hear the strain in his voice, see the stagger in his step.
 
Omega Red’s coils hover behind him, menacing, glinting, /metal/. Erik’s lips stretch in a feral smile. “Assist Riptide,” he tells Piotr. “I’ll take this one.”
 
/Careful, Erik,/ Charles projects.
 
Erik holds his palms up as Omega Red advances, sensing the flowing metal (unique, unlike anything he’s ever touched before), sprouting from his arms. He makes a grab for Piotr as he circles around him to get back to Janos’ side, but Erik holds back the coils, and his eyes widen as he realizes what he’s done.
 
“You must be the one they call Magneto,” he says, in heavily accented English. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
 
And with that, he charges.
 
 
XVI.
 
Charles breathes raggedly as he holds his fingers steady against his temples, keeping his telepathy as steady as he can. Their assailants are powerful, regenerative, and their minds keep recovering from the psychic sleep he’s put them in. He’s forced to keep the pressure on them continuously, the telepathic equivalent of physically sitting on someone to hold them down.
 
/Careful, Erik,/ he whispers across their bond, struggling to keep tabs on this battle as well.
 
He feels Erik’s thrill of power as he engages the much larger mutant, not quite able to control the coils fully, but enough to slow Omega Red down, enough to cause damage. Erik’s a strong man, but he’s no match for this mutant’s enhanced strength in outright combat. He knows this, and uses his powers to keep them far enough apart whilst barraging him with whatever metal objects he can find.
 
Charles winces inwardly as more windows give up their frames at Erik’s command. He melds them together in mid-air, creating a spear even as he dodges another blow from Omega Red’s massive fists. He hurls his makeshift weapon, driving it as hard and as fast as he can into the mutant’s chest and pinning him to the far wall.
 
He’s breathing hard by the time it’s over, and he stalks forward warily. /Get ready, Charles,/ Erik sends. /This one’s going to prove hard to control, I think./
 
Charles grits his teeth, preparing himself to add yet another mind to his mental stasis. Omega Red may be down for now, but Charles has no doubt that he’s healing fast—if there’s one thing these mutants have in common, it’s their ability to regenerate.
 
He watches as Erik nears the twitching mutant, seeing everything through his eyes. He holds the coils at bay, hovering bare inches away from him as he walks into Omega Red’s space. When he gets close enough for his fingers to brush against the circlet, his mind leaks triumph.
 
And this, of course, is when everything goes to hell.
 
Charles isn’t quite sure how it happens, but just as Erik’s fingers close against the circlet, he goes rigid and freezes, and suddenly Charles’ mind is on fire through their bond. It’s all he can do to maintain contact, and in his mind’s eye he can see one of Omega Red’s coils wrapped around Erik’s forearm, the other tight around his neck. Pure agony courses through Erik’s veins as the coils drain him, tearing his lifeforce out of him with terrifying power.
 
The psychic pain is just as terrible through their bond, and Charles is unable to stop the scream that bubbles from his lips. /Erik,/ he thinks desperately, but the other’s mind is lit up, incoherent and untouchable.
 
He watches as Omega Red slams Erik into the ground, and the physicality of the action jolts Charles enough to realize that it isn’t him, it isn’t his pain, and he’s able to rally his thoughts enough to erect mental shields.
 
Erik’s not fighting back, his body spasming as the other mutant continues to drain him, and Charles winces as he does nothing to stop the vicious right hook across his jaw.
 
Charles is dimly aware that he’s alone in his room now, that Sabretooth had fled in the seconds it took for Charles to recover, but he can’t spare the energy to look for him. His circlet is broken; Charles can find him and incapacitate him later.
 
Right now, he concentrates on Erik, forcing himself to touch his mind, burning hot, to draw away his pain and into Charles. He can’t take it all, but it’s enough to get Erik past incoherence, enough to get him to fight past the rest of it, to /think/.
 
/Together,/ he whispers, forcing Erik to breathe, to concentrate. /We can do this, Erik. Focus./
 
/Ch-Charles,/ Erik’s mind is aching, bruised, but he feels him touching back. Tentatively at first, then stronger, and at last Erik has enough of himself back that he’s able to feel the metal once more.
 
Blood streams from a cut above his eye as he takes hold of the coils and /pulls/, throwing Omega Red as far as he can, slamming him into the far wall and bringing down a cascade of concrete.
 
He’s on him as soon as the coils lift, not giving him a single moment to recover, and then the circlet’s off of his head and Charles has him.
 
/Are you all right?/ Erik’s thoughts whisper, even as he turns to the last remaining member: Deadpool. It turns out that he needn’t have worried, as Riptide and Piotr have finally managed to subdue him with Marie’s help. He’s a twitching mess on the floor, and Rogue is practically vibrating in place with his stolen regenerative abilities.
 
The rest of the children are huddled behind Piotr, and Erik yanks the circlet away from Deadpool’s forehead.
 
/As well as can be./ Charles reaches out to the mutant’s mind, trying to navigate the broken memories and ruptured psyche, but he’s been so drained from Rogue’s powers that he really needn’t bother.
 
He leaves Deadpool where he is, reaching out to find and reinforce his grip on the others. Sabretooth is already out of his range (removed by the teleporter?) but Deathstryke and the electricity-wielding mutant, Bolt, haven’t been spirited away yet.
 
He grasps at their minds again, entangling them once more as he feels them begin to shake off the induced stupor. /Forget,/ he tells them. /Sleep./
 
Charles pulls his mind together with some effort afterwards, taking in a shaky breath. He sends Erik a thought of regrouping in the infirmary at the lower levels, receives his affirmative, and gently dissolves their connection.
 
Then, thinking nothing of it, he brushes himself off and gets to his feet.
 
 
 XVII.
 
It’s a testament to Xavier’s abilities that he senses the duplicity despite Mastermind’s considerable powers, but even with the knowledge, he’s unable to do anything about it.
 
Wyngarde smiles coldly as he regards Charles from the doorway, hands clasped behind his back as he holds him trapped in the illusion.
 
“Knowing you’re in it and escaping from it are two different things,” he says conversationally, as sunlight streams through the windows of Xavier’s home.
 
“Why are you doing this?” Charles asks, and he tries desperately to quell the joy rising in his chest. For all that he knows it is an illusion, the rug beneath his feet (and yes, he’s barefoot) feels as real as anything. His toes are tingling faintly as he puts weight on them for the first time in four years.
 
“You’re loyal to the brotherhood,” Charles says. He looks outside the window and watches as his students play outside, Erik watching over them from some small distance away.
 
“I’m loyal to an ideal,” Jason corrects. “And Lehnsherr’s convictions have been fading as of late.”
 
Charles closes his eyes, trying to ignore the feeling of utter peace that has settled within him.
 
“You can let go of them now,” Jason continues. “Omega Red and the others. Sabretooth’s already escaped. You’ve already got what you wanted—we’ve left you alone.”
 
“You’re lying,” Charles says. “You can keep me trapped in here all you like, but I shan’t release them.”
 
He watches as Erik turns towards his window, a small smile playing across his lips. He lifts a hand in greeting, which Charles returns automatically.
 
“Stop it,” he says, voice strained. “Stop this, Jason.”
 
But the other man is gone, and Erik’s approaching the house.
 
***
 
In the quiet dark, Destiny bides her time.
 
She prowls the mansion seconds after the attack begins, rising from her bed and moving swiftly down the corridor. She hears Ororo screaming, Xavier’s psychic command, Scott’s optic blasts ripping a hole through one of the walls.
 
She ignores it all.
 
Stryker’s toys have engaged the X-Men, and she forces herself to ignore the sound that Sean’s body makes as he’s thrown against the wall of his room, curls of electricity wrapping around his smoking form.
 
She stretches out with her powers, determining the path of least resistance. Just a little bit longer now, and it will all be over.
 
There.
 
She uses a chair to smash through the second floor window, making enough noise to attract wanted attention. She slips out just as the teleporter comes out to investigate, coalescing in the center of the room.
 
He follows her outside just as she expects, and she aims a swift kick at his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. (If he’s here, he won’t be in there, slitting Alex’s throat. Futures may be abundant, but death is quite final.)
 
They grapple for a moment, landing on the lawn, and Destiny’s cat-like reflexes serve her well. He’s unable to land a solid punch, and though she can’t quite cause him serious damage, it’s enough to buy her time.
 
“Cavalry’s arrived,” she says, smiling. “Perhaps you should check on your friends.”
 
Understanding dawns on his smooth, dark face, and he hurls a knife at her before disappearing. She dodges it easily, plucking it from the ground.
 
There’s only one man she wants tonight, and he’s had plenty of time to get in place. She sets her jaw and steals back into the mansion, shoving open the kitchen window (unlatched, thanks to earlier foresight), and navigates through the halls to Xavier’s room.
 
The sounds of battle in the upper floors are already dying down, and she knows what she’ll find when she reaches Charles.
 
“Jason.”
 
Charles is on the floor, eyes wide open and unseeing, and Wyngarde’s standing above him. He looks up, unsmiling, when he sees Destiny in the doorway.
 
“Irene,” he says. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”
 
“Let him go, Jason,” she says. “It’s over—Erik’s on his way down here.”
 
“Is it?” Wyngarde asks. “You know, it’s funny. For someone whose power is seeing the future, you’ve certainly backed the wrong horse.’
 
He gestures at Charles disdainfully. “This man is nothing, Irene,” he says. “He’s weak, and he’s made the brotherhood weak by association. Stryker would make us stronger than we ever thought possible— he would help us transcend our mutations. Just look at what he’s done with the Weapon X program.”
 
“Sociopaths and criminals,” Destiny says, edging forward. The future laps at her consciousness. “That’s who you aspire to be? You sicken me.”
 
Wyngarde bares his teeth. “Then you’re a fool,” he says. “Xavier’s already slipping; it won’t be long before he releases Omega Red and the others, and then we’ll take him and be on our way.’
 
He smiles. “Of course, you’ll have to take my word for it, as you won’t be around for very long.”
 
And with a whisper of displaced air, the teleporter reappears with Sabretooth in tow.
 
 
XVIII.
 
Charles is sitting in his study, eyes fixed on the chess board before him. Erik is looking at him with something very warm in his eyes, and he’s leaning forward, hands clasped before him.
 
“It’s your move,” he says, and Charles nods.
 
It’s an old game, familiar somehow. Like the echo of a forgotten memory.
 
“I’m thinking,” he says. “For some reason, I’m having trouble concentrating.” He reaches out, fingers grazing one of his bishops. No, that isn’t right; if he takes Erik’s rook, it’ll place his own queen in check. He withdraws his hand.
 
“Touch move,” Erik reminds him, a small smile playing across his lips.
 
“Of course,” Charles says, sighing. He picks up the rook again, trying to decide where else he can put it. The familiarity of the game bothers him. It’s far too similar to one that he and Erik played quite early on in their friendship; he remembers it well, as it’s the first time he’d lost to anyone in years.
 
He opens his mouth to point this out, but Erik is getting up slowly, starting towards him. “You’re thinking too hard,” he says. “You need to relax. Let go, Charles.”
 
He drops to one knee gracefully in front of him, reaching out to cup his cheek in a broad palm. “Erik,” Charles begins, uncertain. “What are you doing?”
 
“Relax,” Erik repeats, and before Charles can say anything else, he leans forward and kisses him.
 
***
 
Destiny backs up slowly, mind racing as she processes the scenarios that her powers feed her. Precious few of them depict her getting out of the next few seconds without grievous injury; she swallows hard.
 
“It’s not too late, Jason,” she says, eying Sabretooth as he bares his teeth. The teleporter smirks, disappears. “If you let Xavier go now, Erik might even let you live.”
 
“I think I’ll take my chances,” Wyngarde says. “Victor—I trust you’ll make this quick.”
 
“Too bad,” Sabretooth rumbles, flexing his fingers. Razor sharp claws glint in the darkness. “I was hoping I’d get the chance to play a bit.”
 
Destiny doesn’t reply. In two seconds, the teleporter’s going to appear behind her and attempt to slip a knife between her shoulder blades. In four seconds, Sabretooth’s going to seize her by the neck and slam her into the nearest wall. In eighty-four seconds, Erik is going to be in this room.
 
All she has to do is make sure that Xavier lasts until then.
 
Destiny takes a breath, digs in her heels, and springs towards Wyngarde.
 
***
 
Bliss. Erik’s lips are soft and warm, the pressure of his mouth eliciting a bone-deep shiver in Charles’ spine. Erik presses against him, perfect and unyielding and strong, and he wraps his arms around his waist and it’s the best thing Charles has ever felt.
 
It’s also a complete lie.
 
This isn’t how it happened, of course, all those years ago. It had been weeks of tip-toeing around each other, a slowly growing friendship, an awkward courtship that neither quite realized was happening. They’d had sex once, just once, right before they’d left for Cuba, and then Erik broke his heart on a sandy beach. (Or Charles broke Erik’s, depending on who you talked to.)
 
Either way, there were no loving trysts over chess, no deliberate seductions in his study. These were things that they’d never had the chance to experience, and likely never would.
 
His fingers find purchase in the lapels of Erik’s coat, gripping him by the collar before pushing him roughly away.
 
“Stop this,” he hisses, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Stop this at once. You are /not/ Erik Lehnsherr.”
 
He gets to his feet, advancing on the other man as he slowly brings his fingers to his temple. “Who are you?” he whispers hoarsely, and suddenly, the room begins to blur.
 
***
 
“Victor!” Jason howls, staggering as Destiny drives a sharp elbow into his jaw, drawing blood. His concentration slips. On the floor, Charles twitches.
 
“Hold still, you bitch,” Sabretooth growls, swiping at the empty air before him. Destiny ducks beneath his outstretched claws, eyes flashing as she whips behind Wyngarde and kicks his legs out from under him.
 
She has to pray that the slip’s enough for Charles to hold on; if he succumbs and releases the rest of Weapon X, things are going to go very badly for them all.
 
The teleporter reappears behind her. There’s no choice now; she has to pick an injury. She takes the claws on her leg and manages to avoid the knife to the chest, rolling away as a spatter of her blood hits the floor.
 
Forty seconds.
 
***
 
Charles pushes past the deluge of memories, swimming past the perfect illusion (an ideal world, perhaps, but a lie nonetheless) and finds himself back in his own, battered form. His legs are immobile again, but he props himself up on his elbows and realizes he’s in the middle of a battle.
 
“He’s broken free,” Wyngarde shouts in alarm, raising his hands. Charles brushes aside the tenuous grips of his power—now that he’s aware of the other man, of the feel of his abilities, he’s able to shield himself against it.
 
“It’s over,” he says, almost apologetically. “You should stand down.”
 
Destiny is across the room, and she freezes when she hears him speak. Sabretooth growls, hackles rising, and shifts towards him minutely. His circlet – another one, damn him- gleams mockingly at Charles.
 
“Like hell,” Mastermind spits, and his lip twists in anger. “I tried to be nice, but you haven’t given me a choice in the matter, so now we’ll have to go to Plan B.”
 
He draws himself up to his full height. “Kill him,” he orders, and Charles flinches.
 
What happens next comes very quickly, and Destiny screams a warning as she turns, whipping towards him as Sabretooth lunges for her legs. Wraith is already gone, and Charles hears a soft ripple of noise behind him as Destiny leaps over Wyngarde, her lithe body twisting in the air. He sees the glint of a blade, the menace in Wraith’s dark eyes, and Destiny throws herself between them as he stabs viciously down.
 
And then, when her lifeblood pools into Charles’ lap, her blind eyes wide and milky, there’s a low rumble and the smell of sulphur fills his nostrils.
 
“Wyngarde.” Erik’s voice is dangerously soft, and Azazel beside him locks eyes with Wraith. They do not miss Destiny’s prone form.
 
“What have you done?”
  
 
XIX.
 
“The children are mostly unharmed,” Piotr says, as their small band heads to the staircase. He’s carrying Hank while Erik levitates Scott on an improvised metal sheet, warily keeping his eyes open for the teleporter.
 
“What should we do with the intruders?” Janos asks quietly. He’s looking uncharacteristically mussed, with his suit torn in places and a bruise already darkening on his cheek.
 
Erik frowns, glaring at the glassy-eyed Omega Red, (whom Erik has trussed up in several layers of metal for good measure), and at the unconscious forms of Deathstryke and Deadpool. “Leave them,” he says. “Charles will keep them down until we can figure out how to restrain them fully.”
 
He leads them to floor below to retrieve Emma and the boys, and Janos and some of the bigger students help carry them. Bolt doesn’t even twitch.
 
“I take it we won, then,” Emma comments, leaning on Erik as they make their way down the hall. Her diamond form glints dully in the dim light.
 
He grunts in acknowledgement. “Barely,” he says. “These mutants were a completely different class from the ones I fought before, and more disturbingly, they had protection against Charles’ telepathy.”
 
Emma frowns. “You think the Russians are supplying Stryker with the same metal they used for your helmet?” she asks, but Erik shakes his head.
 
“It wasn’t metal,” he says, keeping his voice low. “I think… I think they knew I was going to be here. Or prepared for that eventuality, at least. This wasn’t some haphazard plan stitched together at the last minute, Emma. That type of technology takes months, maybe years, of research to put together.”
 
Emma’s lips thin as she digests the information, but before she can reply, Azazel and Mystique walk into view. They both looked battered but are thankfully still standing.
 
“Your opponent?” Erik asks, and Mystique shrugs.
 
“Down for the count,” she says.
 
“Somewhere in Siberia, I believe,” Azazel adds, baring his teeth.
 
“Excellent,” Erik says. At least that’s one less psychopath to deal with. He exchanges a glance with Emma, and she pulls away from him, leaning on the wall for support.
 
“Perhaps it’s time you checked on the professor,” she says, and Erik feels a prickle of unease.
 
He nods, and Azazel walks quickly to his side. Mystique and one of the other students helps take Scott down from the gurney. “Get everyone to the lower levels,” he tells Piotr. “We’ll meet you there.”
 
Azazel grips his forearm. “He’s in the study,” Erik says, and they disappear in a burst of smoke.
 
***
 
“What have you done?”
 
“What I had to do,” Jason replies quietly. He’s standing very still now, and meets Magneto’s gaze head on. “What you’ve lost the will to.”
 
The mutants around them have frozen in place, waiting for the proverbial penny to drop.
 
Everyone except Charles, that is, who has managed to shift out from beneath Destiny and is attempting to staunch the flow of blood.
 
“Erik,” Charles says, desperation in his voice. “Destiny’s badly hurt.”
 
“I trusted you,” Erik hisses, and this time he lifts his hands, the metal fixtures in the room rising along with him. “And you choose Stryker--a human-- over your own kind?”
 
“I’m loyal to power, Lehnsherr,” Wyngarde sneers, even as he backs away, eyes darting to Sabretooth and Wraith. “Something that you lost, living in this pathetic school. It’s a dream, Magneto. A pointless illusion.”
 
And with that, he flicks a wrist, and they all attack.
 
***
 
Later, when the dust has settled and Erik has wiped Jason’s blood from his knuckles, he kneels by Charles’ side. Azazel is already there, gripping Destiny’s hand and gathering himself to teleport her, but she stops him with a wan smile.
 
“Leave it,” she says. “Everything happened… the way it should.”
 
“Destiny… Irene…” Charles whispers, blue eyes bright with unshed tears. “You saved my life. I’m… so sorry.”
 
She smiles thinly. “Don’t be,” she whispers. “You’re destined for a great many things, Charles Xavier… my life is a small thing in the scheme of it all…”
 
She pauses, drawing a labored breath. “If you would, though…” She gestures to her temple. “I have something for you... A gift, to help you with your choice…”
 
Charles reaches up hesitantly, touching his mind to hers. It’s a delicate business, and she feeds him a stream of her visions, predictions and possibilities, that makes his breath stutter and his hands shake.
 
The connection cuts off as she drifts away, and she falls limply in his arms. Charles’ eyes are glassy, shining in the dim light. He has seen the future.
 
“What happened?” Erik asks, brows knitting. He approaches him carefully, laying a hand on his shoulder. “What did you see?”
 
“A plastic prison,” Charles whispers. “A game of chess.”
 
He looks away from Erik, gently closing Destiny’s eyes. Wyngarde is unconscious-- a bloody, bruised mess in the center of the room. Sabretooth has been encased in metal once more, and Wraith is slumped over the remains of his oak desk.
 
Charles rubs his eyes. Suddenly, he’s so very tired.
 
“We have to find Stryker,” he says, meeting Erik’s eyes. “Now, while he still thinks he has the upper hand.”
 
Erik nods cautiously. It’s a sound strategy, but he never thought Charles would agree to go on the offensive so quickly.
 
“We can leave at first light,” he says, but Charles shakes his head. A muscle in his jaw is twitching, and his fists are clenched.
 
“No,” he says. “It has to be now. But first… bring me Weapon X. All of them.”

XX.
 
By the time Charles gets to Deadpool, blood is streaming from his nose and his eyes are bloodshot. Erik grips his shoulder.
 
“Charles, you need to rest,” he says, worry evident in his voice. Charles has systematically wiped the memories of each member, each mutant taking more and more out of him. Their minds are powerful, resistant, but Charles breaks down their walls relentlessly, ripping the memories of the X-Men from their consciousness.
 
Charles wipes the blood away with his sleeve. “I’ll rest when it’s done,” he says, and his voice is harder than Erik’s ever heard it.
 
His eyes drift shut and Azazel steps away from Deadpool’s body, face impassive. He’s already teleported the others to various locations (all far away from here), and this mutant’s the last to go.
 
Blood drips steadily down and Erik resists the urge to pull Charles away, to tell him to stop. A full sixty seconds pass, the longest among them all, and then Charles slumps forward, sighing.
 
“It’s done,” he says, nodding at Azazel. “Get him out of here.”
 
They disappear in a swirl of smoke, and Erik lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “And now?”
 
“Now,” Charles says. “We meet William Stryker.”
 
***
 
The rendezvous point is in a clearing in the middle of nowhere, a few miles south of Alkali Lake. Charles had pulled the memory of the meeting from Wyngarde’s mind before he’d wiped him, as well as the purpose of it.
 
Wyngarde had been meant to deliver news that the school was in flames, and that Xavier had been captured. The mission had not called for any other survivors.
 
Bile had risen in Charles’ throat as he realized that they had meant to kill his students and the brotherhood alike—to dispose of the “mutant threat” with fire and flame. It galvanized him, and he’d told Erik that they would be taking Azazel and going to see Stryker alone.
 
“Hold down the fort until we get back,” he says to Raven, who’s holding Kurt as if she’s never letting him go.
 
“Be careful,” she whispers, and kisses his cheek.
 
Charles nods, eyes resolute. He’s going to look into the eyes of the man who dared to threaten the lives of innocent children, and he’s going to know /why/. He’ll rip the answers from Stryker’s mind if he has to.
 
“We’ll be back soon,” he says.
 
Azazel grips Charles’ forearm in one hand and Erik’s in the other, and he locks eyes with the mother of his child before spiriting them away. He’s always been a man of few words.
 
When they arrive at the clearing, Erik inclines his head at Azazel. He disappears in a wisp of smoke, and Erik and Charles start forward. It’s snowing lightly, and the wheels of Charles’ chair crunch against the forest floor.
 
He can sense Stryker-- the other man’s thoughts are thick with triumph-- and it disappears abruptly when they walk into view.
 
“You must be William,” Charles says. “I’d say it was a pleasure to finally meet you, but I’m afraid it’s quite the opposite.”
 
“Charles Xavier,” Stryker replies, eyes hard. “What an unpleasant surprise. This is the first time Weapon X has failed… in anything.”
 
“We’re full of surprises,” Erik says darkly, and Stryker flicks a glance at him.
 
“Ah, yes. Magneto, leader of the brotherhood,” he says. “I take it that Omega Red is dead, then, seeing as how you’re still standing.”
 
Erik glares. “Let’s just say he won’t be attending any more of your little parties any time soon,” he says.
 
“Indeed,” Stryker sniffs. He clasps his hands loosely behind himself, tilting his head. “You know, it’s actually quite surreal, having you two standing here. You have no idea how long I’d been preparing for that assault.”
 
“Is that so?” Charles asks, fighting to keep his voice impassive. He feels his skin crawl at the thought of just how many telepaths they had to go through to perfect their agents’ circlets.
 
Stryker smiles, baring his teeth. “You should be flattered, you know. I don’t normally go to so much trouble,” he says, then flicks a glance at Erik. “Though I have to admit, I was surprised when I heard that you two were behind what happened to the Three Mile facility. It wasn’t supposed to be your turn yet, but it bumped you up to the top of my list.”
 
“Wyngarde was ordered to burn my school to the ground and kill the rest of the brotherhood,” Charles interrupts coldly. “And yet you wanted him to bring me alive. Why?”
 
“Your mind is a powerful thing, Professor Xavier,” Stryker says, shaking his head. “You’re off the charts compared to all the other telepaths we’ve tested. With a few more years of training, you could probably find all the mutants in the world, couldn’t you? Then all it would require was a single thought and the use of that marvelous machine your Mr. McCoy built…’
 
He pauses then, watching the blood drain from Charles’ face. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now,” he says, lip twisting. “They failed.”
 
“Spectacularly,” Erik adds. His face is completely unreadable. “And as interesting as I find your diatribe to be… I wouldn’t try to signal your men, if I were you.”
 
He lifts a hand, yanking Stryker’s two-way from the hand he’s casually slipped behind his back. “They’re very likely already dead,” he says. In the distance, they hear a strangled scream and a dull thud, as if a body was dropping from a great height. Again. And again.
 
Stryker clenches his fists as they listen to the sounds continue, tight-lipped and pale. Charles can feel the wave of his anger from three feet away.
 
“Well, now that the pleasantries are out of the way,” he says, steepling his fingers before him. “You’ll find that you have many things to answer for. You’ve attacked private property and endangered the lives of a school full of minors. A brave woman lies dead in my infirmary because of you.”
 
Charles spears him with a glare. “When I bring your actions to light, the government will see to it that you are punished for your crimes against us,” he continues. “For your intent alone, you should be seeing the inside of a cell for the rest of your life.”
 
And Stryker begins to chuckle at that, a low laugh that grows louder and louder until it fills the clearing.
 
Both Erik and Charles wait in stony silence, unmoving, as he laughs himself hoarse. When he straightens, there are tears in his eyes.
 
“That’s a good one, ‘Professor’,” he says, malice dripping from every word. “Seeing as how all our funding comes from the good old US government.”
 
He steps forward, boots crunching in the snow. “They know all about mutants, Xavier,” he says. “And my job was to either weaponize you… or exterminate you.’
 
‘You talk about human rights, but you’re not human—none of you are,” he continues. “The president already has full knowledge of our operations… who do you think signed off on the mission in the first place?”
 
“You’re lying,” Charles says flatly, but Stryker just laughs.
 
“Am I?” he asks, and gestures at his forehead. “You tell me.”
 
Charles brings a shaky hand to his temple and a look into Stryker’s thoughts verifies every word. He plumbs the depth of Stryker’s mind, sees the hidden base in the dam, the new cages under construction—so much more in number than the ones Erik destroyed before—and something inside of him /breaks/.
 
/You were right, Erik,/ he thinks despairingly, and closes his eyes. /You were right./
 
“There’s a base under Alkali lake,” he says tonelessly. “We have to come back. Destroy it.” It isn’t operational, not yet, but had they been defeated tonight, there would be no one left to stop it.
 
“We will,” Erik says, gripping his shoulder.
 
“And even if you do, even if you kill me,” Stryker says. “There’ll be others to take my place. You have no idea what you’re up against, Xavier. No idea at all.”
 
“Be quiet,” Charles snaps, his breathing ragged as he delves deeper into Stryker’s mind. When he overturns the schematics, he knows exactly what they are. Metal men designed for a single purpose: to eradicate mutants. Sentinels of destruction.
 
One of Destiny’s many visions tumble and solidify, and Charles watches in his mind’s eye as they burn droves of mutants into cinders, brand the faces of the ones who are left, force them to live in camps like animals. It’s a bleak future, filled with hate and death, and Stryker held the plans for the first step towards it.
 
Charles jerks so violently at the sight of it that he almost falls out of his chair, and Erik grabs his arms.
 
“Charles, what is it?” he asks, but Charles shakes his head. He feels Erik radiating strength before him, and he clutches at his presence, using it to ground him, to keep the memories at bay.
 
“I-I’m all right,” he says finally, pulling himself together. “I’m all right, Erik.”
 
He moves forward carefully, meeting Stryker’s gaze. There’s fire blazing in his eyes, barely contained rage making his hands shake. “You,” he says. “Have /much/ to answer for.”
 
“Charles…” Erik starts, and in the time it takes him to utter his name, to grips his friend’s forearm, Charles finishes with Stryker’s mind.
 
The man doesn’t have any of the regenerative abilities of the mutants he’d sent after them—his mind is mediocre in everything but his capacity for cruelty.
 
Stryker falls to the ground, eyes unseeing, catatonic.
 
Erik stops short, staring at the man. “What did you do to him?” he asks, and Charles brushes his fingers against his temples, opens his link to Erik once more.
 
“I can show you.”
 
***
 
They’re in the middle of a sunny yard, the sounds of children laughing wafting around them. There’s a little white house behind them; one in a row of many identical homes. Stryker is sitting on a lawn chair, reading a newspaper.
 
Across the street, a little girl with blue skin plays tag with her human brother.
 
“He’ll live out the rest of his days there,” Charles says, crossing his arms against his chest. “I hope he finds his peace.”
 
“It’s far better than he deserves,” Erik says, shaking his head. “You’re a good man, Charles.”
 
Charles looks at Stryker, watches as he holds hands with a woman who is not his wife, smiles at a boy who is not his son. His true family will never see him again; in the real world, William Stryker will be anonymously deposited to madhouse off country, and he will stay there for the rest of his life. His family will never know if he is alive or dead; William Stryker will disappear without a trace.
 
“No,” Charles says softly, quietly. “No, I’m not. But perhaps Stryker still can be, in here.”
 
 
XXI.
 
They return to the mansion as the first rays of light begin to touch the horizon. Stryker has been left at an asylum in Johannesburg; he does not speak, or blink, or wake. He lives only inside his mind.
 
“Thank you, my friend. We could not have done this without you,” Charles says wearily, turning to Azazel. The other mutant nods somberly, reaching out to clasp his hand before slipping away to find his own family.
 
Charles turns to Erik, who stares at him impassively. /Don’t even think about dismissing me,/ he sends, and Charles realizes with a start that he’s forgotten to sever their connection. He does so now, with mild chagrin.
 
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he says as Erik floats his chair up the stairs in search of a room that has not been decimated. They find one at the very end of the hall, one of the smaller rooms that previously served as a guest room.
 
Erik sets him down gently. “There are many things we need to do still,” Charles says, moving his chair forward. “The Alkali base, Stryker’s research labs across the continent… They all need to be decommissioned.”
 
“We can talk about that after you get some rest,” Erik says. He sits on the edge of the bed, meeting Charles’ eyes somberly. “What happened tonight, what you did… It wasn’t your fault.”
 
Charles nods wearily, slumping in his chair a bit.
 
“I know,” he whispers, tension draining from his shoulders as he mentally wills himself to unclench. “I just… I will always wish there had been another way.” He holds his head in his hands, temples throbbing as the mental strain of his efforts catch up to him.
 
Erik grips his arm; a solid, reassuring presence. “You did what you had to do,” he says softly. “I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but… tonight was a victory, Charles. You saved countless lives.”
 
Charles bites his lip. “I know,” he repeats, a broken sound. He meets Erik’s gaze then, his own eyes bloodshot and dim. “Will you… will you come here? Please.”
 
His fingers reach out hesitantly, grasping at the lapels of Erik’s tunic, pulling him down and clinging, childlike, to his neck. Erik lets him, carding his fingers through his hair and whispering soft shushing noises into his ear.

 “I’m frightened,” Charles says, and Erik’s arms tighten around him.
 
“You don’t have to be,” he replies. “I’m here.” He kisses him, cradling his face in his hands and tipping his chin up so their mouths meet. The caress is soft and almost chaste, a tender act between old lovers that have not yet relearnt each other.
 
Charles closes his eyes tightly as he feels the flood of heat, the familiar presence warming him to the very core. It’s been so long. Erik deepens the kiss when his mouth parts slightly, tongue slipping between his lips and it’s almost too much then, but somehow still not enough.
 
“Erik,” Charles whispers against his mouth, and his eyes are limpid and his hands are tight around the other’s neck. “Erik, Erik.” It’s all he can say, really, because the years haven’t fallen away in the face of the moment, but rather time has sped up, and the future is crisp and sharp.
 
Erik’s mind is open and he can’t help but touch it, reopening their connection, widening it, sharing as much of himself as he can. Charles gasps when he feels Erik’s returning thoughts, humbled again by the love that Erik pushes to the forefront, the love that’s still there after all this time.
 
/Always,/ thinks Erik, and Charles finds that his face is wet and he’s not sure which of them is crying. His hands go around Erik’s shoulders and the other man picks him up carefully, bringing him to the bed and laying him down.
 
He moves over him, caressing him gently, cradling him in warmth. Charles closes his eyes, surrendering himself to the feel of Erik’s hands, the shift of his skin, the smooth lines of his body.
 
He finds pleasure as Erik moves for the both of them, the slow, desperate edge of it keen along their shared link. It isn’t the same as it was before, four years ago when they were both different men, but he can feel Erik’s heart as he moves over him (into him), and it beats steady and true.
 
It’s enough.
 
***
 
“Erik,” Charles whispers later, in the aftermath. “How does it end?”
 
Warm hands around him, impossibly gentle, a soft breath against his ear. /My love, my love./
 
“It doesn’t.”
 
Charles closes his eyes as he feels the pinprick behind his lids, tears sliding down his face and Erik kisses every single one. He isn’t perfect. Neither of them are, and it doesn’t matter.
 
Destiny’s visions had showed him many paths, possible futures that split and fragment into multiple realities. In the worst ones, he had seen he and Erik on opposite sides of a blistering war. They’d fought each other almost as much as they had the Sentinels, and the world had been the worse for it.
 
He can change things, he knows he can, and though the dream may be a bit ragged around the edges, they can rebuild it, and grow anew.
 
He takes a deep breath, clearing his mind, and his voice doesn’t shake at all. He’s certain, now, and makes his choice.
 
“Stay.”

FIN.