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Blood and Steel and Miles Between

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If Charles had taken the time to imagine a worst case scenario before they departed for Cuba, he'd never have come up with this.

His chest aches, tight and hot and miserable, at the sight of Erik with his hand raised to the sky, missiles spinning slowly back on themselves to face the other direction. Erik doesn't speak. His expression is closed off, like he hasn't heard a single word of Charles's pleas.

Desperation claws at Charles's ribs, making his throat tight and his hands clench into fists at his sides. He can feel terrified minds screaming on those ships, loud enough that he's not sure he could block them out if he tried.

"There are thousands of men on those ships," Charles says—shouts—stepping nearer to Erik. "Good, honest, innocent men." The void of Erik's thoughts—god damn that helmet anyway—matches the blank wall of his expression, and Charles has never felt so helpless.

He's so close now. He's barely a foot away from Erik, and the "Please," that escapes past Charles's lips is soft and crushed.

It's also finally enough to get Erik's attention. Erik's gaze snaps away from the missiles and finds Charles. His face is still unreadable—he still holds the missiles threateningly in midair—but Charles can feel the full force of Erik's attention tingling across his skin.

"Do you have any idea what feeling them all die will do to me?" Charles whispers, so softly that no one but Erik can possibly hear him.

The blank wall on Erik's face shatters so suddenly Charles gasps at the sight, and in its place comes a look so terrified and intense that for a moment Charles can't breathe.

Then Erik shakes his head and tries to school his expression. He's only fractionally successful.

"You can shield yourself from them," Erik says.

"Maybe," Charles concedes. He's still not sure how well it would work. He's never been surrounded by death on a scale like Erik is threatening now. Besides. Charles brought this danger to their doorstep. Whatever happens to those men, he deserves to feel it.

Some of his conviction must show on his face, because Erik's eyes go suddenly wide.

"You won't even try," Erik realizes aloud. "They mean to kill you—kill all of us—in cold blood, and yet you would let their deaths tear right through you."

Charles remains silent. There's no point arguing.

Erik makes a guttural sound, growling and low, as he tears his eyes from Charles. Despite the helmet, Charles can see Erik's jaw working unhappily, his teeth grinding as he glares at the sand.

"I don't want to hurt you," Erik says. There's fury in his voice, in the tight set of his shoulders, but Charles doesn't back down.

"Then stop this," he says. "Stop while you can still turn back."

"God damn it, Charles," Erik growls as his arm falls to his side. He's still staring darkly at the sand. Out over the water, Charles can hear the hiss and splash of a hundred missiles falling into the sea, and in his mind he feels cacophonous relief echoing from the boats beyond.

"Thank you," Charles whispers, closing the bare space still separating them and reaching to set a cautious hand on Erik's shoulder.

Erik intercepts him, fingers wrapping around Charles's wrist in an unforgiving grip. When Erik yanks Charles close and finally raises his gaze from the sand, his eyes are bright—with fear or fury, it's impossible to distinguish.

"You're wrong, you know," Erik says.

"About what?" They're standing so close Charles can feel Erik's breath on his face. His wrist aches in Erik's grip, but he doesn't try to pull away.

"It's already too late," Erik says. "There is no turning back."

"Don’t say that." Charles's pulse sharpens in his ears.

"You can't be this naïve, Charles," Erik says. "They'll never accept us. You have to see that now. It will be us or them. The humans will allow for no other choice."

"There's always a choice."

Erik's hold tightens, and Charles finches. He meets Erik's gaze stubbornly though—what's one more set of bruises after surviving a plane crash?

"Charles, please." Erik leans closer—so close Charles can barely meet his eyes—and there's painful desperation in his voice. "I want you by my side. We're…" He pauses and swallows thickly, as though the words are too heavy to get out, but finally manages to finish, "We're brothers, you and I. All of us, together, protecting each other… We want the same thing."

But even now, Charles can taste the promise of violence in the air. He can't sense Erik's thoughts through that damnable helmet, but his intentions are unmistakable in his words, the clench of his jaw, the shadows behind his eyes. Charles is the only thing standing between Erik and the murders he's burning to commit now, and he can't pretend not to see it.

"Oh, my friend," Charles murmurs, eyes drifting shut and voice rough with emotion. "I'm sorry. But we do not."

"No," Erik growls, giving Charles a jostling shake by the wrist he still holds restrained. "It's not supposed to end like this."

"It doesn't have to," Charles says. He opens his eyes and finds he can no longer read the expression on Erik's face.

It's not until Erik's fingers abruptly release him that the last ember of hope in Charles's chest sputters and dies. Nausea rolls in his gut, along with fierce, helpless denial as he watches Erik step back and away. Erik's eyes burn into him with each backward step, until he and Charles are separated by several feet of sand.

Then Erik's gaze veers sharply towards the others, and his voice rings across the beach.

"Their society will never accept us. We form our own." Erik's eyes skip right past Moira, and track over each mutant in turn. "The humans have played their hand. Now we prepare ours. Who's with me?"

Charles can't take his eyes off of Erik. He can feel indecision in the others' minds—in Havoc and Beast and Banshee… but in Raven most of all.

Then Erik raises a hand, beckoning.

"No more hiding," he says.

Raven takes a tentative step forward, and Charles forgets how to breathe.


- — - — - — - — - — -

The estate is too quiet with Raven and Erik gone—quieter still after Charles wipes Moira's memories and sends her back to the government she ultimately answers to.

Charles feels a brief twinge of remorse every time he considers what he took from her, but that slim edge of guilt is nothing compared to the knowledge of how many ways he let Raven down. And Erik. It takes weeks for him to acknowledge to himself that they're both really gone.

The sprawling grounds feel empty in Raven's absence, and Charles is grateful the night he steps out onto a balcony and inadvertently interrupts Hank in a private, pensive moment.

"I'm sorry," Charles says, though he's not particularly. "I'll just—"

"You can stay," Hank interrupts. His blue fur ruffles in the breeze. "I wouldn't mind the company."

"Nor would I," Charles confesses, stepping out onto the balcony and joining Hank against the stone banister that circles the space.

It's windy up here, but not unpleasantly so. The air is cool with late autumn evening, the sky dark with recent nightfall. The barest glow of sunset still sneaks along the low edge of the horizon.

The balcony itself is haphazardly lit by a yellow glow from inside, and Charles leans forward on his elbows.

A bottle of good-quality beer hangs from Hank's nimble claws, and when he catches Charles looking at it he arches an eyebrow and gives a dry smirk that bares his teeth.

"Go ahead," Hank says, indicating with a glance that the rest of the pack sits untouched on the ground between them. "Help yourself. There's plenty to share. And in any case, I raided your fridge for them."

Charles laughs at that. It's a brittle sound that doesn't quite mask the unhappy tightness in his chest.

"Well in that case," he says, stooping to claim a bottle for himself.

The glass is cool, and slick with condensation, and Charles has to dry the bottle on his shirtsleeve in order to conquer the twist-off cap.

"Are you even old enough to drink this stuff?" Charles asks. It's a transparent attempt at diversion—he knows perfectly well that Hank is over eighteen. Hell, Hank turns twenty in just under a month.

Charles's voice doesn't come out as light on the jibe as he intends, but Hank snorts and pretends not to notice.

"Are you old enough to run an entire school?" he counters smoothly.

"No," Charles responds instantly. But also yes. Yes, because he has to do this. He's never before known a purpose as clear as the one that rests on his shoulders now.

The moment falls somber, and the silence that settles between them is heavy and pensive. At the edges of his mind, Charles can hear the undercurrent of ideas that runs constantly through Hanks' thoughts. He doesn't press any deeper—the last thing he wants to do is intrude. But from so close—side by side, with no unnecessary shields raised between them—Charles catches the moment a familiar sadness surges forward over Hank's surface thoughts.

"They're never coming back," Hank says.

"No," Charles says. "I suppose they're not." It hurts to have the words out in the open. It hurts even more than burying the truth inside, and Charles's skin feels suddenly too tight for his body.

"This is going to be a lot harder without them," Hank says, then takes a long, slow pull from the bottle in his hand.

"I know." Again they lapse into silence.

It's a silence Charles doesn't know how to break, so he focuses on calming his mind instead. He tries to shut out the scattered sense of loss permeating his thoughts, and has some small semblance of success. He startles when Hank interrupts the uncomfortable quiet.

"So… what now?" Hank asks abruptly, yellow eyes fixed firmly on the horizon. Hope and curiosity flicker at the surface of his mind, and Charles finds his own spirits lightening unexpectedly at the unspoken vote of confidence.

"Now we look for others like us," he says. "We can't very well call this a school if there are no students."

Hank grins at that, a moment of genuine levity, and though it passes quickly, Charles can't help but share in it.

"I suppose you'll expect me to teach," Hank says.

"Oh, yes," Charles agrees with exaggerated gravity. "All the sciences, as well as math and statistics. And perhaps a pottery class."

Hank snorts, and Charles smiles and nudges him with an elbow.

"In all seriousness," Charles says more softly. "Would you be comfortable with that? With teaching? Our resources may be limited at first, but I don't want to presume—"

"Professor," Hank cuts him off with a wry look. "You're going to need all the help you can get. Count me in."

"Thank you," Charles says, exhaling a slow, relieved breath.

"Have you talked to Sean or Alex yet?"

Hearing their names instinctively hones Charles's focus, and suddenly he knows both boys are in the kitchen. He could eavesdrop on their conversation with the slightest push, with the barest touch of fingers to his temple, but of course he doesn't do that.

"Not yet," he says. "To be completely honest, I haven't yet figured out what to do with those two. I know they want to help, but… they're so young. And now that they're able to control their abilities, there's nothing obligating them to stay. Perhaps instead of conscripting them I should be—"

He's cut off by a sharp chuckle, and in his peripheral vision he sees Hank stoop to set down an empty bottle and replace it with a fresh drink.

"I know you can't help thinking of us as kids, Professor, but give us a little credit. You have to give them a chance, at least. You're a telepath, remember? You'll be able to tell if you're asking too much."

Charles has to concede that point, and he takes a slow swallow of his own drink.

"I'll talk to both of them tomorrow," he says.

"How are you going to find others?" Hank asks, shifting the direction of the conversation so abruptly that Charles finds himself blinking in surprise.

"I'll have to get out there myself, I suppose," Charles says. "I still have a couple of leads from Cerebro. It's somewhere to start, at least, if—" Charles blinks again, then cocks his head to the side as he considers the cryptic look on Hank's face. "But you've got other ideas," he realizes. "You're up to something."

Hank shrugs noncommittally, but a buzz of anticipation pulses around him.

"I've been collecting the materials we'll need to rebuild Cerebro," Hank says. "The plans were destroyed with the installation, but it's all in here." He taps his forehead. "And I've got some ideas… some changes that might make the whole system more precise. All I need is—"

"Somewhere to build it," Charles finishes in an awed rush.

"And permission, of course," Hank adds with a sheepish look.

"Of course," Charles says. "Hank, of course. Permission granted. First thing tomorrow we'll take a tour of the grounds and see what we can find."

"Actually," Hank says, somehow managing to look more sheepish, "I've… already isolated a couple possible locations."

"Of course you have," Charles says, shaking his head in disbelief. This time when he smiles, the expression feels only the tiniest bit tight around the edges.


- — - — - — - — - — -

Erik barely removes the helmet, even in sleep, for two full weeks after fleeing the beach in Cuba. Even then, even when time and distance combined make it unlikely that Charles will be actively searching for him, he wears the helmet far more often than not.

"I can't decide if it looks dashing or completely ridiculous," Mystique teases him once. Erik smiles at the fondness in her voice—no one else is allowed such an irreverent tone, but for Mystique he will make an exception.

"Your impudence is heartwarming," he informs her blandly.

She watches him from several paces away across a pale green lawn—the villa is one of Erik's carefully cultivated safe houses. Isolated. Surrounded by forest. They won't stay long, but for the moment no one will find them here.

Mystique is naked despite the chill in the air, and Erik finds himself wondering if she feels the elements in the same way others do. She's constantly proving herself stronger than anyone realized, even her, and perhaps this is just one more talent in her arsenal.

Erik will never stop finding her glorious.

She's watching him now with a somber expression, curiosity tinged with quiet concern. The attention makes his skin tingle unpleasantly.

When she opens her mouth, he doesn't give her the chance to speak.

"Don't," he cuts her off sharply. He doesn't know exactly what she was going to say, but he can predict the subject of her inquiry easily enough.

He doesn't want to talk about Charles.

"Fine," Mystique mutters, and Erik feels a tiny twist of guilt at the frustration in her voice.

"Where's Azazel?" Erik asks before he can do anything foolish like invite more personal conversation.

"Close," Mystique says.

Azazel is always close.

"Find him," Erik orders. "I need to talk to him."

Mystique leaves without waiting for a dismissal, and Erik has bare moments to wait before a red-tinted puff of air to his left signals Azazel's presence.

Azazel doesn't ask Erik's reasons for summoning him. He waits, silent and patient, for Erik to speak the first word. It's how all their conversations begin.

"Tell me about Miss Frost," Erik says. It's a subject he's been meaning to broach for several days, and he has no excuse but his own distraction for having let it wait so long.

Azazel's lip curls in an expression of vicious amusement, but the man responds candidly enough.

"She is not fond of you," Azazel says. "And so far as I know, she is still being held by the Americans at a secure government facility."

"I'm surprised you haven't already helped her escape," Erik says.

"Perhaps I assumed you were not fond of her," Azazel observes dryly. But there's a spark of mischief in his eyes as he continues, "Or perhaps I have already tried, but the Americans have learned better security." Which probably means after the disaster with Shaw at a different covert facility, they found a way to prevent the teleporter from sneaking through their walls.

There's no apology in Azazel's voice—a fact which Erik very much appreciates.

"Your loyalty is admirable," Erik says, and Azazel nods in acknowledgment. "Now. How well do you think that security will hold up against all of us?"

Surprise registers on Azazel's face. Dark eyebrows arch high, and the omnipresent sneer falls from his mouth.

"She may refuse to join your cause," Azazel points out.

Erik doesn't comment on how surprised he'll be if she does want to sign on, considering their last encounter.

Instead he says, "That's her decision to make. But in the meantime, we can't very well leave her in the hands of the humans."

"No?" Azazel asks, eyes narrow and gauging.

Erik meets his questioning stare head-on, squaring his shoulders and letting conviction flash in his eyes.

"She's one of us," he says simply.

This time, when Azazel nods, there's a something like genuine deference in the gesture.

"When do we depart?" Azazel asks.

"Tomorrow," says Erik. "And then the real work begins."


- — - — - — - — - — -

Breaking into the CIA detainment facility is a veritable cakewalk. It's a bunker, really. All metal doors, metal hinges, metal and stone woven into a sturdy whole, infinitely susceptible to Erik's particular brand of control.

The building doesn't stand a chance of keeping them out.

Just like the government agent in his cleanly pressed suit doesn't stand a chance of resisting Erik's questions.

Pure bad luck, really, being caught alone in what was supposed to be a secure corridor. Erik sneers at the shaking fear in the man's face as he winds metal from a light fixture around trembling arms.

Erik doesn't plan to kill the man if he cooperates, tempting though the prospect is. He tells himself it's got nothing to do with the fact that Charles wouldn't approve.

"She's not here," the agent is sputtering helplessly.

"Where is she, then?" Erik snarls, impatient. His people are behind him, guarding their escape route, ready to back him up against any threat. Erik doesn't need to turn and look at them to feel their silent support.

Mystique steps forward then. Erik wasn't expecting that, but he doesn't protest as she approaches the agent with graceful steps. He flinches visibly at her approach, and Erik sees her yellow gaze harden almost imperceptibly.

She stops just before the restrained man and asks, "What's your name?" Her voice is deceptively gentle. If Erik didn't know her so intimately by now, he might have missed the cool steel subtly underpinning the words.

"T-Thomas," the terrified human stammers, clearly comprehending that his only real option is full and immediate cooperation.

"Thomas," Mystique parrots calmly. "You're not making much sense, you know. All we want is information. We have no business with you beyond that."

"You—…" Thomas licks dry lips, voice trembling less now. "You mean…"

"I mean we aren't here to hurt you. We just want the telepath."

Her tone, calculated as it is, seems to be calming him. He sounds less like a terrified animal when he once again opens his mouth to speak.

"She was here," he says. "But she's gone now."

"Where?" Mystique presses, a low growl creeping into her voice.

"I don't know," Thomas squeaks. "I swear I don't. She was scheduled to be transferred to a different facility. A restricted location. But two days before the transfer, she vanished!"

"She escaped," Erik interrupts, impressed as the realization hits him. Apparently they took too long. Emma Frost has already walked out on her own terms.

Perhaps Erik should've expected as much from a telepath, even one patently less powerful than Charles Xavier.

"Come," Erik says, turning his back on the agent and rejoining the other mutants near the mangled door behind them. "There's nothing for us here." He doesn't hear Mystique's footsteps behind him, but he knows she's following.

Azazel meets his eyes, piercing and sharp. As they retrace their path—Riptide and Angel in the lead—Mystique falls into step at Erik's left. To his right, Azazel follows suit for a moment, then—

A puff of air, red-tinged and empty, and behind them the slick sound of a blade slicing through flesh, a wet scream that ends abruptly—

And Azazel is back beside Erik an instant later, the same knowing look in his eyes.

They move efficiently, navigating the corridor towards the courtyard beyond the protective barricade. They have to put themselves physically outside the outer wall through which Azazel can't teleport.

As they approach the shattered portal Erik punched through on entry, he hears himself ask, "Why?"

"He knew your face," Azazel says, as though it's the most obvious point in the world. "He could not be allowed to live with such knowledge." Erik considers mentioning that the government already knows his face, but decides that's a revelation best shared elsewhere.

Later, when they're safely away from the government facility and hidden somewhere quiet and discreet, Azazel approaches him again.

Azazel's voice is pitched low—in deference to the late hour, perhaps, or simply to avoid drawing attention—as he says, "Whatever prevented you from killing the human is your business. I will neither ask nor judge."

"But?" Erik prompts.

"But," Azazel continues with a nod. "I have no intention of standing by and allowing you to put yourself needlessly in harm's way. You are far too important."

Erik feels something sharp and unpleasant—something disturbingly close to gratitude—twist in his chest.

"You intend to protect me?" he asks. His voice and face are both carefully modulated to convey nothing.

"Yes," Azazel says. "With my life if necessary. Though…," he tilts his head to the side and smiles wryly, "I would appreciate if it didn't come to that."

In the end Erik can think of nothing to say, so all he says is, "Thank you."


- — - — - — - — - — -

Sean wants to help teach—a fact that impresses Charles, and he feels a brief twinge of guilt at just how surprised he is by the offer.

"Not promising I'll be any good at it," Sean says. "I graduated just fine, but my grades were never… Let's just say I wasn't ever in line to be valedictorian."

Charles smiles and claps Sean warmly on the shoulder.

"I appreciate that, Sean," he says. "Though strictly speaking, I don't think I can put you in front of a class without proper certification."

"What about not-so-strictly speaking?"

Charles's smile widens and he says, "Speaking less strictly, I'm sure we can put you to use. And if you really are interested in teaching, I'm sure there's a way to get you certified without having to send you away from the estate."

"You're gonna be a stickler for details, aren't you."

"It's necessary," Charles says apologetically. "In order to avoid drawing unwanted attention, the school's credentials will have to be flawless. But I promise you, this is something I will look into."

"Sweet," Sean grins. Then the smile falls away and he says, "But don't put me in charge of a chemistry class, okay?"

Charles hadn't intended to, but his eyebrows still rise at the urgency of the request.

"Why not?"

"I tend to make things explode in science labs."

"A latent mutant ability?" Charles teases.

"Nah," says Sean. "Just a bad track record with Bunsen burners."

Charles offers his most reassuring smile.

"I'll bear that in mind."


- — - — - — - — - — -

Alex requires a different approach, and it's all Charles can do to keep his amusement masked when he sees the panic in the boy's eyes.

"I want to help," Alex says, "but not… I can't teach, okay? You put me in front of a classroom and I guarantee I'll make some poor kid cry. It'll be a total disaster."

"Alex, relax." Charles hadn't even gotten to finish his opening volley before Alex steamrolled ahead, conclusions jumped to in a way that proves he's been stewing on this point for several days at least. "You don't have to teach. You don't have to do anything."

"But I want to help," Alex repeats. He sounds so plaintive—so impossibly young—that Charles flounders for a moment, regretting the pressure he's putting on Alex's shoulders.

He feels like he's delegating to children—an unfair comparison, really. He's not senior to any of these boys by more than a scant handful of years.

But guilty regret lingers—alongside the sudden, vivid knowledge that Charles shouldn't be alone in this. There should be someone standing beside him, helping him mold his school out of all this raw potential.

Charles shuts those thoughts down quickly and forces a smile when he says, "Alex, believe me. There will be more than enough work to go around. We'll have our hands full here, I promise you."

Alex laughs.

"You got that right," Alex says. "You do realize what a mess this could be, don't you? I mean… all this? An entire school? It's huge."

"More than we can handle, you mean?" Charles asks cautiously.

Alex shakes his head and says, "No. You can handle it. You're Professor X, man. You can do anything. But still." He shrugs. "It's big."

"Big enough," Charles agrees, and retreats as gracefully as he can.


- — - — - — - — - — -

Hank has a tendency to work through several mealtimes at a stretch when left to his own devices, so Charles has taken to delivering food straight to Hank's lab now and then.

He's carrying a plateful of sandwiches when he walks in to find Hank sculpting a complex series of wires inside what has to be the next prototype for Cerebro. The helmet design is different, streamlined and sleek, but the purpose is unmistakable.

"Oh, Hank," Charles breathes, setting the plate on a table by the door and approaching the work in progress. "This is spectacular."

"It won't be ready to go for another week, at least," Hank says, apology heavy in his tone. "I've been experimenting with some new materials. I thought maybe I could create a more stable interface. But the testing process is—"

"Hank," Charles cuts in, mouth twisting wryly. "A week is fine. Two weeks if you need. However long it takes. I have complete faith in you."

"I just hate the thought of delaying your plans for this place," Hank says, twisting a red wire slightly more viciously than necessary. "Without students we're not much of a school."

"There's no rush," Charles says. It feels like a lie—stark contrast to the impatience humming through him, restless energy with no real outlet. There are so many mutants out there, so many people he could help, and Charles can't touch them or find them or do anything for them without Hank's equipment.

That's not strictly true, of course. He still has leads from his first time with Cerebro, stored safe and secure in his own mind now that the physical list is long gone. But that limited knowledge is already out of date. People don't stay stationary.

Charles is careful to keep his concerns off his face, and he gives Hank a reassuring smile.

"Besides," Charles says, pulling his scattered thoughts back into some semblance of order. "We're also not much of a school without proper acknowledgment from the state, and there's still plenty of paperwork to sort."

There's less than he makes it sound like, actually. Filing for the necessary licenses was quite nearly the first thing Charles did on returning from Cuba, and only a few final hoops remain.

"What are you going to do in the meantime?" Hank asks, setting his work down carefully and adjusting his glasses on his face.

"I was thinking of going for a drive," Charles says. Even if he fails in his search—even if he can't find a single mutant on the list he's kept guarded so carefully in his head—it will be good to stay moving for a while.

The road will feel too quiet with only himself for company, but if the alternative is staying here—kicking his heels up and waiting for all the pieces to fall into place, unable to ignore the Erik-shaped piece missing from all his plans—

Charles can't spend another day that way. Or another night for that matter, though realistically he can't set out until morning. There are too many preparations to square away first.

Charles doesn't realize his focus has drifted off course until Hank touches his arm to draw his attention back. Blue fur grazes Charles's wrist, and he starts at the forceful surge of concern that touches his mind with the sparse contact.

"You shouldn't go alone," Hank says, dropping his hand back to his side and locking Charles with a piercing look.

Charles laughs, but it comes out sounding dry and brittle.

"Hank, I think I've got this under control."

"It's dangerous. I'm sure we'd all feel better knowing you've got someone watching your back. You might not be the only one looking for more mutants."

Charles's blood shivers coldly at the implication in Hank's words.

"You don't honestly think Erik would hurt me."

Hank cocks his head consideringly, yellow gaze piercing as he considers Charles's denial.

"No," Hank finally concedes. "Erik would never intentionally hurt you. But some of his associates might not share his interest in your wellbeing. And don't forget the American government would love to get their hands on you. Magneto isn't the only threat out there."

Charles sighs, exhaustion suddenly heavy in his bones. His chest tightens unpleasantly as the name 'Magneto' echoes ominously around his skull, and he closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose.

"You're right. You're absolutely right." When he opens his eyes again, Hank is still watching him.

"I'd go with you myself if I could," Hank says.

"No, you're right about that, too. Cerebro is too important to wait. You should stay here and complete your work."

Hank looks surprised at that—a response that vexes Charles for a moment, until the other side of Hank's logic catches up with him and leaves him fighting the urge to slap a hand against his forehead. Of course Hank can't accompany him. Blue fur, yellow eyes, claws like knives… sound backup, certainly, but likely to draw far too much attention.

"Hank…" Charles begins awkwardly, suddenly unsure what to say.

But Hank just huffs an uncomfortable gust of laughter and shakes his head.

"It didn't even occur to you, did it?"

"I'm sorry," Charles says, not even sure if he should be apologizing.

"Don't worry about it," Hank says, and suddenly he's smiling the expression baring his sharp teeth. "You should take Alex."

Charles's brow knits in confusion and he says, "Alex? I would've expected you to suggest Sean." Of the two, Sean is infinitely more likely to make a pleasant first impression. Alex is a good kid, but his default settings seem to be taunting and terse.

"Definitely Alex," Hank repeats. "I think he's going a little stir crazy. Besides, you can always threaten to lock him in the trunk if he doesn't stay on his best behavior."

Charles snorts, and feels a reluctant smile edging across his face.

"I know what this is really about," he says. "You just don't want to be stuck alone in this mansion with him, for however long I'm gallivanting around the country."

"That might have something to do with it," Hank hedges. "Doesn't mean I'm wrong."

"I'll consider your advice," Charles says, already knowing he'll follow it. He waits an extra moment, just in case Hank has any final conclusions to offer, but when Hank simply settles back into his work Charles heads for the door.

"Oh, and, Hank?" Charles says with his hand on the doorframe. He glances over his shoulder and waits until he has Hank's attention. "Don't forget to eat." He indicates the plate of sandwiches with a glance, and then pulls the door open.

"Professor," Hank calls.

When Charles turns around, he finds Hank avoiding his eyes. He almost looks guilty, like he spoke out of turn—like he didn't mean to speak at all—and fluttering at the periphery of Charles's perception are fragments. Names and images. Raven. And Erik. And, cutting deeper than the rest, Not your fault.

Charles blanches at the thought of being so easily deciphered, but he holds his tongue and resists the urge to retreat.

Finally, Hank speaks.

"Be careful," he says without meeting Charles's eyes.

"I will," Charles promises, and disappears through the door.


- — - — - — - — - — -

Erik digs the Brotherhood's first permanent base straight into the root of a mountain.

He doesn't do it alone. Their ranks have already swelled by some half a dozen mutants—Azazel and Riptide both have some connections they apparently opted not to reveal to Shaw—and a couple of the new recruits have a way with explosions.

But there's enough iron in the earth that Erik can handle all the finer details himself, once he has enough space to work with. The facility he designs is sleek and efficient, with just enough twists and turns to present a challenge to anyone who might come snooping inside. There are private quarters well in excess of their current numbers—Erik has plans for the future, after all—and other space crafted expansively for more practical purposes.

Science labs. Control centers. An amphitheater that looks almost like a natural formation in the stone and makes his voice echo with the power of thunder.

"It's beautiful," Mystique says when he finally shows her the entire facility.

"It will suffice," Erik says. He's not sure why completion of the project leaves him feeling wrong and empty inside.

That's not true. He knows exactly why these sweeping corridors and sculpted ceilings feel empty.

When Mystique's hand settles on his arm, a gesture that conveys quiet concern, Erik shakes off the touch and steps farther down the corridor.


- — - — - — - — - — -

Beneath the mountain, within the confines of the Brotherhood's hidden facility, Erik doesn't have to wear his helmet.

The principles of the helmet were simple enough to reconstruct on a larger scale, and he's designed the entire base to be impervious to telepathic interference. Charles won't be worming his way through these walls. Or Miss Frost, for that matter, wherever she is.

But the helmet is still never far from reach.

It's sitting on the edge of his desk now, in fact. The desk is a monstrous, metallic piece of furniture that takes up a significant amount of space. It dominates even in the wide room that serves as Erik's office and day-to-day power center.

His cape lies discarded in neat folds over the tall back of his chair. For all that the garment serves a practical enough purpose—edges lined with thinly threaded aluminum, because one can never have too much metal on hand—there's little reason for him to wear it here.

Mystique insists the outfit looks ridiculous. Erik has promised to take her opinion under advisement, though in fact he has no intention of altering the ensemble to something less flashy.

Erik's not considering the cape at the moment, though. Or the helmet resting innocuously in its corner. He's pacing and doing his best not to think about anything, because his thoughts keep twisting in directions he's trying to avoid.

Directions that inevitably lead him to Charles.

A knock at the door draws his attention, and Erik pauses in his pacing.

"What?" he demands sharply. The closed door is indication enough that he doesn't want to be disturbed. The number of people who might risk trying to get his attention is slim, and he's not much surprised when the door clicks and swings open and Mystique steps through.

"I didn't say you could come in," he mutters as she closes the door behind her. But there's no anger in his voice, and the wry comprehension on Mystique's face makes it obvious she's not intimidated.

"You didn't say to stay the hell out, either," she observes. She crosses the room on silent feet, and stops beside him. It puts her near the wide desk, and she leans on it, crossing her arms and locking him in a considering look.

"Was there something you needed?" Erik asks impatiently.

"You've been hiding in here for three days," she says, arching an eyebrow. "The others are all convinced you're working on some brilliant, extravagant plan to find more mutants and further the cause."

"But you know better," Erik guesses dryly.

"I know you," she says. "And I know you should be chomping at the bit to tour the finished science labs, big plans or no."

She speaks with the same graceful ease that accompanies her every movement these days. She's comfortable in her own skin, confident and dangerous and razor sharp. It makes him proud. But it also leaves him feeling like he's at a disadvantage. Mystique has changed enough in a few short weeks that Erik has moments where he's not sure he knows her at all.

She's plenty familiar now, though, when she gives him a sad smile and says, "I miss him, too." More Raven than Mystique, but with an unapologetic directness that she never would've demonstrated at Westchester.

"I don't know what you're—"

"Yes you do," Mystique interrupts, too gently. "And you're right. He should be here."

Erik growls—a low, hurt sound that rumbles in his chest—and turns his back on Mystique. He can't hang onto any anger at her for calling him out, though. She's right. He has been hiding. Putting off the inevitable because, on some level, he still thinks—knows—he shouldn't have to do this alone.

He hears a shiver of sound behind him, a cascading flutter he knows well by now, and he wonders what Mystique is up to.

"I know how you feel about him," Mystique says, and Erik freezes. The words are spoken in a masculine voice. British, proper and soft.


Erik whirls, fury fracturing in his blood, but the sight of Charles—of Mystique, whatever madness she's up to—perched casually on the edge of his desk draws him up short. Something in Erik's chest winds tight, and that's not Charles. He knows that's not Charles. But he can't look away.

"What do you think you're doing?" he asks in a strangled breath.

Charles's face tilts to the side, mouth pressing into a thin line as though he's considering something weighty and uncertain. And then Charles—Mystique, Erik reminds himself again—is pushing off of the desk and moving towards him. She's even moving like Charles, every step and mannerism mirrored to perfection, and Erik finds himself frozen in place as the short distance between them vanishes and Charles leans up and in.

Charles's lips are soft when they press to Erik's, and they part invitingly. Erik's rational brain scrambles, trying to keep up, but he's already surging forward. He's already grabbing for Charles, dragging him close, threading the fingers of his right hand through Charles's chaotic hair.

Charles makes an eager sound, low in his throat, and presses forward, welcoming Erik's touch.

Reality reasserts itself with a jarring shudder, spurred on by nothing but the knowledge that this isn't real. This isn't Charles in his arms. There's no disconcerting brush of Charles's powerful mind against his thoughts, the way Erik knows damn well there should be.

He pushes Mystique away more roughly than he means to, and surprise lands her hard and graceless on the ground. She's still wearing Charles's face—Charles's limbs sprawled awkwardly on the smooth floor at Erik's feet—and looking up at him with a stare that pierces straight into Erik's soul.

"Don't," Erik growls. "Don't ever do that again. Stop it now."

He watches with an unpleasant mingling of relief and regret as Mystique's form cascades smoothly back to her natural, naked blue. Her expression shifts, now that he can see her face again, and there's something awkwardly apologetic in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she says. Her tone is contrite. She knows she overstepped, and Erik is confident he'll never face a repeat of this incident.

He doesn't voice any words of forgiveness. He's not entirely sure he does forgive her. But he offers her a hand, and she accepts it, lets him pull her back to her feet. Erik meets her eyes for a long moment, but has to drop his gaze to the floor before he can ask the question gnawing at his insides.

"Do you think he knows?"

He shouldn't be so terrified of the answer. Charles is no longer a part of Erik's life. What difference does it make if he knows about the fantasies—the hunger Erik has been harboring?

"I know he doesn't," Mystique answers softly.

The anxiety twisting in Erik's chest dissipates abruptly, and he exhales a relieved breath.

"Good," he says tightly.

"Come see the science labs," Mystique urges, stepping closer. 'Stop moping in your corner,' she means. Erik snorts and shakes his head. He feels dry and wrung out, but he has no excuse to refuse.

"Lead the way," he says, gesturing towards the door and finally following her into the hall.


- — - — - — - — - — -

Weeks tumble into months, not quite smoothly but with the inevitable force of passing time, and Charles is almost surprised to find his school coming together around him.

Even after Hank finishes reconstructing Cerebro, they've got barely more than a dozen students—and of those, ages range from small and scared to a handful of cranky teenagers. But for all that they remain few, the new arrivals seem to settle in more quickly—and more comfortably—than Charles could have dreamed.

The school is a safe place. That's the point. And all of these children, once inside the walls of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, can finally live as they are. No more hiding.

There are a handful of adults, too, though fewer by far. Mutants who need nothing from the school itself, but whom Charles has managed to convince that his dream is a viable one. People willing to join them, to sign on and help protect the children and the fragile hope Charles is trying to build. To help protect the humans, despite the stubborn animosity that only seems to rise with the world's growing awareness of mutant kind.

It's only a matter of time, Charles insists. It's only a question of making them understand, one moment of peace at a time.

Of course, given the stance of Charles Xavier and his X-Men—a name that seems to have stuck somehow—it's inevitable that they keep coming into conflict with Erik's Brotherhood of Mutants.

Erik. Not Magneto. Charles can't bring himself to think of his friend by the chosen name that flashes in the papers, the public, the minds of terrified government officials.

Even as Charles and his team interfere with one scheme after another—turning back violence, rescuing ungrateful politicians, defusing literal explosions on more than one occasion—he can't bring himself to think of Erik as anything other than a friend. It doesn't matter how many attacks they deflect, or how many times Charles throws himself into battle alongside the members of his team—Beast, Banshee, Havoc, others. He never stops wishing Erik would stop sending minions and step forward himself.

Erik may be more dangerous than a dozen of the man's strongest allies combined, but Charles still feels the irrational tug of hope telling him that if he could just reach Erik, this is one tide that could still be turned.

Erik called him naïve once. He might've had a point.


- — - — - — - — - — -

Charles knows even before they disembark from the jet that this time will be different. This is one Erik won't be sitting out.

The rumors involve development of an ugly virus—one designed to target mutated genes. To leave humans untouched.

Charles knows—from Cerebro, and the high-ranking minds he's gone rummaging around in along the way—that it isn't just rumor. He and his X-Men would be here to investigate regardless of Erik's inevitable interest in this facility.

Charles may be intent on working peacefully with the humans, but there are times distance and anonymity aren't protection enough.

They've landed near the forest's edge, outside a discreet government complex. It's small. Relatively innocuous. From outside it looks like nothing more dangerous than a dockside warehouse.

But inside are elaborate laboratories, and some of the U.S. government's most brutally brilliant minds.

If Charles had his way, they'd be in and out unnoticed, the virus and all of its related documentation destroyed before anyone even knew they were here.

But as his foot touches the ground and he takes his hand off the side of the jet, an explosion rattles, near enough to light the midnight sky.

Erik is already here.

Charles can't sense him, of course. He'll be wearing that helmet, if he's present at all—and Charles knows somehow that he is. This is one mission Erik won't leave to his underlings.

"Move!" Charles shouts to his team, already dashing forward, flashes of yellow and blue uniforms in his peripheral vision as his people keep pace—led by one particularly bright flash of yellow and blue as Beast streaks forward ahead of the pack.

There are more explosions. There are humans with guns, and security coordinating strategic retreats—a lake behind the facility, and boats waiting to speed anyone vital to safety. Charles incapacitates as many as he can without harming them, but already he feels the sharp jolt of too many deaths around him. Not his own people, but powerful sensations just the same. Every death feels personal, no matter how many Charles experiences.

He'd block them out if he could, but that would mean sacrificing his control over the living minds he's managed to harness. It would mean more deaths, even if Charles wouldn't feel them, and so he doesn't block anything out as he moves deeper into the facility.

He's alone now. His team has spread out, competent and quick, and Charles keeps his fingers at his temple and sends an urgent inquiry.

'Hank, where are you?'

'In the main lab,' Hank returns. 'Magneto's people were already here. I think they've taken the virus samples. They've destroyed everything, Professor. Everyone down here is dead.'

Charles closes his eyes, flinching, but has to open them again quickly in order to keep moving. He can feel panic coming from the boats at the other end of the building. There are still living people in danger.

'Scavenge what information you can,' Charles orders. 'And make sure to destroy anything they missed.' Though he doubts anything is left to scavenge or destroy. The Brotherhood never does anything halfway.

'Where will you be?' Hank returns, sounding apprehensive.

'Erik won't have stopped with the labs. He'll be after every last one of these people. I have to find him.'

'Be careful,' Hank sends, then goes quiet, leaving Charles to focus on speeding his pace, navigating the narrow corridors at a run.

The corridor ends abruptly at a single door thrown wide, and Charles finds himself standing suddenly outdoors. The wooden slats of a sturdy dock thud beneath his feet as he draws to an abrupt stop, and he turns to face the door he just exited through. He reaches out with his mind—feels the boats pulling distant enough that he has trouble tracking them, which means they're nearly far enough to be safe. He can feel ongoing skirmishes within the building, too. Humans and mutants fighting each other, mutants fighting amongst themselves. The unmistakable tang of violence.

And then, moving towards him with alarming speed, he feels a void that leaves him stunned and breathless. Emptiness surrounded by the indecipherable crackle of power. Unmistakable.

Charles steps forward, back into the corridor. He yanks the door shut behind him, locks it with a resounding clang. Locks and deadbolts are nothing to Erik, but Charles simply stands there in front of the door and braces himself.

He doesn't have long to wait. Erik's footsteps echo audibly along the floor, and then he's there, bright colors in the flickering hallway light. Purple. Maroon. That damned helmet that makes Charles want to crawl out of his own skin.

"Get out of my way, Charles," Erik says. His voice is a low, threatening growl, but Charles isn't afraid.

"No," he says. Shakes his head. Clenches his fists into hands at his sides. It's not a battle stance, but he'll be ready if it comes to that. He's learned a thing or two about hand-to-hand combat in the past couple months.

"I don't want to hurt you," Erik says, fingers curling into fists and making the metal behind Charles squeak and grind in protest. "But I will if I have to."

"No you won't," Charles says, because he doesn't believe it for a second. "And since the only way you're getting to those boats is through me—"

"God damn it, Charles!" Erik bellows, storming forward as though prepared to take Charles apart with his bare hands. He stops short, though. Fury vibrates through his entire frame, but he doesn't lay a hand on Charles. "Their primary researchers are on those boats. The people capable of reproducing the experiments, of isolating the virus. If you don't let me kill them, it will only be a matter of time before they start all over again."

"I know," Charles says calmly. Sadly. It's not a pleasant choice, but this is the only way he knows how to make it.

"Let me pass," Erik says in a deceptively quiet voice.

"No," Charles says.

Erik's eyes close, though the helmet makes it difficult to read his expression in the stark shadows and unsteady light. When he storms into action, it's sudden and jarring, and Charles gasps at the wordless shout, at the sight of Erik's body contorting as he manipulates the surrounding magnetic fields and uses the metal support beams to tear a hole in the wall beside the door.

Somehow Charles hadn't considered that possibility.

He ducks aside, raising his arms to shield his face from the twisting, flying debris. He's not quite quick enough—a sharp piece of cement hits him in the face and slices across his cheek. He feels the sting on a delay, seconds after the initial impact, and he gasps, holding his gloved hand to the cut.

When he raises his eyes the corridor is empty, and Charles curses and follows Erik the only direction he could have gone—through the hole he cracked straight through the wall.

Charles half expects to find Erik gone when he emerges—vanished in pursuit of his escaping targets.

But Erik is simply standing there at the edge of the dock. Shoulders tight beneath his cape, hands clenched into furious fists at his sides. Charles doesn't need to be able to read his thoughts to pick up on the frustrated rage pouring off him.

"Erik," he says, and realizes only an instant later what a mistake it is to speak.

Erik is on him immediately, so fast Charles barely registers that he should try to duck and evade, and there's not enough time. Erik's hands are tight on his wrists, twisting and shoving and backing Charles against an undamaged portion of wall. Charles grunts at the impact, then gasps as the unyielding weight of Erik's body pins him in place.

"I could have reached them in time to stop them," Erik growls, breath ghosting warm over Charles's face.

"You mean kill them," Charles says softly.

The rage doesn't bleed out of Erik's body, but his expression softens fractionally.

"The fact that you're here at all means you know damn well what they were up to," Erik says, clearly struggling to modulate his voice into a semblance of calm. "It's them or us, Charles. How can you still not see that?"

"I couldn't just let you kill them, Erik. The means we choose to employ are every bit as important as the goal they accomplish." Then, shifting a little—tilting his head back to better meet Erik's eyes—he says, "You didn't have to let them go. You could've gone through me easily enough."

"You idiot," Erik breathes, staring at him—gaze flicking to the stinging cut on Charles's cheek before raising to recapture his eyes. "You unmitigated fool. How can you possess such a brilliant mind and still understand so little."

It's answer enough. Charles already knew Erik wouldn't—perhaps couldn't—hurt him. But Erik's accusations are as blatant a confession as Charles could've hoped for.

Charles pitches his voice soft and cautious as he says, "It doesn't have to be this way, Erik. I'm still your friend. There's still a place for you at the school."

Erik barks an incredulous laugh, short and cutting, and then gapes at Charles in blatant disbelief.

"After everything I've done," Erik says.

"My friend, you seem to be forgetting that I know you. I know you would never let any harm come to the children." Charles squares his jaw defiantly, feels his pulse hum at Erik's unflinching proximity. "I would have you beside me protecting them if I could."

"It's you I want safe," Erik blurts. The vehemence in his voice catches Charles off guard, and Charles feels his own brows knit in confusion. Erik's focus is intense, his eyes bright and sharp as they stare Charles down. Erik's fingers shift minutely on Charles's wrists, and the pinning weight of Erik's body feels suddenly and inexplicably different.

Something flashes in Erik's eyes. Charles can't decipher the look, but it makes his breath catch in his chest just the same. It makes his skin feel too tight, his hands itch to do something, and he twists his arms restlessly in Erik's grasp.

He doesn't mean to speak, but the words sneak out of him anyway.

"Come home, Erik."

Erik's entire body snaps taut at the words. The hands circling Charles's wrists tighten painfully, then abruptly release him as Erik steps back and away.

"Erik, please," Charles says, letting his arms fall slowly to his sides but not daring to push away from the wall. He doesn't trust his legs to hold him unaided.

"Goodbye, Charles."

Suddenly the teleporter is there, in a burst of crimson smoke. Erik exchanges a quick glance with him, then levels one last indecipherable look at Charles.

In the next instant, Charles is alone on the dock. He can hear the Blackbird's jet engines powering up in the distance, Hank almost certainly at the controls—locked onto Charles's position via some trick of the yellow suits they all wear, and coming to collect him before the government can send reinforcements.

Charles's legs give out beneath him, and he slides slowly down the wall.

Somehow, he feels even emptier now than he did the first time he watched Erik teleport away on a battle-mangled beach in Cuba.

Charles raises two fingers to his temple and seeks out Beast's mind.

'Hank?' he calls, even though the sound of the engines is already growing louder. 'It's time to go home.'


- — - — - — - — - — -

The injured have been seen to—there aren't many. Erik has to concede that they made it in and out with so little damage, at least in part thanks to Charles's interference. It really would be useful to have a telepath among the ranks of the Brotherhood, even if the odds of finding one on par with Charles are next to nothing.

The injured have been seen to, the necessary repairs made to gear and equipment that suffered damage in the fighting, and all Erik wants is to be left alone.

But he didn't close his office door fast enough, and instead he finds himself cornered by the irate ranting of one Gunther Bain—a useful enough ally but fast on his way to overstepping Erik's patience. What little patience Erik does still possess quickly unravels when Gunther—young, petulant, little more than a stupid child in the big scheme of things—says Charles Xavier's name.

"You could have killed him," Gunther is saying now, heedless of the way his words are tightening Erik's shoulders and darkening his expression. "The X-Men would be nothing without him. They could never stand in our way without Xavier. And you let the opportunity slip through your fingers."

Something in Erik's chest snaps cold, and without moving a muscle he summons a coil of metal from one of the ornate light fixtures on the wall and wraps it tightly around Gunther's throat, dragging him sharply back against the wall. He moves so quickly that Gunther has no time to defend himself, and Erik takes a calm step forward as Gunther wriggles uncomfortably in place.

The cord of metal isn't twisted tightly enough to strangle him, but it's tight enough to be uncomfortable, and the threat is clear enough.

"Listen to me very carefully," Erik says. His voice is chilly, and Gunther's eyes widen in fear as Erik continues, "I will only say this once. Spread the word when we're finished here. Clearly I've been remiss in communicating this rather vital point."

He takes another step closer, standing now barely a foot away from where Gunther has wisely gone still.

"I do not intend to kill Charles Xavier. I do not wish to see him hurt."

"But he's—" Gunther tries to interrupt, voice straining.

"Constantly interfering with our objectives? Yes. I know. Nevertheless, anyone who harms him will be answerable to me." Erik's face twists into a vicious smile, all teeth and pointed edges. "And Gunther?" he adds, almost as an afterthought. "My response to such an affront will not be pleasant." He tightens the metal around Gunther's throat minutely—just enough to make his point unmistakable—and then releases him so suddenly the young man falls sharply to his knees.

"Get out," Erik says calmly, turning his back and taking several measured steps in the direction of his desk.

In his peripheral vision he sees a flash of blue in the doorway, Mystique leaning against the doorjamb with her arms crossed. Erik wonders how long she's been watching. He doesn't have to wonder if she approves of his little speech—he can take that much as a given.

Gunther moves quickly once he regains his feet, dashing towards the door and ducking past her.

"Idiot," Mystique mutters as he passes. She says it softly, but the insult just reaches Erik's ears, and an unpleasant smile twists across his face.