Five hundred years after the emancipation of the mutants.
Two hundred years after the colonisation of Mars.
One hundred years after static-filled first contact with the extra-terrestrials.
And ten years into the global fixation with puritan fashion...
A Lehmanbot stood in Erik Lehnsherr's New York office, his telescreen head showing the face of a lawyer who was just ending the reading of a will with the words, "and if you fail to marry a mutant of noble blood before your thirtieth year, the estate and funds will be awarded to the German government."
Erik was sitting with his back to the Lehmanbot, staring out of the window and watching the shuttle traffic in the air above the high buildings. His assistant Emma Frost took this quiet moment of contemplation to stick her face in front of Erik's.
"Is this the same Uncle Henry you hate and whose money you have no interest in?" Erik sullenly turned his gaze to Emma. She nodded, "I guess he just made it really interesting."
Erik turned back towards the Lehmanbot. "I turn thirty next month. I need more time."
"Forgive me, Mr. Lehnsherr, but your uncle was very clear on the matter. He feared that perhaps the most important of the mutant houses would be lost to a human/mutant union without some kind of intervention. I'm sure you can see why we must preserve the House of Magneto."
Erik gritted his teeth and the Lehmanbot's head crumpled like paper, sending out sparks. He swallowed, trying to keep his anger down as the doors to his office opened and a second Lehmanbot wheeled itself in, its telescreen head flickering to life with a very bored looking lawyer.
"Shall we move onto the candidate your uncle suggested?" he asked.
"He picked someone out for you?" Emma asked with a surprised laugh.
Erik stood up, scowling at the telescreen as the Lehmanbot adjusted its head to keep it in line with Erik's height. "He picked someone?"
"Yes, your uncle did have a preference. However, if you find a mutant of noble blood, as in ascended from the blood of the first wave mutants, you will still fulfil the conditions of the will. To a degree. Only losing a portion of the allotted fortune."
Erik silently glared until the lawyer faded out of existence. Erik and Emma could still hear him clearing his throat though.
"I think you're making him nervous,” Emma said.
Erik turned his back on the Lehmanbot and scowled at the window instead. He wasn't ready for marriage. To human, mutant or extra-terrestrial for that matter. Now he was being cornered into a union with someone he'd never even met. It appeared the popular cultural commentators had been right. A lot of archaic institutions were raising their unwelcome little heads again, arranged marriage being on top of the pile, especially popular amongst the mutant population.
Erik glared at the world outside the window and muttered, “Who did he pick?”
It was the return voyage of the Beagle XXIV from its expedition to Mars and though happy to be returning to Earth, Charles was completely miserable. He vomited, dry-heaved, shuddered and flopped down on the bed. One hand clutching the edge of the bed as if he fully expected to be flung off. He shut his eyes tight and pushed his face against the sheets, hearing the discreet sound of cleaning up being done near the bed.
A moment later his uncle, confidante, supplier of contraband and childhood nanny, who in recent years to save red-faces had been upgraded to the position of personal advisor, said, "I have to say, Charles, I'm not entirely sure space sickness is in fact a real thing."
Charles blearily looked up at the older man who was bald, thin and bore a great resemblance to earlier ageing Xaviers. "I think I'm dying."
His uncle peered a little closer. "No, but you are spectacularly green. Why don't I ask the good captain if he can steer the shuttle a little more gently? That way we can pretend you didn't drink your own weight in home-grown Martian ale."
Charles closed his eyes and clutched the sheets, planting his face against them as the bile began to rise again. The bed dipped and Charles could feel his uncle taking his fisted hand. A moment later he could feel his uncle's temple against his fingertips. Charles jerked as a memory of green grass and rolling hills sucked him in. He was inside it with his uncle who was a living repository of random memories of many Xaviers before him, their memories like files in his atoms, perfectly retained down to the smallest detail.
In the distance Charles could see a man in a wheelchair opposite a man with a billowing cape and helmet. They were so close, yet the hard lines of their body suggested a great distance. But somehow, even from here, yards away and years away, Charles could feel a bond between them.
"Who was watching them?" Charles asked.
His uncle shrugged. "I haven't a clue. I think he was being spied on by a family member apt at shielding their presence. I'm rather glad they didn't know he or she was there. Look at them. The strangest of enemies. The strangest of friends."
Charles watched as Magneto stood, face angled down at the Professor in his chair. The whole day had a quietness about it, as if even the trees and grass and sky wanted to be privy to the conversation of these two men.
Charles smiled, feeling the cool breeze on his face. "Thank you, Uncle Louis."
Louis smiled, his eyes still on the men in the distance.
Charles could have kissed the ground when they finally touched down on Earth. A shuttle was waiting to take him and Louis back to the mansion, which was quiet these days, his divorced parents having parted ways to different ends of the globe during his childhood, leaving Charles in the charge of boarding schools and Louis. These days if his parents were in the house at the same time, it usually meant someone had died.
So it was less a surprise and more a terror to find both Charles Claude Xavier and his ex-wife Tabitha Rose Constantine standing in the middle of the library shouting at each other. Charles immediately turned back around to leave, only to be blocked by Louis and be turned right back around again.
"You can't leave, they're your parents," Louis said blandly.
"I think I'm going to be sick again," Charles said.
"Claude, Tabitha. How lovely," Louis said, walking towards his brother and ex sister-in-law with open arms. Tabitha greeted him with a smile and kiss under Claude's glare. Louis then turned to embrace his brother. He looked back at Charles. "Charles? You remember your parents, don't you?"
This earned Louis a glare from Tabitha and Claude. Suddenly he was back at being found charming only by Charles. Charles stepped closer to the trio with a small smile, offering a half-hearted wave.
Tabitha shook her head and went to hug him. "Oh, darling. You are a strange boy."
His father neared with a smile on his flushed face, his figure looking as though it had prospered from its stay in Venice. He patted Charles on the shoulder. "Look at you."
Charles smiled at them both before he couldn't help himself and had to blurt out, "Is someone dead?"
Tabitha placed an elegant cigarette holder in her mouth, touching the tip of her finger to the end of the cigarette to light it with a small burst of flame. She then took Charles by the hand and all but dragged him to a sofa.
"Darling, we have news. Wonderful news. Your father and I have been proposed to for your hand in marriage. Isn't it delightful?"
Charles stared at her and looked at Louis. Louis most cunningly said, "I'll arrange for tea," and then promptly marched out.
"It's the done thing, son," Claude said, taking a seat opposite. "Alliances between the oldest mutant houses. And well, this proposal is somewhat special. It comes from the House of Magneto."
Charles frowned. "You want me to marry someone I've never met so we can be ever so special by having double-barrel names that hark back to our glorious ancestry?"
"Didn't I say he'd understand?" Tabitha smiled. She stroked Charles' cheek and said, "Oh, my little Francine."
"Mother," Charles snapped. "You know how much I dislike it when you call me that. My name is not Francine."
Tabitha sighed. "I know. It's just, when you were a baby you were so pretty and I so wanted a little girl. Oh, at least I had that for those first five years. I've kept the little dresses you know, they're absolutely darling."
"Louis!" Charles called out, sounding panicked even to his own ears.
"Son, you've gone green," his father said, peering at Charles in a way which suggested he would be peering further than just Charles' face in a moment. "You're not experimenting again, are you? We all know how that first time ended."
"Louis!" Charles called out, the urge to force a little compliance onto his parents growing strong.
Louis, being a miracle worker, arrived rushing into the room with a cordial smile and the announcement that, "Tea's on its way. Dear boy, a word?" He grabbed Charles by his arm and hauled him out of the library. "Go. I'll speak with them."
Charles sighed with relief, nodding tiredly. He ignored the flurry of words reaching him from the library as he somehow forced his body up the stairs. It would be much later that the words 'House of Magneto' would wake him from his sleep and etch a frown of curiosity onto his face.
“Are you kidding me? Preservation of the species, Charles. Mutant birth rates are at an all time low, which makes sense, if you think about it. Who wants to have kids who are going to get the full might of the government's encouragement to hire them into the police, army, navy, air force, space guard just because they might be better at not getting killed? How about they get jobs behind the closed doors of cushy offices where they get to send humans out to do the dirty work? And that's not all we're fighting against, Charles. Have you read the news feeds lately? One hundred deaths in England from some mysterious flu that only kills mutants. And if you're lucky enough to survive, there's a sixty-five percent chance it damages the X gene for good. I heard Canada's covering up their cases of MU1. We could be dropping like flies tomorrow. And, do you realise how few mutants are left that can be traced straight back to the first wave? There's nothing wrong with preserving a legacy. Especially yours, Charles. Not after everything he did for us.”
Charles blinked at the woman sitting at the end of the dinner table, her blue face very very serious, amber eyes pinning him in his seat. Charles turned to the man on his left, blue, furry and not at all interested in anything but his dinner. He whispered, “I can't remember what I actually said. I think your wife is quite mad, Hank.”
This elicited a laugh from his friend. “She's your best friend. Deal with it.”
Charles scowled irritably in his best friend's direction. “Raven, all I said was, I'm not sure if this arranged marriage thing is for me. Whatever the reasoning behind it. What do you think, Hank? You agree, don't you?”
Hank opened his mouth to speak. Then he turned to look at Raven who had the most heated eyes on the globe and could still deliver the coldest of stares. Predictably, Hank said, “Maybe you should think about it. I mean, what's the problem here? You have your eyes on a human?”
“No,” Charles said, a bit too defensively. “I just... let's just say that experience tells me it's not something I would rule out. I mean, I like humans. I have many human friends and I've had human lovers. What's wrong with marrying one?”
“Oh nothing. Besides a history of oppression and injustice, nothing at all,” Raven said sweetly with a flutter of her eyelashes.
Charles put his fork down with a sigh. “I don't think I'm enjoying these dinners very much anymore.”
Hank snorted and got up. “I'll get the dessert.”
Raven and Charles both avoided each other's gazes for a moment. After a while Raven, very politely said, “I just... we worked hard to be accepted Charles, and even today we're not. Not really. Not when you walk down the street and someone thinks its okay to call you a blue mutant bitch. I just don't think we should help the humans by wiping ourselves out. That's all I'm saying.”
“And I understand,” Charles said softly. “Some of us have the so-called luxury of hiding who we are, if we have to, and some of us have to be prepared to fight every day whether we want to or not, because who we are is written all over us. But it won't always be a fight. It gets better, Raven. I know it does. There's good and bad in all of us, human and mutant.” He smiled at her when she rolled her eyes. “I suppose I just have the Xavier disease of not giving up on humanity quite yet.”
Raven smiled at him, beautiful with her bright grin against her dark skin and fiery eyes. Charles felt like rifling through the pages of her mind to find the latest human to offend her, offer an education on etiquette perhaps. But he did nothing. Sometimes, the best thing was to do nothing and wait for the right time to make a noise, make a fist.
A large pie thumped down in the middle of the dinner table, a little charred around the edges and dangerously bubbling in the middle. Hank was eyeing it with suspicion, before he frowned at Charles.
Charles said, “Hank, it looks like it's going to explode.”
Hank threw down the oven gloves he had bought especially for his old world iron stove that used real logs and possibly small animals. “Let's go out for ice cream.”
“Let's,” Raven said as Charles got up and smiled happily at the prospect of ice cream. “And you can tell us about your soon to be ball and chain.”
“Raven,” Charles warned, receiving a laugh from both his friends.
Erik sat bored as the conference room emptied out, sinking a little lower in his seat at the head of the long table. He was severely lacking in energy, every passing moment a reminder that he was going to lose a small and insignificant fortune to a significant thorn in the side of the family if he didn't agree to tying himself to the last eligible Xavier.
Emma popped into view near Erik, aided by his other invaluable employee, Azazel. Erik swivelled his chair around to look at them. Emma was smiling at him in that way she always smiled, as if the very next thing out of her mouth would be blush-worthy, even if it often wasn't.
“Well?” Erik asked her. “What was your reading on, Hollsworth?”
“He was thinking about his mistress the whole time. In vivid detail.” Emma frowned as if to give the matter great thought. “FYI, I think she's faking.” Azazel smirked behind Emma. “Also, someone from the Defence Secretary's office called. Again. They're very eager to talk about potential military applications of the Lehmanbot.”
“Did you give them my answer?” Erik asked.
“I'm working on it. I'm sure there's a polite equivalent to 'go fuck yourselves', boss,” Emma said with an arched brow.
Erik got up and said, “Go fuck yourselves, please?”
Emma looked at Azazel as Erik headed past them and towards the door. “This is why all the money is in public relations.” She caught up with Erik, falling into step next to him. “There's also another pressing matter, bosscakes.” Erik smirked at her. “The Xaviers are throwing a little shindig and your presence is officially requested in consideration of your proposal.”
Erik stopped by the elevator and turned to stare at her. “What proposal?”
Emma blinked at him and then turned to look at Azazel who did the wise thing and disappeared from view. “The proposal your aunt sent to the parents of your intended?”
Erik continued staring, his mouth feeling a little dry. “Anna sent a proposal?”
Emma nodded. “You didn't know? Wow. That Aunt Anna's sneaky. It's why I like her.” Erik glared at Emma. She shrugged it off and said, “I admire that in a person. It's why I let you give me this job.”
Erik ignored Emma and stared at the glass elevator. His proposal had been made. What if Xavier said no? What if he said yes? He couldn't even send Emma to mind-bomb them all. The Xaviers were notorious for a plethora of strange and varied telepathic abilities. One of them was probably listening in on Erik's thoughts even right now.
Erik shook his head. “Think of something, to get around this damned stipulation.”
“I have one idea,” Emma said, as Erik jabbed a button to open the elevator doors.
“We can't kill anyone,” Erik said.
“That was my second idea,” Emma said, getting into the elevator after him. “My first idea is, why not go to this thing and meet this guy?”
“I don't follow,” Erik said flatly.
“Just meet him. See if it's doable. See if he's doable.”
“I don't follow.”
“Sweetie,” Emma said, making it sound more like, 'dummy'. “Give the insane idea a chance. It might work. Let's face it, aside from me and Azazel, not a lot of people really get your sunny demeanour. Marrying someone who doesn't know you might actually be a blessing in disguise.”
Erik gave her a blank look. “You're fired.”
Emma laughed, poking him in the arm. “You're funny.”
The Xavier fortune was vast, funding many enterprises to nurture the development, education and rights of mutants. The Xavier line though seemed to have come to a stop at Charles, having otherwise diverted and migrated in many other double-barrel destinations. With the name came the responsibility of being the last real Xavier who could have an influence on the future of mutants, not to mention mutant-human relations.
So from an office in the Xavier Research Foundation compound, Charles looked through grants for funding, plans for research and reports from business ventures. Not that anything was sinking in. He swiped his finger across the screen mounted on his desk, blinking at page after page, a dozen simulations and a dozen more recordings. In the end he went back to look at the recordings from the last Mars expedition, going over his many meetings with XRF's research team. The bumpy ride not withstanding, he kind of wished he was back on Mars.
“Arranged marriage,” he muttered. He scowled at the screen. “It's ridiculous. I mean, just, ridiculous... Display latest news articles on Lehnsherr Corp. please.”
The screen went white before results began to trickle down. In the last three years Lehnsherr Corp. had swallowed up two big competitors, the price of their shares had rocketed so high they could be seen from Jupiter and their premier feat of engineering, the intuitive and intelligent house helper, the Lehmanbot, had become a common feature in the homes of many who could afford such a luxury.
“The Lehmanbot?” Charles leaned closed to the screen, groaning with terrible disappointment. He hated the damn things. They were like mini tanks with a metal torso and a telescreen for a head. And speaking of the little devils, the doors to Charles' office opened and a XRF Lehmanbot slid across the floor, stopping by the desk. Charles gave the creepy thing an uncomfortable look, its telescreen showing Louis.
“We have some uninvited guests, Charles. They say they're from Homeland Security, which is interesting because I'm not sure I feel very secure,” Louis said with a smile.
“Send them in. Thank you, Louis,” Charles said, getting up only to get in the way of the Lehmanbot and spend the next minute doing an awkward little dance with it until he finally just gave up and stood still, waiting for it to leave.
Two men in high collared black suits and no personalities walked in. Charles shook their gloved hands and directed them to the couches in the corner of his office, the windows behind them looking onto the extensive grounds of the complex.
“Homeland Security,” Charles said, taking a seat opposite the two men, both dark haired and of a similar build. “Should I be worried?”
“Not at all, Mr. Xavier,” nondescript humanoid number one said with an incredibly meaningless smile. “We're here regarding the matter of a rumour that's been circulating in regards to you.”
Charles smiled. “I hope it's an exciting one.”
Nondescript humanoid number two said, “Actually, it's of some concern. As you must be well aware, arranged marriages are prevalent in the mutant community and though the government would never interfere in personal matters as an act of cultural sensitivity, the prospect of a forced marriage still has to be investigated.”
Charles stared at the two men. “I'm sorry. You think I'm being forced into a marriage? I am a Class 4 mutant. There's not much that can force me into anything. Besides, you'd be ill advised to act on a silly rumour.”
Both his guests bristled at this. Charles didn't need to read their minds. He could feel their resentment like pinpricks on his skin.
The first one smiled his creepy and completely fabricated smile. “Of course. We were under the impression it was a baseless rumour, but even so, it's our duty to investigate.”
“Why? I mean, it's really none of your business why people get married and to whom, is it? Not unless they're breaking your door down to be saved. And what does it have to do with your department?” Charles asked bluntly. The second one straightened up in his seat a little, eyeing Charles with clear suspicion. Charles frowned at him and said, “You think I'm reading your mind.”
The man smiled, and it was a real smile. It was as if he was hoping Charles was doing exactly that. “Are you, sir?”
“We're both aware that uninvited penetration of another's mind is a prosecutable offence,” Charles said. “Unlike that part of my ability which can't help but sense that you are keeping something from me.”
“Well, sir,” the first one said in an annoying salt of the earth fashion, like some wholesome farm boy. “I'll just come out and say it, because as a law abiding citizen, I'm sure you'll understand. As you say, you're a Class 4 mutant. Now, according to our records, Mr. Lehnsherr is a Class 4 mutant too. There is naturally a concern that a union between the two of you could be problematic.”
Charles stared, dumbstruck. “Problematic.”
“Don't get me wrong, I think people should marry who they want to marry. What a lot of people would not appreciate is mocking the fine institution of marriage for ulterior motives, like strengthening a business relationship-”
“Please,” Charles said. “You can dispense with the bullshit. You're here because your organ grinder is afraid of two powerful mutants getting the silly idea to create something using both their genetic material. Your people are afraid of two strong mutants forming a union, being twice as strong. Most of all, you're afraid because it's a Xavier and a Lehnsherr. It may be five hundred years too late, but there are mutants out there who would still take it as a victory and finally break down the few remaining walls that weaken our causes. And Homeland Security does love its walls.”
Charles received two matching gormless smiles and gormless humanoid one said, “I think we've offended you somehow, Mr. Xavier, and perhaps you've misunderstood our intentions.”
“It's Doctor Xavier, and I think I completely understand,” Charles said, getting up. “If that's all, I have a lot of work to be getting on with.”
“Of course. Doctor,” the first one said, both rising from the sofa together. He stuck his hand out and said, “Thank for your time.”
Charles gave the man a cold look, mutely ignoring his hand. He got the message and left with his colleague, not without a parting smile. Once they were gone, Charles sank back down on the sofa, feeling hot and sweaty, heart beating a little too fast. Just when it looked as though the world was moving forward, something always happened to yank it back a dozen or so steps. God, fear made humans so stupid.
“What's happened?” Louis asked as he walked in. He stopped in front of Charles, worry apparent on his face. “Charles?”
Charles looked up at Louis and said, “I think I want to meet Erik Lehnsherr for myself.”
Louis frowned. “You do?”
Charles nodded. “I do. And I hope he sweeps me off my bloody feet.”
Erik stood in front of the mirror, smoothing down his three quarter-length coat and straightening the high collar. He smoothed his hair back for good measure, though it certainly didn't require it. He could see Emma behind him, perched on the end of his bed, legs crossed elegantly, her white suit tailored to perfection.
“I don't need this money,” Erik muttered. “Or the damn estate. Why am I doing this?”
“Because you don't want to be the guy who made Magneto turn in his grave?” Emma asked. “And you don't want to make Anna sad?”
Erik sighed, frowning at his reflection. “No. It seems I don't.” He turned to look at Emma, holding out a hand, which she got up and accepted. “Well?”
“I'd say yes,” Emma said approvingly. “Just remember not to talk too much. That's where you usually strike out.” Erik blinked at her. She pointed at his face and said, “Oh and do that.”
Before Erik could ask what that was, Azazel arrived and said, “Your aunt is waiting downstairs. She hit me with her purse. Twice.”
Erik nodded and headed to the door and flatly responded, “She likes you.”
As he jogged down the stairs, he could see his aunt arching a rather judgemental brow at a painting over the fireplace. He could tell she didn't like it. Maybe it was because Erik was the only one in the family who didn't feel the need to decorate his life with images of the great Magneto.
“Anna,” Erik said.
She turned to look at him, stunning in her full length kimono style dress, her brown hair which was refusing to grey, pinned up in a complicated bun. She was all sharp angles, her features striking. In her sixties, Erik still found her to be as remarkable as she had been during his childhood years.
“That's a terrible suit,” she said. Her statement was good news in the respect that she only ever slipped into German with Erik if she was angry or wanted to remind him that to her he was still the little boy she took into her home after his parents died and loved like her own son.
Erik went to her, kissing both cheeks. “You look wonderful.”
Anna gave him a look and appeared to struggle with remaining stern and then opted to reach up and affectionately tap his cheek in imitation of a slap. “So you are not angry now.”
Erik considered the question. “At having my hand forced? For land or money I never wanted, from a man I wished I never knew? All for a man who died hundreds of years ago. I think I am a little angry.”
Anna took his hand, in hers. “You're right, you don't need the land, or the money. So give it away. Give it to a poor man. Give it to a cause. But not to a government. Not to any government. They will happily fill their coffers, but never give anything in return. People lost their homes in the global mutant hunts. Had their assets frozen. Was any of it returned when the world stopped being mad? It is not just for a man who died hundreds of years ago, my darling. It's because I understand what that man felt.”
Erik swallowed, nodding mutely. Somehow she had the ability to do this. To make him feel young and naïve. Before he could say anything, she smiled, pulling him into a tight embrace, her hand patting his back as if he were still a child who needed consoling. Maybe he did. When she pulled away, she stroked his cheek. Erik took her hand, bringing it to his mouth to kiss it.
“Now, come. A union between the Lehnsherr's and Xavier's is quite overdue,” she said.
Erik smirked at her. “You seem very sure this is going to end happy. Have you considered that this Xavier and I might hate each other? ”
“Your parents couldn't stand each other when they first met,” Anna said with a smile. “Your father only had to open his mouth and my sister saw red. And when they fell in love, well, you couldn't convince them they might have ever had a terrible word to say about each other.”
Erik, whose gaze had been fixed on his aunt as she spoke, looked away, straightening the shirt cuff peeking out of the sleeve of his coat. Anna pulled his fingers away from his momentary distraction.
“We should go. Come,” she said.
Erik nodded, still holding her hand as Azazel deposited them at the steps of the Xavier mansion.
The one time Xavier mansion turned academy turned museum turned war time HQ turned mansion again was hosting a modest soiree for friends and family. There was no official reason, even if the official reason was to get Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier acquainted.
Charles stood by the buffet table, drink in hand, Hank and Raven either side of him. He said, “This is amazing.”
“What?” Hank asked.
“I have no idea who these people are are,” Charles said, frowning at the number of cliques spread out from room to room.
“Of course you don't. Isn't that the whole point of having money? You know lots of important people you don't know,” Hank commented.
“Oh, hold on, that's Auntie Imogen over there,” Charles said, relieved he knew someone. Then he remembered her old habit of cheek pinching. “I should probably hide.”
“Hey, have you seen Leo?” Raven asked, putting down her drink. “He's disappeared again.”
Hank sighed. “I'll go look for him. That kid's going to drive me crazy.”
Charles watched Hank and Raven move off in different directions. He finished off his drink and discreetly moved around the room, looking out for familiar faces. There were a few aged Xaviers, not all in name, but certainly in blood. There were close friends and ties. There were his parents in discussion with a woman he didn't recognise. His mother saw him watching and of course, didn't give him the opportunity to approach, bringing the group to him before he could escape.
“Darling, there you are,” Tabitha said. “Anna, this is Charles. Charles, this Erik's aunt.”
“It's an honour,” Charles said, shaking Anna's hand.
Anna held his hand in both of hers, smiling all the way up to her bright blue eyes. “It's wonderful to finally meet you.” She looked around the room. “Erik was here a moment ago. I don't know where he's disappeared to.”
“Oh, I'm sure he'll turn up. Why don't you get to know Charles here?” Claude said, clapping a hand on Charles' shoulder.
Charles smiled, snatching a drink from a passing waiter.
Erik walked along the long corridor, looking at the numerous portraits that adorned the walls. Judging by the hairlines, many of them must have been Xaviers. Judging by everything else, many of them must have married into the Xaviers.
Erik frowned at the portrait in front of him. Then he looked down to find a little blue boy with curious and round yellow eyes. Erik held his hand out. “Hello.”
The boy shook Erik's hand. Well, yanked on a couple of fingers. “I'm Leo.”
“I'm Erik. Do you live here?” Leo shook his head. “Are you breaking in?”
Leo burst into laughter, grinning. “No. I'm not breaking in. I was in the big room and it was too loud so I came to play here. Uncle Charles said he used to play here when he wanted to hide from the grown ups.”
“Did he now?” Erik said.
“Uh huh,” Leo said with a nod. “Are you hiding too?”
“Yes.” Erik nodded. “Like you said, too loud.”
Leo seemed to think over the information. Then he said, “Do you like ice cream?”
Erik thought about it. “I do.”
“I know where we can get some,” Leo said. “But I need help reaching it.”
Erik gave the proposal some serious consideration. “Lead on.”
“And so until he was five, he was my precious little Francine,” Tabitha said, smiling and reaching out to stroke Charles' face.
Charles blinked at her, stuck his hand in the way and then downed his fresh drink. Anna watched him do it, possibly marvelling at his ability to hold his breath for so long.
“Tabitha, I think you're embarrassing the boy,” Claude said with a chuckle.
“Oh do stop looking so sour, Charles. You'll understand when you have children. Tell me, Anna, you must have had a nickname for your darling nephew, one he now hates. All parents give their children nicknames. It's quite normal.”
Anna frowned, clearly thinking it over. “I called him Erik.”
Tabitha and Claude blinked at her, both wearing matching frowns after years of disagreeing on everything else. Tabitha said, “Well, it is a rather nice name.”
“Yes yes. A strong name,” Claude agreed. “Like the great man himself.”
“Though there's nothing wrong with Francine either. It was my grandmother's name,” Tabitha said, aiming a smile at Charles.
“Thank you, Mother,” Charles said, placing his glass on the tray of a passing waiter. He felt a tug on his trousers then and looked down. “Leo. Where have you been? Your mother's been looking for you everywhere.”
“It can't be everywhere because she would have found me,” Leo said with a forceful little frown. “And I was helping.”
“With what?” Charles asked.
“I was helping Erik. He was lost,” Leo said, rolling his yellow little eyes as if he was speaking to the dumbest person alive.
Charles frowned. “What?”
“Hello. Francine, I presume.”
Charles looked past Leo to see a man moving close to Anna. Tall, angular and looking far too amused, Charles presumed this was Erik Lehnsherr. And he had clearly heard the wonderful tale of his mother's occasional madness during Charles' childhood.
“What? No. No,” Charles said.
“Erik,” Anna said, “this is Charles Xavier.” Her tone suggested that good behaviour was expected. Charles wasn't sure how this was possible since the first words Erik Lehnsherr had said to him were 'Hello Francine.'
Erik gave Charles a polite nod and Charles said, “These are my parents. Charles Xavier senior. Tabitha Rose Constantine. Oh and, one second.”
Charles waved to catch Louis' attention, stopping him in mid-walk. Louis quickly joined them, his first act to ruffle Leo's hair. “Ah, I see we're all here.”
“This is my Uncle-” Charles started.
Louis, always the social butterfly, thrust his hand out to take Anna's hand, very gallantly kissing the back of it. “Enchanted. You must be young Erik's aunt. Charles Louis Xavier, at your service.”
If Charles wasn't mistaken, Anna might have been blushing ever so slightly. “Anna Stern. Delighted to meet you.”
Louis turned to Erik, giving him a sturdy handshake. “Honoured, dear boy.”
“Likewise.” Erik nodded at Louis. He then looked at the men in the group and said, “You're all called Charles.” Anna seemed to go very still and close her eyes for a split-second.
“Our father was quite mad,” Louis explained with a polite smile. “The tradition has always been to call the eldest son Charles, but I'm quite sure if we had a sister, she would have been called Charles too.”
The group laughed, Erik nodding, while Charles wondered exactly how Louis had managed to enchant everyone within seconds. Maybe there was more to his abilities than he let on.
“If all goes to plan, you can call me Uncle Louis,” Louis said, clapping a hand on Erik's arm. “I've always found Charles to be a rather crusty old name.”
Erik nodded mutely. Charles could see he was having a time trying to figure this clan of mad people out. Understanding seemed to dawn on his face as he turned to Charles' father and said, “And you go by Claude.”
Claude beamed. “Precisely. Once the big brother goes around using his middle name, it stands to reason the younger one has to do something similar.”
Erik turned to Charles with a nod and twitching mouth that suggested he was about to annoy Charles. “And you go by Francine.”
“That's a funny story actually,” Tabitha started.
“No. I do not go by Francine. It's Charles Francis Xavier,” Charles said firmly.
He started to move towards a passing waiter and Louis expertly stepped in his way, putting an arm around his shoulders. “Well, is this not a momentous occasion? So many times the paths of these families have crossed, but too much like ships that pass in the night. And here we are today.”
The mood turned somewhat reflective. Anna's eyes were bright and Claude was thoughtfully nodding, Tabitha reaching out to squeeze his hand. Louis appeared filled to the brim with joy. Then Charles looked at Erik and found the other man watching him, amusement still playing around the corners of his mouth.
Charles would have liked to read Erik's thoughts just then, but telepaths were bound by a constantly changing code of what constituted as the acceptable reading of another's mind. So he tried to read the surface of his face, the depth of his eyes, the straight lines of his body. He wasn't a man who wanted to be read. Erik looked away, Anna's hand patting his.
Leo, ignored long enough, pulled on Erik's sleeve, asking him, “Do you want some more ice cream?”
Sadly for Leo, there was to be no more ice cream. Raven had gone to great pains to imprint on Charles' mind what happened if little Leo was fed ice cream after a certain hour. It wasn't all true, but it had been convincing. Also, now that he had Leo, he had an excuse to leave the party and spend the evening walking in circles and avoiding Raven and Hank, whilst pretending to search for them.
He was barely out of the room where the festivities were mainly being held when Louis called after him and said, “Charles, I see Raven. You couldn't run to the kitchen and let Hank know, could you? Leave Leo with me.”
Charles nodded. Even better. Hank was a much better listener than Raven. Hank didn't judge. He just zoned out the noise when it got boring and let the babbler babble on. Leaving Leo with Louis, he changed directions and went back through the party crowd and through the smaller rooms that led all the way to the kitchen.
“Hank,” he said, opening the door to find Erik seated at the table with two cups of coffee, one in front of him and the other in front of the chair adjacent to him. “Not Hank.”
Erik smiled. “Your uncle said you wanted to talk to me alone. He was clearly lying, but it seemed like a good opportunity. For more ice cream.” Charles let out a huff of a laugh. Erik nodded towards the steaming cups. “Or coffee.”
Charles nodded, making his way to the table and dragging the seat out from under it, slowly sitting down. “Thank you. I think I could do with it actually.”
Erik took a measured sip of his, placing the cup down before saying, “Your family. They seem like interesting people.”
Charles nodded. “Thank you for not using the word mad. That was very polite of you.”
Erik grinned and it seemed to lift his serious features in a most unexpected manner. A very pleasing manner in fact. Charles picked up his cup and drank, focusing on his burning tongue rather than how Erik had very quickly gone from Erik Lehnsherr to very pleasing.
“I wanted to talk to you about this proposal.” Erik said, a soft wave of apprehension from him brushing past Charles.
Charles nodded. “Please, go ahead.”
Erik straightened up, his eyes on Charles. “My uncle, Anna's brother, died last month. He's left me his land and money, both of which I don't need or want. He was an arrogant and controlling man and we never really saw eye to eye. I'm not sure he even liked me that much, to be quite honest.”
“He must have felt something for you. I mean, he wouldn't just leave everything to someone he didn't care about,” Charles said.
Erik smiled, but there was something sad and heavy about it. “He was a manipulative man. He left me everything on the condition that I marry before I turn thirty. Marry a mutant of his choosing. If I fail to do so, then everything is left to the Euro-Fund.”
Charles sat back. “Ah. Right.”
“Yes,” Erik said. “I refused to go along with it at first, but my uncle knew I would eventually do it his way. We've had to fight for every liberty we have and even now we have to prove ourselves over and over every day, yet when something goes wrong, governments are happy to let everyone point fingers at us for everything that's wrong. They should be the last people who get something for nothing. So, I have a proposal for you, Charles. Marry me and I'll donate my inheritance to the Xavier Research Foundation.”
Charles stared, mouth hanging open a little.
“Your foundation does good work, but the benefactors aren't exactly lining up. I've read the reports. Charitable donations are falling as well as government funding, what little there was to begin with. If you marry me, your foundation gets a boost, not just from the inheritance, but from the name Lehensherr Corp as a business partner.”
Charles was still staring at Erik. At the back of his mind this evening was always going to end with a 'no' for an answer. Erik had just made things complicated. He presented Charles with an opportunity to do more and now he was in the unenviable position of choosing between himself and others who depended on his organisation.
“Erik, I don't know what to say,” Charles said.
“Sleep on it,” Erik said. “There's no rush.”
Charles frowned. “When do you turn thirty?”
“Next month.” Erik smiled. Charles arched a brow at Erik. “Power nap?”
“Those don't work on me and more importantly, this is an insane idea. I mean, marriage. It's... marriage, Erik. It's not business.”
Erik nodded. “I understand. It's why I'll respect your decision. Coincidentally, have you at all tried to find out anything about my company's annual profit, not to mention my business contacts who will fall over each other trying to make me happy?”
Charles laughed. “Erik, you're talking about a marriage of convenience.”
Eric nodded thoughtfully. “Marriage hasn't always been about love, Charles. It's been a way to build ties. Make allies. The civilised human world likes to pretend it's always been above these things. But, I'm openly giving you the choice to enter into an arrangement your foundation will benefit from. An arrangement you can terminate whenever you wish after one year of legal marriage. Charles, I'm not doing this for greed. I'm doing this because that inheritance can be put to a better use. Humans don't really care about mutants. They read the right news feeds, they repeat the right things, but deep down, they don't know a damn thing. So here we are, with a chance to do more.”
Charles felt his mouth go a little dry. Not many images had survived of Magneto and none of the young man who became Magneto. The photographs Charles had seen always obscured the great man's face with that metal cage. One image had survived without the helmet, but that was of a white-haired old man, bowed with grief at his old friend's funeral. But as Charles looked at Erik, he imagined seeing him through the spaces and curves of an old helmet and there was something utterly familiar about that mouth and those determined eyes. The Lehnsherr spirit was alive and well in this man.
“I had a visit from Homeland Security,” Charles said quietly. “They appeared to be very worried about the possibility of us marrying.”
Erik's mouth twisted in distaste. “You and I marrying, it'll mean too much to too many people. Of course you had a visit from Homeland Security.”
Charles looked at Erik, idly scratching under his lip. “When they left my office, I was quite certain I was going to marry you just out of pure spite.”
Erik shook his head. “You don't seem the type to act out of spite.”
Charles raised his brows. “Oh? What type do I seem?”
Erik tilted his head, looking somewhere between puzzled and intrigued. Then he smiled. “Someone who would do anything for a good enough reason.” Erik frowned, his eyes roaming across Charles' face. “You look like him. The Professor. It's...”
Charles smiled. “It's what?”
Erik looked at his coffee cup, a soft smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Strange.”
“I can imagine,” Charles said, silly thoughts about the dead, bouncing around in his head. “We should return to the party.”
Erik stood. “Yes, of course. I've taken up enough of your time.”
“No no,” Charles said, getting up too. “I just think we should tell everyone the good news before they get too drunk. The Xavier side of the family's always had a slight problem holding their drink. Well, not so much holding it as putting it down.”
Erik blinked at Charles, followed by a truly confused frown. “You mean?”
Charles nodded. “I do. Wait, that's later, isn't it? I mean, yes, I accept your proposal. And I especially accept your black book of business contacts.” Charles held out his hand.
Erik took Charles hand, slowly shaking it and still looking bewildered. “Just like that?”
Charles nodded. “I've had a fair amount to drink tonight. We should make the most of it.”
Heads turned when Charles and Erik walked back together, side by side. Charles felt a wave of something else too, a strange emotion he couldn't quite define.
“There you two are,” Claude said. “We were all wondering where you'd disappeared to.”
“Is everything okay?” Anna asked, looking at Erik. He nodded at her, which made her then look a Charles.
Charles smiled and said, “We have an announcement actually.”
“Oh my God,” Tabitha said, her hands covering her mouth. Charles could see Louis sidling up next to Claude.
Charles looked at Erik, whose face was unreadable. He may as well have been wearing a helmet, Charles thought. “It appears we're getting married.”
Louis lunged at Charles before Tabitha even had a chance. He kissed Charles on one cheek and then the other. Turning to Erik, he did the same with a soft exclamation of, “Dear boy.”
The next few minutes were spent in a flurry of hugs and congratulations and champagne corks popping. Charles was quite relieved when his parents dragged Anna and Erik off for introductions. He floated back towards the back of the room, reaching out for a drink as he went, his eyes on the activity. He felt in a bit of daze. Too fast, this was happening too fast, whatever the reasons. However good the reasons. Charles had no qualms about mocking the sanctity of marriage. Most married people spent their entire lives doing that. No, his qualms were different.
People would be watching Charles and Erik with interest. Questioning their motives. Bringing out hundreds of years of history and examining every microsecond that was spent by the Xaviers and the Lehnsherrs in digging up the idealogical corpses of Magneto and the Professor just to make a point. Both families had done much good, but they had both done damage too, and everyone loved raking up the damage again and again.
The band had started to play, something old and jaunty. Charles wondered if it was to hark back to the good old days when Magneto and the Professor were young men and had their whole lives ahead of them. Louis was pulling Anna into a slow dance, both of them dancing with perfect posture and respectable distance.
“Wow. Not only does he make robots, but he dances like one too.” Charles turned to see Raven grinning at him. “Did I just hear you're getting married?”
Charles blinked hard, scratching his eyebrow before laughing. “I think so. I've really got to start watching my drink.”
Raven stepped forward and hugged him hard. When she pulled back, she continued holding on to him, her eyes locking him in place. “I have a good feeling about this.”
Charles rolled his eyes. “Raven.”
“No,” she insisted. “I really do. I can't explain it.”
Charles peered at her, half-smiling. “Okay. Fine. You're mad, but fine.” He put an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. “Where's that husband of yours?”
“He's keeping an eye on Leo. They were both getting cranky and tired,” Raven said. “Seriously, though, two left feet.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Charles frowned at Raven.
She grabbed his chin and pushed it in the right direction so he could see Erik and Tabitha in a slow dance. Erik was far from having two left feet, but he was holding himself so stiffly it made Charles' muscles hurt. He had that strange expression on his face, the one that said he was possibly slightly amused and paying enough attention to comment and converse, but otherwise was quite happy, if he felt any kind of emotion that is, to talk about something completely different. And there was Charles' mother regaling him with who knew what awful stor--
“Oh, shit,” Charles said, pushing his glass in Raven's direction. “I've got to go.”
“This I have to see,” Raven said, drinking up the contents of the glass entrusted to her.
Charles half-jogged, fast-walked and possibly skipped a little at the end before positively jumping in front of Erik and Tabitha with, “Hello! Could I possibly cut in?”
Tabitha beamed at him. Then when Erik took her hand, bowed to kiss it and stepped back, she beamed at him. Charles reached out towards her for a dance and a quiet word about humiliating grown up offspring. Tabitha grabbed his arm and shoved him bodily towards Erik. Oh, Charles thought, of course. So that was drinking and advanced planning he'd have to think over in the morning.
He bumped into Erik hard enough to dislodge him from his spot, where he probably could have stood like a rock for the rest of the evening if he wanted. Even so, he was the one to grab Charles to steady to him as he wobbled for a moment, threatening to trip.
Charles gave Erik an embarrassed smile and pointed in his retreating mother's direction. “She has a lot of blackmail material.”
Erik's mouth stretched into a smile that wasn't just polite, amused or patient. He held out a hand towards Charles. Charles put his hands up, prepared to lead, but then remembered the age old rule of height trumping all factors when deciding to lead in a dance and readjusted himself.
Erik had very warm hands, firm with a strong grip. Charles stopped staring at them when he realised he was staring at them. Up close, Erik was as impassive looking as he was from any distance. Here was a man with a mind that seemed worth rooting around in. And maybe while he was in there he could help the man loosen up. He was far from having two left feet, but Erik was so rigidly obeying the rules of stepping, holding and poise, he was probably in danger of snapping a few tendons.
Charles opened his mouth to tell Erik something, anything to put him at ease when he heard a commotion that seemed to come from the front of the house. He could see his parents were already making their way out of the room to check, telling guests to stay put. Charles broke away from Erik and followed, his fingers going up to his temple as he searched for voices, thoughts and clues. He was at the front entrance of the house when he saw his mother coming back in.
“Charles, I don't want you to see this,” she was saying, far too serious for Tabitha Rose Constantine.
Charles was surprised to see Erik walk right on ahead and out of the door as Tabitha blocked Charles' path. “What is it?”
Now Claude was coming back in, looking red-faced and furious. “I'll call the police.”
Charles took his mother by her arms and gently moved her aside. “I'm not a child. I'm sure I can handle whatever this is.”
He left Claude comforting Tabitha and stepped outside, seeing the spectacle immediately. Erik was standing half-way down the steps as if transfixed. Two dummies dressed up like Magneto and the Professor, complete in wheelchair, had been left to burn in front of the mansion. Charles slowly descended the steps so he was standing next to Erik, who stood there with a small frown on his face.
“How very twenty-first century,” Erik said.
Charles stared at the burning mess, blocking out the alarmed voices and thoughts that began to surround him and Erik.
Erik tapped the bright screen of his datapad and kept tapping until he found the page he wanted, the one where Charles Xavier spoke in his autobiography of the San Francisco riots where effigies of the most renowned mutants were burnt. He had written about his dismay at seeing the humans behave in the way Magneto had always expected them to behave.
How the great Magneto must have been smug with satisfaction, many remarked. But I knew him and I knew there was no satisfaction here for him. He had not been waiting to be proved right. He had asserted that he was right all along and there was nothing in these riots that made him happy or sad. What a terrible thing that he had simply felt nothing. It is what it is, he had said to me, as if it didn't matter at all.
But, I could hardly blame him for thinking that. Not with the effigies that burned on my very own doorstep.
Erik tapped the datapad off, putting it aside as he heard the elevator doors to the apartment slide open. Emma appeared a moment later, crossing the expanse of the apartment to the dining table where Erik sat, pouring a second cup of coffee from a steaming silver pot. Emma took up a seat, pulling the cup towards herself with a sigh.
“What's wrong?” Erik asked.
“I had to walk, can you believe it?” Emma asked, clearly not believing it herself.
“Where's Azazel?” Erik asked.
“I don't know. Wherever he is though he's being all 'I work for Erik, not for you' about it,” Emma said, reaching for some toast. Erik pushed the toast rack in her direction.
“You're both arguing again,” Erik said, drinking his coffee.
“He's an uptight--”
“I don't care,” Erik said flatly. Emma aimed a sulky look at him. Erik gave her a look of warning and said, “Behave. Both of you.”
Emma rolled her eyes, spreading some butter on her toast before taking a large bite, complete with moan of satisfaction. When she was three bites in she said, “I don't suppose you've seen the news yet.”
Erik shook his head as Emma pulled out her datapad, tapping a buttery finger onto the screen and leaving a smudge. “You made first page on the NY Times feed.”
Emma held up the datapad for Erik to see. Secret Lehnsherr/Xavier engagement ends in tears read the headline. He took the datapad and wiped away the smudge covering a portion of the picture featured under the headline. It was a small recording of both Erik and Charles, taken from somewhere behind them. They were both watching the burning mess, with Erik turning to look at Charles who was wiping something from his eye. Over and over that image replayed.
Erik opened his mouth to speak and Emma held up a hand. “Been there, done it. The video and story was submitted by an anonymo. No, I can't meet the editor in person to talk about it and sure, we can go ahead and get the lawyers on this if it's that time of year again where you dump a wad of cash dragging people into a courtroom for pissing you off.”
Erik took a discreetly deep breath. The cutlery on the table still rattled as if it might fly up and out of the room. Emma reached out and took the butter knife with a smile. “Just in case.”
“Get me a call to the Xavier mansion. Then get me Azazel. Then drop everything you're doing and get that editor,” Erik said, standing up. “I want to find out everything there is to know about him.”
Emma smiled, looking utterly thrilled. “Oh, I'm on it, boss.”
Erik nodded, heading towards the stairs. He turned to look at Emma, slice of toast sticking out of her mouth as she snatched up her datapad and hurriedly typed something onto the screen.
“Emma.” She looked up, brows raised in question. “Finish breakfast first.”
Emma nodded, giving Erik a quick salute. Erik turned around and headed for the stairs, wondering how Charles was going to take being on the front page of the city's most widely read news rag and being forwarded to the rest of the world's news sites.
Charles stood looking at the huge satellite dish in the distance. It was an old piece of technology no longer in use, but there was a small story about it, more like a rumour, probably not even true, that kept it preserved. There was no reason to believe that Magneto hadn't moved it once to face him, everyone knew how powerful a mutant he had been. But the story about the Professor, the way he simply handed Magneto the ability to control his power. Charles wasn't sure he entirely believed it.
Charles rubbed his forehead and groaned. His head and stomach still felt rather bruised and fragile from the night before, not to mention the morning's expulsions of the contents of the night before. He decided to get back inside, find a nice dark corner to catch forty winks. Far from the excitement of Louis and his parents.
He turned to find Erik and another man suddenly appearing in front of him. Erik nodded to the red man with him and, poof, he was gone, leaving behind Erik who said, “Louis said you were here.”
Charles nodded. “Is everything all right?”
Erik said, “Have you seen the news today?”
Charles shook his head. “Avoided it, to be honest. I take it the impromptu bonfire made some corner of the news pages.”
Erik reached into his long black coat and retrieved a datapad. He tapped it twice before showing Charles the display. Charles rolled his eyes at the headline. Then he saw the accompanying video, grabbing the datapad to blink at it. “I had something in my eye!”
When he looked up, Erik had a strange little quizzical look on his face. He said, “Charles, that recording was taken by someone at the party last night.”
Charles looked back at the display. His heart sank a little. Someone had been welcomed into his home and they did this. He wondered if it was possible the whole stunt was down to one infiltrator. More bitterly than he intended, Charles said, “We're not even married yet.”
Erik gently extracted the datapad from Charles' hand. He was watching Charles closely when he said, “I assume there will be more attempts to frighten us off the idea.”
Charles glared at the datapad in Erik's hand. “Well, they picked the wrong people. Like hell anyone's stopping this wedding. How dare they. How bloody dare they.”
Charles marched past Erik and towards the house. There were things to be done, people to be called. Erik caught up with Charles falling into step with him. “Charles? Where are you going?”
“To make a statement. We both are,” Charles said.
“We are?” Erik asked. “What about?”
“Confirming our engagement,” Charles said, stopping and facing Erik. “Unless you've had a change of heart.”
Erik shook his head. “Far from it.”
Charles gave Erik a pat on the arm. “Good. I think the first order of the day is to contact the NY Reporter and send them a photograph of the happy couple along with a terribly sugary statement of how utterly in love we are and just can't wait to get married.”
Erik smiled, nodding approvingly. “I like the way you think, Francine.”
Charles rolled his eyes and continued walking. “Use that name again, Erik, and you can forget about the whole thing.”
Raven could hear Hank laughing. He was trying to keep it quiet, but failing. She rolled her eyes and turned onto her back to see him sitting up in bed and reading the morning news, laughing at the screen in his hand.
“I'm awake,” Raven said flatly.
Hank looked down at her, mouth turning down guiltily. “Sorry. I tried to keep quiet. But... well, take a look.”
Raven took the datapad from Hank's hand, her face already expressing disinterest and irritation at being awake way earlier than she was supposed to be. Then she saw the screen. She saw it, gasped and sat up, eyes wide and grinning.
There it was, an awful picture of Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier in front of a fireplace. Erik looked as unfriendly as he always looked in photographs and Charles looked as ridiculously amiable as he always did. Or perhaps, on second look, maybe Erik looked a little defiant, challenging and Charles looked a bit smug and satisfied. Either way, it made Raven laugh.
“See?” Hank said, grinning wide. Raven grinned back as Hank shook his head and said, “Seriously, does you friend know what he's doing?”
Raven thought back to two nights ago and the not so polite happy engagement message left burning at the foot of the Xavier mansion. She reached out for Hank's hand, squeezing it tight. “I hope so.”
Erik leaned back in his chair, letting it swing left to right ever so slightly. His hands were resting behind his neck, fingers linked together, eyes on the large screen on his desk. Another news site was using that photograph, even though it was just to illustrate an article on marriage in general.
He frowned at the screen, remembering when they had the photograph taken. Any apprehension or doubts about the marriage seemed to have flown Charles' head. He was so focused on making a point, on not backing down. Xaviers and their causes.
Maybe nothing ever really changed. Sitting here, Erik knew he was thinking exactly what many Lehnsherr's before him had thought. He had nothing to prove and certainly felt no compulsion to explain his actions.
“Whatcha doin'?” Erik turned around in his chair to find Azazel frowning at the screen, head tilted. Next to him was Emma, smiling at Erik. The screen behind Erik switched off immediately. Emma pouted. “You're no fun.”
“The door to my office is at the other end,” Erik said.
“Sorry, Azazel took a wrong turn,” Emma said with a shrug, reaching past Erik to switch the screen back on. Erik grabbed her hand, making a slapping sound which made Emma gasp and then wink at him. He gently pushed her hand back, receiving a smile. “Don't you have work you should be doing?”
Emma straightened up and smoothed down the front of her pristine white blazer. She glanced at Azazel and he gave her a small nod before disappearing from view. She took two steps towards Erik's desk to perch herself on the edge of it as he followed in his chair, swivelling to look up at her.
She made a face. “You're not going to like this.” Erik nodded. “It's started. People making calls, asking questions.”
“What kind of questions?” Erik asked.
“Well, on this morning's Elevensies, the hosts were asking the audience if they think you wear boxers or briefs,” Emma said, most seriously. Erik started to turn his chair away, but Emma grabbed the armrest and kept him facing her. “If only they knew.”
Erik rolled his eyes and pushed away from the desk to get up. He shoved his hands into his pockets, strolling over the window and looking down at the city below.
“It probably will get nasty, you know, what with people not liking you very much,” Emma said, making Erik snort out a laugh against his will. “Anything I should know about that you wouldn't want the press to dig up? Should probably tell me now. You know how I like to fix things before they break.”
Erik shook his head. “You already know everything.”
Emma snorted. “Right. I also know you're pretty damn good at blocking me when you want.”
“You know everything.” He turned to look at her in the eyes, open and truthful.
She nodded and said, “Then you've got nothing to worry about.” She hopped off the desk. “I got a date with an editor. His wife doesn't know. She doesn't know a lot actually. Luckily they don't have kids so their divorce is only mostly going to hurt him.”
Erik watched her striding off towards the door, throwing out random comments. He called out, “Emma.”
She turned with a questioning look. “Boss?”
“Charles,” Erik said, not quite sure about what he wanted to say. Charles didn't need anyone's protection. He didn't need Erik looking out for him. He knew people would be gunning for them both. Even so, he said, “Watch him.”
Emma smirked at Erik. “Like I'd let anything anything happen to that cutie.” Erik glared. “Oh come on, we all saw the photograph. He's hot.”
Erik blinked at her and the datapad from his desk went flying. Emma flashed, becoming diamond clear, the datapad smashing into her and then onto the floor in pieces. When she turned back to flesh, she grinned, wagging a finger at Erik before leaving with a smile. Erik didn't spare a thought of worry for anyone who had Emma coming after them. In all fairness, they would have done something to deserve the visit.
It was hard concentrating on lecturing students when every time Raven spotted Charles at the back of the auditorium, she thought of the engagement picture which had been analysed a million times in the last forty-eight hours. So far, the consensus appeared to be that Erik and Charles were deeply in love, extremely uncomfortable with each other, cynical businessmen and just another example of the odd mutant community with its strange ways and customs. Everyone had an opinion. Especially experts of the human variety.
“When the Neo-Nazi uprisings in Russia finally kicked off the trigger event that would start the Third World War, the U.S. Government was still more concerned with implementing mutant registration, and as the world went to war, this country was seeing the passing of the Mutant Identification Bill and the mobilisation of the Mutant Response Division. But times have changed. Now we're lucky enough to have the Mutant Protection Bill, which, you know, totally different. I know I feel safe,” Raven said with a grin. The students responded with snorts, laughter and thoughtful silence. “Okay, seminars throughout Friday and Monday. I will not be in my office tomorrow. For next time, chapters eighteen to twenty-six of Warren's, A Hundred Years of American-Mutant History, volume one. Thank you.”
Raven turned to shut down the large video screen as students began to filter out of the exits. She fielded questions for a few moments, Charles not far from her sights as he discreetly emerged from the back of the auditorium towards the lecture podium.
He was shaking his head at her when he stopped by the podium, looking up at her from two steps below. “I must confess you are incredibly fetching when you're all educational, with that touch of terrifying cynicism thrown into the mix.”
Raven smiled, narrowing her eyes at Charles. “You're an idiot.”
“Yes, but I'm an idiot who appears to have held onto his hair longer than most Xaviers, and that includes the women. So,” Charles said, finishing the sentence with shrug and smile.
“Ugh, you have become so annoying since you got engaged,” Raven said, packing up her things into her satchel. “And considering it's only been two days, that says a lot about you, Charles.”
“I'm easy to please?” Charles asked innocently.
“Well, the easy part's true,” Raven said with a grin.
Charles gave her a wounded look. “Why can't people just forget a man's wild youth?”
“Remember that party last year-”
“Point made, well done, Professor. Now, could we please go and eat lunch?” Charles said, hopping up on the podium.
Raven slipped the strap of her bag over her shoulder and smiled. “And talk about your robot fiancé?”
“Raven,” Charles warned.
“Did you have to charge him up before putting him in the picture? His batteries looked a little low,” Raven said.
Charles rolled his eyes and turned around, jumping off the podium and making for the entrance. “I'm not doing this with you.”
Raven followed, catching up with him and grabbing his arm. “Uh, yeah, remember when I married Hank? We're doing this.”
To his credit, Charles let her tease him all the way up to the point where the bill for lunch had to be paid, and at that point, Raven wisely stopped.
Charles was indulging himself by looking at the research papers from the Mars expedition. He had plenty of work to do with the foundation, but post lunch he had been left with very little concentration. Not to mention the fact that a certain photograph doing the rounds had people calling every five minutes to either congratulate him or to ask him if he was serious.
He was finishing a call when Louis walked in with a grim expression. Charles frowned at him and said, “Louis, if Erik wasn't a Lehnsherr and I was marrying him, what would you say to that?”
Louis blinked, brows rising as he thought about it. He looked back at Charles and very politely said, “I'd say congratulations on bagging a rather successful and attractive young man.”
Charles narrowed his eyes at Louis. “Let me rephrase the question. What's wrong with Erik Lehnsherr?”
Louis sighed. “Nothing as far as I know. Nobody likes a private successful man who hates the press. There are also murmurings of less than legal behaviour on occasion, but come on, who hasn't?”
Charles shook his head. “Just when I think I know you, there's a whole new horrifying side I had no idea about.”
“You're an Xavier. Get use to it,” Louis said. “Now, I have some news for you.”
“About Erik?” Charles asked, sitting up straight.
Louis smiled, visibly amused. “Not everything's about your wonderful fiancé.” This earned him a filthy look from Charles. “This is about the fundraiser on Friday. Our sponsor just pulled out.”
Charles stared. “What? Why?”
Louis shrugged. “Icarus say they want to explore other avenues for sponsorship. They could be right. I mean, what self-respecting mutant needs sportswear? Or branded water for that matter? Besides, it's not like we don't have money-”
“Louis, please,” Charles said, rubbing his forehead. “People see their logo, wear their clothes, buy their health products. We needed them. We needed someone visibly supporting our causes. And now people will notice that they don't.”
“We'll find someone else,” Louis said. “This foundation's been here a long time. If your grandmother was unable to drive it into the ground. I doubt you will.”
“Even so, come Friday, we'll be holding a fundraiser and expecting people to part with their money while the main sponsor has pulled out altogether.”
“Charles. We will find someone else.” Louis stressed.
“Not by Friday,” Charles said, sitting back, sinking into thought. “We need help.”
Louis frowned. “You have someone in mind?”
Charles grimaced. “Actually, I do.”
Louis stared. “Charles. No. I forbid it. It's... what will he think?” Louis sighed. “What will his aunt think?”
Charles frowned at the forlorn look on Louis' face. Louis returned a shifty look and quickly left.
Charles opened the door to reveal Erik, dressed very smartly in black shirt and pants, holding up a bottle of wine. Charles smiled, taking the bottle and reaching out to take Erik's arm, pulling him into the house.
“Erik, you shouldn't have,” Charles said, looking over the bottle just as Louis arrived, dressed for an evening out.
“Ah, dear boy,” Louis said, embracing Erik warmly, giving him a hearty pat on the arm when he pulled away. Louis saw the bottle in Charles' hands and took it from him, looking very shocked. “Erik, you're too generous, I think.”
Erik nodded towards the bottle. “I'm not much of a wine drinker and it was just collecting dust.”
“The dust is what makes it valuable,” Louis said, showing the bottle to Charles.
Charles nodded. “Yes, absolutely. I mean, that's... quite, very vintagey. Extraordinarily dusty.”
Louis narrowed his eyes at Charles and shook his head. “It's all just plonk to you, isn't it?”
Charles grabbed the bottle and grinned. “Erik? Drink?”
Erik smiled and gave Charles a polite nod. “Please.”
Louis shook his head. “Well, I hope you both enjoy dinner. And, try not to inhale that wine, Charles. You may want to let it breathe for at least half a second.”
“Goodnight, Louis,” Charles called out as he ushered Erik through the house and out to the back where a table had been laid out under the stars, glass lanterns lighting up the evening. “I thought we should make the most of the fresh air while we still have the weather.”
Erik nodded, eyeing the lanterns. “Good idea.”
Charles cast an eye over the aged label of the wine bottle as Erik stood looking across the grounds, hands in pockets. “Really, Erik, this thing is quite old. Are you sure you want to drink it?”
Erik turned to smile in amusement. “Wine's for drinking.”
Charles nodded, uncorking it. “I cannot argue. Where are my manners, please, take a seat.”
Erik pulled out a chair from the dining table and sat down, descending slowly to allow Charles to seat himself at the same time. Charles suddenly felt a little guilty for inviting him to dinner for reasons that had nothing to do with even attempting to get to know the man he was going to marry. How easy it was to treat this all like a business. Charles looked away from Erik, staring at the ridiculous satellite dish in the distance.
“You seem troubled,” Erik said.
Charles shook his head. “I was just thinking.”
“About Icarus?” Erik asked. When Charles looked at him, Erik was straightening the cutlery laid out in front of him. He looked up at Charles who was quietly staring. “I heard they pulled their sponsorship from some of your events.”
“Yes. They did.”
Erik nodded. “You're worried.”
Charles smiled. “Just a little.”
Erik frowned. “Why?”
Charles shrugged, laughing quietly. “Erik, running a business is one thing, but running the kinds of schemes the Xavier Research Foundation runs, we need visible support. We need to associate ourselves with businesses people know. Successful businesses. The Xavier fortune is not inexhaustible.”
Erik was still frowning. He leaned back, the frown easing. “I thought perhaps you invited me to dinner because you wanted my help.”
“I did,” Charles said quietly. “That's exactly why I invited you.”
Erik's brow was furrowed, his eyes peering at Charles as if trying to read him. “You're worried because you thought I might refuse?”
Charles shook his head, smiling. “I was worried about how to broach the subject. I think I quite foolishly underestimated you. I thought I'd have to court your advice. Charm you into sharing your business acumen.”
Erik was shaking his head. “None of those things are necessary. We'll soon be in a partnership and that affords you many privileges.”
Charles smiled. “It does?”
Erik smiled back. “Of course. Access to the CEO of Lehnsherr Corp. Free business advice. Not to mention that the creators of the ridiculously named Lehmanbot would be very happy to sponsor the events out of which Icarus have dropped out.”
Charles stared. “I was rather hoping you might push a contact or two in my direction. I couldn't ask you to-”
“When Lehnsherr Corp gives you its support, the contacts will come your way without your asking,” Erik said.
Charles felt waves of solid certainty coming off of Erik, without an ounce of doubt. Such confidence. It was a giddying feeling to sit there and let Erik's fearlessness wash over him.
“I must say, I feel as though I'm the one who will be gaining much more from this marriage, Erik,” Charles said quietly, pushing at the fork in front of him with his finger.
When he pulled his hand back, he watched it straighten itself out, and then Erik's face, his gaze the only thing pointed at the piece of cutlery. Erik's eyes flicked up to look at Charles and they quietly held each other's gaze for a moment.
“I think that wine's had enough time to breathe,” Charles said, getting up and turning away from the table to go to the stone wall running low around the house, the grounds stretching out quietly beyond it.
Erik joined him at his side as Charles poured wine into the glasses, though his gaze was on the satellite and not the drinks. Charles waited for Erik to say something, but instead he just stood blinking at the now non-functioning monument. Charles held up the glasses of wine, smiling when Erik took his.
“To partnership?” Charles suggested.
Erik smiled. “To partnership.”
They clinked glasses and drank. Charles swallowed, gulped and shut his eyes before squinting at Erik. “I think it might be dusty on the inside too.”
Erik stared at Charles for a moment and then grinned.
“Oh that? That's my grandmother, Beatrice Xavier,” Charles said, holding up his glass of Scotch at the portrait on the wall. Erik nodded, blinking slowly like he had to concentrate. “It was her mother who built the south wing a hundred years ago, just after the war. You see, before the war, this place was a museum and she thought the new wing could continue being a museum.”
Erik nodded. “What happened?”
“Bad year for mutants. The last people she wanted in this house were human tourists looking at the family jewels, if you know what I mean.”
Erik was smiling and frowning as he slurred, “I don't.”
“Well, you know, we've got some things people think ought to be in a proper museum. Historical significance and all that,” Charles slurred right back. “We all know what happened during the Third World War. How many artefacts went up in smoke because they were in museums. More Scotch?”
Erik blinked at the bottle in Charles' hand and nodded, holding out his glass. “It's good.”
“Seventy years old, my friend. Trumps dusty wine any old day,” Charles said, filling Erik's glass and then his own, before pointing at the next portrait. “That's Victoria Xavier, more popularly known as Victor Xavier. He ran off with the neighbour's chauffeur and started a vineyard in Burgundy.”
Erik pointed at the portrait. “There was a film.”
“Yes,” Charles said nodding. “He was played by some very popular chap at the time. You know, from that acting family. Erik, are you sure you're not hungry?”
Erik was nodding, but his eyes were fixed on another portrait. He seemed to drift towards it and Charles followed Erik. “The Professor?”
Charles looked at the painting of the young man seated in his wheelchair, his hands on the armrests and his gaze on the viewer. He seemed unshakable, the way he held himself.
Charles blinked at Erik, hearing that thought all too loud and clear. He had suspected it, but now Erik's loudly projected thought seemed to confirm it. “You're able to shield yourself from me. Is that part of your ability?”
Erik turned from the portrait to look at Charles. He seemed unlike himself, a little unsteady, a little ruffled, face flushed. “You look just like him.”
Charles nodded. “Apparently so. Could I penetrate your mind at all if I tried?”
Erik smiled. “No wonder you've been plying me with drink.”
Charles thought about Erik's response and then started to laugh. “Let me guess. You're an old fashioned sort. You want to wait?”
Now Erik was laughing. After the laughter died down between them, Erik smiled and tapped his temple. “Go ahead.”
“Really?” Charles asked as Erik nodded. He peered at Erik, compelled to press his fingers to his own temple to focus. He could make out echoes, like residual feelings. He could sense that Erik was rather fantastically drunk, but, he couldn't penetrate the surface of his thoughts. When he tried it was like hearing screeching inside his head. “Your head makes my ears hurt.”
Erik nodded. “I could always do it. Keep out telepaths. Let them in.”
“You know I'd heard that Magneto trained himself to block telepaths, but here you are doing it naturally. Amazing. Your glass is empty, Erik, here.” Erik watched his glass being refilled, looking startled when Charles suddenly gasped. “Do you want to see his room? Old Magneto's room?
Erik blinked at Charles, nodding slowly. “He lived here.”
Charles nodded back. “During the restoration of the house, they somehow figured out which was his bedroom, and since then, it's been kept just as it would have been when he was here.”
Erik frowned. “Why?”
Charles leaned in and whispered. “I'm not quite sure. The Professor's room too. I don't like to go in there, you know, very odd. Do you want to see?”
“Please,” Erik said, not drunk enough to stop being polite, Charles noted as he topped up his drink, using the bottle to point the way.
They were both quietly sitting in the small bedroom, on the edge of the bed, staring at the window, bottle of Scotch finished.
“It's small,” Erik said.
“You thought it would be bigger?” Charles asked. Erik nodded. “Well, he was a larger than life figure.”
“He was happy here,” Erik said. “Happiest.”
Charles frowned at Erik's profile. He wasn't so poised, so rigid. He was relaxed, flagging a bit. “You think so?”
“I know,” Erik said, his eyes on the bright white moon outside the window.
Charles bumped his shoulder against Erik's, prompting Erik to look at him with a half-smile of interest. “Do you want to see the Professor's room? It's right across the hall.”
Erik's brows climbed up into his hair. “It is?”
Charles nodded. “Oh yes. Magneto would just saunter across the hall and they'd play chess, drink, talk. That sort of thing. The Professor wrote, those few moments I will treasure until the end of my days. Chapter five. My favourite chapter.” Charles patted Erik's arm, leaning close. “I don't really like going in there. Very odd.” Erik nodded with a look of understanding. “Let's play chess instead.”
Erik picked up his empty glass from the bed and stared at it, while teetering where he sat. “We'll need more drink.”
Charles patted his shoulder. “You're a man after my own heart, Erik. Let's get ourselves a small drink, shall we?”
Charles moved the piece slowly across the board before lifting his finger off and sitting back to give Erik a challenging look. Erik frowned. “That's not allowed. They can't move diagonally.”
Charles squinted at the piece. “Are you sure? I'm fairly certain the horses can move how they bloody well like.”
“You're thinking about the queen. These aren't horses. They're knights.”
Charles stared at Erik who looked far too amused. They both burst out laughing. Charles said, “I think I remember why I hate this game. I mean, they look like horses. Call them horses.”
Erik lifted up a black knight and nodded. “For you, Francine, I will call them horses.”
“Don't, Erik. We'll come to blows over that name,” Charles said with a grimace.
Erik beckoned Charles closer. He leaned in until they could both smell the scotch on each other's breath. “My middle name? Maximilian. Hate it.”
Charles nodded thoughtfully. “Rather farty old name. I suppose Francine's not so bad.”
Erik nodded. “I like it. Why do you hate the Professor's room?”
Charles scratched his head, shaking it afterwards. “The pressure, you know? Every Xavier has to live up to him. No wonder half of them went mad or died young. How do you live up to them? Those remarkable men who came before you. Sometimes... I feel crushed by the weight of this place.”
A loud thump signalled that Erik had stopped listening. Charles looked at him lying on the couch, face planted on a cushion. Charles rubbed his eye and nodded. “It is getting a bit late isn't it?”
“What's this?” Charles looked up to find Louis in the doorway, staring at Erik. “What did you do to him?”
Charles stared at Louis. “Nothing. He's just had a bit too much to drink. Actually, we both drank about the same, but I don't feel so bad.”
“Of course you don't. Thanks to generations of Xaviers dousing their livers with alcohol, we don't actually need that organ anymore. He on the other hand is probably dying of alcohol poisoning.”
Charles gave Louis a long look. “What's going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you're acting strange,” Charles said, faculties not affected enough to miss that Louis was indeed acting strange.
“I am merely worried about the impression this is going to make on his dear aunt if she finds out. She's not like us. She's a sensitive and sophisticated woman,” Louis said, his words faltering a little as his gaze shifted to nowhere in particular.
“I think you're worrying about nothing,” Charles said, waving his hand and getting up, and then waving bodily for a moment.
“Well, of course you're going to say that,” Louis said, casting Erik's slumped form worrying looks.
“Because I'm not a sensitive and sophisticated woman?” Charles asked slowly.
Louis glared. “It's a pity they abolished capital punishment.”
Charles frowned. “I think you mean corporal punishment.”
“Oh I know what I mean,” Louis said as Charles rolled his eyes. “Now help me get him up the stairs and into bed. He's not leaving until he's sober enough to tell Anna we're not as debauched as almost all the Xavier biographies are suggesting these days.”
“I don't know. I think the one on Matilda Xavier was rather on the money.”
Louis walked into the room and grabbed Erik from under his arms, waiting for Charles to hoist up the other end. They both shuffled up the stairs and into one of the guest bedrooms after Charles had managed to drop Erik's feet several times. Then they carefully lay Erik down, Charles doubling over afterwards to get his breath back as Louis removed Erik's shoes.
“Thank god,” Charles coughed. “I think I'll get some sleep too.” He turned to go, finding himself being roughly pulled back by his elbow, Louis glaring at him again. “This is about not being a sophisticated woman, isn't it?”
Louis pointed to the bed. “Stay here. He's your fiancé. It's doesn't behoove--”
“Behoove you to get him drunk and then run off for a good night's sleep. He might wake up and need an explanation as to where he is. I want Anna to be sure that we're looking after him as we would a member of our own family.”
“Oh my god,” Charles said slowly.
“She's become a good friend, that's all,” Louis said instantly. Charles folded his arms and shook his head. “I'm going to bed now.”
Charles nodded, narrowing his eyes at Louis. “Sweet dreams. About Anna apparently.”
Louis went rigid and stern. “I would never. She's a-”
“I know. A sophisticated woman,” Charles said. “You know, it really is good to know that the Xavier tradition of being distracted by a pretty face is well and truly in our past.”
Louis glared. “Goodnight, Charles.”
Louis walked off, as poised and dignified as possible in the shadow of his epic schoolboy crush as Charles turned towards the bed where Erik was blissfully passed out. Charles sighed, slumping onto the edge of the bed and removing his shoes. He lay down next to Erik, watching him closely until he also fell asleep.
Charles awoke with a start, feeling hot and bothered. He had the intense feeling that someone had been watching him, standing there in the doorway opposite the bed. He slowly crawled out of bed, walking out into the corridor, just for a quick look. He hadn't expected to see anything, but there it was, a shadow at the end of the corridor. A figure retreating.
Charles ran after the figure, which was always the thing to do in a big creepy dark house in the middle of the night. Charles rounded the corner and ran up a flight of stairs, rushing down another corridor. And then he abruptly stopped.
There at the end of the corridor stood a man, framed by a window which was being beaten by rain. He was a dark shape in front of the window, lit up every time lighting struck outside, colouring everything around him.
Charles took cautious steps forward, watching as the man began to slowly turn. When Charles made out the cape and the curve of a metal helmet, his feet automatically rooted themselves to the floor and this time he knew he wouldn't move again.
The other man was coming closer and closer, his steps slow and measured. It made Charles' heart speed up, thump loud in his chest, right up into his head. He tried to see the man's face, but all he got was a flash of bright eyes shrouded by shadow, even as the man stood so close that Charles could have reached out and touched him.
The man was completely still, a shadow looking right through Charles. He lifted up his hand, upturned as if offering something. He held it aloft with elegance and promise. Charles shook his head. He didn't understand. He stumbled backwards until the back of his legs hit something. Then he turned around and saw the figure in the wheelchair.
For a moment it was like looking in the mirror, but Charles took in the set of the mouth, the odd sad serenity of the gaze, and he knew this was the Professor. Charles watched both men as they stared at each other silently in the middle of this dark night. Magneto with his outstretched hand and the Professor as frozen as a sculpture until he very slowly shook his head.
Magneto stepped closer and strands of moonlight manage to penetrate the shadows long enough for Charles to see part of a face through the opening of the helmet. A defiant line of a mouth. Watery ice cold eyes. They wore the same sheen as the Professor's eyes. Charles felt his head spinning and his guts were in his mouth as he wobbled where he stood, reaching out for support. When he looked up again it was to see Magneto tilting his head at Charles, observing him closely before whipping around and striding away. Charles looked down at himself, seated in the Professor's wheelchair. His hands were shaking on the armrests and there was grief and pain and... he felt so alone. Even in this house filling to the brim with mutants, he felt so alone.
“Erik!” Charles called out, lurching forward and reaching out to grab someone who wasn't there.
He desperately tried to reach for the fading shadow in front of him until the corridor was gone and instead he was looking at the door. He was on his knees in the middle of the bed, half-crawling towards the edge. He looked around at the room and remembered what he was doing here and the fact that he had been rather bad at it since Erik was missing.
The strip of light under the bathroom door said Erik was probably still close by. This was confirmed by the retching noises from inside. There was silence for a moment and then coughing. More silence. And then more retching. Charles climbed off the bed and tried opening the door. Thankfully, it was locked. There really was nothing as bad as having a hangover in the presence of someone being quite violently sick.
“Erik? Can I get you anything?” Charles asked, knocking on the door. The reply was another prolonged sound of vomiting. “Erik, I am so sorry.”
Once his body was no longer attempting to rid itself of bile and vital organs, Erik got off the floor of the bathroom, flushed, and rinsed his mouth out with mouthwash and then water. He opened the door and palmed off the light, stepping back into the bedroom. Charles had migrated to the side of the bed Erik had woken up on and he was lying on his back with one leg hanging onto the ground, one hand on stomach, the other shoved under the back of his head. He appeared to have fallen asleep waiting.
Shaking his head, Erik stripped off his shirt and trousers, hanging them both over the back of a chair and turned the bedroom light off, walking around the bed to lie down on the other side. Charles made a small startled sound as Erik sat down and the bed dipped. He slowed his descent, lying down as quietly as possible.
It was when he shut his eyes and felt himself floating back towards sleep, Charles said, “So... do you still want to marry me?”
Erik opened his eyes, grinning up at the ceiling. “Go to sleep, Charles.”
Erik awoke early next morning, no matter how much his body protested. He needed to get home, shower and then maybe fall into a coma for the next twenty-four hours. His head felt like there was a mutant parade going on inside and his stomach felt as though someone had spent the night punching it. He also had a chess piece in his trouser pocket, which he had no recollection of stealing.
He left Charles hugging a pillow and made his way downstairs. Azazel would be appearing at any moment and Erik figured it was best to slip out of the front door without disturbing anyone. Until Louis yelled half-way down a corridor and ushered Erik back into the house and the kitchen.
“You really ought to eat something,” Louis said, pulling out a chair at the breakfast table. Erik smiled and sat down. “It'll help with that slightly green pallor.”
“I'll just have a coffee,” Erik said. “Thank you.”
Louis smiled obligingly, filling a cup with coffee for Erik and taking a seat at the table. “I hope you got some sleep last night. I sensed a bit of a commotion.”
Erik thought back to the night before. He'd woken up terrified and then the next thing he knew he was emptying out the contents of his stomach. He couldn't remember his dream, but something didn't sit right about it. It had felt all wrong, like the fear he felt wasn't his own. Erik smiled, lifting his coffee cup to his mouth and then thinking better of it when a wave of nausea rolled through him.
“I slept fine.”
“And Charles?” Louis asked. “I thought I heard him walking around. He used to have night terrors as a child. We'd find him wandering the corridors scared out of his mind. We'd all wake up feeling quite scared out of our minds. You see, in heightened states of brain activity, some telepaths are prone to, well, an emotional leakage of sorts.”
Erik smiled. “I was a little preoccupied last night. Seventy year old Scotch doesn't come out as great as it goes in.”
Louis chuckled, nodding. “I hope you're feeling better now.”
“I am. Thank you,” Erik got up, pushing his chair back under the table. “Tell Charles I enjoyed myself. And I'll call him about the fundraiser to smooth out the details. I should go. Azazel should be arriving any minute.”
Louis got up, embracing Erik as he stood there rather dumbly. “Yes, of course. I'll see you soon, I hope.”
“Of course,” Erik said, walking along with Louis as they made their way back through the house and to the front door, where Louis held the door open with a smile. Erik nodded to him and walked out, seeing Azazel already patiently waiting.
“Azazel,” Erik said, receiving a nod as the other man extended an arm towards Erik. “Straight to the bathroom if you don't mind.” He took a deep breath through his nose, clenching his jaw tight.
Azazel arched a brow and then smiled, clearly amused. He clasped Erik's wrist and within a blink of an eye Erik stood in the middle of his bathroom, the short and fast trip giddying enough to make him grateful for the proximity of the toilet bowl.
Hank was talking. He had been talking for a while. It was the day for monthly meetings with heads of divisions, which was ironic because Charles felt as if his own head was at this moment in the process of division. It didn't help that little Leo was in the corner of the office having a loud conversation with his imaginary friend. Charles frowned at the boy who was now laughing at something particularly funny.
“Not that I don't adore my godson, but-”
“You already asked that question,” Hank said with a sigh. “Suspected MU1 outbreak at his school? They sent all the kids home.”
Charles nodded slowly. “Right. And you've-”
“Run every test. He's fine. You know, except for the talking to imaginary people part,” Hank said with a nod.
“Excellent. Are we about done here?” Charles asked, squinting at the datapad in front of him, his eyes feeling as if they were bleeding rather than seeing. Hank was staring at him. “Oh god, we've barely begun.”
Hank poked his own datapad and both his and Charles' screens switched off. “You look like crap that's been crapped on.”
“Don't be silly,” Charles said, slipping further down in his chair. “I don't feel anywhere near that good.”
“What happened? I thought you were seeing Lehnsherr last night.”
“I was. I did. I expect to be hearing about his impending marriage to someone else very soon,” Charles said. “There he was helping us out of our rut with the fundraiser and I somehow managed to get him drunk out of his skull. I've never heard someone throw up so much, which is amazing considering I'm friends with your wife.”
Hank looked appalled, rightly so. “Makes sense why you're still single.”
“We're not all early bloomers like you and Raven,” Charles said, letting his head drop back as he closed his eyes. “I had one of those awful dreams again.”
Hank was quiet for a while before asking, “Yeah?”
“Yes. I saw the Professor and Magneto. Magneto was asking the Professor for something, but the Professor refused and Magneto left and... I woke up terrified.”
Charles opened his eyes, turning his head to look at Hank. “I have no idea. Maybe I wasn't terrified at all. Maybe he was.”
“Have you told Louis?”
Charles shook his head. “He'll worry and start bolting down all the windows.”
“We could do more tests,” Hank said. “Considering your uncle's ability, it makes sense your abilities extend in a similar direction.”
“Wonderful. He has access to generations of Xavier memories and I'm somehow able to tune into the depressed echoes of the departed in that bloody house. We should celebrate,” Charles said, forcing a smile to soften the bitterness in his voice.
Hank was nodding thoughtfully. “Imagine if that is what you're doing. I mean, sure, maybe you're having dreams about things you've heard way too many times, or maybe you actually have the ability to somehow fine tune these fading telepathic signals in your dreams. Professor X was a very powerful telepath. There's no telling what he's left floating around that house. You're a class 4. If anyone's going to pick up a signal, its going be you.”
Charles smiled. “Lucky me.”
Hank turned the datapads back on with a small smile. “I don't think you realise how lucky.”
Charles thought back to the nightmare of watching Magneto turning away and disappearing into the dark. Maybe Charles was lucky after all. Lucky enough to not be the man who wanted to join Magneto so many times.
“Baby's first hangover?”
Erik turned onto his back and aimed a sour look at Emma who was lying next to him on his bed, propped up on one elbow and looking amused. He grabbed her hand and practically slapped it onto his forehead, closing his eyes. He could feel Emma's fingers pressing gently against his forehead. After a moment he opened his eyes and frowned at her.
“You need more water. Not a telepath,” Emma said, slapping his forehead lightly. Erik jerked his head away with a scowl, pushing her hand back. “Aren't you working today? You're not even married and already the business is suffering.”
Erik propped himself up on both elbows and gave Emma a thoughtful look. “I want you to do something for me.” Emma looked Erik up and down with open appreciation, arching a perfect brow. Erik rolled his eyes and said, “Icarus. Find out what's going on with them.”
“Find out? No need. A little bird told me the new CEO is thinking about a re-branding. They want to do a little rising from the ashes. Sales are down and frankly they're boring. They're hoping a new image change might attract investors, not to mention customers.”
“I want a piece,” Erik told Emma.
She nodded. “How big a piece are we talking?”
“Big,” Erik said.
“What did they do? Upset your cute little mutant sensibilities?” Emma asked smoothly.
Erik smiled, nodding. “Something like that.”
Emma frowned at him for a second. Then she got up from the bed, wrapping her coat around her and tying it up with an elegant bow. “Water, plenty of it. And eat something, will you? You're making me hungry.”
Erik flopped back down on the bed as he watched her leave. A few minutes later, she was sticking her head around the door and grinning. “You have a visitor.”
Erik slowly blinked at her. “Did you tell them to-”
“It's Charles Xavier.”
Erik kept his rude suggestion to himself and sat up, nodding to Emma. “I'll be right out.”
He threw off the clothes he had been lying around in for most of the morning, quickly pulling on a pair of black sweat pants and sweatshirt, pushing up the sleeves and not bothering with the few buttons it had. He dashed into the bathroom, splashed his face with water, wiping it quickly and finally left his bedroom. From the stairs he could see Charles standing by the fireplace and looking at the painting above it, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his khakhis. His white shirt seemed crumpled, like maybe he had spent a portion of the day horizontal too.
Smoothing his hair back, Erik hurried down the stairs. “Charles.”
Charles turned to smile at Erik. “Erik, hello. Sorry for the impromptu visit. I hope you don't mind.”
Erik shook his head. “Of course not. Is everything all right?”
Charles looked a little embarrassed. “I tried to call you at the office and was told you wouldn't be in today. I wondered it was possibly my fault.”
Erik smiled. “Of course not. I think it was the Scotch.”
Charles grimaced. “I am so sorry.
Erik smiled, gesturing with his head for Charles to follow him into the kitchen. “Coffee?”
“Tea?” Charles asked, taking a seat behind the large counter, Erik on the other side, running his fingers across the buttons of the shining black wall unit.
“No tea,” Erik muttered. “We'll do it the old fashioned way.” He went to the other end of the kitchen, opening a cabinet and retrieving a copper kettle. He filled it with water and put it on the black cooking pane next to the wall unit before opening another cabinet and taking out a large metal container, from which he took out a handful of tea leaves that went into the kettle.
“Thank you,” Charles said as Erik turned around to face him, his hands resting lightly on the edge of his side of the counter.
Erik nodded and said, “Hungry?”
“Oh, no, not really,” Charles said, shaking his head.
“Toast?” Erik asked.
“God, yes, please,” Charles said. He waved at his stomach. “It's been that kind of a day.”
They ate their tea and toast on the balcony, Charles leaning over the edge and looking down at the street below, Erik behind him, seated at the black iron table.
“You have a wonderful view,” Charles said, taking a bite of his toast.
Erik glanced at Charles, his short hair being ruffled by the breeze, his body flush with the balcony wall as he leaned against it. Erik looked away at his teacup instead, watching the steam rise from the cup until Charles pulled up a chair opposite.
“Did you catch up on your sleep?” Erik asked, looking at Charles whose eyes were still a little pink tinged. “Louis seemed to think you were suffering from night terrors.”
Charles pulled a face. “Yes. I used to get them much more often as a child. This one wasn't too bad. Fell back to sleep quick enough afterwards.”
“You think something might have caused it? Stress?” Erik asked.
Charles nodded thoughtfully. “It's possible. Things have been rather hectic of late.” He clamped his mouth shut then, reaching for his tea. Erik could almost sense how much Charles wanted to add something else.
“What?” Erik said. “There's something else.”
Charles smiled, not looking at Erik. “My friend has a theory. He seems to think these aren't dreams, at all but rather I'm picking up echoes of events that have happened in that house. He thinks that somehow sleep allows me to magnify these echoes that are always there, but usually blocked by too much other activity.”
“What do you think?” Erik asked.
Charles looked up finally. He seemed tired. “I think the Xaviers have made it their life's work to obsess over one man. Maybe it would be more strange to not dream about him.”
Erik quietly snorted. “Believe it or not, I understand.”
Charles grinned, shaking his head. He sighed. “I'm sorry. I forgot who I was talking to. I'm sure it hasn't been easy being descended from the great Magneto, looking just like him.”
Erik frowned. “Why do you say that?”
“That I look like him.”
Charles was frowning, as if unsure himself. “Well, you look of a similar build. I suppose, working backwards from the pictures we've seen of him as an old man.” Erik waited quietly and then Charles said. “He looks like you in my dreams. As much of him as I've ever seen. I think I'd forgotten until last night. You look remarkably like him.”
Erik leaned forward and covered Charles' hand, which had fisted itself against the table. “Stress. Probably not helped by my throwing up seventy year old Scotch.”
Charles laughed, pulling his hand away, his forehead creasing with something like regret. “I think it's time I got going.”
“Do you have to be somewhere?” Charles shook his head. Erik shrugged and said, “Stay. Stay for dinner.”
Charles pulled a face. “By dinner you mean?”
“Toast,” Erik said with a grin.
Charles made a show of pretending to think it over and replied, “Why not?”
They spent most of the afternoon on the balcony, conversation naturally moving towards the impending fundraiser. When the rain started somewhere around early evening, they quickly ducked inside and took up on the couches in front of the fireplace, Erik making another round of tea and toast. He stood waiting for the kettle to boil, watching Charles sitting on the couch, one arm resting along the back, the other squeezing the bridge of his nose. He looked like a young man with the burden of an old soul.
Whatever was troubling Charles vanished from his expression as Erik set down the tea and toast. “Ah, thank you.”
Erik nodded, handing Charles his plate and then sitting down on the opposite couch with a sigh. He picked up his own plate and bit into a slice of toast. No more headache. No more tender stomach. No more nausea. The day was finally looking up and opposite him, Charles was quietly laughing.
“What?” Erik asked.
Charles shook his head. “It's nothing. I just don't think I've ever sensed so much satisfaction coming off of a man eating toast.”
Erik held up his toast and said, “I like toast, Francine.”
Charles sat back with a sigh, “It's like you don't want me to marry you.” Erik laughed, watching Charles paying his toast too much attention now, clearly about to broach a subject. “You know, it hasn't escaped me that you've not mentioned our pending nuptials.”
Erik nodded. “I thought we could both do without the pressure of over thinking it this early.”
Charles was nodding in agreement. “I'm not sure I want to think about it at all. But, it has to be done. And there's also the matter of our co-habitation afterwards.”
Erik nodded and said. “Okay. Small wedding or large?”
“My family will try to convince you it should be on the grounds of the mansion.”
“I accept,” Erik said. “Would you like to live here with me, or have me live with you, or should we start looking at an apartment or house that would be convenient and acceptable to both of us?”
Charles blinked. “Oh. Um. You have a wonderful apartment.”
“But it's not your kind of thing,” Erik said.
“Yes. And I thought the mansion might not be yours,” Charles said, screwing up his face.
Erik leaned forward and said, “Charles, after a year we can go our separate ways. For a year, living in your house won't be a hardship. I spend most of my time working anyway.”
Charles nodded slowly, as if some realisation was dawning on him. “Yes, I do see your logic. So, small private ceremony, followed by you moving into the mansion. You'd be fine with that?”
Erik leaned back. “More than fine.”
Charles was nodding, clearly impressed. Then he shook his head with a quizzical expression. “What the hell do people need wedding planners for exactly?”
Erik shrugged and continued to eat his toast.
Forty-eight hours before Friday came the news of Lehnsherr Corp extending its charity work to sponsoring some of the Xavier Research Foundation events. Charles wasn't surprised by the media commentary that followed. It was all part of a continued mutant takeover, one pro-Human League spokesman proclaimed. Another commented on the significance of Erik's gift to Charles. It was almost like an old fashioned wedding ring, she had snorted on the morning news. Others questioned the motive of XRF departing with Icarus in favour of greener pastures, especially as reports over the last few days were revealing the extent of the company's troubles. How typical that a mutant had sided with a mutant rather than a failing human company.
“I'm sorry, could you possibly change the channels?” Charles politely asked the barman who nodded, turned around, keying in a new set of channels, this time all sport.
The fundraiser was in full swing, the sound of music and merriment almost drowning out all other sounds. His opening duties done, Charles had taken up a stool at the bar which was discreetly hidden in the curves of the large hall.
The barman placed a drink before Charles, which he picked up with a happy sigh. “To learning lessons badly.”
“To your amazing constitution,” Erik said, raising his Martini glass for Charles to clink against.
Charles smiled and said, “It's just the one.”
“Of course,” Erik said, smiling as he lifted his glass for a sip.
Charles found himself trying to think of a way he could thank Erik for his involvement on this night. He had released news of his support without fanfare. He had turned up with his assistant in tow, posing for photographs under her direction and delivering a short and sharp speech on the importance of backing great causes. Even Louis had been lost for words.
As Erik had stood on the podium, revealing on the large telescreen the sizeable amount of the first donation of the night, his donation, Louis had stood next to Charles, clapping his hands along with everyone as he told Charles, “I'm beginning to think he's one of his Lehmanbots. Programmed for perfection, just like it says on all the advertising.”
Charles had looked up at the podium, smiling as he shook his head. “He's admittedly rather remarkable.”
Remarkable or not, around strangers Erik was still being the rather prickly and stand-offish man Charles had read about in the news. It didn't take a mind reader to see Erik had little time for people who spoke to him as if they were friends and had only known him for seconds. He was very polite with them, painfully so. But here, as they sat at the bar, Erik was a man Charles had gotten drunk with, a man he spent a rainy afternoon with, talking business, eating toast. The man who was fast becoming a friend. It seemed almost too easy, the way Erik's presence in his life made sense, seemed right. The speed at which it had become so welcome alarmed Charles a little.
“You're frowning, Francine,” Erik said, placing his glass on the bar.
Charles instantly eased his expression into a smile. “Am I?”
Erik inclined his head towards the crowd behind them. “By the end of the night, these terribly egotistical people are going to cough up enough money to make them feel important and for you to put into your foundation. It's a good night. Stop worrying.”
“They're not all here for ego, Erik. Some people care.” Erik had a wry smile on his face. Charles let out a small huff of laughter. “At least, I hope they do.”
Erik was nodding as he lifted his drink. “To hope then.”
“To hope,” Charles said, drinking.
No sooner had Charles felt himself finally relaxing, the klaxon blare of the fire alarm went off, making people freeze where they stood. “Brilliant,” Charles said, getting up. “Just what we need.”
Erik was up too, following close behind as Charles yelled over the crowd, directing those closest to him towards the nearest exit. For a moment it became difficult to move, too many people packed into one space as they slowly shuffled out. Charles was jostled a few times. He hissed when someone's jewellery scratched across his hand, before he was moving slowly again until they all spilled out into the grounds.
Charles stood looking up at the building, another product of an obsession with ancient designs. It was almost grimly Gothic. Charles was trying to latch onto any stray thoughts he could find, something to pinpoint the actual fire, if there was one. Someone grabbed his arm, pulling him away from the building.
Charles scowled. It was hard to get a fix with other mutants in the vicinity, but there was no panic within the building, no sense of fear or urgency. At closer inspection, seeing through the eyes of those inside, there was no fire to be found. Charles sighed and looked down at the pressure around his forearm to find Erik holding his arm, the other man's gaze directed up at the building. That was when Erik's two most trusted colleagues appeared in a burst of swirling red.
“False alarm,” Emma told Erik, before turning to smile and wink at Charles. She looked down at Erik's hand on Charles' arm, telling him, “He said yes, sweetie, you don't have to hold on so tight.”
Erik promptly let go, giving her a filthy look. “Are you sure it's a false alarm?”
“There are a few heat-seekers in the crowd. They're adamant there is no fire in that building,” Emma said. “There's probably a glitch in the system. We zapped into security and none of the alarm-cams show an alarm being activated.”
“Yes, well, we still can't go back inside until the fire marshals decide it's safe and by then the party mood is definitely going to be dead,” Charles said. He caught sight of Louis stopping to talk to a couple. It took seconds for the anxious looks on their faces to fade as Louis stood there smiling. “Louis!”
Louis looked up and excused himself, moving through the crowd to come to Charles with a thoroughly unimpressed look. “I take it you know it's a false alarm.”
Charles nodded. “I do. But we're stuck here until someone turns that bloody thing off and says it's all right to go back inside.”
Something about Erik shifted in such a sharp way, that Charles turned to look at him. Not just Charles, but Emma and Louis too, Azazel eyeing them all with interest. Erik was simply looking at the building rather serenely. The alarm silenced.
“Erik,” Charles admonished.
Erik looked at him and shrugged. “It wasn't working properly anyway.”
Charles rolled his eyes, shaking his head. Then he sighed. “Well, I suppose it's not like you broke the thing.”
It was forty minutes before anyone was allowed back into the building and a further twenty before Charles and Louis joined the guests, after a rigorous question and answer session with the building manager. The atmosphere wasn't too bad inside the hall, in fact, some people were rather amused by the momentary panic and now happily indulging in drinks, listening to the band play, dancing, and talking.
Charles found his way to a flute of champagne and an empty seat from where he watched couples in a slow dance to a slow song. Charles could see Emma and Azazel in more of an embrace than a dance, he all red and black, she ice white. For all her suggestive smiles, what Emma really wanted was quite evident.
“Doctor Xavier, hello,” a man said, blocking the view by dragging out a chair to sit opposite Charles. He was a rather overly perfect looking figure. Not a hair out of place. Teeth that were far too white. Skin that was far too unwrinkled for a man of his age. “Andy. Andy Raines. I'm with The Globe. Your office was kind enough to include us in this wonderful event here.”
Charles nodded. “It's a pleasure. We're keen to spread the word about the foundation's work.”
“Well, I have to say, it's going to be hard not spreading the word. It's quite a shindig you've thrown tonight. Think you'll raise a lot of money?” Andy asked with a smile.
Charles smiled back. “Yes, I do. There are a lot of generous people here.”
“Did you know about your fiancé’s donation? Or was that a surprise?” Andy asked.
Charles felt his face contort through a series of expressions. “It was not planned, if that's what you're asking.”
“Oh, I would not even suggest that,” Andy said. “I could see the surprise on your face, Doctor. I think everyone could.”
Charles stared at Andy, feeling a sudden loss of humour and patience. “Mr. Raines, I think you have all the story you need for tonight.”
Andy leaned in, as if he was about to divulge a great secret. “Well, that's the rub, Doctor. I have a great little article on your good work and the success of this event here, but I'm just a writer. My editor's going to see this little thing here and he's just going to shove it down at the end of the page under a bunch of links and no one will know about all this good work you're doing.”
Charles arched a brow. “And how would you remedy this situation?”
“You and Mr. Lehnsherr, you're kind of top page material right now. Only snag is, your fiancé’s not really news friendly. I heard he punched out some guy's tooth once. Right about the time he stopped using doors to go in and out of buildings,” Andy said, glancing back at Azazel. “Now, if I could maybe sit down with the two of you, get a tiny little interview about this happy occasion and the upcoming happy occasion of your marriage, we could give this great cause here a little exposure. Know what I mean?”
“I think we know exactly what you mean,” Erik said, appearing next to Charles.
Andy was looking up at Erik looming over him and he suddenly didn't seem so sure of himself. Erik took Charles' drink from his hand and put it aside, before pulling Charles up so they were side by side, Erik's arm sliding around his waist. Erik pointed at Andy. “Take a picture.”
“What?” Andy almost stammered.
“I said, take a picture,” Erik said quietly, while Charles watched him with a frown.
“Erik, what are you-”
“It's all right, Charles,” Erik said as Andy held up a recorder pen, aiming it at Erik and Charles. “Go ahead, take a picture.”
Andy snapped off a few pictures and lowered his pen, frowning. “Thank you, Mr. Lehnsherr.”
Erik pointed at the pen. “Keep recording. I think Charles' foundation does a tremendous job helping mutant causes and I think it's a great honour to be a part of it here today. We're both delighted by the success of the evening. On a personal note, we couldn't be happier and are very much looking forward to married life. Get all that?” Andy nodded mutely. “Get that to the top of the page, maybe you'll get an invite to the wedding reception.”
Andy continued nodding as Erik pulled Charles away from the table and towards the dance floor. He was looking for something inside his pockets, pulling out a white silk handkerchief after a moment, handing it to Charles. “Your hand's bleeding.”
Charles looked at the back of his right hand where a small cut had made a big bloody mess. He made a face, wrapping the handkerchief around his hand. “Thank you, Erik. You could have just said nothing, you know. Did you really punch someone in the face?”
Erik stopped, holding out his hands for Charles to take. “Actually, his face punched me in the hand.”
Charles smiled, placing his hands in Erik's. “What a novel way of looking at it.”
“Sometimes the world just makes better sense backwards,” Erik said.
Charles laughed quietly before peering up at Erik in open curiosity. “I don't quite understand you, Erik. Why do you let people believe the most awful things about you? There's so much more to you.” Charles stilled, feeling himself falter. At the back of his mind he could hear an echo of something long gone.
Erik had stopped moving. “Charles?”
Charles looked at him, feeling startled. “Yes. Sorry, what?”
Erik frowned. “What's wrong?”
Charles nodded, finding the discreet rhythm of the dance again. “I just... there used to be this old saying about feeling as though someone just walked over your grave. I think I just found out what they meant by it.”
Erik's forehead was creased with worry lines, his eyes watching Charles with concern. Charles smiled at Erik. “Your dancing appears to have improved. What happened?”
Erik's expression eased as he replied, “I've been drinking.”
Charles huffed out a laugh and smacked his head against Erik's shoulder. “Your aunt is going to hate me forever.”
There was pressure. All over. Pain. But the anger was worse. It managed to eclipse everything else. Even the fact that air was escaping from his lungs and it was getting harder and harder to hold on.
And then, arms enclosing around him, pulling.
Erik gasped, sitting up as his heart stuttered inside his chest. “Damn it.”
His hand was gripping the back of the couch and his neck was hurting from where the armrest must have been digging in the whole time he slept. He swung his legs off the couch and smoothed his hair back from his forehead, stopping mid-way when he saw Emma's reflection on the glass coffee table. She was seated in one of the armchairs opposite him, legs elegantly crossed and a smile on her face.
“Bad dreams, bossy?” she asked. “Since when?”
“Since never.” He looked at his watch. He still had enough time to wake himself up properly before his next meeting.
“Okay,” Emma said so normally and unobtrusively, it actually made Erik feel awkward.
He gave her a firm look. “It's nothing.”
She nodded, picking up the datapad from the coffee table. He knew she was looking at The Globe's Monday morning front page, complete with Erik and Charles looking like ancient Russian royalty, if their barely there smiles were anything to go by. Even so, Erik had been quoted to the letter and commended for his amiable interview.
“Amiable? Let me guess. Your cutie put a mind whammy on this guy,” Emma said, holding up the datapad.
“There was no need,” Erik said, leaning back and crossing his legs, stretching his arms out across the back of the couch.
“But you do agree that he's your cutie,” Emma said with a grin that left Erik staring at her. She clamped her mouth shut and diverted her attention to the datapad, tapping into it before holding it up again. “Seen these?”
Erik hadn't. He shook his head as Emma got up and walked around the table to join him at his side, scrolling through a batch of photographs under an article by the NY Reporter. One picture had him and Charles at the bar, smiling. Another had Erik just behind Charles, his hand on Charles' back as they moved into the crowd to leave the hall. Another was from outside the hall, Erik pulling Charles along. And finally, Erik and Charles dancing.
“If anyone still had doubts about the motivations behind this marriage, they were dispelled last night at the annual XRF fundraiser where both Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr appeared to be very much in love,” Emma said, reading the last few lines of the article.
Erik frowned at the pictures and then looked up to see Emma's eyes on him, a strange little smile pulling up the corner of her mouth.
“What do you think? Convincing, huh?” Erik leaned back and stared at her in confusion. “Let's just say I brought a date with me last night and when we left he was convinced he had quite the scoop.”
“You took these,” Erik said, realisation finally dawning.
“I did. I've got quite the eye, don't you think?” Erik held back exactly what he thought. “You're angry. Why?”
Erik got up. “I have to call Charles.”
“Why?” Emma asked. “I'm sure he won't mind.”
Erik turned to glare at Emma. “You don't know him.”
“Neither do you, sugar,” Emma said, frowning at Erik.
Erik blinked at her. She was right. He didn't know Charles. Not really. But, somehow he knew Charles wouldn't want these innocent moments to be manipulated just for playing games with the press.
Or maybe Erik was the one who didn't want this.
Emma was up and moving towards him, peering at him as if he was insane. She took his arm, pulling for his attention, asking a number of questions in the simple raise of an eyebrow. Erik pulled away and walked off, well aware that behind him Emma had a smug little smile on her face.
It was a remarkable picture taken from the perfect angle. It looked like an awfully intimate moment, as if Charles was resting his head on Erik's shoulder, rather than planting his face on Erik's shoulder in embarrassment. He scrolled back to the first one at the bar. Erik was so at ease, so not the same man Charles had seen in other press photos. A completely unguarded moment. Erik couldn't be happy about this. He could never appreciate a private moment like this being exploited.
Charles grimaced and went ahead with pressing the call button on his desk. Erik answered within seconds with, “Charles.”
Charles cleared his throat, the last few nights beginning to catch up with him. “Hello, Erik. I take it you've seen the more popular news feeds by now.”
“The photographs from the fundraiser. Yes. Emma took them. She thought it would be a good counter to all the speculation about the legitimacy of our engagement,” Erik said, as if carefully choosing his words.
Charles chuckled. “You mean it doesn't as sound romantic the way you just put it?”
Erik was quiet for a moment, but there was the small sound of a huff, a laugh maybe. “I didn't know she was going do this. I hope you're not offended.”
“I've been in worse,” Charles said. “I can't say I like it, but it's probably not any better than us staging our happy couple photograph. At least these are truthful in the respect that we're both friends.” Erik was very quiet. “I mean, we are friends, aren't we?”
A beat and then, a tone of voice which Charles knew held a smile. “Of course we're friends.”
Charles smiled. “I take it you wouldn't have found Ms. Frost's actions completely objectionable if we weren't both involved.”
“I'd have to say she's quite brilliant,” Erik said, clearly fond of Emma. “But if it's all the same, I think I'd prefer to stay out of the news feeds.”
“I couldn't agree more,” Charles said. “I'm sure we can keep a low profile until the big day, if we try.”
“How adorably naive, Francine,” Erik said and Charles knew Erik was probably sitting there quite amused at Charles' expense.
“Don't be so cynical, Erik,” Charles chided. “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
“Well, yes. You can,” Erik said.
“Now you're just purposely being obtuse,” Charles said with a smile.
“You make it so easy, Charles,” Erik said. Another quiet pause followed. Charles wondered if this new found ease they had with each other also played on Erik's mind. Erik broke the silence by saying, “Anna has invited us to dinner.”
Charles was nodding slowly. “I think I'd quite like that.”
“Do you think you parents might be able to come?”
Charles made a face. “Mother's back in England. Father's in Venice. I could bring Louis. In fact, I'm quite certain he might come along even if I don't ask.”
“Excellent. Wednesday night?” Erik asked.
Charles nodded. “Yes, that'll be perfect.”
More silence before Erik said, “I'll send Azazel, around seven.”
“Thank you,” Charles said, compelled to say more for some reason, but unable to do so.
“Charles,” Erik said quietly.
“Yes?” Charles answered all too quickly.
After another too long pause, Erik said, “I'll see you on Wednesday.”
Charles swallowed, nodding. “Yes. See you then.”
The call went dead, Charles' eyes sliding back to the datapad and the image of him and Erik. A flash of his nightmare momentarily prodded his mind, of Magneto forever reaching out and the Professor forever wishing he could close the gap between them, holding back because it was the right thing to do. He wondered if out there somewhere there were two old souls still reaching out towards each other, the way they did in his dreams.
He wished he knew why he couldn't stop thinking about it.
“When you get married, will you live with Erik?”
“No. Erik will be living with me.”
“Won't he miss his house?”
“It's not a very attractive house. I told him it was though. I didn't want to hurt his feelings.”
“Lying is wrong.”
“Yes, it is. Never lie.”
“I did. I did a bad thing. Although, you see, I liked his balcony, so I wasn't completely lying.”
“Is Erik a manbot?”
“No.Why would you say that?”
“Panther says that he knows how to make manbots because he is one.”
“Yes, but Panther's parents named him Panther.”
“Why is it funny that Erik likes vanilla ice cream?”
“Is it funny?”
“When I told Mom Erik likes vanilla, she laughed and said, I bet he does.”
“Ah. Your mother has an alarmingly juvenile sense of humour.”
“That's what Daddy said. Here, look after this.”
Leo shoved a fireman figurine into Charles' hands and ran off, disappearing much in the manner that he had appeared. Charles put the figurine in his pocket and got up from the couch, leaving the living room to go down the hall and into the kitchen where Hank was preparing dinner.
“Your wife's a nuisance,” Charles said.
Hank gave Charles a sharp grin and continued stirring a pot on his vintage oven. “What can I say? She's happiest when she has material to torment you, Charles.”
“Yes. She's getting a lot of mileage out of this wedding business,” Charles said, peering at the dark rich broth in the pan Hank was stirring. “You know, I've been feeling a little off today. Maybe I ought to have something light.”
Hank might have growled a little. Luckily, just then Charles heard the front door open, followed by the sound of belongings being dumped on the floor and then the thump thump of shoes being discarded.
“That sounds like the organised arrival of the lady of the house,” Charles said.
“Yeah? Say that to her face,” Hank dared with a smile.
Charles snorted. “I don't have a death wish.”
Raven walked in, throwing her coat over the back of a chair and going to Charles. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, before giving Hank a succession of kisses, followed by a cautionary look at the cooking pan. “Are we experimenting again?” she asked.
“It's good,” Hank assured her. She turned around and widened her eyes at Charles, grabbing his hand and pulling him to the table. “Sit sit. So. Hi, Mr. Xavier-Lenhsherr.”
Charles pulled his hand from her grasp. “We're not getting married in the dark ages, Raven.”
“The news tells it differently. From all the stuff I've been reading, and trust me, I have been reading all the stuff, this guy is wooing you and some.”
“What?” Charles asked, his voice a notch higher than usual. “He is not.”
“Come on. The sponsorship. The donation. Those pretty pictures?” Raven lay her hand on her chest and sighed. “It's beautiful. I might cry. Hold me?” Charles folded his arms across his chest and glared. “Too much?”
Charles sat back. “Louis and I are having dinner with his aunt on Wednesday.” Raven smiled. “Oh, for heaven's sake.”
“What? I didn't say anything!”
“It was the way you didn't say it,” Charles accused. He sighed and said, “It's all getting rather surreal.”
“Second thoughts?” Hank asked, wiping his hands on a towel and pulling up a seat.
Charles shook his head. “No. Yes. Maybe?”
“Why?” Raven asked. “I thought you were okay with the whole arranged marriage thing. And Mr. Lehmanbot's not so bad, is he?”
Charles stared at Raven. “No. Mr Lehmanbot's not bad at all actually.” He frowned. “Please don't call him that.”
Hank and Raven looked at each other and then they looked at Charles with matching bright smiles. Charles continued to frown at them and they just continued to grin.
Hank's cooking still heavy in Charles' stomach, he returned to the mansion in an unusually reflective mood, wandering around the dimly lit corridors. The Xavier estate had changed much over the years, extending outwards, upwards and downwards. The X-Men underground facility was still there, corridors of metal, empty and filled with echoes. The main heart of the mansion was still the same with the Professor's study kept as he would have kept it, his bedroom as if he might sleep in it.
Magneto's bedroom kept as if he might return one day.
Charles stopped in front of the portrait that had drawn Erik close. There he was, a young Professor X, painted with that chair in full view, a look of cool defiance in his eyes, a determined set to his mouth. It almost dared the viewer to question his strength. Charles doubted that anyone had ever managed to successfully do so.
“What do you think he was thinking?” Charles asked, knowing Louis was standing close, looking at the same portrait.
“We can only guess,” Louis said. “No one will ever really know.”
“I think,” Charles said quietly, “he was angry.”
Louis stepped closer, looking at the painting and then at Charles. “What makes you say that?”
“This was painted a year after he lost the use of his legs. After he and Magneto parted ways for whatever reasons,” Charles said, almost unable to tear his eyes away from the Professor's hypnotic gaze. “He looks angry.”
Louis put his hand on Charles' shoulder, gently pulling him around. “You know you couldn't possibly know that.”
Charles smiled, feeling oddly giddy. “Just a wild stab in the dark.”
Louis was frowning at him. “Are you all right, Charles?”
Charles nodded, patting his uncle's hand. “I'm fine. Just unusually morose about the departed. Can't be helped I suppose, living in a mausoleum.”
Louis barked out, “Ha! I see you've decided to revisit your teenage rebellion.”
Charles snorted. “Hardly. I'm just tired and cranky and probably need to be burped.”
Louis chuckled, embracing Charles with one arm. “It's been rather hectic. I don't blame you if you are a little morose. The Xavier mansion like the Xavier name can be a heavy burden to bear at the best of times. You ought to get some sleep. You look tired.”
“I'm fine,” Charles said. “You know Hank's cooking. It can be rather exhausting to digest.” Louis nodded with an amused smile. “I think I will go to bed actually. It's been a long day.”
Louis patted him on the back. “Sleep well.”
“Goodnight, Uncle Louis,” Charles said with a small smile, walking away from the eyes watching him in the portrait.
Sleep didn't come easy. In fact, for weeks now, dreams that had plagued him as a teenager were once again assaulting his mind. Even when there was nothing frightening in the dream, he awoke feeling such terror. Tonight he was stuck in a dark maze, navigating using his hands which felt along endless walls. He was searching for something important, but it was out of his reach. When the dark walls fell he was blinded by white light and he reached out to block the sun, though it spilled between the fingers of his outstretched hand.
Erik lurched up from the couch making a strangled sound. He stilled and looked around the living room. He'd fallen asleep for mere minutes and now half of Anna's belongings were embedded in the ceiling. He looked up at them, his mouth open as he stared.
“Everything all right?” Anna asked from the doorway, one eyebrow arched at him.
“Fine,” Erik swallowed, getting up.
Anna pointed up at the ceiling. “That is not fine, Erik. This is an antique candelabra in the middle of my ceiling.”
Everything slowly floated back down as Erik felt his breathing return to normal. “Sorry.”
Anna gave him a cross look and began to replace some of the objects to their original spots, eyeing the mess on the floor from her pierced ceiling. “How long have you been having the bad dreams again?”
“I haven't,” Erik said, sullenly. Anna gave him a rather hard stare. Erik returned it in kind. “I'm fine.”
“Last time you had these nightmares, you were sick,” she said. “Not sleeping, not eating. It's not fine.”
“Last time I had these dreams I was a boy,” Erik said, sitting back down on the couch with a sigh.
“So you are having them then,” Anna said. She frowned. “What is it? Is something troubling you?”
Erik nodded. “I think I'm experiencing puberty again.”
Anna gave him a very stern look and Erik grinned at her until she turned and went back to worrying about making her house presentable for her guests. Erik let his grin fade and sat back, trying to wash away the taste of memories that didn't feel like his own.
“How do I look? Is it too much?” Charles sat on Louis' bed watching him standing in front of his full-length mirror, smoothing down his long tailored jacket. He was currently mournfully looking at his hairless head. He sighed. “So many advances in science and they still haven't found a cure for baldness.”
Charles frowned. “Yes they have.”
“I'm not having anyone touch a single cell of my body. You can't trust doctors. Humans or mutants,” Louis said, buttoning up the coat from his shoulder to waist. “I don't think it's too much.”
Charles started to laugh, coughing when Louis gave him a sour look. He grinned and got up, joining Louis and throwing an arm around his shoulders. “You look very dashing.”
Louis frowned, eyeing Charles. “You couldn't find a newer suit to wear?”
“Afraid not, Mother,” Charles said, looking in the mirror at the all black ensemble. “Besides. I like this one.”
Louis nodded and looked at his watch. “Right. Well, looks like we have some time.”
“Excellent. I'll open a bottle...” Louis glared at Charles. “Of tea. I was going to say tea. A bottle of tea. No? Suit yourself.”
Azazel deposited Louis and Charles in a wide hallway with a tiled floor. The three of them stood there silently for a moment, looking at each other. Azazel rolled his eyes and then brought his fisted hand to his mouth, coughing loudly. This prompted Anna to stick her head into the hall with a pleased smile. Louis appeared to become instantly useless. Charles looked at Azazel who smiled at him in amusement. Then he was gone, leaving behind a pretty parting signature.
“Louis, Charles, hello,” Anna said, both arms outstretched. Louis took her hands, leaning in to kiss her on both cheeks, full of charm. Charles hid his smile when she came to him.
“Anna,” he said, kissing her cheek before offering her the bottle of wine in his hands. “A little something.”
“Wine,” Erik said, entering the hallway with a small smile. “How thoughtful of you, Charles.”
“Louis assures me it's very dusty,” Charles told Erik, smiling as Louis and Anna both eyed him and Erik who was grinning.
Anna ushered them all into a spacious sitting room. It was all rather different from what Charles expected. He had envisioned a home that was either like the Xavier mansion or like Erik's very modern apartment. Foolishly, he hadn't considered that Anna's home would be independent of other people's legacies or lifestyles.
Her home was a spacious three storey house in a quiet street on a slope that headed down towards woodland. It was large rectangular block, layered like a cake, its interior dark and warm using soft and muted colours, as if someone had brought the woodland inside. It was a home without memories of great men and women. Just a home.
“Charles?” Anna asked, as if maybe she'd called him a few times perhaps. Charles looked away from the greenery through the window and back at her, no idea what question was being asked.
“Wine,” Louis provided.
Charles smiled at Anna. “Oh, please. I was just admiring your home. It's quite beautiful.”
Anna gave him a curious little look, smiling. “Thank you, Charles. Erik, why don't you show Charles around?”
Erik nodded as Anna walked past him with a smile, affectionately patting his hand as she left the room. Charles looked at Louis who was watching Anna depart.
Quite predictably he said, “Why don't I leave you young people alone?”
Erik's mouth twitched despite the fact that he was standing there as stiff as a toy soldier. They both watched Louis straightening to his full height and taking a deep breath as he left the living room. Then Erik and Charles looked at each other, unable to keep a straight face any longer and promptly burst out laughing.
“And those are just the bedrooms,” Erik said as they stood on the landing of the second floor.
“Which is yours?” Charles asked, straining to peer up at the doors up on the next floor.
“None,” Erik said flatly. “I don't live here anymore.”
“Stop being so literal, Erik,” Charles said, already climbing the stairs. “You know exactly what I mean. And I thought this was a tour of the house.”
Behind him Erik was quiet, but Charles did feel a strange warm wave of something like comfort, a strange serene pleasure. He looked back to frown at Erik whose brow creased in reply.
Erik sighed. “Straight ahead.”
Charles smiled and jogged up ahead, regretting it when his chest objected and he found himself coughing and wheezing in a rather unpleasant manner, all the way into Erik's childhood bedroom. Erik was watching him like he was contagious.
“Don't look at me like I have the plague,” Charles said.
“Actually, I was looking at you like a man who drinks too much and wheezes up two flights of stairs,” Erik said.
“It's awfully lucky I've said yes to this arrangement. I can't imagine anyone actually wanting to marry you,” Charles said with a smile, clearing his throat.
Erik laughed and went to lean against a dresser as Charles looked around the room. It was clean and bare. There was a bed, a wardrobe, a dresser, a desk and chair. Charles turned to aim a very unimpressed look at Erik. Erik smiled and shrugged.
“What were you expecting?” Erik asked, looking very smug.
Charles shrugged. “A snapshot of the young Erik Lehnsherr, I suppose.”
Erik pulled a face, looking away at the ground. “There's nothing particularly interesting about the young Erik Lehnsherr.”
“That's your opinion,” Charles said. “I'd quite like to know the boy who lived here and turned into this rather annoying man in front of me.”
Erik huffed out a laugh. He looked around the room, as if trying to remember. Then he frowned and looked at Charles. “If you really must see, I suppose I can show you.”
Charles looked at the bare room and then at Erik. Erik held up a hand and wiggled his fingers next to his head, a gesture which left Charles staring at him as if Erik had just pulled out a gun. Erik noticed, stepping forward.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “You look awful.”
Charles rolled his eyes, going to sit down on the bed, Erik following and sitting down next to him. “I'm fine. I think I have a head cold or something. So, you grew up here.”
Erik nodded. “After my parents died, I stayed with Anna for a while and then with my grandfather in New York. He was never able to persuade my father to join the family business and hoped I might take an interest. Which I did. We both agreed that for all my parents' good intentions, they achieved very little as historians of mutant social evolution.”
“You don't really believe that do you?” Charles asked quietly, looking at Erik's unreadable face.
“They used to leave me with my grandfather so they could dig up more pieces of that fortress on Genosha. They knew Genosha was disputed land. They knew humans didn't want our kind going there, and they went. They died in the attacks, for what?” Erik asked quietly. “Mutant pride?”
Charles gave Erik a small smile. “For what they believed perhaps.”
Erik laughed, though it sounded hollow. “Maybe the Lehnsherrs are just cursed. There hasn't been a happy family for generations.”
“No such thing as a happy family, my friend,” Charles said. “My parents spent most of my childhood drinking and hating each other and I spent most of my time bouncing back and forth between New York and England, all the while having it impressed upon me what an honour it was to be descended from the great Professor X. If he could see us now. His descendants, mostly drunks and deviants, with the exception of a few almost normal people, Louis being one of them and even about him I have some serious doubts on occasion.”
Erik frowned. “What do you think it will mean for us if Louis and Anna decide to marry?”
Charles thought it over and nodded. “Well, since I'm marrying you, and Anna is your aunt, that makes her my aunt, which would then make Louis my uncle.”
Erik nodded back with a very serious look as Charles gave him a pleased smile. “What a novel way of looking at it.”
“Sometimes the world just makes better sense backwards, Maximilian,” Charles said, smiling at the way Erik closed his eyes, his mouth opening in a silent little laugh of surprise.
Erik sighed then, giving Charles a put upon look. He leaned forward, his hand disappearing under the bed and when it reappeared, it was pulling out a large leather trunk which made Charles move aside to accommodate its presence.
Erik knocked on the trunk and then held out his hand towards Charles. “Anna put everything in here for safekeeping.”
Charles looked at the trunk and said, “Erik, I do believe I want to agree to your marriage proposal all over again. Please tell me this contains embarrassing photographs.”
Erik flopped back on the bed and shot Charles a look of annoyance, which was easily deflected with a satisfied smile. While Erik lay on his childhood bed, fingers linked behind his head and legs crossed at the ankles, Charles opened the trunk and carefully looked at the items that caught his eye. There were worn out paper books, a worn and torn sweater which surprised Erik by its continued existence, a few school discs, a few datapads of varying age. Buried under countless items was a wooden box with chess squares on its surface. When he shook it, he couldn't hear the sound of pieces. There was something else inside it.
“What's this?” Charles asked, getting out of his crouch on the floor to sit on the bed, next to where Erik lay.
Erik took the box with a frown, opening it. Inside it was a black photo album, its screen dusty and scratched. He held it in both hands, blinking at it, dull waves of grief flowing off him. “It belonged to my parents.”
Charles nodded. “Should I put it away?”
Erik appeared to think it over, before inching away from Charles slightly. “I haven't seen it in a while.”
Charles nodded, lying down next to Erik and propping himself up on an elbow to better look at the screen. Erik pressed a button and it flickered to life. A woman was walking along a dusty path, pointing at something in the distance. She turned to laugh at whoever was behind the camera, showing sharp features and bright grin.
“My mother,” Erik said, pressing the screen, skipping through blank files to another image, this time his mother talking to a young man who without a doubt was Erik's father.
“Where was it taken?” Charles asked.
“Israel. It's where they met, while studying together,” Erik said. He pressed through a few more blank screens.
This time it was her in a simple white summer dress and him in a black suit with white shirt and black tie. They were dancing, paper lanterns hanging in the background. Both were completely unaware of anyone else. Erik let out a small laugh.
“Their wedding day,” he said. “They eloped apparently.”
Charles smiled. “That was probably wise of them.”
Erik nodded, skipping more blank spaces until his father appeared, holding a toddler, encouraging him to wave at the camera. The child didn't wave, kicking his feet instead. Anna came into view, young and grinning, waving at the camera before taking it. Erik's mother then joined his father, stroking the child's head and taking his hand, teaching him to wave.
Charles looked down at Erik's face. His mind was closed, giving off no more than its quiet hum. All Charles was really getting from Erik was a faded dull ache. All the same, it made Charles want to soothe away the remnants of Erik's grief. He reached out and pressed his thumb over Erik's, holding it down on the button until the album switched off. Erik was blinking at Charles' hand for a moment before he turned to face Charles, looking up at him, his eyes pale and wide.
Erik lowered the album so it lay on his stomach and Charles felt Erik's thumb slip from under his to slide on top and ever so lightly slide down, over his knuckle, and down until it came to a stop at his wrist bone. His forefinger then lightly stroked the inside of Charles' wrist, so light that the touch was barely there. Erik's hand slowly moved to circle Charles' wrist. All the while his eyes roamed across Charles' face, lashes lowering as his gaze moved to Charles' mouth. Charles inched close.
“Erik, there's a call for you! It's Emma!” Anna called up.
Erik stilled, loudly exhaling from his nose. He glared somewhere past Charles' ear for a moment before abruptly sitting up. He tossed the album into the trunk and leapt off the bed, right over Charles, striding towards the door. Then he stopped by the door to turn and look at the trunk. Charles watched the trunk shut itself and disappear back under the bed, Erik smirking at Charles as he left.
“What?” Erik snapped at the telescreen.
Emma frowned and then pouted. “Well, that sounds like you're not pleased to see me. Did I interrupt something important?” Erik glared silently. “Maybe I'll just have to give you the good news about your piece of Icarus pie later then.”
Erik arched a brow at her. Then he smiled and said, “You have my undivided attention.”
Emma smiled. “You're cute when you're all business.”
As Charles made his way down the stairs, he could hear Erik from behind a closed door, in quiet conversation with his assistant. He stopped at the bottom of stairs, clutching the bannister as a wave of dizziness hit. His legs were trembling and he had broken out into a sweat, his face feeling hot.
There was something else too, something he couldn't quite pin down. The way his head was increasingly feeling as though it was stuffed, all his thoughts muffled. Louis' presence felt so much further than Charles knew it to be. Charles took a deep shuddering breath, coughing when his lungs didn't quite manage the intake.
By the time the cough subsided, Erik was opening the door and stepping out, smiling when he saw Charles. The smile turned to a frown quickly. “Charles, I think you may have more than just a head cold.”
“I think I may have a cold cold.”
Erik nodded. “Can I get you anything?”
Charles pointed to the front door at the end of the hallway. “Fresh air actually. It's a bit warm in here.”
Another worried look from Erik. But he said nothing, nodding and walking on ahead to open the door. They both stepped outside onto the street. The breeze was crisp and cold, carrying over the smell of grass and greenery from the woods. Charles closed his eyes and sighed, feeling a little relief.
“Better?” Erik asked.
Charles nodded, looking around at the quiet street. “Much.”
“You ought to see a doctor,” Erik said. “You're beginning to look grey.”
“I bet you just have the best bedside manner,” Charles said, eliciting a quiet laugh from Erik. “Okay. I think we can go back in.”
Charles turned to go, but Erik was suddenly in front of him. He was unsure about something. A little scared perhaps. He looked everywhere but at Charles, before finally meeting his gaze.
“About before,” he said quietly. “I...”
The thought was left unfinished. Charles had closed his eyes, everything spinning around. He stumbled in an effort to gain some equilibrium. Erik was holding him, his arm grabbing him around his waist while Charles was sinking with leaden limbs. Erik was calling him from somewhere under water, from inside bubbles and Charles was sinking further down.
Maybe the Xaviers were as cursed as the Lehnsherrs, he thought as everything turned black.
Raven was in her study when the door opened a crack. She frowned at the lack of footsteps or announcement. When she turned in her chair, Hank was standing there in the doorway, looking at her blankly.
“What is it? What's wrong?” Raven asked, looking past Hank to catch a glimpse or sound of Leo.
“Louis just called,” Hank said. “Charles is in the hospital. They think it's MU1.”
Raven stared at Hank before turning back around, reaching for her main computer screen, tapping it to life. A few seconds later she had the most recent news feeds running. There was a single image playing on all of them. A picture from an obviously hidden recorder, a room on the other side of a window and Charles unconscious in bed. This was cut short by a shout, the man or woman behind the recorder turning to see a furious Erik Lehnsherr stalking forward.
Louis stepped in front of Erik, clearly calling out for someone else while putting a placating hand on Erik's chest. A moment later a woman and man appeared. The woman reached out and took Erik's wrist, while the man simply placed a hand on Erik's shoulder and all four vanished from view, leaving no more than a few swirls of red. The picture went dead.
Raven switched off the screen and got up. “Can you stay with Leo? We can't take him to the hospital.”
“Of course,” Hank said as Raven walked out, past him and into the corridor. He turned and grabbed her arm, pulling her back and telling her, “He'll be fine.”
Raven nodded blankly. She smiled, though her eyes prickled. “I know. It's just... it's Charles.”
“You're not the only one who loves him,” Hank said. She nodded and stepped into his embrace, letting him hold her tight.
Erik was standing in front of Charles' room, silently looking through the glass window into the large sterile white space. Inside there was a small plastic enclosure which housed Charles' bed, along with machines and monitors.
“So, that pretty much makes you the major shareholder in Icarus stock,” Emma was telling him quietly, without any real enthusiasm. “I told them we'll set up a meeting to finalise the details when we're ready. Erik? You listening there?”
Erik realised he hadn't spoken in a while and said, “Fine.”
Emma was quiet for a while. Erik knew that behind him she was probably sharing a look with Azazel, carrying out Anna's instructions to not let Erik out of his sight, especially after what happened with the filming intruder.
“Erik,” Emma started.
“You better go,” Erik said, cutting her off completely. “ I need you back at the office.”
To her credit, Emma refrained from saying anything and all Erik could hear of her was the sound of her footsteps as she walked away, leaving Azazel to stand guard over Erik, as he stood guard over Charles.
In the distance, Louis was talking, heading back up the corridor to join Erik in watching Charles. He was telling someone, “Azazel came immediately and we were here within seconds. The very first thing they tested for was MU1. Myself, Erik and Anna tested negative. I can't say any of us really jumped for joy at the news. Not with Charles so sick. But they've got us on the medication as a preventative measure.”
“I knew he wasn't feeling well,” a woman told Louis. “I just never imagined it would be this.”
“I don't think any of us did,” Louis said, stepping close to Erik and gently laying a hand on his arm. “Erik, this is Raven. Charles' very best friend. They've known each other since, well, since they were children.”
Erik turned to look at a blue woman whom he didn't know, but found to be familiar. Her gaze was distracted by the window into Charles' room. For a while they all just stood and watched Charles in his plastic enclosure.
“Anyone know what happened to that guy who was filming?” Raven asked.
“The hospital's taking him to court,” Louis said. “Not that it matters. He's using his five minutes of fame to spout rubbish about how terrified he was of Erik when he got caught filming. It's got all the other big mouths pressing for mutant neutralising tasers again.”
“Might is right,” Raven said absently. “Only when it comes to dealing with mutants though.”
She turned around then to look at Erik, her yellow eyes reading him carefully. After a moment, she said, “He's going to be okay. Trust me. I know him. He's really stubborn.”
Erik nodded, looking into the room, feeling utterly helpless for the first time in years.
Charles sat up with a gasp. He was shaking all over, the cool night air from the open window pricking his skin with goose pimples. He blinked until his eyes adjusted to the darkness in his bedroom.
“Charles. What is it?” Charles looked beside him where Erik was slowly sitting up to peer at him. “Are you all right?”
Erik moved closer, his hand cupping the back of Charles neck. Erik kissed his jaw and whispered in his ear, “Come on, back to sleep.”
Charles pulled away, shaking his head. “I can't sleep. I just... I have the strangest feeling.”
Erik was quiet for a moment. Then the bedside lamp suddenly switched on, lighting Erik up in a warm glow, making his eyes seem ridiculously pale. Charles found he could do almost nothing but stare at Erik who seemed so perfect here, next to Charles in this bed.
“I feel like we're not really here,” Charles whispered.
Erik frowned, his mouth widening into a smile. “Where else could we be?”
Charles shook his head. There was something terrible in his chest. Something like a black secret, tied up and struggling to leak into his mind. It was something that made him want to hold Erik so tight Erik would never be able to leave.
Erik appeared to realise that not all was well. Charles could see he was thinking over options, making minor plans, never one to sit passively and wait. Finally, he grabbed a handful of the blankets and pushed them away before straddling Charles and slowly pushing him back down. He slowly to came to rest over Charles, propping himself up on one elbow.
Charles stared up at Erik, Erik who was watching him calmly. “We don't have to sleep. We can talk.”
Charles managed a small smile. “What if I don't want to talk?”
Erik nodded with an amused smile. “Then no talking.” He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the corner of Charles' mouth.
What a strange kiss it was. Without the heat of someone's breath. Without the touch of lips. Charles lurched up against Erik in inexplicable panic. Everything became dark. He heard the sound of heavy cloth flapping in the wind, he thought he saw the glint of red metal. Everything was terrifyingly silent and his hand felt like it was on fire.
The machines gave out a panicked wail in Charles' room and within seconds there was a flurry of activity, white coats all headed in there. Erik, Louis and Raven all jumped up from their seats, unable to cross the threshold of the room, helplessly looking at Charles who was obscured by the people surrounding his bed.
When Erik looked across at Louis, it didn't fill him with hope, the other man standing there with his hand covering his mouth. Erik looked back at the window, his hands fisted by his sides. For all his money and all his ability, he couldn't do a single thing. He could only stand here and watch, waiting for someone else to save Charles.
He didn't realise how deep his fingernails were digging into his palms until he felt Raven's cool touch, her hand wrapping around his until he had to open his hand, letting hers slip into it. Erik looked down at her hand and then at her. There was something so familiar about her, something so comforting that Erik felt slightly undone.
The wailing stopped and Erik looked back up at the window. Raven's grip on his hand tightened and he knew why. Had the panic stopped because the emergency was over or had it stopped because there was no longer anyone to panic about?
They could all see the doctor emerging from the plastic enclosure and back towards the corridor. She stepped outside and lowered her mask, peeling off her gloves and depositing them in a bin by the door before putting her hands under an anti-bacterial scanner and cleaner.
“Doctor Calero,” Louis said, sounding terrified.
Calero held up a hand and said, “Mr. Xavier, it's still the same prognosis. Your nephew is very sick, but we're doing the best we can. MU1 effects different people in very different ways and unfortunately Charles seems to have been effected by a particularly aggressive strain. We're trying to counter it with similarly aggressive treatments and there's no reason he can't fight it. But, it'll take time before it starts getting better.” She gave Louis a small smile. “If it means anything, he's putting up a really good fight.”
Louis nodded. “Can we go inside?” She didn't seem pleased by the idea. Louis said, “We've all be tested and we're all taking your drugs as a precautionary measure. Charles is inside that thing. We'll just be in the room. So he knows he's not alone.”
Calero said, “He's in a coma, Mr. Xavier. He may not-”
“He's a telepath,” Erik said sharply. “He'll know.”
Calero stared at him, clearly not appreciating the tone of his voice. She nodded. “Fine. Make sure you follow the contamination guidelines and stay out of the quarantined area. Two at a time only.”
Louis was nodding. “Of course. Thank you, you've been very helpful.”
The room was emptying of the nurses and another doctor, all of them following Calero who was issuing them with further instructions. Louis immediately went inside. Raven looked at Erik, inclining her head towards the room.
Erik shook his head. “Go. I'll go later.”
Raven nodded and went inside, joining Louis at his side by the bed, as close as they could get to the plastic wall between them and Charles. Erik returned to the window, looking at the enclosure that hid Charles from view, hoping the telepath knew he wasn't alone.
“Your move,” Erik said, leaning back in his seat.
Charles looked at the pieces. He seemed to be well and truly pinned down, his king so well protected that his pieces had nowhere to go, while Erik's pieces were now spread out and ready to attack
“I think,” Charles said carefully. “This is some kind of hallucination. And I'm fairly certain I've had this realisation before. I've certainly played this game before.”
Erik tilted his head slightly at Charles, clearly intrigued. “Did I win?”
Charles looked at the chess board. He frowned when he saw that his king was lying on its side, even though the game wasn't over. “I don't think either of us won.”
“Sounds like a long game,” Erik said.
“Yes. It does, doesn't it?” Charles said, watching his fallen piece as if it might do something miraculous.
“Here,” Erik said, reaching out and taking Charles' king, standing it upright once again. “This game's gone on long enough. Let's start a new one.”
Charles watched Erik reset the chess pieces on the board. Erik finished and held out a hand for Charles to make the first move. Charles deliberated for a moment and then finally made his first move. Erik caught Charles' hand just as it pulled away from his piece. He was rubbing the back of Charles' hand with his thumb, as if trying to rub something out.
“What?” Charles asked.
“Look at it,” Erik said. “Look at your hand.”
Charles looked and after a while he finally saw the blue and yellow mottling on his skin and at the centre of it was a small red cut pulling at his skin painfully. Even as he stared at his hand, he saw the blue and yellow spreading to his wrist. Erik let go.
“Your move,” Erik said, leaning back in his seat.
Charles frowned at the pieces.
Erik opened his eyes. Though instantly awake, his head and body felt heavy, his skin too warm. In front of him Azazel was standing by the observation window of Charles' room, quietly peering inside.
Erik said, “Are they still in there?”
Azazel turned to look at Erik, appearing very unimpressed. “Raven said she will be back in the morning. Louis has gone to call Xavier's parents.”
Erik scowled and stood up. “Why didn't you wake me?”
“You haven't slept in days,” Azazel replied.
“You're not my mother,” Erik said, looking at the lonely little enclosure that housed Charles.
“No, but I am your friend,” Azazel said. When Erik gave him an annoyed look he added, “You think I put up with you for the money?” Azazel shook his head and snorted.
Erik turned his gaze away from Azazel, looking into the room. “I'm out of my depth here. I don't know what to do.”
“You can't control everything,” Azazel said. “I know you Lehnsherrs find that hard to accept, but some things are out of your hands.”
Erik frowned, something suddenly scratching at the back of his mind. He walked past Azazel and into the room, going to Charles' bed. He looked awful inside that plastic tent, breathing through a mask, wired up to machines, almost as pale as the sheet covering him. This wasn't something Erik had wanted to see, not when he knew how vibrant this man could be, how full of mirth and life.
Erik let his eyes run over Charles, finally settling on the back of his right hand. There it was. The cut still hadn't quite healed, the skin red and pulling around the dark scab. The skin had a strange blue tinge, almost hidden by the shadows.
“What is it? What are you looking at?” Azazel asked.
“I don't know,” Erik said. “Yet.”
Louis had come back looking frustrated by his call to Charles' parents. He also looked as worn out as Erik felt. So maybe it wasn't the best time for conspiracy theories. Erik went ahead anyway and Louis was shaking his head within seconds of hearing what Erik had to say.
“Wait. You think the cut on his hand has something to do with his being sick,” Louis said. “Erik, he has MU1. It's a mutant virus.”
Erik nodded. “And there's no proof that this is an airborne virus or even transferable through contact. Nobody knows what causes it.”
“Your point being?” Louis asked testily.
“My point being that the night of the fundraiser, Charles somehow cut himself and days later he's sick and fighting for his life.”
Louis was clenching his jaw and giving Erik the hardest of stares. “And? So? Even if what you're suggesting is true, how does it help Charles now?”
Erik opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. He had no answer to this. How would knowing that someone had done this to Charles deliberately help in saving his life?
“I don't know,” Erik said. “I just have a feeling that someone is behind this.”
“Damn it, boy! Not everything is a conspiracy against mutants!” Louis snapped. Erik stared silently as Louis turned away, rubbing his forehead. When he turned back, he quietly said, “You have every right to be here, Erik, but please, please go home and get some sleep. Charles' parents are on their way. I don't think there need to be four of us here.”
Erik nodded sharply. “I completely understand.”
“Erik,” Louis said, starting what sounded like the beginning of an apology.
“Azazel,” Erik said.
He felt a hand clasp his arm and a moment later the hospital disappeared from view, showing him instead his dimly lit apartment. Azazel let go of his arm and came to stand in front of him, his expression thankfully as pitiless as ever.
“I need you and Emma to do something,” Erik said, quietly. Azazel nodded. “I want all the security footage from the fundraiser. I want to know about everyone who got close to Charles that night. If someone's responsible for this, I want to know who it is.”
The lights flickered across the apartment and Azazel looked up warily. “What are you going to do now?”
“Nothing,” Erik said. “You should go.”
Azazel's head turned towards the sound of twisting metal somewhere it couldn't be seen. He nodded and promptly vanished. Erik closed his eyes and tried to breathe calm into the mounting anger he was feeling, but after that first sound of all the lights shattering around him, everything was just white noise and all he could do was try and contain the anger between his own four walls.
Charles walked into the kitchen. It was in the Xavier mansion, but it looked positively ancient. He turned several times, unsure of what exactly he was seeing. When he stopped turning, he saw the blue girl grinning at him.
Charles frowned. “Raven?”
She was smiling at... no, right through him. He was seeing her, but she was seeing someone entirely different and she was so young. She was so the Raven Charles had known, yet... this was... real. This had happened. Had it?
Charles grimaced, his head clouding with pain. When he looked at his wrist, the blue and yellow had climbed as far as the crook of his arm.
And then, everything was blue and yellow flickering inside his head.
The buzzer sounded, announcing the elevator's arrival and rousing Erik from his restless sleep of barely an hour. He got up from the couch and made his way down the steps from the living room and into the hall. The elevator doors opened and revealed Azazel smiling widely.
“You're not Azazel,” Erik said as Azazel's brows climbed up into his hair innocently. Erik sighed and said, “He doesn't use the elevator.”
In the blink of an eye, red skin turned blue and the body shrunk and reshaped into the figure of Raven. She gave him a sheepish look and said, “I was worried I wouldn't be allowed up here.”
Erik nodded and turned away, “You were right to worry.”
He went back into the living room, surveying the damage from the night before. Everything that could twist and shatter was littered around the apartment, rendered useless and smashed to pieces.
“Wow. Someone start world war five in here?” Raven asked from behind Erik.
He turned and gave her an impatient look. “What do you want, Raven? I'm busy.”
“I talked to Louis this morning. He told me what happened last night. I thought you should know he feels pretty bad about what he said to you,” Raven said.
Erik picked up burnt out datapad from the floor. Totally useless. He dropped it right back where he had found it. “Doesn't matter. He had the right.”
“Which is why you came home and threw a giant tantrum?” Raven asked. Erik turned to stare at her. She instantly grimaced apologetically. “That's not... that came out wrong.”
“Why are you here?” Erik asked.
She sighed, looking at the debris strewn across the floor. Then she looked up at him, arms open at her sides. “I like you.”
“You like me,” Erik said flatly.
She nodded. “Yeah. Go figure.”
Erik frowned. “Thank you?”
“What Louis said, you're wrong. He had no right to say that,” Raven said quietly. “I saw the way you were looking at Charles at the hospital. Like you wanted to shake him until he had no choice but to wake up. So... I like you.” She looked around the apartment and smiled. “And this kind of makes me like you a little more. Of course, if Hank ever trashed the place because I was sick, he'd be in a lot of trouble.”
Erik found a smile somehow creep onto his face. “I don't think he'd mind.”
Raven cleared her throat, blinking away any evidence of the emotion that was probably creeping around the eyes of everyone who cared about Charles.
“So,” she said. “You think someone might have deliberately poisoned him with MU1.”
Erik nodded slowly. “Perhaps.”
She nodded back and said, “Okay, let's talk about that. You want a hand with all this first?”
Erik shook his head, scrubbing a hand over his face. Watching him, Raven walked over to Erik, bits of broken glass crunching under her shoes, before she leaned forward and put her arms around his waist. Erik stood there frozen for a moment, but after a while he tentatively put his arms around Raven and they stood there in comfortable silence.
Frowning over her cup of coffee, Raven shook her head. “I can't believe someone would do this.” She snorted then. “Actually, maybe I can.”
Erik turned away from the balcony edge to see her seated at the table where he had sat with Charles not so long ago. Raven was watching him with that strange worried look again. It unnerved Erik somewhat.
“So, what happens if and when you find whoever did this?” she asked him.
“We'll find out exactly what's in Charles' system instead of the doctors treating him for every strain of MU1,” Erik said.
“I guess we'll also find out why this is happening,” Raven said.
Erik barked out a bitter laugh. “He's Charles Xavier, that's why this is happening. The golden boy of mutant causes and cordial relations with humans. Money, success and moral fortitude – it sticks in people's throats.”
The table at which Raven sat shook ever so slightly, humming and vibrating. Erik looked at it, calming himself down. He turned his back to Raven and looked over the balcony at the city below. Why didn't humans understand? If all mutants joined forces, they could have it all. But all they wanted was equality. What would it take for humans to understand this?
“Nothing's changed,” Erik said quietly. “So many people sacrificed so much, and nothing's changed.” Raven said nothing. She was quiet for so long that Erik had to turn around, just to look at her. She sat there staring at him, uncertainty and confusion written across her face. “Raven?”
She shook her head and smiled at him. “Sorry. I was listening. I just... I think you managed to scare me somehow. That's rare.”
“I'm sorry. That wasn't my intention,” Erik said, running his fingers through his hair as he blew out a measured breath. “How is Louis?”
She shook her head. “He's looked better. Charles' parents were at the hospital this morning. They didn't exactly have a calming effect. Not to mention he kind of wishes you were there. I think he thinks you're not coming back.” Raven gave Erik a careful look. “He's wrong, right?”
Erik looked back at her, straight in the eyes. “What do you think?”
Raven smiled. “I think Charles needs to wake up and marry the hell out of you.”
Erik smiled and sank down in the chair opposite Raven, picking up his coffee. It was blissfully strong, enough to make him grimace. Just as he set his cup down, Azazel materialised in the living room with Emma on his arm. They promptly came out onto the balcony. Azazel nodded at Raven, pulling out a seat for Emma and then taking up the seat opposite her.
“Are we interrupting?” Emma asked, reaching for Erik's coffee and taking a sip before pulling a face and putting it back.
Erik shook his head. “Raven, you know Azazel. This is Emma.”
Emma held out her hand and Raven shook it with a smile. “Hi Emma.”
Erik looked at Emma. “I take it you have something.”
Emma smiled, nodding. “Of course, sweetie.” Erik glared. It changed nothing. “We've got the security recordings like you wanted.”
“And it's going to take some time,” Emma said. “You have any idea how many people your little cupcake shook hands with on that day?”
“Well, if you need any help, I'd be more than happy,” Raven said.
“Here's the thing,” Emma said, placing both hands on the table and looking at both Raven and Erik. “Azazel has come up with a really good idea, which I think might help us to narrow down what we need to look for on the recordings.”
All eyes turned to Azazel. He blinked at them, no intention of being a tool of exposition. Erik and Raven turned back to look at Emma who was rolling her eyes at them all.
“On that night, there was one person who was practically glued to Charles. If anyone saw something, it was him,” Emma said.
“Who?” Raven asked. “Louis?”
Emma shook her head slowly and smiled before turning to look at Erik. She leaned towards Raven and held up a hand, whispering behind it, “I think it's kind of cute.”
Despite all the emotions whirling inside him, Erik felt his face flush for all to see. “Get to the point.”
“It's simple,” Emma said, lifting two fingers to her temple and then aiming an over the top stare in his direction.
“You're a telepath,” Raven said, catching on. Emma nodded, still sitting there with both fingers glued to her temple, arching a brow at Erik who finally smiled at her antics.
“Well?” Emma asked Erik. “You going to let me poke around in there?”
Erik leaned forward and grabbed her wrist, pulling it down to the table. He nodded. “Yes. I am.”
“Wow.” Emma stared, looking a little startled. She looked at Raven. “I've been trying to get in there for years. He must have it bad.”
Raven, Emma and Azazel all grinned. It was enough to make Erik want to jump off the balcony. But that would have to wait until Charles was awake and suitably punished for all this.
Charles was watching the news on the telescreen behind the bar and he was talking about something. Erik was only half listening. He was more interested in Charles' profile. The easy relaxed way he was leaning on the bar, the slight flush high on his cheeks, his hair freshly cut and making him look far too young for that suit.
“Wow,” Emma said from where she stood next to Erik.
Erik frowned and turned to look at Emma who stood in a flowing white evening dress, long gloves that went up beyond her elbows and her pinned back elegant hairdo. He stared at her in confusion.
“I'm in your head,” she said, as if it wasn't the first time she'd said this. “Remember?”
“Why are you dressed like that?” Erik asked.
“I didn't like the dress I was wearing that night,” she said, looking at him like he was an idiot. “Did you actually hear a word he was saying that night or did you spend all of it just undressing him with your eyes?”
“This is pointless,” Erik said, the memories moving on around him, speeding up as Emma watched closely.
“I wouldn't bet on it,” Emma said. “There's a reason we keep the memories we keep. There's a reason why this is still sticking in your mind. There's something you don't like about this memory.”
“How can you tell?” Erik asked. He wasn't sure if he was aware of his like or dislike for this memory. It seemed strange that someone else could know.
“Telepath,” Emma said. “When we look into someone else's head, we don't just see the memories. We see the horrible sticky stuff on the other side of the memories too. Even if you don't know its there.”
Suddenly they were part of a moving crowd and Erik was behind Charles, reaching out to place his hand on the small of Charles' back, gently guiding him away from people who were happily jostling everyone in their way. Emma looked at Erik with an expression he'd never seen on her face before. Something soft and surprised. He looked at her, expecting her to say something. She reached out and held his arm, letting Charles move on forward.
Then everything stopped.
Erik and Emma both moved through the frozen crowd, stopping behind Charles. He and a woman appeared to be mid-collision. It was hard to see between them, where the memory lacked information, but over Charles' shoulder they could both see the eyes of the woman, slanted downwards instead of towards the exits. Charles was holding himself strangely, his arm at an angle, perhaps as if something had made contact and surprised him.
Erik fisted his hands by his sides. He remembered the night so well. He remembered Charles with his inexhaustible patience and hospitality. Someone had come here to do this and now, Charles was –
The room exploded into light and noise. Erik was holding up his hand, blocking out the sun. He had a strange feeling that he could lift up the Earth in the palm of his hand if he wanted to. He could move a mountain, hold aloft the biggest creatures in the seas. And somehow, Charles was a part of it. There was a burning bright light inside of Erik and Charles was the one who had lit it and now Erik knew how to make fire.
“Erik, damn it, wake up!” Raven said, shaking him by his shoulders.
Erik jerked awake, staring up at her. Somewhere, Emma made a sound like relief. Erik sat up slowly to see Azazel holding Emma up as she knelt on the ground by the couch where Erik lay. There was blood on her shirt. When she looked up at him, dazed, there was blood running from her nose and down her mouth and chin. Erik sat up, rising to his feet as Azazel helped Emma to the couch, Raven taking a seat next to her, rubbing circles on her back. Azazel looked at Erik, worry and guilt mixed into one.
“You could give a girl a warning, you know?” Emma said sounding breathless. “Let me guess, that's never happened to you before. It's a first right?”
“Stop joking for once,” Azazel said sternly. “Are you okay?”
“Peachy keen, honey,” Emma said, still shaking. She looked at Raven. “I could really do with a drink.”
Raven nodded and got up to go. “I'll get you some water.”
Emma grabbed her hand, pulling her back. “I could really do with a drink.” Raven looked at her for a second and then smiled, nodding. Emma turned to Azazel and made a face. “And I might need to change. Bloody's not really my colour.”
After a moment's deliberation, Azazel disappeared. Erik took a few tentative steps before sitting down next to Emma, watching her carefully. She looked back at him, all the playfulness gone.
“Baby, that's some real sticky stuff in there.” Erik nodded, looking down at his hands. “Want to tell me what the hell that was?”
“Nightmares,” he said. “Old nightmares.”
Emma frowned. “I dunno. That seemed recent. And old.”
“I've been having some of them again,” he said, wanting to move away from the subject entirely. “I'm sorry. I put you at risk.”
“It wasn't your idea,” Emma said. “Blame Azazel. He gives great guilt gifts.”
Erik didn't find the situation humorous, nodding mutely. She bumped her knee against his, smiling. “Lighten up, boss. We've got bigger fish to fry.”
He arched a brow at her. “You have a plan, Ms. Frost?”
“I do,” she said. “I know what our woman looks like now, so Azazel and I will go over the recordings and see if we can pull an image. You get back to your honey. It's where you want to be.”
Erik shook his head, laughing quietly. When he looked back at her she was watching him with a familiar expression. That strange soft look he had seen in the midst if his memories.
“What?” he said.
“Does he know?” Emma asked him softly. “About how you feel.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“I am talking about how terribly in love you are with him,” Emma said plainly. “You're not falling for him at all. You're way past fallen, Erik. What I felt inside your mind, the things you feel for Charles Xavier... it's like being hit by a tornado.”
It was a hard thing to deny. It was as difficult to confirm, especially considering that he hadn't even admitted it to himself. Erik looked at Emma and said. “Bloody really isn't your colour.”
Emma groaned, falling against Erik. He put his arm around her, resting his cheek against the crown of her head. They stayed there like that until the others returned.
Azazel deposited Raven at her house and then Erik at the hospital, before returning to Emma. Louis was exactly where Erik had seen him the last time, outside Charles' room, looking in with a forlorn expression. He turned towards Erik just as he arrived. Erik nodded in greeting.
“Erik,” Louis said, looking both relieved and tired. He stepped closer, taking Erik's forearm in his grasp. “I am so sorry.”
“It's fine,” Erik said. “You don't have to-”
“No,” Louis said. “Please, hear me out. I need to say this. I didn't send you away because you don't belong here. I was... I was-”
“Frustrated because you can't do anything,” Erik said flatly. “Besides stand here and wait for him to either live, or die. For all our abilities, we're at the mercy of things we can't control. Like I was saying, you don't have to explain.”
Louis' eyes glittered with unspent emotion as he nodded. He gave Erik a shaky smile. “I'm glad you're here.”
“Where else would I be? After all, we're family now,” Erik said quietly. “Aren't we?”
Louis embraced Erik tightly, giving him a firm pat on the arm. He smiled at Erik with something like pride perhaps. “We most certainly are.”
“I'm inclined to agree with that.” Erik frowned and turned to see Anna behind him, holding two coffee cups. She gave him a look and said, “There other ways to travel besides Azazel.”
Erik smiled, moving to the window of Charles' room. Anna and Louis fell into quiet conversation behind him as he stood there watching Charles, still locked away in his plastic prison. Erik had an intense feeling of there being nothing but walls between him and Charles and that maybe it would take an eternity to knock every single one down.
“You can go inside, you know,” Anna said, Louis watching Erik from her side. “I'm going to see if I can persuade Louis to get some fresh air. You stay with Charles.”
Erik watched Anna and Louis walking away down the corridor. His brows climbed up a little when Louis took Anna's hand in his, as if this was how it had always been for them. As if they'd always been together. For a moment, Erik couldn't tear his eyes away from them. He turned back towards the room, pushing open the door and walking in. Erik dragged one of the seats up close to the bed and sat down in it.
He looked at the plastic veil that separated him from Charles. Then he watched the metal fastenings on the outside snap, one, two and three. He leaned forward and reached for Charles.
Charles opened his eyes. That smell could only mean one thing. He was in a hospital. There was a reason he was lying in a too small bed in a too white room, too warm, too bright. He couldn't figure out how any of these things could possibly contribute to his well being. He looked down at himself, white sheets, a white hospital gown. In some cultures, white was a colour of mourning, wasn't it? He couldn't remember. Memories, dreams, realities – they were all bleeding into each other in his mind. He thought of a cocktail, before all the clouds of colour were mercilessly mixed together.
He slowly turned his head to see Hank who was watching him with worry. “Where's Raven?”
Hank frowned. “You don't remember?” Charles blinked sleepily, shaking his head. “She left with Erik.”
“Erik?” Charles asked, something hurting hard in his chest, pushing up behind his eyeballs.
“I'm going to get the doctor,” Hank said, looking worried.
Charles shut his eyes and tried to think. Why would Raven be with Erik? He opened his eyes, looked around the room. Hank was gone too. Charles had enough and sat up. An unexpected cry of pain escaped his mouth and he almost toppled to the side, his hand flailing out to restore some kind of balance. He stared wide-eyed at the motionless shapes under the white sheet. The shapes that would be legs if he could feel them. But all he felt was pain above a space where he felt nothing. He grabbed the sheet and flung it away.
It floated up and back down slowly, like a falling white sky that sounded like the flapping of wings. Suddenly, it was completely snatched away from him and Charles was looking up at Erik. Erik was watching him, his forehead creased with worry. Charles rubbed his eyes and remained lying in bed, blearily blinking up at Erik.
“You were talking in your sleep,” Erik said.
“Was I?” Charles asked roughly.
“Will you be waking up today?”
Charles rolled onto his side and looked at the window pane. It seemed strange, malleable instead of hard. Like it might wobble if he touched it.
“I thought I was awake,” Charles said quietly. He rolled back towards Erik, finding him seated next to the bed, silently staring at Charles. Charles frowned. Everything was so muddled.
“Look at your hand,” Erik said without moving his mouth.
Charles looked at his hand and then his arm and then all the way to his shoulder where his skin had taken on a strange scaly blue appearance. Such a rich blue and the patterns were so organised, so efficient in their symmetry. Charles looked at his skin and whispered, “Remarkable.”
Erik leaned forward, reaching out for Charles. His warm fingers closed around Charles' hand. Charles looked at their hands. Erik's grip was firm, his skin warm. His thumb was idly moving across Charles' skin. When Charles looked back at Erik they were back in his childhood bedroom on that narrow bed under the window.
The sun was sinking outside and the light was dimming inside, slowly turning everything into shades of gray. Except for Erik's eyes which seemed to hold a light all of their own. Erik's grip around Charles' wrist was light, almost teasing. Charles felt his breathing becoming shallow as he inched closer to Erik's face.
Charles closed his eyes and chastely pressed his mouth to Erik's, holding onto the feel of Erik's hand.
“This didn't happen,” Erik whispered against Charles' mouth.
“Maybe in another lifetime,” Charles whispered back.
Erik's lips changed beneath Charles', stretching into a smile and he moved closer, eliminating the breathing space between them, opening his mouth and drawing a kiss from Charles. It felt as real as the touch of his hand.
At noon the doctor came and everyone was left waiting again. Calero drew the curtains this time, spending thirty minutes inside while Anna sat with Louis, never pulling her hand away from his. Erik stood leaning by the wall, arms folded over his chest, head heavy with exhaustion and the echo of nightmares. Damn you, Charles Xavier, he thought, before brooding on the ridiculous familiarity of the thought, unable to remember damning anyone in recent years.
The doctor finally emerged, her entourage following and hurrying off. Louis was up on his feet, eager for news, Anna hovering protectively as Erik pushed away from the wall and stepped closer.
“There hasn't been any change, I'm afraid,” Calero said. “But, things haven't gotten any worse.”
“How comforting,” Erik said dryly. Calero gave him a look.
“You were in there quite a while,” Louis said. “I was worried something was wrong.”
Calero shook her head. “We decided to take the skin sample. If what you said is true, about the cut on Charles' hand, then maybe we'll find traces of the original chemical used in the tissue around the cut. It may match up to something on the MU1 database. Having said that, the chance of that will have declined each day since he was brought in. Still, it's worth investigating.”
Louis nodded. “Thank you, Doctor. Thank you.”
Calero smiled at Louis and Anna, giving Erik a more stern look as she departed. It earned Erik a smack on the arm from Anna. Erik ignored it and said to Louis, “You told her about the cut.”
“Yes,” Louis said. “I thought she ought to know. It might help somehow.”
Erik gave Louis an approving nod. “Good thinking.”
Louis gave Erik a small smile and went back into the room, taking up his post by Charles' bed. Anna meanwhile was watching Erik closely. “Charles' parents were asking after your health,” she said. “They will be back later. You should-”
“No,” Erik said curtly. Anna frowned at him in question. He added thoughtfully, “I don't think I can offer them any comfort.”
Anna kept watching him, as if uncertain about something, but after a few seconds the creases of her forehead smoothed out in some quiet realisation and she nodded, reaching out to squeeze his hand in hers. “Then I will,” she said, while Erik nodded mutely. “You don't have to.”
Erik nodded, pulling his hand away, fisting it by his side as he turned towards the window to Charles' room once again. Louis was sitting in the seat recently vacated by Erik. He was frowning at the plastic tent in concentration. Erik peered at Louis with interest.
“Louis' trying to coax Charles into one of his memories,” Anna said. “Trying to talk to him.”
“It's not working?” Erik asked.
“No,” Anna said. “He says he's finding it hard to reach Charles. Claude tried too before. Tried to reach into Charles' mind, but he said it was like trying to climb a wall that just keeps getting higher.”
Erik watched as Louis leaned forward in his seat, frowning at the prone figure inside the enclosure. After a few moments, he sat back looking dejected. Louis then turned to see Erik on the side of the window. He offered what Erik expected was a smile for his benefit. How typical of the Xaviers, Erik thought rather angrily.
Raven leaned against the kitchen counter, eyeing the call-screen on the wall. She quickly went towards it and stopped, taking a step back. Then she reached out and hit 'call' anyway, quickly tapping in Emma Frost's calling card. The call load graphics spun for a while before a small circle expanded to reveal Emma wearing a quizzical expression.
“Emma, hey, it's Raven.”
Emma nodded. “I can see.”
Raven smiled. “Right, sorry. I just wanted to know how it was going. Hank's going to be home late and Leo's having a sleepover at a friend's. I'm free if you need any help, or anything.”
Emma frowned, looked away and nodded at someone. She looked back at Raven and said, “Send me your location coordinates?”
Raven sent off a message to Emma and a minute later she and Azazel appeared in Raven's kitchen, both holding datapads in their hands. Raven waved at them, remembering they travelled faster than most. Emma threw her white coat over the back of a chair before she slumped onto it, putting her datapad on the kitchen table, while Azazel took up a place next to her.
“I take it it's going slowly,” Raven said, looking at Emma. She pointed at the drinks unit. “Coffee?”
Emma nodded, closing her eyes. Azazel looked at her and smiled, telling Raven, “Please.”
Raven fixed three cups while Azazel said, “We've made a little progress.”
Raven stilled, halfway through placing the coffees on a tray, blinking at Azazel from behind the kitchen counter. “Really?”
Emma angled her head to look at Raven blearily. “Really. You have a little girl's room?”
Raven pointed to the stairs just outside the kitchen door. “Straight up, second on the right.”
Emma nodded, slowly getting up and making her way upstairs while Raven brought the coffees to the table and sat down opposite Azazel. “Is she okay?”
Azazel was still looking at the stairs. “I think she's still hurting from this morning.”
“Do you have any idea what happened?” Raven asked.
“She hasn't said,” Azazel said. He picked up his datapad, “She did find this though.”
Raven took the datapad and looked at it. It was a collage of images, all different angles of one moment. A woman passing close to Charles, their bodies looking as though they might press together for a moment. In some images, Charles was obscuring her face. In others, her hair hid most of her face. The most they seemed to have of this woman was a glimpse of bright eyes, a straight nose and her curled blonde hair.
“Can you get a better picture?” Raven asked.
Azazel nodded, taking the datapad and tapping the screen a few times. “This was picked up from one of the security cameras over the catering entrance. She's the closest we could find to the composite image pulled from the angles we could get. It hasn't matched with anyone on the guest list yet.”
Raven looked at the woman in her fine black dress with her bouncy hair and light make up. She seemed so utterly harmless and there she was just striding in, playing with a ring on her finger. Raven shook her head. “Who is she?”
Azazel shrugged. “No idea. We have half of the guest list left to sift through, but most guests don't enter through the back door.”
Raven frowned at the datapad and wondered why this woman would want Charles Xavier dead.
Charles stopped walking, looking down at his feet as his toes curled into the sand. He couldn't remember how he got here, but here he was. The sky was bright, the sun in his eyes no matter where he looked, shining off the waves in the sea. He turned around to look at the rest of the beach, finding it curving away from him. Looking down he saw he had left no footprints. Just two straight lines that disappeared into the distance.
The sound of something flapping loudly behind him made him turn. He stumbled backwards when he saw the figure before him. The brightness of the sun made the figure into a featureless dark shadow, the world behind him perfectly yellow and blue. Not that his identity mattered. Charles could make out the shine and curve of a helmet. He could see the cloak billowing away from the other man.
Charles shut his eyes as the glare of the sun entered his head, sharp and bright. He held his hand to his head, pushing his fingers against his temple. When he opened them again he was no longer on the beach, but in a large spherical room. He was sitting down, contained by a neat suit, framed by a wheelchair. Up ahead stood the man in the cloak, shoulders squared, his figure imposing.
“Why are you helping us?” Charles asked, the words foreign in his mouth, spoken by another.
“I'm not,” was the reply. “I'm helping you. You'll find them and give them sanctuary.”
“The sanctuary we offer isn't just for them,” Charles said, the pain of longing under those words so strong, it made him gasp. Charles was falling forward, out of the wheelchair and onto sand, onto knees that could feel the grit beneath them.
Charles clutched his head. There was no birdsong. The waves crashed against the land in silence. The strong breeze pushed against him unannounced. His head pounded and all he could hear was his own heart as he sank downwards, down into cold water and dark, his arms reaching out to anchor himself to something.
Reaching out and closing and holding on tight.
Erik lurched forward in the chair. He tried to fight between gulping in air and breathing deeply to control the bile rising up towards his mouth. He was shaking, as if someone had just pulled him out freezing cold water, shivering. It a took a moment to realise the lights had been dimmed low in Charles' room and that Anna's coat had been covering Erik like a blanket, before he threw it onto the floor on waking. He picked up the coat, slowly rising to his feet and looking at the prone figure in the bed.
Weeks ago, Erik's life consisted of sitting in his office and making money, or sitting in someone else's office, being courted and still making money. On a very good day, he wouldn't have to speak to anyone, see anyone or hear anyone – the money would simply get made. It was the way to be noticed in the human world. Money was power. When you flashed your wealth, people stopped to listen, even if they didn't care. Some hated that power in the hands of a mutant. It was good motivation to continue making money.
Yet, here he stood, hoping Charles would open his eyes and utter a single word. Any word. It didn't matter. Here Erik stood, despite knowing he could do nothing to fix this situation. Usually all it took was throwing money at the right person. He stepped close to the plastic enclosure.
“Charles.” Nothing, of course. Erik sighed. “Come on, Francine,” he whispered. “Stop being so stubborn.” Still nothing. Erik backed away, turning towards the small window.
After a moment, the door to the room opened and Anna said, “You're awake.”
Erik turned to see her. He walked across the room and handed over the coat he had woken up with. “Why did you let me fall asleep?”
“You have something against sleep?” Anna asked.
“I have something against sleep in uncomfortable hospital chairs,” Erik answered, moving past her and into the corridor where it was somewhat brighter and there was more breathing space.
She followed him out. “I hope you're going home tonight. Your not sleeping or eating isn't going to make Charles wake up any sooner.”
Erik rolled his eyes and said, “I'm fine. You don't need to worry about me.”
He turned to leave, intending to call Emma and find out how the search was going. Anna put a hand on his arm and gently pulled him about. “I am worried.”
Anna looked as though she could do with a good night's sleep too. Instead she was here worrying about Erik. He said, “Is Louis still here?”
Anna nodded. “I'm going to see him home in a minute. As soon as Charles' parents get here.”
Erik stared at the door to Charles' room. It was strange how he wanted to be in there and yet he wanted to be as far away as possible from seeing Charles lying there like he was already entombed. He had no desire to see the faces of Charles' parents as they sat there and hoped they wouldn't have to bury their son.
Erik nodded. “I'll go back to the apartment. Sleep for a while.”
Anna looked surprised, but gave an approving nod. “Good. You can back tomorrow. Rested.”
Erik doubted there would be much rest, but it would give him a chance to return in the morning, better equipped to believe that it might be the day Charles would wake up.
Raven was in the bathroom when she heard Hank arrive. She quickly finished up, hoping she could get down before... oh, too late, she thought as she heard-
“Raven? Are you in the kitchen? Oh. Hello... sorry, who are you?”
Raven jogged down the stairs and into the kitchen, reaching for Hank's waist as she walked around him and leaned up for a kiss. “Hey.”
“Hey. Hello.” Hank frowned and then gave her a polite look before nodding towards Emma who had a computer projection taking up the whole dining table and Azazel who was peering silently at a datapad. “Guests?”
“Hank, this is Emma and that's Azazel. They're friends of Erik's,” Raven explained.
Hank nodded. “Oh. Nice to meet you. How's he doing?”
“Not exactly Mr. Sunshine,” Emma said absently, reaching out and touching a projected image from the fundraiser guest list. “Not that he ever has been.”
Hank turned to Raven. “Any news on Charles?”
Raven shook her head. “Louis said it's pretty much the same. Brainwave readings are a little erratic, but it's not like anyone has an idea what a telepath's brain is supposed to be doing on a good day.”
Hank gave a nod of understanding and looked at the mess of datapads and overlapping projections on the table. “What's all this?”
Raven pulled out a chair and nodded towards it. Hank gave her a pensive look and sat down, watching her take the seat next to him. “We think someone infected Charles with MU1.”
“What? On purpose?” Hank stared at her, an incredulous expression on his face. Azazel pushed a datapad towards Hank, pointing at the screen. Raven watched as Hank eyed all the images. He shook his head. “This isn't much to go on.”
“Charles' hand has a cut,” Emma said. “It wasn't there at the beginning of the night. You want to take the chance it was just someone copping a feel and taking a memento?”
Hank stared at Emma. “Of course not. But you need more than this. We need to find out what strain of MU1 this is and if we can counter it, or reverse whatever damage it might be causing. You think you can get all this from half-hidden faces?”
“No. But we can from this.” Emma smiled, taking his datapad and reloading it to show him a composite image next to one of their number one suspect.
“You know who she is?” Hank asked.
“No,” Raven said. “We've spent the whole day looking at the guest identification badges. She doesn't match. Not that we thought she would.”
“What about the staff?” Hank asked.
Azazel shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Well, at least you have her face.”
Emma snorted at Hank. “Yeah, and exactly where do we start looking for Madam Assassin? She could be anyone.”
“Sure,” Hank said. “But she might be a someone of interest. Someone who's on a file somewhere.”
Raven was frowning at Hank. Her eyes widened and she said, “The IFRD?”
Azazel gave Raven a confused look. “The what?”
Emma was nodding, and not looking impressed. “The IFRD. International facial recognition database. Yeah, great idea, but no good. You need top level security clearance for access to that. Even the cop squad don't have that. We'd need someone in the Bureau to get into that and they're not really mutant friendly.”
“More explanation please,” Azazel said. “What is so wonderful about this database?”
Raven explained, “It's a database of persons of interest to the state. Basically? People the government think might cause problems. Of course, they get to define what the word problem means which lets them add writers, journalists, doctors, teachers, you know, anyone with an opinion that doesn't fit in the NY Reporter, alongside actual criminals. ”
Azazel nodded with understanding. “There's a good chance we could find this woman?”
Hank said, “A very good chance. The Bureau would have every member of the population in that database if they could do it, criminal or not. Everyone's proclivities, abilities and politics available at a glance from a single image of a face.”
Raven was nodding. She looked at Azazel and Emma. “Think you guys can find a way to access the IFRD?”
Emma scrunched up her face in an expression that did not project confidence. “Not without a man on the inside.”
Hank nervously cleared his throat. Raven blinked at him as he said, “I... I might know a man on the inside.”
Raven stared. “You might?”
“Who?” Emma asked. “And, how?”
“Me.” He sighed and shook his head. “Charles made me promise not to say anything, but he never said anything about getting sick and hospitalised either.”
“I don't understand,” Raven said.
Hank leaned forward and quietly said, “The IFRD database is linked to a secondary database. One that's used for only profiling mutants, whether they're a threat or not. The government won't force us to register anymore, so instead they have the Bureau fishing for information in other ways and then storing it under the pretence of national security.”
“Yeah, well, that still doesn't explain why you have an in, sweetie,” Emma said.
“I don't. Not technically.” Hank grimaced. “Not legally.” Everyone's expressions eased with some form of understanding. “Charles thinks the IFRD and its offshoot are both dangerous. There are things on those databases the Bureau doesn't need to know. Between us, we kind of hacked it.”
Raven was back to staring at Hank. “You hacked it. To do what?”
Hank took a deep breath and nodded. “We might have introduced a few programmes that routinely cause data loss and irreparable software damage. Not to mention some liberal weeding and editing of records. It's easily done once you've got access.”
Emma blinked at Hank in open awe. “How can you be sure you won't get caught?”
Hank shrugged. “I'm a genius. Kind of runs in the family. Probably why I was on the database.”
“Was I on it?” Raven asked.
“With all the rallies you've been to? Yeah, pretty much,” Hank said before giving a sharp nod and adding, “But, not anymore.”
Azazel laughed quietly. “Charles Xavier. Engaging in illegal behaviour. I like it.”
“He's not doing it for kicks,” Hank said. “He's doing it to protect people like you and me.”
Azazel gave him a polite smile. “I didn't mean to offend. I admire a man who would push boundaries for his principles.”
“Look, I'll run the image through the programme,” Hank said. “See if we can find something on this woman.”
“What about Erik?” Raven asked. “Shouldn't we tell him?”
“No,” Emma answered, shaking her head. “If it's just a dead end... let's just see what we find first.”
Hank nodded and got up. “Okay. Well, there's no time like the present and not to mention there''s really no time to waste.”
Emma was up and swinging her coat around her shoulders as Azazel got up and walked into the middle of the kitchen, waiting for his travelling companions.
Emma put her hand in Azazel's, grabbing Hank's in her other hand and looked at Raven. “Coming?”
Raven nodded firmly and reached for Azazel's hand. “Let's go.”
“Where are we going?” Azazel asked Hank.
Hank gave everyone a very bland look. “Downstairs, in the study.”
Emma grinned and winked at Raven. “We can still hold hands, right?”
Erik was drenched by the time he stepped into his apartment. The night time rain had provided suitable cover from people who might have otherwise turned to look in his direction and the cold had provided a jolt that countered his exhaustion. He peeled off his jacket and threw it onto the couch, wiping the rain from his face with the back of his arm, the shirt sleeve too wet to absorb anything. Wet and cold, Erik poured himself a tumbler of Scotch, downing it one go, grateful for the quick heated burn of the liquid as it went down.
It was slow progress up the stairs to his bedroom, as he thought of Anna with Louis, Emma with Azazel and Raven with her family. Even Charles, trapped in his plastic prison, stuck somewhere in his mind, had his parents watching over him. Wearily he stripped off his shirt, before unzipping his boots and ridding himself of his trousers, his skin damp underneath. He could have left the clothes where they lay on the floor, but the comfort of habit made him pick them up and throw them into the laundry chute in the bathroom.
He stood under the hot spray of the shower for an eternity, eyes closed with his face angled up. Somewhere from the recesses of his mind, a memory floated up near the surface and Erik could almost feel the presence of arms closing slowly around him, a body pressing in behind and the whisper of his name in his ear. Right into his mind perhaps. Erik let his head fall forward and opened his eyes, staring at the black tiles on the other side of the stream of water. There was a memory, something from his dreams. He blinked, trying to remember it. His hand went to his ribs, cupping the curve of bone under flesh. There was a memory there.
But that was the way with all dreams, whether they were made of euphoric substance or dark terrors. They all seemed real. They all seemed like memories. Erik turned off the shower, grabbing a towel from the rail on the wall and wrapping it around his waist. He dimmed the lights in the bedroom before throwing back the covers of his bed and getting in. The telescreen on the wall opposite was blinking with unread messages. Erik ignored them and aimed the remote control at the screen, instantly bringing up a news feed direct from the same corporation that owned the NY Reporter. It was usually a good idea to follow the opinions of the people you disagreed with the most.
He sat back, craving a distraction. He was tired, but as Anna had guessed, he wasn't much for sleep. Erik opened up the bedside draw, pulling out a small silver case from which he extracted a single dark brown cigarillo. Replacing the case he felt around for the lighter. When he didn't find it, he brought his hand out and waited for the light to come flying into his palm. Lighting up, he took a drag and let himself slip down the bed a little, not enough to lie down, but enough to comfortably watch the screen through the haze of smoke in front of his eyes. It wasn't long before he half-lay there with heavy-lidded eyes, on the edge of sleep, even as he brought the cigarillo to his mouth.
Then the news item changed and his eyes widened a little with interest. It was a shot of the exterior of Grey Memorial Hospital, the hospital where Charles was cocooned away. A reporter stood outside, sometime earlier in the day, far too cheerful looking for the story.
“Any news at all on Professor, I'm sorry, I mean of course, Doctor Xavier,” asked the in-studio news anchor.
“Not as yet,” the reporter chirped back in response. “All we know at this stage is that he is still in critical condition as he has been for some days now. We've tried to contact the Xavier family as well as representatives of Erik Lehnsherr, who of course everyone must know by now is Charles Xavier's fiancé, but as yet no one has made any further statements. We will bring an update as soon as we have one. Not a happy time for the Xaviers, Ken.”
Back in the studio the irritating anchor Ken was half-smiling as he commented on what a month it had been for Charles Xavier. Enough excitement for a lifetime, he said. Erik peered at the screen through narrowed eyes, grateful for the white mist of the cigarillo smoke. He really didn't need to remember that man's face.
Erik let his head fall back, blowing out smoke, watching it escape and disappear completely. On the telescreen they were still discussing Charles, his work, his family and now his possible future with Lehnsherr Corp. Not Erik, but Lehnsherr Corp. Clearly, for some people, this was nothing more than mutant money making more mutant money. Erik allowed himself a very small smile, even though it was tinged with bitterness.
Eyes back on the screen, the thought struck Erik that he wasn't the only one watching this. There was someone out there waiting for Charles to die. Someone was out there watching this and waiting to become a confirmed killer. Erik took another drag and filed the thought away for later.
Raven looked at the others in the study. Emma and Azazel looked baffled and Hank was watching Raven for a reaction. She said, “Are you sure?”
“Raven, you saw me run the analysis three times. I'll do it again, but I don't think it'll be any use,” Hank said.
“This doesn't make any sense,” Emma said. She pointed at the screen. “That is her. That's the woman. Right? I mean, you can all see that, right?”
“Emma,” Azazel said with a sigh. “We all see it.”
“Then how can the records say this is a woman who died three years ago? Clearly she's not dead,” Emma asked. She arched a brow at Hank. “Maybe this is some of your creative editing gone wrong.”
“She's from the main database,” Hank said. “Sandra Rifkin, human, activist. We wouldn't have altered her record.”
“Oh,” Raven said quietly, shutting her eyes tight. “I don't believe this.”
“What?” Hank asked, pushing away from the desk and getting up, moving closer to Raven where she sat on the edge of his desk.
Raven was nodding at the screen. “That is our woman. That's exactly who we saw on the security recordings.”
“She looks good for a three year old corpse,” Emma said.
Raven gave Emma a look and then with a blink of an eye covered herself in another skin. Done right, she would look just like the woman on the computer projection. From the looks on everyone's faces, she had made her point very clearly.
“The Sandra Rifkin on the database probably did die three years ago. The Sandra Rifkin on the recording, was probably not human,” Raven said quietly. “It was probably someone like me.”
She returned to her own skin, with relief, remaining quiet as the implication set in for the others. Hank was visibly incensed by the idea. “A mutant? No. It has to be something else.”
“Oh please,” Emma snapped. “Like what? A twin? A clone? A ghost? What? Face it, big guy, this was done by one of our own.”
“We just have to find out which one of our own and for what reason,” Azazel said quietly enough that Raven found it more troubling than Emma or Hank's outbursts.
“And once we find her? Then what?” Raven asked.
The looks on Emma, Hank and Azazel's faces said that their plans most definitely did not involve sitting down and talking.
“Your move,” Erik said.
Charles watched the plastic pieces. They all looked the same. Each one as powerless as the next. Each one insignificant in this game. Each one a shimmering shade of blue. Charles closed his eyes, “I can't think straight.”
“Try,” Erik said. “Make your next move.”
Charles shook his head, eyes shut tight, head pounding and his ears feeling as they were filled with blood. “I can't.”
There was warmth spreading across his hand. The tightening of fingers, the heat of someone else's skin. Charles opened his eyes blinking at the pieces. His hands were on his knees and nothing appeared to exist past the translucent board and pieces.
Charles reached out and moved a knight. His pieces drained of colour, once again in play.
Raven sat at the kitchen counter, one eye on her datapad, the other on her breakfast. In the background she could hear the morning news. People fighting for the ownership of the moon, countries laying claim to a barely settled Mars, fights of independence breaking out in the United States of Asia. Raven figured the word 'mutant' would eventually turn up in conjunction with either mad-looking loud people, criminal activity, moral deviance or the latest takeover bid of some poor defenceless human owned company.
She snorted and continued reading her latest mail until she heard Hank's footsteps on the stairs. Turning around on her seat, she caught him padding down the hall and then back again, stepping into the kitchen, dark blue bathrobe over lighter blue skin, his fur still looking a little damp from the shower.
She smiled and waited. He smiled back and said, “Not that I don't encourage you making new friends instead of scaring our old ones, but why are Emma and Azazel passed out on our couch, Raven?”
“We kind of stayed up after you went to bed.”
He sighed, reaching out for Raven. She hopped off the stool and took his hand, pulling him close. He held her and said. “I'll pick Leo up from Panther's house. You... you do what you have to do.”
Raven pressed her cheek against Hank's chest. “What about you?”
Hank said, “I might work from home. The labs can do without me for a day or two.”
Raven reached up and pressed a kiss to Hank's mouth, holding onto him a little longer before she let him go and sat back down, watching him go about making his breakfast.
“So, did you and your new friends actually find anything?” he asked, peering at some empty unwashed glasses. “Besides the liquor cabinet?”
Raven grimaced. “Well, we have a little more on Sarah Rifkin. Died three years ago in a collision, aged thirty-two. Worked as an information specialist with City Hall, which is maybe something we can follow up. Her name shows up on a lot of petitions, mostly ones that were designed to make our lives harder.”
Hank placed a pan on his beloved old stove and turned to look at Raven with a frown. “Someone wants to make it look like the mutant hater's not dead?”
“I have no idea. If this is someone who can change their appearance, then we really need to figure out why they would pick Rifkin and not someone alive.”
Hank was nodding thoughtfully. “So a good place to start would be mutants who might have had a vested interest in the activities of Ms. Rifkin and an enduring grudge.”
“Or we could go and find the registered mutants on the Bureau's cute little database,” Emma said from the doorway, white clothes crumpled, hair pulled back into a tight ponytail.
“That's a very high number,” Hank pointed out.
Emma nodded. “Sure. But, not if you take away all the people we're not looking for. All the mutants registered on the Bureau's database have their class, ability and current known location categorised. Want to know how many mutants there are in New York who have an ability that includes altering their appearance?”
“How many?” Raven asked.
“Twenty-three, of which nine are registered members of the criminati,” Emma said. She smiled rather triumphantly and added, “I say we figure out how they're connected with Rifkin first.”
“And if none of them are the one we're looking for?” Hank asked.
“We come up with a better idea.” Emma shrugged and then pointed in the general direction of the living room. “I should wake Azazel. We need to swing by and check in with the boss.”
Raven nodded. “If you need anything.”
Emma nodded back and smiled, “I know. I'll call you.”
Erik was viewing the latest data logs on his screen with great interest when Azazel and Emma appeared on the other side of his desk. Both looked tired and slightly bemused.
“What?” Erik asked, switching of the computer display with single jab of the forefinger.
Emma shrugged. “We just figured you'd be at the hospital.”
“I've already been,” Erik said. “No miracles yet.”
Azazel arched a brow at Emma before silently walking away from the desk and taking up a seat on the couch. Emma remained where she stood, frowning at Erik. “So, you're back at work now?”
“What would you have me do?” Erik asked quietly. “Play the grieving widow?”
“He's not dead yet,” Emma said. “And, by the way, if this is some new coping strategy, I suggest you drop it before you start. Really not doing anything for your already too fluffy personality, boss.”
Erik gave a her long measured look, keeping his mouth shut. When he realised he had no words to offer other than bitter and frustrated ones, he looked away, swivelling around in his seat to stare at the New York skyline. It was a particularly miserable and cold day out there today, everything smudged into shades of gray.
“I can't do anything at the hospital,” Erik said. “Besides watch and wait.” He swivelled back to look at Emma. “And I appear to be of little or no comfort to everyone else there.”
Emma looked a little guilty. It didn't suit her very much. She knew it too, because the next thing she said was, “I could wear something really skimpy if it helps.” Erik smiled as she turned to earn a glare from Azazel. She shrugged and said, “What? Like it doesn't benefit you at the same time?”
Azazel sighed and rolled his eyes, sullenly looking away. Erik said, “Maybe later. I was hoping for now you could just give me some good news. Find anything from the security footage?”
“Well, we have a face,” Emma said.
“Nothing else?” Erik asked. “A name, perhaps?”
“Working on it,” Emma said, while Azazel was most certainly paying too much attention to his shoes.
Erik nodded. “Who is Sarah Rifkin?”
Both Azazel and Emma were staring at him. Emma's expression changed first and she decided not to hide her annoyance. “God, you're an asshole.” She turned to Azazel. “He's been monitoring our datapads.”
Azazel blinked at Erik. He didn't seem so much offended as he did disappointed. “You don't trust us?”
“I trust you implicitly,” Erik said, directing his gaze at Emma. “Even when you lie. Especially when you lie, Ms. Frost.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “We have the name of a dead woman and a bunch of mutants who may or may not not be involved. We didn't want to get your hopes up, so sue us.”
“Mutants,” Erik said.
Emma wouldn't look him in the eyes. It was Azazel who answered, “Perhaps.”
“A mutant did this?” Erik asked, the words sticking in his throat.
“We 're not sure,” Emma said. She looked up at Erik. “Glad you know now?”
Erik got up slowly, turning his back on Emma and Azazel as he stared at the window. He could make out his own reflection, a dark shadow staring right back. A mutant wanting to kill Charles of all people. It made Erik' stomach turn.
“Rifkin,” he said. “What do you know so far?”
“She's dead. Has been for three years. Worked at City Hall. Human.” Erik frowned, shaking his head at Azazel. “Raven has theorised that a mutant impersonated Rifkin.”
“Why?” Erik asked.
Emma shrugged and said, “She has quite the record in anti-mutant petitioning. Five years ago she was involved in campaigning for the police being allowed the discretion of using ability neutralising stun guns.”
“A pity she didn't live to see the bill go through,” Azazel said.
Erik shoved his hands into his pockets as he paced a while before sitting down on the edge of his desk. He frowned at Emma. “How did you get your list of mutants?”
“Hank McCoy helped,” Emma said. When Erik's frown deepened, she added, “Raven's partner. We were camped out at their place last night. Hank seems to have provided the Xavier Research Foundation with access to the IFRD.”
Erik stared. “What kind of access?”
“The not very legal kind,” Emma answered.
“The kind we were unable to achieve,” Azazel added with a smile.
Erik was impressed and it must have showed because Emma said, “You can't steal employees from your fiancé. That's pretty low. Even for us.”
Erik went back to his chair, sitting back and swivelling to face Emma. “How many mutants do we have?”
“To start with, nine,” Emma said.
Erik gave Emma a nod. For the first time in over a week he was feeling something other than helpless. “Continue.”
Everything was spinning around. Charles stumbled in an effort to gain some equilibrium. Erik was holding him, his hands gripping Charles tight around the arms while Charles was sinking with leaden limbs. Erik was calling him from somewhere under water, from inside bubbles and Charles was sinking further down until... pop, like a bubble, like a dream.
Charles looked at his hands gripping Erik's arms which were holding him up. He blinked a few times and said, “What happened?”
“I don't know,” Erik said quietly, getting a better hold of Charles. “I thought you were about to pass out.”
“I was,” Charles said with a frown. “I thought I did.”
“Inside,” Erik said, all but dragging Charles back into the house and straight to the living room.
“What's the matter?” Louis asked as he watched Charles being gingerly deposited on the couch. “Is everything all right?”
“I think we ought to leave dinner to another day,” Erik said. “Charles isn't feeling very well.”
“Nonsense, I'll be fine,” Charles protested.
“Charles,” Erik said. “You almost fainted.”
Charles pulled a face and looked at Louis. “It's true.”
“How terribly Victorian of you,” Louis said.
Charles glared and turned his attention to Anna. “I'm so sorry, I appear to have made a mess of what looks like was going to be a very lovely evening.”
Anna smiled. “Another time. You need to rest. Get better.” Her voice seemed strange, like an echo underwater for a moment. She was still smiling as she said, “Especially for your uncle. He's sick with worry, you know.”
Charles looked at Louis who was standing with his back to the room, looking out of the window. There it was again, that warmth on Charles' hand, that tight insistent grip. He looked down to find Erik's hand, squeezing his fingers.
Charles looked up and frowned at Erik. “Still dreaming?”
Erik said, “I have to go. I'll come back later.”
Charles watched Erik's hand withdraw itself, his own remaining motionless on his knee. He slowly brought it up to his head, his fingers pressing against his temple as he focused his concentration.
He listened quietly, for anything, for the smallest passing thought available.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Erik found himself in a large homely living room filled with sunshine streaming from a large window. Behind him was a medium sized telescreen and opposite him was a large very comfortable looking couch, a dark brown blanket rumpled at one end of it and cushions piled at the other. The coffee table had an empty plate with crumbs next two a cup of half-finished coffee.
Emma poked Erik in the arm and said, “We'll let you know if we have anything.”
Erik nodded, feeling a shift in the air as Azazel and Emma left him alone in the room. Not for the first time, Erik wondered if it would have been a better idea to arrive on the other side of the front door to the house, rather than right here in the privacy of someone's home. Especially when he saw the tall and lean blue man standing in the doorway, frowning.
Erik opened his mouth to speak, but the man held up a hand and said, “Don't. I'm getting used to it now.” He walked all the way in and held out his hand. “Hank McCoy. We haven't officially met.”
Erik nodded. “I saw you at the Xavier Mansion. I spoke to Leo. Bright boy.”
Hank seemed to warm to that remark, smiling and nodding for Erik to follow. “You dropped by at a good time. I've been running some checks on the database again. I take it Emma and Azazel told you?”
“They did,” Erik said, following Hank down the stairs into a dimly lit but spacious room lined with shelves of rare books and disc boxes. “I was a little surprised that Charles would sanction such a thing, much less be a part of it.”
Hank pulled out a chair for Erik, smiling with clear amusement as he sat down opposite. “Charles is very clear about what constitutes as good and bad in his book. I think it allows him to cross a lot of lines people wouldn't expect.”
Erik nodded thoughtfully. “You've known him a long time?”
“A while. Some years ago he read a paper of mine and called me up in the middle of the night,” Hank said with a grin. “He was so excited, babbling on about potential and possibilities and I was half-asleep and thought someone was crank calling me. He turned up the next day to apologise and offer me a job. Within a year I had my own lab, I'd met Raven and I had Charles as a mentor and a friend.”
Hank stopped there, clamping his mouth shut, sad eyes turning to look at the screen on his desk rather than Erik. Erik was almost grateful the other man was taking the time to handle his own grief. It was a selfish thing to think, but what words could Erik offer to the people who had loved Charles much longer than... well, much longer.
Hank blew out a breath and gave Erik a sidelong look. “So, how are you holding up in all this?” Erik looked at the data streaming down the screen near him. He found himself at a loss for words, surprised when Hank said, “Don't answer that. I think I can guess.”
Erik pointed at the screen. “This tapped into the IFRD right now?”
Hank shook his head. “Right now it's cross-referencing a number of databases. What we really want is anything and everything on Sarah Rifkin and the kind of psychotic... person she might have annoyed. Someone who might have a grudge against Charles.”
“What do you think the chances are that we'll find anything?” Erik asked.
Hank was blinking at the screen, chewing on his bottom lip before gave Erik a straight look and said, “Slim. Whoever did this could be gone by now, along with whatever strain of MU1 they used. Our best bet right now is for the hospital to find out what strain they're dealing with and helping Charles to fight this thing off.”
“And what are the chances of that?”
Hank was nodding. “Better. I've got the full resources of the Xavier Research Foundation working with the hospital. We've had people working on MU1 ever since we heard the first reports. We will find something. Not to mention that people have survived MU1. The survivors outnumber the fatalities, but you just don't hear about it on the news. The longer Charles hangs on, the more likely it is he'll pull through.”
Erik sat back and looked at Hank, wondering how much of what he was saying was for his own benefit. “The doctor I spoke to said the chemical compound used to poison Charles will have broken down in the body within hours.”
“The tissue samples we have from the hospital are undergoing rigorous analysis. Yes, it would have been better if we'd done this on day one, but... it's not over yet.”
“Hank! Are you in the basement?” Raven called down.
Erik looked up at the stairs, Hank already on his feet. “Be right back.”
Erik nodded, watching Hank jog up the stairs. In the meantime, he took out his datapad, pressing a call for Azazel who answered almost immediately, listening quietly as Erik said, “Find our mutant later. I need you to do something else first.”
Charles lowered his fingers from his temple, resting his arm on the table before him. His glass was empty. Again. His hand was stinging, the cut feeling more like an insect bite than anything else. He unwrapped the silk handkerchief, now ruined, and looked at the back of his hand. There was swelling around the small cut, the skin pink and tender. The cut itself had clotted and stopped bleeding. Charles wrapped the handkerchief back around his hand, the tightness proving somewhat comforting.
The hall was empty now, all the guests gone, the cleaners beginning pick up the mess. Louis was off in the distance, still arguing with the manager. And there, by the doors to the foyer, there was Erik. He was with Emma and Azazel. Emma was saying something with a smirk on her face, something Erik was trying very hard not to find funny. In the end, he gave both his companions a stern look and turned away from them, allowing himself a small smile out of sight.
Charles waved at him as he neared, watching Erik swipe two glasses from a forgotten tray and a half-full bottle of Champagne from a table. He placed one glass in front of Charles, filling it before sitting down and pouring himself a drink. He was leaning back in his chair and smiling at Charles. It was a smile Charles had taken to bed that night.
“What?” Charles asked with a small laugh.
Erik leaned forward and said. “A successful evening, don't you think?”
Charles nodded, holding up his glass. Erik picked up his own and promptly clinked glasses with Charles. “Thanks to you.”
Erik shook his head. “Those people were here for you, Charles.”
And Charles had wanted to ask-
“What?” Erik asked, “What did you want to ask?”
Charles covered his face, wondering why his hand trembled. His chest shuddered as he breathed out and managed to say, “Okay. We're not here.”
Erik was suddenly pulling him to his feet, taking him by his arm and towards a dance floor full of people, the tables once again full of guests and chatter. Charles looked around, unsteady on his feet.
“Your hand's bleeding,” Erik said, giving him a handkerchief.
They danced and Erik had an easy smile softened by drink and Charles' head swum with Champagne. Charles moved closer and Erik had closed the gap between them and later Charles ran the scene through his mind until he fell asleep.
The music stopped.
Charles was alone, stranded, arms hanging down by his side. Blood dripped from his hand, the drips making the only sound in the hall.
There was woman. This was new.
Her eyes were on him as she walked the ribbed circumference of the dance floor. In her gloved hand was a glint of silver that shone into Charles' eyes, renewing the pain in his hand.
“What did you do?” Charles gasped as he fell to his knees, cradling his hand close. He looked up at her, his head heavy. Her mind didn't match her face. She was leaving even as Charles shuddered on the floor and shouted after her, “What did you do to me?”
She was gone and Charles was alone.
“What did he tell you?” Raven asked Hank as she put away a box of groceries.
“Nothing. Besides, it's too early. I doubt Emma or Azazel will have found our mutant yet,” Hank said.
Raven gave Hank a long thoughtful look. “I figured he'd be out there with them. He doesn't seem the type to sit around and wait.” Hank nodded, shoving one hand in pocket, the other idly scratching the back of his head. Raven had to ask, “What?”
“There's something no one's brought up yet,” he said tentatively. Raven had an idea what he was about to suggest. “The police. We have a suspect, or at least, we have a face. Why are we sitting on this?”
“No point,” Erik said appearing in the doorway. Hank and Raven both turned to look at him, Raven feeling a little caught out. “We only found the images because of Emma's little trip into my head, which would be completely dismissed. In the meantime, the media will catch wind of it and before we know it the politicians will be calling to tag all mutants like common pets. However, if the tests on Charles' tissue samples can prove he was poisoned, then maybe someone will sit up and look at those images, which might somehow find themselves in the hands of interested media outlets. Don't get me wrong. The police are perfectly capable of doing their jobs. When you apply the right pressure.”
Raven shook her head. “Wow. And I thought I was cynical.”
Something beeped in Erik's pocket and he turned to Hank, telling him, “I'll have something for you in a moment actually.”
Hank frowned. “What is it?”
That was when Azazel appeared in the kitchen with Louis who looked rather tired and a little bewildered. Erik asked him, “Did you get my message?”
Louis nodded. “Yes. What is all this, Erik?”
“Yes, Erik,” Raven asked with a little annoyance as she took in Louis' dark circles and tired eyes. “What is all this?”
“Did you find the coat?” Erik asked Louis.
“Yes, of course. He has an awful habit of just stuffing things back into the closet. I found this in the pocket.” Louis reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief with blood stains that had now turned brown. He handed it to Erik. “This is what you wanted, yes?”
Erik nodded. “Yes.”
“Good,” Louis said. “Now tell me what the bloody hell is going on.”
Erik turned to Hank, holding out the handkerchief. “That night? I gave Charles this when I saw his hand was bleeding. He had it wrapped around his hand the whole night and it looks like its been in his coat ever since. Do you think-?”
Hank snatched the handkerchief. “The fibres might have traces, yes. This is, this is good. This is really good.” He looked at Azazel. “Um, it would be really good if I could get down to the lab. I mean, right now.”
Azazel gave Erik a rather stern look and then turned to Hank, holding out his hand. Before he could go, Louis said, “I do hope you're not expecting me to make my own way back, young man.”
Azazel clapped a hand on Louis's shoulder and then in a swirl of red they were all gone, leaving Erik by the door and Raven behind the counter. She smiled at Erik who gave her a bemused look.
“You had lunch?” she asked. Erik shook his head. She rapped her knuckles on the counter top. “We'll have lunch then.”
Erik gave the counter a look before slowly shrugging out of his black jacket and neatly hanging it over the back of a chair. He took up a place at the counter, looking up at her.
Raven grimaced and said, “I know. It's kind of disgusting. One week old laundry, right?”
The corner of Erik's mouth twitched up into a smile. “It's very disgusting.”
Raven was laughing quietly. “But, you can't help loving the guy regardless, right?”
Erik tilted his head at her, squinting in thought. For a moment she thought he might just say something worth holding over his head once this was all over and they had the luxury of happiness again. He just smiled and said, “What's lunch?”
Raven shrugged. “Eggs?”
Erik nodded. “I like eggs.”
“Good.” Raven nodded back. “It's pretty much all I can cook. They're not very good.”
Erik got up and walked around the counter. She stood next to him, frowning as he looked around the kitchen and found a pan, placing it on the stove. He saw her questioning look and shrugged. “I make good eggs.”
Raven smiled, nodding. She pointed at the refrigerator. “I'll get them for you.”
Charles sat up, shaking his head clear before getting to his feet and looking around. Frowning, Charles walked off the empty dance floor, passing a table with an open champagne bottle. Picking it up, he took a swig and then walked on, shouting, “Louis? Louis!”
No response. Not even a spark of Louis' thoughts. It was Erik and not his uncle who emerged from the shadows, his coat missing, the front of his white shirt unlaced to show a generous expanse of chest. Erik looked down at it and then back at Charles, arching a brow.
“Yes,” Charles said slowly. “You're right, no time for all that now.”
When he looked at Erik again, he was once again dressed impeccably respectable. What a shame, thought Charles.
“Your head seems clearer,” Erik said.
“It is,” Charles said with a nod. He looked down at his hand, pulling up his coat and shirt sleeves. The blue tone of his skin had faded somewhat. “I suspect it's connected to this. Whatever this is.”
He turned to frown at the dance floor where he had woken up. He'd seen something there, hadn't he? A woman... it was already fading from his memory. He turned and pointed at Erik. “I'm dreaming. Or hallucinating. Or both. The good news is, you feature heavily in both cases, which makes it somewhat more bearable.”
But there was something else smeared onto the back of this dream, hallucination, whatever it was. He focused on it until something hard appeared in his fisted hand. Charles frowned, bringing up his fist and slowly opening it. A silver coin. Both sides looked smooth, though Charles' fingers could clearly feel a raised pattern. His heart beat in a strange panicked rhythm as he stared at the coin.
“You'll need to concentrate harder,” Erik said, voicing Charles' thoughts. Charles shook his head. The coin wouldn't be smooth if he was meant to see the pattern. “Go ahead.”
Tempted, he thought about it for a second. A sharp pain lanced through his head and he immediately dropped the coin, stepping away from it as if it might turn into a sea of acid and consume him. His hand stung and Charles brought it up to his face, seeing it once again wrapped in a handkerchief. Images flashed through his mind in a quick succession. The woman. Her look. The sharp pain. Someone else's fleeting thoughts.
“Charles?” Erik said as they slowly swayed to the music, snapped back into a comforting memory.
Charles nodded thoughtfully, looking at his bandaged hand on Erik's shoulder, concentrating as hard as he could.
Raven folded her arms and sighed as she watched Calero inside Charles' room. Louis was next to her, his anxiety quite palpable.
“They just keep going in there, doing more tests,” he said.
Raven nodded. “Calero said it could take up to forty-eight hours before we see a change. If they identified the right strain.”
Louis said, “Two weeks he's been lying there. People are talking about him like he's already dead.”
“He's going to be okay. I know he is.” Raven firmly told Louis. “Have you seen Erik?”
Louis nodded. “Every night. I caught him this morning too. He said he was dropping by on his way to work, but I expect he's still obsessed with looking for this poisoner.”
“Emma and Azazel are chasing down everyone on their list. Erik's pretty much living in my basement.”
“What's it going to achieve?” Louis asked. “We'll find out one of our own did this to Charles of all people. I'm not sure I want to know.”
“Why not?” Raven said. “Someone tried to kill Charles. They shouldn't get away with it. Human or mutant.”
Louis shook his head, but said nothing, his attention soon turning to Calero who was leaving the room and stepping out into the corridor. “Doctor.”
She smiled at Louis and Raven. “The next batch of tests should have something. They're going down to the lab right now and considering the Xavier Foundation just gave us a tonne of data from their findings, we should have the results soon.”
“But you can't tell us anything now,” Louis said, disappointment evident in his tone.
Calero looked back at the room, frowning a little. “His readings are levelling out, that's positive. We're still not sure what to make of his brain activity, but like I said before, there's not a lot of research on the inner workings of a telepath's brain. They're a particularly cagey bunch when it comes to sharing.”
“You have no idea,” Raven said with a smile. She looked at Louis who seemed exhausted as if he hadn't been allowing himself the benefit of fatigue until the moment Calero had uttered the word 'positive'. Raven reached out and took Louis' hand, squeezing it hard. He looked at her and nodded.
“Thank you, Doctor Calero,” Louis said. She smiled and left them both outside Charles' room. Louis patted Raven's hand and gave a firm nod. “He's going to be fine. You're right. You're quite right, Raven.”
Raven smiled, looking at the figure in the plastic enclosure. He looked pale and frozen, a million miles away, but Raven told herself he was coming back.
Erik hit sync and felt the datapad in his pocket vibrate as the information from Hank's terminal transferred over. His eyes were itching, his vision beginning to swim from so much fixed staring and now Hank was stomping down the stairs of the basement too loud for Erik's liking.
“What a surprise,” Hank said. “You know, I see you more than I see my wife and son.”
Erik said, “I asked you to provide with me access, you said no. I have no other choice-”
“But to break into my house and use my things, yeah,” Hank said with a nod and sigh.
“I didn't break in,” Erik said.
“Having Azazel teleport you here does not make it legal entry,” Hank said, falling into the chair opposite Erik. “For that you would need to knock.”
Erik pointed at the computer terminal behind him. “You could just give me access.”
“It's bad enough you know I have this, let alone giving you free reign,” Hank said. “Charles would have my head.” Erik scratched his stubbly cheek, not remarking anything in return. Hank nodded. “You still think he's not going to wake up.”
“I never said that,” Erik told Hank.
“You didn't have to. It's why you're still here looking for someone to pin the blame on,” Hank said.
“I'm here because whoever did this might be on the database,” Erik said. He pointed at Hank and added, “Someone who might like to do this again.”
“Someone who took a shot, missed, and probably won't risk it again,” Hank countered. He shook his head. “Have you seen this morning's news?”
“Any reason I should have?”
“Just a picture of you leaving the hospital, looking like you've been sleeping rough,” Hank said with a frown. “I'm surprised you let yourself get snapped, what, like three times this week? You strike me as more careful.”
Erik smiled thinly. “Rough week.”
Hank was peering at Erik with something like suspicion. “You know, if you wanted to share what's on your mind, I could actually be of help to you.”
Erik pondered on the remark as he eyed the computer on Hank's desk, still filled with endless and tiring lines of information. Erik nodded and said, “Plan B.”
“Plan B? For?”
“Catching a killer,” Erik said.
Hank was quiet for a moment. Then he nodded and said, “I'm listening.”
Concentration was the key.
If he concentrated hard enough, focused, he could navigate his own dreams, reach out beyond whatever it was that had him locked inside his own head.
Immediately, as the thought took shape, Charles was flipped onto his back and pinned to the bed. He looked up in surprise, finding Erik smiling at him. "But wouldn't you rather stay here?"
Charles narrowed his eyes at Erik. "But here isn't real, is it?"
Erik ground down against Charles, making him squirm. "Isn't it?"
Charles let out a strained breath. "I'm quite sure it isn't. Pity."
Erik sat back, straddling Charles' thighs as he smoothed his own hair back with both hands. He looked as disappointed as Charles would have him look in this situation. Charles felt a strange pull inside his chest, looking up at Erik who was so close yet felt so far away. Charles reached out to stroke Erik's thigh, feeling no real warmth there.
Erik took Charles' hand, blinking at it, inspecting the tops of Charles' fingers. Charles looked at his hand, the blue fading still, the way the fog in his mind seemed to be clearing. At that thought, for just a moment, Erik's head appeared to be encased in a metal helmet. It flashed bright in Charles eyes, as if he was being blinded by sunlight. He pulled his hand from Erik's touch as if he'd been burned.
Erik stared at Charles in silence before quietly asking, "Dreams within dreams?"
Charles frowned. "Maybe."
"You don't seem sure."
He reached out and grabbed Erik's hand, pulling him down until Erik was blanketing Charles' body. "I'm not. Sometimes I think I'm remembering."
"Remembering what?" Erik whispered into Charles' ear.
"I'm not sure," Charles answered with a frown.
"This never happened," Erik said. “Did it?”
"I think I wanted it to," Charles said, and there was that strange pain in his chest. Like something heavy. Something twisting. The pain of terrible unfulfilled longing. "I thought about it."
Erik pulled back and met Charles' gaze. "When did you think about it?"
Charles swallowed hard. "I... I don't know. This is someone else's dream. Isn't it?"
Erik kissed along Charles' jaw. "Is it?"
Charles blinked up at the ceiling which turned to clouds and sky as the bed turned to sand. He kept the image in his mind, forcing it to clear, to make sense. Erik held him all the while.
Erik sat still in front of the counter, perched on a stool while Emma, Azazel and Raven stared at him from Hank and Raven's kitchen table. Hank was somewhere behind Erik, busying himself making sandwiches and mostly just making noise.
Erik wasn't sure exactly why Emma, Azazel and Raven were looking at him like he'd just suggested making a human sacrifice. They only shifted their gaze when after a lot of banging, something crashed loudly upstairs. Everyone looked at the ceiling.
“Leo?” Raven called out.
“I'm okay!” was the reply. “I didn't break anything!”
Raven closed her eyes and sighed before getting up. “I'll be right back.”
This left Azazel and Emma looking at Erik with tired and annoyed eyes. Erik scratched his jaw and said, “Is anyone going to say something?”
“We've been looking for our poisoner for days,” Emma said. “Days.”
Erik opened his mouth to speak, but Azazel cut in, holding up a hand. “We almost got arrested for impersonating police officers.”
Erik heard Hank stop his chopping. “Were you impersonating police officers?”
“That is beside the point,” Azazel said. “I haven't slept in three days.”
“No one's slept in three days,” Emma said, her voice sounding slightly brittle. Erik looked away, suitably guilt-ridden. “Also, are you living here now?”
Erik gave her an even look. “The database is here.”
Emma nodded. “Okay. Because you have an office, remember? A whole building actually. It's part of your business. Remember that? The days we used to break into places to help you make more money? The good old days when we could actually find you when we needed to talk to you?”
“Wait... what... you really did that? You broke into-” Hank started.
“No,” Erik said to Hank who was now hovering instead of chopping. Erik could feel a stare of judgement poking him between his shoulder blades. He said, “You have illegal access to a highly confidential database.”
Hank was quiet for a moment. Then he very wisely said, “It's a valid point.”
“Thank you,” Erik said. To Emma he said, “I take it you don't like the new plan.”
“Babycakes, I love the new plan. The new plan is my best friend. Couldn't you have come up with the new plan before the old plan?” she asked.
“This is why you've been courting the press,” Raven said, leaning against the door frame, looking squarely at Erik. Erik looked at her mutely. “The elusive Mr. Lehnsherr's been caught leaving the hospital looking unnaturally dishevelled. I thought something didn't seem right.”
Erik said, “I needed to make sure they were watching.”
Emma snorted. “You're a walking legacy. Of course they're watching.”
“Whoever did this is watching too,” Erik said. “Waiting to hear that Charles is dead. If the press find out he's made a recovery-”
“So does our poisoner,” Raven said with a nod. “And then?”
“We wait,” Erik said. “We wait for the job to be finished.”
Hank appeared from behind the counter, placing sandwiches on the table. “And you want Raven to pretend to be Charles long enough for the press to get a picture.”
Erik nodded. “Just a glimpse.”
“And what if no one turns up?” Raven asked.
“What's to stop them?” Erik asked. “There's been no mention of foul play to the press or the police. Everyone thinks Charles just has a straight forward case of mutant flu. No reason to be careful.”
Everyone stared at him as if he had planned it this way all along. Erik remained calmly seated, facing the mixed looks of surprise.
“And then what?” Raven asked. “We hand over whoever it was to the police?”
Erik hadn't thought past finding the perpetrator. All he knew was, he was looking for someone and he had to succeed in finding them. “You're not the only one who cares about Charles,” Raven said, making Erik look up into a challenging hot gaze. “You don't get to be judge, jury and executioner, Erik.”
Erik nodded thoughtfully. If Charles lived through this, there would be no need to be anyone's judge, jury and executioner.
If he didn't. Well, that was something Erik was trying not to think about.
The beach again and him, the one who wore the helmet, watching Charles. He wore that yellow and blue suit. That metal helmet. He was not the Magneto everyone knew.
When he raised his arm and opened his fist, it made Charles stare in terror. He watched something rise up from Magneto's hand, something metal.
Then he spent an eternity, watching a coin float towards him, someone else's terror nestling inside his mind.
Raven peered out of the window. If anyone was watching her, it was being done very discreetly. Erik stepped close to her and looked outside before gently pulling Raven away and closing the blinds. He stepped back and looked at her, his eyes moving from her head to toe. There was a flicker of something other than calm in Erik's gaze. Raven immediately changed her skin back to her natural blue from the image of Charles.
“Think they got that?” she asked.
Erik looked at the window and nodded. “They know Charles is in this room.”
“I hate to think how,” Raven said with a sigh, falling into the chair by Charles' bed. She took a good look at him. “I've never gone this long without talking to him.” Erik was silent behind Raven, still. “Can't imagine... if he.”
Raven laughed quietly at herself, shaking her head. She pressed her fingertip to the corner of her eye, rubbing the wetness into her skin before it could form into anything else. She needed Charles to tell her everything would be okay, but here she was alone.
Or at least, that was what she thought until she felt the firm pressure of a hand squeezing her shoulder. She turned to look at Erik's hand, the comfort there as subtle a presence as the man himself. She pressed her cheek to the back of his hand for a moment before standing up and facing Erik, transforming once again into Charles.
“Feel like taking a little walk with your fiancé?” she asked, holding out her hand.
Erik looked at her, the corner of his mouth turning up slightly. He nodded and placed his hand in hers.
The coin floated closer and closer and closer.
Charles felt his breath get shorter, his skin begin to burn. Tears obscured his vision, but he could still see Erik before him, hidden away inside that helmet.
They were looking into each other's eyes. When the cool metal touched the skin of Charles' forehead, they were still locked together in each other's gaze.
And as Charles willed himself to wake up, he was still caught up in the colour of Erik's cold and hungry stare.
Remember this, he told himself, remember.
And he screamed.
For the first time this evening, someone walked into Charles' darkened room. She was looking at the tent with curiosity, her hand going to the pocket of her white coat. She reached in and pulled out a syringe, one hand yanking open a flap on the tent. Then she stopped, stepping back when she realised that nothing lay within the tent but a plastic dummy. When she turned towards the door, Erik was there, stepping into the room.
“Is everything all right, Doctor?” Erik asked. Calero blinked at him. She mustered a smile and nodded. Erik stepped towards her, his eyes on the syringe in her hand. “Were you looking for Charles? He's been moved upstairs. As you know.”
“Erik?” Raven was on the threshold of the doorway behind Erik, no longer hidden in the shadows of the room across the hall.
“It's Doctor Calero,” Erik said quietly, not moving his eyes from the woman in front of him for a second. “She seems to have forgotten where Charles is.”
Calero suddenly lunged forward, aiming the syringe at Erik. Erik watched it whip out of Calero's hand, drawn to him by his will rather than her intent. He opened his hand and let it float into his palm, Calero stopping in her tracks and staring at Erik.
Looking at the syringe Erik asked, “Is this what you used the first time?”
Calero was watching him with wary eyes now. Erik reached out slowly, spreading his fingers. He could feel metal on her, though he couldn't see it. He turned his hand, willing the metal to move to her throat. Moving and wrapping. Tightening bit by bit. Calero's hands were at her throat, her eyes wide as she choked.
“Erik, what are you doing?” Raven asked. Tighter, he thought, tighter. “Erik!”
And then it happened, the illusion broke. It was as if Calero had never been there. Instead there was a man dressed in dark browns, his black hair floppy and his brown eyes red and watering. He was pulling at a chain wrapped around his throat, the metal tags peeking through his fingers. Erik brought his hand away and a moment later the man dropped to his knees, gasping for breath.
“Who are you?” Raven now came to stand next to Erik, staring at the man. He was massaging his throat, coughing and trying to breathe as he looked up at Raven. She pointed at Erik. “Or maybe you want him to ask all the questions.”
“Drake,” he gasped, his head hanging down for a moment. “Drake Nestor.”
“Why are you trying to kill Charles?” she asked him.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” Drake said, standing up unsteadily. Erik looked at the chain around his neck, watched it as it tightened around the liar's neck, this time very lightly. It was enough to make him flinch.
Erik told Raven. “Get Emma. She'll get him to answer our questions.”
“Why don't you get her?” Raven asked.
Erik smiled and answered, “Because our friend would prefer you stayed. I seem to have made a bad impression.”
Raven glared at Erik, but turned to go, telling him, “Don't do anything stupid.”
“I wouldn't dream of it,” Erik told her with a probably far too pleasant smile.
He waited a few minutes before he shut the door with a simple thought, letting the syringe float from his hand, moving ahead of him as he stepped towards Drake. The syringe stopped first, right in front of Drake's forehead, the mechanisms inside it dying for Erik to tell them what to do.
“This is probably where I'm supposed to say I won't hurt you. You don't have to be afraid,” Erik said, standing inches in front and above Drake. “But as you may have gathered, you should be very afraid.”
“What the hell do you want?” Drake asked, unable to keep a tremor from his voice.
“I want you to talk. Why did you try to kill Charles?” Erik asked. He could see he was about to get a reply filled with bravado. “Think before you speak. I'm not in a humorous mood.”
“I don't know what you're talking about. I'm in the wrong room.”
Erik nodded. “Look at your hand. Careful, you wouldn't want to slip on the syringe. I assume.”
Drake's eyes flicked down to look at his left hand. He was seeing the nail of his thumb slowly changing, atom by atom turning to something cold and hard and metal.
“What are you doing?” Drake whispered. Erik stopped, leaving the nail looking strange and unreal.
“You have a choice, Mr. Nestor. You can talk. Or you can watch me turn you into a lump of metal. Piece by piece,” Erik said softly. Drake's eyes were wide, unbelieving. “Don't tempt me to prove myself.”
The man swallowed. “Look, some guy paid me, okay? I got nothing against your friend. I needed the money. I got a kid-”
“Someone paid you to do this?” Erik cut off his sob story. “Why as Sarah Rifkin?”
“The woman whose face you wore when you poisoned Charles,” Erik said.
“I dunno. He had some grudge against her. Guy's crazy.”
“Does he have a name?” Erik asked.
“He never gave me a name. He just walked up to my table and said he had a proposition. He said he'd call me when he needed me.”
“Not good enough,” Erik said, and the syringe pressed a little closer.
“No! Wait. Wait wait. I, uh, my buddy tailed him, okay?” Drake said breathlessly, his eyes turned up at the syringe waiting at his forehead. “I know where you can find him and I can tell you what he looks like. That's as good as a name, right? Right? Come on, get that thing away from me.”
Erik reached into his jacket and retrieved his datapad, holding it up for Drake to see. “First, the address.”
Drake shakily reached up and tapped the details onto the screen. When Erik looked at the datapad, it was already searching out the location.
“It's an antiques place. I think he owns it,” Drake said. “He's always around. You can't miss him. He's got this birthmark on his forehead. And, and he has this patch of white hair, right on the back of his head.”
Erik nodded and put the datapad back into his pocket. He held his hand out for the syringe, letting it float down into his palm. Drake sighed, his chest shuddering with relief, face covered in a sheen of sweat. He gave Erik a wary look. “What are you going to do with me?”
Erik shrugged. “That depends entirely on whether Charles Xavier lives or dies. For your sake, let's hope it's the former and not the latter.”
Drake opened his mouth to say something, stopping when Raven, Emma and Azazel appeared in the room. They looked at Erik. He stepped away from Drake and held the syringe out towards Azazel. “Get that to McCoy. Might prove useful.”
“Did he tell you anything?” Raven asked.
Erik nodded. “He did. And tomorrow afternoon, after some severe reflection, Mr. Nestor is going to go to the police and confess everything.” Erik looked at Emma. “He's going to be thorough. He's going to do his utmost to help the police find everyone involved in this. Is that clear?”
Emma's mouth turned up in a smile. She turned to look at Drake who rightly looked very suspicious. “Crystal, boss.”
“What? I'm not doing anything. I already told you everything-”
Erik nodded to Azazel who took Emma's wrist in one hand and reached out to take Drake's shoulder in the other. A burst of dark swirls in the room and they were all gone. Erik was left with Raven watching him, silent eyes asking questions.
“Someone paid him to kill Charles,” Erik said. “He doesn't know the name of the man. But he knows enough to lead the police to him.”
Raven nodded slowly. “What now?”
“We hope the police can catch who's behind this without someone having to draw them a diagram,” Erik said.
Raven nodded and said, “And you're not at all curious.”
Erik smiled and said, “Not at all.”
“Why don't I believe you?”
Erik shrugged and said, “You're too smart for your own good?”
“Or I know... I feel like I know you,” Raven said quietly, as if asking herself rather than telling him. “The way I know Charles.”
“Too smart for your own good.” Erik turned from her, opening the door and waiting for her to step into into the corridor before they started to walk away from the now deserted room.
“Want to come with me to see Charles?” Raven asked. “His folks left about an hour ago.”
Erik thought about the address on his datapad scratching the inside of his jacket and urging him to go and find this man, but then Raven linked her arm with his and he thought about sitting with her, waiting for Charles to wake up. Something about it appealed to him – a night spent with someone other than just himself.
Besides, the best time to buy antiques was early in the morning.
Raven almost always slept the sleep of the dead. She slept deeply and dreamed rarely. But curled up in the uncomfortable chair near Charles' bed, she slept fitfully, dreaming all manner of nonsensical things. Things about Charles, about Erik, herself. When she woke, her head ached as if she had been gritting her teeth throughout her sleep.
She stretched out of the impossibly uncomfortable position she had curled up in. Everything hurt, the worst of it her neck and back. She turned to look at the chair next to her, staring at it and sighing. Of course Erik was gone. He probably left the moment her eyes closed. Hell, the moment she turned her back on him he had probably slipped away.
It was true that she didn't know Erik, but she had recognised a spark of obsession in him. He wouldn't be able to leave this to the police. Whatever his intentions, he was going to go and find the man who had set this all in motion. Raven got up and went to Charles' bedside. Erik, out of curiosity or a misplaced sensed of revenge, was going after the man who had done this.
“He won't do anything stupid. I know. I mean, I don't know, but... he's not that stupid. Right? Right?” Charles lay as still and as comatose as he had for two weeks.
“Um.” Raven turned to look at the doorway where Hank stood, hand raised in greeting.
“Hey.” Raven lifted her hand up.
Hank was frowning at her. “What?”
“It's Erik,” she said. “I think he's about to do something really stupid.”
Hank nodded slowly, frowning at Charles' protective enclosure. “Is this what happens when rich and famous people get engaged?”
Hank held up his hands. “Right. Okay, what do you want to do?”
Raven left Charles' side and went to Hank. “Emma. She'll know where he's headed.”
Erik lifted his cup of coffee, drinking it far too hot. All the while he kept his eyes on the large shop across the street. It was a corner building with a white brick façade, harking back to a more classical age of design. The long thin windows were tinted enough to glimpse inside.
The lights came on eventually, half an hour after Erik arrived and ordered his coffee. Bit by bit light flickered inside until the outlines behind the glass became sharper and clear. Erik put his cup down when he saw movement, a figure inside the shop. Erik couldn't make out the man's features, but someone was inside now and the doors were about to open.
Erik stood up, leaving his coffee unfinished and exiting the café. He jogged across two lanes of morning traffic as he made his way across the street. As he stepped inside, he took a good look at the objects displayed in the cool airy space. Some were encased in glass units and others mounted on small plinths.
His eye was drawn to a glass unit holding a large volume, aged but in almost pristine condition. He went to it, looking at the cover which announced it as the Memoirs of Magneto. Erik heard footsteps, but didn't turn, allowing whoever it was to make their approach.
“A rare edition of five hundred pages on why mutants can only find freedom through fighting,” a voice said from behind Erik. “The perfect counter-balance to the Professor's six hundred pages of peace, love and understanding. You know what intrigues me about both books?”
Erik turned around and saw the man who was speaking to him. He was of a fractionally smaller build, his hair a dark brown, a too self-satisfying smile on his face and a birthmark on his forehead, telling Erik everything he really needed to know.
“What intrigues you?” Erik asked.
“We still don't know a damn thing about these two men. Everyone knows about Magneto and the Professor, about what they wanted and where they thought the other one failed. But we still have no idea about exactly why they fell out, or even how they met or what the hell Magneto was doing at Xavier's mansion all the time he was there. But, I suppose you're already familiar with those grievances, Mr. Lehnsherr.”
“You have me at a disadvantage,” Erik said.
The man held out his hand and smiled a bright and wide smile, one that Erik didn't trust. Erik offered a brief and curt handshake. “Sebastian Shaw at your service. Tell me, Mr. Lehnsherr, there's a been a rumour for years that Magneto's memoirs were written from a number of journals, some of which might still exist. Do you think an admirer of the House of Magneto might allow himself to be a little excited?”
“I would always recommend that you not base your business decisions on rumours, Mr. Shaw,” Erik replied.
“I like it.” Shaw grinned, pointing at Erik. “What can I do for you, Mr. Lehnsherr? I would have thought you're a man who already has everything he wants.”
Erik stepped around Shaw to look at a painting instead of the other man's irritating smile. “Not everything.”
“Were you looking for something in particular?” Shaw asked.
Erik stared so hard at the painting it became nothing more than a nonsensical collection of colour. What was he looking for? He looked at the open door of the shop and the people walking by outside. Somewhere in the corner an assistant was cleaning one of the units. He turned his head in Shaw's direction, not bothering to look at him.
“I was hoping we could talk in private,” Erik said.
First a thoughtful silence and then, “Of course. I'll be right back and then we can go to my office.”
Erik turned around and nodded, receiving an amiable smile. Shaw turned to walk away and Erik saw the small patch of white at the back of his head, just like Nestor had mentioned. Erik would have liked to throttle Shaw without asking any questions, but the man's body was devoid of any metal and even Erik had reservations about wrapping something valuable around Shaw's throat.
Shaw went to his assistant first, quietly telling him something, pointing at a few cases as he did so before going to the back of the shop and disappearing through a door. Shaw probably knew why Erik was here and maybe now he was running. Erik followed, going through the same door. In the small corridor on the other side was another door, slowly closing. Erik could hear Shaw's receding footsteps and followed.
He found himself at the top of a staircase that led down to some kind of store room. He could see shelves and tables overflowing with boxes and unwrapped valuables. He couldn't see Shaw though. Erik slowly and quietly made his way down into the basement, keeping his senses wide open to catch Shaw, but then something threw him off balance. The door to the basement clicked shut and as it did he felt a shudder run through his body.
He descended the stairs, looking at the various objects in the dense basement. There were metal objects here. Objects he could see, but couldn't feel. He opened his palm to bring something to him, anything, it didn't matter. But nothing came. Erik shut his eyes, gritting his teeth.
Erik heard a sound, a shuffle, and quickly turned around, just in time to catch Shaw lunging at him. Erik threw his arms around Shaw's waist, tackling him to the ground before smashing his fist into Shaw's face. Still, Shaw managed to twist Erik off and even as Erik recovered, Shaw bodily threw himself at Erik, sending him crashing into the side of a metal table, face first.
As he rebounded, he fell to the floor where Shaw laid into him with a barrage of kicks. Just when Erik thought he could make a grab for Shaw, the other man was bringing something down. It connected with Erik's brow, hard and wooden, narrowly missing his eye. Erik slumped on the floor, overcome by the taste and smell of blood. His vision was blurred, bloody in one eye.
Shaw used the flat of his foot to turn Erik onto his back with a hard shove. He was standing over Erik, a deep cut on the bridge of his nose and blood running out of both nostrils. He was breathing hard from the exertion of his assault, limping away to lean against a table. Erik blinked up at him, dazed.
“I knew you'd come,” Shaw was saying. “Today, tomorrow. Next year. Doesn't matter. What matters is, I knew we'd finally meet. And look at you, here you are. Here we both are, as fate decreed.”
Erik coughed, spitting blood and eyeing Shaw from where he lay.
“Have you ever heard of Colby Grey, Erik? Grey was a scientist. A mutant. He came up with an interesting theory that mutants have the ability to preserve themselves beyond the scope of human genetics. He suggested we might have the ability to save and transfer ourselves down our own bloodline, allowing us to regenerate into new vessels, complete with access to the memories of our dead selves. Reborn as our own great great great grandchildren. He called it Mutant Regeneration Theory, but I think you can guess what he was really talking about.”
Erik gave Shaw a hard stare, pushing himself up to his feet slowly. His ribs flared in pain and his head spun as he reached out to steady himself against a shelf. Shaw watched him with interest the whole time.
“Reincarnation,” Shaw said. “He was re-writing the rules of reincarnation. People called him crazy, but there were mutants who knew what he was talking about.”
“What does any of this have to do with you trying to kill Charles?” Erik grated out.
Shaw's expression grew lax. He almost seemed in a daze for a moment, utterly lost in thought as he aimed his gaze at Erik, staring at him as if he wasn't using his own eyes at all. As if he was looking at Erik from somewhere completely new.
“Colby had a follower. A new age oracle. She predicted the return of the first wave mutants. She said they'd all rise again, that Magneto would return and take his rightful place in the war against humans.” Shaw tilted his head at Erik. “She said it would all happen again. Magneto and the Professor.”
Erik's head snapped up to stare at Shaw. “What are you talking about?”
Shaw stepped close to where Erik was standing, barely holding himself up. “I knew your face before I even saw it on a screen. I knew your face in dreams I had as a boy. This face. You don't believe me? I'll show you.”
Shaw turned around and hurriedly limped away to a cluttered desk. Erik looked around the room, flexed his fingers as he urged metal to come to him. Nothing. There was a bronze statuette in an opened crate nearby. Maybe enough to knock Shaw out if he got the chance. Erik took a few steps to get him closer to the crate before he was forced to reach out for the edge of the table nearby, gripping it hard.
Shaw was returning with a large book which he threw in front of Erik. “Open it.”
Erik tentatively opened it with blood stained fingers. The book contained sketches that were dated back to decades ago. Each one was an image of him and yet, not him. It was his face, yes, but there was a strange severity to the features that Erik had never seen in his own reflection. Even his hair was as angular as the stern lines of his face.
And there were countless sketches of eyes. Piercing sharp gazes, pale and cold. Sometimes in colour, sometimes in hurried dark pencil which had ripped the paper. Erik's eyes, staring so hard and so hungrily. Erik shook his head and shoved the book away, staring at Shaw who had never taken his eyes off Erik.
“I did those. All of them. Some of them probably when you were a boy. I knew your face before you even grew into it,” Shaw said quietly. Erik frowned at him as Shaw's hand came up slowly to reach for Erik, gently stroking the back of his head. “Tell me you remember. Tell me you know my face.”
Erik stared at Shaw. Something about the way Shaw seemed to be staring right into Erik's soul terrified him, but no, he did not know this face and he was glad. He pulled away from Shaw, shaking his head. Shaw looked at him, smiled and drew back, slowly stepping away. He opened up his arms towards Erik.
“Doesn't matter. What matters is you're here and you know you have a role to play,” Shaw said with a happy smile. “You, Magneto, will help the mutants rise and you'll start by getting rid of the most traitorous mutants. The Xaviers. And I will have helped put you on that path,”
Erik shook his head, giving Shaw a disbelieving look. “You're insane.”
“I also have you locked in a room where you can't use your abilities. I'd ask you to remember your manners, Erik.” Erik didn't ask the obvious question. He couldn't care less. Shaw went ahead and elaborated with a bitter smile. “I had to level the playing field. Just in case. See, a few years after it manifested, I completely lost the use of my ability. A defective gene. Runs in the family.”
Erik huffed out a laugh. “You're going to keep me here?”
Shaw shrugged. “I just want to talk to you.”
Erik snorted in disgust. “About what? Killing Charles? Your reincarnation fantasies?”
Saw reached inside his white jacket and pulled out a black metal pistol, holding it up for Erik to look at. “Twentieth century. Still works. Can you imagine a time when people were afraid of small metal projectiles? This little thing here.”
Shaw took out a bullet from his pocket and loaded it into the chamber, snapping it shut when he was done. He pointed the gun at Erik.
“Do you dream?” Shaw asked quietly. Erik stared at the gun, feeling an unnatural panic rise in his chest, his gut twisting. It's all right, everything's all right, he found himself thinking. “I'm waiting for an answer, Erik.”
“Everyone dreams,” Erik said.
“Night terrors?” Shaw asked quietly. “Dreams that feel like memories. And when you wake up you feel like this is the dream.”
Erik shook his head. “No.”
“When did they start? Twelve? Thirteen?” Shaw asked. “Did you ever lose control of your powers while you were dreaming?”
Erik shut his eyes, shaking his head. “No.”
“I dream about Magneto,” Shaw said. “Not the white-haired hero of the mutant masses. When he was you. Young. Angry. He's watched me in all my dreams. And you don't even know my face.”
Erik violently swept everything in front of him off the table, ignoring the several points of pain that flared at the movement. Shaw's book fell back open on the floor, sketches scattering out, Erik's own face staring back at him. He blinked down at the images, tremors running through his body. He could hear a faint vibration of metal somewhere, his anger somehow bleeding past Shaw's defences and the presence of metal creeping up Erik's spine like a low buzz.
“Remarkable,” Shaw whispered, noticing it too. “But then, it's you.”
Erik turned to face Shaw and as he took a step forward bits of metal debris rattled and flew away from him. Shaw watched the way Erik's body was fighting the security defences, eyes wide with awe and sick curiosity. He cocked the gun at Erik.
The lights in the basement switched off, the air conditioning cutting off too with a loud clunking sound. Erik could hear the door opening, aggressive shouts and footsteps descending. Somewhere in the dark Shaw still had his gun and Erik held his hand up, feeling for it. He felt nothing when the gun fired, the bullet hitting something that smashed on impact.
“Weapon on the floor, now!” someone shouted, focusing a thin beam of light on Shaw. “On your knees, asshole!”
A light was similarly shone in Erik's direction as he was commanded, “On your knees! Hands above your head. Do it!”
But Shaw wasn't prepared to go easily. With a yell he darted towards Erik, something glinting in his hand. Erik willed the weapon away as Shaw collided into him, throwing him on the ground and crushing his already abused ribs.
“Tell me I was there,” Shaw hissed, gripping the front of Erik's jacket as two men struggled to pry him off. “I was there. I was a part of it. You said I made you into a weapon. I made Magneto.”
“Fucking asshole's crazy,” someone grunted, finally pulling Shaw off as the lights in the basement came back on.
Rough hands grabbed Erik and turned him over, pushing him down hard against the concrete floor. His vision swam from the pain. He was being cuffed, thin partially-metallic fibres tightening around his wrists.
“Sir?” someone said over Erik.
“He's a mutant. You know the regs.”
“I don't think he looks in any shape to fight, sir.”
“He's a mutant.”
Something cold touched the back of Erik's neck and then there was a jolt of heat slowly spreading under his skin, followed by complete blackness.