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I'll see your heart (and I'll raise you mine)

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"I've a strange one for you, Lehnsherr," Lukas says, yanking a thumb back at the cordoned scene. Red-and-white tape flutters in the wind as Erik looks past it at the small figure covered by heavy-duty tarp.

"Oh? How so?"

"You'll see," Lukas says ominously.

Erik follows him as he leads the way to the victim, sweeping the scene with an eagle eye, cataloguing the position of everything that could have played a role in the murder. The alleyway is wider than most; the red brick buildings on either side cast blurry shadows on the uneven ground. There's hardly any sun that manages to find its way past -- the day is overcast, and even though it's still noon there's a gloomy air about the place, and not just because of the person lying dead on the cracked asphalt. Erik draws the flaps of his heavy black overcoat closer to his body.

There are some dumpsters not far away, but they look undisturbed -- she hadn't used them for cover, then. Strange, when one is running for one’s life, and Erik would know. When they come up to the body and Lukas draws the tarp away, the first thing Erik sees is the bright red hair, flaming around the woman's head like a rising sun. Even in death it's a vibrant thing, clinging to life for as long as it can. The body itself is crumpled, obviously lying where it fell. Two small red holes decorate the front of her white blouse, right over the heart, contained like she hadn't bled to death, alone in the dark. In contrast the fabric over her stomach is sodden with blood, which Erik supposes that when removed will reveal something done shortly pre-mortem, considering the way the shot wounds have not had time to bleed more than a little. At least one of the shots must have been straight through the heart.

Lukas leans down and flips the bottom of the stiff blouse up and over her breasts, and Erik only just manages to stifle his shocked inhale. It shouldn't take him by surprise like that, not after all the missions and cases he's been through, but it does -- her belly is criss-crossed with cuts, some minor, some much deeper that cause the folds of her skin to gape open a little, like a sick kind of mouth.

"What the hell?" Erik says unthinkingly. Lukas doesn't comment, but nods in agreement.

Erik's first thought is ritual murder, but there are no hallmarks of anything of the sort -- no writing on the walls, no body positioning, no effort made to redress her or rearrange her to face a certain way. Nothing even vaguely resembling any kind of altar.

"Not ritualistic," Erik mutters to himself.

"No," Lukas agrees. "Told you it was a strange one."

Erik stares down at the marks. After a moment, out of the mess a picture starts to appear. He crouches over her, holding his breath a little, and uses the ruined fabric to wipe at the congealed blood. Three of the cuts align to make a curved schematic of-- something.

"We need to get all this blood cleaned up. Call up the ambulance, let's get the body to the morgue. Have Dr Hirsch call me when she's done the preliminary autopsy. I'll take a look around here."

"Right you are," Lukas nods and signals the waiting EMTs to come over.

Erik turns his back on the body, facing the way she had when the bullets had caught up with her. She’s lying sprawled out on her back and side, like the shot had come from ahead and stopped her in her tracks, thrown her back a little with the force of impact. He faces off into the distance, hearing the faint whooshes of cars rushing down the boulevard on the far end of the alley.

Running footsteps approach from behind him and he tenses, making to turn before he recognises the distinctive wheezing accompanying them.

"I'm here," Alex pants, coming to a stop behind Erik and planting his hands on his knees, heaving deep breaths into his lungs. "Sorry, Erik."

Erik does turn then, raising an eyebrow. Alex huffs, put-upon. Erik tries not to smirk and mostly fails.

"Sorry, Kriminalhauptkommissar Lehnsherr," Alex says exaggeratedly, straightening and scowling. "Honestly, Erik."

"What was it this time?" Erik asks, half-wondering whether he actually wants to know at all.

Alex mumbles something; Erik's pretty sure it contains 'got pulled over' and 'speeding' and 'idiot didn't believe me when I told him I was Kriminalkommissar'. He sighs. What with Alex's American accent, it was pretty hard to believe that his mother was as German as they come, and he grew up around here, same as Erik -- until his parents died in a car crash and he and his brother were sent to live with their Aunt in the States. Erik wishes there was something he could do about it, but really, at this stage he's out of ideas short of hiring Alex an acting coach.

He elects not to say anything, letting his irritated sigh speak for his mood. Alex bristles a little, but quickly settles when Erik focuses on their surroundings again.

"Now that you've finally decided to join us, take the far end of the alley. Our victim was shot twice through the chest, bullets coming from ahead of her. I want you to see if you can find anything back there, though."

"The CSIs haven't been?"

"They're on their way, but just check for me, won't you? Look for bullet holes in the road, maybe in the walls."

Alex watches him shrewdly. It's one reason why Erik insisted on Alex being assigned as his underling -- boy has a startling instinct for finding trouble, on both sides of the fence.

"What are you thinking?" Alex asks now. Erik allows a small frown to climb over his forehead.

"Something not quite right about this one," he muses. "Doesn't make sense. Shot from ahead of her -- so she would have been running towards her pursuers? No one does that. Makes me wonder whether she wasn't herded into this alley."

Alex spares the body another look as the EMTs load her into the ambulance. "Small thing like her? Who'd wanna kill her so bad they went for her like this?"

"That's what we're going to find out."

They split -- Alex walks to the opposite mouth of the alley and starts sweeping every available surface with his eyes. Patience isn't Erik's strongest suit, but he knows when to stop rushing ahead and focus on the moment. It's not until he's almost back at where the body had lain that his perseverance is rewarded -- not a metre ahead there's a bullet hole in the asphalt, like she's managed to dodge the first shot somehow. Explains why she hadn’t fallen flat on her face when she was dropped. The bullet hole is interesting -- it clearly entered the surface at an angle. He turns around and looks up at the roofs of the buildings, wondering which was the one the faceless killer chose to take his target out from. He'd send the CSIs up first thing, and he'd get them to correlate the angles--

"Hey, Erik! Over here!" Alex calls.

Erik turns and walks quickly over to where Alex is crouching, looking down at something intently. Then he sees what it is, and freezes.

"I think it's a casing, though how it ended up down here is anyone's guess," Alex continues blithely, reaching down to lift it.

"Don't touch it," Erik snaps, physically restraining himself from tugging Alex away. The kid looks at him like he's gone mad, and Erik isn't sure he hasn't -- he's seen casings like that before; the carvings that cover it are distinctive and quite unmistakable, a strange Celtic knot of a tangle, and to see one here, now -- it seems pretty impossible. But there's just no hiding the way it itches under his skin, the way it's like a lodestone to his senses, digging up that part of him that he sometimes doesn’t want to admit to himself is there at all, pulling him in, until he forgets where he is, what he is, who he is.

"Erik?" Alex says at his ear, and Erik starts -- he hadn't even heard Alex stand, let alone get so close. "Erik, what is it?"

"I'm not sure," Erik mutters. It can't be. And even if it is, it just can't be, fuck, not that, why can't he get away from it?

Alex crosses his arms over his chest. With his wide shoulders and strong arms, he cuts an impressive figure even under the sweatshirt that Erik keeps badgering him to throw away. "Erik Lehnsherr, you talk to me right now."

It says something about how rattled he must look that Alex feels the need to take that tone with him -- and that Erik doesn't verbally flay him for it. It has nothing to do with the fact that Alex is the closest thing to a younger brother he's ever likely to get, or the fact that Erik had been the investigating officer in charge of the case that almost got a young detective sent to prison, after said detective’s attempt to arrest a murder suspect had gone disastrously wrong, ending with an explosion that had cost the suspect his life. Erik just hadn't the heart to send the kid packing ever since. Really.

"I'd rather not say until I'm certain, okay? Because if it is what I think it is, this is bad news. Very bad news indeed."

He knows when Alex wants to argue because he gets that mulish scowl on his face, like he's doing right now. But he isn't about to tell his deputy that the first time he'd seen those casings, he'd been running for his life, twenty-four years old and fresh out of KSK training, on his first covert mission that would see his Commander and two-thirds of his team dead and him in a hospital for a month (it had almost driven his mother insane with worry). Nor that the last time he'd seen them had been four years after that, at the head of his own team, and that time it had been worse, much worse.

He doesn't want Alex anywhere near those people. He isn't much older than the kids those monsters usually went after, from what Erik had managed to glean. Erik had burned their last 'research facility' to the ground, half-crazed after the mission had cost him practically his entire team, but it wouldn't erase the memories of broken bodies and dead eyes.

He still woke up some nights screaming.

"What do they want with this girl?" he mutters under his breath. The thought snaps him back to the present with a near-physical wrench. "Summers, I want anything and everything you can find on the victim. Family. Academic history. Known affiliations with any organisations. What she had for breakfast yesterday morning. Pull it together and call me. I'm going to the morgue."

He feels Alex's eyes burning between his shoulder blades all the way back to his car.

---

The building that houses the city morgue is a massive concrete monstrosity, menacing the landscape with its bulky shape. Erik knows his way inside all too well -- five years have been and gone since he was honourably discharged and transferred himself to the police department. The perpetual cool damp of the lower levels seeps into Erik's bones, like it always does. He makes his way to OR3, where he knows Dr Hirsch is to be found pretty much every hour of her shift. He knocks before he enters, because he can stand to hear the 'Don't startle me when I'm fucking working' lecture only so many times.

When he pushes the door open, he finds the doc leaning over the victim's stomach, poking at the cuts curiously. She straightens when she hears him come in.

"Ah, Detective Lehnsherr. I was wondering when you'd slink your way down here. Wanna take a look? Fascinating stuff."

"Hello to you too," Erik says, but he appreciates her getting straight to the point. Small talk is so tiring. He makes his way to the table, snagging a face mask from the box by the door. Hirsch moves back and starts snapping photographs with the large forensic camera, attached to a stand to allow perfect positioning.

Erik watches as the images transfer to the massive computer screen on the wall, magnified over 20 times. He taps the controls to call up an overall shot of the carved symbols, and stares at it with narrowed eyes.

“Was this done pre- or post-mortem?” he demands.

“Oh, pre-mortem, for sure – no more than five minutes before her heart stopped, in fact, judging by the amount of bleeding we’re observing.”

Erik hesitates. “You’re saying she did these herself?”

“Indeed she did.”

Erik leans closer, following the path of the strokes. The edges are curved, like he’d supposed, and they don't match perfectly -- but then again, he would be amazed if they did, considering the woman had done all of this while running from her assailants. Still, they're accurate enough to form a rough double helix with bonds linking the two strands -- a pretty standard rendering of a DNA molecule. It looks to him like the woman had known exactly what she was doing -- the incisions are sharp, precise, no hesitation in the process of making the cut.

"Huh," he says out loud, squinting. There are small x-shaped marks in at least three places, linking the helix and the strands.

"I know," Hirsch says. "Like I said. Fascinating. This woman was almost certainly a scientist, and she knew her way around a blade -- or a makeshift one, at least."

Erik turns to look at her questioningly. She waves him over.

"Look at this. I could deduce by the direction of the cuts that she was left-handed, but there's no need, see?" She lifts the woman's left hand. There are deep, jagged cuts in the middle of her palm, in the same position as what would normally be the handle of a blade. "It's glass," Hirsch adds. "She must have picked it up from a shattered window. It was a long sharp sliver, see the way the cut narrows here and here?" She points out the spots she wants Erik to note.

The cuts are so deep he can see bone peeking out through the mangled flesh. "How did she manage not to cut any ligaments?"

"Sheer damn luck. Although something tells me even that wouldn't have stopped her." Hirsch lifts the woman's pale right arm. On the underside of it is carved another message: the letters XCFBP1, the cuts rough from the ragged edges of the glass, snaking along the skin and taking up half her forearm.

"Any idea what they mean?" Erik asks distractedly as he leans in to get a closer look.

"Not in the slightest," Hirsch says, snatching a scalpel from the prepped tray and pressing it deeply into the skin under the woman's clavicle.

Erik takes two steps back and tilts his head to survey all the damage. It's not unfixable -- everything would have healed, given time. Still, she didn't seem to have cared whether she damaged herself. Every cut speaks of blind desperation, determination to get one last message across.

"She didn't expect to live through this," Erik muses out loud.

Hirsch, too busy with making the Y-incision, doesn't respond except to hum distractedly. Erik doesn't mind; she is utterly single-minded when it comes to her work. It's something Erik can respect. He quickly prints out a photo of the victim's decorated stomach and arm, slips them inside an evidence bag and into the inner pocket of his coat, and turns around again.

"Will you call me when you have the report ready?"

"Yes, yes," Hirsch says, dismissive. Erik takes his cue.

---

It's Thursday, so that means dinner at the average-sized, homey house in a leafy suburb of the city that Erik called home for the better part of eighteen years. No force in this world could make him skip it -- not if he doesn't want to contend with Edie Lehnsherr's formidable temper. And if he's honest with himself, which he tries to be as a rule, this case has unsettled him pretty thoroughly. He doesn't like the heavy feeling in his gut; doesn't like the fact that, regardless of his unwillingness, it looks like the part of him he’d striven to keep buried as deep as humanly possible, ever since he’d got an inkling of it in the middle of nowhere almost a decade ago, would have to be dragged kicking and screaming out into the open if he was to close this case without anyone else getting killed.

It unnerves him, and he doesn't want this thing anywhere near his mother -- but he knows that even if he tries making an excuse not to come over, she'd see right through him and demand he come all the more. So six-thirty finds him turning off the car engine and climbing out in front of the garden gate. The familiar feeling of peace washes over him when he looks over the fence, sees the garden that hasn't changed a whit ever since he left, except to grow a little older, just like him.

Which is, of course, the perfect time for his phone to trill shrilly, shattering the soothing silence.

"Lehnsherr," Erik answers without looking at the display, busy juggling the shopping bags out of the trunk without bashing them into the car frame.

"It's Alex. I have the information you wanted."

"Anything unusual?"

"You can say that again," Alex says grimly. "Victim's name is Hanna Rilke, 34 years old, works as a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics. No boyfriend, no family to speak of, one cat that her flatmate is taking care of. Flatmate by the name of Anna Scholtz, completely distraught, has no idea who could have done such a thing to Hanna, the usual. I took a couple of officers to the flat, searched her room, found zip. Tried at the labs, too, and guess what -- someone beat us to it. All her research has been stolen, or smashed to pieces, and that includes the lab's computers. It's pretty much a dead end."

"Damn it," Erik growls, wanting to hit something.

"Also, Dr Hirsch called to say the report is done. The two shots that killed her are .50 calibre bullets matching a Barrett M82A1 sniper rifle."

Erik almost drops the bags. "Seriously? A sniper rifle for a scientist? What about the rounds we dug out of the road?"

"Consistent with an M16 semi-automatic."

"Whoa.” That kind of fire power is way over the top for a simple shoot-to-kill. And that's the perps' first mistake -- they've given them a clue without meaning to. “Whatever it was she was working on, it must have been important enough to employ that kind of force. Right, see if you can talk to her colleagues, figure out her research topic, and call me."

There's a short pause. "It's Thursday."

"I know what day of the week it is, Alex, thank you. I said to call me."

"I don't want Edie pissed at me," Alex whines defensively.

"She'll be pissed at me, not you. Besides, you know she can never stay angry at you."

"Fine," Alex sighs. "Say hello to her for me."

"I will."

Erik flips his phone closed and shoves it in his pocket, hefting the shopping bags up again. He'd got a nice bottle of wine for the two of them to share, as well as the crackers that Edie pretends not to love. He shoulders his way through the garden gate and trudges up to the front door. Before he can try to twist his arm and fetch his keys, the door swings open and his mother's smiling face greets him, just like it always does.

"Hello, Liebling," she says, voice a little rough. She must have been in her workshop until it was time to start dinner.

"Mamma," Erik says warmly, dutifully kissing her cheek. She reaches to take some of the bags from him, but he sidesteps her and toes off his shoes, making his way into the kitchen.

"How was your day?" he asks her as he shucks his coat and hat and starts unpacking his purchases.

"Productive," Edie says with a satisfied twist to her lips. "Oh, that's wonderful," she adds when Erik shows her the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc he picked out for them at the supermarket. "Shall I open it?"

"Go ahead." He sets out the other purchases where she can see them before he puts them away.

"Erik, how many times do I have to tell you -- you don't need to buy all this stuff for me. I am perfectly capable of going to the shops myself."

"And I keep telling you that I like shopping for you."

Edie hands him a glass of wine with another smile and a kiss on his cheek. "Thanks, Schatz. Now, how was your day?"

Erik tries not to tense, he really does, but he supposes the ability to read their sons comes part and parcel of being a mother.

"It was tiring," he admits, taking a seat at the table, in one of his mother's exquisite dining room chairs. The house is full of Edie's creations, perfection carved out of wood, like it had taken no more than a thought to bring forth the shape from the rough block.

"New case?"

"Yes, and a nasty one at that." It's all he will say, and his mother knows better than to expect him to discuss open cases with her. "Let's not talk about it. Tell me what you were working on today?"

Dinner is pleasant, but Erik is preoccupied, and it only gets worse once Alex calls to report another dead end -- apparently not one of Hanna Rilke's colleagues knew exactly what she was working on, apart from that it had to do with the human genome, and she had just made a massive breakthrough the day before. Erik grows progressively more and more discouraged, and in the end tells Alex to update the report at the station and hangs up in frustration. Edie watches him, sympathetic.

"You're a good boy, Erik," she says, out of the blue, in that fond maternal tone that never fails to make Erik feel warmed all the way through.

"Yeah, maybe," he concedes. "It's not going to help this time, I'm afraid."

"Nonsense. I think half of your job is caring. The other half takes care of itself, and you're smart enough to get all the details to fit together. Much too smart, I think sometimes."

It's an old argument. Erik had been a rising star in Maths and Physics at school, and he and his parents had discussed Engineering as a possible, desirable career choice. And then his father had been swept off the road one winter night by a lorry that had lost control, and suddenly it was just Edie and her sixteen-year-old son, strapped for cash in a big house Erik refused to hear of selling. As soon as he was out of school he had enrolled into the Army, despite Edie's protests, and that had been that.

It wasn't too late for Erik to get back on track -- he'd been just over twenty-nine by the time he'd been discharged from the hospital a second time, he could have done it -- but this was all he'd known how to do anymore, and the fact remained that university degrees cost more money than Erik was making even now.

So he says nothing, merely takes another bite out of his delicious roast and lets the flavours take him back to a simpler time. They chat about the neighbour's cat's latest attempt at infiltrating the house (Erik swears that beast has an evil agenda of some kind), about Edie's interesting new project, about Mrs Stein's available daughter ('Mamma, please, not that again, I thought we talked about this'), and Mrs Kussberg's handsome son who had just come out to the family ('Mother, god, honestly. No more! Besides, how can I possibly date with my job being what it is?'). Edie pouts and looks disappointed, and Erik is torn between irritation and regret that he can't be a better son to her, someone who brings home nice girls and well-behaved boys for his mother to dote on. He just hasn't found anyone that he thinks is worth the effort yet; in his more dispirited moments, he doubts he ever will.

He lounges on the small chaise tucked into the corner of the kitchen, feet crossed before him and head drooping back onto the sunshine-yellow cushions, while Edie finishes washing the dishes and comes closer, bringing with her a small cup of her fragrant, strong coffee to wake him up before his drive home. Erik is loose, relaxed, his guard down for once, feeling as safe as he ever does -- here in this house, with his mother smiling gently down at him. She bends to hand him the cup and press a kiss to his forehead.

The bullet flies right over her lowered head, sending out a droplet of blood to spray Erik's light blue shirt. He acts entirely on instinct, tugging her down towards him and onto the floor, sending the cup flying and covering her with his body to shield her from bullets and scalding coffee both. There is a tinkle of glass by the window and another bullet embeds itself into the far wall, splintering the cupboard door. Erik paws at his mother's neck frantically, finding a pulse, checking the damage -- it's just nicked her, thank god, it's barely skin-deep, but if she wasn't bending down it would have gone straight through her neck. Erik goes cold all over at the thought -- but there are more bullets coming through the windows, and he does not have time to freeze like this, not when she's in danger. He rolls them, taking cover behind the chaise, hearing a bullet bury itself in the cushion where his head was a second ago.

"What--Erik--what is happening?" Edie asks, disoriented and frightened.

"Someone's trying to kill us," Erik says, stating the obvious while his mind snaps to business. It can't be anything that his mother has done; she's harmless, a model citizen, therefore this has something to do with him, and the only thing that's been seriously wrong in the past month or so is this damned case. "We have to get out of here."

"Why are they shooting at us?" Edie demands, and Erik is relieved to hear her start to sound less freaked out and more angry. Angry is good. Angry keeps you from freezing up and gets you out alive.

"It must be because of what I'm working on," he grunts, checking out the exits. He wonders whether the attackers would have had time to circle around the back as well -- he'd have to assume they have, out of sheer self-preservation. They are too exposed here -- there's nowhere in the house they can hide. They have to get away.

There is no noise apart from breaking glass and furniture. Their guns have silencers -- probably why no one heard Rilke getting shot, either. That's far from an amateur performance -- if anything, it's frighteningly professional, the way they cover the space with fire so their targets can't move.

Which means someone is coming in, and Erik is out of options.

He digs for that part of him he spends his days forcing dormant, yanks it out of his body and sends it hunting. He feels every piece of metal in the vicinity, locks onto six signatures of a size and complication specific to semi-automatics. There are other objects, too, smaller but of a similar composition. Handguns.

He looks at his mother, frightened and small, but with a determined set to her features, waiting on his orders and ready to follow his every direction. The unquestioning trust does something to him, twists his gut at the thought of quite another look stealing over her face when she sees what he's about to do, what he’s capable of.

No choice. Two of the semi-automatics are coming closer -- they're about to take the house while the others cover them, and that’s one thing Erik will not let happen, no matter what it costs him.

"I'm sorry," Erik murmurs desperately, and reaches.

He feels the metal and takes control over it, turns the guns in their hands and squeezes all the triggers at the same time. There's a yell right behind him, and he snaps around to see a man dressed all in black, with a pair of goggles over his eyes and tactical gear concealing his body. The man folds in on himself, sprawls down onto the floorboards. Edie yelps and jumps back while Erik floats the semi-automatic into his arms and runs out to check the back, where this guy had obviously gained access. He finds two more dead bodies lying in the garden, staining the grass dark with their blood; he circles the house and finds the other three within a few feet of each other. None of them are moving, but he checks anyway -- no pulse.

He sprints to the back entrance and inside, and comes to a stop when he sees his mother crouching behind the chaise where he'd left her, holding tightly onto the dead man's handgun. She's facing into the room, training it on the door to the kitchen, trusting Erik to have her back even after he must have scared her half to death with his stunt, and the love he feels for her in that moment is quite frankly overwhelming.

She turns, and he sees that her eyes are red-rimmed but her hands are steady around the gun. "Are they gone?" she asks. Her voice is just as steady.

"They're all dead," Erik tells her. It's the most reassuring thing he can think of right now.

He watches her carefully, but there's no sign of fear on her face now that they're safe for the time being; nor the distrust and hatred Erik has every reason to expect, now that his mother knows what an aberration he is. Instead, she looks calm in a way Erik hasn't seen in all the time he's been alive.

He doesn't know what his mother sees in his face, but she's quick to push herself to standing and walk over to him, holding the gun loosely in her right hand as she covers his cheek with her left.

"Oh, Liebling. It's okay."

"How can it be okay?" Erik asks desperately, fingers clenching on the weapon still in his hands. It crumples inwards like a giant fist had closed around it and squeezed.

Edie smiles at him, no less loving than fifteen minutes ago. "Look," she directs.

Erik turns to see where she's pointing, and almost falls over when he stumbles back in shock. One of the dining room chairs is floating in the air, coming towards them. As he watches, the chair falls apart into its component parts, and then the pieces split in two like an impossibly sharp axe has just cleaved straight through them. The planks form a large shield, welding themselves together in a manner that leaves Erik breathless, and in seconds he's looking at a window shutter, the perfect shape to fit over the window frame where the bullets have shattered the glass.

You're a--a wood manipulator?" he says hesitantly.

"Yes," Edie says, a quiet statement that does more to ground Erik than any elaborate explanations.

"Why didn't you--I never--"

Edie smiles sadly. "You father was human. He knew, and he accepted it, but when you were born, we--at first you were too little to understand, and you never showed any signs of being anything other than human, and then your father--and you left, and I guess I thought you didn't have to know."

Erik reaches for her and draws her closer. "You never have to hide from me again," he says softly, hugging her tightly to him. If he has his way, neither of them ever will. She wraps her arms around him, and they hold each other for a long moment in the disaster zone that is their kitchen.

When they feel strong enough to let go, Erik fashions Edie's pots into hinges with some effort, power still raw and unyielding, and together they affix the shutters his mother makes to the windows, shutting out the world. Erik drags the dead man out of the kitchen, through the back door and throws him with the others in the garden. He has a feeling someone will be around to make sure any evidence of anything untoward happening is long gone, if his suspicions about who's behind those attacks prove right. (How he's going to find out whether or not they are is another matter altogether, one that will need fixing soon.)

Unfortunately, 'any evidence' extends to the living beings in this scenario as well. Whoever it is that’s gunning for him wouldn’t be after Edie at all if Erik hadn’t dragged them to her house in the first place; but what’s done is done. The two of them have to leave the city, even the country. With that in mind, after he has fussed over the bullet graze on Edie's neck and she has told him in no uncertain terms to stop, and refused adamantly to go to a hospital, Erik tends to it himself with the first aid kit Edie keeps under the sink. Thankfully, it really is no more than a scratch – deep enough to break the skin, true, but not so deep that it doesn't stop bleeding after it has been cleaned and bandaged. It doesn't even show once she has restyled her hair to cover it. Then Erik tells his mother to pack a small bag and fetch her passport, while he uses the time to book her on the first flight out of Heathrow to Krakow, where his aunt Anna lives. It should keep her safe until he can wrap this thing up. Meanwhile, he locks all the unbroken windows and prepares the house to be abandoned for as long as it takes to solve this case.

When Edie comes back downstairs, Erik throws her bag into the back seat of his car and takes off for the airport. They travel silently, while Erik avoids as many of the brightly lit roads as he can.

"What about you? Where will you go?" Edie asks, breaking the silence.

"I don't know," Erik admits. "I'll start with the case, it's the key to getting to the bottom of this. And I’ll need to find an expert in genetics."

Beside him, Edie goes still. "Why do you need a geneticist?" she asks, in the voice of one putting a bunch of pieces together.

Erik hesitates, but he can't really get into any more trouble than he already is. He reaches into his jacket pocket and takes out the photos he'd swiped from the morgue a few hours ago. He hands them to Edie, turning on the overhead light so she can see.

There's a sharp intake of breath from beside him, and he wants to hit himself for letting his mother see something that is bound to distress her. He opens his mouth, to lie, tell her it's a hoax, anything, when she surprises him yet again.

"I think I know a person who can help."

Charles Xavier, Erik thinks on his way back from the airport, after watching his mother's plane get her away to safety. He supposes England is close enough, and even if Xavier can't help him, he might know someone who can. He'd booked a ticket to London on the six a.m. flight while he was still at the airport, but he can't go home to pack -- they might be waiting for him there. It's a good thing he keeps his passport and a few changes of clothes at the station, for when he has to pull an all-nighter or they get a particularly gruesome case. He heads straight there, keeping his eyes peeled for anything suspicious, but he's in luck, and he gets in and out without a single bit of trouble. His bag is slightly heavier than it should be, but the file on Hanna Rilke is already getting bigger than normal, and he imagines there will be much more of it once they really start digging. That won't be his problem for a while, though; his request for two weeks unpaid leave is even now cooling on his Captain's desk. She's not going to be happy, but Erik hasn't taken a single holiday since he started working for the department six years ago, and she can't begrudge him the time.

He's ready to get out of town. But there's one last stop he has to make first.

---

The block of flats where Alex lives is small and ancient, a miraculous leftover from an earlier age, spared from the WWII bombings by some bizarre quirk of fate. The overall impression is one of damp, all the stronger now that it's started drizzling, a cloak of mist over the city. Erik watches all the hidden corners carefully for any sign that he's been followed, that someone has managed to keep up with him through the twisted path he'd taken to get here. Nothing moves save for a late-night straggler keen to get home. After watching for another few minutes, Erik takes his chances and runs over to the entrance, tumbling the lock with a twist of his fingers.

It comes to him easier now than it ever has before. He's not an idiot -- during those dark, lonely times at the hospital he'd read everything he could get his hands on, including textbooks on psychological trauma that a kindly doctor had supplied, taking pity on the long-term patient bored out of his mind. He knows that a traumatic event could unlock all sorts of things, from hidden memories to physical potential -- to potential of another kind altogether, although he is only now making the leap. He wonders whether his mother was always meant to be the key, the one thing in his life he would tear apart countries to protect, including wielding a power he was still half-afraid of. With his mother not only accepting, but someone like him, that fear dwindles away into nothing and his power stretches freely, unencumbered for the first time since he’d felt metal call out to him.

The one other person he has to give a heads-up to before he disappears lives on the fifth floor of the building he just made his way into. As he steals up the stairwell and along the fifth floor corridor, all he hears are everyday noises from Alex's neighbours -- the sound of a TV turned up too loud, kids laughing, some couple fighting behind the door he's passing right now. Alex's flat is at the end of the long hallway, and Erik curses every second that it takes to gain the door.

He debates whether he should pick the lock again, but in the end decides against it -- no reason to freak Alex out more than he's about to already. Besides, he doesn't relish the look of disgust, distrust, shock that's bound to take over Alex's face as Erik is forced to give an explanation for his sudden self-imposed exile (he's not fool enough to think that Alex would let him go without demanding one, or that Alex would believe even his finest bullshit).

He raps his knuckles on the door and waits, not at all patiently. As soon as Alex opens the door a crack, Erik shoulders his way inside, ignoring Alex's state of undress.

"Whoa, hey, what the hell?" Alex grunts when Erik pushes him back inside the flat and peers out of every window they pass. "You finally snapped, Lehnsherr?"

Erik doesn't answer, instead marches past Alex into the bathroom and looks out of that window, too. The shadows over the roof of the building next door make it difficult to ascertain whether or not there's something–someone--there that shouldn't be, or if it's just Erik's paranoia rearing its head again. The uncertainty makes Erik nervous.

"I think you're in danger,” he says urgently. “We should get out of here."

"I'm not going anywhere until you explain," Alex says stubbornly, crossing his arms over his bare chest. Erik spares it no more than a fleeting glance -- he's just not capable of feeling that way about someone who amounts to his brother, no matter how attractive he is.

Erik runs a frustrated hand through his hair, calling out to every piece of metal he can reach. There's really only one way he can say this that won't make Alex scoff and threaten to have him committed.

"I have to leave Germany for a while," Erik says, and watches Alex's eyes widen as a betrayed look creeps over his face. "And I'm afraid you're very likely in danger, too."

"Does this have something to do with the Rilke case?" Alex asks, watching him shrewdly.

"Yes," Erik says, stalling and hoping Alex won't ask too many questions.

"But there's something else, too, isn't it?"

Damn, when did the kid get so smart? He's always been sharp, but putting things together so quickly? Seeing right through Erik? Erik wishes that didn't put Alex in even more danger.

"Can't you just say 'okay, Erik' for once?" he groans. They need to get out of this flat, stat; prolonging their presence here puts them both in even more danger.

"No can do," Alex says with a smirk that shouldn't make Erik want to smile in return.

"Fucking--fine," he snaps. He knew it was going to come to this anyway, he shouldn't act so surprised. And, really, anything to get Alex to move already. "I'm going to show you something, and it would be really nice if you could--not freak out about it."

Alex shrugs, looking sceptical. Erik wants to grin a little, because cocky as Alex acts, Erik knows damn well he’s still going to knock him out for six.

He locates the keys to Alex's car, which he was going to ask to borrow anyway, and floats them into his hand.

"Holy shit," Alex breathes. He looks--okay, that's strange. He doesn't look panicked, or appalled, or anything else Erik has been imagining and resigning himself to. He looks excited. "Oh my god. Do that again."

Erik draws the steel lighter from Alex's jeans pocket and lights it in front of Alex's face. The dancing flame is reflected in Alex's blue eyes, wide and delighted.

"Fuck me sideways," Alex swears, slipping into English without realising. He's grinning fit to burst.

"Much as I'd love to stand here doing magic tricks all night, I really do have to go," Erik says, eyeing him askance. He hopes he didn’t break the kid; no one should react like this to their superior exhibiting bizarre abilities.

Alex sobers up immediately. "You never answered my question."

"I did, at least part of it." He eyes the set of Alex's jaw. "Jesus. Okay. Those men that killed Hanna Rilke, I've met them before. Or others like them. They went after people like me, people who have weird things happen around them, even if they didn't know what caused it. The first time I crossed paths with them, I didn't know why strange things were happening around me, either, and to be honest, I didn't want to know. It's not until tonight that I--" he stops, unable to say it. He should have known he wouldn't need to.

"What happened tonight, Erik? Are you all right? Oh my god, is Edie all right?" Alex demands, looking frantic.

"She's fine. Got grazed by a bullet when those men came after me in her house. She's safe now, but I have to leave. I just wanted to warn you to be extra careful for a few weeks. I think it's all tied in with the Rilke case; she must have been working on something to do with abilities like mine. Look, Alex, do not investigate the murder. Bury it, or pass it on to someone else; we'll close it when I get to the bottom of this and find out what's really going on. You lie low. And for fuck's sake, please don't be a hero. They're not after you, they'll just look at you as an associate of mine if all goes to plan, an underling that's doing the legwork on the case. But stay watchful, and keep your gun on you, just in case. I'll draw the heat away when they find out I've left the country."

"Where will you go?"

"Mother mentioned this guy in Oxford, England. A professor of Genetics. She's been corresponding with him for years now. And get this -- his name is Charles Xavier."

Alex's eyes widen. "XC--the letters!" he exclaims, and Erik nods. "Do you think what Rilke did was a message for him?"

"Could well be, especially considering his field of research is something to do with classifying genes."

"You're going to show him?" Alex asks, even though it's not really a question.

"Yes. Tomorrow, when you get to work, make sure you report the Rilke file missing, okay?"

There's an unreadable expression on Alex's face; at least, Erik wishes it was unreadable, but he's seen it all too often for it to be any kind of mystery. "No," he snaps. Alex just raises his eyebrows at him and turns away to stalk into his bedroom. "Alex, no. I am your superior officer, and I am ordering you not to follow me."

"Never been much for orders," Alex muses lazily when Erik follows him into the room, even as he piles a few shirts and jeans in a battered backpack. “Besides, you’re on holiday as of this evening. You can’t give me a direct order until you're back on duty.”

"Alex, you can't come with me. It's not safe," Erik yells, half-frantic himself. He can't get Alex killed. He can't.

Alex stops shoving clothes inside the bag and straightens, turns to Erik with this dire look on his face. He opens his mouth--but Erik has no idea what he intends to say, because before Alex can speak Erik is on him, bearing him to the floor. The bullet aimed for Alex's head whizzes over them and burrows into the far wall.

"Fuck!" Alex hisses, already shoving Erik away and rolling over, peering around the edge of the bed to look out of the window. Erik tugs him back as another bullet attempts to take Alex's ear off – damn it, he knew those shadows were suspicious!

"Get back, you idiot!" Erik hisses back, already pushing Alex ahead of him out of the bedroom. They make for the door, still bent in two, using the wall for cover. Alex snags his bag as they pass it, and then stops in his tracks.

"There's a gun in the nightstand by the bed, I might need that," he says, making to turn back.

Erik pushes him towards the front door to the flat as hard as he can, swearing as he locates the gun and summons it into Alex's hand. Alex grins at him, sheepish and excited and a little wild. It does more to calm Erik down than any kind of talk. Alex is his partner, someone Erik trusts with his life. All brotherly or paternal feelings aside, Alex has taken care of himself for a lot longer than Erik has known him.

All the same, though. He can't take Alex with him. Alex would become a target now that Erik has shown he cares for him – just like his mother.

They run out of the building and straight to Alex's car, even as Erik resolves to find a way to send Alex Edie's way before he leaves. Then they're inside and Alex is gunning the engine, speeding away down the empty street and around the corner as fast as the creaky old Volkswagen can go. Erik can't stop looking behind them, casing the space carefully. He swears when he sees another car in the distance, yells at Alex to ‘go go go’.

"It can't go any faster," Alex yells back, frustration clear in his voice, taking corners on two tires in an effort to lose them. It's not working. They're gaining, and Erik spies a flash from the car's passenger window. The zing of a bullet flying past, about an inch from his nose, is loud even with Alex's swearing.

There's no other way about it -- they're going to have to engage the killers. Erik pays attention to his surroundings for the first time since the first turn back at Alex's flat, and sees that Alex has tried to take them through the industrial district. Abandoned warehouses gape their empty windows at them on both sides. Erik couldn't have asked for a better spot to kill a few bastards -- or to be killed, of course. There is that.

"Turn in here, through the warehouse, and stop at the far back," he barks. Alex doesn't even pause -- he obeys immediately, so much so that Erik almost gets whiplash trying to follow the black sedan riding on their tail.

As soon as the car stops, Erik is out of it, dimly hears Alex jump out on the other end. They huddle in the shadows, hoping the car would pass them by.

No such luck -- but then again, Erik wouldn't be who he is if he didn't anticipate that. His first shot goes wide, but his second nails one of their pursuers through the head, even as bullets explode all around them. He and Alex return fire, but it becomes clear depressingly fast that the two of them just aren't a match for five highly trained professionals. Erik is maybe getting a little worried.

He gives up on the shooting and starts warping all the metal he can reach. He's angry -- fuck is he angry, from being shot at, from his mother being shot at, and now Alex -- but it's just not enough. His grasp of the power inside him is still shaky in the aftermath of the effort it took to incapacitate the other goons, and he just doesn't trust himself yet to be able to control every single weapon out there. The most he can do is send their bullets wide enough that they bypass them entirely, but they're bound to get one past him eventually -- and one is one too many.

"Erik," Alex grunts across from him, taking cover behind an enormous wooden crate.

"You all right? Have you been hit?" Erik demands.

"No, I'm fine. It's just."

"Alex, now is not a good time for riddles!'

"Shut up, asshole, I'm trying to tell you something!"

"Can't it wait?"

"No, it fucking can't. Goddamn it, Erik, listen to me!"

Erik gets one last shot off and plasters his back against his own piece-of-junk cover.

"Fine, hurry up and tell me already!"

There's a pause, and then: "I haven't been entirely honest with you," Alex yells.

"If this is about that time with the paperwork, I swear I'm going to thump you across the ear for bringing it up now."

"Jesus, Erik." Then, quieter, "please, god, don't freak out."

And then there's a burst of red light coming from his left, shockingly warm where it passes by Erik, and then the far end of the warehouse is on fire, melting, crumbling in on itself. He stares, mesmerised, as around him the world burns, as sheets of metal fold up and take out the goons' minivan, and he would have stared some more had Alex not grabbed his arm and tugged him over to the car, pushing him inside because Erik can hardly figure out where his feet are and what they're supposed to be doing.

"Fuck, Erik, come on, wake up, man," Alex says, half-furious and half-desperate as he runs around the car and hops into the driver's seat. He slams the stick in reverse and busts through the far wall, away from the fire and the noise and the confusion.

"What. In the hell. Was that?" Erik rasps, throat raw from all the smoke he'd inhaled while he'd crouched there and stared like an idiot.

"That was me," Alex says, and it's loud like a shot in the quiet night. "You know those people you talked about, the ones that had weird things happen around them? Well. I'm one of them."

Erik stares at him, speechless. "Alex, why didn't you tell me?" he asks, stunned into stupidity.

"Why didn't you tell me, Erik?" Alex returns harshly.

Erik shuts up, and lets his brain catch up with his mouth. "What I meant to say," he tries again, "is that you could have. You could tell me anything and it would be okay. We'd get through it."

The silence stretches, and Erik finds it helps him think, connect the dots. "Drive to the airport, there's a flight to London in three hours. We should be on it."

"So I can come, after all," Alex says, only faintly mocking.

"After all that? I'm not letting you out of my sight."

They drive in silence for a little while, thoughts churning through Erik's mind as he tries to make some kind of sense of the confusion of the recent developments. The flash of Alex's laser beams lights his memories again and again, until something he'd long thought would remain a mystery clicks at last.

"I take it the arson four years ago was a different kind of accident," he murmurs to himself quietly; he's not expecting a response as such, and he's focusing too hard on their next move to pay much heed to the way Alex's face blanches at his words. "We have to find a way to help you control this thing. Maybe this guy Xavier might shed some light on what the hell is going on, too."

"We?" Alex asks, so timidly that for a moment Erik is honestly confused.

"What do you mean, 'we?' Of course 'we', what--" he clocks the look on Alex's stupidly expressive, still so young face. "Alex, for fuck's sake. I know what it's like, remember? You can't control this thing; it controls you. But this stops now. You, me -- we both need some help working through our--gifts, powers, what have you. And the first thing we're going to do is find Professor Xavier. My mother said he can help me -- help us. And until this thing with Hanna Rilke blows over and men with guns stop trying to take us out for whatever reason, we'd be safer if we get off the radar."

Alex doesn't say anything for a long time. The whoosh of tires over asphalt comforts Erik, calms his mind. He's almost drowsing, exhausted from the day and the exertion and the emotional turmoil of watching his mother almost get shot before his eyes. So when Alex speaks, Erik can't help but jerk upright, startled.

"Do you think Hanna Rilke was one of us?"

Erik thinks about that for a long moment, watching the flicker of streetlights wash over them and away. "I don't know, Alex," he says on a sigh. "But whether or not she was, she knew something that was worth killing for – and until we know what it is, we can't make assumptions about any of this, or it might well be us who’s next."

---

Charles Xavier proves harder to find than Erik expects, when they finally drive into Oxford proper. The receptionist at the lab promises to pass on a message if he comes back, and his quarters at Hertford College are quiet and still when Erik makes his way there. The porter is very polite, but very firm in his refusal to allow Erik to wait inside. Instead, he points Erik to a certain pub not too far away, hinting that he might find the Professor there.

Darkness is falling quickly, so Erik leaves Alex to sit on the College anyway, in case the Professor comes back before Erik can find him. It is a bit worrying that they don't know what he looks like, but both he and Alex agree that tweed will likely be involved, as well as a certain age group. Possibly thinning hair, Erik isn't sure. It would perhaps have been useful to ask the porter, but the fellow was already getting suspicious, so they chose the better part of valour.

Erik makes his way to the pub in question, slipping through the doors and into the welcome heat of a well-lit room. It smells -- not unpleasant, of brew and warm bodies, most of which are even showered. The crowd is younger than Erik expects, though, and most of them have the studious air of an underground dweller being let out into the light for a pint or three. The music is not quite loud enough to mask the buzzing of lively conversation. Erik finds himself relaxing for the first time since the night before.

He looks around, but spots no one that might fit the mental picture he's developed for this man Xavier. Still, it would be prudent to wait a while, in case he comes in. With that in mind, Erik orders a pint of lager and takes a seat at the end of the bar, turning back to take in the view.

Seeing people relaxed like this, settled into their environment, with people who know them for who they are and accept them as such, sends a sharp edge of longing through him. He shakes it off, an unnecessary distraction. He's happy where he is. He likes his job. He loves his mother, and feels lucky to have her by his side every day of his life. He has Alex. He doesn't need anyone like that, who would take the time to get to know him, who would look inside him and see him for who he is and want him regardless. It's fine, it's not something he wants, anyway.

Still, it doesn't hurt to unwind a little, allow himself to take a moment to breathe. He watches the students mingle, listens to snippets of near-incomprehensive speak that seems to make perfect sense to those discussing it, and lets his eye linger to appreciate the slope of a shoulder, the line of a throat, muscles bunching in arms as a pint is lifted to a finely-shaped mouth. Just because he can't afford the distraction doesn't mean he's blind, or doesn't appreciate beauty where he finds it.

A young man about his age pushes off from a small table, making his meandering way towards the bar. The blonde girl he left at the table is stunning, but he spares her nothing more than a fond glance. She laughs at his parting shot and turns her head back towards the room. It takes the man a while to reach the bar -- the room is busy, and he finds himself waylaid several times by women and men both. The sounds of conversation that reach Erik over the noise of the crowd showcase the man's abysmal flirting abilities and ridiculous pick-up lines, which, however amazingly, actually seem to work. A woman bats her eyelashes coyly at him, and another man lets his hand linger on the guy's arm, toned under his rolled-up shirtsleeve.

He makes his way to the bar at last, leaning on his elbow right next to where Erik is sitting.

"Pint of bitter, please, Dave," the man says, brushing his wavy hair back and letting his eyes drift over Erik for a long moment, from head to toe. Erik tries not to flush, but the interest in the man's gaze is all too obvious, and well, it's been a long time since someone who looked like this guy had looked at Erik like that. Erik lets his mouth curl up at one corner.

The man smiles back, lazy and sure, eyes half-lidded where they rest on Erik. There is something strangely compelling about him, as if Erik should know him, which makes no sense whatsoever, but it's a feeling Erik can't shake. It's ridiculous, the way a fine shudder goes through him when the man's gaze locks with his and his smile widens and turns positively filthy.

"Here you go, Prof," the barkeeper says, plopping a pint before the man and breaking their staring contest.

"A Professor, hm? You don't look like one at all," Erik drawls, taking in the man's youthful features and bright eyes.

"Thanks, I think," the man says with a smile. He offers Erik a hand. "Charles Xavier."

Erik almost falls off his stool. "You're Charles Xavier?" he croaks, has to pause to clear his throat.

Xavier's smile turns questioning, but he doesn't drop his hand, and Erik takes it out of sheer confusion. His palm is dry and warm, and feels like coming home.

"That I am," Xavier says, holding on a moment too long. "And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?"

"Kriminalhaupkommissar Erik Lehnsherr," Erik responds automatically, before realising what an idiot he sounds like and shakes himself. "I'm sorry, Professor, forgive me. You are--not what I expected."

Xavier lets go at last and waves a hand. "Oh, no, please, do call me Charles. Were you looking for me specifically?"

"I was. I would like to speak with you, if you have the time."

"For a fellow mutant, I have all the time in the world," Charles responds with a sly smile, and Erik is so badly thrown off balance that he almost shrinks back. How could this man possibly know?

Charles is looking at him oddly. "I'm sorry, did I say something wrong? I was merely referring to your lovely blue eyes. They are quite breathtaking."

He obviously means it to be light and flippant, but Erik doesn't miss how shrewdly Charles' own startlingly-blue eyes assess him. He brings a hand to his temple, massaging it with two fingers like he's nursing a bit of a headache -- and then his eyes widen and his mouth falls open. "Oh my god," he breathes.

Erik has never been so rattled in his entire life, and that includes finding out about his affinity for metal in the first place. He feels the wild urge to turn around and run as fast as his legs will carry him, but at the same time he feels frozen to the spot, held by Charles' endless cerulean gaze. He feels a slight sinking sensation in his head, and resolves to stay off the alcohol when he hasn't eaten much all day.

Charles drops his hand from his temple to his pint and downs half of it in one go. "Come with me," he directs briskly when he's done, slamming the more-than-half-empty glass back on the counter. He turns and pushes through the crowd, darting glances at Erik over his shoulder to make sure he follows. He shoulders his way to the table he’d been sitting at, catching the blonde girl's eye and holding what looks like a conversation with no more than a lift of their eyebrows and the wave of their heads. In the end, the girl huffs and gets up, fetching their coats. Erik follows again when Charles leads the way out of the pub.

"Erik, this is my sister, Raven," Charles says when they're away from the noise at last.

Raven looks Erik up and down; her eyebrows climb almost up to her hairline. "Hi," she drawls, a little challenging, a lot interested. Erik nods, still feeling shaken.

"We'll go up to our flat, shall we? It'll give us a safe space to talk," Charles declares, raising a questioning eyebrow Erik's way. It's not like Erik has a better idea.

They turn right and walk away from Hertford College -- and that's when Erik remembers he has something to pick up.

"Just one moment, please. I won't be long," he says, and jogs away towards the Bridge of Sighs. When he catches sight of Alex, he focuses and tugs on the metal zip in the sleeve of his leather jacket. Alex looks up, startled, and turns in Erik's direction. Erik crooks two fingers at him and Alex trots over, bemusement written all over his face when Erik nods towards the waiting siblings.

"That's Professor Xavier?" Alex asks, sounding remarkably like Erik had when the realisation had dawned.

"Evidently."

"Who's the chick?"

"His sister, Raven. Tread carefully, we need his help."

"Hey, no worries. I'd like to get to know her better, is all I'm saying."

"Alex," Erik says warningly, and Alex's leer fades until he looks nothing but professional.

"Fine, chill, Jesus. The Prof doesn't look half bad, either."

"Alex," Erik warns again, and is surprised to hear a distinctive growl in his voice this time round. Alex's eyebrows shoot up and he gives Erik a disbelieving look.

"Now you choose to get territorial about a guy? Now, Erik?"

Erik doesn't dignify that with an answer, but leads the way towards the Xaviers instead. They have their heads together, pretty much of a height, and seem to be conferring furiously. Their expressions smooth out into blank politeness when Erik and Alex near.

"Charles, Raven, my assistant, Alex Summers."

"Pleased to meet ya," Alex says, shaking hands quickly and sending Raven another interested look. She smiles at him. Alex flushes, and Erik fights not to laugh at the blown-away expression on his face.

"This way," Charles inserts, and leads off past a circular building with busts on top of the columns and into a wide square with another circular building in the middle. They pass a large cathedral-style church and come out onto one of the main streets, where they turn left. Less than five minutes later they nip into a narrow alleyway and Charles pulls out a set of keys, turning to a tucked-away door in the stone wall of the building. He unlocks it and leads the way inside, up several flights of stairs to the top floor, where he unlocks yet another door. The room they enter is wide and airy, even if the dark furnishings give it a closed-off look.

"Tea? Coffee? I think I have a packet of biscuits somewhere; Raven, where are the Custard Creams?"

Raven looks guilty. Charles doesn't look surprised.

"Dare I hope we have some HobNobs left?"

"Yeah, you know I don't like those," Raven says, wrinkling her nose.

"Small mercies," Charles mutters under his breath, flicking the electric kettle on.

"Coffee for me, please," Erik asks, and Alex echoes him.

Charles spoons coffee grounds into a French press and pours boiling water over them, and then does the same for a bright yellow teapot, only with tea leaves. He puts cups, sugar, milk, a packet of biscuits and the teapot and French press onto a metal tray and brings it all to the table. Erik tries not to stare at the muscles bunching in his forearms.

They let their drinks steep in silence while Charles stares at Erik and Alex with a fascinated look on his face.

"I owe you an apology, my friend," he tells Erik sheepishly. Erik frowns -- he's only just met the man, and he can't remember him doing anything that would make him sound so remorseful. "I don't normally do it, not without asking, but you were just so--" he stops, flushing a little and avoiding Erik's eyes. "It won't happen again, not without your permission, I promise you that."

"What won't?" Erik gives up and asks.

Charles watches him, blue eyes open, earnest and appealing, fingers massaging his temple again. "You're not the only one with secrets," he says -- except he doesn't. His lips don't move, but Erik hears him loud and clear, the words arriving in his mind without the assistance of his ears. At his side, Alex flinches; a glance his way shows him frowning as deeply as Erik.

Then Alex's face clears abruptly, as it starts making sense to both of them. "Awesome, you're one of us," Alex breathes.

Erik is reeling, the new revelation just one too many in the past 24 hours. "I thought I was the only one," he whispers.

The look on Charles' face is an indescribable mixture of sadness, regret, compassion, affection. "Oh, my friend," he says, and Erik feels his words and voice and thoughts like a balm soothing his jumbled mind. "You're not alone."

As if as an afterthought, Raven stands up and takes a step back from the table. Her smile is part kind and part mischievous as she looks at the two of them and--shimmers, it looks like. In her place stands Erik, a perfect rendering down to the three inches in height he has over the siblings and the small scar on the patch of skin over his upper lip, a farewell present from his Army days.

Erik knows gaping isn't dignified. It doesn't stop him from doing so, even as Raven shimmers again and her skin transforms to a gorgeous deep blue that Erik can't look away from.

"Holy shit," Alex chokes at his side. For the first time, Raven looks apprehensive; it's quickly dispelled by the way Alex starts laughing, full-out, incredulous and joyous before he leaps off his chair and rushes over to Raven, looking at her in amazement. "That was fucking amazing," he says, still blinking at her yellow eyes.

"I concur. That was quite something," Erik says, looking from brother to sister and back.

"We are all of us unique and incredible in our own ways," Charles says, slipping into what must be his lecturing voice. It's still tinged with wonder, though, as Erik proceeds to pour coffee for both himself and Alex -- without using his hands. Raven laughs in delight, clapping her hands.

“I’d show off, too, but I’m guessing by the looks of it you like this flat,” Alex says as the two of them retake their seats. Erik is the only one who’s known him long enough to hear the apprehension underneath his words; Raven and Charles merely look intrigued.

They drink in silence for a moment, sharing curious, conspiratorial glances. Charles sets his cup down after he's drained it and looks squarely at Erik.

"Now then. How can I assist you?"

Erik lifts the briefcase he's been keeping a tight hold onto all night and snaps its locks open. "Before I show you, I think a little background is in order. I was pointed in your direction by my mother, Edie Lehnsherr; she thought you could help me--us. Alex and I are detectives with the Kriminalpolizei Homicide division in Berlin. Thirty-nine hours ago a young geneticist by the name of Hanna Rilke was murdered, shot dead--" he stops at the look of shock on Charles' face.

"Hanna is dead?" Charles mutters, clearly distraught. Erik wants to hit himself for not anticipating that Charles would have known her, especially since she had indirectly pointed them towards Xavier herself.

"Yes, I'm sorry. There's something I need to show you -- it will probably be distressing, but I think you need to see it." He withdraws the enlarged photographs of Rilke's stomach and arm and places them one by one onto the table.

Raven makes a wounded sound when she sees the cuts covering the bare skin, and claps her hands over her mouth. Charles' lips thin and a small frown appears between his eyebrows, but he leans in to look closer.

"We believe she was trying to get a message to you in particular, Charles." Erik points out the large XCFBP1 sequence on the back of the woman's forearm, then shares a look with Alex. " Frau Rilke was murdered using extreme fire power, and her research was destroyed or stolen, depending on its nature. We're trying to find out what she must have been working on, so we can track her killers. Also, last night both Alex and I were attacked, likely by the same people that came after her. We suspect the organisation behind both hits is after people like us -- mutants, I think you call them. So we need to know – was Frau Rilke a mutant? Or was she simply working on a project connected with mutants?"

For the first time since he started speaking he takes in the look on Charles' face. Charles is running his eyes over both him and Alex, looking for injuries; he relaxes imperceptibly when he finds none, and looks back down at the pictures.

"Hanna was one of us," he confirms quietly, subdued. "She had magnified eyesight -- when she focused, she could see things down to their submolecular composition. She was working on isolating the mutant gene with me, and it looks like she made the leap just before she was murdered. Those letters," he indicates the sequence carved in Rilke's arm, "signify the nomenclature and the family a particular gene is a member of, as well as its location. She used my initials for the designation, see – XCF, for Charles Frances Xavier. I would assume that this is the key to unlocking the mutant genome."

"So as soon as she figured this out, she was murdered. How did they find out?" Alex wonders out loud.

"They must have been monitoring her," Erik muses. "I've known scientists who get so absorbed they forget to eat and drink, let alone be aware of their surroundings beyond their research."

Charles smiles sheepishly. "I'm afraid you're quite right, Detective."

Erik feels a surge of fondness at the way Charles looks, lost and sad but determined. The urge to lean over the table and press a reassuring kiss to his temple is shockingly strong; Erik tries to put it out of his mind immediately.

Charles sighs tiredly, but squares his shoulders. "What do you need from me?"

"First of all, a list of people who were aware what you were working on, and with whom you communicated. It would be very helpful if you could tell us of the people who knew of Frau Rilke's research and its connection to your own. Also, I'm sorry to say that if there is a connection, whoever knows about Frau Rilke's work knows of your involvement, too. It may not be safe for you here, not until we find the ones responsible and apprehend them."

"You want me to leave the city?" Charles asks, startled.

"Yes, I'm afraid it's probably prudent, to keep you and your sister safe. If I found my way to you, they might, too."

Charles shares a look with Raven. She looks more angry than frightened, and there's a militant glint in her eyes that should teach anyone who tries to underestimate her the error of their ways.

"Charles, you must listen to them. If you're in danger, we have to leave. Maybe even go back to the mansion," she says tentatively.

Charles makes a face, but nods. He shoots Erik a quick look from under his eyelashes. //Is she in danger?// he speaks in Erik's mind.

//Anyone who is associated with you may be in danger, especially if they suspect whoever it is knows about your research. As your sister, Raven will certainly be one of the targets,// Erik thinks at him. He can feel a low-level wave of distress coming off Charles, but he won't mince his words if it's the difference between danger and safety.

"Very well," Charles agrees, "but we expect our colleagues from New York to arrive tomorrow evening. We must wait for them, they might well be able to help."

Raven shrugs, but doesn't argue. "They might," she confirms when Erik switches his gaze to her.

"All right. But pack your bags, and let's move to wait for them in London. We'll take up a couple of rooms in a random hotel, and it'll be safer in the midst of a crowd."

Charles shrugs, and Raven nods. The two of them push away from the table and go in opposite directions to pack, while Erik and Alex finish their coffee and Erik floats the tray to the counter by the small sink. They don't have to wait long -- within a quarter of an hour both brother and sister reappear with their luggage. The bags are bigger than Erik had expected, and he nods approvingly, seeing that both take the threat seriously. Alex reaches to take Raven's case for her, but she raises a mocking eyebrow and picks it up like it weighs nothing. Charles smirks at the surprised look on Alex's face, and Erik gathers that Raven is quite a bit stronger than she looks.

Erik leaves them to wait in the vestibule while he fetches the car -- or tries to; Charles insists on coming with him, arguing that he knows the twisting streets around here like the back of his hand. Since Erik and Alex had almost got themselves lost trying to find Hertford College alone, Erik agrees. Alex, however, will be staying put.

"Look, I know you're strong and you can change into whomever you need to, but Alex has the kind of instincts that take years to develop. He might be young, but he's a good police officer," Erik tells Raven when she tries to argue. "And besides, the two of us out for a stroll is much less conspicuous than the four of us plus your bags, I don't care what Charles can make them think. You can't be too careful right now."

Alex fairly glows under Erik's praise, while Raven scowls but hangs back.

"Be right back," Charles says jovially, like he's going for a pleasant walk, not preparing to flee the city. Erik is in half a mind to take him to task over it before Charles flashes him another warning look.

//I don't want to worry her needlessly,// he projects while they walk away.

"She needs to be worried. It might save her life," Erik tells him when they're out of hearing distance. "Think less like a big brother and more like the brother of a powerful mutant."

"It's not that I don't trust her to watch our backs," Charles bristles. "I know she can. I just wish she didn't have to."

"This situation isn't of your choosing. You can't do anything about it but help us take care of it," Erik says kindly. "And you can help. Focus on that."

Charles stays quiet for a moment while their legs cover the ground quickly in the chilly evening air. "You're very good at this," he admits after a moment.

Erik shrugs. "I've had to learn to be."

"I suppose you never had much use for your empathy in the army."

Erik stills. After a second, Charles freezes, too, and turns to him with wide eyes.

"How much did you read, exactly, when you rummaged inside my head?" Erik says ominously.

"Er. Quite a bit, I'm afraid. I'm sorry, Erik. I didn't know."

Erik seethes for a few moments, lengthening his strides. They're almost at the side street where he and Alex stashed their car when he speaks again. "I'd appreciate it if you'd stay out of my head from now on, unless it's to communicate."

"I promise," Charles says, looking subdued and guilty from the way his shoulders have slumped.

Erik is still burning with anger, yet he is very much aware that it's more to do with Charles invading his privacy than having Charles in his mind at all, which is what he should be wary of, all things considered. It's… mildly worrying, that he trusts this man so much already, within hours of meeting him. It's damned unnatural. He resolves to be more on his guard from now on.

He unlocks the door as soon as they reach the car, and folds himself into the driver's seat. Charles climbs in next to him as Erik spares a moment to check the car over, from engine to underside, before he slips the key in and starts it.

"So since you were in there, did you see the research facility I destroyed?" he asks while he eases out into the empty street.

Charles looks startled, then thoughtful. "I didn't go into much detail. I know you caused an explosion of some kind, and there were a lot of-- um. Dead, but I didn't get the details."

"It was a base I found when my squad and I were sent to South America. They had mutants there, Charles. They were 'studying' them, but by the amount of instruments involved I don't think it was test results they were after."

Charles looks pale in the streetlight streaming through the side window. "Oh," is all he says, pressing his lips together.

"I took the base out, as you saw. But it can't have been the only one. Knowing what I do now, I wouldn't be surprised if the attack team was part of another such facility somewhere, hellbent on appropriating Frau Rilke's research for their use."

"We'll find them," Charles says immediately, conviction steeling his voice. "Erik, we'll find them, and we'll get our people out of there, I promise you."

Erik had had no idea he'd needed to hear those words so badly until Charles says them. Erik wouldn't put it past Charles to have known to make the point, but he's not complaining right now.

"Turn right here, then take the next left," Charles directs him through the maze. Erik complies, and in a few moments they're pulling up outside the door to the Xaviers' flat that Erik unlocks with a flick of his fingers. Alex looks out, spots them, then disappears back inside. Then he and Raven walk out, carrying both hers and Charles' cases. Erik pops the trunk and they load the bags inside, then climb into the car.

Half an hour later they're speeding away on the M40 down to London, and hopefully safety.

---

Erik wakes up early, more out of habit than necessity. He spares a look for Alex on his way to the bathroom, sprawled out on his stomach and dead to the world. Erik lets him sleep -- no need for all of them to be stepping on each other's toes wondering what to do all day. He changes out of his sleeping pants into his usual uniform -- tailored slacks and a turtleneck. They make him feel protected, put a layer between himself and the world, let him face what is to come with at least equanimity behind his armour.

He walks downstairs to the breakfast room to find a still-sleepy Charles sitting at one of the small round tables, reading a thick leather-bound journal and holding his mug of tea to his face, propped on his cheek. For all he looks immaculately put together, there's a ruffled quality to him -- it could be the way his hair is ever so slightly out of place, like he's been running his hand through it, or it could be the skin under his eyes, thin and faintly bruised. He doesn't look like he's had a restful night. Erik wonders what Charles spent it fretting about -- Hanna Rilke's death, or the imminent danger, or having to rely on two people he's never met before to keep him and his sister out of harm's way. Erik bets it grates, with Charles' undisputed level of power. A telepath can't do a damned thing about the barrel of a gun, though, or the spark of trigger touching bullet.

"Erik! Good morning! The coffee on the side table is still hot."

"Thanks," Erik murmurs, taking in the genuine amiability lighting Charles' face. Perhaps not so much that last one, then.

He helps himself, then piles a plate high with scrambled eggs and bacon, a few slices of toast and a pack or two of butter, and brings everything to the table. He has no idea what the day will bring; might as well be fed when the shit hits the fan.

Charles eyes the plate with a distinctly covetous gaze. Erik feels a smirk curl his lips. He's been around a few academics in his time, and he bets Charles clean forgot about food as soon as he had his tea.

"What's on the agenda for today, then?" Charles asks as Erik forks some eggs onto a piece of toast and bites into it with every sign of enjoyment.

"Keep a low profile. That's about it," Erik answers when he's done chewing. Charles hums, sipping his probably-cold tea.

"You want to go for a walk? Visit a museum, maybe?"

Erik barely stops himself from rolling his eyes. Of course. Although, now that Charles has mentioned it, the proposition is surprisingly attractive, and it'll keep them in plain sight of a crowd of people. Not even those mercenaries would open fire on a closed space with so many potential variables, not to mention security guards.

"The National Gallery?"

"Sounds great," Charles says, perking up. "It's been--actually, it's been years since I've last been, how did that happen?" He sounds amused and faintly bewildered.

Charles is eyeing his toast again. Erik sighs, put-upon, and butters a slice, handing it over. Charles takes it with a surprised look, like no one has ever done anything like that for him before.

"You're putting me off my breakfast with all the staring," Erik says defensively. Charles smiles brilliantly, a barely-there pink tinge to his cheeks, but humours him and says nothing. He crunches his toast happily, stealing a piece of Erik's bacon to go with it and ignoring Erik's glower. Erik considers the possibility that his action may have just declared open season on his plate. He shrugs. There's always more where that came from, and Charles needs to eat. He can't subsist on tea alone, much as he probably believes he could.

They sit in comfortable silence for a few minutes before Raven stumbles into the room, bleary-eyed despite the fact that she could smooth the evidence away with no more than a thought.

"Coffee," she groans, making a beeline for the pot. Charles lifts his nose out of his journal with a fond "Morning to you, too."

"Shut up, Charles, just because you don't feel the need to sleep," Raven grumbles.

Charles looks vaguely uncomfortable, a haunted expression taking over his face for a fraction of a second before it's gone again like it's never been. Erik narrows his eyes at him. If there's something going on, he needs to know about it to be able to keep them safe. He makes a mental note to get it out of Charles as soon as they find themselves alone.

Alex follows Raven fifteen minutes later, looking irritatingly rested, if still a little sleepy. Erik briefs them on their plan for the day, magnanimously ignoring all the resultant moaning. "It makes for a good cover," is all he says. "Bring a book, or your iPod, or whatever you need to occupy yourselves."

Their hotel is a bus-ride away from Trafalgar Square, and for the first time Erik wonders whether Charles planned it that way. Charles makes no indication of anything of the sort, and they troop inside the Gallery just after ten a.m. The halls are already filling, so they decide to split and meet up at the Cafe at one p.m. for lunch. Erik sends Alex with Raven to wherever the two of them decide to go, giving him a meaningful look that says 'Keep your guard up or else'. Alex nods soberly.

Erik lets Charles drag him around; he'd be blind not to notice how much Charles is enjoying himself, how eagerly he moves from painting to painting, finding old favourites and delighting in discovering them again. Blind Erik isn't. Charles' face is alive with animation, blue eyes wide and dancing, lips tugged into a perpetual half-smile. Erik can't help but be swept up by Charles' enthusiasm, even if he finds watching Charles' face much more entertaining than a few specks of paint on the wall. He keeps his focus half on what Charles is telling him and half on the surroundings, cataloguing every larger piece of metal he comes across. Before long he knows the position of every steel bolt in the walls, every defensive mechanism. He amuses himself with planning how he's going to steal that Rossetti Charles is admiring vociferously at his side. It would be laughably easy for someone with his abilities.

An hour later he leaves Charles in a spirited discussion with a curator over a Monet painting, and walks to the other side of the large room to peruse Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), allowing himself a huff of amusement at the title. He feels a little like that tiger, always cautious, his environment shifting, the jungle where he spends his days suddenly drenched by rain and unfamiliar, having to make his way through it when every shadow could be a hunter intent on collecting his pelt. The surprise on the tiger's face feels strangely familiar, a visual representation of the way Charles has him surprised, off-balance, checking himself.

"Figures that's where you'd gravitate," Charles says at his shoulder. Erik doesn't jump -- he'd followed the progress of Charles' metal watch all the way across the room as Charles made his way over. He shrugs.

"I sympathise, is all."

Charles hums, but doesn't push for more, even though Erik knows Charles could lift it right out of his mind if he wanted.

"I promised I wouldn't," Charles murmurs, and Erik turns, startled. Charles sighs. "I wasn't poking around. You're just thinking very loudly. I can't help it; I can't tune out noises that strong."

"Huh," Erik says, adding that to his mental 'What is Charles up to' sheet. "It’s fine. I can't blame you for who you are."

Charles looks surprised at that, like it's more than he expected. Erik shrugs again. It would be like asking him not to know that there is a four-inch steel gate ready to cut the painting in front of him off from the room if a threat is spotted.

"So you want to tell me about last night?" Erik asks, disinclined to pander to Charles’ sensibilities. Charles opens his mouth, and Erik doesn't have to be a telepath to know that he's going to try and deny anything and everything. Erik lifts an eyebrow.

Charles deflates, pressing his plush lips together and throwing him an irritated look. Instead of annoyance, Erik feels nothing but amusement for Charles' antics.

"I was scanning the city for hostile minds, if you must know," Charles admits ungraciously.

Erik is, yet again, taken aback. He should really stop underestimating this man.

"You can do that? The whole of London?"

"Well, not all of it, that would probably drive me insane. Just the fifteen mile radius around the hotel."

"Oh, just the fifteen miles, eh?" Erik teases, a strange feeling curling inside him. It feels an awful lot like affection, and like relief – that he doesn't have to do it alone anymore. There's someone besides Alex watching his back, someone who can actually give him the heads-up before the bullets start flying.

"I could go to thirty if we need to," Charles says earnestly. Something in Erik turns over.

"Charles. You don't have to. I've got you, both you and Raven. I won't let anything happen to you if I can help it," he says. It sounds suspiciously like a pledge of allegiance or something equally stupid.

Charles gifts him one of his startlingly bright smiles again, and Erik feels his heart start to beat faster. "I want to, though. You can't do it all by yourself. I can help."

"I know you can. And I appreciate it. But don't kill yourself while you're at it, okay?"

"I won't," Charles promises. "Besides, I have you to make sure I eat, right?"

"Right," Erik says, bemused. He has no idea how the conversation got to this minefield of a subject.

Charles just grins at him again, looking boyish and not a day over twenty. Certainly not like an Oxford-educated genetics professor that could mindfuck everyone in the city if he put his mind to it.

Erik is still reeling when they reconvene with the other two for lunch. Raven looks terminally bored, and Alex isn't looking much livelier.

"I enjoy art as much as the next not-obsessed person, but three hours, Charles?" Raven complains.

Charles shrugs sheepishly. Erik would bet his lunch he'd barely noticed the time passing. "We could do something else this afternoon?" Charles offers in supplication.

"When are your friends arriving?" Erik wants to know.

"Their flight arrives at half-four. They should be in the hotel by six at the latest."

"Right. Another four hours to kill, then."

Alex and Raven groan in unison.

---

They don't actually stay out for that long. When they finish lunch, they spend over an hour holed up in the huge Virgin Music shop next door to the Gallery, and all of them manage to find something to spend their money on, even Erik. (He likes EUROPE, okay? It's -- energetic. He can spar to it.) Then Erik herds the three of them back onto the bus, and they troop into the hotel a little worse for wear, but pleasantly exhausted.

Since Charles and Raven's room is bigger, they decide to hold the meeting there. Raven flops over the bed with a deeply satisfied groan, while Alex throws himself on one of the armchairs in the corner of the room and stretches out his tired legs. Charles and Erik elect to sit at the small table on the other side of the room, spreading their papers out over the narrow surface. Charles is back to perusing his journal, while Erik opens Hanna Rilke's file and starts looking for a connection again, any connection that can bring him closer to the organisation that is after them. The information inside is frustratingly unhelpful -- he and Alex have managed to gather more in the past day than the entire police department had before they fled the city.

Charles leaves him to it, and a few minutes later the room is full of silence, the shuffling of pages and Raven and Alex's soft exhales the only background noise. Erik lets them doze -- they will need to be on their guard soon enough. Time stretches, slow and languid, and Erik finds his attention drifting away from his file and onto his companion. Charles looks focused, as if the fact that he'll be interrupted shortly is no excuse not to get some work done. But then he shifts a little in his chair and covers a yawn with the back of his hand, and Erik realises he isn't half as focused as he's pretending to be. Charles rubs at his eyes, dark circles still prominent underneath, a testament to his nightly vigil. The thought warms Erik just like before, the way Charles obviously spreads himself too thin, taking on more than he needs to, more than he should. Charles props an elbow on top of the table and rests his cheek on his hand, long eyelashes fluttering closed, a sigh carrying to Erik's ears. Charles is clearly no better off than the younger crew, but much more stubborn than them.

"You should rest, too," Erik says quietly. Charles starts, blue eyes lifting to Erik's.

"Oh, no, I'm all right. Besides, Sebastian and Emma should arrive within the hour, and it would be much worse if I were to sleep now and be groggy later."

Erik shrugs. That's what he'd do in the circumstances, so he doesn't have much of a leg to stand on.

"No surveying tonight, however," he warns instead. We need you fresh tomorrow."

"Yes, all right," Charles agrees, far too readily. He must be more exhausted than Erik imagined.

A half hour passes, then forty-five minutes, before there is a knock on the door. Charles sits up, focusing for a moment, before his face breaks out in a relieved smile.

"It's them," he tells Erik. Erik nods and rouses Raven and Alex, both looking instantly alert.

The door opens, and Erik hears Charles' welcome before it closes again and Erik turns to meet their visitors.

His vision swims and his legs feel shaky when he sets eyes on the man, about the same height as him, his haircut somewhat old-fashioned, his suit impeccable. It doesn't detract from Erik's memory of that face, hazy through the smoke, blasting his sergeant back as if he were made of straw.

"What the fuck?" Erik croaks, immediately calling everything metal that could constitute a weapon to him. "Those are your friends? You work with them?" he demands furiously. Charles just looks at him like he's gone insane, and Erik shoves his memory of when he last saw the man so forcefully at Charles that he sees him wince and lift his hand to his head.

"Oh dear," Sebastian says, eyeing Erik consideringly. "It appears I missed one. How... unfortunate. Emma," he says, and Erik's head explodes with pain. He screams, metal raining around him as he falls to the ground, clutching at his temples as if it would help.

"What are you doing?!" Charles yells, bringing two fingers to his temple only to clench his teeth in frustration and stare at Sebastian's companion, who is standing back and regarding the mayhem coolly. "Emma! Stop it!"

"So sorry, Charles," Emma says, not unkindly from what Erik can determine through the agony that is his brain. "It is necessary."

"But--but--I work with you," Charles splutters, looking at the both of them in horror. "I give you information about other mutants! You said you were helping them!"

"And we are," Sebastian says, like he's speaking to a small child. "We help them reach their potential."

"By torturing them?"

Erik thinks he's the only one that sees Emma's head snap to Sebastian, eyes wide with shock and face paling. Sebastian shoots her a sharp look and waves a hand. "You know that's not what we do anymore," he says to her, dismissive. "But sometimes it's the only way."

“Did you have something to do with Hanna’s murder?” Charles demands, looking distraught.

Sebastian sends him such a condescending look that Erik’s rage redoubles. “Her death was really all your fault, Charles, I hope you realise. You should not have withheld information from me about her abilities and the nature of her research; Rilke could have been a useful addition to my team – she got so much farther than the people I have working on the project before it became necessary to remove her. What a waste of such a fine brain.”

Charles’ face twists, part-furious and part-devastated. “You fucking bastard,” he snaps, mouth twisted in repugnance.

Behind Sebastian something darts towards them, and Erik has a split second to feel smug about how easy this takedown is going to be before Alex is blasted back into the wall, landing with a sickening crunch. It's like he ran into some kind of force field. Sebastian smirks, shaking his head. "Young people today," he says despairingly.

Erik keeps a careful eye on Emma, who seems to be struggling with something. Charles, meanwhile, has those fingers of his to his temple, lips thinning in concentration as he glares at Sebastian. Emma's eyes narrow with what looks like effort. Dimly, Erik realises Charles is trying to fight his way through Sebastian's defences, and failing. Emma must be putting up some kind of shield.

Raven chooses that moment to launch herself onto Emma’s back, body shifting into her natural blue, sharp, vicious nails extended and aimed at Emma's throat. Before his eyes Emma shimmers, and where woman stood a second ago there is now only sparkling light, reflecting off a body of pure diamond. The pain in Erik's head redoubles, and he's distantly aware that he's retching onto the floor, desperately trying to keep his brain from leaking out of his ears.

"No," he hears Charles scream, and watches Emma close her hands around Raven's throat, sees those unyielding fingers tighten and Raven start to choke.

"Now, are you going to be reasonable?" Sebastian asks, insufferably smug and condescending.

Erik stretches a hand.

Behind Emma, the metal bedframe comes to life, ribbons of wrought iron lashing through the air to wrap themselves around Emma's diamond throat. Screaming from the pain, Erik squeezes his fist. The iron tightens. Emma's fine neck starts to splinter, a spiderweb of cracks spreading over her diamond skin. She doesn't even try to fight it -- she shifts back immediately, looking furious, Raven falling from her chokehold and starting to cough like she's trying to spit out a lung. Charles' eyes narrow, and Erik sees Emma stagger back. The pain in his head falters, then disappears.

And then he stops breathing, because he physically senses it when Sebastian pulls out a gun, and trains it squarely on Charles' head.

"Charles," Erik yells, panicked and frantic as he feels Sebastian’s finger curl around the trigger. Erik is still on the floor, Alex is out of commission, arm twisted unnaturally underneath him, and Raven can only watch with horrified eyes as Charles turns, and focuses on Sebastian that fraction of a second too late. Erik can't move, can't get up, can't throw himself in front of Charles like he wants to, because the bullet is out of the chamber already, and even if Charles has frozen Sebastian into immobility, that bullet is still flying through the air.

Time slows down. Erik feels his focus expanding, taking over the room, narrowing down on the bullet destined to fracture Charles' incredible, beautiful, astonishing mind and take him from Erik.

This cannot happen.

It will not happen.

Erik 's hand clenches.

The bullet ricochets, like it's met with an invisible barrier -- which, to all intents and purposes, it has. It flies straight back, burrows its way through skin and bone and brain matter until it skewers through Sebastian's head and buries itself in the wall behind him.

Charles and Emma scream in the same breath, and fold to the floor like puppets without strings.

Erik's heart stops in his chest.

He doesn't know how he gets there, only that one second he's frozen with gut-wrenching terror and the next he's kneeling next to Charles, pressing two fingers to his neck, holding his breath and praying to any divine being out there that would listen that he hasn't just killed Charles with his ignorance. Charles was in Sebastian's head when the bullet he'd deflected bore through his brain, and Erik hasn't the faintest idea how Charles' telepathy works, and Erik's just killed a man while he and Charles were connected, and he's never been so afraid in his life.

He's never been so knee-shakingly relieved, either, when he feels Charles' pulse flutter under his fingertips, fast but steady. Charles opens his (blue, so blue) eyes, staring dazedly at the ceiling for a moment before he lifts his head and fixes them on Erik. Erik looks back helplessly, heart still in his throat. He expects anything from recrimination to disappointment to fury, but what he gets instead blindsides him and dazzles him and awes him and makes him fall a little bit in love.

"I know where the research centre is," Charles says, before letting his head fall back down, a determined look on his face.

---

The research centre, it transpires, is in America. Charles of course knows the exact co-ordinates, but he's keeping them close to his chest until they've packed all their stuff and disposed of Sebastian Shaw's body. Emma, still shell-shocked, follows them without a word. The one time Erik had questioned her motivations, the blast of fearpainterrordespair, coupled with images of her younger self in a cell, strapped naked to a table with electrodes attached everywhere and a man in a medical coat leaning over with a lit blowtorch in his hand, puts paid to any and all of Erik's possible objections. From that moment on, for him Emma is a part of their group, hell-bent on revenge, the only way she can reconcile working for the very maniac who had condoned her torture and then had the nerve to let her believe he'd rescued her from the facility.

It's barely seven p.m., still early enough to catch a flight out if they leave now. Erik and Alex wrap Shaw's body in black bin bags while Raven and Emma pack everyone's luggage hurriedly and follow them out of the door. Charles leads the way, two fingers to his temple, lips pressed together. Erik wonders how long it's been since he last slept properly, and makes a mental note to insist Charles naps on the plane, no matter what it takes.

No one looks at them twice as they load the body into the trunk of the car, and Erik fashions a luggage rack out of the car roof where they load all their bags, securing them with thin metal straps. They pile inside, Charles, Raven and Emma squeezing together in the back while Alex takes shotgun with his arm strapped tightly to his chest, to minimise the jolting to what had been a nasty dislocated shoulder. Erik takes the wheel again, and drives quickly and silently to a stretch of land outside London, on their way to Gatwick. There they unload Shaw's body and unstrap Alex's arm for long enough to burn it into its component molecules.

"Plasma blast," Alex explains while Erik, Raven and Emma stomp down on the errant flames erupting all over the now-charred ground, and Charles stares at Alex in fascination. When he sways, Charles catches him gently and helps him to the car, pours him into the front seat. There's fine sweat beading all over Alex’s face and neck while Charles straps the arm back down, and Erik resolves to keep him out of whatever fighting they will have to do at the research facility. Alex is going to hate him for it, but he's not getting himself killed on Erik's watch.

The rest of the trip to the airport is as sedate as possible under the circumstances. Alex dozes a little, and Erik notices Charles doing the same in the rear view mirror. The motorway lights paints half-circles over his tired features; Erik has to force himself to watch the road. The girls, on the other hand, have their heads close together and are whispering furiously. Erik would bet his dinner that the rest of them are going to be presented with a plan of action as soon as they land in the States. He’s surprised and not a little curious about their instant camaraderie, considering that just a short while ago they had been trying to kill one another – but if Emma had shown Raven what she had shown him, he doesn’t think Raven would have been better equipped to handle the instant wave of empathy the thoughts had evoked than Erik had been himself. And of course, with Charles for a brother, and being who she is, Raven would be more inclined than most to understand, to forgive -- or so Erik imagines.

Which really brings him to the next impossible task -- he does not have an American visa. He knows that German citizens can travel to the States on some kind of visa waiver programme from a case he and Alex worked last year, but he also knows that to do so he must have some kind of authorisation letter, which he does not. He tries not to think too hard about that. They have two telepaths on their team; somehow he doesn't think convincing the authorities is going to be a problem, but it's yet another thing to task Charles with.

He parks the car in a long-term parking slot, fixes the roof as an afterthought when all the bags are down and tosses the keys in the passenger seat. The five of them troop inside the terminal, weary and staying close to each other. Charles visibly makes an effort to shake his exhaustion, squares his shoulders.

"I'm going to get our tickets on my card," he says, rubbing the bridge of his nose before looking up. "Let me have all your passports."

"I can get mine and Alex's," Erik argues, because he doesn't need Charles to pay for him like he can't take care of his own.

"I'm sure you can, but I think you'll agree we're going to need running cash when we get there. So keep your money for then, yes?"

Erik shrugs. Fair enough. The others hand their passports over, and it's here, the moment Erik has been dreading. Alex got his American citizenship when he lived with his Aunt, and Emma, Raven and Charles are all technically American, except Charles, who has dual citizenship. Which leaves Erik, who really has no legal way of entering the States.

"Charles, a word?" he asks, nodding to the side. The others make vague motions to indicate they're going to get coffee while they wait, so Alex can sit down before he falls down.

Charles sighs. "Look, Erik, honestly, I know you can pay me back--"

"It's not about the money," Erik interrupts, watching him gravely. He grits his teeth and just says it -- "I don't have a US visa. I'm a German citizen. We need some sort of authorisation to travel to the States."

Charles' brows, which had knitted as he was listening, straighten. "Oh. Well. Thanks for letting me know. I'm sure it won't be a problem."

"Are you going to mind-bend them?"

"Mind-bend? Erik, what on earth--no, I'm just going to... place a suggestion, so to speak. It'll be fine, no one will look at you twice." He smiles tiredly. Erik hates that he's placing an even bigger strain on him.

"Don't be silly, Erik. It's not a problem. You were thinking very loud again," he explains when Erik frowns at him. There's a faint smile floating on his lips that makes Erik feel too hot all of a sudden.

Charles sends him another reassuring look before walking away, headed for the British Airways ticket desk. Erik considers going with him, but he reasons that the less people there are around the easier it would be for Charles to do his thing. Instead, he goes upstairs to the Starbucks where the others have taken refuge and gets a coffee for himself and the biggest cup of tea they have for Charles. It looks more like a bucket. Charles will love it. While he waits for the sleepy barista to sort himself out and make their drinks, his mind worries over the next predicament -- Charles' skills or not, they are leaving a paper trail. It's all right for the Americans, he supposes -- they are simply flying home. It's a German with no legal record that he's worried about. And what if those shadowy figures trace them and attack them again before they can prepare themselves? Anyone can hack into an airline's flight manifest these days. No, it would be best if it were to simply disappear, but how to do that without rousing suspicion?

He ponders this as he sips his coffee and keeps an eye on the escalator for Charles, even though he's probably still chatting to the sales assistant, raising those fingers to his temple and smoothing away their questions. Erik can almost see it in his mind, Charles leaning casually on the counter and smiling charmingly. Although maybe not, because here is Charles now, bracing his forearm on the side of the escalator and trying not to look as exhausted as he undoubtedly feels. He slumps into the seat across from Erik when he reaches them, taking the proffered bucket of tea with a grateful look.

"All sorted," he says after he's taken a long sip of the still-steaming liquid. "Flight's in an hour, so we should probably go check in our bags and find our gate."

It's only Charles and Raven's bags that are too big to qualify as hand luggage, so check-in takes all of ten minutes. The walk to the gate itself is exhausting; the airport is huge, even if no one has the energy to do more than dip into WH Smith’s and grab some papers and magazines to occupy their time – and even a book or two ("I can't spend the next eight hours doing nothing, Erik, I'd go mad"), and they make it in time for the start of boarding. The whole thing is surprisingly fast, but that's probably due to the lateness of the hour, even if the flight is almost full.

The flight attendant fusses over Alex, making sure he's comfortable and getting him a pillow to brace his arm. Raven and Emma sit next to him, Raven shrinking her frame unobtrusively so Alex would have more space without them bumping elbows and jarring his arm. Charles and Erik take their seats in the row behind them, Erik in the aisle seat because he feels trapped when he's crammed with two people between him and the escape route, and Charles taking the seat in the middle, leaving a twenty-something strawberry-blonde girl in the window seat on Charles' other side.

Actual take-off takes forever, and Erik can feel Charles drooping, desperately trying to stay awake for whatever reason.

//It's all right to sleep, you know,// Erik thinks at him. Charles' head lifts and he sends Erik a sheepish look. //You're exhausted, and we're as safe as we can get. Besides, don't tell me you haven't already scanned every single person's mind for danger.//

//You know me so well already,// Charles thinks back weakly, stifling a yawn behind his hand. He lets his head drop back onto the headrest and closes his eyes.

Erik takes out his freshly purchased copy of The Hare With Amber Eyes and opens it to page one, settling back into his seat to read. Sometime later, when the plane has taken off at last and Charles' head comes to rest on his shoulder, Erik merely settles him more comfortably and turns the page.

---

By the time they arrive and it's time to face customs, Charles seems sufficiently recovered for Erik not to feel like an asshole about asking for his help again. He tries not to think about the sight of Charles waking up, the slow, content exhale that Erik had felt across his collarbone, the faintly confused look in Charles' eyes as he'd regained consciousness, eyelids flicking up and down to chase the last remnants of sleep from his lashes, the rounding of his perfectly shaped mouth as he realised just what had made up his comfortable pillow. It had been… Erik doesn't know what it had been, but he isn't likely to forget the sight any time soon.

He is tense as they make their way through the immigration desks, but the well-built African-American man's eyes glaze over for a split second, and then he's stamping Erik's passport and smiling genially. Erik smiles back, trying not to look too relieved, and walks towards the small group waiting for him on the other side. Charles takes his fingers away from his temple with a self-satisfied smirk, looking much more rested even if there is a faint strain around his eyes still.

They rent a car from the airport desk, but as soon as they're in town they switch it for a minivan -- Erik has no idea how many of their kind they are going to find, but an extra five seats will have to do to start with, and they could always swipe transport from the base itself.

"All right then, Charles," Erik says, turning to face him fully. It grates a little that Charles had refused to disclose the location he had pin-pointed, but Erik can respect the need for secrecy even if he doesn't like it. The fewer people who know of it, the better. "Where to?"

"Arkansas," Charles says, and Erik fights not to groan. That's half-way across the country! Still, he can see why a facility would be based there -- it's not particularly densely populated, and the wilderness and forests would provide cover from above and from curious travellers who have taken a wrong turn somewhere. The place isn't on any maps, naturally.

"Fine," Erik says. "I'll drive."

He gets no argument, but the look in Charles' eyes suggests this may not be a permanent state of affairs. As it is, though, he climbs in behind the wheel, takes the time to feel out the vehicle, learn its curves, understand where it ends, exactly how far the bumpers are from his fingertips and toes. Once he's got the feel of it memorised, he twitches his fingers and starts the engine, pulling out onto the road. By that time Alex is already asleep again, exhausted from the pain for which they have no medication, and Emma and Raven are staring out of their respective windows. Charles is restless in the seat to Erik's right, endlessly scanning the road ahead even when they leave the city behind and take to the open countryside. It's early enough yet, and Erik settles down for the ride, lets the rhythm of the tyres hitting the road lull him into a comfortable state of concentration, easily flitting in and out of the light traffic. He doesn't even notice time passing until Charles' voice pulls him out of his thoughts.

"I think it's time we found a place to stop and have something to eat," Charles says. Erik wants to protest, wants to get to the place as soon as it's physically possible, wants to pull those kids out of there and take them somewhere where no one can get to them.

//As do I, my friend,// Charles says in his mind. //But the others are barely hanging in there. They need a break, a distraction.//

Of course. Trust Charles to have noticed. Alex looks a little green around the edges, holding his arm as still as possible, and Emma's eyes are dark and sunken, looking haunted. Raven seems to be holding up, but when Erik catches her eye in the rear view mirror her lips are pressed tightly together and she has a death grip on Emma's hand.

And Charles. Charles is looking at Erik with a strange sort of concern in his eyes, and Erik isn't quite fluent in 'Charles' yet but he doesn't think he'd know what it meant even if he was. Still. He can't really say no to him, and how the hell did that happen? The only person even remotely close to holding that status is his mother, and he's had decades of conditioning. He's known this man for all of three days, and already he's this involved?

He can't fight the shudder of premonition that slithers down his spine. If this is the result of a three-day acquaintance with Charles Xavier, what might happen after a week? A month?

Could Erik really walk away again?

He has the uneasy feeling that he's setting himself up for some pretty awful heartbreak in the not-too-distant future.

He rubs at his face, only now realising just how damned weary he is, hours of looking at nothing but the empty road, eyes gone gritty and strained.

"All right, okay," he says, and starts looking around. He doesn't know if Charles knew this somehow, but not three miles later they come to a small diner on the side of the road, busy for the lack of traffic they've encountered but scrupulously clean. The five of them fold into the crammed booth, and Erik immediately gulps down half of his obligatory mug of coffee in one go.

"Hey, go easy on the stuff," Charles warns while Raven bargains for a plate of eggs and bacon with the amiable middle-aged waitress. "You'll need to try and get some sleep in a bit, when we get back on the road."

Erik frowns. "Sleep? I'm driving--"

"You were driving," Charles cuts him off with a warning look. "One of us will take over. You need rest too, Erik."

Erik opens his mouth again, eyebrows drawing together. He's fine to drive for a few more hours at least.

"Oh, give over," Emma scoffs, the first time she's spoken to any of them apart from Raven since she got into the car with them back in Oxford. "I'll drive for a while, then Charles can take over, and then, once you've gotten enough rest to not drive the lot of us into a ditch, if you're incapable of managing your control-freak tendencies, you may take the wheel again. Understood?"

Erik shuts his mouth with a snap, scowling. Disagreeing not only won’t work but will piss her off as well, not to mention imply that he doesn't trust her, when after what she'd shown him of herself earlier the thought would be patently ridiculous. He nods curtly when she raises a challenging eyebrow. He’ll manage to contain himself somehow.

Charles watches them, surprise and a flash of something else in his eyes, gone so quickly that Erik is barely sure it was even there, let alone try to decipher it. They eat in silence, shovelling food into their mouths as fast as they can before jumping back into the car. Erik climbs into the back this time, and watches as Emma adjusts her seat and mirrors that couple of inches that she needs to feel comfortable. She pulls away from the diner parking lot with a competency that's reassuring, and quickly gets them up to cruising speed. Charles sits in the front again, and Erik is free to observe, unobserved himself, the line of Charles' throat as he lets his head rest back against the seat, the shifting muscles in his shoulders as he stretches a little and settles again. Erik lets himself relax into his seat, and watches Charles through lowered eyelashes until, without quite realising it, his consciousness slips under.

He manages to sleep through Emma's change with Charles, which is in itself astounding, because Erik is the lightest sleeper he knows. He can only chalk it up to exhaustion and the strange safety he feels in the midst of their makeshift group. It's a strange sensation, having people to watch his back; he hasn't felt this way since his early days in the army, when he had so many others like him to rely on. It's a little nostalgic to remember it now, and to realise that these people invoke the same feeling of 'team' that he thought was long lost to him.

All in all, it's early morning when they reach the state border with Arkansas, when Erik insists he take the wheel again so that Charles and Emma are free to scout the terrain ahead with their minds. It really shouldn't surprise him how little time it takes them to lock onto the trace, but he is a little taken aback at the speed of it, he'll be honest.

He drives, and he worries at the problem over and over in his head, taking into account the information Emma and Charles are feeding him moment by moment -- '28 conscious minds, another five at least partially drugged, several guard dogs.' He tries to think of how best to attack, what kind of formation would be needed, if he can use Raven's ability to fool the guards into letting them pass. Alex is pretty much sitting this one out, Erik doesn't care how much he grumbles. Erik needs to be focused on every little detail, because as powerful as his people are, they still can't stop a speeding bullet headed for them even if they can knock out the shooter a moment later. But Erik can. And he will.

Charles directs him to stop not far from the compound, shielded by a turn in the road and the densely growing vegetation. When the minivan rolls to a halt everyone jumps out and reconvenes in the natural cover provided by a large rock, part of some long-forgotten landslide.

"Okay," Erik says, "so I was thinking--"

"Here's how we're going to do it,” Raven interrupts, and the tone is so calm, unconsciously expecting to be obeyed, that Erik shuts up from sheer surprise. “Emma will send me the image of the head scientist. Then Charles is going to knock him out, and I'll go in disguised as him or her. I'll scout out the place and relay the information to Emma and Charles, who will pass it on to the rest of you. Then I propose Charles freezes everyone, and Erik and I go in to get the prisoners out. And then Charles and Emma will wipe out the staff’s memories while Alex goes to town burning this place the fuck down."

Erik stares at Raven, a mixture of shock, pride and satisfaction warring inside him. He couldn't have thought of a better plan himself. First things first, though.

"You can do that?" he asks Charles. "Freeze them in place while we go in?"

"I can," Charles confirms, but he's not looking at Erik -- he's watching Raven with a worried expression. "Raven, it's too--"

"If you try and tell me it's too dangerous, Charles, you and I are going to have words," Raven growls. "There are lives at stake here! I can do this, goddamn it!"

"Yes, you can, there's no question about that--"

"Then what? You don't trust yourself to do a good job of keeping me safe? That'll be a first." There’s something bitter in her voice that wars with her determination; out of the corner of his eye, Erik sees Charles flinch.

"This is not the time for that," Charles snaps, sounding upset.

"Fuck's sake, Charles. You're going to have to stop watching my every move eventually. Look. I trust you to keep me safe, you and Emma and Erik. Okay? You can trust me to do what I do best in return."

"But--"

Raven glares at him, something at once defiant and vulnerable in her eyes. Erik wonders how many times they have rehashed this argument, how many times Charles' ingrained protectiveness has hindered her, pulled her back, stopped her from being who she was meant to be. Something like that could do more damage than not caring at all -- because if your closest friend does not believe in you, it eats at you until you start to doubt yourself, and it's a slippery slope after that.

Charles gapes at her a moment longer before he deflates, looking hurt and worried half to death. "Okay," he forces out, "fine.” He rubs at his face with fingers pink from the cold. “You'd better make sure you're all right in there," he adds, looking at her again, and for a moment Erik can see something in him that is different, violent, that would scare the fuck out of him if he wasn't Charles, someone he already trusts to an extent that is in itself terrifying.

Raven’s gaze softens. “I’ll be all right. And I’ll have all of you at my back.”

A moment later, Raven looks like a warrior queen at the height of her powers -- she's shed her clothes in a pile on the ground and stands there in nothing but her bright blue skin, watching her brother and Emma calmly. Charles sends her a last look of concern before turning to the compound and lifting his fingers to his temple. At his side, Emma narrows her eyes, flickers into her diamond shape.

Charles nods at Raven, and then she's running, leaping over obstacles like they're nothing, so fast and agile that Erik feels his jaw drop a little. Soon she is nothing more than a flash of blue through the forest, and after a moment that is gone, too.

"She's closing in," Charles says, not losing that unfocused look in his eyes. "Emma, relay the image."

Emma nods, and suddenly all of them can see him, the man who commands the facility, a thick-set, unassuming Caucasian with a fastidiously groomed goatee and wire-rimmed glasses.

"His name is William Stryker," Emma says softly, and then there is silence as the two telepaths follow Raven through the maze of corridors inside.

Erik tries not to fidget; fails. He takes out Shaw's gun instead and disassembles it in mid-air, setting the metal to vibrate so it repels any non-metal particles like dust and water molecules that could have lodged inside. Cleaned, he slides the parts in their proper formation again, and only then notices the awed look on Alex's face.

"I wish I could control my blasts like that," he says wistfully. Erik remembers his promise that they'll find someone to help Alex hone his skills, teach him how to hone that elusive control and not let his powers take over. Erik thinks they have found just the person, but whether or not Charles would be willing to help is another matter. Erik doesn't think he'll say no, but it's Charles' life, his work, his sister, and whether he'll take the time to help out a couple of strangers, fellow mutants or no -- that's something they've yet to find out. It's one thing to free some of their people, and quite another to take an active part in steering their future, giving up his own pursuits so that he can take on teaching and guiding others.

The thoughts leave him unsettled; Erik forces them back, locks them away for the time being until all of his mind is focused on the task before them, getting their kin out of this place and making sure no one will ever think to do something like that to their kind again.

"Okay, commencing freeze. Erik, you're up."

Erik barely spares the time to nod at Charles' instructions before he's running, too, long legs eating up the ground below him. He feels the familiar slight, soft nudge at his mind, and realises Charles is asking to be let inside, to be allowed to guide him. Erik braces himself and peels apart the cold iron shutters he's been using to surround his mind, keep himself safe. Charles slips inside, a warm, easy presence that feels so much like a part of Erik that he falters for a moment before he rights himself again and presses forward, ignoring the nearly overwhelming desire to spread himself open for Charles to settle inside, to never leave him. It terrifies him, and yet at the same time he longs for it. He shakes himself, forces his mind to focus on every step, every twig that breaks in his body and his face, the feel of stones and earth shifting under his feet, until those thoughts are buried so deep that even he can't dig them out again. It has to be enough. He doesn't think he could bear it, for Charles to see them, and for him to have to sit through a "Look, Erik" conversation. He'd take any number of bullets over that.

The gateway to the facility approaches and then falls behind him, and after another few metres Erik is inside. People stand frozen to the spot, holding guns, or with their noses buried in files, or mouths open, clearly mid-sentence to each other. Erik calls all weapons away from the soldiers, breaks them up while they’re still flying at him and lets them drop in harmless pieces behind his back.

Someone moves ahead of him, and he raises one of the still-intact semi-automatics in the direction of Stryker, but then Charles sends him a strong //NO// and Stryker's form shifts and Raven's familiar blue skin rushes to the surface.

"They're not far, come on," she says, leading the way to a reinforced lift that takes them three floors underground.

"Charles can still follow you here?" Erik asks, taking note of the sheet after sheet of insulation applied to the walls of the compound when the doors open again.

"Barely, but Emma helps, I think. I'll bet they didn't expect two telepaths to come at them at the same time," Raven replies smugly.

Now that she mentions it, Erik can only just feel the shape of Charles' thoughts in his head, joined by something else that sends out a shattered reflection, which he surmises is Emma. He and Raven run down the corridor, through several automatic doors whose locks short when Erik glares at them, and then they're in a wider hallway with doors leading off both sides.

"They're here," Raven says. Erik notices for the first time how tightly leashed her voice is, brittle with anger and pain, and he barely has time to brace himself before he unlocks the first door and pushes it open.

"Charles, you have to wake them up," he hears Raven say, but it's like the noise is filtering through deep underwater, because when he sees the small shape curled in on herself, arms and legs pulled tightly in like it could protect her, he's quite sure that by the time he leaves this place there will be nothing left to find.

//Erik, calm your mind, my friend,// comes Charles' desperate thought, and Erik becomes aware of how the walls and ceiling are trying to close in over them, drawn by his fury. He breathes in and out deeply, and releases the metal support beams, pushes them back into place.

Just then the figure on the bed moves, uncurls in a snap of limbs and shifts to press her back to the wall, wary black eyes following their every move. She looks Hispanic, with beautiful full lips and high cheekbones that appear sunken because of how gaunt her face is.

"It's okay," Raven says, stretching out a cautious hand. "We've come to get you out."

The girl watches them suspiciously until Erik twitches his fingers and the manacles holding her ankle to the bed frame click open. She starts, but then the suspicion fades from her face.

"I'm Raven," Raven says gently.

"Angel," the girl answers hoarsely, slipping to her feet. "You're here for us? All of us?"

"Yes, all of you. We're here to help," Raven says soothingly, like she’s talking to a spooked animal.

The look on Angel's face shifts from mistrustful to determined. "Finally," she says, grinning a sharp smile so vicious that Erik considers stepping back for a moment. "I knew someone would find out eventually. We can't be the only ones out there."

"You're not," Erik says, unwittingly echoing Charles' words to him from what feels like a lifetime ago. "You're not alone."

Angel cracks her knuckles, and to Erik and Raven's visible shock she whips her white, standard-issue shirt over her head and unhooks the thin strap of her bra from behind her back. Small bruises loom over her ribs, along her sides; Erik feels physically sick when he notices the burn marks that decorate the skin around her beautiful, stunningly intricate tattoo. And then her shoulders shimmer, and the iridescent tattoo comes to life, lifting and spreading into gossamer-thin wings that Angel flexes with a relieved sigh. There’s a neat hole cut out of the left one, around the size of Erik’s fist – the same fist Erik wants to put through a wall at the thought of what had done that, and why.

Angel re-hooks her bra strap in the middle of the wings, where they flow into a ribbed cartilage. "Let's do this thing," she snarls, and fuck yes, they are here for a reason. Let's tear this place to the ground.

There are three other rooms that Erik feels Charles nudge him towards; Erik blasts the locks off all the other doors in the corridor, and the three of them split up. Raven re-emerges bracing a tall boy with skin the colour of mocha, leading him out into the corridor. The boy stands on his own after a moment, testing the strength of his legs. Erik approaches with his own cargo, a ginger boy that looks younger than Raven but probably isn't. Then there's a blast to their left and Erik steps forward, automatically pushing the younger people behind him, bracing himself for an attack -- but the only thing that approaches, like an apparition through the billowing smoke, is Angel and another, taller man not much younger than Erik, who is covering his eyes with a hand and trusting the girl to guide him.

"Angel, what is going on?" the African-American boy asks, throwing Erik and Raven suspicious looks.

"They're here to help," Angel says reassuringly, then turns and points the new additions out one by one. "This is Armando," she says of the latter; the ginger one is Sean, and the confused-looking man is Scott. Raven and Erik introduce themselves; it looks terribly awkward, all of them standing in a circle in the middle of a smoking corridor.

"Have you found Logan yet?" Scott asks, still shielding his eyes.

"You can look now, the smoke is all gone," Raven says kindly.

"It's not that," Armando says, and Scott shakes his head.

"I can't open them. If I do I'm going to blast half of this place to smithereens."

Erik stares at him. "So why haven't you escaped yet?" he asks impatiently.

"Because I can't actually see without blowing things up. I couldn't get any of the others out, and I'm not leaving without..." he trails off, looking embarrassed.

"I'll go get him," Angel promises. "Erik is a metal manipulator," she adds, with the air of a magician pulling a white rabbit out of a hat. For the first time, Scott looks hopeful.

"What does that have to do with anything?" Erik asks, but all of them shake their heads.

"You'll see," Armando says.

Angel beckons him to follow, and with a last glance at the others he leaves Raven to start herding them towards the exit. Angel turns left at the end of the hallway and leads him down a long corridor. He completely loses track of Charles this far underground, and for the brief second that he can spare he admits to himself that he misses his soothing presence.

Then Angel turns again, coming to a dead end barred by several inches of thick steel. She nods at the doors, looking expectant, and Erik tumbles the lock (not without effort), then pushes the wings apart.

And then they're standing in a room straight out of some horror film, thin metal instruments laid carefully in trays all over the counters, like this is an operating theatre prepped for surgery. There is an exceedingly strange contraption in the middle of the room, something like a concrete bath with a vat of metal bubbling hellishly behind it. And on the other side of the room...

Erik’s teeth clench painfully; he hears dimly all the free-standing metal in the room clattering to the floor as he sends it vibrating with his fury. At his side he sees Angel, pale but determined, grab a huge mallet from the display on the wall, and follows her lead. Together they smash in the glass tank bolted to the wall; the greenish liquid inside drains immediately through whatever cracks they make into the reinforced glass. Erik helps by yanking on the metal supports, tearing the tank from inside out.

"Careful," Angel yelps, throwing an arm across Erik's chest like that would stop him. "Make sure it's just the case you're targeting."

Erik is about to ask her what the hell she means when the man behind the glass snaps his head up, eyes flicking open and focusing on Erik with murder etched in their depths. The impression is only a little spoiled by the choking cough that expels whatever that liquid was out of the man’s lungs.

"Hey, Logan, it's okay. This is Erik. He's here to help. They've come for us," she says, and the hope in her voice makes Erik's chest clench tightly. It's just four words, but there's volumes of meaning packed inside -- hopelessness, resignation, desperate wishing, and suddenly, inexplicably, someone come to help at last.

Again Erik goes to snap the metal bands that hold Logan's arms contorted unnaturally, fists pointing towards his shoulders, and again Angel tenses, like she knows something he doesn't. Okay, so it's obviously to do with metal; Erik focuses... and actually takes a step back in shock.

"What the fuck?"

"Are you gonna help me out or what?" Logan rasps now that he’s finished coughing, flexing his arms uselessly. Beneath his skin, grafted onto his bones, the adamantium shifts to follow his every movement.

Erik targets the common metal much more carefully this time, snapping the manacles at his wrists and ankles in two.

"Thanks," Logan says dismissively, stepping carefully over the broken glass and onto the floor. He sways, but when Erik goes to hold him up, the guy levels such a glare at him that Erik automatically steps back.

"You all right?" Logan asks Angel once he’s propped himself up on the counter by the tank, and she nods.

"Everyone else is out, you're the last one. We just have to get Hank and Dr MacTaggert."

Erik frowns. "Charles said there were only five of you kept under light sedation."

"Who the fuck's Charles?" Logan demands, but before Erik can snap back Angel is shaking her head and beckoning them towards the exit.

"We don't have time for this. We have to move. Whatever your friend did, it cancelled out the sedatives they gave us three hours ago, so this is our chance. I'll go get the others."

Erik grits his teeth. "You have to tell me who they are so Charles can unfreeze them," he says reluctantly.

But it seems the other group is already on it, because as they emerge from the elevator up above there are a man and a woman in white lab coats running towards them, and only Angel's quick reactions stop Erik from putting a few holes in them with a slumped guard's Browning.

"Wait!" she yelps even as the two people freeze in their tracks. "They're with us."

"They work here," Erik growls, more than ready to mete out some retribution.

"They helped us as much as they could. And Hank is one of us," she insists.

Under Erik's furious glare, Hank is quick to kick off his shoes and display a pair of extremely impressive feet, opposable toes and all.

"What about her?" Erik asks, switching his aim to the slight dark-haired woman with the worried expression.

"She's been sabotaging their research from the inside," Logan says grudgingly, and he and the woman share a loaded look. Erik sees her wince, but she remains tall and sure, looking him right in the eye, calmly expecting him to judge her. Erik gives her points for having a pair of balls bigger than those of most of the men all around him, at least.

"Okay, now can we go?" he snarks, feeling Charles' urgency inside his mind.

//Hurry, Erik. We can't hold them much longer, there are too many.//

Erik leads the way out into the open, where the rest of the group is waiting. Charles, Emma and Alex have slunk closer, and now stand with the others. Alex looks paler than Erik has ever seen him, and he can't take his eyes off the guy with the laser gaze.

"Alex? You all right?" Erik asks, taking a few more steps towards him.

Alex looks up at him helplessly, lips pressed tightly together. "I will be," he says.

Scott's head lifts and turns towards Alex, but then Logan is closing in on him, saying something quiet and indistinct, and all of Scott's attention switches to him so completely that it's palpable.

Erik's about to suggest they head back towards the minivan when he looks around properly for the first time. Charles is talking to Armando, fingers still at his temple, and Emma and Raven are conferring quietly in one corner, and there's seven people joining their crew, two more than there are seats for in the minivan.

"We're never going to fit," he mutters to himself. How is he going to get all these people away from this place?

A moment later he becomes aware of someone hovering beside him, and he turns his head to face the scientist, Hank. "Yes?"

"I--I might be able to help with that," Hank stutters, wilting a little under Erik's frown.

Ten minutes later Erik's frown melts into a smile of grim appreciation as he looks up at the sleek black jet housed in one of the hangars away from the main building.

"Can you fly this thing?" Erik asks, calculating how much faster they can make their escape in a machine like this.

"Of course," Hank says simply. "I designed it."

Erik rounds up everyone, leaving Raven in charge of getting them inside. Alex stays behind; so does Scott, at Raven's request -- and so does Logan. Erik's getting the feeling that where one goes, the other follows.

"We are going to march out everyone that is still inside," Charles reports, voice tight. "Then Emma and I are going to wipe their memories of their research and everything to do with mutants. And then Scott and Alex are going to blow this place up."

"We shouldn't leave them alive," Erik says darkly. "Not after what they've done."

Logan looks inclined to agree; Erik cannot even imagine what these people must have put him through.

"No!" a voice comes from behind them, and he sees Dr MacTaggert lingering close by. "They're just scientists!'

"And they tortured these kids for their own gain," Erik says forcefully. "And what about the soldiers who kept them prisoners? How many more people went in there and were never heard of again?"

"Erik, no," Charles pleads. "We can't just kill everyone. This isn't the way! Emma and myself are taking all their memories. Every sign of their research will be destroyed. Is that not enough?"

Erik looks at Charles, and doesn't know whether to be disgusted or unsurprised. Charles has never struck him as someone who could take drastic measures to ensure their safety. But Charles is also right -- a bunch of bodies would be even more suspicious than thirty-odd people wondering confusedly through the forest with no memory of what they're doing there. And as long as the facility is completely obliterated--

"Fine," Erik grunts. "Alex? What do you think? Can you take the whole thing out from here?"

But Alex is paying zero attention to Erik. Instead, he is standing in front of Scott, hand clenched tightly on Scott's arm.

"Alex?" Erik prompts, only to be ignored yet again.

"Is that really you?" Scott asks, forces the words out like they're painful, like he might fall apart any moment just from saying them. Logan, even though he’s still wet and shivering in the cool air, is plastered to Scott's side, looking like he wishes he could do something to take away whatever is making Scott sound like that.

"It is, Scotty," Alex says hoarsely.

"Alex!" Erik barks. They don't have time for this right now, whatever is going on between the two men.

Alex jumps, but Erik notices he hasn't let go of Scott's arm.

"We have to go. Can you do it from here or not?"

Behind them, people start shuffling out of the compound, zombie-like. Charles and Emma are glaring at them, strain written all over both of them as they fight to finish their job quickly.

"That won't be necessary," Dr MacTaggert says calmly. She withdraws something from her pocket that looks an awful lot like a remote control, with some kind of dial on one end and numbers on the other. It's small and sleek, chrome surface reflecting the dim light of the cloudy day.

"Is that what I think it is?" Erik asks.

"If you're thinking it's a remote detonator, then yes. It is."

"Hot damn," Logan says, looking impressed.

"Will that take out the whole building?" Erik demands.

"It's connected to C4 built into the bottom two floors. It will bring the whole structure down on top of itself. It was meant to be a self-destruct mechanism in case of infiltration – well, I guess it will serve its purpose today." Dr MacTaggert's fingers linger on top of the dial. "Say the word, Charles."

Charles looks around, eyes dazed and far-away. "Stryker isn't on the premises," he says, concern colouring his voice.

Dr MacTaggert's mouth twists, lips thinning. "No, he's in DC today."

"Damn!" This is a setback Erik hasn't considered. "Well, we'll have to work with what we have. Charles, where are you and Emma at?"

"Just finishing now," Charles says, sounding tense and exhausted. Erik is going to have to insist on him sleeping again on the way to--

Fuck.

"Where are we actually going from here?"

"Home," Charles says, taking his hand away from his temple at last. "We're going home." He nods to Dr MacTaggert.

She twists the dial, and a deep rumble shakes the ground under their feet. Within moments the compound is collapsing onto itself, taking some of the surrounding area with it. By the time the dust settles and there is a group of people peering at the destruction with a confused look in their eyes, a single black airplane is getting smaller and smaller in the distance, entirely unnoticed.

---

Erik is somewhat taken aback by the mansion they land outside. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, enormous. He climbs out of the jet along with the others, and they stand there in a small huddle and stare up at it for a long moment.

"Damn," Armando says while the rest of them blink at the property.

Charles looks a strange mixture of sheepish and proud, and something else, something not so easily identified, small and quickly hidden away as Erik looks on. Erik watches him closely, but Charles’ face smoothes over and now there’s nothing to be found in it but satisfaction. Raven at his side is a little easier to read, and again there’s that something in her eyes... Erik wonders what must have happened in this house to make them both so ambivalent about coming home.

“All this is yours?” Alex asks with his usual lack of tact.

“No,” Charles says, and now there’s finally warmth infusing his voice again. “It’s ours.”

“Time for the tour,” Raven says, smacks a kiss onto Charles’ cheek in passing and leads the way inside, trailed by everyone but Charles and Erik himself. Erik knows that he’ll spend much of the late evening and the night prowling through the place anyway, marking out exits and choke points and outlining a defensive strategy in his head. And probably making lists of recommendations for strengthening the mansion’s security, too, although he doesn’t know if Charles will want to carry out any of those.

Charles is quiet beside him, face slipping back into a pensive expression now that their audience is gone.

“How long has it been since you were last back?” Erik asks.

Charles takes a deep breath through the nose, and Erik watches recognition replace the far-away look in his eyes. “Almost ten years. Once I moved to Oxford and knew what I was missing—well, it was hard even thinking about leaving again.”

“What about Raven? When did she come to live with you?”

“Oh, she came along pretty early on.” He pauses, looking thoughtful. Erik waits him out patiently, something he’s become pretty good at after years of honing his skills on reluctant witnesses.

Charles sighs and looks at him ruefully. “We weren’t exactly welcome here, not after my mother remarried. Raven and I figured we’d take our chances together.”

“And now?”

Charles shrugs. “And now they’re both dead, and we have other people to care for. This can become a home for them, for all of us, in a way that it never was before.”

Erik watches Charles look away from him, back at the house, and he can spot it now, the reluctance, yet still the hope.

“It would be great if you would help us,” Charles says, startling Erik. He’s trying for nonchalance, but it’s not working, or else Erik has somehow learned to read him a lot better than he expected. “You know so much about defending and securing a place, and we’ll need to make sure that the house is up to scratch. It’s been some time since anyone has lived here.”

Erik gives that some thought. Stay here? What would he do? Look after the kids, help them adjust, keep them safe; maybe even help them train, teach them? To his surprise, it’s not at all a disagreeable thought, doing this for the rest of his life.

And that’s before he even takes Charles into account. Charles with his boundless capacity for compassion, the way he cares at people, the way he stretches himself too thin making sure the others are all well, happy, content, without sparing a thought for himself. The way he’s obviously choosing to put his promising career on hold to make sure the others get all the help they need. The way he could still be so naive despite everything he must know about human nature – or, rather, that he chooses to believe that people can be better than themselves. Because Erik isn’t an idiot – he could not imagine what Charles has seen throughout his life, and to still be this amazing, caring, kind man—it's beyond Erik. Even before all that has happened this week, the policeman in Erik is all too aware of the darkness in the world.

And yet Charles stands there, trying to look unbothered, like he isn’t hanging on Erik’s answer. Every thought, every impulse of the past few days snaps into focus, and for a moment Erik can’t breathe for what Charles is offering him – a place to belong, to be himself without having to hide, to spend his life amongst people of his kind; to spend his life with Charles at his side.

And of course he knows that there’s nothing concrete between him and Charles, apart from his own feelings that are sometimes too intense to put into words, that frighten him with how much he wants them returned. Charles has given no indication that he does, beyond his clear interest the first time they met, what seems months ago but is only five-odd days; and Erik has been around the block enough times to know that checking someone out in a bar is worlds away from choosing to share your life with them.

He’s let the silence stretch too long.

“Of course you’re under no obligation to remain; I know you have a life back in Germany. But I would appreciate the help for as long as you can give it, and I will be happy to offer you anything you need in return.”

A life back in Germany. His mother. A house with its windows shattered by bullets, no longer safe; misappropriating evidence and going off on his own with his junior officer; stealing out of Germany in the middle of the night, and into a country halfway across the world without a scrap of paperwork; a case that he has no idea how he’s going to close, if they even let him back into his department. His life lies spread out before him, and Erik has no idea where or how to pick it up again.

Of one thing only he is completely sure – he can’t leave his mother behind. He won’t.

But then again, his mother is safe for the time being, and he can’t walk away from this just yet. Hadn’t he started on this path searching for answers, for someone to help him understand and develop his abilities? Charles is offering him just that.

And even if it’s only this that Charles is offering, it’s still not something Erik can pass on, the chance to spend time with Charles on an equal footing, to see whether this thing that seems to be shimmering between them can crystallise, or if it will fade away.

“Okay,” he says, smiling tentatively. “I’ll stay, at least for a while. But I can’t promise anything.” He presses his lips together, but makes himself force it out. He can trust Charles, if nothing else. “When I told you that my mother is Edie Lehnsherr, you didn’t seem surprised. You saw her in my head when you looked that first time, didn’t you?”

Charles winces imperceptibly. “Edie? Yes, I did. I mean, we have never officially met, but when you mentioned her name I put the pieces together.”

“How much did you see about what happened to us, before I came looking for you?

“Not much. There was—the attack you told us about? By Shaw’s men? And she showed you her wood manipulation abilities?”

Erik nods. "I know you've been corresponding ever since that European Society of Human Genetics conference when she came to hear your lecture on mutations and decided to write to you, but she only told me about it after we were attacked."

"She didn't want you to look at her differently, Erik. She was afraid that if you knew about what she could do, you might—"

Erik scowls, and Charles shakes his head quickly. "No, she knows you love her. She was just—people do stupid things when they're afraid of losing the ones they love, my friend. I’m sure you know something of the way she felt."

Erik sighs, remembering the blinding fear that had burned through him at the thought of his mother turning away from him, back in the bullet-ridden kitchen of her house. “I hate that she thought she had to hide from me all those years.”

Charles nods, a vague sadness coming off him in waves. "You can't change the past. But you can make the future better for her, for all of us."

Erik smiles at him, strangely comforted and even more determined to make sure that no one will have to hide like his mother, not again.

---

That night Erik does indeed prowl through the property, walking down passage after passage, mapping out the layout, checking every room he walks inside first for metal and then for weak points that can and should be reinforced.

At one point he runs into Logan, who growls in surprise and snaps out foot-long, vicious-looking metal claws from his knuckles, falling into a defensive crouch before he realises who it is. When he does, he grunts and re-sheathes them with a disgusted look on his face. Looks like Logan is doing much the same thing as Erik; Erik recognises that look in his eyes, has seen it enough times during his army days to know that he’s looking at another soldier. They pass each other in the hallway, keeping sights on each other until they turn the opposite corners.

Some time later, when he slips inside one of the seemingly hundreds of rooms on the ground floor, he’s stopped in his tracks by the sight of Emma, sitting in a plush armchair turned to face the darkened window with her feet tucked under her, staring out into the night. There’s a half-full bottle of Dalwhinnie on the small table to the side, and she’s cradling a tumbler with an inch or so of liquid in it in her lap. She’s changed out of the stiff tailored clothes she’s worn so far, and into a pair of white sweatpants and shirt with the Dartmouth logo on the front. Her eyes are ever-so-slightly pink-rimmed when she turns her head and raises an immaculately groomed eyebrow in his direction, daring him to comment. Erik doesn’t make that mistake; he merely nods to her and leaves her to it.

Later still, the house has gone quiet at last, hours after a make-shift meal from whatever tins there had been in the larder (he lives in a house that has its own larder now; he can barely fathom it). The kids had been exhausted, especially the ones he and Raven had pulled out of the locked rooms. Dr MacTaggert (“Call me Moira”) had quietly checked each and every one of them over, together with Hank. Charles had run himself and Raven ragged making up rooms for everyone, getting them aired out and supplying them with clean sheets and blankets and pillows. Erik’s own room is down a corridor on the third floor, not far from Charles’. He tries not to think too hard about what that might mean.

Erik’s thinking about rounding off his tour already, continuing in the morning. He’s exhausted; it’s been a long few days for everyone, and he’s had his fill of worrying and focusing and generally being on high alert. Now that things seem to have settled down, at least for tonight, he can feel the adrenaline crash approaching like a freight train, and knows it’s going to hit him hard and vicious sometime in the next hour. Just one more room to check, near the foot of the stairs that lead up to his bedroom.

He pushes the door open, surprised to see bookcases lining all the walls, only breaking for the windows on the other end of the room. The light is dim but warm, bathing the expensive furniture in a honeyed glow. Someone’s obviously been here—and still is, Erik realises when he looks around and spots Charles’ familiar shape sprawled on the leather sofa, with paperwork strewn across the low table in front of it and an arm thrown over his eyes. He looks like he’s sleeping, chest rising and falling steadily, other arm hanging limp, his usually nimble fingers trailing towards the floor. Erik smiles softly and turns to leave, thinking to check this room out tomorrow so he doesn’t disturb Charles’ rest (although he would certainly sleep better in a proper bed).

And then he has to push thoughts of Charles, stripped of his shirts and trousers and cardigans, pale skin shining in the dim light under crisp, freshly-laundered cotton sheets, far, far away from the front of his mind. Just as he’s about to slip out of the door again, Charles’ soft, drowsy rumble reaches him and pulls him up short.

“No, don’t leave, Erik,” he says, and when Erik looks back, Charles has lifted his arm off his face and is rubbing sleepily at his eyes. “I was just about to pack it in for tonight as well.”

Erik wants to close his eyes and shake his head at himself when he finds the display equal parts alluring and adorable. God, why is this happening to him?

“How was your surveillance?” Charles asks, sounding irrepressibly fond.

“Good enough,” Erik allows. “There’s a few ground floor rooms that could use reinforcement. I’ll talk to you about it tomorrow.”

“All right.”

“Met Logan while I was at it. Looked like he was doing the same thing.”

Charles hums. “Not one but two security experts; well, that’s a more than welcome happenstance.”

Erik’s stomach twists a little, but he squashes it ruthlessly. It’ll be good for Charles to have someone else with Erik’s skills around when Erik leaves, so he should be pleased he’s not the only one who can do the job. Why it makes him feel bereft is beyond him.

Charles stands and stretches his arms up towards the ceiling, twisting his back a little, giving that little shudder that means he’s tensed and relaxed every muscle in his body simultaneously. Erik feels his mouth water as his eyes follow the long line of Charles’ body even underneath the shapeless cardigan he’d donned. There’s a sliver of skin exposed by his loose t-shirt riding up, and the jolt of electricity Erik feels is enough to have him at half-mast just from that sight alone. He doesn’t look away fast enough when Charles drops his arms and turns to face him, and he feels his face flush a little when Charles meets his gaze with eyebrows lifted in question.

“I’m off to bed,” he says, a cowardly excuse if there ever was one, but he’s exhausted and his barriers appear to be gone down altogether if just the tantalising hint of bare skin can leave him straining against the flap of his trousers.

“All right,” Charles says mildly, though he doesn’t take his pensive eyes off Erik. “Sleep well, my friend.”

A wave of warmth and fondness flows over him, and he realises that Charles must be more tired than he appears if he’s projecting like this.

“You should, too,” Erik says, unwilling to leave it there.

“I will,” Charles replies wearily, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “As soon as I’ve made sure everyone is settled, and all the doors and windows are locked, and figure out what we’re going to do for breakfast tomorrow morning—“

“Charles.”

Charles stops, looking at Erik enquiringly.

“I shan’t presume to tell you what to do or not do in your own house, but you are obviously exhausted. No one’s come looking for you, and I’ll bet that you’ll be able to feel it just fine if anyone’s having problems. I’ve checked all the doors and windows downstairs already, and I seem to remember seeing flour and yeast in the pantry, so we’ll bake something for breakfast. Go to bed.”

Charles stares at him like he’s grown a second head, but Erik stands there and doesn’t move. Charles needs rest, and if he’s too daft to take care of himself, well, Erik is going to have to do it for him.

“I’m not a bloody child,” Charles protests, but if he’d meant to reassure or reproach Erik, it backfires spectacularly when he yawns and sways a little before he’s even finished speaking.

“So don’t act like one. Come on. Bed.”

“I won’t argue that it doesn’t sound good, because god, does it ever, but there just seems to be so much to do…”

“And we’ll do it. Tomorrow’s another day, if you haven’t noticed. And—“ Erik hesitates, but he’s made his decision now. No reason to be ambivalent about where he stands. “You don’t have to do it alone. We’ll all help.”

The smile Charles gives him is brilliant, so much so that it lights up the entire room.

“All right. Bed it is.”

And of course it’s now that Charles has agreed that Erik starts to feel self-conscious about ordering him around in his own house, and walking up the stairs with him, like they’re headed for the same place even if their rooms are on opposite sides of the corridor. It’s strange, and not entirely comfortable, not with the way his skin is still humming with awareness under his clothes, and the way Charles’ proximity seems to set off some kind of signal inside him that wants to follow this man through the door of his bedroom, press him down onto the bed, kiss him and kiss him until neither of them can breathe – or worse, tuck him into bed, make sure his own windows are locked, pull the blanket up to his chin and press a kiss to his forehead in parting.

It’s driving him insane. By the time he closes his own bedroom door, leans his back on it and bows his head, Charles’ soft “Good night” ringing faintly in his ears, he has no idea how he’s going to survive this without forgetting himself and jumping Charles. He takes off his clothes, stifling a groan in relief when he finally unzips his trousers and relieves the pressure on his cock, so much harder than it should be after merely a touch of Charles’ hand, a murmured word. He feels like some dirty old man, hogging those favours like treasures to take out and gloat over at night.

Still, when he’s in the shower, hand wrapped snugly around his length, squeezing and rubbing just so, it’s Charles’ eyes he sees, Charles’ lips he thinks about, the small of Charles’ back he kisses, Charles’ ass that his phantom fingers dip into, Charles’ shattered moans that he feels in his mouth as he comes.

This is unacceptable, but he’ll be damned if he knows what to do about it.

---

Time passes. Erik wakes up one morning to discover that he's used up his last clean pair of underwear, and sets forth on a mission to the laundry room, where he finds a befuddled Sean staring at the washing machine in honest confusion.

"Is it supposed to be sounding like this?" Sean asks the air as the machine makes a good-natured effort to impersonate a tigress in heat.

"Definitely not," Erik says decisively, attempting to glare it into submission. When that doesn't help, he regretfully wakes up the rest of the way and concentrates, unpinning the wayward sock from one of the machine's tumblers. It immediately ceases to make the tortured sound that had Sean clamping his hands over his ears.

"Right. Next time call one of us to show you how to use it properly, yes?" Erik admonishes.

"Still better than Alex trying to light the living room fireplace," Sean mutters mutinously.

Oh dear god, Erik thinks to himself, leaving his laundry for after Sean's clothes have come out of the machine mostly whole, and heading in the direction of whatever disaster awaits him in the living room.

And so it goes. Going into the nearby town is easy, and preferable to Charles' attempts at cooking, having lived here surrounded by servants (Erik gathers), or at university for most of his life, where living on take-out was easy -- nay, preferable to cooking by himself. Still, the deserted house continues to bother Erik in a way he can't quite articulate. There's something bleak about it, dark in a way that even eleven people of assorted ages can't quite overcome. The kids seem to settle easily enough, but Charles and Raven always appear to be on their heels, ready to run if needs be. Sometimes Erik wishes he knew what went on in this house, before.

Sometimes he wishes he never has to find out.

Charles is unsurprisingly generous with his time, be it helping the kids improve, or working with Hank to fashion fairly crude but undeniably efficient deflecting glasses for Scott, so he could see and move about by himself without fear of what he would do to those around him. Alex, once he explains that Scott is the brother with whom he was sent to the States after their parents' deaths, at which point they were separated when their aunt couldn't look after both of them, is normally seen no more than a step or two behind him, to Logan's visible frustration. Not for the first time Erik wonders what the deal is between those two, since all they seem to do is bicker and bait each other incessantly; but he's in no position to judge them, and no one else seems to care, so he tries not to think about it too much.

Especially not when that tends to lead to questions he's not yet ready to consider, whose answers are just too important for idle musings.

Angel seems to take a particular shine to him, although he can’t imagine why. Even after she learns he's a policeman, she doesn't pull away like he expects her to. Instead, they spend many an evening talking about legal issues and policies and jurisdiction, and eventually she relaxes enough around him to confess that she was hoping to attend law school before the masked men came to her workplace and marched her out like some kind of terrorist. Erik understands, of course he does -- it wasn't too long ago that his mother's people were treated in much the same way.

Raven is often present for those conversations, and so is Emma. The three women usually sit together, leaning comfortably against each other as the spirited debates go on well into the night. Moira tries to join them occasionally, but the atmosphere inevitably turns charged, no matter how much she tries. In the end, she chooses to spend the hours Erik spends with the girls with Charles and Hank instead. Erik isn't bitter that Charles never joins them. Not at all.

About a week and a half into the change in his living arrangements Erik drives into town, calls his precinct and puts in a request for another two weeks of leave. His Captain grumbles, but she can't say no to him considering his impeccable personnel records, and it is granted. Erik replaces the receiver and wonders if he's done the right thing, if it would not be better to just go back now and save himself the bitter separation he can feel coming at him like a speeding car.

And then, one evening not long after that particularly unsettling thought, Erik seeks Charles out to ask him something innocuous about next day's training schedule -- and for all he thinks he knows Charles' routine by now, he can't find him anywhere. Hank, whom Erik thought Charles spent all his free time with, tells him absent-mindedly that he hasn't seen Charles in two days. Alex tells him he and Scott saw the Professor -- as all the kids have taken to calling him lately -- that afternoon for an extra session in the fire-proof bunker, but not since. Raven rouses herself out of a rather cosy-looking chat with Emma to tell him that no, she has no idea where her brother is.

As a last resort, Erik swallows his instinctive dislike and goes to find Moira, only to discover her deep in conversation with Armando, of all people.

"No, Lehnsherr, I haven't seen Charles since lunchtime," she says flatly -- the impression of raised hackles is rather mutual.

And so Erik is on his own again, Charles-less, back to square one.

And then he remembers the one place where he knows for a fact that Charles likes to hole up when the world is becoming a bit too much. The doors to the study are heavy, just like Erik remembers from that one night when he had been allowed inside Charles’ inner sanctum. He knocks before he pushes his way in – it’s only polite. But as it happens, he’s not required to, because there’s no one inside, either. Damn it, has he lost Charles now? Where could the man be?

He walks inside anyway, seduced by the smell of books and leather and ink, the library a spot he gravitates to naturally but hasn’t dared invade for fear of overstepping boundaries. The room is vast, every wall lined with bookcases, but for all that there is a veritable cave of knowledge here, it feels strangely empty without Charles’ distinctive presence, and Erik finds himself loathe to linger on his own.

Before he goes, though, perhaps... He steps towards the bookshelves, helpless to resist, not when he spots Erich Kästner’s Das Doppelte Lottchen nestled in between the more venerable-looking volumes, in the original German. He can practically hear his mother reading it to him while he lay in bed under the covers, small and secreted away and safe with her by his side. It had been Lottie and Lisa, and Emil from Emil und die Detektive who had been his childhood friends, much more so than the kids next door, and seeing Das Doppelte Lottchen here, in this house where no one would have ever guessed young children had grown up, cold and austere as it is – it makes something inside him quicken, makes unwelcome tears prickle behind his eyelids, and suddenly he misses his mother so viscerally, so desperately he almost can’t draw breath.

He takes out the slim volume from between the hefty books on either side, opens the pages reverently, reads the familiar words and wants nothing more in the world than to call his mother and make sure she’s safe.

A small sound behind him startles him, and he whirls to find Charles’ eyes on him, looking more tired than Erik has perhaps ever seen them.

“Of course you should call her, my friend,” Charles says kindly, and slightly apologetically. “Sorry. I didn’t know it was you before I took a peek inside.” He taps two fingers to his temple. Strangely, Erik no longer finds the prospect of Charles wandering inside his head abhorrent, or repulsive, or unwelcome, but he isn’t going to tell Charles that -- he’s made himself vulnerable enough as it is. And he’s quite certain that Charles doesn’t really want anything this intimate – why else would he have been avoiding Erik so very thoroughly the past three weeks? Erik has barely seen him for twenty minutes together each day; every time Erik enters a room, Charles finds some excuse to leave, looking flushed and unsettled. The message couldn’t be more clear. Erik privately ruminates that Charles must have seen those feelings Erik had so desperately tried to hide, and wanted no part of it.

Erik’s played his role here, anyway. He should think about moving on again. Charles has Logan now, and Scott, and let’s face it, Raven and Emma and Moira and, yes, Alex, too. Erik isn’t blind. Just very, very good at seeing only what he wants to. Well, it’s time he put paid to that unhelpful habit. He’d probably overstepped Charles’ boundaries beyond repair, when he had treated him like a child that first night in the house (like someone precious, someone to be cared for, protected), when Charles had very likely wanted nothing of the sort. Yes, perhaps it’s time he went on his way.

Charles crosses the endless sea of carpet between the doorway and the desk, unearthing an ancient telephone console from under the pile of papers taking up every available surface.

“The bill has been paid, we have a landline again. Take as much time as you need.”

Charles seems sad when he speaks, and Erik can’t for the life of him work out why on earth he should be. Things are settling down; before long everyone in the house should be getting back to their lives, maybe going back to school, maybe getting a job, now that they have a network of support behind them. And then Charles can go back to his research, to helping save the world, and put this interlude behind him.

“Thank you,” Erik murmurs, touching Charles’ arm as he walks past him, daring to squeeze a little, feel the skin and muscles shift beneath his hand. It’s folly, more than unhelpful, prickling his skin with need for something he can’t have. He should really stop doing that. Charles just nods, though, smiling warmly, and leaves the room to give Erik some privacy.

Erik dials the number from memory, lifting his head in time to see Charles slip out of the door, closing it behind him. He contemplates the slumped line of Charles’ shoulders morosely until his aunt’s familiar accented voice answers on the other side.

“Aunt Anna? This is Erik,” he says, smiling at her warm greeting before asking, “Is Mother there? I’d like to speak to her.”

And then his mother's voice is there in his ear again, his mind, his thoughts, and for a long moment all Erik wants is to curl up in a ball and whimper with how much he's missed her.

"Liebling, are you safe?"

"Yes, Mamma. I am."

"Did you find Charles?"

"Yes," he says hesitantly. "I found him. He has been of amazing help. I..." he wonders even now whether it's safe to tell her where they are -- and then decides not to, because he's a paranoid bastard but god knows he's had good reason. "Alex and I are with him now. But I'm going to come and get you very soon."

Edie sighs on the other side of the world, clearly relieved. "I'm so happy," she says haltingly. "You do not need to rush. I am safe, and quite content here with your aunt. You stay there as long as you need to."

It's everything Erik had wanted to hear, but it tastes like ashes in his mouth when he thinks of Charles' avoidance, of Charles' eyes sliding away from his own, of Charles fleeing when Erik appears; of the one stilted, eventually aborted chess game they played the night after Erik had cocked things up irreparably, it seems. In light of the ease with which they’d worked together when they’d needed to, hardly requiring to talk at all to know what the other was thinking, the instinctive trust that they would have each other’s back-- this awful polite coexistence rubs Erik raw in the worst kind of way, makes him feel desperate for a glimpse of the other Charles, the one who used to seamlessly fit under Erik’s shields and open himself to Erik in return.

"It's time I came home," Erik says at length. Sure, it'll take him a little while, and there's still leaving the country to be accomplished, for which he will have to ask for Charles' help again, but within the week Erik thinks he should be ready to go. "I'll put the house in order. You take all the time you need, though. There's no need for you to rush, either."

"All right, Liebling. If you're sure. How are you getting on with Charles?"

"I--" am in love with him, and he'd rather I wasn't here. "Well enough, I suppose. I daresay he'll be pleased to get me out of his hair, mind. He has so many other things to focus on."

"Oh," Edie says, and she sounds taken aback, but she takes Erik's word for it without argument. "Okay, well. Take care of yourself, my love. I'll see you soon."

Erik's putting down the phone when Charles comes inside the room again, and for a long, paranoia-filled moment Erik wonders whether he's been eavesdropping, and what he might have heard. Charles flinches ever-so-slightly, and Erik feels like a heel.

"Edie's okay, then?" Charles asks.

“She is, thank god, although I think your letters will have to wait to resume until after she’s back at home.”

“I assumed as much.” A moment of uncomfortable silence stretches between them; there’s still that strangely sad, resigned look on his face when he adds, "So. You are leaving, then."

Erik looks away; he can't stand to look at Charles right now, to see what he can't have. "Yes. I think it's time. Besides, you have everyone else here, and you're doing a wonderful job with the kids. You don't need--I mean. I think it's time I went on my way."

Charles suddenly looks inexplicably, thoroughly furious. "What, are you going to tell me what I do and don't need now? Are you going to presume you know what's best for me too, Erik? I've lived this long on my own; I don't need anyone to tell me what I'm feeling now, like I don’t know my own mind -- me! You, you stand there and you tell me it's for my own good, while last night you spent yourself over the sheets to thoughts of me, of what you want to do to me, of what you want me to do to you. Well, fuck you, Erik Lehnsherr. I tried, all right? I tried to make this place a home for you; and I know it’s a horrible old house, and I know it’s not enough, and you probably hate it here, not that you don’t have the right, even I hate it here, but I did my best, okay? What, you think I enjoy avoiding you? You, with your self-righteousness and your denial of every single thing you feel, the way you push me away at every corner -- you've made it perfectly clear that you want nothing to do with this place or me, a fleeting sexual attraction notwithstanding."

Erik stands there, completely blindsided by this outburst of bottled-up emotion, and he does not for the life of him know what to do with all this, all those mistakes on both his part and Charles', all the misunderstandings, all the hurt buried deep in Charles' voice, that Erik put there; and he wants to hit himself for succeeding only too well when he should have never tried to distance himself in the first place, and he wants to hit Charles for being too considerate of what he thought Erik wanted and never setting him straight, and he wants to kiss him and never stop. That Charles thinks--that he could think that Erik didn't want him, all of him, every single part that makes Erik curse and laugh and feel so impossibly tender towards this strange, compelling, ridiculous man – it’s unbearable.

He can't put any of that into words, and he does not want any more misunderstandings, thank you very much. He might have to leave eventually, but not right now. Not this minute. Not for another week at least. He stalks towards Charles, who turns from glowering to apprehensive and back again, but stands his ground and makes no move to stop Erik from doing what he intends. Erik reaches down to take Charles’ hand, lifts his index and middle fingers to Erik's temple, closes his eyes and sends Charles a horribly complicated tangle of emotions, a knot of needwantloveyearningdespair, images of Charles leaving the room and opening a yawning pit at the bottom of Erik's stomach, of quite a bit of hurt stored up until Erik didn't think he could take one more rejection, of desperate fumbling in the night and guilt and want and an ache that has no quenching.

And Charles stares at him, mouth falling open, eyes widening until Erik's drowning in all that blue, until he never wants to surface.

"I do have to leave," Erik says, sending through regretunhappinessdeterminationmother. "But I'm not leaving you. I had hoped that, perhaps we--that is, me and my mother, we might come and live nearby, I mean, I wouldn't want to impose, but I would have liked to--" spendmylifeclosetoyou "--maybe keep in touch. I never wanted to force any of those feelings on you, I didn’t think--you probably don't return them, I didn't know how else to not make you uncomfortable--"

"And it didn't occur to you to talk to me? --I mean, all right, I know it's you I'm talking to, but Erik, for god's sake, there was never any need for all of this, don't you see?"

And then Erik is bathed in warmth, love, a fierce affection that buoys him through all the hopelessness he's been drowning in recently. And Charles is leaning forward, and their lips touch together, and Erik surprises himself by wanting to cry a little with all the feelings beating down his walls, of how much he wants, has wanted, will always want this man.

Charles presses closer with a sob, dragging his fingers away from Erik's temple and burying them in his hair, tugging his head closer, opening his mouth and inviting Erik in, and Erik honestly never thought he'd ever get to feel this way, that anyone would be able to scatter and make him whole again at the same time; that he'd ever want to hold on to a single person like this, the way he desperately wants to keep hold of Charles.

He groans into Charles' mouth, and suddenly there's the desk behind Charles, and Erik boosts him up onto it and presses in; dimly he hears a godawful clatter and realises he's swept the surface of said desk clean, and Charles is laughing and lying back and tugging him closer, and he's never felt more complete in his life than he feels right now, with Charles' mouth on his, Charles' hands on his shoulders and in his hair and clutching at his ass and pulling him in over Charles' body.

//Erik, Erik,// Charles says over and over again in his mind, insistent and surprised and desperate, //god, please//, and there are hands sliding under his turtleneck where it's riding up from his trousers, and trailing sure fingers up his spine, and clenching down until he feels nails digging into his skin; and he's opening Charles' shirt, and bending lower to suck a string of biting kisses along Charles' neck and shoulders and clavicle, and Charles' legs wind around his hips and Charles arches up, and their hard lengths rub together, and Erik honestly does not have the faintest clue what is up and what is down anymore. Charles' skin is soft and pale under his hands, his body toned from weeks of daily runs and training with the kids, his mouth and hands and cock insistent where they press along Erik, claiming him in every way possible.

Erik can't quite keep it all in, not when he's wanted this for what feels like months, since the first time he laid eyes on Charles in that Oxford pub, a cheeky, gorgeous, refined young man with long fingers and bitten red lips and floppy hair and blue eyes that had seemed to bore inside Erik's soul and read all his secrets (not an erroneous assumption, as it turned out). And here he is now, under Erik's hands, and Erik is not gentle when he tears at Charles' belt and zip and buttons and everything that keeps Charles apart from him.

The first touch of his hand on Charles' cock sends Charles arching into Erik's body, hips trying to burrow him further inside Erik's grasp.

"Fuck," Charles groans when Erik curls his fingers tightly around him, "fuck, Erik, yes."

He tugs Erik's head down until he's kissing him again, deep and helpless and demanding. Erik takes his time learning the weight of Charles' cock lying across his palm, how pre-come dribbles out of his slit when Erik rubs his thumb just under the head, how Charles' voice goes from hoarse to raw with every stifled yell, how he gives in when Erik scoots down and lowers his mouth over him, and lets the cut-off shout escape at last. The sounds he's making drive Erik a little insane, a lot frantic, and he hollows his cheeks and sucks like all he's ever wanted is the taste of Charles in his mouth and down his throat. It's not long before Charles obliges, panting and choking and trying to weakly paw Erik's head up when it gets too much. Erik licks him clean and tucks him back inside, protective like he's never felt towards anyone, not like this. He gives in to impulse and lays a soft, possessive kiss over the softened bulge when Charles is all zipped up properly again.

Charles tugs at his collar, and Erik indulges him, sliding his way up Charles' body again, helpless to stop his own cock from dragging up Charles' thigh and rubbing firmly over the crease at his hip. Charles looks drugged when Erik reaches his face, eyelids heavy and lips bitten until blood rushes just under the surface, a flush of arousal still lingering over his neck and chest and cheekbones, and he's so gorgeous in that moment that Erik can barely breathe, can't believe he's allowed to touch and take and claim and keep. Charles grins lazily up at him, obviously pleased with that thought that Erik must have broadcasted, and Erik cannot for the life of him stop himself from crowding onto Charles and taking his mouth again, slipping his tongue inside and imagining it's his cock Charles' lips are stretching around, knowing that it won't be long before he sees what that looks like for himself.

He ruts like a hound in heat against the firmness of Charles' hip; Charles, the beast, is far more nimble than he should be when Erik has just sucked him off, and he gets Erik's belt undone and trousers unbuttoned before Erik can blink. One hand sneaks inside to trail teasing fingers over Erik's length, but the other, oh, the other is slipping down the back of his trousers, under his pants, rubbing at the top of his cleft until Erik is all but melting into Charles, legs falling open, back thrown into a perfect curve as those deft fingers flick his cheeks apart to get at his hole, small and tight and pulsing with need. Erik feels like he's going to scream in a moment from sheer frustration, and Charles seems to sense that, because the hand at Erik's cock curls tight and twists, and the fingers at Erik's ass press insistently just over the edge, and Charles' mind does something indefinable, presses some button that Erik never even knew he had, and before Erik realises what's happening he is gasping in Charles' mouth and painting his fingers with come, hips jerking fitfully until it's over.

"Bastard," he murmurs against Charles' lips, and Charles just laughs delightedly, a filthy chuckle that Erik's cock must think is the best thing ever, because it immediately tries to get ready for another go. However, since Erik doubts even Charles can perform miracles, it merely twitches hopefully and settles, dormant for the time being (Erik has a feeling it won't be all that long).

Charles has, of course, noticed, because he smirks smugly and says, "You love me."

"I do," Erik says before he has a chance to think.

Silence spreads through the vast study-cum-library. For a split second, Erik feels abject terror twist his insides, because wasn't Charles just ranting about being told what to feel? As Charles does nothing but lie there, staring up at Erik, quiet even in Erik's head, Erik has the horrible thought that Charles never intimated anything more than making this place a home for Erik, too. Everything else was Erik's desire, his supposition, his assumption, and he gets the feeling that he might have gone a little too far with this.

He opens his mouth to apologise, laugh it off, anything to make this silence goes away; instead, he watches Charles' eyes soften, his mouth curve up at the corners into a smile so sweet and loving that Erik loses what was left of his breath. That wave of affection envelops him again, warms him from the inside out, curls up contentedly in his chest and purrs. Charles' hands trail over his shoulders, up the back of his neck to cup his face, fingers stroking along Erik's mouth and cheeks and temples, tracing his eyebrows wonderingly and smoothing the crease in the middle that Erik wasn't even aware he was sporting.

"I do, too," Charles says quietly, earnestly, like a confession. Erik rears up in shock, but not far enough that it would stop Charles' fingers from stroking his face, the line of his jaw that has fallen open in surprise; he lets Charles' hands tug his head down and place a fond kiss to the corner of his eye, over his eyebrow, the corner of his mouth.

"Oh," Erik says lamely, settling back down, and feels Charles' shoulders shaking under his own. He kisses Charles’ lightly stubbled jaw to try and hide some of his confusion.

"Yes, oh," Charles mocks gently, eyes wide and shining and happy.

"Ah," Erik says, continuing to showcase his stunning erudition while he tries to process the fact that Charles Xavier loves him back.

"Indeed," Charles says gravely, though his lips twitch.

"Right."

"Yep."

Erik shakes some of his daze at the smothered laughter in Charles' voice. Eyes narrowing, he swoops down to kiss him quiet again.

---

The next week is unlike anything Erik has experienced before. He wakes up just before dawn, as is his habit, body contorted around Charles' like some weird bedroom-themed game of Twister, and commences disengaging himself from Charles' grasp without waking him. He fails miserably, but Charles is a dear and lets him go -- after extracting payment in the form of lazy morning kisses, of course. Erik climbs into a pair of sweats and a t-shirt and goes running through the grounds, checking the perimeter and trying not to notice the marked neglect in the bushy hedges and the unmowed grass, the signs of wild animals passing through the property scattered here and there. He wonders, but he's not going to ask, not ever, because he's seen the looks Charles and Raven share when someone mentions something about the rooms next to theirs and the unused wings of the mansion. There is not the smallest sign of happiness to be found in them, only sadness and memories that appear to weigh heavily on the siblings.

By the time he's covered the perimeter and jogs back inside the house, a sleepy Raven can usually be found brewing coffee in the kitchen and lazily crunching her way through a piece of toast and jam while she waits for it to be done. Erik smiles at her and she smiles back, happy and relaxed, no ghosts crowding behind her golden eyes for once. Erik helps himself to coffee when it's ready, and flicks the electric kettle on in the far corner of the huge kitchen. It looks much better now, a far cry from the disused, abandoned space that Erik had first clapped eyes on when they moved in. He grabs a mug from the cabinet above him, fetches the tea from the one next to it, and enjoys the silence that isn't a 'So, you and my brother' lecture from an unusually-fierce-looking Raven, like that first morning after the night before. He'd always known that Raven was not someone to be crossed, but never more so than in that quarter of an hour it had taken Erik to allay her suspicions as to his intentions towards Charles. Emma, the minx, had found it endlessly amusing. Erik had been this close to pointing out that the robe Emma was wearing he'd most recently seen on Raven, but he'd been wise enough to hold back. Not that Emma hadn't read him like a book, and smirked smugly in his direction for the whole morning.

It's around this time that Charles usually potters in, looking sleep-soft and rumpled and completely, irresistibly delicious. Erik is quite aware of just how sappy his face probably looks, thanks.

"Morning," Charles murmurs, smiling sweetly at Erik, who tugs him closer as soon as Charles is in range. He ignores the “Oh god, not again” coming from Raven, and kisses him good morning for the second time in the day.

After breakfast Charles goes out with the younger crew for yet another training session, but it's becoming increasingly obvious to Erik that everyone is really coming into their own, and the boys need less and less direction while the girls devise their own routine already. It wouldn't be long before everyone is so comfortable with their powers that they could go on to live as normal lives as it's possible to have, with the threat of other facilities remaining operational and Stryker still out on the loose – although Erik intends to tie up that loose end as soon as he gets back to work, and has access to the department's databases again. It grates on him, that they haven't managed to neutralise the threat Stryker poses; he's going to make sure these kids are safe, no matter what it takes. They should be free to live their lives without fear – and they will, if he has anything to say about it.

He's quite certain that, even after they leave the mansion, not long will pass before they all get together again – most people spend their entire lives looking for the kind of support network that they're forging right now. He'd bet good money that most of them will stick around the NY area, except for perhaps Scott and Logan, because Logan does not really look like the settling type and Scott isn’t going to take getting left behind any definition of well. Still, he doesn't think Scott will mind that much.

Later there is lunch, and a bit more training, and someone gets thrown in the lake by Sean's blast of sound waves, and that someone tugs someone else in, and there is a free-for-all in the mud that results in goo monsters invading the house and the bathrooms. Later still, there are books, and cards, and arguing over what TV channel they're all going to watch, and throwing microwave popcorn at the screen when Angel's Argentinean soap opera comes on and she throws everyone out except Sean, who has inexplicably become just as addicted.

And then there is quiet as the kids go somewhere else, and there is Erik and Charles and fine cognac and the chessboard between them, much more enjoyable now that they aren’t both of them retreating behind their respective walls; and there is Charles' voice in his ear, and Charles' warm presence opposite him, and Charles' smiles, and Charles' impassioned arguments, and Charles' laughter. And as Erik curls around Charles' sated, naked body at the end of the day, he can't help but smile stupidly at the thought that tomorrow morning he'll get to do it all over again.

Said week goes by in the blink of an eye, however, to Erik’s distress, and before he’s at all ready he finds himself staring blankly down at his worn duffel, packed again with everything he’d brought with him on his way to visit some ancient professor that his mother had pointed him to. All that has happened since – he would never have expected it, not even in his weirdest dreams. He scowls down at the innocent bag, and wonders just how badly he's going to miss this place.

Charles waits for him downstairs, a faint sadness emanating from his core; but there's no bitterness, no blame, no recriminations. Charles knows why Erik is going, knows that Erik could never live with himself if he were to leave his mother behind. The others gather in the hallway by the front door, solemn and quiet.

"You're coming back, though, right?" Angel says at last, desperation not quite as hidden as she thinks.

"I hope so," Erik answers honestly. He wants to, but he won't promise something that might not be up to him.

"You'd better," Raven says, aggressive and upset and nothing like what Erik expected.

"I'll do my best," he says through a throat gone tight.

"Take care, man," Alex says, drawing him in a hug, both arms going round him and squeezing him tight. "Give my best to the guys at work."

"Sure," Erik says, gruff in a way that's almost too much. While he's beyond happy that Alex has found his brother and decided to stick close to him this time, he's still going to miss his partner by his side.

Charles drives off slowly, once they've run the gauntlet and Erik is alone with him at last. He's quiet, but Erik feels gentle brushes of warmth against his mind, and it's a comfort he's unspeakably grateful for. Charles doesn't talk much for the two-hour drive, yet the silence isn't awkward -- it does more to reassure Erik than any amount of inane chatter. Because Charles is right there next to him, not turning away, not letting Erik walk off without saying goodbye, without the promise to hurry back. Charles drives, and hums quietly beside him, and loves him, whether it's in Westchester or New York or Oxford or London or Berlin. And wherever Charles is, Erik just wants to be by his side, for as long as they have on this earth.

"So," Charles says when all too soon they're standing at Erik's departure gate, eyes drinking each other in under the harsh light of the terminal.

"So," Erik says back, all the words that have been cramming inside his head on the drive now strangely dried up. And when the silence at last gets too much, he closes the distance between them and dips his head to look Charles in the eye. "I'll come back as soon as I can."

For a split second Charles' face crumples, and then he's composed again, nodding at Erik, and Erik hates it.

"All right," Charles says, like he's sealing a promise, and Erik can't not kiss him, right out in the open, surrounded by strangers and yet just the two of them clinging desperately to each other for a too-brief moment.

And then Erik is walking away, fingers clutching tight onto the strap of his duffel bag, and Charles is bringing his fingers to his temple and mindbending passport control to let him pass without question, and Erik feels a last, light, loving caress at the edges of his mind, and then he's walking through the gates without looking back, and Charles is gone.

---

He gets to his mother's house very late the next night, after an abysmally long flight and an even longer taxi ride back from the airport. It looks the same from the outside, ground-floor windows shuttered, lawn just a little overgrown, but otherwise there's no sign that anything untoward happened here. There aren't even any bullet holes in the walls; the assailants had at least been polite enough to only shoot the windows out.

Still, it’s quite obvious that there’s a fair amount of work needing to get done before his mother arrives in a few days. Erik welcomes it – he needs the distraction. Meanwhile, it’s gone eleven at night and he is exhausted -- and not just physically, if he’s honest with himself. He’s trying hard not to think about what he’s missing, the part of his routine he’d enjoyed the most – curling himself around Charles, feeling Charles’ breath flow easily in and out of his lungs, feeling Charles’ hand come to rest on top of his, lacing their fingers together loosely before drifting off. But his bed feels far too empty, and the sheets are cold around him in a way that even the depth of winter can’t achieve. Erik lies in his old bed, and lets the exhaustion take him. His last waking thought is to hope that he doesn’t dream.

The menial work through the next couple of days is soothing– he sorts through rubble and sweeps and vacuums and washes and tidies tirelessly, gets rid of the bullet-torn sofa and drives to the nearest IKEA for a new one, in shades of green and yellow and white that remind him of rolling hills behind a large mansion. He gets a few tins of paint, too, and paints over the shards of plaster knocked off by the flying debris, until the kitchen looks brand new. He gets the windows repaired, and gently deflects the workers’ interest about the wonderful shutters and where they could be ordered. Something to think about, perhaps, once his mother gets home.

And on one chilly afternoon he makes his way to the American embassy, and hands in a plain brown envelope that contains all his hopes and dreams of a different future, a future filled with touches and kisses and warm blue eyes welcoming him home.

---

Edie flies in the next Thursday, and Erik waits impatiently to see her face in between all the arrivals. He spots her hair first, greying and tucked up in a neat bun, and then he sees the rest of her and feels almost faint with relief that she looks fine – more than fine, rested and relaxed, even if there are a few wrinkles around her eyes that are that much deeper than he remembers.

“Hello Liebling,” she says, just like always, smiling warmly up at him, and Erik sweeps her into his arms and presses a kiss to her hair, weak with gratitude and love.

“How is Aunt Anna?” he asks, and she’s off, chattering a mile a minute, filling the aching space behind his sternum with seeping warmth.

“And how is Charles?” she asks. Erik tries not to flinch, thinks he does a pretty good job of it until she turns to him expectantly.

“I wish you’d told me sooner that you two have been corresponding,” he grumbles mildly, but it’s all for show – he can’t get the least bit angry at her. “I might have known how to handle him, then.”

“So he needed handling, did he?” Edie asks slyly, and Erik does flinch this time, sore and winded and missing Charles viscerally with every image his mother’s words evoke. He flushes under her knowing gaze.

“Oh,” Edie says, as usual needing nothing more than a look to read Erik like a book she’d learned by heart long ago. “Well. Can’t say I didn’t see that one coming. Darling, I am so happy for you! When is he coming over?”

Erik presses his lips together tightly to keep from admitting that he doesn’t know if Charles is coming at all. “I was hoping that, maybe, you and I might—think about joining them.”

Edie goes quiet at that, thoughtful. “I’d like to meet him properly, Schatz, you know that,” she says hesitantly. “But moving over there? To America? Leaving this place behind? I’m not sure, Erik.”

Erik feels apprehension lance through him, but he keeps it back, reigns it in as harshly as he knows how. “I know it’s a lot to take in. Just think about it? Please? I’ve submitted my visa authorisation application; we can get you one, too. We can just visit, to start with.”

Edie doesn’t say anything, looking out of the window with a melancholy little smile. It’s as if she’s already preparing to say goodbye to him, and Erik can barely stand it; his heart wrenches and his eyes sting, and he shoves the thought away viciously. He could never leave her behind. Never. Not even for Charles. But the thought of giving up Charles as the alternative...

He can’t do this right now. This is all hypothetical anyway, undecided, up in the air. They have time aplenty to sort the details out. He clenches his jaw and forces himself to regale Edie with the story about the handymen admiring the window shutters, and she turns back to him with a ready smile, rare maudlin mood forgotten. Erik tries not to show just how relieved he is.

He knows he's not quite out of the woods yet – Edie will extract every single scrap of information from him in due time. But with his separation from Charles still so raw in his mind, in his heart, he doesn't think he could bear talking about it, reliving it again. He can only be grateful that his mother knows him as well as she does, and leaves him be for one more night.

---

On Monday Erik goes to his precinct. To say his Captain isn’t thrilled about his absence is a gross understatement – he gets reamed to within an inch of his life, all the more because he can’t tell her where he’s been – ‘look, it was an emergency’ would not cut it this time, not just because he can’t explain what the emergency was. Still, he’s back on board, chiefly because he’s the best damn detective in the precinct and his Captain knows it. But he’s confined to desk duty until he gets a new partner; Alex’s resignation has just exacerbated the issue. Erik can cope with that – but he knows full well he’s going to be driven out of his skin within the week. He hates desk duty.

Which is why he’s caught with his figurative pants down when a young man with vaguely Hispanic features walks up to his cubicle four days later and introduces himself as “Janos Quested, your new partner.”

Erik eyes him with well-deserved suspicion – he’s never seen the man in his life, and there’s something about him, a familiarity in his eyes that has Erik on his guard instantly.

“Lehnsherr! You’re back on duty. Go show Quested the ropes, will you?” his Captain yells out of her open office door without looking up from her paperwork.

Erik isn’t daft enough to look a gift horse in the mouth, though, is he. “Come on,” he says, thumbing his computer off and snatching his coat from the tall rack in the corner.

They walk briskly out of headquarters, and Erik leads the way to his car, gesturing at Quested to get in. He drives away without wasting time, keeping a wary thought on the unknown quantity at his side. If worse comes to worst, he could always hold the man down by the metal in his seatbelt to give himself time to restrain him. They pass through traffic wordlessly – Quested is just as quiet and contained as Erik, and he sets Erik’s senses on high alert. The most worrying thing is that the man himself does not look the least bit apprehensive – he should be, by rights – even if he’s only been about a day, a well-meaning someone would have brought him up to speed on Erik’s reputation as a hardass that doesn’t mince his words. But the man is content to sit there and let himself be driven. That right there is a dead giveaway that something isn’t right.

Eventually they’ve travelled through the city centre and out the other side, on the outskirts of the city’s industrial zone, as it happens not all that far from where Erik and Alex had hidden from the gunmen what felt like a lifetime ago. Erik stops the car and gets out, turning immediately to face Quested, feeling out for every piece of metal in the vicinity.

“All right,” Erik says, allowing steel to enter his voice. “You want to tell me who you really are?”

To his surprise, Quested merely smirks. “She told me you wouldn’t fall for it,” he says cryptically, only putting Erik further on his guard. He waits, unwilling to give Quested the satisfaction of asking who ‘she’ is.

“Mr Lehnsherr, I have been sent by Emma Frost. I, too, had been under the mistaken impression that I was helping my fellow mutants, not harming them. Shaw truly made fools of all of us. Allow me to introduce myself properly.”

Quested raises his hands and twirls his fingers in the air; immediately small whirlwinds appear in the centre of his palms, warping dust and air until he’s holding a pair of miniature tornadoes. Erik stares, impressed despite himself. Quested flicks his fingers and the tornadoes dissipate into the ether; then he stands there, looking pleased with himself, waiting on Erik’s verdict.

Erik allows himself to relax a little. This is a fellow mutant, although Erik isn’t going to be completely comfortable until he can confirm with Emma that he is who he says he is.

As if sensing that, Quested lets out a shrill whistle that echoes oddly; Erik resists the urge to clap his hands over his ears. Immediately something snaps into existence next to Quested in a swirl of red mist and the faint smell of sulphur. Erik finds himself face to face with a tall man, skin the colour of poppies and hair a black so intense it seems to swallow the light around it.

“This is my associate, Azazel. I think you can guess what his power is.”

“A teleporter,” Erik says approvingly. Azazel nods, then disappears again only to come back a second later, holding tightly to a familiar figure that makes Erik’s lips twitch in welcome.

“Emma,” he says warmly.

“Hello, Erik,” Emma says easily, nodding at him -- the only sign that she’s pleased to see him that he’s ever likely to get. “I see your paranoia is alive and well.”

“Naturally. Surely you didn’t expect anything less.” The fact that she’s dressed for the Berlin cold speaks volumes anyway.

She merely smiles, but Erik has come to know her well enough to see a flicker of fondness in her eyes. “Indeed. I see you’ve met my associates.”

Erik nods, fears appeased for the time being. If Emma says they’re with them, then that’s what matters. Erik also knows her well enough to be well aware that if they were by some miracle lying to her, they would never have got this far.

“Janos will work with you until we’ve established there’s no more threat here, and all units have been recalled. After that – well, that’s up to you, really.”

Erik nods in agreement again. It’s as good a plan as any. “How is everyone?” he ventures, going for nonchalant even though he knows Emma sees right through him.

“Busy,” she replies shortly; then at his frown, unbends enough to say, “They are well. They miss you.” They both know she’s not just talking about the younger crowd.

“Give everyone my regards,” Erik says, and watches Janos and Azazel share a charged look, a last touch before there’s a shift of air and Azazel and Emma are gone once again.

Erik looks at Janos, who’s watching him back warily. Oh, well. He is one of them.

“Come on. Let’s get a cup of coffee.”

---

Three weeks into his partnership with Janos, Erik drags his ass home, sore and tired and really too cold for anyone’s liking, with the only intention of drawing a steaming hot bath and soaking for half an hour, trying not to fall asleep in it. He picks up his mail on autopilot, not even looking at it unit he pushes the door closed behind himself, flicks on the light in the hallway and his eyes fall on a plain brown envelope lying innocuously on top of the stack, like it doesn’t contain something that might well determine the course of the rest of Erik’s life. He chucks the rest of the mail on top of the hallway table, slams his briefcase on top of it and tears into the envelope’s flap, ripping it apart haphazardly.

”Dear Kriminalhauptkommissar Lehnsherr,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been granted a B-2 Visitor Visa to enter or leave the United States of America for a period of ten years from the date of issue…

Erik doesn’t bother reading any more of it; those few words alone have his blood singing and his adrenaline spiking. No longer feeling even remotely tired, he grabs his keys and the letter and rushes out again, jumps into the car and drives straight to his mother’s house, eager like a kid with an A+ on his exam. If his letter is in, hers should be, too – to their mutual agreement Erik had only applied for a Visa Waiver for her at this stage, so they could visit Charles and the others – and that takes less time to secure than the extended visitors visa he had applied for. They still haven't talked more about moving over to Westchester, but Erik hopes that when his mother sees what they are trying to do there, she will change her mind.

It’s not Thursday, but when he parks the car and jumps out, he can see his mother sitting at the kitchen table, a glass of wine at her elbow, as if she’s expecting him. It’s definitely arrived, then; she’d know Erik would rush over as soon as he got the answer.

He unlocks the door, shutting it behind him and toeing off his shoes in the hallway. He lopes quickly inside, not quite able to contain his excitement at the thought of seeing Charles and the others again.

Mamma, did you get it?” he asks eagerly. Edie smiles at him, fond and loving as always, and yet—

“Hello to you, too,” she says archly, and Erik grins at her sheepishly. “And yes, I did get it. Erik, you’d better sit down.”

Erik feels the smile slip right off his face at her tone. “What’s the matter?” he asks, urgent and a little afraid. “Are you all right?”

“I’m perfectly fine. Liebling, I have to warn you -- it’s not what you’re expecting.”

Erik takes the sheet of paper from her hand with numb fingers.

”Dear Mrs Lehnsherr,

I regret to inform you that your application for a Visa Waiver has been denied, on the basis that you can provide no proof of intention to leave the United States again after 90 days…”

Erik skims the whole thing with dismay, feeling his earlier pleasure turn to dust in his chest. If she’s been denied even a Visa Waiver, she’s never going to be issued an actual visa to enter the country, not with her age to consider, and the fact that she’s retired and therefore probably intending to remain in the States once she gains entry. Even if they appeal, the outcome is very unlikely to change given that Edie is likely not going to work again (even if anyone would hire her, the economic climate being what it is).

If Erik wants to go, wants to stay there, he’s going to have to leave her behind. And that’s something he cannot, will not do.

“Erik,” Edie says, decisive and compelling. “Liebling, you must go. I know you don’t want to leave me here, but this is your life, and you deserve to be with the man you love, just like I was with your father for so many years. You know I will be all right, and you and Charles will visit as often as you can. But I can’t let you chain yourself to me and miss your chance at being happy.”

Erik’s jaw clenches painfully; he is so furious at the fucking bureaucrats who have made this decision purely on the basis of faceless numbers; he wants to tear something apart, wants to yank all the metal from the fucking Embassy and let the building fall in on itself; wants to scream himself hoarse and drive nine-inch nails through the heads of those pencil-pushers. It isn’t. Fucking. Fair.

“Life often isn’t, Schatz,” Edie says sadly, and he realises he must have let that last part slip from between lips white with anger. “We just have to make the best of it.”

“No,” Erik growls, raw and painful, clenching the fucking letter in his fists. “I am not leaving you,” he bites out, glaring down at the crumpled piece of paper that has shattered all those stupid hopes and dreams he’d let himself have in the last month. He should have fucking known better. He should have stopped this thing back when it started, when it would have been—if not painless, then at least easier. Now—now he feels like something’s tearing him slowly apart, inch by excruciating inch, slicing him open like that shard of glass that started the whole thing in the first place.

“Erik, you have to. Please, my love, do not make me watch you make yourself unhappy, knowing I am the cause of it,” she pleads, eyes red-rimmed as she lays a hand over his white knuckles.

“No,” Erik says hollowly. He can’t. She’s his mother. He’s known Charles all of a couple of months; he’s known her all his life. Knowing what she’s been through, her own mother and father in the camps, the last to go in but not the last to never come out; escaping just before her parents had been taken, to live with her aunt and her cousin Anne only to come back to the ruins of her home town and no house left to live in; the harsh life of an orphan, the years of near-destitution, together with his father clawing her way out of it so that Erik would have a chance to make something of himself, all the while carrying her secret like a fluttering bird close to her heart – no. He can’t leave. He’ll never leave her. “No. You can’t ask it of me.”

Liebling--“

“Mother, please. Do you want me to never be able to look myself in the eye again? No. We’ll—think of something else.”

Edie sighs wearily, tears glittering unshed behind her eyelids. “Damn it, Erik.”

He lets go of the crumpled paper and squeezes her hand in his, lifting it to his lips and laying a kiss over the base of her thumb. Surely this isn’t over. Surely he and Charles would come up with something. Charles would understand. He has to.

Still, it’s three days before Erik can pick up his courage to dial the long number, familiar even though it’s the first time he’s called it (he’s a coward, but that’s neither here nor there). He’s spent the time thinking of options, anything and everything he’s been able to come up with – but if they were to ask Azazel to flash them over, then what? They would be illegal aliens, always hiding from the system. And suppose another attack like the last one happened? Suppose Azazel was injured, or killed outright; suppose Hank wasn’t in any shape to fly the jet – where does that leave them? Stuck in a country that would lock them up and deport them, or worse, if they knew what they were? No. Putting his mother at such a risk was never an option. Even if she was willing to forego her wood carving business (which she would, for him, Erik is sure), he could not take that chance.

It would have been much easier if he were on his own, but he refuses to even contemplate such a thing.

The phone rings once, twice, three times, four, before someone picks it up, sounding out of breath. “Yes?”

Erik recognises Scott’s lighter timbre, wonders what he must have been doing to be in such a rush. “Scott, it’s Erik Lehnsherr.”

“Mr Lehnsherr, hello,” Scott says calmly. They’ve never really warmed up to each other, even if Erik is willing to trust him more than a few of the others.

“Is Charles there?”

“Yes, he’s outside with Banshee and Darwin,” Scott says, like that makes any kind of sense at all.

“Who the hell are Banshee and Darwin?”

“Oh, sorry. They’ve got me doing it too, now. I meant with Sean and Armando. They’ve gone and given themselves superhero names.” Erik can hear Scott’s eyeroll in his voice.

“Huh.” That’s… actually kind of cool, but he’s not going to admit it any time soon. He mercilessly crushes the tiny voice that really wants to know what they’d call him.

“I can go get him if you’ll wait?”

“I’ll wait.” He’d wait for a hell of a lot longer than it would take Scott to fetch Charles, but that’s beside the point.

The silence stretches, and if it wasn’t for the faint yells that Erik can hear over the line, he would have thought the call had disconnected. Then there are running footsteps getting closer and closer and someone fumbles the receiver before there’s panting in his ear.

“Erik?” Charles says urgently, like Erik might have gone away. His voice makes Erik want to cry a little.

“I’m here.”

“Oh! Good.” More panting. “Sorry, I was on the other side of the house.”

“Training with Banshee and Darwin, Scott said.” He literally can’t help himself. “What’s your superhero name?”

Charles clears his throat; Erik doesn’t have to see him to know he’s flushing. “They’re calling me Professor X, god knows why.”

Erik laughs, for what feels like the first time in forever. “It suits you,” he says earnestly.

“Thank you, I think. How are you?”

And just like that, the levity evaporates like a fine morning mist.

“Tired,” Erik admits. It costs him nothing, and if he can’t be honest with Charles, there’s no one else in the world bar his mother that he can be honest with. “The department's running Janos and I into the ground.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” And Charles does sound sorry, now that he’s caught his breath.

“How about you? How’s things on your end?”

“Great, really great. The children, Erik, you should see them. They’re working so hard, and the progress they’re making, it’s astonishing. I honestly don’t know that I’ll have anything left to teach them in another month.”

Erik smiles at the affection and delight in Charles’ voice, something inside him aching at the thought that it’ll be a while yet before he can see that smile again for himself. “They’re hardly kids, Charles.”

“Oh, I know. It’s a figure of speech, you know – I am a Professor now, apparently.”

“God, I miss you,” Erik blurts out; he doesn’t mean to, it’s the last thing he wants to say when he’s got that bombshell coming, the broken promise he’s yet to own up to, but the words bypass his speech sensors and go straight past his lips, small and wistful and desperately fond.

There’s silence for a beat, and then Charles sighs. “I miss you too, my friend.”

“Charles.” God, it has to be now, otherwise he’ll never say it, never want to put it into words. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

Charles is quiet on the other end of the line, and Erik has never felt so tired in his life. “All right,” Charles says, sounding like he’s bracing himself.

“My mother’s visa application was denied. She can’t enter the States. And I—Charles, I—I can’t—“

Charles makes a soothing sound on the other end, a long susurration, like it could take away the clench in Erik’s chest. “It’s okay. I understand. You won’t leave her.”

“I’m sorry,” Erik says miserably. There’s a huff of air, and then:

“Don’t be. You could never leave your mother behind, or anyone that you care about. I know, Erik; I’ve always known that, right from the start. It’s one of the many reasons why I love you so much.”

Erik closes his eyes, lips pressed tightly together, as if he could hold his distress in. “There can’t be that many,” he says disparagingly. He’s not someone people just love.

“You’re wrong, my friend. There are so, so many of them; sometimes I wish you could see what I see when I look at you.”

They’re both quiet for a long minute, sharing breath that Erik desperately wishes he could feel instead of just hear.

“We’ll figure something out,” Charles tells him, insistent and determined, and god, Erik loves him so much it is physically painful that he can’t touch him right now.

“We will?” he says, and he hates that he sounds so needy, so uncertain, but fuck, he just needs to believe it to have the strength to get up in the morning.

“I promise.”

“Okay,” Erik says, although he just can’t see what they can do, short of everyone moving to Germany, and let’s be honest, it’s not something any of them would want.

They say their goodbyes; Erik doesn’t want to hang up, but he feels like he might cry with relief if he doesn’t – he needs a little space right now, to process that Charles is still with him, hasn’t sent him packing, is willing to try and work with Erik’s stubbornness and broken promises. He can’t quite believe it, but he’s so grateful for Charles being Charles that he has to just sit there for a while after the call ends, sunk in the armchair by his phone, breathing in and out and remembering Charles’ words in his ear.

The world goes on, despite Erik’s suspicions to the contrary prior to making the dreaded phone call. He misses Alex like a phantom limb some days, his supernatural way of knowing what Erik is thinking, what Erik needs of him, and getting it done before Erik even asks – but he and Janos do such a good job together that Erik hears rumours of Europol eyeing the two of them for recruitment. Unbeknownst to the powers that be, Erik does everything he can to make sure they get snapped up, because access to Europol’s databases would be invaluable when looking for other facilities out there. From what Erik saw at the one in Arkansas, Shaw's operation has all the signs of a much larger, maybe even global network. And with Stryker's main base destroyed, he would have regrouped somewhere on the other side of the world, a place no one suspected, and in all likelihood continued his experiments on their kind -- that's what Erik's military training would have dictated, were he in Stryker's position. Stryker is going to have to be dealt with sooner rather than later; and god only knows how many other mutants are out there, in pain, waiting to be rescued. It would be as good a purpose for the rest of his life as any, and he knows he can always count on the others' support in pursuing it – that they will help has never been in question.

On the evenings when there hasn’t been another grisly murder he has to solve, and he isn’t spending hours digging through Europol’s databases for far-fetched clues, he takes the familiar drive to his mother’s house, parks outside the gate and slips inside the spacious garage. Sometimes Janos comes with him, sometimes he doesn’t – Edie has taken a shine to him, there’s no denying it; not many people can discuss history of European art like Janos can, when he puts his mind to it. Regardless, Edie always looks up from her work and smiles a welcome; he smiles back, shucks his coat, rolls up his sleeves, and spends his time in a much more pleasant manner – moulding metal to Edie’s wood, creating fantastical shapes and figures and landscapes, letting his imagination run riot as he lets his senses acknowledge the iron, or copper, or aluminium calling their siren song to him. They turn molten under his mind and his fingers, until he can twist and shape and bend and feel the tension seeping out of his shoulders, leaving him loose and relaxed and bringing him a measure of serenity like he could never have imagined.

---

The harsh German winter is starting to edge into tentative spring by the time they have wrapped up their most recent case (which had involved Erik and Janos train-hopping through three different countries to bust the human trafficking ring Europol had been after). Erik spends the morning doing paperwork in their office, while Janos cites some family emergency or other in order to skive off for the day. Since their work had been crucial to solving the case, Erik doesn't think anyone would bat too much of an eyelid if one (or both) of them decide to take it easy today. The office is quiet, and Erik gets through the forms much faster than usual (when he has to deal with one interruption after the next). By three o'clock he's draining his third coffee of the day and hitting Ctrl+S. There's nothing left in the pile that won't keep a day -- even two, now he comes to think of it. With Janos gone god knows where, Erik decides to indulge -- he passes by his favourite Italian and picks up a nice dinner for two, together with a bottle of fine Muscat. Edie deserves a break, too.

It's a fine day, chilly but bright even late in the afternoon, and the sky is still light when he makes his way to the house, parks the car and hefts the bags with him to the back door. It's probably a good thing that whatever ice there had been when he'd left Berlin two weeks ago is gone by this time, because when he rounds the corner and sees Hank's jet parked in his mother's back garden like it belongs there, Erik might well have found himself flat on his back from the shock.

He pushes the back door open cautiously; now that he's listening for it, he can hear the chatter of excited voices from the living room, Raven's unmistakable laughter floating easily through the cooling air. Erik dumps the food on the kitchen table, kicks off his shoes and pads quietly up to the door, not quite daring to believe what his ears are telling him. He stands in the doorway, struck dumb with surprise at the sight of people on every single sofa, armchair and foot stool that there is in the house, all chatting and laughing, Edie's slight frame presiding over the gathering from the tall armchair that used to be his father's.

He looks around, heart in his throat, and of course, there sits Charles with Raven on one side and Alex on the other, smiling at Erik so warmly that Erik feels his cold cheeks heat with it. He can't look away from Charles' eyes, a shade of blue he's never quite found anywhere else (not that he's been looking, because he hasn’t. Really), and a moment later there's the familiar soft, gentle touch of Charles' mind on his, spelling out a welcome that Erik's been yearning for all this time.

"Erik!" Alex shouts, finally noticing his appearance. He struggles out of the huge sofa's embrace and crosses the room quickly, throwing his arms around Erik and thumping him on the back. Erik grips him right back, almost light-headed with how much he's missed him. Before he can even say a word of greeting he's surrounded, Raven tugging him away from Alex for her turn to hold him, and he feels a body plaster itself to his back, a familiar hover of wings close to his ear that gives away its identity. Sean keeps a wary distance -- he's not forgotten Erik's unique training methods -- but still shakes him by the hand. Armando does the same, with his usual amiable smile.

Emma just waves at him from the other armchair, and Erik notices Scott and Logan behind her, Scott sitting primly on a straight-backed chair while Logan lounges with his shoulder propped on the wall. Logan sees him looking, and sends him a mocking salute. Scott looks pissed, but nods at Erik grudgingly.

And then, of course, there's Charles. Everyone has let him go at last, and they back away to reveal Charles standing behind them, cheeks red and lips redder, with a look in his eyes that Erik feels all the way to the soles of his feet.

"I'm going to make some tea," Edie says diplomatically, and there's a chorus of hurried agreement as everyone follows her through the door to the kitchen. Logan leers at Erik as he passes, and Erik sends him a glare of warning. Logan rolls his eyes, scoffs, and sneaks out of the side door for a smoke. Scott slinks out behind him.

And then there's no one but Charles there with him, and Erik pretty much forgets where he is, that there are other people in the house with them, that there is a world out there that isn't Charles and the way he's drinking Erik in with his eyes.

//Hi,// Charles says in his mind, smiling his delight. He looks like the only thing Erik wants to see ever again.

//Hi,// Erik says back, feeling his lips stretch and his eyes crinkle.

They stand there looking at each other for Erik doesn't know how long, before Charles lifts his hand and cups his cheek, and it's like a dam has burst; Erik surges forward and presses their mouths together with a broken groan, feeling Charles open for him immediately, tug him closer with a hand in his hair and the other on his back, urging him nearer. Charles tastes of tea and his mother's stem ginger and chocolate cookies; he tastes of yes, finally, Charles, of the answer to each and every one of Erik's prayers.

After a long, long (too short) moment, Erik has to come up for air, and he stares down at Charles, worried that he might dissolve like one of Erik’s all-too-frequent dreams. But no, Charles is still there, warm and solid in his arms, pressing another kiss to the corner of Erik's mouth that Erik turns to capture again.

"What is going on?" Erik says at last, quietly, not ready to let go of Charles just yet. "How are you all here?"

Charles blinks languidly, lips still curved into a smile that makes Erik dizzy to think about, eyes twinkling behind his long lashes.

"It's a long story," Charles says, and oh, his voice, fuck but Erik's missed him. "It might be best to just show you?"

There's hope in his eyes, and hell, Erik has to actually stop and breathe for a moment so he doesn't shout a desperate, needy 'YES'.

He might as well have, however, the way Charles' face loses some of its stiffness. Erik must have thought it pretty damn loudly, but just the thought of Charles in his head again, the last proof that he's really here, that this isn't all just a figment of Erik's desperate imagination -- it's more than he can handle; he needs it so bad that he doesn't know how he's still breathing without it.

Charles smiles again, reaches up and draws Erik's head down until their foreheads are touching, and Erik sees--

There's an argument. Alex and Scott rage at each other, snarling and furious, glaring daggers. Charles' thoughts tell him this is far from the first time.

"Fine," Alex yells, stalking away; then he stops and looks back, teeth bared. "You know what, maybe I'll just go back to Germany. Fuck, Erik's probably miserable as hell over there on his own; I would have been there if it wasn't-- if I hadn't-- goddamn it." He turns his back on Scott in disgust. Erik feels Charles' unhappiness, knows it's as much because of the boys fighting as what Alex had said about Erik.

"Maybe you should," Scott sneers, stalking away in the opposite direction.

Logan and Armando share a look, then go after them in their chosen corners. The others stare warily at each other.

Later that night, at dinner, the table is quiet. Alex and Scott are both present, but they're not acknowledging each other, choosing instead to play with their food.

"Maybe we should all go," Armando says, loud in the sullen silence. Heads snap up to look at him, but he doesn't seem bothered. "To Germany. Like on a holiday."

"We can take the jet," Hank says eagerly amidst the chorus of ‘yes’-es. Raven and Angel feel pleased in Charles’ mind; Alex looks grateful and Scott looks perturbed, while Logan merely shrugs, uncaring. Azazel mutters something about a personal matter and meeting them there, grins devilishly and disappears from the table, leaving behind nothing but a puff of displaced red mist.

"Capital idea," Charles says, and the vision dissolves in a fuzzy feeling of happiness.

Erik opens his eyes and looks at Charles, with his floppy hair and his fair skin and that slight dent between his eyebrows that's a dead giveaway of too much worrying and too little rest. Erik leans closer and kisses it gently, feels it smooth out beneath his lips, feels Charles' eyelashes graze his chin as his eyes drift closed again and Charles clutches at him tighter.

'I'm so happy you're here,' Erik wants to say, but doesn't know how.

Charles just smiles into his throat like he hears it anyway, burrows his nose under Erik's turtleneck to reach the crook where it joins his shoulder, presses a kiss to his skin. Erik finds himself devoid of words; instead, he holds tight to Charles' shoulders and tucks him closer.

By the time they disengage and compose themselves enough to join the others in the kitchen, the food is long gone and two empty bottles of wine sit forgotten on the counter while Alex tops off everyone's glasses from a third. Erik takes in the scene, noticing Azazel's absence together with another, more unexpected one.

"Where's Moira?" he asks Charles quietly.

"Gone to stay with her sister in New York. She and I have... not exactly parted ways, but--I'll explain later."

Erik shrugs. It's not important. What is important is seeing everyone here, chatting easily amongst themselves and with Edie; watching the delighted smile on his mother's face when she turns to look at him, the soothing presence of Charles in his thoughts. It's everything Erik had ever hoped for.

---

It's pretty late by the time everyone heads to bed -- Erik had been worried, but apparently Hank had converted the seats on the jet to join up and fold out into cots, and with the guest rooms and the fold-out sofas at Edie’s house, everyone has a space to bunk down.

No one says a word when Charles mentions he has made other arrangements, least of all Erik – although he wants to, quite vocally, before he sees the smile Charles throws him when he thinks no one is looking. He's therefore not even remotely surprised when Charles climbs in the passenger seat of his car; he does end up breaking a number of traffic laws getting them back to his flat as fast as mutantly possible as a result. He throws the handbrake, rushes out of the car and up the stairs without even looking to see that Charles follows, unlocks the door and sets to tidying the detritus of a fortnight away on the job -- the mail he'd tossed on top of the small table in the hallway, the papers still spread over the kitchen table, the take-away boxes that had been the only thing he'd had the strength to attempt when he crawled off the train last night.

Charles finds him in the bedroom, where Erik hopes what he's doing doesn't look so damning -- namely, he's changing the old, dusty sheets on the bed. Charles raises one eloquent eyebrow at him, mouth twisted in a sly smirk, and Erik's entire face feels like it's burst into flames even as his cock starts taking an interest in the proceedings. Erik clears his throat awkwardly, but doesn't stop -- even if there's none of that (and he privately doubts it -- the look in Charles' eyes speaks volumes about plans well made), he still doesn't want Charles to sleep on dirty sheets.

He tucks in the last corner and straightens, folding up the duvet across the foot of the bed. And then, there's nothing left to do but turn and face Charles, lounging with a shoulder propped on the doorway and his hands in his pockets.

"All that, just for me? Erik, I'm touched," Charles teases.

"Shut up, Charles," Erik says, advancing on him. Charles' smirk turns into a grin; Erik kisses it off his lips, tastes it in his mouth when he sneaks a tongue inside. Charles' hands find his back gratifyingly quickly; Erik presses him into the wall, slides a leg between Charles' thighs, fits their bodies together like they're two parts of a whole, seamless. Charles moans into his mouth and tries to push closer; a tendril of delight brushes against Erik's mind, and without even thinking about it he opens for it, invites it inside, invites Charles inside, all the way. Charles doesn't surge and take, like Erik had when Charles had given him an opening; it's a gentle advance, a languorous uncurling of sensation that bathes Erik's mind in delicious pleasure.

"Charles," Erik groans, pushing Charles' cardigan up and tugging his white pinstriped shirt out of his slacks, sliding his hands underneath to feel smooth skin against his palms, Charles' taut muscles shifting under his fingers. Charles kisses him harder, lifting one long leg and wrapping it around the back of Erik's thigh--and something must honest-to-god short-circuit in Erik's mind because the next thing he knows Charles' shirt is gone and his pale chest is bared to Erik's covetous gaze. Charles pants, head thrown back against the wall, watching Erik through heavy eyelids, fingers on Erik's belt working stealthily until it falls open and Charles attacks the button behind it.

Erik has to kiss him again; his breath hitches in Charles' mouth when Charles' hand slips inside the flap, pushes the front of his boxer shorts down and curls long fingers around his half-hard cock. The touch alone makes Erik buck his hips forward into the apex of Charles' thighs, grinding against the pressure. He's fully hard so fast he feels a little lightheaded, has to brace his hands against the wall beside Charles' shoulders, and for a moment he can do nothing more than thrust into Charles' hand and pant against Charles' throat. He presses his lips there, sucks a bruising kiss into the pale skin, can't help his triumphant thoughts of 'Mine, there, see? Mine', doesn't want to. Charles moans quietly close to his ear and flexes his leg around Erik's thigh, bringing him closer. It's so unbelievably hot that it's all Erik can do not to give in and simply hump him until he comes.

Charles' other hand tugs Erik's turtleneck up so it can slip underneath, a plea of //Off, Erik, please// sounding in Erik's head; Erik manages to make his legs hold him up until he can tear it over his head and throw it away in the corner. And oh, yes, what the hell was he thinking earlier? How could he have stood not to have this, the feel of his skin sliding against Charles' again, sheer bliss. He slips one hand down the back of Charles' open slacks, palms one cheek and squeezes, slips his fingers lower, and Charles jerks against him to hard that he almost unbalances both of them. His groan is music to Erik's ears, god, how is he ever going to be able to let this man leave again? It can't be done, impossible. He's not going to think about it when Charles' cock drags heavy against his hip, hard and long and begging for Erik's mouth around it.

Charles moans again and bucks his hips; Erik supposes he caught that last thought. And he wants it too, so bad his mouth is watering with it, but not just now. No, they're both too wound up, and Erik wants to come with Charles' ass clenching around him, with Charles' cock in his hand spitting his release all over the two of them.

//Erik, for fuck's sake stop thinking about it and damn well do it already,// comes Charles' desperate voice in his head. Charles sucks at his neck, hard, frantic, in time with his thrusts against Erik's hipbone, and yes, he's completely right, it's not like Erik to not do everything he's promising, right fucking now.

It's not easy, but he twists them to fall over the freshly laid sheets (Erik's never been more grateful for how small his flat actually is), kicking off his trousers and helping Charles out of his slacks and underwear. Charles' cock rises from a nest of dark curls, pale and gorgeous except for the tip, which is so red it's almost purple with need. Erik simply can't help himself -- he leans down and sucks that tip into his mouth, collecting drops of precome on his tongue, rubbing his lips against the glans. Charles' spine arches so taut that for a sickening second Erik thinks he's going to snap himself in half, but all Charles does is to fist his hands in the sheets and damn near scream, cock jerking in Erik's mouth. Erik moves away fast, because as much as he'd love Charles to come in his mouth, he wants something more. The drawer by the bed flies open and a metal tube zooms into Erik's hand; Charles' eyes follow it feverishly as Erik's fingers close tightly around it. Then Charles' eyes find Erik's, and the cheeky minx is grinning, egging Erik on with images of slick fingers probing his ass open. Erik can't get the cap off fast enough.

His hand actually shakes a little as he rubs the lube around Charles' entrance, slipping the tip of one finger inside. Charles' spine bows up again, and Charles thrusts himself down over Erik's finger, taking it to the knuckle. Erik chokes a groan in his throat, but Charles isn't half as subdued -- the noises he's making are threatening to snap Erik's control faster than is probably advisable.

//Stop thinking and take me,// Charles thinks, drawn out and thrumming with need.

//Wait, Jesus, Charles, just a bit longer,// Erik thinks back desperately as he fits another finger inside and spreads them out. Charles' ass swallows them like he's been aching for it.

//Come on, Erik, come on, come on, please!//

Charles stretches easily around him, far looser than he should be, and Erik feels a vicious stab of jealousy at the thought of why that might be.

Charles has the nerve to laugh, but his thoughts stop Erik short. //Wanted it, but only from you, no one else, had to do it myself last night as the others slept in the rooms around me, you have turned me into some sex-starved wretch and I love it. Now fuck me.//

Jesus Christ, does Charles even know what he's doing to him? Charles' filthy smirk says he knows exactly how he's testing Erik's composure. His lips are red from Erik’s kisses, and Erik watches as he sets his teeth in the lower one and sucks it into his mouth. Erik surges up and draws it back out, takes it into his mouth instead, licks it soothingly before he kisses Charles deeper, pours every feeling Charles draws out effortlessly into it, and Charles takes it all eagerly and comes back for more. Erik pulls his fingers out and replaces them with his cock -- no condom, his tests came back clean a month ago and he doesn't give a fuck if Charles is, not like he'd want to go on if Charles doesn’t. Charles' walls part for him eagerly, hot and welcoming and so very tight; Erik slides in an inch, waits, feeds in another inch until Charles has taken all of him, until Charles' legs are tight around his hips and Charles is urging him on with his body, pulling him closer.

Erik isn't too coherent after that; there's only heat and need and Charles' arms around him and Charles' voice in his mind, an endless loop of pleasure that leaves Erik gasping and bucking helplessly inside him, taking and being taken at the same time, and just, it's too much, it's--

His climax blinds him, coming as it does a second before Charles', the two of them jerking together, probably yelling the block down by the sound of it, Erik doesn’t know and doesn’t care. The point is this: they flop back onto the bed, sweaty and still wound around each other, not planning to move any time soon. Around them, metal rains in a circle over the worn carpet, released at last from Erik's grasp. Erik pulls out gently and pants into Charles' throat for a moment before he rolls half-off him so Charles can breathe. The space between them is a mess, sweat and come covering both of their fronts, but Erik can't find the strength to move any more than he already has. Charles lies on his back, small sounds of languid satisfaction coming from his throat, a ridiculous grin on his lips when he curls an arm around Erik and tugs him closer. Erik plants a sloppy kiss to the underside of his chin and lets his head drop on Charles' shoulder, pillowed by delicious muscle. One of his legs finds a space between Charles' thighs again, and Charles' ankle hooks over his own. Charles buries a hand in his hair and breathes under him, in and out, and Erik can relax at long last.

Eventually not even the lure of Charles' bare skin against his can keep Erik from feeling filthy, however, and he drags himself upright, bullies Charles into getting up too, strips the no-longer-clean sheet from the bed and throws it into a corner.

"You're kind of anal about cleanliness, do you know?" Charles grumbles. Erik swats him on the backside to get him into the shower, and Charles yelps delightedly. Erik pulls out another fresh sheet and makes the bed quickly, then follows him out through the corridor and into the bathroom--but just before he goes in, something in the corner of his eye pulls him up short. He turns his head to look -- there's a rather large suitcase by the front door that certainly wasn't there before. Charles, the sneaky bugger, must have brought it up while Erik was panicking about the state of his flat.

"Are you coming or--" Charles says laughingly, but stops when he notices the direction of Erik's gaze. When Erik looks at him again, there's apprehension in Charles' eyes, and he suddenly looks a lot more naked than a moment ago. "Ah."

Erik hardly dares hope that this is what he thinks it is; he swallows audibly, watching Charles watch him, then takes a deep breath, picks up his courage and says--

"That's a suitcase."

He cringes immediately. Way to go, Lehnsherr, wow him with your superior deduction skills.

Charles' expression does lighten at that, and he hides a smile. "Indeed it is."

"Is it your suitcase?" Erik fishes.

"Correct.”

“It’s rather large.”

“It needs to be, to contain everything that a professor at the Max Planck Institute might need for teaching."

If it takes Erik a moment to work his way through that loaded statement, he blames the sight of a blush spreading over Charles' face, all the way down to his chest. And then his breath hitches, because is Charles saying--

"You're staying? Here? In Berlin?"With me?

"I am." //And yes, if you'll have me.//

Erik can't quite find the words to tell Charles how much there really isn't an ‘if’ of any kind; but he rather thinks that the way he literally throws himself on Charles and kisses him stupid might give him some indication.

"What about the kids?" he asks when they come up for air.

Charles look thoughtful. "Sean -- I've no idea what he'll do. He has family in Ireland, he was saying he wanted to stay with them for a while. Alex and Armando are planning to stick around here. Alex misses you terribly, you know, and well -- Armando goes where Alex goes, I think you'll find. Scott and Logan -- it's anyone's guess what those two will decide, but I have a feeling they might head back to Westchester. You see, Raven, Angel, Emma, Hank and Azazel are staying at the mansion. They have plans to refurbish it and turn it into a school for mutant children. They've asked Moira to teach Biology and Chemistry for them, and I think she'll agree."

"That's -- wow," Erik says, processing all the news as Charles finally succeeds in luring him inside the bathroom and into the shower. The thought of a school for young ones of their kind leaves him with a warm glow; he can think of no one better to teach those kids -- except perhaps Charles, but Erik is a horribly selfish mutant being and he isn't letting him go, not any time soon. "That's fantastic," he says diplomatically, watching droplets of water bounce off his chest and tangle in Charles’ eyelashes.

Charles laughs again, that same delighted sound, and Erik is bathed in a feeling of fierce affection.

"I'll give guest lectures, of course, every now and then," Charles demurs, sliding his hands up Erik’s wet back and smiling innocently – or as innocently as he can look when he’s standing naked in Erik’s shower, eyeing him up like a piece of candy. "We're likely to see Azazel quite often, if you know what I mean."

"Are he and Janos..."

"Yep. But Janos has got used to working with you, Azazel said, and it's no trouble for him to pop in and out all the time."

Erik honestly can't speak for a moment. To have Charles here with him; to have the option of seeing the others whenever he'd like; to know that everyone he holds dear is settled and happy; to be able to stay with his mother for as long as he can -- it's more than he ever thought he'd have in his life.

He succumbs to the temptation to kiss Charles’ inviting mouth again, and knows in his bones that he'll hold on to it with everything he's got, whatever it takes.

 

END