I've been standing proud
Beneath the gathering cloud
And man, I ain't dead yet
"We need to find an expert on genetic mutation," Moira had said, and Levene had rolled his eyes and said, "Christ, you're starting to sound like that weirdo who sits in on all of McCone's meetings," and that was how Moira wound up in Langley's shitty canteen with both the weirdo who sat in on all of the Director's meetings and his personal aide.
The weirdo -- a tall, heavyset man with thick black hair and horn-rimmed glasses -- affably introduced himself as Oliver. She wasn't sure if that was his first or last name. "I hear you've been pestering the Director with a lot of bunk about mutants," Oliver said cheerfully. "Did you read the paper I sent over?"
"Yes," Moira said, placing the file on the table between them. "I found it very...engaging. I didn't realize the CIA had a whole section devoted to this sort of research."
Oliver shrugged with false modesty. "My pet project, Agent MacTaggert. So what sparked this sudden interest in our strange little theories?"
She took a deep breath. "I need to know if the kind of mutations you mentioned in your report might have already happened."
Oliver glanced over at his aide, who was watching Moira a little too intently, his fingertips resting at his temple. Moira kept her head high and met his gaze levelly. She knew what she'd seen: Colonel Hendry in the Hellfire Club just moments before the Director claimed he was in the war room. A man who looked like a devil appearing in a puff of smoke and sulfur. One woman who transformed her body into diamond, and behind her, another whose scaled skin was sapphire-blue. They were real. Moira would not let these skeptics tell her otherwise.
"I believe you already know the answer to that, Agent," Oliver said, to her surprise. He sounded sincere -- like he was actually taking her seriously. "Charles?"
"Yes," his aide said. It was the first time the man had spoken. His voice was light and warm, with an unexpected English accent. He leaned forward, blue eyes still intent on her face. "This is very important to me," he told her quietly. "If I can help you, I will do my utmost."
They dragged him out of the water half-drowned, salt stinging his eyes and burning in his lungs like bitter disappointment. But that fucking voice cut through the roaring in his ears, blanking out the shouts on the ship and the self-recrimination twisting his guts -- you are not alone.
In the floodlights on the deck of the cutter, his unexpected savior looked unlikelier still, small and sopping wet, dark hair plastered to his head and eyes just as compellingly blue as they had been in the water. Erik found that he couldn't look away.
"Erik," the stranger -- Charles Xavier -- said, reaching out to clasp Erik's elbow. "We should find a place to talk--"
"Charles, man, what the hell were you thinking?" A wiry black man shouldered through the clump of sailors, carrying a thick bundle under his arm. "Are you trying to get your ass killed?"
Charles's lips twisted in a grimace of apology, or perhaps just embarrassment at having been called out. "I could feel him in the water."
"And it didn't occur to you that maybe some of us are better equipped for diving into the middle of the ocean?" the man asked with fond exasperation. He lobbed the bundle over, which Charles fumbled badly. This close, Erik could see his hands shaking with cold.
"Here," he said, surprising himself. "Let me help."
The bundle turned out to be a blanket. Erik shook it out and tossed it across Charles's shoulders. "Thanks," Charles said. He stumbled down to sit on the slick deck, his back against the curving hull.
"You're an idiot," Erik informed him.
The black man laughed as he reappeared with another blanket for Erik. "I think I'm gonna like you," he remarked, passing it over. Erik accepted it warily. "You don't take the Professor's shit, that's a good start."
Erik felt distinctly off-kilter, the fury and panic and desperation that had almost consumed him in the water suddenly aborted, left twisting in free fall, unresolved. What the hell was he doing here? Who were these people, anyway? "There is no 'start,'" he said shortly. "I have urgent business to attend to. If you could just drop me at the port--"
"You're after Sebastian Shaw -- although I believe you know him as Schmidt." Charles's voice was low and even. "You were willing to die in pursuit of him."
Erik stiffened, hands clenching involuntarily into fists at his sides. "I didn't ask you to interfere."
"No, you didn't," Charles said, his smile incongruously bright. He reached up to tug at Erik's wrist; entirely against his instincts, Erik allowed himself to be drawn down to sit beside him, their knees bumping. "But I have a feeling it will prove quite fortuitous to us all that I did." He paused, pressing his fingertips to his temple, eyes going distant for a moment. "Ah. Any luck, Angel?" he called, craning his neck upward.
A slip of a girl flitted overhead, to Erik's slack-jawed shock. She had wings, he realized. She was flying.
Not alone, indeed.
"The sub dove too deep for me to track it," the wasp-winged girl shouted back. "Sorry, Prof. We lost Shaw."
Charles shrugged, eyes dark, but his hand came to rest on Erik's knee. "For now," Charles said. He gave Erik's leg a gentle squeeze. "But I prefer to focus on what we've found."
There were only five actual mutants at the CIA facility: Charles, of course; Darwin, the black man, who proved to be as physically adaptable as his nickname implied; Angel, the girl with wings; an all-too-eager young scientist called Hank, whose feet were wonderfully inhuman and dexterous; and the youngest of the group, Sean, whose shrieks literally shattered glass and who seemed quite put out at having missed the previous night's adventure. The man nominally in charge of the CIA mutant division was an enthusiastic human called Oliver, but over the course of Erik's first full day at the facility, it became quite obvious who actually headed up the team.
What was it about Charles that inspired such uniform loyalty among such outwardly disparate mutants?
"Why do they all call you 'Professor'?" Erik asked. It sounded all too much like Schmidt, Herr Doktor, who had affected a scholarly air as though to lend legitimacy to his psychotic pursuits.
Charles gave him a self-deprecating smile. "Not a title I actually earned, I'm afraid. I once studied genetics at Oxford, but I was still years away from being granted a doctorate when -- well." He looked away, lips thin. "Anyway, here I am instead. But I helped to recruit the others and I assist in their training regimens, and I suppose 'professor' has a better ring to it than 'training officer'. Darwin came up with the moniker some time ago. It stuck."
If Charles was the general of the group, then Darwin was clearly his first lieutenant. And Darwin's particular mutation made Erik wary of physical confrontation. For all his outward amiability, Darwin seemed to have made Charles's well-being his primary concern, and his reflexive adaptability made him the ideal bodyguard. And he was smart, too; Hank and Charles may have been the intellectual heavyweights, but Darwin was both clever and observant. Someone to watch out for.
So Erik was very careful to plan around Darwin's movements late that night at the facility, waiting until he was sure the man was long abed before making his way through the labyrinthine corridors to Oliver's office.
The locked door posed no deterrent; a twitch of his wrist, and the tumblers clicked into place. He flicked on the desk lamp with a snap and made a beeline for the locked safe where Oliver kept the CIA's confidential files. They'd been down in this office earlier, when Oliver and that woman MacTaggert had politely interrogated him for every scrap of information he had on Schmidt; he'd seen MacTaggert place her notes into the safe. Rather foolishly trusting of them. Combination locks were hardly barriers to a man of his powers.
But the safe was empty.
"Looking for something?"
Erik whirled around, all the metal in the room humming in anticipation of attack. Charles sat in the far corner of the office, cloaked in shadow. He held a thick file on his lap.
"Tell me," Erik said after a moment, "do you make it a habit to regularly monitor all your associates' thoughts, or am I a special case?"
It was difficult to tell in the dim light, but the edges of Charles's mouth seemed to quirk into a smile. "I wouldn't call it 'monitoring,' although I've had occasion to learn that forewarned is forearmed. But it's hardly my fault this time. You were broadcasting your intentions quite loudly, my friend."
Erik met his gaze evenly. "Then you should know not to stand in my way."
"I don't intend to." To Erik's considerable surprise, Charles got to his feet and held out the file. The name Sebastian Shaw was printed across the front like a brand. "This is everything the CIA currently has compiled on Shaw. Use it wisely."
Erik hesitated, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "You're not going to try to convince me to stay?"
"From what I know about you, I'm surprised you've managed to remain here this long," Charles replied wryly. "Of course I want you to stay, Erik. But will my saying so have the slightest impact on your decision?" He huffed out a breath, not quite a sigh, looking suddenly far older than his years. "I've seen what Shaw did to you. I've felt your agony. And I understand what this means to you. We needn't work at cross-purposes, you and I."
Charles stepped in closer, still proffering the file. Their hands brushed as Erik accepted it. Everything about this encounter left him feeling strangely wrong-footed, discomfited. He was being given what he wanted. He should take it and go. That had been the pattern of his entire adult life to date, all his focus directed to the sole purpose of tracking and killing Schmidt. Charles and his merry band of mutants would only distract him from that goal. And until last night, Erik had never even considered the possibility that there might be others out there like him. Why should that fresh knowledge change anything?
Why had it changed everything?
"I don't need your help," Erik said harshly, as though saying it aloud would make it so.
"Perhaps I need yours." Charles caught Erik's wrist, his eyes intent on Erik's. "Shaw has someone very dear to me," he said in a low tone. "You're not the only one playing for keeps, Erik."
The moment caught and held for several heartbeats too long. Erik could have easily shaken him off, but something kept him in place, transfixed. He'd seen it that night in the water -- the pure iron determination hidden behind the wide blue eyes and deceptively soft exterior, the sheer bloody-mindedness. Charles Xavier was a contradiction in terms, both fascinating and repelling, but the longer Erik spent in his company, the more the fascination began to win out.
"I won't make you stay," Charles finally said, releasing him. He took a step back away from Erik. "I could," he added -- and it wasn't arrogance, simply stated fact, and wasn't that intriguing? "But I won't."
Erik could find no response to that. He clutched Shaw's file tightly in his hands and waited for Charles to walk away.
After another long moment, Charles did, turning his back on Erik with visible reluctance. He paused only once, at the doorway. "And to answer your earlier question, yes," Charles said quietly, without looking back. "You are a special case."
And then he was gone, leaving Erik with a thick folder of new information and not the slightest idea where to take it.
Morning found Erik in the gym, sparring with Darwin. Darwin's gift seemed to operate entirely on reflex -- he could only react to whatever Erik threw at him, rather than preparing his physical adaptations in advance.
"You've got to develop better control, or you'll be trapped on the defensive," Erik called, sending a single barbell weight spinning at Darwin's chest. Darwin immediately encased himself in thick protective scales. The collision set off sparks against his adapted skin.
"Whatever, man," Darwin said, grinning as he shook off the body armor. "I'm not even breaking a sweat here."
Erik grunted in acknowledgment and grabbed a towel. That's when he noticed Charles standing in the doorway, watching them both with a smile curling his lips. "Erik. So you decided to stay."
"You don't sound particularly surprised," Erik remarked, scrubbing the towel across his face before slinging it around his neck.
Darwin laughed and took a seat on a bench. "It's kinda tough to take a telepath by surprise, you know?"
There was a loose bolt in one of the weight machines, nothing crucial to the integrity of the structure. With no warning whatsoever beyond the slight curl of his finger, Erik freed it and sent it hurtling toward Charles's head.
He felt only the barest whisper in his mind -- stop -- and a brief, uncanny sense of his thoughts momentarily not being his own. The bolt dropped harmlessly to the floor at Charles's feet.
"It does give me a certain advantage," Charles said levelly. His eyes were bright with mirth.
Erik ought to turn and run -- had Charles just taken control of Erik's own powers? -- but he found himself mirroring Charles's faint smile instead. "Not terribly polite of you, it is? Invading other people's minds like that?"
"Would it help if I pleaded self-defense?" Charles asked, raising an eyebrow.
"The best defense is a strong offense," Erik countered. "How can I trust you to stay out of my head at all?"
Charles tilted his head to one side thoughtfully. "I suppose you can't."
The honesty was refreshing, and more reassuring than any empty promises Charles might have made. Erik allowed himself a smile. "I would have stopped the bolt before it hit you, you know."
Charles grinned. "I know."
"Hey, Erik." Darwin leaned back against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. "So why did you decide to stick around?"
"Shaw has allies," Erik said, never taking his eyes off Charles. "I suppose I could use some of my own."
Angel lost the chess match in about twenty-five moves, which was a far stronger showing than Erik would have expected. She rolled her eyes and flicked her king onto its side. "Yeah, yeah, whatever," she sighed. "You beat me like ten moves ago."
"Thirteen," Charles corrected with a sharp smile. "But you made an excellent show of it. Didn't she, Erik?"
Erik refused to allow him the satisfaction of a flinch. Of course Charles knew he'd been watching, for all that he was on the couch halfway across the lounge and ostensibly engrossed in a newspaper. But there was metal inset in the base of each piece to weight it -- a travel set -- and he couldn't help but follow along.
"You were too focused on his queen," he told Angel, pointedly ignoring Charles's smug grin. "You didn't even see his knight coming. You've got to pay attention to the whole board."
"Whatever," Angel said again, getting to her feet and flicking out her wings. "I'm gonna go do something that's actually fun now." But Erik saw her study the board one last time before she flitted out.
Charles lifted an eyebrow, gesturing to the now-unoccupied chair. It was clearly futile to feign disinterest. Erik sighed and took his seat opposite Charles. "Are you so desperate for a good partner?"
"I'll make a grand master out of Angel yet," Charles said loftily, resetting the board. Of course he would play white. It went without saying. "She's a clever girl, very pragmatic. A quick learner."
"You're fond of her."
"I'm fond of all of them."
"It shows," Erik remarked. It came out more gently than he'd intended. "Professor."
Charles rolled his eyes. "I'm not really--"
"Why didn't you complete your studies?" Erik asked, genuinely curious. Mutation aside, Charles seemed far better suited to ivy-covered halls and study sessions and libraries than to covert government work. He certainly dressed the part of the university don. "White opens, by the way."
Charles shot him a sardonic glare, moving a pawn forward. "I was called home by a...family emergency," he said carefully. "I never had the opportunity to return."
Shaw has someone very dear to me, Erik remembered him saying, that first night in the facility.
"Yes," Charles said, blatantly eavesdropping. His shoulders hunched forward as though wary of attack. "Angel reminds me of her somewhat. Quick tempers and warm hearts. But Raven never had the patience for chess, I'm afraid."
Erik carefully tucked the name away, hoarding it with all his other secrets. Who had she been to him -- family, friend, lover? All of the above? Was that why Charles took the extra time with Angel -- with all these young mutants? Coaxing their minds open to further possibilities, giving them a sense of community, setting them at ease with their own bodies and abilities. Was he only trying to make up for what he'd lost with the absent Raven?
He didn't ask, though, not now. He moved his own pawn forward to counter Charles's and settled into the game.
There was an old radar installation set out on the facility's grounds. Erik felt drawn to it from the start, sensing strange twists of metal and wires humming within its broad white dome; a week into his tenure with the CIA, he finally asked Charles about it. Charles just pressed his lips into a thin smile and deflected him over to Hank.
"Charles and I converted it into a sort of transmitter," Hank explained, leading Erik inside. He gestured up to what looked like a helmet, suspended by a series of steel alloys and extensive copper wiring above a small upraised platform. "I call it Cerebro. That's, um, Spanish, it means 'brain.' See, the electrodes connect Charles to the transmitter, which amplifies his brainwaves and expands his telepathic range by -- um, really quite a lot. So anyway, when he picks up another mutant, his brain sends a signal through a relay, and the coordinates of their location are printed out over here--"
Erik ran his hand along the smooth railing, picking out every trace metal in the alloy. "You seem far more enthusiastic about this device than Charles."
Hank stilled, mouth twisting. "Yeah. Well, no, I mean, he was really into it at first. He helped me develop the schematics, but...."
A chill tripped its way down Erik's spine as he regarded the helmet. Upon closer observation, the electrodes looked like something Herr Doktor would have enjoyed all too much. "Does it hurt him to use it?"
"Not exactly," Hank hedged. Erik narrowed his eyes, and the railing vibrated warningly. "I mean, not physically. Well, maybe a bit, but we worked those kinks out. He used to -- look, it's kind of a personal thing, it really isn't my place to discuss--"
Erik breathed out slowly, releasing his grip on the rail. Pain was the only truly effective form of deterrent he'd ever known; something must have happened to put Charles off a telepathic enhancer of his own damn devising. Who might he have reached out for -- ah. Raven. "Charles mentioned that Shaw...had someone, someone dear to him."
Hank nodded, backing away from the railing warily. Erik snorted. As though the grating beneath his feet weren't also constructed entirely of metal. "His sister, yeah," Hank admitted. "She disappeared years ago. That's why Charles joined the CIA, I think, looking for her. When I came up with the concept for Cerebro -- well, yeah, it's pretty obvious why he was interested. He used to spend hours in here at a time, searching. That's how we found the others."
Sister. No wonder Charles had thrown his career aside to chase after her. "But not her?"
"It took us a while to calibrate the machine so that he could seek out particular individuals," Hank said. "He couldn't find her for kind of a while. But Cerebro's range isn't exactly global, and she could've been anywhere in the world."
Erik drummed his fingers against his leg. "But he did find her eventually, I take it."
"Sort of." Hank fidgeted with one of his instruments; it was patently obvious that he wasn't actually doing anything with it. "It was...bad. The relay shorted right out, knocked him off his feet, I had to pry the helmet off him. He was unconscious for more than a day. I thought there must've been a fault in the wiring, God, I really thought I'd killed him. But it was her, he'd brushed up against her mind and she'd...kicked him out, I guess you could say. Violently. I never could figure how she'd done that, but if she's been with Shaw this whole time, and he's got his own telepath -- well, that's probably what happened. The other telepath must've intervened."
It was difficult to restrain himself from dragging the entire structure down about their heads. He'd been right. This was a fucking torture device. With Charles as lab rat. "And you'd never considered what might happen if he tried to use this on another telepath? Of course she'd assume her mind was being attacked!"
Hank shrank back, straightening his glasses. "His sister isn't a telepath! How could we have known--"
"Never mind," Erik snapped, swallowing back his anger. It was well after the fact, after all. "So Charles hasn't come near Cerebro since, I presume? No wonder he isn't using it to track Shaw."
"He did try," Hank blurted out, blinking. "Uh. Didn't you know? The very first night you were here. But it didn't work."
"No, Cerebro's working fine, but...." Hank shrugged. "Charles said he couldn't feel him anywhere. But like I said," he went on hastily, "even with Cerebro, Charles can't reach everywhere. Shaw's probably just out of range."
A complex machine designed specifically for a telepath to search out other mutants -- it should have been the answer to all of Erik's prayers, a direct path to Shaw, and yet it failed. Erik ought to have felt frustrated, furious, but the only emotion he could dredge up was a grim sort of relief.
There were plenty of other ways to find Shaw. As far as Erik was concerned, Charles should never have to set foot into this damn transmitter again.
Erik enjoyed driving. There was just something uniquely satisfying about being encased within a smooth metal shell, feeling the rumble of the engine and the road peeling away beneath the tires, being so completely in control of the vehicle.
And with the judicious application of Charles's mental influence, speed limits need only be the very loosest of guidelines.
"I am not talking our way out of the ticket when you inevitably get pulled over," Charles argued, clutching the overhead handle with white knuckles. But he was also laughing so hard he could barely get the words out, so that was clearly an empty threat.
They hadn't needed Cerebro to locate the CIA's newest potential recruit; he'd done quite a fine job splashing himself all across the local headlines on his own. An otherwise nonviolent robbery in Indianapolis gone wrong and massive property damage the papers had confusingly credited to an arsonist.
"The shopkeeper described bursts of red light 'hula-hooping' out of the kid," MacTaggert had told them, passing the file over. "Summers is being held in the local jail for now. You have less than forty-eight hours before he's transferred over to Terre Haute. Assuming you want a nineteen-year-old delinquent on your team."
"He's an angry, confused kid who deserves a second chance," Charles had replied. He'd shot a quick glance over at Erik. "And I don't want to risk Shaw getting to him first."
Which was why they'd been on the road for the past five hours, currently speeding through West Virginia, the setting sun glaring through the windshield. Erik wanted to cross the Ohio border before giving up for the night, but given the unsubtle way Charles had been projecting his growing weariness at Erik for a good thirty minutes, that was looking less and less likely.
"So how do these recruitment trips normally work?" Erik asked, breaking the silence.
Charles shifted in his seat, twisting to prop his elbow up against the window. He blinked sleepily. "About as you'd expect. We find the mutant, we speak to them, we show off our powers a bit. In this case, I'd imagine that the choice between joining us or going to prison will be a fairly simple one for Alex Summers to make."
"And if the local police give us any difficulty?"
"They won't," Charles said with a faint smile. "You'll find that working for the CIA has its perks."
It sounded hollow, though. Erik couldn't help but wonder if Charles chafed at the limitations of his arrangement with the government. If he ever felt a bit like a lab rat in a very comfortable cage.
"Have you ever..." Erik tapped his temple pointedly. "Persuaded anyone to join you?"
"No," Charles said at once. His face darkened. "I would never conscript anyone against their will."
Erik relaxed slightly, loosening a knot of tension in his chest that he hadn't known existed. The other recruits had seemed willing enough, but with a power like Charles's, would they even know the difference?
"I'm sorry," he said, and meant it. "But I had to ask."
Charles met his eyes searchingly, but there was no light brush against his thoughts that Erik had come to recognize as Charles's gentle mental intrusion. After a moment, Charles sighed and looked away, slumping back into his seat. "I know," he murmured.
Erik turned his attention back to the road, trying to ignore the sinking sensation in his stomach that felt obscurely like guilt.
They made it as far as Charleston before Charles finally insisted they pull over. "If only for dinner," he said. But dinner at a local diner turned into drinks at the bar next door turned into Erik fumbling to keep Charles upright while they all but bribed the proprietor of the nearest motel to procure them a room for the night.
Charles was a warm, solid weight plastered all along his side, far heavier than he should be, making Erik stagger a little as they made their way down the hall. Erik should have minded a lot more than he did. "I'm tempted to toss you back in the car and keep driving until we find a proper hotel," he grumbled.
"If you put me in a moving vehicle right now, I'll just be sick all over the upholstery," Charles retorted, far too cheerfully.
There was only one room vacant, of course. Erik didn't even try to wrestle both the sticky lock and Charles, just unbolted the damn thing with his powers. Two beds, thank God for small mercies, narrow and hard though they appeared. Erik shoved Charles onto the one next to the window, claiming the one by the door for himself. He gave the room a cursory examination: small, dingy, but more or less clean. The mellow lamplight probably hid the worst of the grime. There was a stack of tiny paper cups next to the sink in the adjoining bathroom; he filled two with water and brought them back out to Charles.
"Here," he said. "Water. Drink it."
"I'm not a child," Charles protested, but he drank the damn water. Both tiny cupfuls. Up against the -- how many glasses of scotch? Not to mention the exceedingly questionable shots that even Erik was starting to feel -- well, it wouldn't make much of a dent against tomorrow's inevitable hangover. But it would have to do.
Neither of them had had the foresight to grab their suitcases from the car. Fuck it, Erik wasn't going back outside again now. He stripped down to his undershirt and boxers and crawled into the empty bed, rolling onto his side to look at Charles. Charles remained on top of his coverlet, eyes slipping closed. His lashes were startlingly long and dark against his cheeks. "Remind me never to drink with coal miners again," he mumbled.
Erik huffed out a laugh. "This isn't a mining town, Charles."
"West Virginia," Charles sighed, flapping his hand negligently. "Whatever. What was in those bloody shots?"
"I think the last one was blue."
The ensuing silence lasted long enough that Erik thought Charles must have drifted off. He flicked off the lamp by its metal chain without touching it.
"Raven is blue," Charles finally said, so low that Erik could hardly make the words out.
He hesitated, then propped himself up on one elbow. The window blinds were open, and the ambient light from the streetlamps was enough to pick out the line of Charles's profile, his hands clasped against his stomach. His eyes were wide open, staring up at the ceiling.
"Your sister," Erik said quietly. "Blue?"
Charles exhaled softly. "She's a shapeshifter. She can look like -- oh, anything she chooses. Young, blonde, beautiful. But her natural form is blue. She's beautiful." The sheets rustled. "I don't think I ever told her how beautiful. My fault."
Erik searched very carefully for the right words, uncertain how far he could push. "Charles, I don't think your sister disappeared because you didn't praise her looks often enough."
"It was the break between terms," Charles said. His voice sounded distant, dreamlike. "We were supposed to go to New York for a week, but I had a project I wanted to finish up at Oxford. Just another few days, but she was so impatient, and we'd already booked the hotel, so I thought, what was the harm...?"
Erik remained silent, just listening. The darkness felt warm and soft, like a blanket around them, closing the rest of the world out.
"I flew over three days later." Charles's breath hitched. "She'd never even checked into the hotel."
"Did you go to the police?"
"Of course," Charles said tonelessly. "And then they asked me for a physical description."
It took a minute to sink in, but -- shapeshifter. How could you track someone who could look like anyone? If Raven hadn't wanted to be found -- even if she had, but was being held by someone as unscrupulous as Shaw....
And still Charles had never stopped looking. He'd left behind his studies and his future, joined the CIA, threw all his energies into finding other people like them, desperate to make a difference, to create some sort of safe haven, to make up for his imagined failures with his sister. And now -- perhaps all this time -- Raven was with Shaw.
"I just want to know that she's safe," Charles murmured. "That's all. Safe, and happy."
Their beds were separated only by scant inches, the space of a narrow nightstand. But Erik somehow couldn't bring himself to breach the distance. What if she can't have both? he wanted to ask. Safe or happy -- what choice would you make for her? For yourself?
He was still turning the thought over and over in his head when he slipped smoothly and unexpectedly into sleep.
The afternoon was half gone by the time they reached Indianapolis, but on the plus side, at least the hangover had worn off by then. Alex Summers was being kept in the holding cells of a local police station, guarded by what looked like half the force. Which was a bit much for a touch of petty larceny, Erik thought, but he was unsurprised by the overreaction.
"Well," Charles said under his breath as they surveyed the overflowing station. "This certainly won't do."
It was amazing how quickly a room could clear when you had a telepath on your side.
They made their way down to the cells unaccompanied. Erik shot him a pointed smirk, and Charles rolled his eyes. "My head hurts. I didn't want to have to do this with the entire peanut gallery on hand."
"And that little display of mental prowess hurt less?"
"Oh, do shut up," Charles muttered. "I thought my telepathy made you uneasy."
Erik shrugged. "It takes getting used to. But it's a part of who you are. You shouldn't have to apologize for that."
"I don't intend to," Charles said tartly, but his face flushed at Erik's obvious approval. It occurred to Erik that for all Charles preached acceptance and brotherhood, he'd probably experienced precious little of it himself until very recently -- and the other mutants he'd recruited looked up to him as a teacher rather than seeing him as an equal. Erik allowed his arm to brush against Charles's, letting his smirk soften into something more genuine, and was rewarded with a brilliant smile.
He was startled to realize that they'd already reached Summers's cell.
"Hello, Alex," Charles said.
The boy in the cell jerked upright, eyes wild. He was a handsome enough young man, the sort of wholesome All-American Midwestern boy one didn't expect to find behind bars. But there was something tight and frightened in his eyes, in the tense way he held himself, that Erik found instantly familiar. This kid had been knocked around by life well before he'd landed himself in here.
"Who the hell are you?" Alex demanded gruffly, puffing out his chest as though to make himself larger, more in control. It didn't work; he was still just a scared kid in a narrow jail cell.
"I'm Erik Lehnsherr, and this is Charles Xavier," Erik said, careful not to talk down to him. "We're here to discuss your future."
Alex snorted, nodding at the bars between them. "Yeah, I gotta tell you, it doesn't look like there's much of that to discuss."
Erik smiled. "That's all a matter of perspective." He waved a hand, and the metal bars parted smoothly, leaving plenty of space for a young man to slip through, should he so choose. Beside him, Erik could feel as much as hear Charles's sigh, but the tentative brush against his mind was warm, approving.
"Okay," Alex said after a long few moments. "I'm listening."
In retrospect, they should have known it was going too easily. But Alex had made far too much of a spectacle of himself when he'd been arrested, and it didn't take government connections to work out where he was being held. They were halfway across the parking lot with their new recruit in tow when Charles stopped abruptly, his eyes going very wide.
"Shaw's telepath," he said. "She's here."
That was when the winds picked up.
Alex stared up at the clear blue sky. "You've got to be fucking kidding me, it's not tornado season--"
"This isn't a natural wind," Erik said tightly. He didn't have eyes for anything but Charles, who stood stock-still with his fingers pressed to his temple, brow creased in concentration. "Alex, get in the car."
Erik tossed the keys at him with more force than was strictly necessary. "The black Buick. Get inside."
"It's someone like us, isn't it?" Alex said slowly, clutching the car keys in his hand. "The wind--"
Sure enough, Shaw's man emerged from around the corner of the building, as immaculately dressed as he'd been on the yacht, whirlwinds gathering at his open palms. The telepath stood just behind him, her eyes narrowed on Charles. "Hey there, sugar," she called. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Take the boy and get him out of here," Charles said through gritted teeth. "She's not as strong as I am, I can hold her off for as long as you need."
Fuck that. Erik reached for his rage, glowing within him like a banked fire, and let it seep out to fill his skin. They were in a city. There was plenty of metal on hand. "Summers, if you're not going to get out of the way, you'd better not come crying to me when you get hurt."
"Erik!" Charles snapped, sparing him a quick, heated glace. "We're right in front of a bloody police station, we can't afford to make a scene--"
The storm-maker released his whirlwinds.
"Rather late for that, isn't it?" Erik remarked acidly. He ripped a streetlamp out of the ground, hurling it at Shaw's people. One of the whirlwinds swooped up to catch it and flung it right back at him. Erik deflected it with a grunt.
Charles was still locked in some sort of mental struggle with the other telepath, standing straight and still, heedless of the wind whipping around him. He was like the eye of a hurricane, calm and fierce, glorious; Erik felt something snare within his chest, hopelessly tangled. But he couldn't pick the knot apart now.
There was no sign of Shaw, or any of his other minions; apparently he had more important things to do than investigate reports of a jailed young mutant with control issues. Erik focused his energies on the whirlwind man instead, making a deliberate show of tossing the streetlamp back and forth between them while simultaneously allowing a crumpled ball of various metals to grow behind the other man's back. The wind knocked him to his knees as he reached out and yanked the makeshift lump toward him.
It smacked Shaw's man in the back of his head, knocking him out cold. The winds died down immediately. The woman let loose a low, piercing whistle; before Erik could figure out what the fuck that meant, there was a puff of dark smoke and a fucking comic book devil materialized beside the unconscious man. He put his hand on whirlwind guy's shoulder and they both vanished.
"Oh, no you damn well don't," Erik snarled, leaping to his feet. "Not without telling us--"
He heard a strange, high-pitching whooshing sort of noise, and then bright red pulses of energy whipped past him, heading straight for the telepath. So much for keeping Alex out of the fray. Her eyes widened for only a fraction of a second before her body transformed into pure diamond.
The energy beam deflected right off her, but Erik hardly noticed. At the precise moment the telepath turned to diamond, Charles cried out and collapsed to his knees, clutching his head.
He didn't even remember moving, but somehow he was at Charles's side, grabbing his shoulders. The red-skinned man reappeared and then vanished again, taking the woman away with him and leaving that unpleasantly sulfurous smoke in their wake. Erik couldn't have possibly cared less. "Charles!"
"I'm fine," Charles groaned, lifting his head heavily. He rubbed his temples with a grimace. "I can't read her in her diamond form. Being so deeply entrenched in her mind when she shifted -- it's a bit like being kicked in the head."
Erik shifted his arm carefully around Charles's back, helping him to sit upright. The adrenaline from the fight and the sudden burst of terror at Charles's collapse surged uncomfortably through his blood, his pulse racing; he did his best to ignore it. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Charles looked up at him, eyes very, very blue. His lips twisted in a crooked smile. "Bit of a headache. It will pass. Erik, I'm so terribly sorry I let her slip away--"
"Fuck her," Erik said, and kissed him.
It only lasted for a few pounding heartbeats, but oh, Charles's lips were warm and pliant against his, and he arched up into the kiss like a compass needle seeking out due north. Erik reluctantly pulled away to find Charles staring up at him, dazed. "I've definitely been hit in the head," Charles murmured.
"Come on," Erik said roughly, dragging his gaze away from Charles's still-parted lips. "Let's get moving before they come back with reinforcements."
He'd completely forgotten about Alex fucking Summers, of course, who was standing there watching them uncertainly.
"Good work with the energy bursts. It's not your fault she snapped on Charles. Now get in the damn car, Summers." Erik helped Charles to his feet, shooting Alex a glare that dared him to comment further. "Unless you've changed your mind about joining us?"
"Whatever," Alex said, unimpressed. "Like I wouldn't have seen way worse in prison."
Cleaning up the aftereffects of the incident in the parking lot was a bit more complicated than just cutting and running, of course. Erik did his best to surreptitiously sort out the metal debris and keep an eye on Alex while Charles spoke to the police chief at length. Oddly enough, there were no actual witnesses to the skirmish -- which meant that either the general populace of Indianapolis was far stupider than even Erik gave them credit for, or Charles was a talented enough multi-tasker that he'd managed to divert an entire police station's worth of curious bystanders while simultaneously engaged in his battle of wills with Shaw's telepath.
"Frost," Charles said wearily, when they finally made it back on the road several hours later. "Her name is Emma Frost. The other man calls himself Riptide. The teleporter is Azazel. Know thy enemy, et cetera, can we please use proper names now?"
Erik slanted him a glance. "Frost's mind must have been a veritable fount of information."
Charles's lips thinned. "Yes, what little I could read through her not inconsiderable defenses. Unfortunately, that goes both ways. Pull over at the first hotel you find, please, I need to make a phone call. We're not going back to Richmond."
They booked two rooms at the hotel -- this one of a slightly higher class than their lodgings in Charleston -- and Alex immediately disappeared into his, muttering about a proper fucking bath and three days rotting in that damn concrete bunker and pillows, Jesus Christ. Erik thought, resigned, that he was probably going to like this kid.
The second room was another double, like the last, but the beds were each worth two of the cramped twins in last night's room. "The lap of luxury," Erik remarked dryly.
Charles just shot him a quick smile before sitting cross-legged on one of the beds and occupying himself with the phone on the nightstand. He'd seemed withdrawn and anxious ever since the fight with Frost, though he'd kept up a good front for Alex's sake. Erik perched on the edge of the other bed and waited.
"I need to speak with Agent Muñoz," Charles said tersely, presumably to one of the CIA's operators. It took Erik a few seconds to make the connection -- Darwin, of course. Charles's favored lieutenant.
Several minutes passed before Darwin came on the line, during which Erik watched Charles grow increasingly concerned, worrying his lower lip distractingly between his teeth. Finally, his face brightened. "There you are. It's Charles. Yes, we found the Summers boy -- no, wait, I need you to listen to me." He took a breath, looking up to meet Erik's eyes. "You remember Plan B? Execute it tonight."
Erik frowned, and Charles held out a placating hand. "Of course," he said into the phone. "You can charge the hotel to my account if necessary. I just want you well out of Virginia first." A pause. "Not until late tomorrow night at the earliest, and that's only if we push straight through. It's a longer drive for us. Yes, still in Indiana. I'll explain at the house." He nodded, smile strained, as though Darwin could see him. "You as well. Be safe," he added, then hung up the phone and buried his face in his hands, breathing deeply.
"Charles?" Erik asked, doing his best to tamp down his instinctive alarm. "What's 'Plan B'?"
"A house up in Westchester." Charles looked back up at him, running his hand through his hair. "It's mine, technically, though I haven't lived there in years. I told Darwin about it -- oh, some time ago. As a back-up in case we ever needed to leave the CIA in a hurry." His brow creased. "Oh, God, I should probably call Moira and warn her--"
Erik pushed himself off his bed to sit beside Charles, clasping his shoulder. "Charles. You've worked all this out with Darwin, yes?"
"In exhaustive detail," Charles said, with a small, reluctant smile.
"So trust him to take care of things on his end." He rubbed small circles into Charles's shoulder, trying to keep his voice low and soothing. Erik had never had much occasion to offer or receive comfort, but this felt natural enough. "Why are you having them bug out?"
Charles's smile faltered. "Frost. I didn't get much from her -- surface thoughts, mainly. But I have to assume she could read just as much off of me. If Shaw's interested in recruiting...."
"You think she might have discovered the Richmond facility from your thoughts."
"There was also an entire police station full of personnel," Charles added. "Even with the CIA's involvement, prisoner transfer involves an awful lot of paperwork. Some of it might even have been accurate, and who knows who Oliver might have spoken to in that office, or what he might have said. It would be no effort at all for a telepath of Frost's ability to skim their minds for that information."
"But this other house is safe?"
Charles nodded. "It's not listed on any of my records with the CIA; no one there knows it exists, apart from Darwin. And I certainly wasn't thinking about it while I was facing Frost -- it didn't occur to me until much later."
Another thought occurred -- "Won't the guards at the CIA try to stop your team from leaving?"
"We've worked that out," was all Charles would say to that.
They sat together in silence for a little while, listening to Alex thump about in the neighboring room. Eventually Charles sighed, some of the tension draining out of his spine. He shot Erik a sidelong glance. "You were rather magnificent out there today, by the way. I don't think I had the opportunity to mention it."
Erik shrugged, dropping his hand uncomfortably. "I just hurled some metal about. It didn't take much finesse."
"I beg to differ," Charles retorted. There was something soft and strange in the curve of his smile. "But I also meant the way you handled Alex."
Erik frowned. "I didn't do anything. Dealing with young mutant idiots is your area of expertise, not mine."
"You spoke to him like an adult, you encouraged him to take initiative, and you never attempted to either coddle or bully him." Charles rested his hand on Erik's knee, pressing gently. His body felt far too warm, too close. "That's far better treatment than he's received from anyone else in quite some time."
"Charles," Erik said quietly. "Earlier, after the skirmish--"
"You had damn well better be about to kiss me again," Charles murmured, the words tumbling from his lips like a prayer, so Erik did.
He'd had his fair share of lovers, of course -- most perfunctory, one- or two-night stands at best -- but once, memorably, he'd allowed himself to fall further. Magda had been a beautiful, delicate girl; he'd always been so damn careful making love to her, terribly gentle, terrified he would break her apart.
(And he had, in the end, though not with his hands. The human heart, it turned out, was far more fragile than the body that contained it.)
But Charles was far from delicate. He kissed back fiercely, arms wrapping about Erik with a surprising strength belied by his soft cardigans and posh accent. He pressed Erik down into the mattress, straddling his waist; it was all Erik could do at first to just hold on. So no, he didn't need to be careful with Charles, who could easily overpower him with a thought if Erik ever pushed too hard.
He didn't need to be gentle, but somehow, he wanted to be. He took his time, holding Charles firmly in place by his watch, by the buckle in his belt, by the firm weight of Erik's own body against his. And when Erik deliberately opened his mind to Charles -- pressing their foreheads together, the yes falling from his lips and his thoughts alike -- Charles's smile was so bright it could have powered the whole Midwest.
"I touched so many minds in Cerebro," Charles murmured afterward, mapping out the topography of Erik's face with his fingertips. "Hundreds, maybe even thousands -- there are so many of us out there. I could feel them all -- their isolation, their hopes, their ambitions. And every one of them unique, beautiful in their own way. But that night, in the water--" He pressed his lips against Erik's temple, wonderingly. "God, Erik, I've never felt anything like you."
Erik trailed his palms along the smooth, soft skin of Charles's side, enjoying the way he squirmed slightly at the ticklish spots. "The feeling was entirely mutual," he remarked dryly. "When did you first know that there were others like us out there -- that you weren't alone?"
Charles stilled. "Raven, of course." He shifted again, slipping his arm around Erik's waist. "She's not my sister by blood, you know."
"If you like," Charles said, breath huffing against Erik's cheek. "I was twelve. I found her in our kitchen, searching for food. She'd disguised herself as my mother. I nearly hit her with a baseball bat."
Erik chuckled and turned his head to catch Charles's lips. He took his time, tongue tracing along the slightly crooked line of Charles's teeth, feeling the pleasant vibration when Charles hummed softly into his mouth, the light stubble on Charles's chin rasping against his own. He could feel Charles's mind brushing up against his own, like a contented sigh, soft and forgiving. Gradually, they separated, kisses growing shallower, the breaths between lengthening. Charles smiled against Erik's lips, a singular sensation that Erik was rapidly becoming far too fond of.
"But you wound up taking her in instead," Erik finally said. "Just the first of many strays, apparently."
Charles tucked his grin into the crook of Erik's neck, limbs loose and heavy. "I suppose we all have our vices."
They took their time getting to Westchester. It would be at least a thirteen or fourteen hour drive straight through; even Charles could admit that there was no real urgency. "We could abandon the car and catch a flight instead," Erik offered, that first morning.
Charles pinched the bridge of his nose, considering it. "No, Darwin will be fine. And I'd prefer not to leave a paper trail."
It was a thin excuse, as both he and Erik were more than capable of covering their tracks, but Erik didn't press. For all Charles's anxiety over his team, he didn't seem particularly eager to return to his family's home. Erik refrained from asking.
Around midday, they pulled over into a gas station by a wide, empty field somewhere in Ohio. The lone attendant was napping in the tiny attached convenience store. Erik manipulated the mechanisms within the battered payphone to negate the need for coins; Charles huffed at the petty thievery, but completely failed to suppress his smile as he placed a free long-distance call to the Westchester house.
While Charles spoke with Darwin, Alex wandered out into the field, ostensibly to stretch his legs. He'd been remarkably compliant, not once complaining about the long road trip. Erik checked to be sure the station attendant was still half-asleep before following Alex off.
"I didn't have a chance to properly observe your powers yesterday," he remarked, watching Alex lazily through his shades. "Mind giving me a demonstration?"
Alex jammed his hands in the pockets of his jeans, mouth twisting. "Dunno if that's such a great idea." He glanced nervously back across the field to the gas station, the narrow country road.
"No one's near enough to pay us any mind," Erik said patiently. "And you won't hurt anything out here."
"I could hurt you."
Erik grinned. He'd been told it wasn't his most reassuring expression. "You're welcome to try."
Alex shuddered, but he also took a few steps further away from Erik, rolling his shoulders back to loosen them. "All right, man, but I'm warning you, this shit's kinda hard to control."
They really did look a bit like hula hoops, Erik thought, fascinated. Three distinct hoops of energy gathered like a storm cloud about Alex's torso, then burst out seemingly at random. And he hadn't been kidding about his control issues. One singed a rather spectacular swathe of grass, another made good headway against the nearest tree, and the third spun off to fortunately dissipate in the open air a few meters short of the gas station.
"Marvelous," Erik told him sincerely. Alex's face flushed; he'd certainly never been complimented on this before. "But yesterday, in the parking lot, you managed to hit Frost dead on. So you are capable of some control."
Alex shrugged. "That was mostly luck, I think. And I mean, it's not like I was aiming for anything out here."
"Lesson number one," Erik said. "You're always aiming at something. It doesn't necessarily matter what, but you must give yourself a target, direction. Otherwise you're just shouting into the storm. And the storm doesn't give a shit."
This time Erik hadn't noticed the flicker in his mind that signaled Charles's particular attentions. But when they returned to the car, there was something soft and searching in Charles's gaze. "My turn to drive," Charles said, his voice low and terribly fond, and when Erik silently handed over the keys, Charles's fingers tangled against his, just for a moment.
They stopped for the night in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. It certainly wasn't an issue finding vacancies in the local motel, but again, they booked only two rooms. Erik hesitated in the doorway for only a moment. "There's only one bed."
Charles gave him an arch glance over his shoulder. "Will that be a problem?"
Erik closed the door behind them with a smile.
Erik came awake all at once, fully alert and tensed for attack. For once, Charles had beaten him up -- he was already fully dressed, perching at the side of the bed. His face looked pale and drawn, and there was an odd note in his voice that set off loud alarm klaxons in Erik's mind. "What's happened?"
"I just called Moira. The facility was attacked last night. Oliver's dead."
Erik nodded slowly. He wouldn't grieve for the man, but that didn't mean he took any joy in his death. And Charles had worked with him for much longer. "Shaw?"
"Presumably." Charles kept his tone steady, if strained. "There's no way to be sure, though. He left no witnesses."
Stupid. So fucking stupid of Erik to forget why he was here in the first place. He'd allowed himself to become distracted by these young mutants, the heady temptation of being among others like him for the first time in his life. He should have taken the file from Charles and run on his very first night. He might have tracked Shaw on his own by now, instead of wandering aimlessly about the country with an idealistic university drop-out--
Charles flinched back as though struck. "Right," he said, voice brittle. "We need to get to Westchester as soon as possible. I'll get Alex moving and meet you at the car in, say, fifteen minutes?"
He was gone before Erik had a chance to say anything at all.
Erik refused to relinquish control of the wheel for the entire remainder of their journey. He also was not averse to giving the car an extra burst of speed with his powers whenever the roads were empty enough to permit it. Charles seemed too preoccupied to notice. Alex vocally expressed his approval on a fairly regular basis, in between the occasional pleas to let him have a go of it, which Erik paid no attention whatsoever. Lunch was whatever crap Alex grabbed them at the convenience shop when they inevitably had to refill the gas tank. Potato chips, maybe, and a Coke. It didn't matter. Erik hardly tasted it.
They reached New York in record time, Charles giving terse directions as they neared Westchester County. But when the narrow drive opened up to a wide, immaculately manicured lawn, afternoon sunlight glinting off -- were those turrets? Erik was sure he must have made a wrong turn somewhere.
"Holy shit," Alex said, sticking his head out the window.
Erik glanced over at Charles incredulously. He'd guessed that Charles came from money -- his upper-crust accent, his insistence on covering every bar tab, every restaurant bill -- but this was rather beyond the pale. "I thought you called it a house, not a fucking estate."
"Home sweet home," Charles murmured, gaze distant. "Just pull in here."
It was impressive, Erik had to give him that. Now they just had to remake it into a fortress.
Darwin and the others were already heading out to greet them -- Charles must have telegraphed their arrival to the house. Alex tumbled straight out of the car, bitching about sitting in the backseat all damn day, and Charles sighed and went on ahead to introduce him to the rest of the team.
Erik started to follow them, but as soon as he stepped out of the Buick, his legs cramped up and he had to stop, leaning against the car for support. It wasn't just his legs, he realized -- all his muscles ached, as though he'd just run several back-to-back marathons. He grimaced and breathed deeply, trying to stretch it out.
"I was worried you might be overdoing it." He looked up to find Charles beside him, concern etched across his features. "You were using your powers to speed us along all day, Erik, that takes a physical toll as well. Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
Erik shrugged, then winced when every muscle group in his shoulders screamed at him. "I didn't think you wanted to be anywhere near my head today," he said, too honestly.
"I didn't need to go diving in to feel the power rolling off you," Charles retorted. The smile he offered Erik was faint but genuine. "Come on, Darwin's getting Alex settled, now let's get you inside."
"Do you intend to carry me?"
Charles coughed, clearly suppressing a laugh. "No, but I could probably dull the pain receptors in your brain for a few minutes, if you'd like."
Now that was a ramification of Charles's abilities that Erik hadn't considered. "You can do that?"
"Yes," Charles said, looking suddenly hesitant. "If you'd like. Only if you'd like."
While he still wasn't terribly keen on the notion of Charles rummaging about in his head, he would prefer to be able to walk into the house on his own power. "All right," he said warily. "Let's give it a try."
Just as he suspected Charles's show of pressing his finger to his temple was born of habit rather than necessity, he was absolutely certain Charles didn't need any physical contact with the people whose minds he touched. But he could appreciate Charles's caution in telegraphing his intentions. And when Charles stepped in close, reaching up to gently cup his palm along Erik's cheek before settling his fingertips at Erik's temple, a degree of tension drained out of Erik's body that had nothing to do with telepathic manipulation.
"Better?" Charles asked, breath brushing against Erik's lips.
Erik closed his eyes, feeling the aches subside, like cool aloe numbing a sunburn. Charles's thumb stroked lightly across his cheekbone. "Getting there," he agreed.
Somewhere in the house, Sean shrieked with laughter. This was immediately followed by the sound of shattering glass. Erik sighed. It sounded like Charles's little trick would be coming in very handy in the weeks ahead.
It was fully dark when Erik struggled out of formless dreams, feeling thick and disoriented from his nap. He should have at least pushed through past supper -- now his internal clock would be thrown off kilter for another day or so. Out in the hall, the grandfather clocked chimed ten o'clock, resonating even through the thick bedroom walls. He'd slept nearly seven hours, then. No wonder he'd awoken.
There was no hope of falling directly back to sleep now. He might as well explore his new home.
Halfway down the curving staircase, his stomach chose to remind him just how little he'd eaten that day. Well, this was a damn mansion, there must be some sort of food tucked away somewhere. Erik reached out with his powers, feeling for the particular arrangement of metals that might suggest kitchen appliances. It was an imperfect experiment, but after a few false leads, he pushed open a plain oak door to discover the kitchen. An enormous cast-iron stove dominated one corner, singing in Erik's mind. There was already a light on; Charles sat at the bare table, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, staring down at his clasped hands.
"Charles?" Erik called softly, stepping inside, leaving the door standing open to the hall behind him.
Charles glanced up at him briefly. "Ah, hello," he said. His smile didn't reach his eyes. "Couldn't sleep?"
There was something closed off about his entire demeanor, as though he'd turned himself inward. His gaze flickered back down to the table. A line of tension stretched across the set of his shoulders, his rigid, unwelcoming posture setting Erik awkwardly on edge. If it were anyone else, Erik would have left him to the solitude he so clearly desired, but this was Charles. Erik had already fucked up whatever this thing was between them once today; he had to try again.
"You okay?" Erik asked, wincing inwardly at the platitude. He ought to be taking the seat right beside Charles; they'd never had much respect for one another's boundaries, and there was no reason to start now. But the distance sat heavily between them, impassable.
Charles's lips thinned. "Of course," he said tonelessly. "It's just..." He sighed, bringing his hands up to massage his temples.
A trickle of pure ice pooled in Erik's stomach. Without making any overt movements, he reached out to every scrap of metal in the kitchen.
"Sorry," Charles went on, with his familiar self-deprecating smile. "I haven't been in this house for...quite some time. I'm afraid that some of the memories are proving rather difficult to shake."
Erik gently eased every one of the stainless steel kitchen knives out of their block. Charles gave no sign that he noticed. They were well out of his line of sight.
It's kinda tough to take a telepath by surprise, you know?
"Understandably so," Erik said quietly. "This kitchen is where you first met Charles, wasn't it?"
Charles went very, very still. Erik clenched his hand into a fist, and all of the knives flew directly toward him, stopping abruptly inches away from Charles's body. One slipped in closer, not quite teasing the bare, smooth skin at Charles's throat.
"Please," Raven said, still wearing her brother's voice, his face, those familiar blue eyes fixed imploringly on Erik's. How dare she.
And oh, God, why had it never occurred to him before now that Charles's "house in Westchester" was the house he and Raven had grown up in together?
There was no time for self-recrimination, or anger at Charles's naïveté in leading them all here. He had no idea how to project telepathically, but hadn't Charles once told him how loudly he broadcasted? CHARLES! Erik thought as loudly as possible, shouting inside his head, praying it would be enough.
"You could at least have the decency not to hide in your brother's skin," Erik snapped, stalking toward her. "Do you have any idea how long he's been searching for you? What he's given up? Why return to him now, like this?"
Raven gave him a long, hard look. It was somehow a completely alien expression on Charles's familiar features -- there was no affection in it, no intensity. Even angry, or hurt, Charles's eyes on his had never been so utterly devoid of intimacy. Erik had never even realized what was there until it suddenly wasn't.
And then she shifted.
Under other circumstances, he might have been fascinated by the ripple of blue across her features, the fluid shift of skin and muscle. Blue-scaled and copper-haired, her amber eyes gleaming, Raven's true form was absolutely stunning. Erik couldn't have cared less. "Thank you," he said curtly. He eased the knives away from her a few more inches, giving her a bit more breathing space. Now what the hell was he supposed to do with her until he could find Charles?
"No," she said. "Thank you." And with an agile swiftness he couldn't possibly have foreseen, she kicked out and struck him squarely in the solar plexus.
He stumbled backward with a grunt, winded, but still managed to whip the knives forward. But she arched her spine back with a flexibility that shouldn't be physically possible (for a human, he reminded himself, which she most certainly wasn't) and then backflipped over the side of the chair, ducking and rolling onto the floor. What a magnificent weapon she was. Erik had to drop the knives, hampered by the realization that he absolutely could not kill Charles's sister; a most inconvenient handicap. Oh, he understood Raven Xavier all too well. He knew what it was to be coerced by Shaw, manipulated by him, honed into a deadly blade. She would fight dirty and well; he couldn't let her gain the upper hand. He threw himself at her, tackling her to the floor, trying to pin her arms while reaching out for any metal he might use to bind her. But she wriggled out of his grasp, kicking at him again -- he narrowly dodged being struck in the head--
The voice reverberated within his head, freezing him in place. Raven was held similarly immobile. After far too long -- Erik's blood roaring in his ears -- the tight pressure on his mind released, and he scrambled backwards, gasping with relief at being able to move. He pulled himself to his feet.
Charles stood in the open doorway, hands clenched into fists at his sides. And God, Erik never wanted to see that expression on Charles's face again. He looked wrecked. It must never have even occurred to him that his own sister might betray their location to Shaw. Stupid, trusting man.
But God, it should have occurred to Erik. He should have seen this coming a mile away. How could he have allowed himself to become so thoroughly distracted?
"Raven?" Charles whispered.
She still couldn't move her body, but Charles freed her enough that her head and neck, at least, were mobile. "I didn't come here to attack you, Charles."
Erik? Charles murmured in his mind, seeking -- confirmation, reassurance, denial, he didn't know. All he could give Charles was the truth.
"I came downstairs and she was wearing your body," he said bluntly. "I don't take deception well. But I didn't initiate the fight."
Charles nodded, never taking his eyes off Raven. "You should have come directly to me," he told her. His voice sounded like sandpaper, scraped raw. "You can always come to me, Raven. Always."
"Let me go, Charles," she asked, not quite pleading. "Please. I won't try to run."
Erik shook his head at once, but Charles clearly ignored him. Raven let out a sigh that seemed to ripple down the entire length of her body, then drew herself upright, head held high. They both had steel in their spines, the Xavier siblings; together, they would have been a force to be reckoned with.
"I came to warn you," Raven said roughly. "There's a revolution coming. Shaw's revolution. And if you're not with him, you're against him."
Charles stiffened. "Did he send you? Is he hurting you? If you're free to come and go as you please--"
"He doesn't know I'm here. He doesn't know about this place -- yet, but he'll find out, he always finds out." She took a gulping breath. "Please, Charles. Come with me. Join us. Shaw's promised -- we won't have to hide anymore. We can live like kings--"
"At what cost?" Charles grabbed her hands; she recoiled, but he wouldn't let go. "Raven--"
"Mystique," she snapped. "It's Mystique now."
"Mystique," Charles said, the desperation thick in his voice. Erik's chest felt tight just listening to him; he grabbed the back of the nearest chair, willing himself calm, feeling all the metal in the room vibrate with his futile need to set things right. But there was no one here for him to fight, nothing his powers could fix. This wasn't his battle. "Stay with us here," Charles went on. "We can keep you safe--"
"I'm through with hiding," she said, not quite a sob. "Charles, why would you fight us -- me? Why would you take the side of humans, of people who hate and fear us, over your own sister?"
"We're not at war!"
"We will be," Erik said quietly. "She's right about that much."
"Not if we stop Shaw," Charles retorted. "We don't need to stoop to his level, we have it in us to be the better men--"
Raven shook her head, now clasping his hands just as tightly. "You can't stop Shaw, Charles. And we already are the better men -- the better species. Can't you see that?"
Charles went suddenly still, staring at her intently. "Why?" he said softly. "Raven, what's Shaw planning?"
"Come with me and find out," she pleaded. Then her eyes went very wide. Her form rippled rapidly, shifting into a human body, young and blonde. The disguise she used to wear as Raven Xavier, perhaps? "No! Charles, you promised--"
"I'm so sorry," Charles said, and closed his eyes, still clutching her hands in his own. She let out a soft sob and crumpled to her knees, and he followed, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight. He pressed his cheek to the top of her head and looked up at Erik. "Oh, God," he said quietly. "It's far worse than we'd previously imagined. Shaw's trying to start a nuclear war."
Erik took that in slowly. Strange, how very monstrous the thought was, and yet how little it shocked him. Herr Doktor had been an unapologetic Nazi; that he intended to expand his genocidal tendencies on a global scale was singularly unsurprising. "Then we'll stop him," he said. "As we already planned."
Charles stared at him for a long moment, unreadable. Erik couldn't begin to name the emotions flickering behind his wide blue eyes. "Yes," Charles murmured. "I suppose we will."
"Charles." Erik didn't want to ask, but he had to. "How did she get here?"
"Azazel," Charles said on a sigh, rocking his weeping sister in his arms. "He'll be back for her momentarily. No one else knows they're here."
"I'm afraid that won't last long." Erik grimaced. With the CIA facility destroyed, they'd need to find someplace else to go. Somewhere isolated enough for four -- no, five rowdy young mutants to hone their abilities, and quickly, the battle fast approaching whether they were ready for it or not--
"Yes," Charles said, so softly that Erik could hardly make it out. "It will."
He gently loosened his hold on Raven, pulling away just enough to tilt her head up. Her hazel eyes glistened in the lamplight. "I missed you so, so much," Charles told her.
She let out a little hiccup, forcing a smile. "Yeah. Me, too."
"You're beautiful, you know," he said quietly. "Just as you are. I never meant to make you feel otherwise." He reached up to curl her blonde hair around his fingers. "I only ever wanted to keep you safe."
"We can make the world safe for all of us," she urged. "Mutant and proud." She shifted again, back into her natural, blue form, meeting his eyes beseechingly.
Charles smiled sadly, and all at once, Erik understood what he was going to do. "I know we can. And we will." He gently cupped her face in his hands, bringing her down to press a kiss to her forehead.
And his arms were open to catch her when she slumped forward, unconscious.
A puff of smoke and sulfur heralded Azazel's arrival; Erik reacted at once, knives at the ready, but Azazel was frozen where he stood. "It's all right, Erik," Charles said wearily. "I've got him. Could you please assist me with my sister?"
Erik knelt at Charles's side, lifting Raven carefully out of Charles's embrace. When he had her securely tucked into his own arms, he got to his feet. Charles followed, briskly wiping the tears off his cheeks as he walked up to the immobile teleporter.
"You will return with Mystique to wherever you came from," Charles said, pressing his fingertips to Azazel's temple. "And then you will forget you were ever here."
Erik shifted his hold on Raven, arching his eyebrows. "You're letting her go back to Shaw?"
"Raven made her choice," Charles said roughly. "I have no right to take it away from her. All right, I'm going to release Azazel now."
He did. Azazel blinked, as though coming out of a trance, then mechanically held his arms out for Raven. With one last glance at Charles, Erik sighed and passed the girl over, then took a step back.
He was really getting sick of the scent of sulfur, he thought irritably as Azazel and Raven vanished.
The instant they were gone, Charles sank into a chair, burying his face in his hands. He was shaking, Erik realized, striding quickly to his side. He should be angry with Charles -- should be furious. Charles had brought this down on his own head by blinding himself to the possibility that Raven might betray the mansion's location to Shaw. He'd unthinkingly placed all of them in very real danger.
But Charles had the look of someone whose entire worldview had just come crumbling down around him, and God, Erik couldn't walk away from him now.
When he reached out to clasp Charles's shoulder, Charles jerked away. "Not now," Charles said harshly. "I can't, Erik, I'm sorry."
Erik stepped back, palms open. "All right," he said. "I understand. Believe me, I understand--"
Charles's head whipped up, his eyes blazing. "I just wiped my own sister's memories of the house we grew up in," he snapped, voice cracking. "I erased any knowledge of its existence out of her mind so that Shaw and Frost couldn't force it out of her. What, exactly, do you think you understand?"
"I understand what it is to think of yourself as a monster." If it came out a bit too roughly, well, maybe that was what Charles needed. Someone to fight with. "You did what you had to do--"
"To save myself?" Charles laughed, an ugly, strangled sound. "Yes, I'm aces at self-preservation, Erik."
"No, to protect the people you care about," Erik retorted. "Darwin. Alex. Angel. Sean. Hank. Shaw would have considered any one of them to be a fucking prize. And they are, but not for him. Never for him. And Raven -- if he knew you had a place like this to retreat to, if he suspected she knew about it--"
Charles squeezed his eyes shut. "I know that now. Of course I know that, why do you think I did it?" He shook his head helplessly. "God, I always hated this house, I never thought she'd come looking for me here, I never thought she could really be working with Shaw, not willingly--"
"I know," Erik said, as gently as he knew how. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. I know what it means to have to take desperate measures. I understand, Charles." He waited a moment, just looking at him. Charles's hair was a wreck and there were dark bruises smudged under his eyes; his shirt was rumpled and damp at the shoulder from Raven's tears. He was probably the most powerful telepath in the world, could wipe a man's memories in a breath and freeze him in place and quite possibly kill with a thought, if he so chose; a man of Charles's abilities had greater potential for becoming a true monster than perhaps anyone else Erik had ever met.
Thank God it was Charles, then.
"I promised her once that I would never read her mind," Charles whispered.
What comforting lies people told themselves, Erik thought, aching with the need to touch him, knowing he might not be welcome. Alles ist gut. But he and Charles had never made each other any promises they couldn't keep. "I'll leave you be, if that's what you'd prefer."
But Charles reached out and grabbed his hand, finally looking up at him. "No," he said. "Please. I don't want to be alone right now."
"All right." Erik gently tugged him up to his feet. "Come on. That chair doesn't look terribly comfortable. I hear there might be an actual bedroom or two upstairs."
Charles's breath hitched in what might have been a laugh. He pulled himself in toward Erik, almost awkwardly, as though uncertain they'd fit; Erik sighed and wrapped his arms around him, holding him close. Slowly, gradually, he could feel the tension melt out of Charles's whole body, Charles's arms slipping around Erik's waist, his cheek pressing into Erik's shoulder.
"I'm not just going to stop Shaw, you know," Erik had to say, making sure to keep his determination honed bright in his mind. "I'm going to kill him."
"I know." Charles's grip on his waist tightened, not quite hard enough to bruise. "But don't you dare lay a finger on my sister." He hesitated, then pulled back enough to look up at Erik, expression guarded. "You have every right to be angry with me."
"I know," Erik agreed. He ran his palms up and down Charles's back, tugging him ever closer. "Maybe tomorrow."
Charles sagged back against him, heavy with relief and exhaustion and still-sharp grief. His thoughts fluttered against Erik's, not intruding, just warm and light and there. Erik worried he might be getting too used to the sensation, then decided he didn't care.
"Hey," he said quietly into Charles's hair. "You okay?"
"No," Charles murmured, with wrenching honesty. He pressed a kiss against Erik's neck. "But I'm working on it."