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Marginally Futile

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"Down! Down!" Erik orders, and Sean and Angel drop. Now that he doesn't have to mind them, Erik can cast his wires and filings out wide, slicing through the heads of all the ghouls closing in around them. That done, he points at Angel. "Recon. Go," while he drags Sean by the collar away from the cabin, only pausing long enough to scoop up his sack.

Angel takes to the air at once and spirals out from Erik's position til she's a dragonfly on the horizon, and then she's back. "Just one, back in the trees. I nailed him in the head." She checks over her modified nailgun while Erik reaches out toward the woods with his power, searching for the zinc-coated nail. He moves it, feels the resistance of bone, and sends the nail down into the meat of the brain, zinging it around within the skull til he senses the pull on the nail when the body drops.

Erik turns on the two of them, seething "Never again" through clenched teeth. "You stay in the air or you go back to base."

"They were all over you," Sean tries, but he falls silent at a glare.

"Fly back," Erik tells them. "I see you touch the ground outside the gates again, you can forget going out, you'll stay in the lab."

"No one's supposed to go out alone..." says Angel.

"Overruled. Go."

"Yes, sir," they both say, exchanging worried looks. Angel lifts Sean high enough to start his hypersonic screams and fly for himself, and they streak east.

It's a longer walk back to the school... what used to be their school. It's too dangerous now, too indefensible, all those windows, all those doors. At first they thought the gates had kept the grounds safe. Those things don't seem to have the wit to get over the fences. But they don't breathe. They can walk underwater. They came from the lake. Last time Erik led a party up into the house for supplies, they found one in a putrid shambles, one arm, one leg, wriggling like a worm in what used to be the nursery.

That was earlier on, when you could always smell them coming. It's been long enough now that some of the first wave have rotted away almost entirely, teetering around with scarcely anything but ligaments and tendons holding them together; some have withered from exposure, flesh turned to jerky on their bones. Some of them can hide now. Especially outdoors, where the wind can shift the stink til you're on top of them and it's too late. Erik's had his share of close calls, but he's alert every step back to base, walking in his cloud of iron filings, his senses extending a hundred yards in all directions. Every direction but down.

He watches his step.

There's always a moment when Erik gets back to base and punches in the code and the door to the underground opens, and he has to collapse his iron cloud around him to enter and pour it all into the bucket inside the door. In that moment he feels sick and naked, finally touched by everything he saw outside.

That's the last moment he wants Raven to run up to him saying, "Thank god you're back, Charles is in the truck," but it's not as if it would be any better to hear it any other time, either.

"Put Sean and Angel on discipline detail," he tells her. "Sean more than Angel, but they both touched down out there today."

"They've been back a while. They said a lot of ghouls came up from underground around you all at once, and you were in trouble... what's in the bag?"

"I was fine. Those two only got in my way. Do it." He looks at her til she nods. "I'll deal with Charles."

The garage irritates Erik. The corroded metal rasps at his senses, and he doesn't like the state it's in these days, caked dirt and cobwebs. But there's no use maintaining it. The last time they took a vehicle out, the sound of the engine drew ghouls to them in the dozens, surrounding them, battering at the windows. Erik is a little surprised Charles can stand to sit in the truck after that.

Charles slumps over the steering column, arms covering his head, only lifting his face when Erik comes near. He peers at Erik through the filthy windshield.

"No one else knows what part you took out of it," Charles says wearily. "I thought maybe I could suss it out if I looked. But no. Engineering, still not my forte."

"Even if you knew what was missing, you couldn't find it," Erik says. After the first time Charles ventured out here, Erik put on the helmet, took out the connecting rod and reduced it to a steel ball. If they ever need the truck again he can always reshape it. "And even if you could start the truck, they're under orders to stop you from going out. Don't make them waste time and energy trying to keep you in line."

"I need more reagents," says Charles. "I need chloroform and methanol. Acetone. Formaldehyde. I need more specimens. I need filters so Hank doesn't kill himself with chemical fumes before we ever find a cure."

"I'll get you what you need."

Charles runs his hand through his hair, tugging it back off his face. It wants cutting, and he needs a shave. He used to be fastidious about grooming, before. For a while it gave them hope when Charles grew disheveled; it meant he couldn't be bothered because he thought he might be onto something in the lab. Now it just means he's used to it. They're all getting used to it.

"I felt you out there from here," Charles tells him. "I felt that."

"I was checking a cabin with a root cellar. They came up through the floorboards," Erik says. "It seemed like a lot in the first moment. Seven. I took care of it."

"We armored and reinforced it," Charles shifts, hands spanning the steering wheel.

"They nearly overturned it last time."

"If I drive fast--"

"Why are you arguing with me."

Charles looks down at his hands. "I just needed to pretend for a moment that I could do something."

"Every waking hour in the lab, that's not doing something?"

"All this time and no cure. No vaccine. No. It's not doing something, it's not enough." He scrubs his face with both hands. "Seven, in a root cellar. They must've gone underground to hide. Just like us."

"Not like us," Erik says. "They were human."

"But we're not immune," Charles answers. "Just better equipped to protect ourselves. And we're not invulnerable." His voice drops; he stares at Erik, and no matter how worn down he might be, Charles never loses that commanding gaze. "How close was it?"

Erik moves closer, finally, opening the door with his power, and he lets Charles pat him down, passing hands over his hair, his face and neck, the folds of his heavy leather jacket.

Charles eases back from Erik, something tweezed in his fingers, and his face crumples. It's a broken piece of tooth.

"It got caught in a crease, it didn't break through the leather." He shows Charles the sleeve where Charles found it. "It didn't even make a mark."

"This time," Charles says, pulling him in, holding him.

Erik returns the embrace as lightly as he can bear to do. He can't afford this right now. Later, in their bed, he can take this comfort. But not now.

"I brought you something," he says, to break the moment.

"Not only me," says Charles, "we can't play favorites--"

"This, I don't think the others will mind," Erik says, hefting the sack into view. "It's a clean kill. Pierced straight through, no cutting or messing about. The brain should be intact."

"Darling, that's wonderful, that'll help us tremendously," Charles says, breaking into a true wide smile, and this time when he hugs Erik, Erik lets himself have it.