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Everyday Love in Stockholm

Chapter Text



I

Charles is sitting on the windowseat with his legs tucked beneath him, bare feet half-covered by the long hems of his trousers, looking out across the grounds with a wistful curl to the corner of his mouth. He knows Erik is there, of course; even if the door were silent, he couldn’t miss the way the steel bracelets around his wrists stop his hands from moving whenever Erik opens the door, holding him in place.

Erik closes the door behind him, the sound of the lock clicking shut loud in the quiet room, here at the top of the house. He takes the excuse of Charles’ inattention to simply look at him, something clenching tight in his chest below the clasp of his cape at the careless curl of the man’s hair across his forehead, a little shaggy and in need of a cut; the pale perfection of his skin, illuminated by the afternoon sun through the one-way glass that sets dust motes to dancing golden between them.

“Are you hungry?” Erik asks eventually, when Charles does not look at him, tugging off his gloves and leaving them on the cabinet, along with his helmet. The cape he hangs in the closet, smoothing out the heavy fabric before turning back towards the window. “I haven’t eaten yet, and I don’t feel like joining the officers tonight.”

“Thank you, no,” Charles says, and finally turns his head to meet Erik’s gaze, though his body still leans towards the world outside, shoulder pressed tight up against the glass. “But you should eat, Erik, you’ve had a long day.”

Erik frowns, stepping quickly across the bare floorboards to look down at him, looming. Charles seems so slight, these days. “You really ought to have something. Let me call the kitchens and we’ll take the meal together.”

“I’m not hungry.”

It is at times like these that Erik finds it hardest to decide what tack to take. Because yes, Charles is his lover, and he goes to sleep beside him and wakes up beside him, and tells him about his day and hears about Charles’ in turn, but Charles is also his prisoner, and Erik is Charles’ jailer, and sometimes the urge to bend the human to his will rises so strongly in Erik’s throat that it’s all he can do to scowl disapprovingly and put a hand on the other man’s shoulder, to squeeze it just shy of too tight. “I’ll not have you waste away to nothing, Charles, when I swore to Raven that I would keep you safe. What would she say if she saw what you’re doing to yourself?”

And Charles winces, face crumpling with the old pain as though Erik’s hand on him had dug into a half-healed wound, and lets Erik lead him to the table, and press a glass of water on him, and when their dinner comes up from the kitchens he eats it, slowly, as though his stomach has forgotten its purpose, as though each mouthful is a meal.

If only he had been a mutant, Erik thinks, then none of this would have been necessary. Although -

Had Charles been a mutant, then he might never have been Erik’s.

 


II

That evening Charles digs out some of the old gramophone records from the back of the closet and waits patiently for Erik to lift the machine from its hiding place behind the couch and onto the coffee table, runs his hands over the heavy glass case reverently before lifting it off to lay a record beneath the needle, placing it with delicate care into the first groove. It is easy to flick the little metal switch on for Charles with his power, to sit and wait with him through the first few moments of static hiss before the song starts with a rush of trumpets and brass.

Charles comes to sit beside him on the couch, the well-worn cushions sagging them together towards the middle so that their arms brush against one another from shoulder to elbow. If Erik sits quietly long enough, focuses enough on reading through the reports that came up for him with their dinner, courtesy of Azazel, Charles will slowly lean further and further against Erik’s side until his whole body is pressed close against Erik’s, the soft heave of his chest rising and falling tucked beneath Erik’s arm, warm and perfect. Charles’ hair smells like the shampoo they both use, the top of his head leaning against Erik’s cheek where it is easy to press a kiss against his parting, to hear the long, slow sigh it gains him. When Erik looks over at Charles the human’s eyes have slid shut, fingers twitching against his thighs, conducting some imaginary orchestra.

As a saxophone rises to wail above the rest, Erik says, “I could get you some new records. If you would like.”

Charles does not open his eyes. “That would be lovely. Thank you.”

Erik stops pretending to read and just listens, too, to the far-off beat of the song and the closer beat of his heart, intertwined.

 


III

Outside of their room, he is who the cape and the helmet have made him, and Erik is Magneto, leader of the posthuman world, his life one of responsibility and decision making. Once the door is locked behind him, he takes the steps down slowly, pulling on the mindset he needs to be who he is to everyone but Charles. He puts away the memory of pale limbs tangled in the blankets, the slight roughness of morning stubble, the sleepy grumble when he got out of bed and let cold air in under the sheets.

Deliberately, and gritting his teeth, Magneto instead makes himself remember the way Shaw’s head had burst like a rotten melon when he had crushed it slowly, squeezed between two sheets of metal, the way the humans had gaped, horrified, before scrambling for their missiles and guns like the vermin they were, unable to think through the idiocy of turning metal against a master of magnetism before he had taken their weapons away from them and shown them how they could be used, should be used.

The staircase is dark and narrow, but he finds his way with ease, each footstep calm and measured. When he reaches the bottom he is ready to turn his composed expression to Emma Frost where she has draped herself against the wall, a smirk upon her lips.

“Good morning,” she says, curling one long pale lock of her hair around her finger before straightening up to walk alongside him as he heads down the corridor towards his office. Despite the heels she keeps pace easily with his longer stride. “You know, you don’t have to wear that helmet all the time, sweet. I won’t peek. Well, only a little.”

“Exactly,” Magneto says, dryly amused by her constant needling. The thick soft carpet beneath their feet muffles their steps, matches the extravagant fittings of the whole house. It is all decked out in dark wood panelling and elaborate plaster mouldings, the excess of a bygone era; strange to think of Mystique growing up somewhere like this, when she had always preferred to go about in her natural state, naked but for her scales, freed of unnecessary frills and ruffles. It was what he had always liked best about her - the lack of disguises. “Has anything happened overnight?”

Emma rolls her eyes, takes his arm as they turn the corner towards the east wing and sidestep a pair of aides arguing at the water tower over some trivial matter of protocol. One of them puffs up in indignation, spines rising from his skin like an irritated puffer fish, then subsides with a sudden gasp as he notices Magneto walking past. His skin flushes green with embarrassment. The awe on their faces makes Emma scoff even louder. “Yes, dear, as soon as you went to sleep the planet stopped revolving and all the mutants floated off into space. The humans took back the planet without waking you up. The seas boiled and the moon fell from the sky and crushed your favourite car.”

“Anything else?”

“Not especially. Some civil unrest among the humans in Asia, but Sunfire controlled it quickly enough. They’ll probably need more help controlling the camps for the next few weeks, if it doesn’t stay settled.”

The outer office is full of mutants, desks covered in papers and loud with discussion. The work does not so much as pause as the two of them enter. Magneto nods at those who meet his gaze, holds a finger to Rogue when she seems set to interrupt, report in hand. “I’ll speak to Riptide about sending a team.”

Emma’s eyes are distant for a moment, listening, before refocusing to their usual laserbeam sharpness. “He’s running an inspection this morning, but he will be available at your convenience this afternoon, unless you want him sooner.”

He reaches the door to his inner office and lets the lock loose, flicking his fingers to draw back the thick metal bar that keeps everyone but him from entering. “This afternoon will be fine. Rogue?”

The girl steps up to his side and presents him with the papers she is holding, points at each item with the pen in her hand as she runs down the list. “A request for more water-powered mutants to help with the drought in Ethiopia needs signing off; Nathan Essex is petitioning to be allowed access to the human camps for genetic testing, to which I’ve already sent back a firm no, considering the last time, I hope that’s okay; the Brazilian leadership are looking to meet with you…”

He focuses on what she says as he takes his seat behind the solid steel desk and looks over the papers, and determinedly does not think of Charles at all.

 


IV

After dinner, he stops by the library to pick up a couple of novels he does not think Charles has read before, and takes them back upstairs with him, tucked in the crook of his arm, a cooling bowl of stew in his other hand, the heavy suet dumplings foundering in the congealing gravy, like ships sinking.

 


V

Some nights Charles just wants to be held; they lie side by side together on the bed, or on the couch, or sometimes crumpled on the floor together, skin to skin, touching everywhere they can. Erik does not mind. The closeness keeps Charles calm, helps the trembling in his limbs to soften, slow and seep away for a time. He recognises the touch starvation for what it is, the desperation for human company; he sits in their lone armchair with Charles sprawled sideways across his lap and remembers what it was like to be shut in a tiny cell for days on end, windowless and airless, choosing a corner to use for a toilet by determining which was the lowest and would keep him from having to sleep in his own waste. Sometimes Herr Schmidt liked to put him in a tiny room about three feet by three where the lowest point was in the centre, just to see what he would do. The walls were always metal, taunting him with the promise of escape that eluded his control.

Here, Charles has books and records and the wireless to entertain him, an ensuite bathroom and a small kitchenette when he is hungry and a bed to sleep in. He has windows, although they do not open, and electric light to see by when it grows dim. Erik strokes his callused hand down Charles’ face, soothing him as he shakes and shivers against him, and whispers to him of the embarrassment of riches here in this room, of how lucky Charles is to have a place like this.

Charles does not reply. Later he shakes for a different reason as Erik pushes his way inside, those red-bitten lips gasping against the pillows where he lies pinned beneath Erik’s body, fingers clutching white-knuckled at the bedcovers and his asshole clenching down hard around Erik’s cock. He cries out and begs when Erik touches him, flushes pink and beautiful, and it is impossible not to love him. His shoulders are freckled, as though somebody has been flicking tiny dots of brown paint at him, speckling him with constellations.

When Erik rolls him over after to kiss him, Charles only pauses for a moment this time before kissing him back.

 


VI

Azazel is waiting for him on the stairs, flicking a knife from hand to hand to tail in ever more complex loops that Magneto is convinced involves teleporting it from one place to another, though never slowly enough for an observer to see it move. The look the teleporter gives him is full of a humour it took Magneto months to notice beneath the craggy brows and scarlet skin that make Azazel seem permanently angry. “Really, comrade, I think the leader of the freed world could have a nicer room, should he wish it, instead of being exiled to the attics.”

“I like my rooms,” Magneto says, stepping down to stand on the stair above his second-in-command, already stretching out a hand toward him. “France today, yes?”

“Oui,” Azazel says, grinning sharply, and takes his hand.

There is a burst of sulphur and smoke, a moment of blackness across his vision before it clears as suddenly as it came, and they are somewhere else.

The camp is vast, stretching off into the distance, rough houses leaning drunkenly against one another between the original buildings and swarming with humans of every creed and colour but mutant. There is a faint smell of garbage wafting on the soft breeze, waiting to be disposed of. It is by no means the largest camp Magneto has been to, but they are all very much the same; built around an existing town, then added to and built upon to accommodate the humans as they were rounded up and marched to their new homes, the same way they would have done the mutants. Magneto helped devise the plans himself, the layout; after all, he had the experience, if not the training. He had made some improvements, kept it humane. It was more than they had done for him.

The mutant guards bow their heads respectfully as they open the inner gates to let Magneto and Azazel pass inside the fence, clapping their hands to their breasts in a salute he is not yet entirely used to.

Inside, the humans stop milling about and stare, each and every one of them recognising his tall, caped figure and the silhouette of the helmet on his head; a child screams, shrinks back against its mother and is clasped tightly to her legs, as though he might reach out and hurt the child for spite. If it is still here, it is not a mutant, and he couldn’t care less what it thinks of him.

Magneto has been making a point of visiting the largest of the human reservations one by one, appearing to the public and making speeches they don’t appreciate, all in the name of an excuse to make a display of power, show them his strength. It is dull and insipid, and never varies; some brainless human will shout an insult at him, others will join them in a rallying cry, and then the instigator will vanish in a flash of fumes and reappear in the open air above the crowd, screaming and begging on the way down before the inevitable crunch. It is fast and brutal and very, very effective; once or twice Erik has made a show of dragging the crowd about by the metal fastenings of their clothes, what little jewellery is left to them and the ration chips in their pockets, but it is rarely necessary. Instead he stands behind some metal podium, imposed against an impressive backdrop, and speaks to the lesser race about their duty to support their own evolution, to hand over their children for testing so that the new mutant race can become stronger, elevate from their human origins to become something more, something better.

After their fellow human - usually male, but sometimes female - meets their precipitous end, the crowd is always silent, and none of them say a word to fight, to disagree.

Pathetic.

 


VII

After the visit to the camp, they take him to the nearest nursery, to see the children at play, watched over by their foster parents and learning to use their powers without fear of prejudice, without any idea that just five years before they would have been ostracised, freaks. Here, they are normal. When the press takes photographs of Magneto smiling at a lizard-tongued boy offering him a crayon, he doesn’t have to fake anything.

 


VIII

“Erik. Erik!”

He is choking, struggling against the hands on his throat and trying to scream, but there is no air; there are rings on every finger but he can’t get a hold of them, he keeps slipping, and Herr Doktor is laughing so softly in the background that it should have been hard to hear, but the deep cold chuckle is crystal clear, and he longs to turn it into a gurgle, lash out and make it stop, but he can’t, he can’t

“Erik, wake up! It's just a dream,” and somebody is stroking the hair back from his forehead, kissing his eyelids where they are screwed tight shut, thumbs pressing gently against the crinkled corners, trying to ease out the creases. Erik awakes with a shudder and a gasp, sucking in great lungfuls of air, a horrible rasping noise escaping as he forces his throat to open, open.

“You’re alright, you’re safe,” Charles is murmuring, still running his hands gently across Erik’s face and pressing his lips along the tense line of Erik’s jaw. In the dim light he is little more than a shape, his eyes a dark gleam. Erik loosens his arms from where they had been crushing Charles against him, makes more space for him to lie alongside Erik instead of holding him hard enough to bruise.

“Entschuldige,” Erik says, his voice hoarse and dry. “Ich bin in Ordnung.”

“Go back to sleep,” Charles says, and tugs Erik back down to the bed, pulling his head in to lie against Charles’ narrow shoulder, tucked into the angle between his jaw and his collarbone. “You killed him, Erik. He can't hurt you again.”

“Nein,” Erik says, and lets himself be rearranged to Charles’ liking, the sour sweat starting to wick off his skin and away. “Nein, das ist gut.” He sighs, forcing his muscles to relax. “Danke, Liebling. Ich liebe dich.”

“I know,” Charles says.

 


XI

He brings Charles fruit, when he can, plucked fresh from the marketplaces of the cities he visits, from the exotic to the banal; dragonfruit, strawberries from a trip to London, grapes, mangoes from India, apples, once, though he has always found them insipid. The day he brings Charles a pomegranate, ripe and splitting with juice and glistening seeds, the human takes it from his hands and laughs and laughs and laughs, his smooth voice cracked and unnerving.

 


X

When Erik wakes in the middle of the night Charles is sitting at the windowseat again, the curtain drawn back to show the stars like pinpricks in the pitch black sky, knees hugged to his chest as he stares at the outside world, breath half-fogged in the cold air. When Erik strains to hear he catches Charles’ murmur, but only just, reading his lips more than listening as he mutters, “I count the dismal time by months and years, Since last I felt the green sward under foot, And the great breath of all things summer.”

“What’s that?” Erik asks, but Charles doesn’t reply.

 


XI

The next day is Sunday, a rare day off for Erik, who has instructed Emma only to bother him with anything that requires his personal and immediate attention. He expects to be called downstairs sometime around midmorning, but the call never comes. So instead he makes breakfast for both himself and Charles in the cramped kitchenette, its ugly Formica cabinets a faded shade of sunshine yellow that he hasn’t quite got around to replacing. When the eggs start to sizzle in the pan he can hear Charles’ stomach rumble from where he has curled up with a book in a nest of blankets, the imprinted creases from the pillowcase still livid on his cheek.

“Tea, Charles?” he asks, using the tinfoil he has wrapped around the block of cheese to hold it upright for the grater.

“Hmm?”

Erik can feel the corners of his mouth edging up in a smile. “Would you like some tea?”

Charles looks up from his book where it is propped against the slope of his knees. “Oh. Yes, please. White, one sugar please.”

Erik’s smile widens, threatens to show. “I know how you like your tea, Charles.”

The smile he gets in return is wan and self-deprecating. “Yes, of course. What a considerate jailer you are, Erik.”

Erik scowls, turning his back and taking the omelette off the stovetop before it has a chance to burn. “I promised your sister I would look after you, and that’s what I’m doing. Don’t forget, Charles, that you made this bed for yourself. Don’t blame me if you have to lie in it, too.”

Charles reacts like a scalded cat, scrambling to his feet as the blanket slips off his shoulders to tangle around his ankles. When he strides over to stand at Erik’s elbow he sets his hands to his hips, his eyes ablaze and more alive than they’ve been in weeks, burning the fierce blue of late summer. “You’re the one that keeps me here, Erik, not Raven and certainly not me. I’d rather be, be free range, and take my chances, than be kept in a box like some pet you take out to play with when it suits you.”

Without turning, Erik tips the pan to let the omelette slide out onto the plate he’d laid out for Charles, and says, “I made a promise to Raven, Charles, and so did you. And I’ll be damned if I’ll break it now. Eat your damn breakfast before I throw you to the humans after all.”

“Do you really think that after all this time, anybody is going to care what I said anymore? Surely they have bigger things to worry about than me.”

Erik snorts, shaking his head and picking up his fork to rip off a piece of the omelette, chews it slowly while Charles seethes. “If they didn’t hate mutants enough before, they certainly do now, and sympathisers even worse. It would be like tossing a lamb in with a pack of starving wolves.”

It is obvious from Charles’ face that he doesn’t want to believe it; he stands there, fuming and shaking, hands clenched into fists at his sides before eventually he deflates under Erik’s unrelenting gaze, shrinking in on himself and bringing up a hand to wipe across his face before reaching for the fork. “Thank you for breakfast,” he says, but even Charles’ pretty manners can’t make it sound sincere.

He is beautiful even now, when he looks as though he has not slept in weeks, sorrow scrawled across his face, flocks of shadows hiding in the creases where the light doesn’t touch. “I’m sorry,” Erik says, and means it.

“I know,” Charles says, “I know you are, love,” and leans his forehead against Erik’s shoulder, and if Erik feels a spreading wetness darkening his shirt and making it cling uncomfortably close, he doesn’t mention it.

Later, they play chess, sat across from one another in comfortable silence, and when he wins Charles laughs just a little as he takes Erik’s king, and when he smiles up at his captor, the corners of his eyes crinkling with pleasure, Erik thinks, I am the most selfish bastard in the entire world.

 


XI

The thing is – the thing is, a lot of the time they are happy. Charles will get engrossed in whatever new project he has started and forget about everything else, ramble on about it for hours while Erik sits and listens, tries to understand more than just the sound of his voice. Or they play chess together, sometimes fast and loose, other times long and drawn-out with a sharp strategic focus and an air of competition between them, only looking up from the board to sip at their drinks or watch each other consider the next move, the next gambit. If he’s feeling playful Erik will wait until Charles isn’t looking and switch the pieces around with his powers, knowing full well Charles will turn back to the game and say “You cheat! Put them back,” his voice chiding even if his mouth is trying not to laugh.

Sometimes, they are happy, together. Charles will dance around as he tidies up after the mess he’s made with his studies, humming off-key as he picks up papers and books and tucking them away where he’ll only forget to look the next time he wants them. Erik will tell him about the ridiculous demands some of the delegates make and Charles will shake his head in disbelief, then ask him what he’d done about it, always so sure Erik’s reaction will be worth a laugh. Charles will do some small, insignificant thing and Erik will feel his heart thump hard in his throat, shocked once again to be so ridiculously in love with anyone as he is with Charles.

And then Charles will remember something, a trip to the beach, or a walk he used to take with Raven, or a book he wants to borrow that’s only held at one library and that you can’t check out because it’s too rare, and he will ask again to be let out - you can’t keep me here for the rest of my life, Erik!- and the only thing he can do is refuse, swallow down the lump in his throat and deny Charles his freedom once again.

Erik brings him gifts all the time to try to make up for it, but it’s never quite enough.

 


XII

Erik thinks about bringing Charles a kitten, something to look after, to cosset and care for, to keep his mind occupied with something other than outside, but the thought of sharing Charles even with a cat is –

He doesn’t get a kitten.


Chapter Text

 


I

Erik meets Raven two weeks after he kills Schmidt on live television.

The world is a mess of nuclear fallout and people panicking and journalists wanting to interview him and get him on chat shows and ask him all about it as though he did it for them, and all Erik wants is to be left alone to get on with deciding what to do next after completing what he had always thought of as his magnum opus, his life’s work. Now that he has killed the man who killed his mother and tortured him for years, Erik realises that he never paused to consider that he might live past that one great deed long enough to have to think about where he is going to sleep, how he will pay for food and how to stop the intern from The Tonight Show from stalking him around Manhattan begging him to reconsider.

You would think that after the entire country had watched him literally pin a man to a wall and crush him until his brains ran out that he would be capable of terrifying even the most determined little bootlicker into leaving him alone, but apparently Jack Paar has insisted he has to have Erik, and so Erik he will have. Whether Erik wills it or no.

The December chill is not enough to clear the streets, striking right through to the bone. As he pushes his way down the sidewalk, determined to lose the boy in the crowd, people turn to glare at him only to subside into shock and awe, jostled aside by his broad shoulders and exclaiming to one another in excited voices. One child even reaches out to grab at the long end of his scarf, tugging on it hard enough to pull it tight around his throat before being pulled away by his mother. “Don’t bother the nice man, sweetie, that’s no way to treat an American hero!” And she beams, vapid and bright in the face of Erik’s incredulous glare, oblivious to the hand he throws up to snatch the scarf away from his neck, dragging it off and away to get rid of the sickening lurch in his belly.

Somehow the humans seem to have decided that he is a hero, destroying their enemies and standing up for life, liberty and the American Way. The fact he is German doesn’t seem to figure into it. They crowd around him, too close, and he’s starting to feel the metal in their clothing tremble slightly as they press closer, a little too like the press inside the train carriages for his comfort. None of them seem to notice.

“Oh please,” a sarcastic voice says from Erik’s right, and a blonde girl steps out into the street from the shadow of a doorway, tossing her hair proudly and propping her hands in curled fists on her hips. If her voice didn’t give her away for a rich girl, the fine fabric of her coat did, along with the multitude of branded shopping bags hanging casually from her bare hands. Her fingers must be cold. She raises an eyebrow, the very image of disdain. “If it hadn’t been on television the government would have snatched him up and thrown Magneto into the darkest pit they could find to cut him open and see how he ticks. I’m so sick of this bull,” and with a ripple like wind through leaves her skin shifts, darkens, until suddenly the girl’s complexion turns from pale Aryan cream to a deep, rich cobalt blue that shimmers in the sun against the shocking red of her hair. “Well? Am I a hero, too?” she asks in the same rich drawl, eyebrow still raised, and somebody screams.

Somewhere behind him in the crowd now rushing away from them, slipping on the slick stones beneath their feet and stumbling over one another in their hurry to escape, Erik can hear the intern shouting, words lost in the din. It breaks him from his surprise and lets him move, act. “Scheiße, come on,” he snaps, and gestures for the girl - the mutant, mein Gott, what a mutation - to follow him away from all the ruckus, and if his voice is gruff he can barely tear his eyes away from her long enough to look where he is going. She has scales.

“I’m Raven,” she says as they walk, half running to keep up with him, bags clattering against her legs. Her skin flushes a dark navy when she catches him staring. “I guess I caused a scene, huh? Sorry, but they were just so stupid -

“You’re beautiful,” Erik says, “and they are mindless animals, bleating at a tiger and hoping it won’t eat them.”

The blue girl - Raven - flickers back to blonde, mouth falling open in an ‘o’ of surprise. “You - I - nobody’s ever said that before. You think I’m - ?”

Mine, Erik thinks, putting a hand on her shoulder to push her onto a sidestreet and away from the main thoroughfare, but instead he says, “Let’s find somewhere we can talk.”

 


II

But when they get back to the house Emma has provided for them Raven only has eyes for Azazel, as exotic as she and twice as astonished, and Erik has to swallow down his envious bile at being so –

Human.

 


III

Raven is only the first of many mutants to come seek him out. First it is a trickle of one or two a week, then every couple of days, and then every day some new misfit is turning up at their door, seeking asylum. The longer they show the devastation in Florida on the nightly news, broadcasting it in vivid technicolor complete with red raw radiation sores and doctors in heavy yellow plastic suits moving slowly, like dragging their limbs underwater against the current, the more mutants come to find Erik and never quite leave.

The longer it is on television the more the humans mutter to themselves about Schmidt, and the fewer call out thanks to him when he passes them on the street, and then one day a heavyset man spits at Erik’s feet, staring him straight in the eye when Erik turns to look at him slowly, hands clenching into fists at his sides and the leather of his gloves creaking at the flex of his fingers.

“It was your kind did this in the first place,” the man says, and spits again, a fat white gobbet of filth that smacks the sidewalk with a wet splat. “And you’re no better than he was, murdering scum.”

Some part of Erik is surprised it took so long for somebody to notice. The other part is grabbing the front of the man’s jacket and throwing him up against a wall, pinning him there by the metal in his belt buckle and buttons. “It was your kind put my family into camps and made us burn our own people’s bodies once they were done starving, beating and experimenting on us,” he says, and lets go, lets the man slide down the wall into a crumpled pile at his feet, staring up at Erik - at Magneto - with mingled hatred and fear on his sweaty face. “Don’t talk to me about scum.”

The next day the riots start.

 


IV

The boy has been beaten to death, probably with bats. Erik crouches over the body and lifts the snapped - arm? wing? - away from the boy’s head, notes the horny beak that has reshaped the boy’s nose and mouth into something more birdlike, curved like a parrot’s. His hands are shaking, the crease between his brows sharp and deep enough to hurt as he curls his fingers into fists at his sides. Behind him Raven is vomiting as quietly as she can into the far corner, heaving and half-choking as she tries to hold it down. He’s seen worse.

“Who?” he asks the boy’s mother, who is sobbing silently, staring wide-eyed at Erik and Azazel and Spike where they look down on what is left of her son.

Her voice is soft when it comes, but clear. “The boys from the neighbourhood. They like to hang out down on the corner by the YMCA, harass the people going past. They were always trying to taunt Barney into coming out.” The tears rolling down her face are as yellow as her eyes, which are hawk-golden and huge behind the smoked lenses she took off when she saw who was standing at what was left of her door.

Erik nods, turns to the others and sees the same resolution on their faces. “Mystique, stay here.”

“What? No!” The shapeshifter straightens abruptly, wincing as her voice comes out in an acid rasp. “What are you going to do? You can’t leave me behind like a child!”

“We can’t just let the humans kill any mutant they can catch who can’t fight back and get away with it,” Erik says, and the moment when she understands him is like the world pausing, the way her furious expression changes into sudden apprehension. She swallows, a hard flex of her blue throat, before she nods, drawing herself taller - becoming taller, he realises, her whole frame swelling out subtly, making her more imposing.

“I’m coming,” she says, and if it sounds like a question, he does her the courtesy of pretending it doesn’t. And if he hears her murmur “Sorry, Charles,” under her breath, he does her the courtesy of not asking.

Outside the street is still on fire, crackling and spitting at them from the burnt-out corpses of cars set alight and glass crunching underfoot. Erik stands on the threshold and scans left to right, noting but passing over the rubbish littering the sidewalk and the cracked and broken furniture that had been thrown out of the house behind him when they were done killing the bird boy. It is eerily quiet here, only the far-off city sounds to tell him they are not alone in the world. When he steps out onto the road Azazel and the others slink out after him, taking up a loose formation as they head the way the boy’s mother had indicated, no remorse on her hawk-nosed face. Erik wonders if her son would have been able to fly, let out of hiding to stretch under the sky instead of trapped in his house.

He can feel eyes on them as they walk down the street, and no wonder, with such obvious mutants among their number, upright and unashamed. Idly he reaches out to the nearest wreck and starts rolling the car along the road in front of them, the loud thumps of it hitting the tarmac echoing between the buildings. The eyes vanish back and away from their windows and Erik laughs, loud and harsh, lets the car start picking up speed, thudding roof to wheels to roof and getting more and more battered as it goes.

The traffic at the next intersection stops to let them pass, drivers leaning fish-mouthed from their seats to stare at their small procession, not a one daring to say a thing.

There is a crowd at the YMCA when they reach it, overmuscled youths in their leather jackets and blue jeans chainsmoking and talking big, and some of them try to run, but all of them have zippers.

At least at first. Erik can’t avenge every single mutant these riots have dragged from their homes and set on fire or beaten or strung up from trees like criminals, but he can make a point.

He doesn’t stop for the television cameras when they arrive.

 


V

They all watch the news together later on the cheaper set they brought to the warehouse Erik moved them to when the riots started, clustered around it to hear and smacking the side of the television when the picture snows over, hissing and futzing in and out with the signal until Radar sighs and grabs hold of the aerial, boosting it enough for them to get a clear image of the men sitting around that long table, footage of the YMCA running behind them.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” one of them is saying, reaching up to push back his floppy dark hair from his face and leaning forward with earnest determination. “Humans and mutants don’t have to fight like this! It’s all just evolution, and it should be welcomed for its promise, not destroyed like everything else we don’t understand.”

“Magneto and his gang of mutants killed three young men today,” the news anchor says, and though the image is black and white his face is obviously flushed dark with indignation, sweat beading on his brow. “In the street, like dogs, with no provocation. How do you justify that, Professor?”

“I don’t think you can call it no provocation when humans are going around killing mutants too,” the Professor says, “not that I can in any way condone such horrific crimes, but both sides are to blame in this, sir, and I must say - ”

“Turn that off,” and Mystique tugs Radar’s hand away from the aerial, dropping the picture into indecipherable fuzz again.

“Some of us were watching that,” Spike says, but he doesn’t seem too concerned, and they let it go, dissolve into smaller groups until dinner is ready, cooked in the huge industrial kitchen at the back of the warehouse and barely recognisable.

Erik has eaten worse. He cleans his plate and goes back for more when the others push theirs around with barely concealed disgust, and glares at them all until they finish it.

 


VI

At night, Mystique and Azazel disappear into their room together at the far end of the warehouse, his tail coiling gently around her waist and her hand on his arm, and Erik has never wanted anyone more than he wants her.

 


VII

Mystique is - she is -
Charming, perhaps, or disarming, the way she can be so kind and yet so fierce when it is called for. The day they find a mutant child trapped under a car while a mob of humans tries to get at her Mystique is like a mama tiger, snarling and throwing herself at the men with such grace and precision that the mob scatter like cockroaches exposed to the light, staggering back from her onslaught with disbelief on their faces. Her hands and feet lash out hard enough to crack ribs, stretched long and with nails grown sharp as razors. Magneto wades in after her to drag the humans down, the ball bearings he keeps in his pockets flying out to snap-snap-snap at their backsides as they flee.
When he turns Mystique is crouched beside the car, coaxing out the girl with such a soft expression on her face that he is taken aback, heartbroken by the gentleness in her voice. When he forces himself to look away Emma is watching him, her eyes knowing, and the helmet does him no good at all.

 


VIII

They keep him in a separate room from the rest of the guests, quiet and out of the way. Erik can hear the sound of the audience echoing down the hallway, far-off laughter made hollow by the distance, like the sound inside a seashell. A nervous intern pops her head around the door every few minutes to check on him, but half the time she doesn’t even manage to ask him if he wants anything, just stares in wide-eyed fascination before withdrawing as abruptly as she comes. The producer’s assistant has no such compunctions and just wanders in, a clipboard tucked under one arm and a radio squawking, ignored, at his belt. “Hi, Mr Magneto, you’re almost up, five more minutes, okay? Okay. Have you been to make-up yet?”

Erik just looks at him, stands up from his seat on the couch and says, “No.”

The man pauses, eyes flicking up to the helmet, then down to meet Erik’s gaze before finally looking down at his uniform, mouth quirking unhappily. “Well, it’s up to you, but if you want to look your best for the camera - ”

He can’t quite resist. “Are you implying I don’t?”

The way the man’s face flushes as he sputters is hilarious, but he manages to keep a straight face and not smile. “Oh! Oh, no, why, of course not, Mr Magneto, sir…”

Erik nods, flicks his cape back from his shoulders and steps forward, toward the door. “Well then. Shall we?”

“Yes, sir, of course. Ah. The studio is this way, if you could follow me…”

When he reaches the side of the stage the production assistant urges him to stand on a particular spot on the floor that has been marked out with coloured tape, and leaves him there in the wings on the edge of the studio lights, looking out at an audience that has not yet seen him. The host makes a joke, they all laugh, and Erik watches their smiling faces; men, women, old and young, most of them wealthy-looking, well fed and softened by easy lives. He wonders if any of them is a mutant, if any of them have come to see him. Perhaps he should linger after the recording is done, to see if anyone approaches him. It’s happened in stranger places.

“And now, for our next guest… a man who has been called both a terrorist and a revolutionary, a murderer and an activist… he came to the world’s attention last year when he saved New York City from being blown up by a madman, and yet now he is in the spotlight for a very different reason. Here to talk to us exclusively tonight on The Ned Hale Show, I would like to introduce… Magneto!”

Erik steps out onto the stage and into the light. There is a deathly silence. It takes a moment for the audience to start to clap, and even then the crew are holding up signs with ‘APPLAUSE’ written in bold, capital letters, waving them at the humans as though begging them to take part. Then someone in the audience shouts, “We love you, Magneto!” and all of a sudden there are people yelling at each other, rising from their seats to get in each others’ faces and shake their fists.

“Jesus Christ,” Hale says, the curse covered by the noise, and turns to look at Magneto, holds out a hand. “Do you always inspire such a mixed response?”

“My apologies,” Erik says dryly, and reaches out to shake the man’s hand. “Thank you for having me.”

“Not at all, not at all…” And if Hale is nervous, he’s professional enough not to show it on his face, though his palm is sweaty enough that it is an effort not to wipe his hand on his trousers once they let go.

“QUIET!” Someone booms in a voice like thunder, and the audience shuts up, finally, settling back into their seats and grumbling amongst themselves with a few choice whispers barely low enough to qualify as such.

They settle into the chairs set on the stage, Hale behind his desk leaning forward on his elbows, pomaded hair slicked sleekly back and gleaming under the lights. Erik can feel the heat of them causing sweat to prickle out under the helmet, a slow trickle like the tickle of a finger at his temples. “I think it’s fair to say you’ve become the face of the mutant movement, sir,” Hale says, and holds up a photograph to show the audience; it is instantly recognisable without a closer look, Magneto stood upon the steps of the Statue of Liberty with blood on his face and fragmented metal orbiting him like the pieces of a shattered satellite, Schmidt crumpled at his feet, conveniently cut out of the shot to hide the mess he’d left of him. “Is that what you were looking for that day in November?”

“Not at all. I certainly didn’t expect the public reaction.”

“And that of course has changed so much since then, with the sudden rise in prominence of mutants.”

Erik nods, the chair creaking when he leans forward, eyes intent. “Yes. It seems one of me was enough, but finding that I am one of many - that mutants exist in regular society, are amongst humans and living their lives the same as everybody else - is a problem. Never mind that these are people with talents, with skills, that we are born from humans and raised by humans, that we are your brothers and sisters and children and parents and friends, mutants are a problem to be eliminated instead of embraced.”

Hale nods, but his expression is carefully neutral as he says, “But surely you can’t excuse the deaths that have been caused by the riots that have been flaring up across the country, across the world.”

Erik feels his pulse rise in his throat, and he smiles grimly, turning to look right at the camera, right down the lens, as though he can reach out to every person watching personally, hardly blinking. “Mutants did not start the riots, humans did. And we will not sit down and be slaughtered like animals. I have lived through this before, in Germany, in the war, when anyone deemed ‘unwanted’ was rounded up and put into camps and put to death for no other crime than to be born. I am a Jew, and a mutant. And I say this: I am not a child any longer, and I am not powerless, and I will not stand aside. You may not like mutants, but be assured - we will defend to the death our right to exist. By any means necessary. You persecute the blacks, and the homosexuals, and anyone else who is different, but they cannot do what we can do. We will. And that is a promise.”

 


IX

Erik dreams about it sometimes, that day in November when he had finally, finally killed Schmidt.

The Mayor of New York had been making some speech about immigrants against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, the press crowded around him with their microphones jostling for position at the front of the podium, straining to catch every word, when Schmidt and his gang had interrupted.

The arrogance of the man who had started a nuclear war, in taking credit for it on television and telling them quite calmly that he was about to destroy New York the way he had Cuba, the way Russia had California and The US had Minsk, had given Erik all the anger he needed, as if he had needed more, as if he had needed anything more than the telepath’s voice in his head telling him that Schmidt had gone too far, that his ridiculous plan wasn’t working, and that she would help him.

Emma Frost had held Schmidt still for Erik, long enough to peel off great chunks of the great monument they stood before and crush the good doctor against the pedestal of freedom, squeeze him until his head burst like a melon and there was nothing in his skull to hold on to, until the journalists still filming were screaming and throwing up and cowering before Erik, before the diamond glitter of Frost, the slack-jawed shock of the two men standing beside them as they looked at what was left of their great leader.

It’s a good dream.

 


X

Three weeks after his television interview, the mutants take Seattle.

 


XI

“Can’t you see that treating this like a war, like a, a medieval holy crusade, is what caused this in the first place?” Professor Xavier is saying, impassioned and heartfelt, as all around him senators and military men raise their voices to try to shout above his amplified voice, sat at the front of the room and leaning forward to his microphone, expressive hands open and entreating on the tabletop, the neat tweed of his jacket dignified and old-fashioned in the face of the slick televised speeches the politicians had no doubt been aiming for when they let the news crews in to film the discussions. “If we had taken in mutants as our brothers, as our own kind instead of making them separate and unwanted, instead of making them feel like a separate people from our own, then we wouldn’t be facing a civil war! It is the divide, gentlemen, that humans have made, that has caused this split, and unless we can repair it - ”

The broadcast is cut off abruptly, while Xavier is mid-sentence, a hand appearing from his left and grabbing for his collar.

 


XII

“Erik,” Mystique says, and he freezes in the doorway of his bedroom to find her sat on the end of his thin mattress, the colour of midnight loneliness where she curls her bare toes against the chill of the concrete floor. In the dim light her hair is a sleek cap like old blood. “You know, I’ve never asked you for anything.”

“Anything,” he says, and means it.

 


XIII

The next day they move to a new house - a building, really, in SoHo, one of the old cast-iron beauties that sing out to Erik like pins in the landscape of the city, the metal facade wrapping around them like a blanket, surrounding the mutants he has drawn to his side and keeping them safe. In a building like this, Erik could keep out an army, or crush one. He hopes to build one.

It’s a fair sight better than the warehouse, at least, and more connected to the rest of New York, with heating they don’t have to install themselves and enough bathrooms not to have to squabble over them. The police watch them moving in from the street, their hands on the firearms at their hips but not quite daring to pull them from their holsters. As they carry boxes in from the van Toad smiles and sticks his tongue out at them; the police recoil, swearing, and the mutants laugh, jostling and laughing as they push past.

Erik has taken the penthouse apartment for himself, without argument from the others. It has a clear view out and along the streets around the building which will serve for a vantage point for a lookout, a large dining room that will serve for planning meetings, a good-sized office and three bedrooms, as well as the kitchen and bathrooms. The previous owner had left it in a hurry, still well-appointed with expensive furniture and the walls lined with books that Erik is sure are worth a considerable amount of money, all the more so for having clearly never been touched. The master bedroom has enormous windows that open up the skyline to him like standing outside under the great wide span of the firmament, boundless. Erik takes the third bedroom at the end of the corridor, which is close enough to the fire escape to jump to - for him - and blocks up the small window, pulling the building’s ornate facade over it to close off any line of sight from outside. It gives him the most defensible position to attack from inside the building, with a ninety degree angle to any approaching enemies to provide cover.

The penthouse also has its own elevator, which Raven uses to bring her brother in without the rest of them seeing.

Erik does not know what to expect. All she had said was that he was in danger, and that she was worried for him; that he was not a fighter, but a scholar; when asked, that he was not a shapeshifter; that his name was Charles, and that the humans wanted him dead. She had not said why, but Erik could guess. Having seen Raven’s true form, he knew well what difficulties somebody as exotic as Raven would have faced had she not been able to hide behind that pretty pink shell. He wonders if Charles is blue, like her. If he has her grace, her fierce need to be valued for what she can do, not what she looks like. If he will like Erik.

There are bundles of herbs hanging from hooks in the kitchen, shaken slightly by the breeze coming in from the open windows and releasing their dry, sweet scent around him as he paces across the terracotta tiles, arms folded behind his back, the copper pans jangling softly against one another, quivering at his touch, like songbirds.

He feels the elevator coming before he hears it, a slow rise through the building like a long inhale after diving.

Stepping out into the living area, Erik thinks about taking off the helmet to make a better impression, feels his fingers twitch against the insides of his elbows as he considers, dismisses, considers again; then it is too late, and the doors slide open, letting out the warm yellow light of the elevator car.

Raven steps out into the living room, scales glinting iridescent in the sun that comes in from the late spring outside, and before Erik can say anything to the white gleam of her smile her brother steps out after her, looking around with gentle curiosity, slim and sprightly and -

Pink, Caucasian, and -

Blue-eyed, chestnut-haired, and -

Bruised, limping as though he’s been hit or kicked or both, and -

Human.

Erik stares, poleaxed and gaping. Specifically, her brother is Professor Xavier, the human who is always on the television making apologetic speeches about how humans and mutants should just kiss and make up, about how everybody should be friends and play nicely together, like some kind of nursery teacher. Something in Erik collapses, at the same time as it hardens, like a rock has been dropped into his chest cavity in place of his organs.

“You didn’t say he was human,” he says, tearing his eyes away from Xavier to look at Raven - Mystique - Raven, who deliberately didn’t tell him, who let him believe that -

She winces, glances back at her brother before stepping forward, toward Erik, and not incidentally between him and the human. “Erik, I’m sorry, but I had to - ”

“Pleased to meet you,” Xavier says, coming up behind his sister and around her, limping forward to extend a hand, smiling just a little, completely oblivious to the atmosphere in the room. “Xavier, Charles Xavier. I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to meet with me - ”

Erik scowls, does not take his hand. “I didn’t.”

At that Xavier falters, his hand wavering in the air before he withdraws it, taken aback; the flush on his cheeks only makes the bruises look darker, more black than purple. “What? There must be some mistake, Raven, you told me you’d arranged - ”

“I’m sorry, Charles, really I am,” she says, and hugs her brother - her human - from behind, burying her face in the nape of his neck where she can hide her eyes in his collar. “It’s for your own good, I couldn’t stand it if those bastards succeeded the next time, and this is the safest place I can think of for you, the only place I know that you’ll be - ”

“Mystique,” Erik says, and the tone of his voice draws her head up so she can meet his gaze. He hadn’t known that she could pale naturally before, the colour draining from her face. “He can’t stay here.”

“Now hold on a minute, who says I’m staying here?” When Xavier tries to move his sister’s arm digs into his stomach and he winces, dragging in a sharp breath that has Raven clutching at his shoulders to keep him upright, left leg buckling a little under his weight, but the look the human gives Erik when he flicks his fingers and drags one of the armchairs over by the frame for him to collapse into is one of unrestrained wonder, as though it is the most marvellous thing he has ever seen.

Erik stares back, face impassive, and tries to understand how someone as exquisitely amazing as Mystique could have come from a family that produced something as banal as Charles Xavier.

Once Xavier is settled Raven moves to stand at Erik’s side and takes hold of his arm. Curling her hands around it, she looks up at him with determination, brows set against one another, forming a little crease he longs to smooth out with his thumb. “Please, Erik,” and her hands are so small, even though he knows their strength, even though he knows she is only as petite as she wants to be. “Charles isn’t like most humans. He found me when we were children and he made his mother adopt me, knowing I was different. He never cared about that, Erik, please. I love him, he’s the only family I have, and he’s been trying to help but nobody listens, and they’ve already tried to kill him once. Please let him stay here like you promised.”

I love him. Erik swallows, turns away and pulls his arm from her grasp, biting back the jolt of pain that racketed through his chest, like jarring his tailbone, like catching the point of his elbow where the nerve was exposed, and if it hits like lightning it lingers afterwards instead of fading. He manages it like he always does pain, with the weight of long practice behind him. “Verdammt,Mystique, when I promised that you were lying to me.”

“It must be going around, because she lied to me, too,” Xavier says, his voice echoing a little in the vaulted ceiling, and at least if she was only his adopted sister that explained how Xavier could be British and she American, how he could be a sparrow to her bird of paradise. “I’m not staying here! This is ridiculous, Raven. I’m perfectly fine. I hardly need to impose upon Mr Lehnsherr here for sanctuary.”

“I didn’t lie to you!” Raven is strident now, but she does not come to stand beside Erik the way he half hopes she will. “Okay, well, I did lie to you, Charles, but that’s because you’d never have come otherwise. You’re so pigheaded, I had no choice. But, Erik - ”

“Magneto.”

She huffs. “Whatever. I never said Charles was a mutant, I just said that my brother was in trouble, and I needed somewhere he would be safe, and you just assumed.”

Erik clenches his fist at his side and watches the balcony railings outside crumple and shake, before realising that he is shaking too, just a little, head bowed to look down at the street below and all the ant-like humans going about their daily routines, probably most of them never realising that this building is full of mutants, living and eating and planning together, a building filled with the future of mankind and one lone ant that has braved the heights. “Mystique - ”

She takes his arm again and, quietly, says, “Please, Erik. Please.”

And because he is the world’s greatest fool, he loosens his fist, feels his shoulders sag in defeat and says, “Fine. For now.”

“Not bloody likely,” says Xavier, struggling to get up from the chair, but it is all too easy for Mystique to push him back down into it and keep him there while she nags him into submission, and Erik has a new roommate.

 


XIV

Xavier seems taken with the view from the master bedroom. Erik does not point out all the places a sniper could shoot him from.

 


XV

“I’m sorry.”

Erik looks up from his papers to see Xavier stood in the doorway of his office, one hand resting on the doorframe, the other cupping the tender flesh of his belly as though it pains him. He seems to take the eye contact as an invitation and steps inside, curiosity lighting his face from inside as he takes in the tall shelves with their scatterings of random gewgaws, the broad mahogany desk Erik sits at, the framed photographs of the New York skyline upon the wall. “This is a lovely room.”

“It’s not mine,” Erik says after a moment contemplating how to answer without encouraging further conversation. “What do you want?”

Xavier’s eyes come back to his, and the frown that crosses his face is the mirror image of his sister’s. “What do you mean it’s not yours?”

“The previous owner left it this way. I have no need to change it. What do you want?”

“Oh.” Xavier doesn’t seem to know what to say to that, and instead chooses to gloss over it, smiling politely as he sits himself in the room’s other chair, crossing his legs neatly at the ankle. “I wanted to apologise for Raven’s imposing me on you. I know it wasn’t what you signed up for, and it was very good of you to agree to it anyway.”

Erik puts his pen down very deliberately, and looks over at the human, at the old man’s cardigan, the loose-collared shirt with its absent-minded wrinkles, at the friendly cast to the soft-featured face that looks back at him, like a dog that has never been kicked. Though that isn’t quite true, is it - Xavier has been kicked plenty, of late. “She doesn’t need you to apologise for her,” Erik says, firmly, “and I keep my word. It does not mean that we are friends, nor does it mean that you are welcome. You have your room; I suggest you keep to it.”

Xavier - Xavier laughs.

“Are you serious?” he asks, the corners of his eyes crinkling with mirth, a hand coming up to curl over his mouth that does not hide the quirk of his lips. “Are you going to send me to my room?”

But when Erik does not reply Xavier’s chuckles dry up, replaced with incredulous indignation. “Oh, really, you cannot be serious. I know I may not have radioactive snot, but you cannot just shut me away like a naughty child.”

Erik wishes very much to sigh, to pinch at the bridge of his nose and - if only - to remove the helmet for a while to relieve the weight of it where it presses down on his neck, but instead he says, “I won’t lock you in, Xavier. But I don’t particularly want to have a conversation with you, or anything to do with you, either, and I would prefer it if you kept out of the way. I have work to do.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” and Xavier leans forward to grab the pen away before Erik can pick it up again, resting his elbows on the desk and scowling at him as though that will make a difference. “Humans share fifty percent of their genes with bananas,Erik, and ninety-eight percent with chimpanzees. Humans and mutants are so alike it wouldn’t even be possible to calculate a percentage that small. And that means you can’t even talk to me?”

“It seems to be enough for most humans,” Erik says, and yanks the pen from Xavier’s grasp with barely a flicker of thought, catching hold of the nib and surprising a yelp from the human that feeds something small and petty inside of him. “Now take your toys and go and play quietly.”

Xavier is finally, finally silent, but the expression on his face broadcasts his opinion quite clearly. As the human rises to go, Erik reaches out a hand to stop him, half-way up from his seat and awkward in the air, neither seated nor standing. “One more thing - my name is Magneto. Use it.”

The only part of Xavier’s mutter he catches as the human limps out is “like some kind of circus act,” and it is an act of will to suppress the knot of anger it spawns enough not to trip the man back onto his face.

 


XVI

Erik waits until he is in his bed in the early hours of the morning to admit to himself that he is disappointed.

 


XVII

It takes another hour before he can admit to himself why.

 


XVIII

There is clattering coming from the kitchen, and voices, and something bright and cheerful playing in the background with the characteristic little crackle of the wireless to it. Erik is an early riser by habit but not by nature, and he opens his eyes to stare at the ceiling with a groan, staring at the swirling patterns in the artex while trying to persuade his legs to move so he can investigate this fresh hell. Emma is still in Montreal helping the mutants there consolidate their hold over the city so he allowed himself to sleep without the helmet for once, and clearly somebody hates him because the pillow he has been using for the past several months without complaint has been revealed to be lumpier than the ground he had slept on in Auschwitz-Birkenau, something he had not thought possible.

The first order of business has to be to telepath-proof the apartment, he decides, as he pushes himself upright to sit on the edge of the mattress, running a hand over his face when he sees the time and rubbing the sleep from the corners of his eyes where it has gathered, gritty and dry. The second order of business is to get a new pillow. The third is to make certain Xavier understands that waking Erik up is a bad idea. Surely six o’clock is early enough for anybody. Five thirty is inhuman.

When he finally walks out into the kitchen he finds Xavier at the stove, back to Erik as he turns something in the pan, and at the table is Raven, chin resting on her fist and laughing at something her brother has said, fondness on her face. She is pink today, and wearing a sundress that floats around her knees. When she looks up to see him come in she is still smiling, flicking her blonde hair back behind her shoulder with idle fingers. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” Erik says after a long pause, a rasp still in his throat, and walks over to the coffee pot to pour himself a mug. The coffee that comes out is rich and thick, still steaming with fragrance.

“Would you like some breakfast?” Xavier says, turning to smile at Erik too, and the light coming in from the kitchen window bathes him in early gold, limning his pale skin and catching auburn highlights in the faint scratch of stubble on his cheeks. Like this, he looks as though he could really be Raven’s brother by blood, when she is wearing her pretty pink mask. “There’s eggs, and bacon if you want.”

Erik snorts, derisive, taking a long sip of the coffee before answering. “Jewish.”

The human just nods, turning to offer a plate to his sister before taking one for himself. “Ah, of course, how silly of me. Well, that rules out a full English. There are some mushrooms, I think, and obviously more eggs, and I’m sure I could rustle up some hash browns. Not sure if there’s any meat that didn’t used to be a pig though.”

“Erik’s not much of one for mornings,” Raven says, teasing, and makes a grumpy face, pretending to scowl into her own mug and slumping in her chair. “Give him time to wake up, Charles. He likes to pretend otherwise, but I know better.”

Xavier looks between the two of them, one eyebrow raised, considering, and Erik puts down his empty mug with a clatter on the worktop, turning away from them both and heading for the elevator. “Clean up after yourselves,” he says, “and Mystique, please distribute the pork products downstairs. I won’t have them in here.”

“It’s fine, Erik, Charles will eat them,” she says, and for a moment he just wants to say damn Charles, but instead he just says, “Then since you’ve contaminated the ones I had I’ll be needing a new frying pan and spatula, and plates,” and steps into the elevator instead.

“Where are you going?” she calls after him, but the doors close before he is forced to answer.

Damn Charles, anyway, Erik thinks, as he sets out for his run, dodging the mailman as he crosses the street. He stops off at an all-night kosher diner on the way back for a plate of steak and eggs and pays the waitress with coins he makes from the metal struts of the table, his wallet still sat in his room back in the apartment. He thinks about locking the man in the pantry and feels better, but he’d only shout to be let out, so it’s not really practical. Still. It’s a pleasant thought.

Raven is gone when he gets back, only her plate drying on the rack by the sink to show that she was there. Of course, beside it is Xavier, washing up the pans and looking over his shoulder at Erik as he comes in, the smile more tentative now that his sister is gone. “I’d like to apologise, Eri - Magneto. I didn’t think about kosher. I just found the food in the refrigerator - I assume now that it must have been from the previous tenant - so, sorry. I’ll try to be a better guest.”

He sounds so painfully earnest that Erik finds himself pausing by the door through to the hallway, hand on the frame, and though it goes against the grain he unclenches his jaw enough to say, “Thank you. Accepted.”

He does not turn to look, but he swears he can feel Xavier beaming at him all the way down to the bathroom, and is glad to shut him out.

 


XIX

He hadn’t kept kosher in the camps. It was bad enough being uncertain what was in the slop the guards gave them every morning and night - uncertainty was not proof, and they had all put aside their foibles in favour of survival - but Erik still feels guilt for the bacon Herr Doktor had given him whenever he had been especially good, to see if he would eat it.

Some days he was strong enough not to.

Most days he was too hungry not to.

 


XX

In the evening Erik waits until Xavier leaves the room to drink the mug of coffee he has left on the desk at Erik’s elbow, slipping in and out without so much as an attempt at conversation, and after consideration locks the door behind him.

 


XXI

“So are you guys getting along?” Mystique asks the next week, when the rest of the mutants have left the meeting room to get moving on the tasks they have been set.

She is blue again, down here, naked as a jaybird and less self-conscious; it had taken her some time to stop covering herself up, to stop hiding what she was under human social mores, and longer to stop blushing. She hops up onto the edge of the table and swings her legs idly beside him as Erik finishes tidying up his notes, nudging him companionably with her shoulder when he reaches for the last of them. Who would have thought becoming the impromptu leader of a spontaneously formed mutant resistance group would involve so much paper. Not Erik, certainly, who if anything had expected to be out tearing up the streets and demolishing buildings instead of handing out assignments like a general.

When he doesn’t answer she laughs, nudges him again. “C’mon, Magneto, he can’t be that bad to live with. I survived, didn’t I?”

Erik thinks of the way Xavier tries to stay quiet but can’t, not for long; the mugs of coffee and bursts of enthusiasm that Erik greets with grunts and short, dismissive replies; the way Xavier likes to curl up by the window and read one of the interminable books that line the living room and read aloud his favourite passages; he thinks about all of this and says, “How long do you plan on this situation lasting?”

“Oh. Um.” She seems to find a sudden fascination with her own feet, rotating them slowly and staring intently at her toes, which shift from baseline Mystique to claws, to webbed, to long and prehensile, her own unique way of fidgeting. “To be honest, I was mostly concerned with getting him somewhere safe, rather than longer-term planning. You didn’t see the mess they made of his apartment, Erik, he really could have died. It was pretty bad.” Her eyes well up just a little, the tears making her lower lashes clump together, not quite spilling down her face.

She’s upset enough that he doesn’t call her on using his birth name down here this time - she knows well enough how he feels about it. Erik has long since given up hope that she knows how he feels about her. “Who was it?” he asks, instead, because anyone willing to go after Xavier for speaking up for mutants was certainly more than willing to go after the mutants themselves.

“He wouldn’t tell me.” The tremble of her mouth tightens into a flat line. “I think he was worried I’d go after them - well, I would have, but. Charles hates violence, if he thought I would go out and hurt anybody for him I think he’d rather die than point me in the right direction.” She takes a long and shuddering breath, scales rippling blue-black, before saying in a rush, “I’m pretty sure he knows I disagree with him and that I’ve been going out with all of you, fighting. I can feel his disapproval like a weight around my neck every time we talk about it.”

Her eyes when she turns to Erik are asking silently for reassurance, and so he gives it to her, the way he always gives her what she asks for. He puts his hand on the back of her neck where she says the weight lies and says, “You do the right thing every time you go out to fight, Mystique. The only thing the humans will offer us is force, and the only thing they will listen to is a greater force. By showing them that we are making the future for all mutants. Just because your brother doesn’t see that doesn’t make him right.” He tightens the grip he has on her nape, shakes her a little. “He’s human, and rich, and he’s never had to fight to survive the way you and I have, and that makes him naive. Don’t let his childish worldview colour your own. You don’t need his approval, or anyone’s.”

“Not even yours?”

He lets the hint of a smile creep in at the corners of his eyes. “Not even mine.”

Mystique has no such reservations; hers is wry and dazzling, sloughing off the insecurity of a moment ago. “Do I have it anyway?”

“When you’re not having me take in your strays,” Erik says, and leaves before she can have the last word.

 


XXII

The mutant uprisings had started patchily at first, in whichever cities happened to have large enough numbers to reach critical mass; Seattle, first, with Vancouver soon after, spreading out from that epicentre slowly, in the areas most affected by the radiation blown their way from what was left of northern Russia. At the centre of the blasts everything living had been killed instantly, mutant and human alike, but on the outskirts, where the radiation wasn’t so strong, mutants found themselves the only ones left standing in a sea of the sick and dying, resistant somehow to the poison killing their neighbours.

Knowing what Erik knows, communicated from group to group of mutants by teleporter and telepath, telephone and letter, the human media coverage is laughable at best and perverse at worst, downsizing the problem to a matter of gang violence, as though the west coast hadn’t fallen from human control, as though the mid-west wasn’t slowly succumbing where they hadn’t already been nuked from existence for a five hundred mile radius from Kansas City, from New Mexico. And yet somehow, ridiculously, New York still stands, and its humans wander about their daily lives as they always have, heedless of the tidal wave coming towards them.

Erik, who had been in Seattle, who had been in Vancouver and Salt Lake City and Chicago, who had torn down the Space Needle and thrown it like a javelin across the bay to spear through a Navy aircraft carrier on a wave of adrenaline and fury he had dredged up from the very blackest pit of his battered soul, can’t help but laugh when the evening news glosses over everything as briskly as possible, so that they can move on to gossip and innuendo about the politicians in their hidden bunker in New England.

He feels like Paris in the battered copy of the Iliad his father had given him for his birthday the year before they had gone into hiding, standing up and releasing that one perfect arrow that punctures Achilles in his weakest spot, shattering his foundations and bringing him crashing to the earth.

 


XXIII

Every time Erik goes back to the apartment to fetch something or to get some work done Xavier is there, somewhere, pottering about with a book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, or writing furiously at the kitchen table, one hand with fingers tangled in his hair or curled at his temple as though it helps him to think better, or staring out the window blindly watching clouds go by, blinking only in slow motion. Erik grows used to the way Xavier will start, as though surprised to see him there, and smile and say something friendly and unobtrusive, to which Erik has almost absently begun to respond. He has a sneaking and terrible feeling that he is being trained, like some wild thing Xavier is luring in from the cold.

Then one day he goes upstairs mid-morning and the human is not there.

It takes him a while to notice, long enough to go to the study and almost back to the elevator before his feet slow, stop, and he frowns, feeling something is missing. Turning slowly, he looks around in case Xavier is merely woolgathering again in some corner, or out on the balcony Erik has pointed out to him is a potential deathtrap but that the human seems to love, anyway, threading his legs through the railings and dangling his bare feet above the streets below, like dipping them into a pond.

No Xavier. Well, Erik thinks, three weeks shut inside a stranger’s apartment - no matter how large or luxurious - would be enough to drive any man to cabin fever. Possibly Xavier had grown tired of sitting around waiting for nothing to happen and had decided to go home, start living his life again instead of hiding. It is a sentiment Erik is happy to accommodate, if it means his apartment is human-free and his sole domain once more. If Mystique is unhappy about it she can take it up with her brother.

He looks about once more, at the upturned mugs set to dry on the draining board, the disturbances in the dust on the bookshelves where the sleek untouched volumes have been handled and moved about, at the closed bedroom door at the end of the corridor. It is very quiet without Xavier’s constant murmurings and fidgeting, leaving the ticking of the clock louder than it had seemed before he had come, and the faint gurgle of the pipes. Clearly the man had been there too long, if Erik had had enough time to get used to him, to notice that these things are absent.

When Erik comes back that evening after a long day in Louisiana helping to organise medical care for those mutants injured in the fighting - difficult to find nurses and doctors willing to work on patients with green skin or extra organs, but he had managed somehow - Xavier is still not there, and so Erik makes himself a quiet dinner and allows himself to sit by the cold fireplace with his papers, shirtsleeves rolled up and helmet placed on its stand by the door. The lamplight makes everything yellowish and old-fashioned, sepia-toned like an ancient photograph, wrinkled from overhandling. Without an audience he can fiddle with a couple of ball bearings as he thinks, setting them to spinning complex orbits around one another, coming close but never quite touching. He wouldn’t have cared about the audience if only Xavier hadn’t been so liable to ask him questions about it whenever he used his powers, and no matter how Erik answered there were only ever more questions.

After a while the words start swimming in front of his eyes and he pinches the bridge of his nose, hard, but it doesn’t seem to help. Eventually he gives up and tosses the papers to the floor to pick up later, where he doesn’t have to look at them any more. Surely they can wait until tomorrow, when he can hand them off to somebody, anybody else. Instead he sits back in his armchair and sips at his drink, thinking over the plans instead of looking at them, poking for holes. They will have to be quick, he thinks, turning the timetable over in his mind, grouping and regrouping the mutants he has at his disposal. They will have to move fast. If they can lock down the police and the military quickly enough, if they can take control before the humans know they are doing it, there doesn’t need to be any bloodshed. The less the better.

The scotch is smooth and burns as it slides down his throat, settles in his stomach like a brand. If they can take New York -

The elevator doors slide open with a ping.

Erik jolts to his feet, heart thudding violently into action like a drum in his chest and the ball bearings snapping to attention like hounds, ready to fly; he had been too preoccupied to notice it coming, and - he draws the knife he keeps in an ankle holster, gripping it tight, ready to throw -

Xavier stumbles out into the room, weak-legged and huffing and gasping as though he’s just run a marathon, hands clutched to his chest and paler than Erik’s ever seen him. “Oh!” He seems as surprised to see Erik now as he ever is, pausing on the threshold of the elevator long enough for the doors to try and close on him, springing back when they make contact with his sides. His eyes when he catches sight of the blade are wide as saucers. “Oh, um. Good evening.”

Then he moves, the light catches his side and suddenly Erik can see the mud streaked down the far side of Xavier’s face, and once he sees that it is easy to spot the long rip in his shirt sleeve and the torn knees of his trousers, stained red with blood. Erik stares, frowning, and when he steps forward Xavier raises his hands suddenly, defensively, in a way he never has before.

“What happened?” Erik asks, sheathing the knife, and then he sees the man’s palms.

They’re covered in streaks of blood and studded with splinters, fingers half-curled around them as though to protect them, and filthy, too; by the way the human’s eyes widen he’s seen Erik notice them and he tries to hide them behind his back, but Erik moves forward again and grabs him by the wrists, tugging them out into the light.

“What happened?” he asks again, perhaps too severely if the way Xavier blanches is any indication.

“I’m fine.” Xavier tries to smile, tugging gently to try to reclaim his hands, but Erik does not let go. “I had a bit of a fall, that’s all.”

The corner of his eye is swelling up around a sharp little nick on the eyelid, along with a slowly ripening bruise. “Is that so.”

Xavier looks up at him, then looks away, and it’s strange to suddenly be aware of how much smaller a man he is, how Erik looms over him, holding him captive so easily. He is vulnerable in that moment, the cheery demeanour dropped for something honest, something real.

Verdammt, come over here,” Erik snaps, finally, and half-drags the man across the room to push Xavier into the armchair he had been sitting in, pushing firmly down on the man’s shoulders until his knees buckle and he falls to the cushion with an oof of surprise. A flick of his hand pulls up the footstool for Erik to sit in front of him, knees spread wide so he can get close enough to reach. “Hands.”

Slowly, cautiously, Xavier holds out his hands, palms up.

Erik takes one of the ball-bearings from his trouser pocket and concentrates, uses a slow simmer of irritation to lengthen it out, tapering the ends and folding the metal over until he has a set of tweezers. A pinch sharpens the tips and he leans over to start plucking out the splinters.

“Ow!” Other than flinching Xavier doesn’t try to get away, but sits and watches, bemused, while Erik grumbles over the mess he’s made of his hands. Quietly, voice soft, he says, “Thank you, Erik.”

There is a particularly long and fragile one just under the skin at the bend of his thumb, and it takes a moment to catch the end low enough for it not to snap off before he has it out. Erik lays it on the edge of his leftover plate from dinner, not yet tidied up, before going back for the next one. “Don’t tell Mystique or I’ll never hear the end of it. Now. What happened?”

Xavier sighs, slouching a little and looking rather sheepish. “I didn’t think anybody would still care enough to be after me three weeks later, so I decided to go back to my office to get some of my files, make a few phone calls so my head of department didn’t think I was dead.”

Erik has to turn Xavier’s hand to get a better angle on the next two, adjusting his grip on the man’s wrist to tilt it further to the light. “And?”

Another sigh. “And somebody saw me on my way back out of the university. Apparently it is still a problem; I’d forgotten the newspaper articles that hadn’t come out yet. Well. I ended up having to make a run for it and dropped my files somewhere. I expect I’ll never get them back, either,” he says glumly, making an abortive movement to push his hair from his eyes that makes him wince and jerk in Erik’s hold, driving the splinter he was working on deeper into his palm. “Ow!”

“Stop moving.” He has to push at the skin with his thumbnail to bring the splinter close enough to the surface again to grasp. Erik lifts his head to meet the human’s gaze. “And you came back here?”

Xavier - he smiles, the same wry curl of his lip as his sister’s, his whole face lighting up with a good-natured humour Erik has never had. For a moment he can see why Raven loves this man so fiercely, why she would bring him here to Erik to look after him. “And I came back here,” he agrees, and quietly lets Erik move his hands as he will, removing the little slivers of wood one by one, until a close inspection finds no more.

“You’re a strange man, Xavier,” Erik says eventually, and crumples up the tweezers into a sphere again, ready to be moulded into something else, as malleable as clay. His unruly heart is still thumping hard against the inside of his ribs, like a caged bird trying to batter its way free.

“Charles.” Xavier reaches out, slow, and rests his palm on Erik’s knee. It’s still grubby, covered in dirt and streaked with blood, but it no longer resembles a pincushion. “Call me Charles, please.”

“You’d better go wash those before they get infected,” Erik says, and goes to bed.

He hears a creak from the floorboards outside his room, through the gap where he’s left the door slightly ajar, but by the time he looks up Charles has gone and his door is shut.

 


XXIV

He only pauses by Charles’ door for a moment in the morning, just long enough to be sure he can hear him moving about, enough to confirm his presence, before going out for his run.

 


XXV

Erik is drying himself off after a quick shower, a towel around his waist and another in his hand scrubbing at his hair, when Xavier - Charles - shoves his way into the bathroom, the door giving way under the brunt of his shoulder and bashing into the wall with a thump. He brandishes a fistful of papers as though they are a weapon, eyes bright and fierce under a scowl angrier than Erik had thought him capable of. “What the devil are these?”

At any other time, Charles would be full of holes by now, shot through with any piece of metal Erik could get hold of; he is not a man to startle. As it is, Erik is practically naked and all out of ball bearings, and he is attached enough to the fixtures to leave them be. “Guten Morgento you too. Can this wait until I’m dressed or is it urgent?”

The human looks at him for a moment, dumbfounded, then looks Erik up and down, taking in his near-nakedness with a gulp; his cheeks start to flame redder than Azazel’s, but he does not leave. “I found these in your office,” he says, and his voice at least is still angry even if he has half-averted his eyes. “These can’t possibly be serious, Erik.”

“How about we cut to the part where you tell me I’m a monster and I tell you to go to hell,” Erik says, reaching for his underwear with a sigh. He has had this conversation so many times now that it has become rather stale. The warmth of the steam has escaped through the open door and it is rather chilly in the bathroom, his skin rising in goosebumps and his nipples pebbling tight and hard.

Charles shakes his head vehemently, waving the papers again as though they somehow make his point. “You can’t seriously be planning to take over New York, Erik, I mean really. There are millions and millions of people living here, who have nothing to do with - ”

“They have everything to do with it.” Erik drops his towel and bends to pull on his underpants, taking a certain pleasure in being casual and unembarrassed while Charles turns abruptly away. The back of his neck is scarlet now, the colour spreading swiftly upward toward the tips of his ears. “These are the people who throw rocks, who sneer and exclude and break into homes in the middle of the night to act out their prejudices, who vote for registration and write to their senators, Charles, who hide their children from us in the street. They have everything to do with why mutants are being murdered every day. What was the line? First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.Etcetera. Inaction does not make them saints, it makes them complicit.”

“Erik,” says Charles, addressing the shower curtain, “I’m human. And you must know that I openly condemn any such behaviour.”

“And you’ve been beaten half to death for it. Twice. You like mutants. Most humans don’t.”

Most humans, Erik. But not all!”

“Well, Charles, perhaps you would like to devise a test for me, then,” Erik says, tugging his shirt down over his head and tucking it into his trousers. “Perhaps we’ll line them up, one by one, and we’ll ask them, how do you feel about mutants? Do you like them? And if they say yes, then we’ll leave them alone. And if they say no, then we’ll treat them like the rest of the humans. I think that’s a reliable test, don’t you? Perhaps you would like to administer the test yourself. Perhaps you would like to stand there and ask every human in this city, one by one, do you like mutants, yes or no? Please tick one.” He can hear his voice rising to echo off the tiles, loud enough to make the human flinch a little when he steps forward, barely a centimetre away from being pressed up against Charles’ back, still turned against him. “Why is it alright to stand against a prejudiced mass-murdering cult like the Nazis but not against New York, tell me that. Why is this - this institutional racism - any more acceptable than that?”

“The man you killed at Liberty Island was a mutant, not a human,” Charles says, the plans he holds crumpling in his tightening grasp, but he does not turn.

“The men who held my mother for him were human. So were the men who held me for him, and the ones who took us from our home and sent us to him, and the ones who patrolled the fences and shot anyone who raised their head higher than the dirt.” Erik places his hands very lightly on Charles’ shoulders, holds him there while he finishes. “The ones who gave the orders were human, Charles, just like they are here. The only difference is that here it is mutants and not Jews, Americans and not Nazis. I won’t live through that a second time.”

“Killing them won’t bring you peace, my friend,” and Charles finally, finally twists in Erik’s grasp, looking at him with determination, not fear. “It won’t fix the past.”

“It doesn’t have to. It only has to fix the future,” Erik says, reaching out, and takes back his plans.

 


XXVI

“And what will you do about children, human children, Erik?” Charles asks, the next day.

“What would you have me do, split them up from their parents? I’m not a monster, Charles,” Erik says, as he slides his helmet back on, hiding the planes of his cheeks and the vibrations of his thoughts from the outside world. “Stay inside today? You won’t always be able to run.”

 


XXVII

When he comes back it is late again, even the sweltering summer evening has turned to pitch black outside, and Charles is asleep in Erik’s chair, had waited up for him. His head is tilted back against the cushions to show the long pale line of his throat. In the humid air the dark locks of his hair almost but don’t quite curl, and where his eyes have fallen closed his lashes are a dark fan against his freckled cheeks, simultaneously masculine and fragile.

Erik feels something catch in his chest, like a hook, or a shuddering sigh, fighting to get free. Oh, he thinks, very softly, staring at the man curled up there with something akin to wonder. Oh.

 


XXVIII

He feels badly about it, but it doesn’t stop him from magnetising the elevator doors shut the next morning, quietly, once he is downstairs. As long as he stays where he is safe, Charles will never even know.

 


XXIX

“I’m worried about what’s going to happen to Charles,” Raven says, as they stand looking out from the roof of the building over the city, street maps spread out along the low walls that separate them from the long fall. “I mean, if we succeed, then what will happen to him? He’s human.”

She turns to look at Erik, face unusually serious. Her fingers pinch and fold Brooklyn into strange ridges and valleys, turning the city to origami. “Erik, I love him. He’s my brother.”

It isn’t as though he hasn’t thought of it himself, but to hear her say it aloud makes it unavoidable. The hook in his chest twists, dragging hard on his breastbone, pulling it tightly inwards and pressing the breath out of him, making it hard to speak. “You can’t pass him off as a mutant,” Erik says, keeping his expression, his voice neutral, dispassionate, and he is, he is. “Everyone knows his face, Raven. He made certain of it.”

Charles, so photogenic and so articulate; if he wasn’t included in a debate on ‘the Mutant Problem’ he was mentioned, discussed, displayed as the poster boy for mutant/human coexistence and quoted endlessly in the papers, his picture plastered across the print media as though he were a politician instead of a professor, his moving image broadcast to every television in the United States and likely beyond, making impassioned pleas for everybody to take a step back and find a way to live together when all either side could do was curse and howl at one another, when all the humans were shouting him down and the mutants dismissing him for a fool.

Raven bites down hard enough on her lip to draw little pearls of red blood. “God, Erik, they’ll kill him, you know they’d kill him, the humans, because he doesn’t hate us. We can’t. I can’t.” Her shoulders are shaking, and Erik realises with a start that she is crying, silently, big wet tears rolling down her cheeks and dripping from her chin. “Erik, I can’t do that to him, I can’t. He’s my brother.” Somehow even now she is beautiful.

He wants to reach out to her, to do something, but it is not and never has been his place, and so he stands and watches her cry, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, useless, useless. “How can I make exceptions?” he asks her, and if there is strain in his voice he hopes she is good enough to ignore it. “How can I make an exception for Charles, and nobody else? We agreed, we all agreed this was the right thing to do, the only thing. Don’t ask me to do this.” And if he is voicing thoughts he has turned over a hundred, a thousand times in the past few days, saying them aloud does not make them go away. It does not give him an answer.

“Can’t you do it for me?” Raven says, suddenly, and grabs his hand before he can react, clutching it to her chest just below her collarbone, looking up at Erik with imploring eyes. The red gash in her lip from the bite is swelling now, as though she has been kissed too many times, plump and tender. It feels like a kick in the chest, like all the air has been driven out of him entirely, like everything he has ever wanted and never had, and never will. “Nobody has to know, Erik. He could stay with you, and it would be just like - like an individual place to hold him, like solitary confinement, but with you so he wouldn’t be alone. Or, or we could say he was an ambassador, for mutant/human relations - ”

Erik takes back his hand and takes a step back. “Stop it.”

“What?”

Her face is the picture of innocent pleading. Mystique is an excellent actress. “You know what,” he says, and feels the words come out harshly through his dry throat. She knows, then, she has always known. “Don’t you dare use that against me, Raven.”

She flinches.

She knows. Knows that he has wanted her, has destroyed warships and buildings and thrown tanks around like toys thinking of her with Azazel, wallowing in his own jealousy. Thinking of them in bed together, those red hands all over her blue skin like brands, imagining the teleporter smug with possession, and her going to him willingly, easily, reaching out with love. “I’m sorry,” she says, and makes an aborted move to touch his arm again, withdraws her hand when she sees the look on his face. “I’m so sorry, Erik. I would never have - you know I love you, right? You’re my greatest, truest friend, and that was cruel. It’s just -”

“You love your brother,” Erik says, and crunches away from her across the gravel roof. If he slumps against the east wall of the building and looks down along the street he can see the glittering surface of the Hudson, fraught with wavelets where the breeze ripples against the surface. Far below the city traffic just drives on past, careless, taxi drivers honking angrily at one another, pedestrians shouting and everybody moving on, moving quickly, except for him.

Raven has to raise her voice for him to hear her, now, half-shouting over the noise, words whipped away by the wind. “I know you like him too, Erik. Everybody likes Charles.”

“There are billions more just like him out there on this planet,” he shouts back, without turning around.

“Erik,” and she is right behind him now, close enough to touch, “there’s nobody else like Charles. He’s special.”

When her hand presses into the hollow between his shoulderblades he doesn’t move away. “No, there isn’t,” Erik says, and when she asks him again he says, “Charles won’t like it.”

“Bugger Charles,” says Raven, and wraps her arms around him tight, her face wet and smiling against the back of his neck.

He tries not to feel the line of her body where it presses against his, but when that fails Erik just closes his eyes and commits it to memory instead.

After she leaves he looks out at the city he plans to conquer and tries to remember why it matters.

 


XXX

He leaves Charles’ notes on the kitchen counter, the gathered pages hopelessly out of order and marked with footprints, crinkled where they have dried out slowly in the bottom of the oven, on a low heat. They had not blown far from where they had fallen, strewn about the sidewalk like autumn leaves blown here and there by the capricious wind, running from his fingertips when he bent to pick them up, students watching him curiously as they moved between classes, whispering amongst themselves. He does not tell Charles they are there, nor does he tell him that he has made a pact with the man’s sister to keep him a captive with Erik, to keep him safe. Instead, for one as the other, he is silent, and waits for Charles to notice.

 


XXXI

“Erik,” Charles says from the door of Erik’s bedroom, breathless and wondering, and when Erik looks up he is stood there barefoot, shirtsleeves rolled up to leave his forearms bared to the elbow, the soft line of his mouth open slightly in astonishment. He is clutching his notes in his hands, gently, as though they might crumble if he held them too tightly. “Erik, where did you get these?”

Halfway through pulling off his socks, Erik just shrugs, pulls his other foot up to rest on his knee where he sits on the edge of his mattress and tugs the second sock off, balls it up with its mate and tosses them across the room into the open laundry basket. “The street, where else?”

“Oh,” Charles murmurs, looking down at the pages he holds. They rustle together when he adjusts his grip, a soft susurration of water stains against one another. “Oh, Erik, thank you. You don’t know how much this means, to have them back. I.” He takes a tentative step forward, into the small room, then another, closer, until he is more silhouette than person, backlit by the light from the hall. “This is years of work. Thank you.”

It’s late, the way it almost always is when he sees Charles now. Erik gets up earlier in the morning so that he can get up and out without seeing him, without feeling that pang in his chest that seems to always be there since the night he found him asleep in the chair, whenever he sees Charles, no matter what the man is doing, or how he looks or speaks or moves. If he had his way Erik would avoid him at night, too, but at times their paths cross no matter how hard he tries to avoid it. Charles smiles or frowns at him, depending on what has been on the wireless broadcasts that day, and, sluggish, Erik cannot keep himself under as tight a leash as he would like, smiling or frowning back, as required. When he is especially tired Charles ambushes him into talking, rambling conversations that inevitably come back to their central disagreement, that end in silences or shouting, or both.

He is so close Erik could lean forward and rest his forehead against Charles’ belly, press his face to the buttons of his untucked shirt and breathe in the scent of the cheap washing powder everyone in the building uses, bought in bulk, and underneath that the scent of Charles’ human skin, exactly the colour that is expected of it, free of scales and unchanging save for the passage of time. “It was an interesting read,” he says instead, keeping his spine poker-straight, and is glad that the dimness of the room hides his expression as well as it hides Charles’.

“You read it?”

“I do know how,” and Erik lets the corner of his mouth curl into a wry smile.

“That’s not what I meant,” and Charles is laughing just a little, a warm baritone chuckle as he pushes his hair back from his face with one hand, seeming not to notice when it falls right back into place as soon as he lets go. “It’s just - you keep surprising me, every time I turn around. I didn’t think you even liked me, and then you go and do something like this, like the other night with my hands, and I don’t know what to think.”

Erik’s smile falls, and he shifts his weight forward, nearly collides with Charles as he stands. He is close enough to tower over him, to loom awkwardly in that moment before he turns to tidy away the odds and ends he has laid out upon his dresser, his back to Charles. “Don’t, then,” he says, adding the day’s scraps of metal to the small pile he keeps in a bowl, ready to melt together and mould to his needs later on, or to tinker with as he thinks, shaping it idly into spheres or darts or tiny model people and animals at his whim, only to smooth it out again when he loses interest.

In the darkened mirror above the dresser he can see Charles looking around the room behind him, curious and taking the opportunity to snoop on Erik now that he has finally invaded the only space that he had never been in. Only the faint gleam of his eyes gives away the movement as they flick from the tight flat lines of the bedclothes to the wardrobe, the book upon the bedside cabinet and the single plain chair by the dresser. It is sufficient to Erik’s needs, without frippery or distraction.

When Charles speaks again his voice is cautious, each word slow, as though waiting for him to shy away. “Forgive me for asking, but you spent time in the camps, didn’t you? In the war.”

Erik stiffens and does not answer, but he supposes the taut line of his shoulders is enough, for Charles continues, “It’s just… it’s so spartan in here, Erik. You live as though you’re still in prison. Isn’t it time you stepped outside?”

“Goodnight, Charles,” Erik says, and does not turn around.

There is a long pause, filled only by the sound of the human shifting, uncertain, before finally he says, “Goodnight. And… thank you. It was very kind of you. I appreciate it.” Erik watches the reflection as Charles moves back toward the door, reaching for the handle before stopping, tentative and biting at the curve of his lip as he turns back for a moment, each feature highlighted now where he has stepped into the light. “If you want me to hate you,” he says, eyes very blue and mouth very pink where he has bitten it, so much like his sister, “you aren’t doing a very good job. Goodnight, Erik.”

Erik pushes the door shut behind him without moving from the dresser, closing out the light so that he can stand in blessed darkness, eyes open and unseeing, before finally stripping off the rest of his clothes and lying down on the bed.

He does not fall asleep for a long time. When he jerks off to the thought of those pink lips and pale skin beneath him in his bed Erik clenches his teeth tight shut to keep from making any noise, swallowing down his bitterness the same way he always has, knowing that he wants more than he can have.

 


XXXII

Sometimes Erik wakes in the middle of the night, and no matter how long he spends in the tub scrubbing at his skin until he feels raw and peeled open, until he feels as though he has taken off the whole surface of his body to reveal another body underneath, one made of muscles and nerves and bone, without wrapping, he never stops feeling the hand on the back of his neck telling him he is a good boy, and that he has done well.

 


XXXIV

Sometimes Erik cannot wake up, and has to suffer through it all over, and over, and over again, like a record skipping back and forth in its tracks, playing and replaying, in fits and starts. Held underwater, bubbles rushing up against his face where he can’t hold his breath any longer and making it hard to see; then the gunshot, the sound of his mother’s body hitting the floor, like a piece of meat, limp as her head struck the concrete with a dull crack. Then the water again, only this time the water is blood, this time there are knives, then the gunshot, the gunshot, the gunshot -

“Erik, open this door!” Charles is shouting, fists pounding on the wood as though he will beat it down if he has to, the handle rattling uselessly where the lock has fused shut, melted into itself and keeping Charles out. Erik pants against the mattress, his chest heaving painfully where he is twisted into the sheets, wrapped so tightly in them that he can hardly move. Each breath feels as though it is jarring shrapnel in his head, driving it harder into the soft tissue of his brain. The furniture is strewn around the room, half of it broken and the other half upended and emptied of their contents, flung about the carpet like landmines.

Steck' deine Nase in deine eigenen Angelegenheiten!” he shouts, jerking into motion and tearing frantically at the bedclothes, trying to pull them loose. He kicks and struggles wildly until finally the constricting sheets give way and he can scramble free to crouch at the head of the bed, as far away from them as possible, hands raised and fingers curled like claws. “Lasse mich in Ruhe!

Charles stops hitting the door, but he does not leave, the handle still twisting and turning in its socket. “I heard screaming! Are you alright? Let me in, Erik.”

Geh weg!” Erik reaches out for the first metal he can find, flinging it to crash against the door with a thump, but his control is all over the place and every piece of metal in the darkened room jumps and quivers, furniture rolling across the floor to thump against the wall. English is a struggle. “Go away!”

“Let me - ”

“I am not good company right now, Charles!” His whole body is drenched in stink, clammy and wet, disgusting, like a dog lying down in its own filth, bare chest bleeding where he must have clawed at himself in his sleep. Erik shivers and shakes, the headboard digging into his spine, and curls his face into the hollow between his knees, into the damp cotton of his sleeping pants, breathes in and out, as slowly as he can, which is not very slowly at all.

“No, but I am,” Charles says, his voice muffled by the door between them. The handle has stopped rattling; Erik can see the shadow of his feet blocking the light from coming under the door. “Better than being alone, anyway. Look, do you want a cup of tea or not? Because I’m making some.”

Erik does not reply, and eventually he hears footsteps going off down the hall toward the kitchen, fading away until all he can hear is his own lungs rattling and the blood pounding in his ears. Far away there is the clatter of metal on porcelain, and the faint hiss of the kettle heating on the stove. Slowly he stretches out his power and unfuses the lock mechanism, carefully separating the steel into two discrete blocks, and if they are far from smooth nobody but him will notice. When Charles tries the door again it opens, this time.

“That’s better,” he says, carefully balancing the two cups, one in either hand, to make sure he does not spill. “I made chamomile, I hope that’s okay. I thought the caffeine might be a bad idea. Here.” When he holds one out to Erik his grip is steady, even when Erik’s is not.

Danke.” Erik unfolds far enough to sit cross-legged so that he can cup the tea in both palms, lifting it to his mouth and sipping from it slowly. Charles perches himself gingerly on the far edge of the mattress. He does not acknowledge the wreck of the room, illuminated as it is in the rectangle of light that comes in through the open door, though his eyes scan it all slowly, taking it in. Apparently he sleeps in old-fashioned striped pyjamas and a dark blue bathrobe, of all things. His hair is pillow-tousled and unkempt, as though he had jumped up in a hurry, and Erik does not let himself smooth it down, finger-comb it into submission. Instead he says, “Tea, really. How very English of you, Charles.”

The human smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkling up as he drinks. “Mmm. Yes, well. We cannot all be German.”

Erik cannot quite stop the bitter chuckle from escaping, a sound more like choking than laughter. “Indeed.”

There is a long silence, but it is not uncomfortable, though Charles winces and bites at his lip before he next raises his cup. Though Erik is not usually a tea drinker, it is not unpleasant, to sit there in the dark with Charles and have something warm in his hands, the smell of green and growing things rising with the steam and starting to replace the rank sweat and bile.

“Sorry,” he says eventually, without looking up.

“Don’t be silly.” Charles reaches out toward him, and Erik offers him back the empty cup, but instead of taking it Charles wraps his fingers around Erik’s wrist, slowly, and, eyes flicking to his face to check his reaction, turns it so that his arm is laid out with the underside exposed. The skin is softer there, marked with harsh black ink that was more cut into it than injected. “Oh,” and there is a tremble of Charles’ mouth, now, looking at the number on Erik’s arm, as though somehow he hadn’t been expecting it, though he must have known it would be there. “Was this - ”

Erik pulls his arm back with rather more force than he intends, and sloshes the lukewarm dregs of his tea over his hand for his pains; cursing under his breath he wipes it off on the sheet, turning his arm to hide the tattoo from sight. “Yes, it hurt.”

The mattress shifts as Charles moves cautiously closer, pulling his legs up onto the bed fully so that he can duck his head to try and meet Erik’s scowl. “That wasn’t what I was going to ask,” he says, folding himself up tailor-fashion, bathrobe puddling around him where he sits. “I was going to ask, was this what you were dreaming about? The camps?”

“Am I to lay my head down in your lap and have you stroke my hair while I tell you all about it?” Erik snaps, suddenly very aware that he is half naked and exposed, scars and all. There are so many of them. “Shall we share the stories of our painful childhoods, Charles, while we cuddle up and make it all better?”

“If you like.”

“Very well,” and before Charles can do anything but start in surprise Erik has twisted around to drop his head onto the crossing of Charles’ ankles, staring fiercely up at the ceiling and folding his hands across his chest, fingers interlaced over the worst of the scars, the tight hollowed-out dent where his rib was broken the third time. “What would you like me to tell you? About the way they cut me, or beat me, or fed me in front of the other prisoners to make sure none of them would speak to me? The way Herr Doktor liked to - liked - ”

“What, Erik?” Charles says, his voice very small. “Tell me.”

“He liked to call me Sohn, son, as though he were my father, and tell me it was all for my own good,” Erik chokes out and tries not to retch, curling away to the side as his stomach cramps on all the things he likes not to think about, all of them too close to the surface after that dream.

“Oh, Erik,” and then there is a hand in his hair, pulling it away from his forehead, running along the line of his scalp from front to back, careful, as though Charles is afraid he is doing it wrong. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be silly,” Erik says, mocking, and closes his eyes. “Charles.”

“Yes?”

“You should stay away from me,” he says, before he can think better of it, and the hand stops for a moment, fingers pausing on his temple, before starting again, slower, firmer.

“Don’t be silly,” Charles says, and does not get up. When he says it, it sounds sincere. “Nobody else argues with me like you do.”

“I’m sure Mystique would be happy to oblige.” Erik does not move away from the touch, cannot make up his mind between glorious isolation and the unexpected comfort of it. At the very least, he keeps himself from leaning into it. “She’s hardly the soul of conciliation.”

“Myst - no, Raven and I - I refuse to call her by her, her stage name, honestly, it’s just ridiculous - do argue frequently, it’s true.” Charles shifts again, until his thigh is almost flush against the back of Erik’s neck, warm and solid, making the mattress dip and tip Erik’s face slightly toward him. The light from outside falls on his closed eyelids and turns darkness to dim orange. “But sibling squabbles are not quite the same thing. You and I might strongly disagree on some very important topics,” - at this Erik snorts - “but at the very least you will have a debate with me instead of throwing me out of the Senate by my collar, which is more, I am sad to say, than I can say for the politicians.”

“I’ve also never beaten the shit out of you,” Erik says, without opening his eyes.

“Well, there is that, too.”

“That’s not to say I haven’t hurt other people, people who deserved it.”

Charles’ voice is almost a whisper, now. “I know.”

“And you know you will not change my mind. My course is set.”

“There’s always a choice, Erik.”

Erik opens his eyes. Charles’ face is right above his, looking down with an unreadable expression. The angle is strange, more a view of the underside of the human’s chin than anything else, of the open curve of his lower lip and the frown of his brows casting shadows over his eyes. “And yet, here you are with me, Charles.”

“Yes,” Charles says, and does not look away. “Here I am. More fool me.”

 


XXV

They are all here for this meeting, all the ones that matter. Magneto looks at the two dozen or so mutants sat around the table as they lean over the plans he has laid out for them. There is a loud hum of conversation in the long, airy room as they discuss it amongst themselves, a variety of voices competing to be heard; to his left Emma sits and watches them work, tapping her elegant fingers against the arm of her chair, while to his right Mystique and Azazel are talking quietly to one another, working out the finer points of their joint role. Outside the windows September clouds are rolling in from the horizon. Slow and grey, they push moisture through the air before them like the promise of rain, come to wash away the dust and filth of a fetid and sweaty summer made hotter by the radiation carried in on the wind from the ruins of far-off cities. Of course, it’ll only carry it into the river instead, given time. A cool glass of water and plutonium, straight from the tap.

The humans can say what they like about Magneto; Schmidt may have provoked it, but the humans pulled the trigger. The crater that is all that is left of Eastern Europe, the smoldering rubble of California, the hole where Korea used to be, they have nothing to do with mutants.

“I don’t see how you intend to stop the army from countering us,” says Avalanche, reaching between Janos and Hornet to draw a finger along the line of the map. “If you want to keep the city standing, I can’t ‘quake them all into submission. Some of them will get past me.”

Magneto rises from his seat, and nods his thanks when Avalanche pushes the map along the table toward him. “We move fast, and we subdue them before they know we are coming,” he says, shrugging the heavy folds of his cape behind his shoulders so that he can reach out to point. “You and your team will cross to the other side of the Hudson and take out the tunnel and bridges on the Brooklyn side, nearest to Fort Hamilton. Teams Two through Six will eliminate the other crossings, leaving only the Williamsburg Bridge, which I will render useless until we have full control of the city. Once we have isolated Manhattan the army is less of a concern; we have mutants in place against attack from the air. We then proceed as planned.”

“We’ll address the army once we have Manhattan,” Emma says, leaning forward and meeting each of their gazes in turn. “We cut off the head first. The rest will follow.”

“And the humans?” Burner’s voice is like crumbling ash, as though a fire is crackling in his lungs. Little jets of smoke puff from his nostrils as he breathes, getting soot on the papers in his hands, which are starting to look crisped at the edges. The others murmur in agreement. “Pretty sure they’ll object.”

“As little bloodshed as possible,” Magneto says, “but our people must come first. Subdue where possible, defend where necessary, kill only where unavoidable.”

“After all,” says Emma, her mouth twisting into something like a smile, “we can’t have the pot calling the kettle black.”

“We are not animals,” Magneto says sharply, and catches her hand against the table by the slender chain she wears around her wrist, holding it there for a moment, making a point. “We are not Nazis, declaring the city judenrein. Taking control is not a license for genocide. Should they injure a mutant, should they kill a mutant, make a point. But any who think this is a massacre may leave.”

“The humans are healthier here, more likely to fight back.” Elixir shrugs when they turn to look at him, the light sheening off the surface of his metallic skin. “New York feels different to the other cities. It’s the furthest point away from the bombs, so there’s less radiation. When people feel sick they feel less like getting out their guns and starting a counter revolution.”

Magneto feels his mouth tighten into a thin line, but nods, knowing the man is right - boy, really, like so many of them, so young to be soldiers though no younger than he had been. “Do what you have to do. We cannot afford to be fighting on two fronts, so do not be shy to act. Are there any more questions?”

The room is quiet, purposeful. All eyes are on him, waiting for the word, his word.

“Go brief your teams. Tomorrow we get into position. The day after that, we move.”

 


XXVI

Mystique follows him upstairs after the meeting, wordlessly steps into Erik’s private elevator behind him and leans against the handrail as though she has a right to be there, as though she belongs there. He doesn’t say anything when in the hazy reflection on the inside of the doors the rich blue blur of her ripples into pink and cream, the sound of skirts shifting against her pale slim legs as they rumble upwards.

“Charles!” she calls when the doors open, already smiling with fake lips in her fake face, and rushes forward to fling her arms around her brother’s shoulders from behind, wrists crossed across his collarbone and half-lying across the back of the couch to capture him in his seat before he can turn. “Erik hasn’t eaten you yet, then,” she says with a half-laugh as she presses her pale cheek to his, gold hair mingling with brown.

Unable to turn, Charles cants his eyes sideways to catch a glimpse of his sister where she has him caught, and his smile is not given in half-measures. “Raven,” he says, sounding so affectionate Erik has to pause, awkward, just far enough inside the room for the elevator doors to shut behind him, playing wallflower out of Charles’ eyeline. “Aren’t you going to let me go so I can give you a proper hug?”

“Never,” and Raven lets out a laugh that turns into a sudden shriek as Charles twists and grabs up and behind him at her arms, digging his fingers in to drag her off her feet and over the back of the couch, limbs flailing against his hold; she lands half in his lap, long golden hair mussed and tangled, her elbow jabbing her full weight into his stomach and winding him with an almighty “Oof!”

“Oh no, Charles, are you alright?” Raven asks through her giggles, sprawled across the cushions with her false skirts dragged halfway up her thighs and her head tucked against Charles’ neck, forehead pressed to the angle of his jaw. The pair of them are flushed pink like children, Charles wheezing out laughter even as he tries to embrace her, instead pausing to primly tug his sister’s dress into a more decorous line as she smirks at him. “You dummy, what was that for?”

“Had to,” he says, between gasps, “put you in your place, didn’t I?”

They are so comfortable with one another, collapsed on Erik’s couch so freely and easily reaching out, as though it is nothing, as though it is the simplest thing in the world. Erik, caught uncertain by the wall, watches the two of them for a moment with a sweet pain pounding in his chest, transfixed, before breaking away to bow his head and remove his helmet. He turns away to place it on its stand, the metal of it cool on the outside where it has not lain against the sweat-dampened curve of his brow. When he raises his eyes again they are still wrapped up in their own little bubble, leaning against one another like drunkards, so he moves as quietly as he can away, to his office, perhaps, where he can shut them out, reclaim some space for himself. The pans in the kitchen sway towards him on their hooks as he passes, like hounds looking for a treat from their master, and like hounds they whine when he pays them no mind, falling against one another when his magnetic field releases them and letting loose an almighty clatter of copper on iron. Verdammt.

“Erik!” Charles calls out, surprised and - not unpleased, perhaps. When Erik turns the human is sitting up a little straighter and looks embarrassed, though Raven is still draped across his lap, her skin still pink as the day he was born. “I didn’t see you come in.” His smile is not as bright as it had been for his sister, tentative now where he was not before. He is half-turned in his seat, and from this angle Erik can see that he is awash in a sea of papers, each one covered in acres of the human’s tragic handwriting. Likely some are crushed beneath Raven, which will do nothing for their legibility; it had taken Erik hours to start to decipher the tight-curled script, the lazy copperplate tangle made more difficult by lamplight and exhaustion.

The arm Charles has braced over the back of the couch lifts to beckon Erik back over toward them, at least until Raven wriggles and nearly slips off the seat, necessitating a sudden save by Charles as the two burst out into laughter again. Halfway across the floorboards already Erik comes to a halt, unsure when he had made the decision to move. Taking a step back he wishes suddenly, for the first time, to put the helmet back on, as though that would help, somehow, to shut his thoughts away again where they could not be seen by anyone, as though they cannot be seen clearly on his face. “Erik,” Charles says, when he looks back again, and the human breaks out a radiant smile when he sees him closer, one that makes Erik’s heart pound. “Come on, man. And take off the cloak, for God’s sake, you must be boiling. At least Raven has the sense to wear summer dresses in this heat.”

Erik casts a sidelong glance at Raven, whose mouth has curled into a sly grin where her head is tipped back over the far arm of the couch, the line of her throat arched long and sleek. At the nearer end her feet dangle and sway, slim pretty ankles bared to the stifling air. “I wouldn’t like to intrude,” Erik says, tries to keep the lie from his voice, though he cannot meet Charles’ eyes. Almost without thinking about it he reaches up and looses the clasp of his cape, lets the heavy fabric slip away from his shoulders and catches it over his arm. The heavy drape of it sweeps across the floor, pendulous and theatrical, like the final curtain falling between an actor and his character; he lets it take away Magneto, for a while at least.

“You’re not,” Charles protests, even as Raven says “Don’t be an idiot, come sit down for five minutes. Save the world later.”

If he lifted her legs there would be enough room for Erik on the couch with them, close and brushing shoulder to shoulder, like pack animals in a den. They could sit together like that, the three of them, Erik next to Charles with the bridge of Raven between them, the three sides of a triangle.

He lays the cape across the back of the armchair and sits, discrete and separated from them by two yards of carpet, kitty-corner to their comfortable sprawl. “Now what?” he asks, lets the corner of his mouth lift, folding his hands together across his sternum as he leans back into the cushions.

Charles laughs. “Tell us about your day.”

In his lap Raven snorts. “Yes, Erik, how was work, dear?”

“How was yours?” Erik asks instead of answering, bending down to pick up the pages that have drifted as far as his feet, tucking them together into a loose pile. “It looks as though you’ve been busy, Charles.”

“It’s nothing much,” the human says, and if his voice is bland his eyes are sharp. “What have you two been up to today?”

Raven glances at Erik with eyes that flash yellow before sitting up, finally, tucking an arm behind her brother’s shoulders to hold herself steady. “Nothing much.” Her voice is warm, perfectly casual, a masterpiece of acting, but it wouldn’t fool Erik, and it does not fool Charles, who frowns at both of them and opens his mouth to ask again.

“I thought I might cook the three of us dinner,” Erik says, instead, before he can, and rises from the chair, offering a hand to Raven. She takes it in her own strong grip and levers herself to her feet, swaying against him in a long warm line for a moment before stepping back and away around the couch, towards the kitchen. The skirts emphasise the swing of her hips as she walks, and when he looks back at Charles the human is looking between them, biting thoughtfully at his lower lip. Charles raises an eyebrow and Erik, caught out, hesitates, uncertain, before shaking his head, no. Flushed yet from his wrestle with his sister, brown hair cowlicked and tousled, there is a different sort of ache in the square angle of Charles’ jaw, the fierce inquiry in his expression.

Pulled between two poles, Erik reaches out again, offers his hand to Charles. “Come on,” he says, and feels a tentative smile quite unlike his own habitual smirk curving his face into a new shape, something honest. “Even I can’t ruin a baked potato, though I’ll have a good go at the steak.”

Though Charles’ eyes have not relaxed from their suspicion, nonetheless he takes the hand. When he brushes against Erik’s chest as he stands he is less soft than his sister but it takes a moment longer for him to step away, looking up at Erik with their bodies close and his fingers, stronger and longer and more masculine but more gentle than Raven’s, curled in Erik’s grip. This would be the moment, thinks Erik, mouth going dry, to kiss him, but then there is a clatter from the kitchen and Charles goes to help his sister, leaving Erik alone and wanting.

 


XXXVII

The steak is only a little burnt, and Charles is laughing as Raven tells the story of Erik’s attempts to rid himself of the intern from the television talk show, head propped on one hand as she impersonates the young man cowering in fear of Erik’s glare only to come back for another try. Erik finds himself smiling, too, because the way she tells it makes it funny instead of aggravating, farcical instead of infuriating. When she changes mid-sentence into a clone of Erik, looming at the pair of them and proclaiming some ridiculous speech he would never make in a terrible faux-German accent, he chokes on a mouthful of salad and Charles has to thump him hard on the back, his hand splayed out between Erik’s shoulderblades and his bright blue gaze turned towards Erik, concerned and, maybe, just a little fond.

“You know,” Raven says, knocking a baby tomato around her plate with the tines of her fork, like a cat playing with its food, “You’ve never cooked for me before, Erik. It’s nice.”

It is warm and light and airy in the kitchen, the antithesis of his childhood, safe, and with Charles’ hand still resting idly on his back it’s easier for Erik to say what he is thinking, instead of biting it back. “Sharing food is something I still find difficult, sometimes. But it’s good to cook for more than just myself.”

Raven gives him a curious look, fork pausing, and he knows before she says it that she hasn’t understood. “Why’s that?” she asks, open and smiling and somehow, despite everything, artlessly naive.

There is a taste of bile in the back of his throat; perhaps knocked loose when he had been choking, before. He pushes his hair back from his face and makes himself meet her eyes as he says, “I was in the Konzentrationslagerin the war, Raven. They didn’t see much need to feed us if we were to be killed anyway.”

“Oh.” She winces, expression turning in on itself, and there is a long and awkward silence in which Erik curses himself for saying anything. Better to have kept it to himself, he thinks, and is about to apologise when Charles suddenly leans forward to plant his elbows on the table and pushing his plate aside, drawing Erik’s attention away to his smile, the glint of humour in his eyes. “Did Raven ever tell you about the time she shut herself in the Ice House?”

“Oh, Charles, no!” But she’s laughing even as she protests, kicking at her brother under the table and threatening him to shut up, and it’s easy to smile again, sat there with Raven flicking water at Charles who is sat in his shirt-sleeves, forearms bared and waistcoat unbuttoned, continuing the story despite her vocal objections. When Erik chuckles into his glass Raven turns her sunniest smile at him, delighted, and it doesn’t hurt at all to feel like this.

He can still feel the imprint of Charles’ hand on his back, warm and throbbing in time with the beat of his heart, like a beloved bruise.

 


XXXVIII

"I’d better get going,” Raven says, later, when Charles has run out of embarrassing stories to tell and she has run out of revenge. He had washed the dishes while Charles dried, side-by-side by the sink with elbows knocking from time to time, handing plates and cutlery to him when they were clean and trying not to react to the brush of their fingertips when they overlapped. It was all so domestic. Erik feels as though he has been inducted into a little bit of their history, as though something has opened to him, even if he had no stories of his own to share. She smiles. “Lots to do tomorrow, right?”

Erik nods, raises a hand to call the elevator for her without getting up from his seat, comfortably ensconced now in his armchair. “Yes. Get some sleep.”

Though he has been relaxed and laidback all evening, eyes closed even as he talked, at this Charles’ lids lift and he looks up at them both, flicking from one face to the other, brows coming together into a frown. “Why, what’s tomorrow?” he asks, letting his tucked-up feet fall to press flat against the floor. “Raven?”

“It’s nothing to worry about, just some errands,” she says lightly, and kisses her brother’s hair before heading for the elevator doors as they open, steps light and carefully carefree. “I’ll see you in a few days, okay?”

Raven is a flawless actress, but it would not fool Erik, he knows her too well. That is how he knows it has not fooled Charles.

That night he locks his study doors before he goes to sleep, and keeps the key around his neck.

It makes no difference. When he wakes up in the morning the door is open, the New York plans are missing, and so is Charles.

 


XXXIX

There is a wretched pain and rage burning in his chest, tight and hard like swallowing cinders. Erik had - he had taken Charles in, against his better judgement, when his own kind had been out for his blood. And now - and now -

Charles has thrown it all back in his face.

Erik stands in the hallway and looks in at the ruck of Charles’ sheets, the tumble of his belongings matching the state he had left Erik’s usually orderly desk in. Whatever he had not taken Charles had left in a landslide on the carpet, slip-sliding under Erik’s feet when he goes in to see what is missing. A quick rifle through the papers is enough to see that the list of teams, members and powers Erik had laboured over is gone, along with the marked-up maps and annotated timetables. There was very little that hadn’t been written down, in fact, somewhere in this office. Erik had simply never thought that Charles, pacifistic, non-confrontational, and above all human Charles, would ever reach out and take them. He had, instead, foolishly, pathetically, thought that - had hoped that -

His thumb slips against the edge of a page and it slices swift and painless into his skin, blood welling up out of the cut almost immediately. It slips in a slick sticky trail down the side of his hand that he catches on his tongue, licking it clean as he thinks hard to put together a plan. Outside the sky is marbled grey and black with yesterday’s ashclouds, rolling above the city like smoke above a house on fire, and it is lighter inside with the electric lights turned on than it is outside in the murk.

He is still in his pyjama pants, barefoot, though his habitual bleary-eyed torpor was banished as soon as he saw the open office door, the wide-open yaw of Charles’ door, hollowed of its occupant. Erik goes back to the master bedroom, stands at the threshold and feels his fists clench tight, pushing more blood from the tiny wound in his thumb. The window in Charles’ bedroom has been left open, letting in the smell of the city, and when he crosses the room to look out it is obvious how Charles left the apartment. When Erik had magnetised the elevator doors shut he had never thought that Charles would even notice, obsessed with his books and papers and seemingly content to stay where Erik had put him, safe from harm; he had not expected him to so much as go out for a coffee, let alone opt to climb out of the window in the early morning dark and brave the rickety, half-rusted fire escape that looked as though it would collapse into powder at the touch of a feather. The weight of a full-grown man, without magnetism and obstinate determination to hold it up, should have been suicidal.

There is no corpse on the ground, no blood stain, and Erik cannot stifle the sickening flood of relief that leaves his belly feeling curdled and unhappy, even as his anger swells.

It had been the same sort of ‘friendship’ Schmidt had offered after all, though wrapped in prettier packaging - Erik had been useful, and nothing more. A subject for study, for information gathering and offhand kindnesses that cost the giver less than they did him. As soon as it had suited Charles he had taken what he wanted and swanned off to leave Erik standing in the centre of the carnage, bodies slung all around him like orbiting satellites, blood dripping from his hands.

There is a taste of salt on his tongue, ocean bitter and tepid. He swallows, but it does not go away.

Too much of this. Erik turns on his heel to go back to his own room, snatches up his tunic and pants by the fastenings and tugs them on with vicious hands, pulls on the thin veneer of command they give him as he summons his cape and helmet from the main room, concentrates on swinging them through doorways instead of walls until he can settle them where they belong. They sit heavy and welcome on his shoulders and head, and it is as himself - his true self - that Magneto lifts himself onto the windowframe, crouched between the panes of glass like some cathedral gargoyle before stepping out into the open air.

He falls. Somewhere someone lets out a sharp, high little scream, muffled by the rush of air in his ears; the slipstream of his passage is cool on his face, makes the heavy fabric of his cape billow and snap, like a sail in the wind. Everything is getting very big, very fast, windows zipping past as he drops past them, too fast to see in for more than a second, flashes of living rooms and kitchens, once a man and woman fighting, shouting silently at one another in front of a bawling child. It is easy, now, to slow his descent with barely a thought between himself and the ground below, arms stretched wide with his blood boiling inside of him, angry enough to topple buildings, had he wanted to. As it is, the streetlights bend toward him as he descends, blind heads searching toward him in his rage and necks becoming spindly, stretching thin as they tug and pull against their moorings. The sidewalk comes up to meet his feet like the next step down of a staircase, and he lands, barely needing to bend his knees. The feeling of solid ground beneath his boots is almost a disappointment.

The people on the street gape and point, aghast and astonished, but a single look from Magneto is enough to send them scurrying back to their ratholes.

He turns his head to look up and down the sidewalk, flicking the cape back into its proper sweep with a flick of his hand. There is nothing to suggest where Charles might have gone, but it isn’t hard to guess. It isn’t that far from the SoHo building the mutants had commandeered to the headquarters of the NYPD, over on Centre Street. It was one of the reasons Magneto had picked the place, after all.

He thinks about going back inside, gathering some of the others to come with him - if Charles has already handed the plans to the human authorities, then the fight will simply have to start early - but it would take too long to explain, and this is his mess. He will clean it up. If not, better that the others do not know about Charles. For Mystique’s sake, if nothing else.

Magneto starts to walk, slowly at first, then faster, with purpose, turning onto Broome Street with shoulders hunched and face darkened into a fierce scowl that sends pedestrians running. Spreading his awareness feels like learning to breathe all over again; he reaches out with his powers to the metal around him, the iron-clad facades trembling as he passes, coins and necklaces and the nails of people’s shoes, cars and trains underground and cans of pop in refrigerators all responding to him like eager pets, all rejected.

On the corner of Broome and Broadway Magneto crosses the busy street by forcing cars out of his way, shoving them from his path as horns blare. There is a crunch of metal when the vehicles following slam into the backs of the ones he has stalled, shouts and screams erupting behind him, but he pays them no mind. He is looking for a particular piece of metal, for the fancy gold watch Charles wears on his left wrist, probably an heirloom; like any metal it has its own feel to it, its own weight and texture, and Magneto hunts for it all of his focus as he stalks down the sidewalk. Much like the cars, the people on it get out of his way, too, and if they don’t do it of their own accord he drags them from his path by force. When he turns right onto Centre Street the magnetic force he is exerting flings a mailbox through a window across the road.

He comes to a stop opposite the police station, the strong muscles of his thighs burning from the exertion and his breath rushing in his chest louder than the fall, echoing inside his helmet, locked in with his thoughts and the drumming of his heartbeat. Staring up at the ornate dome he feels his way through the metal inside, a mess of jewellery and paperclips and guns and badges and the steel girders holding the building together, but does not find Charles.

Gottverdammt.” When he clenches his fists the pipes under the street erupt up from the road in a sudden explosive spray of water and asphalt and wet clay, soaking everything in sight and whipping about like snakes, hydrants up and down the sidewalk bursting like pipe bombs. Magneto stands in the falling spray and stares at the building, feeling the weight of his cloak growing heavier on his shoulders, dragging him earthwards, a sudden increase of gravity. Water beading on the metal of his helmet drips down the point between his eyes to run down the long line of his nose, sweeping to either side and leaving tear tracks on his face that he wipes off, disgusted. “Where are you, Charles?” He’d been so sure.

But then, he had never really known Charles at all, had he. Erik - Magneto - forces the pipes back underground with the force of his self-loathing to fuse them back into whole perfection, stoppers the hydrants by crumpling them in on themselves with his frustration until the water can only seep through in places, dammed up and contained, back under control. The street he can do nothing about, torn up and scarred; the humans can fix that on their own. He has to find Charles.

He folds his arms across his chest, stands and stares at the holes he has left, ignores the people milling about. They seem unable to stop gawking long enough to realise they are far from far enough away for him not to notice, not to be able to reach them, hurt them if he wanted. Idiots, all. Unlike Charles. Maybe Charles would have gone to City Hall - ? Or Federal Plaza, perhaps, the FBI or what’s left of it, an isolated outpost of a defunct agency, that great national grid of federal law enforcement decapitated by the mutant revolution.

He has to think like Charles, choose correctly. It was how he had always tracked down the bastard Nazis, before - think like a pig, and you can find the sty. He can hardly canvas the whole city looking for one human among millions. Where would Charles go?

A thought creeps in slowly, growing stronger, and Magneto raises his head, frowning hard enough to make the line between his brows ache with an incipient headache. Surely not. It seems impossibly ludicrous, and besides, who knows how long Charles has had to run? But the thought persists, and without knowing how long Charles has been gone, if he has gone to the human authorities it is too late to stop him now. They will already have the plans, already be planning move and counter move. If not, if Charles really is stupid enough to - if Erik is right -

 


XXXX

He does not pay for his subway ticket. When the agent at the Canal Street station looks at him as though ready to ask for it, face pale and knees knocking but brave enough - or stupid enough - not to step aside, Magneto reaches out and bends the legs of the turnstile back on themselves, curling them in on themselves and stepping past. His bootsteps echo on the tunnel tiles as the humans back up out of his way, pressing themselves to the walls. He almost - almost - smiles when he hears the agent shouting behind him at people following him through, taking the opportunity of a free ride over avoiding the world’s most notorious mutant. Only in New York.

Inside, in the space that had fluttered when Charles had looked at him over a book and not turned away, or brought him coffee even though he never thanked him, or fallen asleep on the windowseat looking out over the city, there is an acid bubbling away at the inner surface of his breastbone, hot and visceral and spreading. The wait on the platform does nothing but fan the flames. Gott in Himmel, how he hates trains. Crowded, smelly, airless, crammed with people waiting to die, the feel of his mother’s fingers clasped too tight around his own, cutting off the circulation until he whimpered with the pain, but she wouldn’t let go -

When the train pulls into the station it makes a godawful noise like the clatter of a thousand guns and he grits his teeth, hears them grind against one another and consciously loosens his jaw, pushes down the part of himself that would like nothing more than to crush this tin can, and when the doors open he steps onto the train.

He is not ruled by his fears. He rules them.

In the subway car the humans freeze as though headlights have been turned upon them, turning slowly to stare as he takes hold of one of the poles near the door where he can get out quickly, cape still dripping water slowly onto the floor of the subway car. One of them drops his soda can and adds to the mess, cursing quietly under his breath, and shrinks into his seat, making himself as small as possible as though Magneto would care that he spilled his drink. Pathetic. He turns to look out the window at the darkness of the underground tunnel flying past them, thinks about pushing the train along faster, decides against it. In the reflected image the frightened rabbit eyes of the people in the subway car quiver, hardly daring to blink when somebody turns the page of their newspaper, simultaneously trying not to look and not to look away.

When he gets off the train at 42nd Street to change lines the sense of relief from the car behind him is palpable. The car he gets onto to keep travelling uptown is not so pleased, and is busy enough that the humans don’t have much space to move away from him, those closest keeping their elbows tucked in so tight to their bodies they might puncture their own organs if they press any harder.

He reads the ads plastered along the walls for lack of anything else to take his mind off the shuffle and squeeze of other bodies, the rattle of the track beneath them and the dark of the tunnel, the stink of piss where somebody has wet themselves from fear. His fingers are tight on the pole, digging into the metal like hot butter and leaving the print of his hand in it, steel holding his hand as much as he holds it. The stark lights reflect from his helmet and scatter reflections across the ceiling like bright coins.

 


XLI

The moment he steps out of the station he can feel the watch, Charles’ watch, the deliberate motion of its cogs and springs turning, waiting to turn the dial to a new day come midnight. All of its delicate motions are coiled one inside the other like old friends, like holding hands. Magneto smiles, but there is no humour in it. There is a certain grim satisfaction in having guessed correctly, in the hunt, old instincts rising up from the back of his mind where they had been dormant for almost a year, unneeded.

Following the pull of the watch, its expensive mechanisms counting out the seconds between them as he heads down the tree-lined avenue with a deliberate calm, Magneto walks down West 116th Street and into Riverside Park.

If he were to turn he would see the university behind him, Columbia’s tall buildings visible in puzzle pieces through the red-gold of the fall foliage, and ahead lies the shine of the river, gleaming sullenly under the dull sky. It is a stupid place for Charles to have come, given that the last time he was here he was beaten for a second time; it is the only place Charles would come, if he was not at the NYPD giving evidence against Erik, handing over his sister’s future on a platter to humans who had not cared enough to stop their citizens from murdering mutants across the city, who had only put out fires and asked nicely and probably given the rioters directions. The breeze blows fallen leaves across the path in scurrying herds; the grass to either side is still green with the last breath of summer, only slightly darkened by the residue of the dirty skies. There are students milling about with books in hand and moving in packs like the leaves, some of whom stop to stare as he walks past, their conversations falling silent before erupting into frantic life again.

He has to walk along the park south a little way before he finds Charles, sat beneath the low-sweeping branches of a tree that has only half turned to its fall scarlet. It is the tangled back of Charles’ head he sees first, the messy fall of his hair familiar from a thousand subtle glances. His elbows with their old-man patches are propped on his knees where he has brought them up against his body, his back to the trunk. There is a battered leather satchel leant against his hip, its strap laid across his lap where Charles can keep hold of it, running it through his fingers idly. Across the wide stretch of green between him and the river there are children screaming and laughing, chasing one another in endless circles and falling upon one another like puppies, careless and free.

Charles looks very ordinary, sat there watching the children play, his shoulders slumped and clothes rumpled and creased from two days’ wear. Magneto - Erik - feels his anger rising in his chest like bile, stands watching him from the path where Charles can’t see him, shaking with the need to break something, anything, someone. How he could ever have thought that this man, this average, grubby human, was special, is beyond him now, incomprehensible. Charles is nothing like his sister, nothing so remarkable, so unique, as Mystique -

“I couldn’t go through with it,” Charles says, into the silence, and Erik quashes his jerk of surprise, but does not quite stifle the sharp inhalation that goes with it. Charles turns, and the dappled light falls on his face until he is illuminated with the subtle glow of some Renaissance oil painting, freckles and red-gold stubble to match the autumn all around them, and he is so tired, and guilty, and perfect, perfect, that Erik longs more than anything to reach out and snap him in two, to shatter him into a million pieces and bury him deep below the earth, where he will never be found, where Erik will never have to feel like this again.

“I’m a coward,” Charles says, when Erik does not reply, his mouth twisting into a tight curl of self-hatred, even as he grasps the leather of his satchel tight in his fist, crushing the contents with a sound like crumpling paper. “At least you and Raven have the courage of your convictions. I could have done the right thing today, could have stopped you from doing this terrible thing tomorrow, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do that to you. Erik,” and his eyes are full of something Erik cannot, will not name, that drags a shuddering breath from his lungs, makes his heart pause in his chest as though it has been knocked out of rhythm, “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you do this. It’s wrong. God, I should have gone into the station. I’m such a coward. This is all such a mess. You have to know, Erik, that I - I really do - I genuinely - ”

“Shut up,” Erik - Magneto - snaps, and his voice is as cold and vicious as it was when he confronted Schmidt for the last time, rasping from his throat and dragging out like sandpaper, a burn like ice on bare skin. “Don’t pretend you care, Charles, not now. You’re coming with me, and I’ll take those back.” When he tugs at the metal rings stitched to the satchel Charles simply lets go, opens his hands without even a token protest. He just stares at Erik with those exhausted eyes, and when Erik gestures for him to get up he does, stiff and awkward, joints cracking from being too still for too long.

“Let’s go home,” Charles says, and when Magneto reaches out to grab his wrist tightly enough to make the bones creak he goes willingly, quietly.

Chapter Text

 


I

Erik only speaks to Charles once on the way back to the apartment. “How did you get into the office?”

Charles startles, then smiles ruefully, ducking his head to look down at his feet. “Nothing too exciting - I picked the lock, I’m afraid. One of the many bad habits I picked up from Raven when we were children.”

“How human of you,” Erik murmurs, and does not loosen his grip.

 


II

He locks Charles into the smallest bedroom, Erik’s bedroom, and this time he fuses the lock.

Admittedly, it would take rather more advanced escapology skills than he suspects even Mystique of having taught her human brother for him to get out. When Erik had first moved in he had blocked up the window from the outside to guard against snipers, and Erik has used the thick silk curtain ties from the living room to truss Charles up hand and foot, tight enough to bind him but not to restrict blood flow. The last glimpse he sees of him as he shuts the door is of Charles curled up on his side, comma-shaped atop the covers with his back to Erik, wrists crossed awkwardly in the small of his back and ankles together. The bare nape of his neck is exposed, pale and soft-furred, where he has let his head curve forward, face half-buried in the more adequate pillow Erik had acquired for himself.

It looks uncomfortable, but it won’t kill him, and it’s more than Erik thinks Charles deserves.

He had started his pursuit early, but it is already mid-morning and he is two hours late to begin preparations with his strike team. No doubt they are wondering where Magneto is, and so he heads for the elevator, shutting the hallway door behind himself in turn. He thinks about magnetising the window frames of the rest of the apartment shut as well, to be certain, but if Charles is so determined to get out it would be easy enough to break the glass, so he lets them be. Charles would only cut himself and end up bleeding to death.

Downstairs he steps from the elevator into a cacophonous melee of mutants, all of them talking at once and bustling purposefully between rooms. He can hear Radar calling for more batteries for the walkie-talkie radios, somewhere over in the conference room to his right; to his left, Team Eight are reaching out their hands to link up with Azazel, who will be taking them to their position on the roof of City Hall, ready to infiltrate once the majority of the human staff have left for the day.

“Where have you been?” Magneto turns in time to catch Mystique’s shove on the meat of his shoulder instead of his back, and before she can try again he grabs her hand and forces it down. Scowling, she moves her hands to bracket her bare hips, chin tipped up defiantly in her irritation. “I went up to the apartment but there was no-one there! Has something happened to -” she pauses, changes word mid-sentence, “ - you?”

“Out,” he says shortly, not in the mood to play at conciliation with her. “Reacquiring something that had, shall we say, gone walkabout. Everything’s fine. Where is my team?”

She looks as though she wants to ask more questions, but surrounded by other mutants she bites them back and instead points down the corridor towards the rec room, mouth tight and unhappy. “Along there, waiting for you.”

He nods and claps her on the shoulder, moving off without another word. He has to weave his way through the crowded hallway, stepping through the space Team Eight were in until just a moment ago before it can be filled by the overspill. Twice he is stopped by other team leaders seeking to clarify small points, and once by Havok looking for reassurance that his little brother has been moved to a safe location for the next few days, that he will be brought back as soon as possible. The Summers brothers don’t like to be separated. “This is no place for a child,” Magneto says, clasping hold of Havok’snape and squeezing once before letting go. “He will be fine. Concentrate on your mission - the faster we take control, the quicker he and the other children will be cleared to return.”

“Thanks,” Havok mutters, looking a little embarrassed, his fair cheeks reddening as he shoves a hand back through his thick mop of hair. He is wearing the same gear as the rest of them, black and thick with padding and plating, though it is just as likely that his unpredictable power will blast it from his body as that it will spare the protective armour. As soon as Magneto lets go the boy hurries off, hopefully to where he is supposed to be.

In the rec room Team One is waiting, sat around the card tables with feet kicked up on chairs and elbows folded across their chests. When he walks in they come abruptly upright, all but jumping to attention. “Sir,” Razorback says through her tusks, and if her diction is slurred her salute - however uncomfortable it makes him feel - is crisp. “We weren’t sure if we were in the wrong place - ”

“I apologise, I had some last minute preparations to take care of,” Magneto says, and gestures for them to relax, coming to stand at the head of the table and leaning forward to rest his hands on its uneven surface, pitted with the scars of late-night arm-wrestling matches and mutants blowing off steam. “I had planned for us to go over our plans for tomorrow again this morning, but as we are running behind schedule, I suggest we do that once we have reached our base camp for the night. You will be moving out immediately to secure the area - I plan to follow after you tonight, courtesy of Azazel, once everything is in place here at Command. Are there any questions that need answering before you leave?”

He looks at each of his team members in turn, each shaking their head in the negative, some slower than others. He had tried to pick a variety of skills for Team One, ones that would complement his own and each other’s. Though every team was important, Magneto was the key piece in the plan, the linchpin upon which the rest of the operation depended, and as much as he liked to work alone - preferred it, found the idea of a team constrictive, unwelcome - he had bowed to the necessity of becoming a pack animal.

"No? Then gear up and head out,” he says, and waves for them to go ahead, taking his own pack from Wolverine, who simply grunts when he nods his thanks. Both of them, by silent agreement, ignore the sharp snap of static that pops between their hands when they get too close, Magneto’s magnetism reacting to Wolverine’s metal-laced skeleton. Razorback, Angel, Jason Stryker, Wolverine and Sunspot; it seems a small team for such big plans, and so much bigger than he would need if he could just cut loose, if he could just do what he knows he could, if he were more like Schmidt, or more like Schmidt wanted him to be. Schmidt would have crowned himself king of a ruined wasteland, a world only he could have survived. Magneto intends to take control of a world halfway to ruin and build a better one.

As they step out of the building’s main lobby Jason throws an illusion around the team like a cloak, snapping it into place with the ease of weeks of practice. Instead of a team of armed mutants, clawed, winged and burning alive, an empty space moves down the sidewalk with coordinated focus, headed for the Brooklyn Bridge. Magneto follows them with senses other than his eyes, stands hawk-eyed and intent on the front step with gloved hands open and with fingers spread wide, and for once in his life he can feel everything, everything he was ever supposed to be and has ever wanted to be and needed to be, like a heartbeat echoing up through the earth.

Every magnet in New York City twitches and quivers, and resets itself to a new direction.

 


III

He spends the afternoon and evening with Emma Frost moving pieces into place, checking in with each team in turn and ensuring all is at it should be, that every pawn and rook and bishop is in its correct square, ready to play. Slowly the building empties down to the Central Command team only, buzzing with an almost palpable adrenaline in the air, a smell like electricity. Magneto adjusts armour to fit varied shapes of mutants more comfortably, tweaks the radio array according to technical instructions until the sound is sweet and clear. He does not think about upstairs at all, ignores the pull like a second sun that keeps tugging like a hook caught on a rib, too deep to pull out.

Two hours before he has to leave to meet his team at their base camp, Magneto relents.

 


IV

Charles is still lying on his side, eyes closed in exhausted sleep and legs half-curled toward his chest, relaxed and loose despite his bonds. Watching from the doorway, the soft rise and fall of his chest is mesmerising, the slow in and out of it, the slight part of his lips, the strong line of his profile against the pale pillowcase.

Erik stands and looks, and looks, and does not move for a minute, another. He wants to step forward, but doesn’t. The hook in his chest has stopped dragging, now that he has followed where it wanted him to go. It feels more like he has swallowed a bird, fluttering against the inside of his chest with delicate-boned wings, the feathers brushing against his heart. He is the cage.

On the bed Charles sighs, low, and stirs, tugs against the restraints at his wrists and frowns in his sleep.

“Charles,” Erik says, and finds he has his hand on Charles’ shoulder, curled around the hunch of it, fingers spread across the sweep of the human’s collarbone, separated from his skin only by the thin fabric of his shirt. “Charles, wake up.”

“Mmm. Ow…” Charles’ eyes open slow and reluctant against the crease between his brows, shoulder tensing under Erik’s hand. Laying the way he is he cannot see over his shoulder, cannot twist to look, which is good. “Erik?”

“You’ve slept all day.” Erik slides his hand down the length of Charles’ arm to close it around the ropes that encircle his wrists, the thick loops of silk wrapped just as he left them.

“Not all day. Um - look, forgive me, but this is oddly conversational given the circumstances.”

After a moment of hesitation Erik sits down on the side of the bed, the comforter pulling taut beneath his weight. He wants to keep Charles tied up like this forever, in his room with the light turned down low so the human cannot see Erik’s expression, to lock him in here, wants simultaneously to be on the inside and the outside of that door, to be as near and as far away as possible. Charles is beautiful like this, caught, finally, under control and predictable at last. But…

“I am going to be busy tomorrow,” Erik says, when the silence seems like it might crack if he waits any longer. “As I’m sure you’re aware. And as much as I’d prefer to leave you hogtied like this and out of the way I am going to be too busy to come up here for toilet breaks. So I am going to untie you. It’s a privilege I can rescind at any time.”

“Of course,” Charles says, his head still bowed, expression half-hidden by shadows. “Erik, you know it’s not too late not to - ”

“At any time,” Erik snaps, and grabs the back of Charles’ neck, shakes him sharply, warning where the same touch on Havok had been a reassurance. “Prisoners don’t get to dictate to their captors.”

The laugh it earns him is rusty, awkward. “Is that what I am now? Your prisoner?”

Erik snarls and leans forward, placing an elbow firmly on the small of Charles’ back and pressing him down against the mattress with his full weight until Charles’ face is half-pressed into the pillow and he is wheezing for breath, struggling uselessly to get away. “What did you think would happen when you broke into my office, Charles?” he asks, furious even at the way the human is kicking and struggling. “What did you think would happen when I found out that you’d been playing me this whole time, when you took and you took and I gave, against my better judgement, as a favour to your sister, only to have you prove I was right all along? Gott, Charles, you are a walking advertisement for everything I hate about humans, and every proof I needed to go ahead with the plan without regret. Congratulations.”

He sits up and Charles takes a long, shuddering breath, limp and heaving for air. “Now stay still while I untie you,” Erik says, and starts unpicking the knots, working his fingers into them to pull them loose. It takes a few minutes, in which neither of them speaks.

“I’m sorry,” Charles says eventually, when his feet are untied, too, does not turn over to face Erik. His voice is muffled by lying face down. “I’m sorry, but what you’re doing is wrong, Erik. It’s wrong.”

“I’ve left you a bucket in the corner, and there’s water and food on the cabinet,” Erik says, and coils up the rope to take with him. He does not think about the warmth of Charles’ body against his, how wrong it was, how sweet. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Erik?” When he looks up Charles has pushed himself to his knees, has not yet turned around. The collar of his shirt has been pulled awry by his struggles and there is a pressure mark on the back of his neck where Erik’s hand has been, red and fading slowly. For a moment Erik is afraid he is going to vomit, his gorge rising in his throat on a wave of nausea. “Could I have a book, maybe?” Charles asks, “if it’s not too much trouble?”

Erik pauses, feels himself hesitate, weak, weak, and hates himself for it. “Sure,” he says eventually, rubbing the silk of the rope between his fingers as he swallows down bile. “What would you like?”

“Maybe some Fitzgerald? It’s on the shelf with the glass figurines, over by the wireless.” He half-turns, expression revealed in quarter-profile, the gleam of an eye downcast and hidden, the shadowed downward curve of his mouth. “Keep my sister safe, Erik, if you’re so determined to drag her into a meaningless war. I couldn’t bear it if something were to happen to her. Or to you, damn you, you stupid neanderthal. Don’t get yourself killed.”

With a certain sense of wry amusement, having surveyed his choices, Erik brings him a rather worn copy of The Beautiful and Damned, corners creased and bent by use. When Charles sees it even he laughs, just a little.

 


V

The next morning Magneto stands at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, thinks of Charles’ face in that moment where he had turned beneath the tree to look at him with those tired blue eyes, traitorous and beautiful as he opened his lying mouth. He thinks of the light on Charles’ skin and the curl of his hair, the leaf that had been caught in it that he hadn’t noticed, red and wind-weathered by fall; of the way he had said let’s go home, as though he belonged there, as though they had a home together, as though he had a choice and he’d made it, and he’d chosen Erik.

The sound of the metal humming in Magneto’s bones, in his blood, is clearer than it has ever been, anger warring with something more complicated that he doesn’t want to name, thrumming ever louder until when he reaches out with both hands he rips the bridge in two like snapping a breadstick, until a flex of his thumb bends the near side up and up and in on itself until it curves back in one long arch. Along the riverbank to either side he can hear bridges collapsing into the water with great rumbles like distant thunder as Avalanche lets loose. Far-off screams and sirens echo among the tall buildings of the city, and Magneto stands on the shoreline and stares at his hands, wondering, exulting, because his power has never been so easy, so strong, as today, of all days.

The river surges and roars, enormous waves battling one another from each direction and crashing together in great gouts of white spray as the bridges fall, the surface of the Hudson turning to carnage as the few early boats are flung about like toys on a snapping sheet. He watches as it settles, a calm certainty settling on him and leaving focus behind. Manhattan has been cut off from the mainland, the lines holding her to the shore severed like cobwebs.

He turns away from the water, toward the city, and if Jason Stryker is high enough on adrenaline to giggle as he throws an illusion around them that they are ten feet tall, cars being crushed beneath their monstrous feet and breath shattering windows, enough theatrics to ensure that everybody knows they are there, that they are coming, Magneto does not tell him to stop.

 


VI

He wonders where Mystique is right now, as he flings aside police officers by their own belt buckles, like ragdolls, crushing the engines of their cars and making room for Wolverine and Razorback to fight the humans back, with claws and tusks and fierce smiles, no need for tools. Above them in the air Angel dodges the objects lobbed at her by the cops and sends back missiles of her own, globs of burning acid that are closely followed by screams. There are humans scratching at their own faces where Jason is showing them horrors, only for Sunspot to step in and put them out of their misery. The six of them against a hundred police officers, and it is a rout. They reach the Empire State Building right on time, without slowing.

Mystique has probably moved on from the television studios she had started the morning in, Magneto thinks, as he tears the doors from their hinges, strides into the building with the team behind him, Angel taking out the four security guards on duty before they have even finished jumping to their feet. The building itself is ominously quiet, much like the city, which suggests her fake news stories about incoming radiation have taken enough to keep most of the humans huddled in their homes, blankets over their heads like ostriches. All to the better.

There is a loud and growing rumble as he forces the elevator car down the shaft faster than it was ever intended to go, and once through the doors he turns to face the police who are only just starting to enter the building after them, raising his hands. There is a grim satisfaction in their shouts as he throws them all out onto the street, welds the doors shut behind them, and presses the button for the 102nd floor.

He does not need to, but when he stands in the centre of the observatory, as high as he can get above the city, and like unfolding releases a wave of EMP across New York, he has Sunspot create a flash of light to go with it, a loud and crashing boom that breaks all of the plate glass windows holding them in and echoes louder than the collapse of the bridges as Magneto makes of himself an explosionless bomb. All around for miles as it spreads he can feel it when machines stop working, when their electronics seize up and die, the electrons supercharged for a brief moment before they flare into painful over-excitement and collapse, sluggish. Below them through the shattered windows they can hear the gathered policemen shouting and confused, broken glass raining down on them as their radios and cars and anything with a circuitboard suddenly fail them.

Traffic and subway trains and television and wireless and the hum of appliances and everything electrical falls silent, the NYPD keeps trying to break into the Empire State Building to get to him, and that is when the mutants fall on them from behind, all of them at once, a sea of glorious variation against an island of cookie-cutter grains of sand, each one the same.

It is almost too easy after that.

 


VII

He deliberately re-enables the television cameras first, before the battle - if you can call it that - is done, so that they can film this final victory, for posterity. He did not release enough energy to disable the city’s electronics permanently - function will come back with time, if slowly - but they cannot put the fighting on hold to wait for that, not when the unplugging of New York is their greatest weapon.

Nonetheless, he wonders if Charles noticed the flicker of the electric lights before the generators kicked in, shut up tight in the Faraday cage of the Command building, safe from harm, from Erik’s influence, if he had wondered if Erik was safe, too.

“They’re falling back!” Mystique shouts over the crowd, and the sight of her bright flash of white teeth and red hair - alive and unharmed and joyful - is enough to make him grin, wolfish and sharp, and join in the pursuit.

 


VIII

The thing the humans in New York do not seem to have realised, trapped in their little bubble of false normality: after Schmidt blasted Cuba and Florida, after the humans themselves started jabbing at launch buttons like children let loose in a candy store and irradiated half the planet, killing off millions upon millions of their own kind and leaving behind only corpses and mutants, that ratio which has always been in their favour before - thousands of humans to each one born with the X-gene - no longer holds true.

 


IX

It is early the next morning when Magneto gets back to Command, leaving other mutants in charge of keeping the human law enforcement in custody, of chasing down stragglers through the alleyways and smaller neighbourhoods of Manhattan. The dark skyline is lit only by the occasional fire, set by civilians fighting back or sparked by blown circuitry from his showpiece that morning; the streetlights have not yet come back to life, though other things seem to be flickering slowly toward recovery. If need be, he will repeat the exercise as many times as it takes to consolidate their hold on the city, but to do that he will need to sleep and recharge.

Had he his druthers, Erik would still be out there in the thick of it, but he has been forced to concede to his flesh in a way he has always hated. It is so rare for him to have a night of uninterrupted sleep that if he could he would go without entirely, would cease to waste time on nightmares and tossing and turning, on punching his pillow and trying to muffle his yells so as not to wake Charles. However, he cannot, more’s the pity, and so he has left the streets to his lieutenants, and only stops briefly to check in with Emma before heading upstairs.

Charles must have been listening out for him, because he is barely inside the apartment before he hears him shouting. “Erik! Erik? Erik, I’m hoping that’s you, because you are going to come and let me out of here right now, do you hear me? Erik!”

Well, last night’s docile acceptance was clearly temporary; he cannot pretend that he doesn’t wish it had lasted a little longer. Erik takes off his helmet, runs a tired hand back through the mess of his hair underneath and yawns despite himself, takes a moment to rub at his face before heading for the bedroom. His cape he leaves draped across the back of the kitchen chair, the long hem of it trailing on the terracotta tiles, no doubt gathering every fleck of dust on the floor with the leftover static from his skin. Speaking of…

“Erik!”

“I’m coming,” he calls back as he steps into the corridor, after taking a moment to secure the living room, and is rewarded by a sudden silence, as though Charles had not expected a response. His boots he toes off and leaves just inside the unused second bedroom, where he plans to sleep; the carpet feels good under his bare feet, thick and soft.

Erik!

“For goodness’ sake, Charles, who says I’m letting you out at all?” He thinks about just ignoring the human until morning, though no doubt he would be kept awake by the shouting. “You should have thought about this before you decided to stab your own sister in the back.”

There is a dull thump from the other side of the door, probably a fist. His voice is muffled somewhat by the two inches of wood between them. “But I didn’t, did I? Heaven help me, I chose your side, and all it earned me was an involuntary kip in someone else’s bed and a bucket to piss in, so I’d rather appreciate it if you let me out to empty the horrible thing, at least!”

Erik comes to stand outside the bedroom, leans his shoulder against the door frame, and thinks about his few belongings, which are still in the room with Charles. “I didn’t hear this many complaints yesterday. Guilt worn off already?”

“Look,” Charles says, and suddenly he sounds as tired as Erik feels, the crispness dropping from his voice, “look, we could argue this all night, and I suspect that we will, but really what I would like right now is not to be in here, and I think we both know that you can keep me in here forever if you decide to, but I really hope that you don’t, and if you do, I am going to make sure you don’t get to sleep tonight, which we both know I can do, human or not. And all of this conquering and slaying of innocents must be pretty exhausting, or so the movies have led me to believe. So we’ll both be better off if you just let me out of this stinking room. I promise not to murder you in your sleep.”

Erik opens the door.

Charles must have been leaning against it, because he half-stumbles out, catching himself on Erik to keep himself from falling on his face and then recoiling as though he’s been burnt. “Thank you,” he says, and even when he’s being sarcastic he sounds prim. Erik can still feel where his hands were for that brief moment, cupped across the breadth of Erik’s shoulders and pressing downward as though pulling him down to Charles’ level, so that their faces could be closer. “I thought for sure you’d still be out cutting down heathens from the back of your mighty metal steed,” Charles continues as he brushes imaginary dust from his slacks, cheeks flushed, “and what should I call you now that you’re the Overlord of all you survey?” He looks up, then, to meet Erik’s eyes, and falters before he can continue, gaze flicking down to Erik’s cheek. “Oh, you’re bleeding!”

“It’s nothing,” Erik says gruffly, even as Charles licks his thumb and reaches up tentatively to wipe it clean, his hand almost stuttering towards Erik’s face. “It’s not mine,” he adds, and then hisses when the touch connects, a sudden sting flaring up where Charles has rubbed across the line of his cheekbone.

“Yes it is.” Charles bites his lip, starts to pull away, and before he even realises it Erik grabs at his wrist to hold Charles’ hand there, has to loosen his grip when the human winces - there is a ring of bruises there already from the day before, dark blue and purple against the pallid skin usually hidden beneath his long shirtsleeves. It is the closest in colouration the Xavier siblings have ever been.

Gott, what is he doing? “Don’t,” he says, tries to make his surprise at himself into a scowl, but Erik suspects he has failed, from the look on Charles’ face, mingled startlement and confusion, the colour in his face only deepening, lips parting like he’s asking for a kiss. “It’s nothing,” he says again, and lets go, throws Charles’ hand back at him, torn between getting as far away as the apartment will allow or tugging him in by it, pulling on that wrist until they are pulled flush together, until he has Charles close enough, finally, to fit him into the empty jigsaw curve of Erik’s body. “I’m going to bed. Don’t try to get out again or you’ll regret it.”

“What would be the point? You already went through with it,” Charles says, looking at Erik as though he is a puzzle that needs to be solved, even as he pulls his rejected arm back in to his chest and nurses the bruises at his wrist. “Is Raven alright, at least?”

Erik thinks about pushing past Charles and into the room to get to his things, his pyjamas and toothbrush and the photograph of his family’s old house he had secreted behind the headboard where he hoped Charles had not found it, but the thought of touching him again is - troubling. He has to will down the hot thrum of his heart, the throb of his unruly cock, so that he does not simply grab Charles and do what he wants with him. It is what he has done with New York, after all. He is overtired. “Mystique is fine,” he says, instead, and turns his back, readier to sleep now than he can ever remember being. He’ll just sleep naked, and if Charles wants to barge in after him, well, that’s his lookout. “I mean it about escape attempts. You will regret it, and then I will make you regret it some more when I get up.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Charles asks, but Erik shuts him out, and at least this time the human stays on the side of the door he is supposed to.

His sleep is long, and deep, and dreamless. In the middle of the night there is a loud cracking noise and a yelp, but Erik only wakes up long enough to register it before rolling over and pulling the blanket back over his shoulders.

 


X

"I told you you’d regret it,” he says to Charles the next morning as he looks down at him sprawled in his favourite armchair, scowling up at Erik. Charles is still wearing those ridiculous old man pyjamas and dressing gown, not even dressed for the day. His right arm keeps twitching slightly every few seconds of its own accord, hand jerking in time and fingers curling.

Charles only scowls harder, rubs the knuckles of his other hand hard against the hollow of his breastbone as though it pains him. “A shock like that could have killed me! Was that really necessary?”

“Don’t be a baby, you’re fine.” His watch has been affected, just the same as everything else, but the clock on the wall says it’s past time for him to be gone - come to think of it, they probably have one of the very few accurate clocks left in New York. Erik takes a long sip of the last of his second mug of coffee, the first one downed in one long gulp before he had even realised Charles was there. “If I wanted you dead I’d have put a much bigger charge in the windowframes than I did. There was enough static to keep you in, that’s all. What were you planning on doing, clambering back down the fire escape?”

Charles sits up sharply and tries to point at Erik with his bad arm but it twitches violently and he ends up pointing at the fireplace instead, letting out a sharp noise of frustration as he drags it around to smack against Erik’s side. “I was trying to let some air in!”

“Hmm. Well, don’t,” Erik says, puts down his cup on the sidetable and stretches, arching his back to pull his spine back into line and ignoring Charles’ furious stare in favour of calling his cape over by the clasp. “I’ve recharged it, so I suggest you learn to breathe what you have.”

Charles growls, and Erik tries not to laugh, he really does, but he cannot help the corner of his mouth twitching upward, so he covers it with his mug instead, pretending to have coffee left over. “Where’s Raven?” Charles snaps, clearly not fooled, and it might be scarier if his hair didn’t look as though he’d stuck his fingers in a live socket - which, to all intents and purposes, he had. It looked a little frazzled around the edges, too, much like its owner. “I want to see my sister and make sure she’s alright.”

“I told you last night, Mystique is fine,” Erik says. He looks out the window at the city, wonders if the people who live here know what has happened, if the television studios have aired the announcements they had sent out to them yesterday, once the bulk of the fighting was done. If he concentrates he thinks he can hear some traffic, far off in the distance, so the EMP must have worn off overnight - televisions and radios should be working again. “She’s either out in the field or off somewhere with Azazel, most likely. Calm down.”

"Who’s Azazel?”

“What?” Surprised, Erik turns to meet Charles’ eyes, the scowl that had been there before now turned to a frown of confusion. “Scheiße, if she hasn’t said anything then I’m not getting involved. Ask her yourself. I’m leaving.”

Charles tries to grab at Erik’s sleeve but misses, twitching fingers curling at just the wrong moment before Erik is out of range. “Who’s Azazel? Erik!”

“Will you please stop shouting at me like some kind of fishwife?” Erik calls for the elevator, takes his helmet from its stand and puts it on. “It’s none of your business, and none of mine either.”

“Azazel must be a mutant, right? Are they friends, or… at least tell me if Azazel is a man or a woman,” and Charles actually gets up from his seat to trail Erik over to the elevator, putting his hands on his hips and staring up at him obstinately.

Gott im Himmel, Charles, does it matter? Mystique can date whoever she likes, were you fitting her out for a pink triangle?” Erik snaps finally, and steps into the elevator, turning on his heel to face Charles’ astonished expression. “Oh, I see. Mutants are fine but homosexuals aren’t,” he says, with a feeling like being shot exploding in his chest, and is glad when the doors shut between them, because it means that when the fierce anger drains out of him he can slump forward to press his forehead to the cool metal, eyes shut, and curse in privacy, trying not to remember Charles’ mouth, wide open in shock, no doubt with disgust to follow. His helmet makes a hollow clanging sound as it knocks against the wall.

“What’s wrong with you?” Emma asks him later when they’re done with the overnight brief, on the way to get some rest herself after spending the intervening hours coordinating the teams telepathically until their radios started working again. There was nothing Magneto could have done to avoid affecting them the same way he had everything else; even Wolverine had been struck down by the force of it, albeit temporarily, when the pulse had vibrated through his bones hard enough to leave him with what had probably been internal burns, quick-healed.

“Stay out of my head,” he says, reflexively, and ignores her when she smirks and knocks her knuckles against the helmet, and even her hands on her hips remind him of Charles not half an hour before, shooting Erik down with his expression just as easily as his sister ever had by falling into bed with somebody else before Erik had had a chance to make even an overture of interest. “I’m going to City Hall. Send Mystique to meet me there if she turns up.”

“Mr President,” Emma says slyly, and slinks away, flipping her long ice-blonde hair over her sculpted shoulder to fall across her perfect breasts, and if she wasn’t Schmidt’s sloppy seconds it would have been so much easier, Erik thinks, to have fallen for her instead, even if it would have been just as unhealthy as his prior choices. At least she was female, and a mutant, and at least he would have known she was playing with him.

 


XI

"I’m not homophobic,” Charles says, before they can even step out of the elevator, and next to Erik Raven says, “Uh, good?”

He’s even standing the same way he was that morning, hands on hips, though it is dusk and not dawn lighting the windows in soft colours behind him and painting the warm wood of the floor, and he is at least dressed, shirt and carefully-pressed pants and waistcoat, as though he is on his way out to give a lecture. It feels oddly circuitous, like Erik has simply come back to the lowest point of his day, right where he left it; ready to batter him all over again, after long hours of skirmishes and petty posturing and hauling the occasional marooned subway car out from underground.

Each one he brought up disgorged crowds of ungrateful humans unaware of the change in the status quo, and he’s been besieged by requests from hospitals for electricity following the blackout. Apparently patients had died, which he regrets, but it had been a necessary evil - and Erik has spent all day trying to find out where Mystique was while trying to put out fires, literal and figurative. He doesn’t need the added sucker punch of Charles the moment he gets home, his face the first thing Erik sees, his jaw set and determined in a way Erik would find admirable in other circumstances.

“Did you sit next to the elevator all day just to tell me that?” Erik asks, eventually, when it is obvious Charles is waiting for a response.

“My sister can grow a penis, gender roles ceased having much meaning for me when I was twelve,” Charles says as though he hasn’t heard, even as he reaches for Raven with both arms, drawing her into a tight hug and kissing her temple with unreserved affection. “Hello, darling. You’re blue today, are you tired? Oh, lord, were you injured? Are you hurt?” Holding her at arm’s length Charles scans her for injuries, concern on his face. “Are you hiding it from me again?”

“Hi, no, no, no, and no,” she says, exasperated, and leans in to kiss her brother’s cheek, looping an arm around his neck to pull him back close. “What’s this about me growing a penis?”

Charles looks over her shoulder to scowl at Erik, though he does not let go this time. “Erik thinks I’m a homophobe because I wanted to know if Azazel was a man or a woman. Raven, why didn’t you tell me you were seeing someone?”

Raven winces, shoulders curling upward toward her ears.

“I’m going back downstairs,” Erik mutters, because there is nowhere he would like to be less than in the middle of this, but then Raven hisses “Traitor!” right as Charles says, “Oh no you don’t,” and actually reaches out and grabs Erik’s sleeve, properly this time, dragging him out of the elevator with surprising strength for an academic.

“Look,” he says, letting go but not moving back, still in Erik’s space and seemingly not caring that he has to tip his head back to meet Erik’s eyes, that it makes Erik feel like a giant, blunt and ungraceful. “I disagree with you about humans, that’s true, but can you please stop acting like everything I say is either an insult or a hate crime? I - ” Charles pauses, mouth pulling tight for a moment before he continues, “I don’t really know what you want from me here, because I made my choice and I chose you, and Raven, and you’re punishing me for it. Short of growing a tail, I have no idea what to do to make you see that I made a choice.”

Erik stares down at him, stood toe-to-toe and breathing shallow so that their chests don’t brush together. There is something small and light unfolding in his chest, peeling open like origami, with tremulous hesitance.

“This is all very moving and all,” says Raven, arms folded across her chest, voice full of amused irritation, “but can we not hang around the elevator like we're waiting for it to arrive?” Charles startles, jerking his gaze away from Erik’s, and the moment breaks.

When both men turn to look at her in surprise Raven rolls her eyes, throws her hands up in the air and moves around them toward the kitchen. Her bare feet slap quietly against the tile as she goes to the counter, pulling down some mugs and filling the kettle with a practised economy of movement. “Erik, Charles is not a homophobe, like, pfft, at all. Seriously, have you actually met my brother? Charles, meet Erik, he may have some issues. Also, may I say, while I am glad you decided not to hand over our plans to the humans, I am seriously upset that you were thinking about it, you asshole, knowing how much it means to me and that I was going to be in the middle of it. I love you, but I am pissed. Don’t think we’re not talking about this.”

Charles makes an indignant sound and steps back away from Erik to follow his sister into the kitchen, shuffling along behind her as she moves and standing as close as he can get without disrupting her reaching for the tea. Even so he almost knocks a mug from her hand as she turns. “Considering Erik already tied me up hand and foot and locked me in a room with a bucket and a sandwich for thirty-six hours, I think I’ve suffered enough,” he says, bending down to open the refrigerator door and extract the last of the milk, which he hands to her without ceremony.

“He what?” Raven spins on her heel to glare at Erik, still stood where they left him, her fingernails lengthening into claws. “Erik, what the hell?”

Erik scowls right back, hands clenching into fists at his sides. “It was that or have him trying to get out again and hurting himself. Either he’d fail but injure himself in the attempt, or he’d climb out the damn window again and fall off the fire escape, or, worse, throw himself into the line of fire and get shot or incinerated or somehow irreparably altered. Would you prefer I’d let him loose?”

“I am not a child,” Charles says sharply, drawing their attention back to him. “Might I remind you, Raven, that I am your elder brother? And you, Erik, that you apparently hate me and everything I stand for, so I’m not really sure why it is you give a damn if I fall out the window or not. I make my own decisions, and neither of you has the right to make them for me.”

“I’m not a child either!” Raven slams a mug down on the counter between them, tea sloshing out over the side and dripping down the cabinet door. “And you don’t have the right to make decisions for me, but you still try. At least Erik lets me be who I am instead of telling me to hide it all the time!”

“It was to keep you safe!”

“I’m blue, Charles! I was never going to be safe unless we made that okay, and now we have!”

And Charles swells up, face going red as he yells, “By killing people! People who have never done anything to you!”

“Jesus Christ, Charles, you have no idea what my life was like before you took me in,” Raven screams back. Her skin ripples blue-black with anger, her whole body swelling with shifting muscle until the mug in her hand cracks and breaks entirely, the rest of the tea spilling out in a wave that soaks her shirt to the heaving skin of her belly. “You don’t want to know! And they tried to hurt you for loving me, Charles, don’t deny it. You wouldn’t care half as much about mutants if it wasn’t for me, would you? And they hurt you for it, and hurt you, and hurt you, and you defend them like it’s their right to hurt you, you just roll over and say ‘another, please’ and goddamn what it does to anybody who loves you!” There are tears running down her face, fat and rolling sullenly toward the sharp point of her chin. “I’m blue, Charles, and I’m sick of apologising for it!”

“You don’t have to,” Erik hears himself say, and he finds himself stood at the edge of the kitchen, unable to remember having got there, with his hands clenched white-knuckled and furious around the back of one of the chairs. “You’re beautiful the way you are. Never apologise for that. Anybody who can’t see that is a fool.”

There is a long pause. “Of course she’s beautiful,” Charles says, blankly, staring at him with an expression that clearly questions Erik’s sanity. “Don’t be ridiculous. Raven’s the most beautiful woman I know, blue or otherwise.”

A second mug shatters on the floor and explodes into a thick cloud of powders and shards of china around their feet. “Oh,” says Raven, all the muscles and the deep angry colour dropping out of her until she is just herself, naked and slender. “Charles, you - ” and she only hesitates for a moment before flinging her arms around his neck, shaking, burying her face in his chest. Charles freezes, flushed red with embarrassment and his hands held out to either side, a panicked look on his face as he tries to decide where he can put them. “Charles, you idiot,” she says, voice muffled in his shirt, her forehead tucked tight under his chin as she pretends not to cry. “Just hug me back, alright? I won’t report you to the bad-touching police.”

Slowly, tentatively, Charles put his arms around her waist and holds her, eyes closed and breath easing back towards something more like normal. They stand there in the kitchen quietly, the spreading puddle of tea soaking their feet, but neither seems to notice.

Erik wonders if all siblings are like this, what it would have been like to have a brother, a sister. Assuming, of course, that they had lived.

“I don’t hate you,” he says, looking away from them and out the window as the sun finally slips below the buildings to leave them there in dim twilight.

Charles looks up, pupils blown wide and dark in the dimness. “What?”

“I don’t hate you,” Erik repeats, and moves around the table to crouch down to the floor and start picking up the pieces of the broken mugs before the two of them hurt their feet on the sharp edges. “Have you seen a dustpan and brush anywhere?”

Charles shifts, but does not let go of Raven. “In the cupboard under the sink, I believe. We’ll need to move to get at it.”

“Careful where you step.” Flicking his hand behind him to turn on the light, Erik makes sure there are no shards underfoot when the two of them disentangle their arms and step out of the mess, leaving tea-stained footprints on the floor. Charles rests his hand on Erik’s shoulder for support as he steps past him, a beloved weight removed too soon. “Sometimes you put your foot down in the wrong place, and you get cut,” he says, as he opens the cupboard door to get at the dustpan.

“I see that,” Charles says, and Erik does not need to look up to see the understanding on his face.

 


XII

That evening Erik goes into the third bedroom - his bedroom - and retrieves the photograph from behind the headboard. It is a little ragged around the edges from rubbing up against things in pockets and wallets he has owned over the years, transferring it from one to the other as he changed identities, the one thing that always came with him, aside from the coin.

He would like to pretend that it comes from before, that he had carried it with him through the camps, but the truth is that he took it himself after they were liberated from Auschwitz and before he had started training to go after Schmidt, in the short swollen summer of 1946. The house still looks the same; though the photo itself is yellowed with age, the house was untouched by the war, on the outside. He had stood on the street to take it, a second-hand camera slung around his neck that he had liberated from a pawnbroker when the man had turned his back to serve another customer with fewer patches on his clothes. Another family had been living there, by then, of course, their laundry hung out on the line between the rear wall and the back fence, shirts and socks and petticoats swinging gently in the breeze. There were children playing in the tiny yard, shrieking and laughing as they chased one another. He had thought, briefly, of knocking on the door, of telling them they had no right to be there.

Even then, he had known that it wouldn’t have made things any better, to get the house back. Whether or not the Lehnsherr’s furniture was still there, their mezuzah by the front door and his mother’s menorah kept oiled and wrapped in the attic - doubtful – and whether or not the small trove of treasures he had secreted under the loose floorboard in his bedroom were still where he had been forced to leave them, his parents were not there, and never would be again.

He puts the photograph in his breast pocket, above his heart. He has no pictures of his family, so he keeps this one close.


XIII

“Hey, so, you’re in love with my brother,” Mystique says the next day as they fight their way toward the next building along, and Magneto startles badly enough that the tank rolling toward them across the fractured concrete implodes like an empty soda can, all of its ordinance exploding in one great blast of gunpowder and gasoline. She winces before punching the next soldier in the face while the man is still gaping. “Ouch. Bad timing.”

“What are you talking about?” Magneto only just manages not to put his foot down in a pothole, and flings the shrapnel that had flown their way into the next rank of humans coming toward them, with what even he thinks might be considered excessive force.

She rolls her eyes at him, or rather, the eyes of whoever it is she’d grabbed on the way in to copy if they needed to get through any security gates Magneto can’t just tear a way through. “Oh, come on,” and she raises a foot to kick down the bunker door, driving her heel into the wood just below the lock and splintering it enough to drag it out of its frame with a quiet grunt of effort. “Really? We’re going to play this game now? I know you too well for you to pull this on me.”

“This really isn’t the time for you to go insane,” he says, as they sprint down the hallway toward the far end, where the guards are already scrambling for their weapons, cackhanded with surprise. “Could we please focus on what we’re doing?”

He tells himself the heavy beat of his heart in his chest is just adrenaline and the effort of fighting their way into the military base, of being separated from the other teams. The Army had moved into Brooklyn and set up on the far shore of the Hudson as soon as they had realised what was happening in Manhattan, evacuating the human population from the closest buildings and taking them over. It was galling to have let them establish themselves, but the mutants had needed the time to firm their grip on Manhattan before they could turn their gaze outward, across the river; nonetheless, digging the humans out once they were in was proving much more difficult than expected, without destroying the city along with them.

Outside there is a loud rumble and the sound of something giving way, a hot stink of ozone riding the blast giving away the culprit - Havok has cut through something he shouldn’t, again. Magneto snarls as he snatches the human guards’ guns from their hands and turns them on their owners, clouting both of them ‘round their heads with the heavy butts of the rifles. The men crumple to the ground as they are nearly knocked off their feet by the shaking floor, the impact of Havok’s destruction.

“Don’t feel ashamed about it, everybody likes Charles,” Mystique shouts above the noise, catching hold of his arm before he can open the latest door. “It’s like his superpower.”

He reaches over, detaching her from his arm, and feels for the lock on the other side of the door, twisting it until it clicks. “You need to stop watching Angel’s telenovelas.” Inside the room, the communications officers leap to their feet as the door swings open, and Magneto crushes all of their equipment, cuts off their radios and sweeps the tangled wires on the floor along to take them all out at the ankles. “Since apparently we are having this conversation whether I want to or not, I noticed you didn’t quite get around to telling Charles about Azazel.”

“No, no I did not,” she says, scanning the room to make sure they haven’t missed any, “because then Charles will want to meet him, and Azazel doesn’t quite know that my human brother is shacking up with you upstairs. And by doesn’t quite know I mean does not know. So telling Charles would just be the beginning of a very long train wreck.”

“He might surprise you,” Magneto says, turning towards the corridor to go back outside and join the main fight. If there are more tanks coming, he will be needed on the street.

“Would you stop for a minute?” He turns to face her, traces the lines of her borrowed face with his eyes as she tilts her head to one side, inquisitive and birdlike. “Azazel or Charles?” she asks, then, “Nevermind that. Look, Erik - ”

Magneto.”

“Erik,” she repeats firmly. “Look, we never talk about it, and I wouldn’t bring it up but I think I have to. I’m really happy for you that you’re in love with Charles. You’ve been so lonely so long, and I haven’t been able to give you what you wanted - no, stop and listen!”

He turns slightly back toward her, though he does not turn entirely, gives her only his profile to look at, unwilling to show her his expression. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he says, and hates the way his voice has gone tight and gravelled, the way every muscle in his body has tensed for a fight, ready to attack her to make her stop.

“I want you to be happy, asshole,” Raven says, “especially because you do everything you can to sabotage yourself at every step, you ridiculous German meathead. I’m not going to say anything to my brother, I just wanted you to know that I know, and that you’re not somehow betraying me or whatever bullshit excuse you’ll come up with. Also that if you hurt him, I will come for you in the middle of the night and break every bone in your body, but that was really secondary.”

He waits to see if she is finished, and when it seems she is, he says, “Shall we go and help our people not get killed out there, now that you’ve indulged your hidden screenwriter?”

Amid the sounds of shouting and gunfire echoing down the corridor from the street she laughs, a long loud belly laugh, not ladylike but lovely, and he has never wanted to kiss her more. He has never been so confused about it. “Sure,” she says, when she can breathe again. “Let’s go.”

 


XIV

They fight the humans back through downtown Brooklyn over the next few days, through Boerum Hill and into Park Slope. He dispatches two teams to Williamsburg to secure the shoreline and keep them away from Manhattan and the remains of the bent bridge, two more to the entrance of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel; Avalanche had been loathe to collapse it entirely, and as long as there is a slight chance they might manage to dig their way through Magneto will not afford them the opportunity.

It takes two days to get past the killzones the humans have made of Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. The open space is easier to move into, but the narrowness of the city streets among the buildings hampers the humans as much as it does the mutants, and with room to manoeuvre they bring their artillery to bear, entrenching themselves along the lay of the land and taking down more mutants in the first two minutes than they had in the first two days.

There are only so many bullets Magneto can stop at once, with so much metal concentrated into so small an area, only so many times he can turn them back on their firers. The longer they spend in Brooklyn, the longer Manhattan has without their steady control, and so on the evening of the second day he sends Sunspot walking into the human lines, skin crackling black and cold until he fades into the darkness and vanishes from sight. Ten minutes pass until the bright flash of light and scorching heat that turns the nighttime park to day, each leaf and branch and rock outlined by stark shadow for a split second before everything goes dark again.

The afterimage of the long stretch of lawn, covered in wounded and grit-toothed mutants and ripped up earth, is still vivid in front of his eyes when Sunspot comes back over the hill. The cracks of his skin are red-hot and glowing like crusted-over lava, and when he opens his mouth it is like looking into the gates of hell, full of flame, each word carrying a nearly visible heatwave. “I hope that’s the last time,” Sunspot says, brushing the ash of his clothes from his shoulders with a forced sort of calm. “They always burn up before they can scream, and somehow that’s worse. I’m not sure why.”

Magneto wants to reach out and put a hand on his back, but the other mutant is still burning too much for that, the power of the sun sweating itself out from every pore. “I’m sorry to ask it from you,” he says instead, does not do him the disservice of gesturing to the brothers and sisters-in-arms whose lives he has saved. Sunspot knows well enough why Magneto had asked. “Get some rest. There’s work enough to be done tomorrow.”

After that night the humans seem to have had the heart taken out of them, and the mutants roll forward into Brooklyn like a wave, flooding through it inexorable as time and leaving the scar of Prospect Park behind, a crater without a meteorite, burned down to the sterilised soil with not a scrap of life to be seen.

There was enough food in the apartment for a few days, but Magneto ensures Mystique takes a share of the provisions brought into Command upstairs for her brother when Azazel makes trips back and forth. He does not ask her what excuse she makes for it, what she tells him to excuse her tagging along. On the fifth day he takes cover in a grocery store full of canned goods and preserves, things that will keep a long time. All of them are older than would have been sold a year ago, but fresh food is harder to come by these days. When he finds a small produce section at the back of the store he sends this back with Azazel as well, makes sure Mystique takes some of it for Charles, wrinkled apples and dirt-coated potatoes, aubergines and carrots slightly past their best and a single box of melons, cradled in individual tissue-paper nests.

He has not been back to the apartment between battles, has spent his nights in abandoned apartments and stores and corners of strange buildings with the others, curled up and half-waking, only just under the surface of sleep. He wonders if Charles is lonely, shut in with only the books and the wireless for company, wandering along the long tall windows, looking out at the living city and unable even to reach out a hand to the glass for fear of a shock.

 


XV

In Queens the residents fight back with baseball bats and handguns, broken bottles and kitchen knives. It is not the same as fighting the army, who had at least signed up for combat, but they fight them nonetheless, driving them back into their homes and killing where they must. It is a brave last stand for human America, Magneto thinks, directing the line of battle with a self-taught pragmatism that has got him this far.

And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer,” he murmurs when the tag-ends of the grassroots resistance break and run at last, leaving the streets to the mutants. For a moment he wishes Charles was stood beside him, to share it with, before he remembers. He turns to the nearest runner and issues the next set of orders, keeps his face stern and still, and stops indulging himself in whimsy when there are still so many things to be done.

 


XVI

Eleven days after rolling out into Brooklyn he calls a meeting of the leaders of various areas, once things settle and he deems it safe enough. Pulling them from the field is taking the risk that their forces can hold things down without having their generals to direct them, but it is necessary. Everyone there has risen to the top by force or merit, unelected to any official post but followed nonetheless, chosen by their force of will rather than campaign.

They meet in Brooklyn Borough Hall’s old court room. Its high vaulted ceilings and benches are scarred from the fight the Army had made to keep it, their equipment and electronics and injured filling the rooms to capacity and only haphazardly cleared out in their retreat. Magneto seats himself in what had been the Judge’s chair, centre stage at the front of the room, and watches the others size each other up like wolves, trying to establish precedence as they find places of their own. For a moment he wonders if a scuffle might break out between Kingsfoil and Riot, tries to decide whether to let them fight it out between themselves or to settle it for them, but after a long bare-toothed moment Riot backs off with a bowing of his head that is only half mocking, and Kingsfoil takes the last seat of the front bench, folding her long arms across her chest with an air of smug self-satisfaction.

Mystique takes the seat to his right, Azazel the one to his left. Though Emma is still physically in Manhattan, her presence is felt in the room, some willing puppet taking her seat on the end, his eyes slightly glassy and breathing too regular to be natural. “A motley crew,” he - she - says, mouth twisting into a wry, amused curl that does not suit the puppet’s face.

“No influence to be used,” Magneto says quietly, while the hubbub and chatter amongst the final few coming in through the tall double doors is still enough to cover it. “I want their genuine cooperation.”

“Sugar,” Emma says, the smile only widening; her puppet has needle-sharp teeth, and the effect is quite disturbing. “As if I would, against our own kind. You should trust me a little more.”

“I trust you enough.” He looks out across the room, at the tall and short, pink and green and gold and purple, horned and blubbered and scaled, at the mutants who look normal and those who don’t. “Truly, Emma, or I wouldn’t have left you to run Manhattan while we were over here. Your skill is invaluable. But I have to be sure I’m the one doing the driving in my own head.”

She shrugs, the motion oddly fluid in the lanky body she is wearing. Like this she reminds him of Mystique, both of them wearing borrowed faces as easily as he manipulates metal, twin chameleons under the skin. “And you saw what happened to the last man I disagreed with, of course. I can hardly be offended if you are feeling… cautious.”

“Magneto.” At the touch on his shoulder he turns to Mystique, who nods toward the rest of the mutants. “I think they’re ready for you.”

“Thank you.” He gives her a small nod and a smile before rising to his feet, raising a hand for silence. It takes only a moment for them all to fall quiet, a host of gleaming eyes focused on his, and he lowers his hand slowly, rests it on the lectern in front of his seat.

“Friends,” Magneto says, and pushes down the thrill of nervous tension that runs down his spine whenever he has to make a public speech, stand in the spotlight instead of in the shadows he spent long years blending into. He has never wanted to be the centre of attention, and yet here he is on a stage. It’s ironic, that instead of Schmidt, the attention seeker, it is Magneto standing here in front of their people, looking for the right words to say. “Thank you all for coming. As you know, we have achieved this week something the humans never thought we could.”

He is interrupted by a loud cheer and a roar from the audience that rattles the fixtures.

“It was well done,” he shouts above the noise once it starts to die down, and cannot help but smile at their applause. “Applaud yourselves, not me - this is every mutant’s victory. But now that we’ve taken a country, a continent, we need to decide how to rule it, and until now we’ve been too busy fighting to make those plans. This nation has been laid waste, its human government is in shambles, and we have little to build on. That’s why we have to start that planning, while the iron is still hot. How do we run a country that is more a blank slate than a foundation?”

A woman he recognises from San Francisco stands up in the back and shouts, “You lead us, Magneto! You are our leader!”

He pauses, struck speechless, as the crowd cheers again, hooting and calling and stamping their feet in one cacophonous wave of sound, and for a moment he thinks about running, swallows down terror with wide eyes. “I have no experience,” he says, voice breaking awkwardly, then clears his throat and repeats himself, louder, loudly enough that they fall silent and stare at him, taken aback. “I can fight, and I have and I will, as long and as hard as need be, but I’m no President. Everybody here fought for this - I deserve no more credit than anybody else. I helped to win a nation, but you should pick someone who can run one.”

“Who else would we have but you?” Destiny gets to her feet, towering above the rest of the crowd on her long limbs and lifting her chin in challenge, the blank eyes of her impassive golden mask fixed on his face as though daring him to step back. She is a mutant he has rather tended to avoid - he has no desire to hear his own future told, and less to hear that of others. He had enough of that from Schmidt. “Who else made it possible but you, Magneto? Who else believed enough, made us believe enough, to lead us here, to this day?” She turns, faces the rest of the crowd. “Who here thinks they could do better than Magneto, the Man Who Stopped Manhattan?”

Behind the bench Mystique slips her hand into his and squeezes tight, strong dry fingers curling around his for a long moment before she lets go. “They love you,” she says, and though he does not turn to look at her he can hear the smile in her voice. “What did you think, you were going to give them New York and then ride off into the sunset like John Wayne?”

The gathered mutants get too loud for him to speak over, and he realises with sudden amazement that they are chanting his name, all of them together, the sound echoing in the vast room until it sounds like the whole city is calling for him. “Will you lead us?” Destiny shouts, though he reads her lips more than he hears her voice.

Magneto swallows again, inhales, then straightens his shoulders, stands tall and broad and strong in front of them all and says in a voice that does not waver, “Who am I to gainsay Destiny? Yes, if you’ll have me.”

Destiny nods as the crowd roars, and Magneto feels his fingers clench tight around the wood of the lectern before he forces himself to let go and acknowledge them, to raise his hand and show them his teeth and hope it is a smile.

 


XVII

When Erik gets home to the apartment Charles is nowhere to be seen in the living room, and he would panic but there is a sound of running water and soft baritone singing coming from the direction of the bathroom, echoing and cheerful. Charles has a lovely singing voice.

Erik limps a little as he moves over to the nearest chair, now that he is out of public sight, gritting his teeth against the pulling pain in his side, but once he reaches it he can slump into its embrace, let his spine curve at last and his shoulders fall from military precision to something that doesn’t make him want to retch. There is rich late autumn sunlight coming in through the windows, amplified by the glass into something warm and soporific, and he tips his head back against the cushion and exhales, slow and steady, lets his eyes close to listen. He can’t quite make out the words, but even muffled it’s soothing. Being here is strange, now, after so long out there.

Pulling his bad leg up onto the coffee table hurts like being stabbed in the knee but once it’s up the pain eases, and he only briefly considers trying to get the boot off before dismissing it as a lost cause.

Along the hall the water shuts off - the faucet is squeaking, he’ll have to fix that - and then the door opens and he hears, “-will you still love me, tomorr - oh! Erik!”

When he opens his eyes and rolls his head to the side Charles is flushed bright red with a towel clasped around his hips, stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the corridor and staring at him with an expression Erik can’t read. “Hello,” Charles says awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot as though he can’t decide what to do with himself. “I didn’t realise you were here. Back. Back here.”

Erik is preoccupied with taking in the lines of Charles’ body, for once not under the tight wraps of several layers of clothes; he is pale all over, surprisingly lean and freckled in a way Erik wants desperately, suddenly, to explore with his fingertips, to trace them out like constellations and find hidden meanings in them, from the broad and sturdy spread of Charles’ shoulders where they are thickest - he probably catches the sun there most, Erik thinks distantly, he probably burns instantly - to the thin fine line of hair beneath his navel which vanishes into the folds of the towel, beneath the hand clenching and unclenching nervously at the overlapping fabric. “Sorry,” he says eventually, tries to look at Charles’ face instead of being distracted by the way Charles’ small dark nipples have contracted in the cooler air outside the bathroom.

If anything Charles’ blush has gotten deeper, spreading from his cheeks to his ears and down the back of his neck where his hair is curled wetly against the skin. “I’ll just go get dressed,” he says, and when he turns Erik can see that the line of his spine is freckled too. While he is not defined in the way Erik is - stripped to the bare necessities by a harsh and physically active life, the necessity of which he may regret but not the side-effects - he is not carrying extra weight, either. The urge to touch is so strong that Erik closes his eyes and pulls his hands in to interlace his fingers across his chest, away from temptation, and he does not think at all about following Charles, he will not think about what is underneath the towel, about pulling that towel away from Charles’ slim hips, about asking Charles to let it fall, about Charles doing it of his own accord, about sliding his hand up underneath it without undoing it at all -

“Erik,” and this time Charles’ voice is right beside him, clear and concerned, and when he forces his eyelids open the man himself is looking down at him, flush fading and towel-tousled hair falling forwards to frame bright blue eyes that are close enough for him to see the smile lines at the corners, just starting to etch the skin. “You look dreadful. Are you alright?”

Of course he does. He’s dirty and bruised and probably stinks like all the places he has been the past two weeks, clothes as stained and torn as his flesh. About as attractive as a stray dog. “Thanks,” Erik says wryly, inhaling the clean, sandalwood smell of soap and jerking away ever so slightly when Charles’ hair drips on his nose. “I’ve been worse.”

“Hmm.” Charles does not look away, eyes searching his face for something, glancing at the raw cut bisecting Erik’s eyebrow, the thick purpling at the corner of his mouth from a lucky punch, but always returning to meet Erik’s gaze. It feels almost like he is asking a question, but he says nothing, just looks, and looks, bent over Erik where he’s slumped in the chair. He’s put on some pants, and a loose button-down shirt, but for once without a sweater or waistcoat or anything to pull it in close it billows loose in front, a triangle of his chest showing at the open collar, above his heart.

Just as Erik is getting to the point of asking what he wants, Charles lets out a long breath and straightens, before perching himself on the arm of the chair, hands moving slowly towards Erik’s face. “Let’s get this off,” he says, and Erik hadn’t even realised he was still wearing the helmet until Charles slips it free, one or two scabs where the edge has dug in starting to bleed again as it’s pulled away. The fresh air on his scalp is an unexpected ecstasy that makes his toes curl. “What do you wear it for, anyway?” Charles asks, putting the helmet down on the coffee table beside Erik’s foot and frowning at his muddy boot on the clean surface. “It’s not just a fashion statement, I hope. Let’s get these off, too, before we need to disinfect the whole place. God, is this blood in your shoes?

“Careful - ” Erik starts as Charles starts tugging at the laces, and cannot help but let out a sound of agony as it wrenches his twisted knee, sitting up and catching Charles’ hands before letting go to clutch at his ribs with another noise, this time stifled by gritted teeth. At least his low-level arousal is no longer a concern. “Aaugh, Scheiße, shit, just, slower if you could.”

“Of course, sorry,” Charles says, blanched white at the first sound of pain, and starts picking tentatively at the tangled knot again, glancing up at Erik through his eyelashes as he tries to pull it free. “Are you really alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re clearly not.”

“I said I’m fine, Charles.” Erik swallows a sharp hiss of pain as his foot jerks sideways, pushes it down until he can ignore it and twitches his boot knife from its sheath around his good ankle, puts a hand over Charles’ to make sure he doesn’t get his fingers in the way as he directs it to cut through the laces. It’s sharp enough that it just slices right through them, scoring the leather. “There. Should be easier now.”

Charles pulls his hand out from under Erik’s slowly, then cups the boot heel and slides it off, puts the boot on the floor and starts laughing.

“What?”

“Your sock is dirtier than your boot,” and he is smiling, somehow, leaning forward to rest a hand on Erik’s shoulder and prop himself up, eyes creasing closed and sparkling with humour. He is so close, so close, and there is a pain in Erik’s chest that does not correspond with a bruise. “Shall I get the other boot as well?”

“I’ll get it.” Erik lifts his leg enough to see the laces as he directs the knife to cut those, too, lets gravity pull the boot toward the floor and slips his foot free and out. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” Charles says, then, “oh, damn, now my hands are dirty again. I just washed those.”

And despite himself Erik laughs, wincing and clutching at his side as he heaves and gesturing at the clasp of his cape to let it loose so he doesn’t choke himself. When he gets himself back under control enough to look Charles is laughing too, smiling at him in something like delight as he says, “It’s nice to hear you laugh, Erik, you so rarely do. I’m not sure you have, before, actually.”

Erik thinks, I love you. “I’m not used to it,” he says, instead, “but I think it probably hurts less without the cracked ribs. I’ll have to experiment.”

Charles’ expression dims to worry again, lips curving downward with dismay. “Jesus Christ, Erik, why aren’t you at the hospital?”

He thinks of all the procedures and scalpels and needles and scrubs of his childhood and represses the instinctive flinch, tries to look reassuring, but it’s hard to do when he’s never had to try before. “They’re only cracked. They’ll heal.”

“Stubborn idiot,” Charles mutters, and stands up, away from Erik, and for a moment he wants to curse until Charles continues, “Come on, then, you’re at least going to wash,” and reaches down to take Erik’s hands, pulls him up cursing and flinching from the chair and wraps Erik’s arm across the strong line of his shoulders. “Good thing I had Raven bring us some clean towels.”

“I’ll get you dirty,” Erik says, and holds on tighter.

“I don’t mind,” Charles says, and tightens his grip, too, before tugging him slowly toward the bathroom.

 


XVIII

“So what happens now?” Charles asks later, around a mouthful of apple, book drooping unattended in his other hand. “What will you do now?”

Erik is lying on his back on the sofa, awkwardly prone where he had been pushed and admonished to stay when he’d refused to rest, and after weeks of action it feels like a slap in the face to be covered in paperwork again, reading through reports when he’d rather be asleep. He pushes a hand back through his hair and shrugs, turning the next page over where it is propped up on his chest. “Now we work. We need to start addressing the health situation, look at reducing the radiation if we can. Start looking at how we can best help mutants use their powers, how best they can be used. Food is going to be an issue soon, with the radiation getting into the soil, if it isn’t already. I - ” he realises suddenly that he hasn’t told Charles what had happened at the meeting that morning, that it probably hasn’t yet been put out on the wireless. He probably has no idea. “Today, I - ”

“I’m sorry, Erik,” Charles interrupts, smiling crookedly at his own lap before looking up to meet Erik’s eyes. “My apologies, but I was being rather more selfish, I’m afraid. I meant to ask, what will happen to me? Surely I’m no longer a danger to your plans.”

There is a long silence between them as Erik tries to word an answer, any answer at all that isn’t the truth, but it’s not in his nature, and Charles deserves better. Erik pushes himself up to a sitting position and bites down the sharp creak of his ribs protesting, waves off the other man’s concern. “Charles,” he says, and hesitates only for a moment before deciding just to be blunt. “I can’t let you go.”

Charles’ expression - he freezes, apple halfway to his mouth again, before he lets his hand fall back to his lap where it drips juice onto the pages of his book. The dry paper soaks it in like parched earth, spreading dark circles that will leave the paper wrinkled and crisp. “I don’t understand.”

It’s very quiet up there at the top of the building, far enough above the roads below to escape the constant traffic noise of the city. It makes the ticking of the clock seem very loud.

“You’re a liability,” Erik says, leaning forward and laying the thick sheath of papers on the table between them. “You were so public with your opinions, Charles, and it makes you a rallying point. There are people out there who would use you against m- against the new government we’re building here. Or just kill you to make a point and martyr you instead. I can’t let that happen.”

“And that’s it?” Charles stares at him as though it will change his answer, pale and stricken. “I’m a prisoner for life? Because I told people not to kill each other? You can’t be serious.”

“I promised Mystique I would keep you safe. There was no time limit on that.”

Charles leaps to his feet as though there is somewhere he can run to, looking like nothing so much as a cornered animal. His fist closes around the half-eaten apple and snaps the tough core in two with a sharp sound like bones breaking. "You can’t do this!” he bursts out, taking a step back and nearly falling back into his chair when his knees collide with the seat. He reaches behind himself to shove it out of his way, the legs screeching across the floorboards. “Neither you nor Raven have the right to do this, Erik. I want to leave. Now!”

“No.” Erik stays sat where he is, as non-threatening as possible. It’s a struggle; what he wants is to ask Charles if it would really be so terrible, to stay here, but he is afraid he knows the answer. “I keep my word, Charles, and I gave it to your sister. It’s not safe out there for you, and you know that.”

“How long have you been in love with my sister?” Charles snaps, and Erik feels himself flinch, every muscle in his body tensing at once; it is a struggle not to let himself make a sound, not to gasp when his bones grind against one another. “It’s not hard to see,” Charles continues, tossing the corpse of his apple on the floor and moving around behind the chair so that he can put it between them and rest his elbows on the back of it, fix his gaze hard on Erik’s, like a specimen he wants to examine more closely. “You watch her all the time. Is that why you’re doing this to me? Because you love her?”

It feels as though his lungs have collapsed, like someone has kicked him in the stomach. “That’s not,” he says, “you’re wrong,” then has to get to his feet, cannot stay sat looking up at Charles, has to move. Standing on his bad knee is like plunging it into a burning forge filled with swords, flaying his leg open, but it is better than sitting down, and so he forces himself to be okay, paces a tight path on the other side of the table from Charles, though he cannot totally suppress a limp. “I told you my reasons, Charles, and part of that is my promise to Mystique, but I cannot just let you go when it would be suicide for our plans. This country is still a powder keg, I will not be the man who drops the match.”

“Don’t lie to me!” Charles is yelling now, hands gripping white-knuckled on the back of his chair. “I may not be a mutant, maybe I can’t defy gravity or walk through walls or grow flowers from my bellybutton, but I’m not blind. You have no right to keep me here just because you want in Raven’s pants!”

“I have every right!” Erik bellows, spinning on his heel to stalk over to Charles and loom over him, using every inch of his superior height to lean downward and force the human to look up at him. “I was voted in as leader of our new government today, Charles, I have every right to keep you here, or anywhere, or to throw you into the sea by your zipper and cufflinks, and nobody will tell me not to except for your sister, so maybe you should stop bitching and complaining that I’m not nice enough to you, when you’re the only human I’ve ever - ”

“Ever what?” Far from backing down, Charles presses forward, puffing up and jabbing a finger into Erik’s chest like a dagger. “Ever what?

“Ever given a shit about, is that what you want to hear?” Erik shoves away his hand roughly, a rattling collision of bones. “Yes, fine, I care about your sister, is that what you wanted to know? It doesn’t matter, it has never mattered, because it has never and is never going to happen, and I know and accept that, and so what if I watch her, Charles? I care if she is upset, and I care if you die, dummkopf! I should have told her no from the start, it would have saved me a lot of trouble, I could have had my apartment to myself, instead of having to put up with all of your bullshit all the time - ”

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” Charles spits, as though the words taste bitter. “Or perhaps I should say helmet.
“I don’t know why I ever thought you were any different!” Erik shouts, and even as he says it he knows it’s not true. “You’re just like all the rest of them, except you pretend better - ”

“You can’t just lock me up because I annoy you, you - ” And Charles steps forward again, right into his space, and grabs a fistful of Erik’s shirt.

Before he even realises what he’s doing Erik pushes him away hard enough that Charles trips and falls, awkwardly because the metal Erik had repelled was unevenly spaced enough that he twists as he falls and catches himself on his wrist, on his expensive stupid watch, and cries out in surprise and pain as the glass cracks against the floorboards. It’s like a bucket of cold water has been tipped over Erik’s head; all the rage is gone, as suddenly as it came, and he reaches out, self-hatred filling the empty space where the anger had been. “Are you al - ”

“Is this where the police brutality part of the evening starts?” Charles asks, his voice tart, even as he rolls onto his back and clutches at his left hand, sucking in air sharply when he jostles it. “I hadn’t realised we’d move on from house arrest to Folsom Prison Blues so quickly. I’d been hoping to ease into it.”

“Sorr - ” Erik says, or tries to say, and he begins to bend down to try and help Charles up, but that is when Charles kicks him in his bad knee.

He goes down like a felled tree, though no tree would let out a scream of agony quite like this. The impact when his back hits the floor is almost negligible by comparison. It drives the air out of him and he is left gasping and breathless, leg twitching and cramping madly as he tries not to writhe or curl up around it like an injured dog. There is a strange rattling noise all around, getting louder, and Erik suddenly realises that it’s all the metal in the room, shuddering in time with the uncontrollable contractions of the muscles in his leg. Something falls off a shelf and smashes, the utensils and pans and everything in the kitchen are pounding at the insides of the cupboards like prisoners trying to escape, and then Charles is bending over him with eyes wide and panicked and saying “Erik, stop it! Please stop! You’re going to hurt yourself - ”

“Haven’t you done that already?” Erik manages through gritted teeth, and Charles rears back with an expression he can’t read, even as he concentrates enough to drag his powers away from the rest of the room, to compress it all into a little ball and stuff it away somewhere far from the touch of anything metal. It feels like dying, like going blind, but the rattling stops. “I will find somewhere else to put you,” he says when he has got some little breath back, when everywhere else in his body has had a chance to join in clamouring for his attention. “Since you object to my company. I can’t guarantee it’ll be any more to your liking, but at least you won’t have to put up with my poor attempts at accommodating you any longer.”

“Erik - ”

“I was an idiot,” Erik says calmly, eyes tracing a small crack in the ceiling where the metal in the joists has shaken the plaster a little loose, “to let myself care about a human in the first place. You’ll only die of radiation poisoning or cancer or bloody-minded stupidity anyway. It’s a no-win situation, and I should have known better.”

Erik -

“I would be grateful if you would go away now,” and Erik does not move, because he has embarrassed himself enough for one evening. “You have your room; I suggest you keep to it.”

This time, Charles does not laugh, but just like the last time, he does not leave, either. “I can't figure you out,” he says, and drops to the floor to kneel beside Erik, still cradling his wrist with a lost expression on his face. “What do you want from me, Erik? I feel like a yoyo sometimes, like you keep dragging me towards you only to throw me away again. What am I supposed to think, when you act like we’re friends one minute then tell me I’m your prisoner the next?”

Erik sighs, brings up an arm to cover his eyes so that he doesn't have to look at Charles. “What am I supposed to think, when one minute you’re fussing over me like a hen with one chick and the next you’re telling me I’m a monster for trying to keep you safe?”

Charles does not reply, and they sit there together for a long time, as their ragged breathing slows and settles back to something like normal. Eventually Erik’s heartbeat slows, too, stops trying to burst out of his chest and goes back to something more regular than the bass drum thudding that had echoed in his ears.

“You knew what I was, Charles,” he says eventually, to the ceiling. “You always knew.”

Charles makes a sound that could be agreeing or disagreeing. “Perhaps.” His clothes rustle as he shuffles around to lean back against the coffee table, pulling his legs out from under himself so he can rest his elbows on his knees. “Am I really the only human you’ve ever cared about?”

Of course that is the part of their argument he would remember. Erik uncovers his face and braces his forearms against the floor to push himself up, but Charles puts a hand on his chest, over the bruise where he had jabbed his finger before, and holds him down, using just enough pressure that Erik would have to fight him again to move. “Tell me,” Charles says, and Erik finally turns to look at him.

“I loved my parents very much,” he says, meeting Charles’ gaze steadily. He’s too tired and sore to argue, so dissembling will have to do. “Now will you please go away so I can attempt to get up from the floor with some dignity intact.”

Charles scowls, brows drawing together and mouth tight. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“Does it matter? Come tomorrow, or at worst the day after, you’ll never have to see me again.” Erik pushes up against the spread of Charles’ fingers so that they press just a little into his flesh, and concentrates on burning it into his memory, something to put into the hollow place the idea of Charles leaving is digging out of him. “Are you going to let me up or not?”

“When the tables are turned? I think not,” Charles says, and presses down harder so that Erik’s shoulderblades dig into the wood. “Now you’re my prisoner.”

Erik snorts, blackly amused despite himself. “I could throw you across the room by the grommets on your shoes.”

“Considering you tried to apologise for pushing me off you earlier when I started the physical portion of our fight, I’m not overly concerned.” Charles is trying not to smile, too.

“If only you were a mutant,” Erik says, and closes his eyes. “Things would be much easier.” It is beautifully dark in the space behind his eyelids.

“If only you were a human,” Charles replies, and does not take back his hand, though he stops pushing downwards, just lets it rest where it lies, heavy and warm. “Things would be simpler like that, too.”

Erik does smile, then. “If I were a human, I’d have died in Auschwitz, along with my parents and neighbours and everyone from our Synagogue who didn’t leave the country before the Nazis came. We would never have met. I suppose that would have been simpler for you.”

The hand on his chest curls into a fist. “Don’t say that, that’s not what I meant. Or what I want.”

“Isn’t it?” Erik asks, and opens his eyes again to look at Charles. The expression on the human’s face makes his breath hitch and his heart start pounding again, because it is open and raw, and maybe even longing, the curve of Charles’ lower lip open on a silent vowel. “Charles, isn’t it?”

“Don’t send me away,” Charles says, and holds on, curls his fingers into Erik’s shirt. His grip catches at some of Erik’s chest hair, but the pain is trivial compared to the look on Charles’ face. “If you’re going to lock me up anyway, don’t send me away. It might as well be here as anywhere. Though I still object, and I’m not going to play at being the perfect prisoner – don’t think I’ve given you my parole – I’d rather be locked up here, with you, than thrown in with the devil I don’t know.”

Erik forces himself not to reach up and cup Charles’ hand in his own, to stay lying on his back placidly, a tame tiger, so as not to scare him off. It feels unpleasantly vulnerable. “I suppose that makes me the devil you do.”

“Ah, but what a handsome devil,” Charles says, teasing, “and what a foolish Faustus I am.”

It takes Erik a moment to catch the reference through the stunned silence in his head. Marlowe. “Faustus never escaped. Mephistopheles took him down to hell in the end.”

The human smiles, wry and sad. “But at least he tried.”

 


XIX

Erik lies awake that night and agonises over and over about whether that would have been the moment to kiss him, to reach up and pull Charles’ mouth down to his own, for their lips to meet, wet and open, pressing against one another, to push up onto one elbow so that he could get a better angle, pull Charles into him. He cannot help but feel he let something slip him by that might not come again.

 


XX

The next few days are all meetings, back-and-forth debates and shouting matches and long speeches about not a lot, which he sits through with careful attention, taking notes as he needs to and interjecting when he feels he has something to contribute, or to tell some of the greater fools to shut up and sit down. Magneto has never been politically minded, not on this kind of scale, more apt to plan a campaign than a war, and so he sits and tries to absorb what others are saying, to put it all together into something workable. He is good with mechanisms and making things fit together to run smoothly, but he is no silver-tongued salesman, and certainly will never make a diplomat.

“What use will killing all the humans be?” he asks sharply when a particularly militant pyrokinetic is finished filibusting, stares the man down until he turns as red as his hair, cringing back into his seat. “Humans breed mutants. We have yet to have any evidence that mutants breed more mutants, and certainly unless we start popping out litters we’re not going to be sustaining our own population alone for long, or running the country without all the specialist skills we don’t yet have in the mutant workforce. Quite aside from the moral repugnance, what you think we would do with the bodies is beyond me. Keep your foul opinions to yourself unless you can back them up.”

“Then what do you plan to do with them, Magneto?” Avalanche stands at the far end of the long conference table, nods respectfully before he continues. “So far we’ve yet to actually change anything. What was the point in conquering a nation if you’re just going to do everything exactly the same?”

Magneto folds his hands together on the table in front of him in their long leather gloves, gestures for Avalanche to sit. “Fair question. As I just said, we still need the humans. And we can’t do without what little infrastructure still remains, to build on and expand. To prosper, we need to get industry and agriculture running again. Mostly agriculture. But we will do what the narrow-minded human government would not - we can start using our people the way they should be used, let them use their powers openly and productively, not under duress of some alphabet agency but because they want to.”

He leans forward across the table, emphatic and feeling the old fire flaring up again, the dedication he had turned to his hunting years changing its direction and holding fast to a new cause, a new purpose. “Imagine mutants with power over plants getting to use them, to farm and produce crops and vegetables to feed the population, without fear of reprisal, mutants using their powers to create instead of to defend themselves, instead of suppressing them and hiding them. The humans would never have let that world exist. We will make it safe for mutants to live the way they should, openly. Mutants are the superior species - it is time we acted like it, instead of hiding in shadows like insects under rocks, scuttling away at the first hint of daylight.”

"They’re already organising a resistance,” Mystique says from the door, stepping around the guard with a quiet word. She takes up her place at his right with a confidence the girl he had met - nearly a year ago, now, mein Gotthow time has run away from him - would never have shown in her own skin, and only rarely even in costume. “Sorry I’m late, I got caught up in one of their meetings. It’s only small potatoes at the moment, but it’s worth nipping in the bud.”

There is a quiet rumble of discussion in the room before Magneto gestures for silence. “I agree. In fact, I was intending to ask you to assemble a team to look into this further, and report back with recommendations, or disrupt them internally if possible.”

Her eyes widen in surprise, and she sits back in her seat, pleasure chasing disbelief across her face. “Me?”

“Who else?” he asks, smiling a little. “Does anybody here disagree that Mystique is the best choice for a mission of this sort?” There is a chorus of loud ‘no’s and a few louder calls of support that she clearly was not expecting, by the way she bites her lip to hide how pleased she truly is. “You are more than capable,” he says to her, raising his voice so that everyone can hear him. “Choose your own team, Mystique, as long as you don’t remove anyone from key positions. I’d like to suggest Jason Stryker, if you hadn’t thought of him already.”

“He’s calling himself Mastermind now,” she says, once she can speak again, no longer trying to suppress her grin, though she ducks her head to hide it, bashful. There is a rosy glow about her cheeks, one that only makes her shine more, exquisitely beautiful. Sometimes she still seems very young, less a woman than a girl still looking for her adult composure. Perhaps it is like that for most people, Magneto thinks, a transitional period between where you are not quite one or the other.

He rests his hand on the back of her chair for a moment, thumb only just brushing against her skin, warm and dry, like the sleek scales of a snake. “If you talk to Emma she might be able to spare you a telepath.”

“It’s all very well naming Mystique spymaster, but what are we going to do about medical care?” Healer asks, and they turn back to the other matters at hand.

 


XXI

Once the little skirmishes and outbreaks of fighting slow and start to stumble, the first fire of human anger at the takeover losing some of its instant heat, he bends the bridge back into something approximating its original shape. On such a large scale getting it perfect is difficult and would take more effort than he is willing to spend, so long as it is stable enough to use, so it is a little crooked, the join a jolt to vehicles crossing it, a reminder.

Emma sends some camera crews to record him working, to put out to those who still have television reception and impress his power upon them. Shock and awe tactics, he thinks with a dry sort of humour, as he tries to flex the cold steel back to where it should be. It is harder than it was the first time, without the building rage and frustration that had powered him; the metal resists, stiffened with oncoming winter and complaining when he asks it to go against its nature, to flow instead of staying rigid and strong. He forces it to his will, just, but it’s harder to be angry when you’ve already won.

 


XXII

Charles comes into his workroom in the mid-afternoon when Erik is working on corrections to a speech one of the mutants down in Communications has been writing for him. He does not sit in the spare chair when Erik gestures to it; instead he hovers like some awkward schoolchild as Erik strikes out a misspelling and scratches in a careful note in the margin for the author to check her work for elementary errors before bothering him. “What is it, Charles?” he asks, eventually, scanning the next line and finding another mistake, scowling at the page and wondering why he delegates these things if he’s going to spend as long redoing the work as he would have in the first place. Surely someone placed in Communications should have at least basic literacy skills?

The human shifts a little from foot to foot, floorboards creaking, then extends his hand to dangle something in Erik’s face, a sudden intrusion which he jerks away from and bats at with his hand before recognising the lump of metal as Charles’ watch. Through a sudden wave of prickling gratitude that he hadn’t slagged the damn thing, Erik turns his scowl on the other man, tries not to look embarrassed at his own reaction. “Did you have to do that?”

Charles bites his lip, expression torn between amusement and apology. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just. Erik, did you fix this?” Slowly this time, telegraphing his movements in a way that could be mocking if it weren’t for the sincerity on his face, he reaches out and lays the watch in Erik’s palm, drapes it across his lifeline with the strap dangling between his thumb and forefinger. It’s warm, suggesting he’s been wearing it despite the splintered crack in the glass that half-obscures the smooth sweep of the hands.

Erik winces ruefully, with a kind of chagrin at having been caught out. “You left it in the kitchen,” he says, turning it over to look at the engraving on the back instead of at Charles, whose lip where he has bitten it is a deeper red, a little wet where he licked away the sting. When he extends his awareness to the delicate motions inside the watch he can feel the parts coiling and uncoiling, ticking smoothly along where before they had been stalled and caught one on the other, struggling to fulfil their purpose while the minute hand twitched like something dying. He’d found it lying crippled on the windowsill by the sink, probably taken off while Charles was washing dishes, and the dysfunction of its innards had set his teeth on edge, like a high unpleasant whine that nobody else could hear. It was a pleasant hum, now, like a purr, gears running sleek and perfect within its polished casing. “You’ll still need to have the glass replaced, nothing I can do about that.”

“So you did fix it.”

He shrugs, hands the watch back and does not pay any attention to the way his fingertips brush against Charles’ palm as he lays it down, a sensitive brush of skin. “Delicate work’s not my forte.” He turns back to his speech. “It wasn’t too complex. The mainspring had come loose from the escapement, that’s all.”

Charles does sit down, then, taking the chair at the periphery of Erik’s vision and leaning one elbow on the desk among the screws and springs and scraps of metal that have started to clutter it from various small projects, propping his chin on the heel of his hand. He nods sagely, eyes tracking the movement of the pen across the page. “That’s what Raven always says about me.”

It’s impossible not to smile. “I’ll see what I can do about the glass, too,” Erik says, “but it might have to wait until I have time. I’d delegate it to one of the simpletons downstairs but right now I am despairing of them all.”

Charles fastens the watch back around his left wrist. "Thank you. Really. It was my father’s - I think Mother gave it to him. He would have been very upset if he knew I’d broken it.”

Erik shrugs again. “It’s fine. It wasn’t hard.”

“That’s not the point,” Charles says, leans forward to pick up a brass-fitted loupe from the desktop and rolls it between his fingers, lenses flashing and magnifying his skin into a landscape of whorls and valleys, sending reflections skittering across the wall when it catches the lamplight. “You still fixed it for me. Thank you.”

There is a whole sentence Erik doesn’t remember obliterating from the page in front of him, and the ink has smudged enough that he can’t read what it had been, either. “I really do have work to do, Charles,” he says, rubbing a hand over his eyes and wincing when he remembers that he has ink on his fingers, which no doubt is all over his face now. “Would you mind…?”

“Oh, of course. Sorry,” Charles says, almost jerking to his feet and dropping the loupe back on the desk where it rocks on its curved side, back and forth, unable to come to a standstill. “Sorry. I’ll go find something to do elsewhere and let you get on.”

Erik - hesitates on a sudden epiphany, lets his pen still for a moment. When he turns he lets himself look at Charles, really look, this time; the slight slump of the human’s shoulders, the restless tapping of his fingers against the side of his leg, tell a story of their own. “Do you - have enough to keep you occupied? Books, and such?” he asks, thinking of how long Charles had been left on his own while Erik was in Brooklyn, with only his own company to occupy his time. He realises suddenly he has no idea what Charles likes to do for entertainment, what his hobbies and likes and dislikes are, other than genetics and reading and his sister.

“Even I can’t read all day, whatever Raven insinuates. I understand that boredom is an essential part of the prison experience,” Charles says, clearly trying for airy disaffection but only managing to sound tired, instead. He leans back against the bookshelves, folding his arms across his chest and tracing a thumb around the outer rim of the watch. “‘But life, being weary of these worldly bars, never lacks power to dismiss itself.’ I’m bored, Erik. You must have expected I would be. The wireless when there’s programming is all about your glorious takeover with nothing else thrown in for variety - a little heavyhanded on the propaganda, if you don’t mind my saying so, none of it especially well hidden, either. A child could see it’s manufactured press. And the air gets so stale in here, with all the windows zapped shut so I can’t even crack one if you’re not home. It’s enough to drive a man to drink, if we actually had any alcohol, which seems to be the only thing the previous tenant didn’t leave you.”

And that at least Erik can do. “What would you like?”

“My freedom,” Charles says immediately, and steps back up to the desk, curling one hand around the back of Erik’s chair so that his fingers just barely brush against Erik’s shoulderblade, the barest movement of his shirt fabric against his skin. “Then I can entertain myself without needing to bother you. It’s win-win.”

“You’re not bothering me.” A clear lie, one that earns him a sharp look from Charles, one he deflects. “To drink, Charles. What would you like to drink?”

“Do you play chess?” Charles asks suddenly, dropping back into the chair he had only just vacated and picking up the loupe again, twisting and turning the little bit of metal without so much as looking away from Erik. “Raven’s terrible, you see, so she won’t play with me, but I thought - ”

“Yes,” Erik says, and gives up on the damn speech. When he leans back in his chair to turn his full attention to Charles the human is looking at him as though he’s finally done something really and truly right. “I’m reasonably skilled,” he adds, wondering if that will somehow prolong this moment, the feeling of sitting in full sunlight after years in the shade, warm and golden. “I can get a set, if you would like.”

Charles’ tentative smile is all the positive reinforcement he needs.

 


XXIII

Raven joins them for breakfast every day she can, sometimes turning up before either of them are awake and sitting in Charles’ windowseat with the wireless playing quietly in the background. She’ll sit with feet dangling idly, humming to herself as she watches the sun slowly ease up from the horizon, sluggish and dim first thing now that it’s November and the nights have become long and cool. These days she is almost always blue, even here, since she spends so much of her days wearing other peoples’ skins. Though she claims she wears clothes in the apartment to appease what she calls Charles’ ‘English sensibilities’, Erik knows full well that she goes everywhere clothed at the moment, to ward off the chill. When he had asked her about it she had given him a look that clearly told him he was stupider even than she had expected and said “It’s October, Erik, you try walking around naked and see how you enjoy it.”

It varies, which of them joins her first, though Charles is more often awake earliest, and Erik will walk into the kitchen for his coffee to find them with heads tipped together, chestnut and scarlet, talking about this or that, in a sort of sibling shorthand that feels almost like telepathy when he is too tired to even try and follow.

He is more tired even than usual when he shuffles in only to overhear Raven say “I don't think you realise that Erik doesn't do talking about his feelings. He bottles them up inside like an overshaken soda pop can until someone opens it and then they fly out and get all over everyone and we all end up soaked.”

“I don’t have feelings,” he says, voice gravelled with sleep, and both of them jump, nearly falling off the windowseat and grabbing at one another to stay upright, turning to him wide-eyed and guilty. “I had them amputated along with my sense of humour and my power to say ‘shut up Raven.’ Oh, wait, it seems to have grown back.” There is a mug on the side already waiting for him, and he slurps at it noisily, then holds it away and wrinkles his nose at the lukewarm plant water that is in his mug instead of coffee. “What is this?”

“That one is - was - mine,” Charles says, still looking guilty, though there is a hint of humour at Erik’s expense. “It’s tea.”

“Why,” Erik says, looking at it with disgust, then puts it back where he found it and goes to get himself another mug. His mouth tastes like dead leaves. There is a definite snigger from behind him, which he nobly chooses to ignore.

“Sooooo…” Raven still sounds like she’s trying not to laugh, with a rustle of fabric as she pulls up her legs to tuck them under the soft-draping fabric of her knit dress, tugging it into folds between the bone of her ankle and the wooden seat. “How ‘bout them Yankees?”

There is coffee in the coffee pot. At least something is where it should be. “Go away,” Erik says, once he has drained his first mug and poured the second. It still smells amazing, and this one he sips more slowly, savouring the warmth on his tongue, the rich thick taste of slightly too much bean steeped for slightly too long. He turns to look at the Xavier siblings, finds them both watching him with wide and fascinated eyes. “What?”

“For future reference, this is totally the time to ambush him with questions he wouldn’t normally answer,” Raven says to Charles, who snorts and pushes gently at her shoulder, only to have her deliberately collapse her weight against him as soon as he lets go, propping her head on his shoulder and grinning at Erik. “Just think: this man is our nation’s mighty leader.”

“Good thing he sets the schedule,” Charles says to her, then, “there’s an omelette keeping warm in the top oven,” to Erik, though he’s busy trying not to fall off the seat again, propping up his sister with fond forbearance writ across his face. “Honestly, you two.”

The caffeine is singing in his veins now, the way turning on a switch makes electricity rush through wires and leaves him finally awake enough to feel somewhat coherent. Erik scowls, putting his mug in the sink to be washed later. “No, thank you. I’m sorry to have intruded on your very important mocking Erik time.”

“When he rules the world, we’ll be the first to go,” Raven stage-whispers, and though he clearly tries not to Charles lets out an undignified choking noise that sets her off, too, and they’re shaking together in the windowseat, silhouetted against the greying dawn outside.

Furious, Erik snaps, “Did you really come up here just to make fun of me?” and takes his breakfast from the oven, almost slamming the plate down on the table. When he jerk the top drawer open on a thought he has to concentrate not to get every piece of cutlery in there flying out at him, to get just a single fork. “I’m sure Azazel must be missing you in the mornings, Raven.”

The look of sudden fury on her face matches the way he feels. “You vicious bastard,” she hisses, and Charles sits up straighter and says, “Yes, we never did talk about him, did we?”

Raven leans up and away from her brother, breaking their little tableau and crossing her arms across her chest. “We’re not going to.”

“Whyever not? Are you ashamed of him? Oh. No, you’re ashamed of me, aren’t you,” Charles says, looking hurt.

Erik, hunched at the table eating his omelette with grumpy enjoyment, can’t decide who looks the most uncomfortable. There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude in it that he is feeling too ill-tempered to be guilty about. The omelette is actually pretty good.

“I’m not,” she protests, grabbing at his arm and turning her big sorrowful eyes on Charles. “It’s just, Azazel is a mutant too - ”

“Yes, I’d gathered that.”

“ – and he doesn’t know you’re shacked up with Erik upstairs, nobody does,” she finishes, awkwardly.

“Oh.” Charles’ shoulders sag enough that Erik does feel a little guilty for setting this off after all. “So you are ashamed of me.”

“Azazel worked for Schmidt,” Erik says, through a mouthful of omelette. “She’s worried he’d kill you if he found out. She’s not ashamed of you.”

There is silence for a moment while Charles contemplates this, clearly taken aback.

“Oh dear God stop helping,” Raven hisses at him, looking horrified now. “It’s not like that at all! Erik has all the personal insight of a sponge, Charles, don’t listen to him.”

“You know,” and they both turn to look at Charles, who is looking at his feet instead of meeting their gaze, fingers picking at the cuticles of his other hand, “I didn’t think much of you signing on with mutant supremacists in the first place, Raven, which is why you just left and did it behind my back. But at least Erik never nuked half the planet. And now you’re sleeping with someone who did.” When he looks up his face is wet. “Do you hate what I am that much?”

“I hate you so much right now,” Raven says to Erik, then turns to her brother with a desperate, crumpled expression Erik can’t help but feel uncomfortable about, like he wasn’t meant to see it. “No, Charles, I love you so much. You’re my favourite person in the whole world, I could never hate you. Azazel didn’t agree with what Schmidt was doing, that’s why he’s with us now, like Emma and Janos.”

Charles gives her a sarcastic look. “That’s why after his first mutant supremacist leader was killed, he joined another mutant supremacist group? Because of his morals?”

This is awful. He should never have opened his mouth. “Too much arguing for this time of the morning,” Erik says, scrubbing a hand over his face and getting up to put his plate in the sink with his mug. “I’m going for my run.”

Raven jumps to her feet, one hand still clasped tight around Charles’s arm and the other outstretched as if to stop him from going. “No, Erik, wait, I wanted to come with you today.”

“Running?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Erik!”

“No,” he says again, summoning his helmet and feeling around for his running shoes. “I run alone.”

“Okay fine, I’m pregnant,” Raven says, throwing her hands up in the air before bringing them back down to settle briefly on her hips, trying to look confident, but after a moment they end up wrapped around her belly anyway, rumpling her dress into folds and creases. “Since neither of you assholes will let me break the news gently.”

There is a longer silence this time while all three of them look at each other, Raven defiant, the men gaping. Erik can feel his heart pause in his chest, caught on something, a scream, maybe, just like Charles’ broken watch, trying to tick and failing. There is something ending, right here, a final withering of a hope he hadn’t quite stopped watering.

“Mazeltov,” Erik says, and tries to mean it.

“Raven,” Charles says, sounding just as gobsmacked as Erik feels, and stands up to hug her, limbs jerky as he pulls her in against his body to squeeze her tight. “Congratulations.” When he meets Erik’s eyes over her shoulder his smile is somewhat more wavering than the one he showed her. In that moment they understand each other perfectly.

 


XXIV

“He’s good to her,” Erik says later, reluctantly, when Charles is out on the balcony with his legs dangling between the bars, wind ruffling through his hair and catching at his clothes. “Whatever you think of his politics.”

“He’s the one who looks like a - with the red skin and the tail?” Charles corrects himself mid-sentence, as though Azazel might hear him somehow and be offended. He does not turn, half-facing away from Erik so that his profile is outlined against the bright white of the clouded-over sky. When he lifts a hand lazily and shoves his hair back away from his face there are furrows left in it where his fingers were, like the dips between waves. His bared forehead is so pale and gentle a curve to guard so fierce a mind, Erik thinks, and leans against the doorframe, staying just inside, fingers pressed against the glass that separates the apartment from the air.

“That’s him.”

“I guess that’s good, then. He’ll understand what it’s like, I mean, to look different.”

“He does,” Erik says, tries not to feel that last little flutter of an old bitterness. “At least Raven could shapeshift; many visibly different mutants had no such luck in their powers.”

“I wonder what the baby will look like,” Charles says, with a half-smile, turned in on itself, as though he is thinking of something good. “I wonder what its powers will be.”

“Sarcasm, most likely.”

Charles barks out a sudden laugh, loud and delighted, and twists to look at Erik over his shoulder, one hand still clasped around the balcony railing for support. “Erik!”

“Azazel is very dry,” he says, manages a smile - it’s not hard, when Charles’ eyes are gleaming with humour for him, humour that he caused. “And your sister is a harpy. It can only be a bad combination. The child is doomed.”

Somewhere far away a horn blares and they both turn to look for a moment, but there is nothing to be seen from their balcony. “You still love her, don’t you?” Charles asks, without looking back at him. When he does his face is neutral, cleaned of emotion. “You say you don’t but you do.”

Biting at the inside of his cheek is enough to hold back the knee-jerk denial, a small sharp pain, like the prick of a knife. Erik sighs, folds his arms across his chest and says, “I don’t think you ever really stop loving someone once you start, at least a little, or at least I don’t. Can it really be called love, if you can just turn it off one day, like a lightswitch? Either you love someone or you don’t. I didn’t stop loving my parents just because they died.”

Charles is watching him, slow and steady. “Surely you must be in love with lots of people, then, if you never fall out of love with old flames.”

“I don’t have any old flames.”

“Really?” Charles has the grace to look embarrassed when Erik gives him a sidelong look. “Sorry, I just thought… well, I guess I thought you must have at least a few.”

Erik shrugs. “No. Why?”

“No reason.” He shifts so that he can pull his legs up from between the bars and tuck them in close to his body, rest his elbows on them, curled up small and ammonite-coiled against the railing. “I’m sorry for asking so many rude questions, Erik.” A pause, biting at his lip, and Charles’ voice is very far away when he says, “It must hurt, is all, to be in love with someone who loves somebody else.”

They are both quiet for a few minutes, Charles on the balcony and Erik behind him, not quite stepping out of the apartment to join him but not apart, either, November chill sinking in and gathering in folds around them, with a strange sort of weight to it; one of the young mutants has predicted it will snow tomorrow, heavily, lay itself upon the city like a thick blanket of white. Erik thinks he can maybe smell it on the wind, above the smell of New York, more like the cleaner air of his childhood than the smog they get here.

“I made that bed for myself,” Erik says eventually, and smiles when Charles looks at him quizzically, summoning his cape from the chair it had been draped over. It is easy enough to move, with its heavy metal clasps, and it settles around the human’s shoulders when he twitches his hold just so, sweeping the metal-weighted ends around to cover his legs as well where his socked feet must be cold. “I made myself what I am, Charles, and with that I achieved my life’s goal before my thirtieth birthday. I am not fool enough to expect anything more.”

“You think - oh, Erik,” Charles says, and stands, slow and awkward on stiffened limbs and fingers curled around the edges of the cape. “You think nobody could love you?”

Erik looks at his face, so earnest and - there is pity, in the frown of his brow, the soft edge to his gaze - and does not say, you don’t. “Nobody loves a sword.”

A sudden scowl, and, “You’re an idiot,” Charles says, dropping the cape. It pools at his feet when he steps forward to push past Erik and back inside, picking up his book from the kitchen table as he goes. The quiet click of his bedroom door shutting behind him seems as loud as a gunshot.

 


XXV

Erik leaves the chess set on the table in the living room as a peace offering. He’s not sure what he’s done wrong, but then he never is with Charles.

 


XXVI

At least machines come with a manual.


XXVII

The largest of the offices has been converted into a private room for him, one he barely uses, because it is so noisy down among the rest of the staff that he can’t get half as much done as upstairs. The general room is just outside his, long and tangled with desks, back-to-back and kitty-corner to one another, mutants running between each with notes in hand, and it’s no use Magneto asking for quiet. He knows they have to talk to do their jobs, and so he puts up with it when he is there, and acknowledges the convenience of their being able to bring things to him when needed, for him to call them over in return. Nobody but he - and Mystique - are allowed into his apartment, under any circumstance. It has stimulated gossip, but it is never repeated anywhere he can catch them at it, not after the last time.

There is a fern in the corner of his office. He did not put it there, but according to Rogue it adds life to the room, which is otherwise functional. The heavy antique wooden desk was dragged in from another part of the building, and someone found him a few filing cabinets and some chairs for visitors to sit in. He could care less about the fern, and the view out the windows is fair to middling. There is very little time for looking out; he is too busy trying to keep all of his different work streams separate and flowing. There are five in-trays on his desk, and five out-trays, to match.

He wonders when he became the sort of person to have trays at all.

“We’re currently seeing the third wave of casualties from the nuclear fallout,” Elixir is saying from the chair facing his across the desk, handing him a new file with statistics circled in red pen, along with an upward trending graph in stark black and white. “The first were the direct casualties of the explosions themselves, and then in the next few weeks, the walking dead, those who survived the bombs but were killed by acute radiation poisoning. These are the ones who got less of the radiation but enough to cause all sorts of problems later on. Cataracts, leukaemia, other cancers and malformations… a lot of birth defects, in the last year, mutations. Not the kind you or I have. We’re providing as much medical care as possible, but we have very little medical knowledge to go on, and I can’t be everywhere.”

“Is it still harming humans more than mutants?” Magneto asks, flicking through the report with grim focus, turning through page after page of numbers and photographs. It’s a depressing picture, and yet just one more thing Schmidt has to answer for.

Elixir stands and reaches over to point at another graph, another set of numbers. “Yes. We seem to be more resistant to the radiation, though we’re still being affected. It’s not as simple as humans dying, mutants living.”

Magneto taps his fingers against the paper, thinking, then glances up at the other man leaning forward over his desk, the gold sheen of his skin reflecting back the dull sky outside and a dim image of Magneto himself in the smooth plane of his cheek. “What do you need from me?”

“Money and supplies,” Elixir says immediately, taking the folder and flipping through to a page near the back of the report. He hands it back, now turned to a list of medications. “This is what we need, and we simply don’t have enough of anything. A lot of the biggest pharma companies were either destroyed or damaged in the bombing and the uprising, or they don’t have enough of the right materials to make anything. We need to get a new supply route, or open the old ones, and fast. I’m sure there are plenty of other things we need, too.” He pauses, as if uncertain of his standing, before saying, “I’m not much of one for anything but health, but I think we need to start becoming connected internationally again. It would be great if we could be self-sufficient as a nation, but we’re not, not as things stand.”

“I’ll think on it.” Magneto closes the report and puts it into the in-tray Rogue, his - Gott, his secretary - had coloured green for social issues. “Thank you. I’ll see what we can implement immediately and let you know how we progress.”

Elixir nods, rising to his feet and giving him a brief salute. “Sir.” He ducks out of the office and is immediately accosted by another aide, walks off already accepting more papers to replace the ones he has given over.

Left alone, Magneto sits and considers the findings, setting the little metal desk toys Emma had given him as a joke to swinging with a flicker of thought that leaves them clicking against one another soothingly, the sound of steel on steel ringing quietly in the room. It had seemed a big enough job just to take the US, but to expand that reach - to offer diplomacy to other nations - he is no statesman, to be speaking to the English Queen and offering her his hand for a photograph, her in her crown and he in his helmet, which has been spattered with blood and worse, nor to make pleasantries with whoever is in charge of Russia now after the Kremlin was obliterated in the first wave of Schmidt’s war.

And besides, there are mutants there yet, in each and every country, hidden and under threat every day for what they are, for what they can do.

He remembers a brief look he had had the other day when looking for something else, there was a report - sitting up, he leans forward and tries to recall which tray it had been in. The damnable things seem to multiply every time he turns around. He rifles through his papers and leaves them out of order and messy in a way that will likely have Rogue scolding him when she comes back from wherever she has gone, clucking her tongue in a way a girl her age should not feel comfortable doing to a man of twice her years, let alone one like him. The report he is thinking of is in the purple tray, which appears on inspection to be for international issues. It is slim, little more than a handful of letters stapled together with a covering sheet explaining their provenance.

Magneto, the first one begins, I am writing to you as a leader of a small group of mutants in São Paulo, who have heard of your revolution in America with envy and pride. I am not one for flowery words and empty paragraphs before reaching my intent, so I will say that I am writing to ask for help, for my people and yours in South America. I believe my cousin Sunspot is with you in America, and he will be able to vouch for me to you, should you require proof of my intentions. He will recognise my handwriting, should you show this to him.

As you may know we have had many troubles in Brazil in the past two decades, and the madness of the world has given Brazilians a new target for their anger - mutants here are being hunted down like dogs in the streets by our own government. We are fleeing to the rainforests where we can, but not all are close enough. I understand this is much the same in our neighbouring countries, especially those most affected by the radiation of Cuba.

I myself barely escaped with my life when surprised by a group of soldiers in my own house, having returned from the marketplace; I am sorry to say I was forced to kill them, or else be shot. I have never before harmed another human being, and can say there was no provocation, and no reason for their enmity, other than my mutation. It is the same for many, and for many humans who are only suspected by their neighbours and handed over to the authorities, who have adopted a policy of ‘better safe than sorry’, to use an English phrase. Not all are so lucky as to be killed immediately.

I cannot speak for all Brazilian mutants, or all those of South America, but without help, I fear we will all be killed. We would welcome you here. I have no return address for a reply, but hope for a practical response instead.

Your servant,

Magma, once known as Amara Aquilla

In a haze of anger he scans the other letters too, finding them to be much the same as the first, and rips the pages a little in his haste to read them; the covering sheet does not do them justice, it is no wonder he did not read these immediately on first seeing them. “Rogue!” he shouts, turning back to Magma’s letter and reading it again, it being by far the most coherent and in the best English. “Rogue!”

Her head pops around the door, the white streak in her hair tucked neatly back behind her ear, and when she sees his expression the rest of her follows, almost but not quite running into the office to stand by his desk. “Yes, sir?” she says, shifting nervously from foot to foot. She doesn’t usually bother calling him sir - his expression must be thunderous.

He almost throws the papers at her, instead jabbing them into her hands forcefully as the desk toys clatter against one another more roughly than they are made for; one of the swinging spheres flies loose and rolls off somewhere, probably to be stepped upon at an inopportune moment. “Why was this not brought to my attention immediately?” he asks, when she looks down to see what she’s holding. “This is the sort of thing you should give to me instead of putting in my tray, girl. I expect you to filter things like this out for me.”

She flinches under the criticism, shoulders curling up toward her ears and lip sliding out into an unhappy pout. It makes her look her age - barely past seventeen, young for so much responsibility, but he had been assured she could handle it, and has had no cause to question it until this. “Sorry, sir,” she says, voice almost a whisper. “Ms - I’ll do better. I’ll know next time.”

Magneto stands, leaning over her and trying to get her to meet his eyes. “No, what were you going to say?”

“I - um.” She shuffles her feet on the floor, falling silent again.

“Ms Frost?” he prompts her, on a sudden intuition, and she nods, miserably, clenching her hands behind her back as though worried she might touch him, though she is wearing long gloves that overlap her sleeves by quite some way, not a sliver of skin having a chance to show through. “Ms. Frost told you not to?”

Rogue looks as though she’d like the floor to swallow her up, finally tilting her chin upwards to meet his gaze, a stubborn set to her mouth that is belied by the subtle wet sheen of her eyes. “She said it wasn’t important right now, and I shouldn’t worry you with it.”

He should have known. “You answer to me, not to Frost. Remember that in future.” He takes back the papers from her somewhat more gently than he had given them to her, is careful to let her see him reach, first. Rogue is still skittish about contact, and with a power like hers he cannot blame her. Nor can he blame her for fearing Emma enough to do her bidding; it was Emma who had given her to him in the first place. As formidable an organiser as she is of his desk, he suspects she has also been briefed on her duty to defend him in an attack. There is no doubting that she would be a powerful weapon if she were less afraid of her own shadow.

He gestures toward the door, as kindly as he knows how. “Thank you. You may get back to your work, then.” Her scurry away from him is less than flattering, but he knows he deserves it. “Rogue - ”

She spins on her heel, nearly falls over in her haste. “Yes, sir?”

“Do you know where Emma Frost is right now?”

“Um.” She pauses to think for a moment. “Central Comms, most likely, this time of day.”

“Right. Thank you. As you were,” he says, flicks a glance at the letters again and feels his anger bubble back up, aimed at a new target. He has a telepath to pick a bone with.

 


XXVIII

“-and then she had the gall, the gall to say we should do nothing. Nothing!”

“She must have her reasons,” Charles says dubiously, still reading his way through the pile with a little frown on his face that is only deepening as he goes through them. “Erik, these are horrible. Is this all true?”

Erik stops his pacing long enough to nod jerkily, trembling in place for a few seconds before he starts again, hands curled in fists at his sides and only uncurling long enough to make emphatic gestures, punctuating his own fury. “She insists we don’t have the resources to help, but we had no resources before and we still won, we took a whole country over with little more than ourselves and a plan, and yet she says we should leave more of our kind to suffer while we could do something about it!”

Charles shifts in the armchair he is curled in, ankles propped on a footstool close to the fire crackling in the grate and an enormous, lumpy cardigan on over his habitual shirt, bunched up to his elbows and belling up around his upper arms where the fabric has gathered. “Well, she knows more about the situation than I do. I’m not sure I can comment on what you could or couldn’t do, and anyway, you have to know I couldn’t advocate anything violent. Whatever I suggested you would no doubt pooh-pooh as sentimental rubbish if it didn’t include either explosions or spontaneous human combustion.”

In the firelight it’s hard to tell if he is trying not to smile; the shadows obscure the dimpled corners of his mouth where any twitching might be seen, giving him away. He has been sat there long enough that no doubt he would smell of woodsmoke now if Erik were to sit down next to him and bury his nose in the bend of Charles’ neck, would perhaps taste of it if Erik were to put his tongue against the skin there and see. His hair is getting shaggy again; it curls against his nape, like the coiling ash of the fire as it escapes up the chimney. It is an effort for Erik to tear his eyes away, and he realises that he had come to a stop again at the sound of Charles’ voice, captured for a moment, like a bee in honey, or sap waiting to become amber, frozen until found and held up to the light.

“You have to agree, Charles, that something must be done,” he says a little too harshly, voice coming out like sandpaper, rough and brisk as he breaks himself loose to resume pacing, careful not to look at the human again. “We can’t just sit back and do nothing! It was never my intention to save some mutants and leave the rest to burn. It cannot be our intention.”

His reflection when he catches it in the dark glass of the tall windows is wild-eyed and angular, stooped like a predator in a cage.

“It’s awful, yes.” A shift of fabric on fabric as Charles shifts in his seat, and then a scrape as he lifts the poker to jab at the fire, pushing the logs into a better position and knocking loose more ash. “But at the same time - if it’ll cripple what you already have, Erik, overstretching yourself might be worse for more people than reserving your strength to build it up. You need to consider whether you’ll lose more than you save.”

“I do that every day.” Erik risks a look back at Charles, who meets his gaze calmly, hands steepled in front of his face so that his index fingers rest on his top lip, dimpling the tender skin. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t value your opinion,” he says grudgingly, and turns away again, retreading the same path over and over. He has always thought better when in action, but he feels increasingly as though he is moving in circles.

The longer he does it, the more Erik suspects he knows the gravity at the centre of his orbit, and cannot pull away, no matter how hard he fights against it.

When he glances once more toward the armchair Charles is looking into the fire, but he is smiling, just a little. “Would you like to play a game of chess?” the human asks suddenly, and gestures at the board where Erik had left it. Sometime during the day he has set out the pieces, each in their right places, knights and pawns and bishops all in tidy rows. “Perhaps it will help you think of something.”

It doesn’t, but that is more Charles’ fault than the game’s.

Erik tries to muffle the sounds he makes that night when he jerks off thinking of that dimpled lip, the careful fingers moving the pieces with strategic precision across the black and white squares and almost caressing each one before letting them go, like beloved children, but he is not entirely sure he is successful.

 


XXIX

He snaps awake in the early hours of that morning, eyes flying open in the pitch black and staring straight at the dark shape of Charles leaning over him, barely an outline stood at the head of the bed. His hands are already lashing out at the other man, flat and rigid, with a deadly purpose he only just manages to deflect. They miss striking Charles in the eye and throat by mere millimetres, but Charles does not even move back, seems barely aware of how close he had come to a crushed trachea and burst cornea.

“Erik,” he says, “are you awake?”

Was willst du von mir?” Erik turns one of his hands to push against Charles’ chest, shove him back enough that Erik can sit up. The blankets fall down to his waist, letting the cold air get to his bare chest and making him shiver. His eyes are adjusting slowly to the darkness, enough that he can see the slightly manic expression on Charles’ face, and the clock at his bedside. “Mein Gott, it’s the middle of the night. What is it?”

“Erik,” Charles says again, “God. Sorry. It’s just.” He scrubs at his face with the palm of his hand, rough, like he’s trying to wake himself up. “Look, can I sit down? I’m going to sit down,” and he drops onto the edge of the mattress, half on top of Erik’s leg under the covers, hands dropping away to hang limp against the bed. “This is awful. Why am I doing this? I shouldn’t have woken you up. It’s just.”

Erik pulls his leg out from under Charles, who does not react, other than to shift slightly, making himself comfortable. Charles looks exhausted, too; they should both go back to bed, he thinks, and pushes the accompanying images away, does not think of that, or how his sheets must still smell of his earlier thoughts of Charles. “What is it?” he asks again, feeling like his whole body is cursing and begging him to go back to sleep, while his brain valiantly tries to swim against the tide of Lethe dragging him down.

“I keep forgetting that you’re Magneto,” Charles says, and slumps, round-shouldered and defeated, covering his face with his hand. “I keep trying to remind myself that you’re the one who does all these things I hear about on the wireless, that you killed - oh, probably thousands of people taking over this country, so you could subjugate humans before they subjugated you, and I see you put on that stupid helmet and cape every day, and yet - and yet - you’re just Erik, to me. I came in here to look at you and remind myself. But you were just sleeping, and I can’t seem to remember from minute to minute that you are the one who does all these things. That you’re the one keeping me here, a prisoner, that you’re the one saying I can never leave, taking away all of my rights and freedoms and everything I love - ”

“Charles - ”

“Let me finish!” Charles turns to look at Erik, dragging the blankets beneath him into a tangle, caught beneath his thigh. “You’re the one doing this to me. I know what this is, isolating me, making me dependent on you, all of this, like, like breaking in a horse - ”

“It’s not like that.” Erik is too tired to do this again. He leans back against the bedframe, and closes his eyes for a moment before answering, wishes there was a nicer reason for Charles to be here with him in the dark of early morning. “I’m not trying to - to brainwash you.”

He hears Charles’ sigh, feels the shift when he moves again. “But it’s working. I’m lonely, Erik, and you’re the only company I have, so it’s easy to forget the rest. A part of me wants to forget about it, to rely on you, so I wanted to come in here and look at you when you weren’t being Erik, remind myself of who you really are. But this is who you really are. You’re not really company at all. You’re the man keeping me captive.”

There is a weight in Erik’s chest, like a rock sitting in the hollow behind his breastbone. His eyelids are so heavy. “Go back to bed, Charles,” he says, like talking through molasses. “Or stay. You can stare at me all you want, but I’m going back to sleep. I’ll…” he yawns, eyes watering, “…I’ll try not to do anything unspeakably evil until you can be around to witness it.”

Charles does not leave, so Erik shuffles about until he is lying down, head back on the pillow. There is enough metal in the room for him to feel more or less safe, despite the vulnerable position. Their breathing seems very loud at first, but slowly it fades into background noise, two pairs of lungs inflating and deflating in counterpoint.

“I spent my childhood shut away from people,” Charles says suddenly, into the dark, and Erik starts, surprised out of the slight doze he had fallen into. His leg jerks without his input, tugging at the covers. “Oh, sorry,” and Charles gets up, releases the blanket from under him and then sits back down, further back on the mattress so that his back is pressed against Erik’s thighs. “Sorry. You don’t want to hear this.”

His tongue feels heavy, so Erik makes a noise he hopes is encouraging instead of trying to talk aloud.

Charles hums in response. “Never mind. You’re sleeping. It’s not important.”

Sag es mir.

It earns him a huff that might be amusement. “You’re not even speaking English, Erik. Go to sleep.”

Nein, no, I’m awake,” Erik says, but his voice is slurring. “Tell me.”

Charles lays a hand over Erik’s hip, over the blanket, and says, “No, it’s a little late for bedtime stories. Go back to sleep.”

He does.

Erik wakes up again before dawn, once, and blinks slowly at the back of Charles’ head on the other side of the bed, hair splayed on the pillow amid the sound of soft snores, but he falls asleep again before he can really think about it, and when he wakes up in the morning Charles isn’t there, so he can’t be sure if it happened or not.

 


XXX

“I had an idea,” Charles says the next day, “about your Brazil problem.”

Erik looks up from the board, knight in hand and ready to move to E5. “Oh?”

Charles smiles. “You’re not going to like it. Nobody dies horribly.”

“Oh well, in that case,” Erik says, and moves his piece. “Tell me anyway.”

 


XXXI

Looking down the camera lens is like looking into the maw of some dark beast. He is used to it now; stands tall and straight and proud, shoulders back and chin slightly up, fixes his eyes on the people watching him as though they are standing there in place of the camera, speaks to them instead of to the crew, who work silently and efficiently at their jobs.

This message is being broadcast internationally.

“Doubtless you have not heard of the atrocities being committed against mutantkind in South America,” he says, forcing his hands to lie flat on the surface of the podium. “It is something they would rather have kept quiet from the international community - and kept quiet from me. Doubtless you have not heard of the innocents being rounded up like vermin to be executed in their homes, in front of their families, in front of their children or parents or in the street like dogs, for the crime of being born mutant. And no doubt these human governments do not wish you to know that their soldiers are torturing and raping and brutalising their victims first, that this ‘painless cull’ is nothing but an excuse to make scapegoats of mutants for their own weakness and corruption.

“But I know,” he says, quiet and keeping his voice icily calm. “We, the mutants of this great Republic, have heard. And we demand that this genocide stops before we are forced to step in. Atrocities like this will not be allowed to continue. I suggest that if the Brazilians, the Argentinians, the Peruvians, wish to continue with this senseless and mindless violence, they may wish to consider what we have already accomplished in America, and think again.

“I am Magneto. I have lived through the Holocaust and the Month of the Atom and I have not been stopped. I have taken a country, and I have not been stopped. Our neighbours may wish to bear that in mind.”

 


XXXII

“That was somewhat uncharacteristic of you,” Emma says when he steps out of shot, putting a hand on her hip and looking up at him consideringly. She must have come in while he was filming; as ever her white skirt suit is pristine, gleaming coldly under the harsh studio lights, and if it weren’t for the helmet Magneto would suspect it of being a projection, just another of her little tricks. The crew give her - and him - a wide berth, glancing sidelong at the pair of them with wide eyes that only spend half the time on the short hemline of her skirt and the low neckline of her jacket.

Magneto snorts as he steps down from the platform, rolling his head on his shoulders to loosen up the tight muscles of his neck. “Was it?”

Her expression is carefully amused. “Yes.”

“I thought you’d be pleased I didn’t declare war.”

“You hate hollow threats,” Emma says, and her eyes narrow, pale eyebrows drawing together as though she is trying to bore her way through the helmet to his thoughts. “You’re a man of actions, not words. Who’s been putting ideas in that shiny metal head of yours?”

Magneto glances back at the empty stage behind him, at the plain dark blue background behind that and the darker circle on the front of the podium where the Seal of the President of the United States used to hang. They could have replaced it, put something else there instead, but he likes the symbolism.

There is a microphone hanging from the ceiling above the line of the camera which captures his voice for radio, and he wonders suddenly if Charles was listening to the broadcast, what he had thought. Perhaps he should acquire a television for the apartment.

Emma taps her foot irritably against the concrete floor, a sharp sound that makes the human crew flinch.

Turning back to face her he steps between the cameras into the dark stage space, indicating she should follow. “Is this really the place?” he asks, feeling for the near-invisible cables on the floor and avoiding them with ease. “You disapprove of my message?”

She somehow manages to avoid the trip hazards with equal ease despite her towering heels, which nearly equalise their heights, letting her meet his gaze without being forced to bare her throat. “Not at all. It was a very clever move. It just wasn’t yours.”

“What would I have done, then?”

“Gone in all guns blazing,” she says as they head into the corridor, blinking away the bright light outside without so much as pausing. Like him, hesitation is not in her nature when on the attack. “Or else picked them off one by one from the shadows. But you would never threaten them with something you won’t follow through on.”

Azazel is waiting for them in the Green Room, a slim book open in one hand and a glass of something amber in the other. “Finished?” he asks, closing the book and tucking it into the pocket of his tunic. “Is it back to Command, or do we have another trip to make?”

“Let’s go to my office,” Magneto says before Emma can interject, and reaches out a hand to rest it on Azazel’s shoulder. “We can discuss your disapproval of my personal growth there.”

She snorts, and holds out her hand, too. “And what will you do if they call you on your bluff?”

“Go in all guns blazing, apparently,” he says, and catches her fingers with his. “Feel free to join me.”

Emma smiles, sharp as a knife. “If I bring a rifle, it won’t be for the South Americans, honey.”

“Enough bitching, I am a busy man and the meter is running,” Azazel says, rolling his eyes, and teleports.

 


XXXIII

“What day is it?” Charles asks later, swirling his scotch around in his glass idly as he contemplates his next move. He has not yet mentioned last night, and so Erik has decided to take his cue from Charles, pretend that it didn’t happen. It is easier to think than to do, when he keeps picturing Charles asleep in the bed beside him, barely a handsbreadth between their bodies, close enough that he could have reached out and pulled that compact body in tight beside his own. If it had been real, and not just a half-remembered dream.

He’s distracted himself quite thoroughly; it takes a moment to remember the question. “Wednesday,” Erik says, forcing his mind back to the here and now, the concrete. He leans forward in his chair, chin resting in the palm of his hand, and waits for the other man to make his move.

“My apologies, but what I meant was what’s the date today? Bishop to C3.”

Erik has to think about it for a moment, track the days in his mind since the last time he paid attention to something like that. “December fourth,” he says eventually, already reaching out for his Queen.

Charles twitches, fingers tightening around his drink. “Is it really?” His hand when he pushes his hair from his eyes is a little shaky, though he tries to hide it. “How time flies.”

It takes a moment before it hits. Erik’s breath catches in his throat as his answer hits home, a strange feeling rising in his belly and spreading like a sudden fever, chills tracing fingers up and down his spine. It’s almost like vertigo, like losing his balance though he’s sat securely with no chance of falling. “I’d forgotten. I killed Schmidt a year ago yesterday.”

It is almost impossible to believe that he could forget something like that. Every minute detail is sketched out in his memory, photographic in its perfection; every drop of blood, every tiny sound the man had made as his skull had caved in, the expression in Schmidt’s cold eyes, finally, finally afraid of Erik, the way Erik had been afraid of him. It seems impossible that he could have forgotten anything about that day. His teeth make an unpleasant grinding noise as his jaw clenches, tight and painful, on a wordless sound, somewhere between pleasure and horror.

“I’ve been here six months,” Charles says, face pale and still, but it does not quite hide the deeper emotion rising underneath, something too strong to mask entirely. “Barring… excursions.”

They look at each other for a long, silent moment, before by some silent mutual agreement both look away, finding other things to focus on; thoroughly unsettled, Erik moves his Queen somewhere he had not intended, not that Charles seems to notice she is wide open and vulnerable. Instead the human downs the quarter inch of scotch left in one sharp jerk of his wrist, does not so much as cough as the liquor goes down. “Could you pour me another?” Charles asks in a voice that is scrupulously polite, and hands Erik the tumbler. When their fingers brush Erik can hear the sharp inhale Charles bites back, pupils dilating wide and dark so that the bright electric blue of his irises is just a thin fine line around the outside.

He pours a little too much, is careful to make sure Charles has to touch his hand to take the glass back, and takes in the way Charles bites at his lower lip to consider later. “Did you hear the speech today?” he says instead of clasping Charles’ hand in his own, stroking the valleys between those blunt, practical fingers, touching the places where his own hard-worked, violent hands have calluses but Charles’ have none. “Emma tried to get me to divulge whose idea it was. She knew it wasn’t mine.”

After a pause the human smiles, a deliberate choice, and the desperate twist of his mouth curls into something lighter, the sense of weight lifting a little from his shoulders. “What did you say?”

“I neither confirmed nor denied.” Erik’s chair creaks when he leans back, letting himself smile. “Don’t worry, I didn’t steal the credit that is rightfully yours, even if I couldn’t give it to you.”

“Of course not,” Charles says, taking a measured sip of his drink. His eyes regain a little of their good-natured sparkle. “You’re far too proud and pig-headed to take credit for someone else’s idea.”

“I get enough abuse in the daytime, I don’t need it at home as well,” Erik says, and his eyes crinkle at the corners when Charles laughs. I love you, he thinks, and feels the enormity of it settle into his bones, mouth dry and heart thrumming like a trapped bird in his chest, until it is all he can do to sit still, not to reach out and grab Charles, force a kiss on him if he will not take it, to push him back on the couch and touch skin to skin, to put his hands on Charles’ thighs, spread his legs wide and finally, finally have him.

I am not an animal, he thinks, fiercely pushing everything down and away, and forces himself to keep smiling, to reply to Charles’ gentle mockery with wry comments of his own. Better that nothing should ever happen than that he destroy everything by wanting it too much.

Oh, but he wants it.

 


XXXIV

The problem is, even when he holds the other pillow to his nose and inhales deeply, trying to find some scent that might suggest Charles had been there, there is nothing new. They use the same shampoo, the same soap, so how would Erik ever know?

 


XXXV

Erik takes a rare whole day off from working that weekend, and though he had intended to go out into the city to run a few errands, instead he finds himself hanging around the apartment, brings the box of scrap metal out to the kitchen table and lays it out on an old newspaper while Charles works at the coffee table, the wireless playing unfamiliar music in the background. It’s been on a music station all day at his request, cutting out all of the chatter about Magneto and his government, all the things that tend to start arguments between them. His workroom has tools, but he doesn’t really need them; instead he unfurls his power from its paperwork-induced half-sleep, stretches it like a muscle he has not given a workout in a while, like a pianist flexes his fingers before playing a concerto.

Humming quietly to himself, under his breath so Charles won’t hear, he considers the metal he has - a reasonable amount of iron and aluminum, a little steel and a large chunk of mingled brass and pure copper - and picks up a block of iron, first, for the base. He has always found iron to be a very cooperative metal, if heavy, so it is easy to start shaping it into a wide, flattened cone shape, to draw it up in the middle to begin the stem. A second piece fuses well to the first, blending in like the roots of twin trees which have grown together, inseparable. The thought catches his imagination, and he smiles as he impresses the image onto the metal, imprinting it like an engraving on the surface of the metal. Fine lines appear like woodgrain, knots and scars included, and he concentrates, deepens them further -

“What are you making?” Charles asks from just behind his shoulder, fascinated, and Erik jerks, surprised out of his concentration and dropping the piece of brass he had been levitating out of the box for the next stage. It falls back among its fellows with a sonorous clang.

Charles jumps at the unexpected crash, then winces ruefully, shoving his hair back out of his face with one hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ve just never really seen you using your powers before.”

“It’s fine.” Erik kicks one of the other kitchen chairs out from under the table so that Charles can sit. “And of course you have, I use them all the time.”

“Not to make things,” Charles says, taking the seat and looking back down at Erik’s work, fingers twitching as though he wants to touch it but is afraid it might be hot. He’s wearing another of those oversized cardigans, loose knit and ragged at the edges, dangling a little long at the wrists. “What is it?”

Erik hesitates for a moment, then picks up the brass again, lifting it out of the box in an easy arc and letting it smack into his open hand. “A menorah.” The brass begins to stretch out seemingly of its own accord, breaking into smaller lumps.

“Is it Hanukkah soon?” Charles leans forward, watches the metal split and meld with fervent curiosity lighting his face from the inside, the way Erik has only ever seen genetics do before. “Oh, Erik, you do have a wonderful mutation. Is it all metals or only some?”

Perhaps he’s showing off a little, but it’s not difficult to smooth the brass to a gleaming polish, to flatten the largest lump into a gently curved disk the size of his palm, like the scale of some great metal dragon. He hands it to Charles without ceremony, settles it into the human’s grip after making sure there are no sharp edges he might cut himself on. “Next week, and yes. Some are easier than others. It’s mostly to do with how magnetic they are. The more ferrous the better.”

Charles holds up the disk to regard his own reflection, a distorted gold-tinged image of his left eye floating in the shallow curve. “Groovy,” he says, distracted, then, “Can I keep this?”

“Sure,” Erik says, taken aback, already turning back to his other lumps of brass and starting to tease them out into the arms of the menorah. “Consider it an early Hanukkah present.”

There is a long pause, and he looks up at Charles with eyebrows raised to find the other man biting his lip, fingers wrapped tight around the disk. “Should I get you something?” Charles asks, and Erik snorts, taking the trunk of the menorah and melding the first of the branches to it, encouraging the iron and brass to mingle with a quick press of force when they resist.

“You’re not Jewish,” he says, and considers the angle of the branch, bends it a little further outward to make room for the next one. “I’m not sure I should even let you have any latkes. It’s probably against the rules.”

“There are rules about latkes?” Charles teases, sounding closer, and when Erik turns to reply Charles’ face is close enough that he can feel the gust of Charles’ startled inhale on his own lips.

“Of course.” Erik’s own voice is very far away as they stare at one another, the very tips of their noses brushing against one another, colliding; there is a rising flush on Charles’ pale cheeks that he cannot help but glance at, and then it is not so very far to look at his mouth where his lips are slightly parted, wet where he has licked them and inviting beyond belief. He must have leaned in to look more closely at Erik’s powers shaping the menorah, Erik thinks, distracted. His own breath comes in on a shudder, heart skipping like a broken record. “How else are Jewish mothers to make sure their sons only marry nice Jewish girls, if they let any old goyim at the latkes?”

“Very sensible,” Charles says weakly, and he does not move, looks down at Erik’s mouth, and Erik thinks, is he -

“Have you seen this?”

They startle apart like they’ve been electrocuted, chairs scraping across the tiled floor with an almighty screech like nails on a chalkboard that has Raven slapping her hands over her ears, stood just inside the closing elevator doors and scowling at them as though it’s their fault that she is the most unwelcome visitor Erik has ever had. Her eyes flicker between them, taking in both of their expressions, clearly adding two and two together and eyebrows rising.

“What do you want?” Erik snaps, more harshly than he has ever spoken to Raven before, and she looks so affronted that he almost apologises, her mouth falling open on a retort he interrupts with, “This had better be important, Mystique. It’s my day off.”

Across the table Charles is bright red and has his face in his hands, half-turned away from Erik, and it is clear from his posture that he would rather be anywhere, anywhere but there. It answers Erik’s unspoken question, at least - Charles would rather be anywhere than here with him. Not an abortive kiss at all but an accident.

Erik has never wanted more to be somewhere, anywhere else.

“Don’t try that with me, asshole. Have you seen the list?” Raven asks again, and comes into the kitchen, thrusting a piece of paper at him until he takes it. “It’s been all over the news.”

“What list?” Erik asks, and looks.

“The Human Resistance’s Hit List,” Raven says, and points at the photographs laid out on the page, the poor print quality leaving the ink rubbing off in streaks where her finger smudges it. “You’re number one.” She looks up at her brother. “Charles.”

He does not so much as look up from his hands, voice muffled in his palms. If anything he has only gotten redder. “What is it, Raven?”

“Charles,” she says, and moves around the table to wrap her arms around him from behind, lays her cheek along his. “Stop wallowing in whatever drama you’re wallowing in and pay attention. The human resistance have issued a hit list, people they say they’re going to kill for their role in the mutant revolution. Erik’s on it. So am I. Twice.” She glances sidelong at Erik, yellow eyes filling with worry, and squeezes her brother a little tighter. “And so are you.”

 


XXXVI

“What do you mean twice?” Charles says, sitting up abruptly and staring at his sister, appalled. “You’re on a hit list? Raven, you’re pregnant!”

“I know that, Charles, I told you.” Raven’s face twists, like she can’t decide whether to laugh or cry. “It’s not like it’s public knowledge, I hardly expected them to leave me off the list.”

Charles very definitely does not look as though he wants to laugh. His face is thunderous. “But twice? And Erik, too!”

Erik picks up the list again, scans down the grainy photographs and tries not to get more ink on his hands. They’re already stained black. “I am the leader of the mutant government,” he says, getting up from his chair, filled with a sudden need to move, still holding the page, and as he stands his gaze catches on one picture halfway down. It must have been taken when Charles took up the teaching post at the university; he is clearly trying to be suitably solemn, but there is a quirk in the corner of his mouth that might be the beginnings of a smile. “Do you see now why you have to stay here? You’re number fifteen, Charles! This might as well be a direct threat - it is a direct threat, it’s a verdammtes statement of intent - ”

“Only number fifteen? I must try harder next time,” says Charles, though the tremor in his voice belies the casual words. Erik still feels a sudden burst of anger that has him struggling not to shout, not to hustle Charles off to another room, away from the windows. Seemingly unaware, Charles reaches over to take the list from Erik’s hands, tugging it from his slack grip and holding it up to take a look. The ink smears onto his hands as soon as he touches it. “Urgh, they must not have access to a very good printing press.”

Raven points at her photographs over his shoulder, leaning her head against her brother’s. “I’m number three and number twenty-two.” She has not yet let go of him, holding on as though he might disappear if she doesn’t. “Once in blue and once in pink. I don’t think they’ve put Mystique together with Raven Xavier, they think I’m two different people.”

“This is awful.” Charles drops the page onto the table like a dead rat, then looks at his hands and pulls a handkerchief from his pocket to try to wipe the greasy marks from his skin. “What kind of people issue a, a hit list? What did you do to get put on a hit list?”

“Take over the country?” Raven says, at the same time as Erik says, “Be born mutants.”

“And what on Earth did I do to get on a hit list?” Charles says, sounding genuinely offended. “I haven’t been allowed outside by you two for six months.” He meets Erik’s eyes for a brief moment, and his mouth moves as though just about to say something, but he holds it back; he flushes all over again and looks away, back down at the paper.

Raven looks at Erik with an expression of exasperation, and he cannot help but think that she knows exactly what she had walked in on, and is not impressed.

Erik’s hands clench at his sides. He would normally find it endearing that Charles does not see anything unusual or notable in his easy acceptance of mutation, but right now it is infuriating, this utter incomprehension of the danger he has put himself in by being so outspoken, as courageous a stand as it had been. He thinks of the Judenräte, handing over the people they had known every day of their lives to the Nazis, of the jüdischen Ordnungsdienst, their fellow Jews who had rousted them from their homes to take them to the trains. His voice when he speaks is lethally calm. “You’re a mutant sympathiser.” Charles looks up at that, at least. “It’s probably why Raven is on the list as your sister as well as as Mystique. Nobody is hated more than a race traitor.”

“If you actually read the damn thing instead of just looking at the pictures,” Raven says, and plucks the paper from the table, “it says here it’s about the speech you made about the South American genocides. Naturally they’re threatening dire consequences if we get involved. Though they pretty much say they’ll shoot us anyway.”

“But you’re pregnant.” Charles reaches up to take her hand in his where it hangs over his shoulder, squeezes it tightly and twists to kiss her cheek. “Surely they wouldn’t hurt a pregnant woman.”

Raven snuggles in closer, bent over Charles and tangling her fingers in his ugly cardigan, blue against rust-red. Together, they make up the only things Erik loves in this whole radiation-blasted world. “Why not?” he says, harsh and rasping through a dry throat, and turns away, pushes down the need to crush and break something, to scream and rage until the entire tin can of a building comes down around their ears, until the whole city collapses in on itself and builds a wall between them and everybody else, until he can keep them safe. “After all, they can’t have us spawning.”

“Erik!”

“What, Charles? Just because it isn’t decent you think that isn’t what they’d think?”

“Only you and Erik and Azazel know,” Raven says, before Charles can reply, voice half-muffled where she still has her cheek pressed to his. “I told you not long after I found out, and I’m not showing yet. Certainly not since I’m wearing real clothes at the moment for winter.”

Charles’ voice is softer for her as Erik wraps his hands around the edge of the kitchen counter, back still turned and trying not to crumple every pan in the apartment. “How far along are you?”

“About three, maybe four months.”

“You don’t know? Oh, honestly, you must have noticed when you didn't get your - well, you must have noticed,” Charles says, sounding a little flustered.

“With the shapeshifting and moving around of my organs and hormones and cells I've never exactly been regular, and Charles, do you really want to talk about my period?”

“Well, the first time around I didn't get much of a choice. You kept coming after me when I tried to get away.”

“I was hardly going to talk to Sharon about it, now was I? Who else was I supposed to ask about it?”

Charles’ blush is practically audible. “Preferably someone without a penis!”

“Would you both shut up?” Erik shouts, turning back around to glare at them both with a burning fury in his chest, in every vein and artery, like being set on fire from the inside. The siblings just stare at him as though he is some kind of - some kind of neanderthal, and Erik loses his temper.

The whole apartment rattles and shakes, even the walls groaning as though they are about to cave in from the force of the joists and the cast iron facade flexing and bending with Erik’s anger. The wireless falls off its shelf and crashes to the floor; anything metal and unfixed jumps and shakes as though they’re in an earthquake, and somewhere there is a ringing sound like being inside an enormous bell, getting louder.

“Stop it, Erik!” Raven is screaming, and though Charles has his hands over his ears her arms are wrapped around her belly. “Stop it!”

In the kitchen the knives on the draining board are jumping and dancing as though they might fly across the room at any moment. The living room furniture is skating across the floor, the couch and chairs and table all colliding with one another like dodgem cars.

“Calm down!” Charles yells, and gets to his feet, staggers over towards Erik despite all the metal fastenings of his clothes dragging him in the opposite direction, almost knocking him over. “Stop!” His eyes are wide, whites showing all the way around, and he is finally close enough to grab Erik’s wrist, and to force his fist open. “Erik!”

“You both have to stay here,” Erik shouts back, grabbing at Charles with rough hands. “You’ll just both have to stay here.”

Charles slaps him. There is a sudden silence as everything in the flat stops moving at once, even the clocks on the wall grinding to a halt. Behind him, Erik hears the clatter as the menorah he had half-finished falls to the floor, feels the clatter of impact in his bones, and flinches.

“You don’t get to decide that, Erik,” Charles says into the silence, does not pull away from Erik’s grasp though his grip is tight enough that it has to be bruising. “That’s not your right.”

Erik cannot look at him, and cannot look away; he settles on staring at Charles’ hand on his wrist until the human lets go, backs off as far as he can while Erik is still holding tight to his arm. “I will not let you put yourselves in danger when I can do something about it,” Erik says to Charles’ hands, and forces himself to let go.

“It’s not as though they’ll recognise me.” Raven has fallen into Charles’ abandoned chair, limp, like an abandoned doll. “If they don’t know my blonde face then they won’t be able to put any of the others to me, either. I’m not Charles, I can take care of myself.”

“Oi!”

“And I think Azazel would object,” she continues, “since he’s the father of this baby. And number five on the list, but I don’t hear you keeping him locked in your apartment. Are you trying to start a harem?”

“Don’t,” Erik says, amid the sound of the oven door crumpling in on itself, “make fun of me.”

“Erik - ”

“Once in a lifetime was enough,” he says, and goes to pick up the menorah, cradling it in careful hands. “Please stay here. I’m going to go and calm down so we can have a rational discussion about this.”

He closes the workroom door behind himself so he cannot hear them talking about him, and puts the menorah on his desk. He realises all of a sudden that he does not own any candles. He does not quite melt the whole thing back down into scrap, but he comes close.

 


XXXVII

Erik turns it over, and over, and over in his mind, that moment, does not dare to touch himself because if he does he will not be able to keep Charles from hearing how much Erik wants him.


XXXVIII

He wakes to a sound in the middle of the night, and he gets up to check on Charles, but as soon as his door creaks open the noise stops, and he cannot find anything in the apartment that might have made it.

He wonders if Charles might have been crying.


XXXIX

“Number two,” Emma says when she sees him next, looking up from the list on her desk with cool eyes. Somehow her hands are completely free of ink, and there is not one smudge on her white cashmere sweater. “I must be doing something right. If I bump you off, do I get a promotion?”

“We need to find these people, and take care of this.” Magneto does not look at the paper, does not give her the satisfaction of letting her see his weak points.

She smiles and leans back in her chair, touching her fingertips to her mouth. “No need to worry, sugar. Things are in motion. Mystique and I have it well in hand.”


XXXX

Had he a choice, after the disastrous not-kiss followed by his making a spectacle of himself over the verdammte list, Erik would have avoided coming back to the apartment until well after Charles would have given up and gone to bed, and sneaked out before he awoke; as it is, the beginning of Hanukkah is only three days afterward, and he has already informed his staff that he will be leaving before nightfall to ensure he can light the candles as the sun goes down.

He hasn’t seen Charles in three days, so the human gets up from his seat with a start, mouth opening to speak as soon as the elevator doors slide shut behind him. Seeing him makes Erik’s internal organs clench up, a giant fist squeezing the contents of his ribs together between its fingers.

“Not now, I’m running late,” Erik says, and drops his helmet and cape on the side-table with even less ceremony than usual.

“Erik - ”

“Five minutes, Charles,” and he glances out of the window to see the sun creeping under the horizon, the skyline slowly dimming and buildings turning from gleaming towers to dark silhouettes against the yellow-bruise sky. He knows it does not truly have to be at that moment, that many Jews choose to light the candles after it is already dark outside, but Erik also remembers his mother’s hurried excitement, her voice urging him to run quick, quick, into the kitchen, Liebling, and so he had laid out the candles and the matches beside the menorah that morning when he had placed it on the windowsill above the sink in the kitchen, has now only to fix the first one in place on the sharp short spikes he had fashioned in the holders and light the shamash from a match. The wax feels smooth and glossy in his hand as he moves the shamash candle to light the first night, and there is a sudden tactile memory of standing beside his parents and reciting the prayers, his father’s hands upon his shoulders.

Charles is blessedly silent while Erik stumbles over long-disused Hebrew, fumbling for the words of the Brachot and the Hanerot Halalu, tongue clumsy and awkward on syllables he has often not had the time to say over the many years since the camps, that he has not had a chance to check against anything but his fractured recollection of the time before the Nazis and Schmidt had taken his family and their traditions from him.

“I’m supposed to sing, after,” he says after a long period of silence, and stands staring at the slow dripping wax starting to trail down from the flame. The bright reflection of the menorah in the window shines out into the night as the sun finally disappears entirely, to leave the sky navy blue and lit from below by the electric city. For much of his childhood they had hidden their rituals deep inside the house, where they could not be seen from outside. “But I don’t remember the words any more.”

“Could you go to Temple, maybe, and ask?” Charles has come to stand just behind him. His head is tilted slightly to one side, curious and kind enough to let him have that quiet moment to himself. Erik can see him in the reflection in the window, colours and distance dimmed so that it looks as though they are standing together.

“Can you imagine what would happen?” Erik turns, scrapes up a smile for Charles and his ratty cardigan and flyaway hair, the pen still tucked behind his right ear that he has probably forgotten about. “If the First Mutant were to walk into the local Temple and ask to see the Rabbi?”

“Is that what they’re calling you now?” Charles smiles back, tentatively, and steps forward, narrows the gap between them so that they are both standing against the counter, and he can reach out to trace the delicate lines of engraving Erik had put into the metal of the menorah. It looks like a tree in full flower, with flourishing leaves and woodgrain along each branch. It is not traditional, but it is, if Erik can say so about something he has made, beautiful.

He is painfully aware of Charles’ proximity. Every inch of his skin is prickling, like static, waiting. “It’s silly, I know,” he says instead of moving closer, blocks out the sensation of Charles’ fingertips brushing metal he knows so intimately, “but they needed to call me something. I don’t want the position to be named after me, or to imply I’m the sole dictator. I wanted to have something other than Magneto for the next person to step into, since we’re unlikely to share powers.”

“But you are the sole dictator,” Charles says, and looks up at Erik, half his face painted gold by candlelight and the other half illuminated starkly by comparison, the electric lights hiding nothing.

“I have a government. There is a chain of command.”

A shake of the head. “But you weren’t elected, not by the public. Which by definition makes you either a dictator or a king.”

“Fine then,” and Erik is about to scowl, but instead he glances sideways at the menorah, thinks again of his mother, and instead he says, “Fine. Then I dictate that I am going to make latkes for dinner, and you can have some if you want. There’s applesauce in the refrigerator to go with them, or cheese. I would offer you sufganiyot, but I’m not a talented enough baker.”

“Suf - ”

Sufganiyot.” Erik turns to the cupboards to fetch the potatoes and oil he will need, the flour and eggs, summons a knife from the block to his hand. The handle snaps easily into his palm despite Charles’ sharp inhale of concern. The human has never quite believed that Erik is perfectly capable of grabbing the right part of the knife instead of stabbing himself. “Fried doughnuts, with sticky syrup inside. Not complicated, but I’ve never made them before, so I’ll avoid the embarrassment of trying to deep fry anything myself.”

“As you say, your Majesty,” Charles says, but his smile brushes off the sting of his words. Later he waxes enthusiastic over the latkes and ends up licking apple sauce off the back of his hand while arguing the finer points of monarchy, which Charles claims he has a special insight into, being English. Erik has long since given up protesting.

“You know,” and Charles leans forward to prop his elbow on the table, cheek leant against the curve of his palm, “I think we would have been good friends, if none of this had happened. If we’d just met normally, I mean.”

“We’re not now?” Erik says, and maybe he should be hurt, but it is what he has known all along.

Charles winces, and his expression changes, folding away the openness he had eased into the longer they’d spoken until it is hidden again, out of sight. “Well. It’s not a normal situation.” His fingers curl against his cheek, but he does not look away, meets Erik’s gaze with his own, very blue. “I don’t know how I feel about you.”

And Erik, after some consideration, says, “You have time to find out.”


XLI

“I don’t like you going out on missions at the moment.”

“I’m not a cripple,” Mystique says, crossing her legs and leaning back in her chair, glaring at him across the desk. “I’m quite capable of working.”

He’s very aware of her competence. The reports she and Azazel had brought in are sitting on the desk in front of him, marked up with his handwriting from their discussions of the humans’ weaponry, their plans and intentions. He could not have asked for a better lieutenant than Mystique, who has grown from a pampered society girl into a frighteningly efficient agent and, quite aside from his feelings about her personally, one of the people he respects most. All the more reason not to risk losing her.

“That’s not what I mean.” Magneto turns to the man at the window, who stands with his hands tucked neatly behind his back, tail calm and swaying only gently by his feet. “Azazel, what do you think?”

Azazel turns, raises an eyebrow at the two of them, as unperturbed as ever. He had been a formidable enemy, and Magneto is happy to have him as an even more formidable ally. “I think that I let Mystique make her own decisions,” he says with a dry twist to his words, glancing at his - partner? Wife? Never girlfriend - with eyes that soften the smallest amount around the edges, a barely perceptible emotion it had taken Magneto a long time to notice.

She, of course, looks like the cat who got the cream, and shoots a fond look back at him before turning her smug expression to Magneto. “See? It’s my choice.”

Magneto pinches at the bridge of his nose, is glad that the door to his office is shut, keeping this conversation private. No need for everybody to see how little respect he gets. It’s infuriating, how little she seems to have considered his reasons. “No, it’s mine,” he says, steadily, “and I won’t tell you what you can and can’t do - ”

“Ha!”

“ - but I want to be sure you’ve thought this through,” he continues, ignoring her interruption, and lays his hands down on the table, flicks his papers aside by the staples into their correct trays with a thought. “For instance, are you sure that shapeshifting isn’t going to harm the baby? I can’t ask you to go out there and risk your child, no matter how badly we need the intelligence. I can find someone else.”

“Hank McCoy says it should be fine.” Azazel leaves the window and comes to stand beside Mystique, putting his hand on her shoulder. She reaches up to cover it with her own, smiles up at him as he continues. “He said she was built the way she was built and that her body will adjust to compensate, the way it adjusts itself when she shifts. Do not trouble yourself with that.”

“Hank McCoy?”

“Wunderkind downstairs.” Mystique flaps her free hand at him impatiently. “Not important. Was that your only objection, or do we need to keep going?”

“There’s still the general risk of any mission to consider.” Magneto looks between the two of them, feels the weight of his helmet pressing down on the bones of his neck, the weight of the cape hanging from his shoulders, and wonders if it is worth his fighting her on this, if she is determined that it shouldn’t change anything. He will not change her mind if she has dug her heels in. “It’s one thing to risk your own life, but you would be risking your baby, too. And if you feel unwell - ”

“I’m quite capable of attending some pathetic little meetings and drinking terrible tea and pretending I want to kill all mutants, Erik,” Mystique says, exasperated, and gets up from her chair. “I won’t be going to battle any time soon, and the thing’s the size of my thumb at the moment, it’s not going to be a problem. Would you stop trying to be my brother and start being my comrade in arms again, please? I like that Erik a lot better.”

“Downstairs names, please,” he says, and he tries to sound severe, but instead it comes out much the way he feels - familiar and resigned. “Alright. You be the judge of what you can and can’t do. But if anything new comes up I reserve the right to veto it.”

“Thank you, your most gracious imperial highness First Mutant Magneto.” She smiles cheekily, smart-mouthed as ever, and leans back against Azazel, still holding his hand on her shoulder. They fit together, comfortable and easy, like the pieces of a puzzle, slotted into place. As much as he would like to be bitter about it, Magneto cannot find anything but more of the same - a familiar sort of resignation, and if nothing else he can at least be happy she is happy. It is nothing like his feelings for Charles, which grow more tangled by the day, until detangling them into one or the other type of emotion is all but impossible.

A quick brush of awareness against the metal hands of the clock on the wall tells him it is nearly time for his next meeting with the infrastructure committee, something about clearing new routes around nuclear zones for travel.

“Erik,” Azazel says, and Magneto is about to make his point rather more - pointedly - when the teleporter continues, “We would like to ask you to be the child’s godfather.”

His extended awareness of the paperclips on his desk collapses, before they can unfold. “… I seem to keep having to say this, but I’m famously Jewish,” Magneto says, tapping pointedly at his forearm and only just avoiding gaping at the pair of them, she smug, he inscrutable as ever. “In case it had escaped your notice.”

Mystique snorts. “Alright then, whatever the non-religious version is, or the Jewish version. Jewfather.”

“You are very offensive,” Azazel says before Magneto can reply. He does not, however, sound disapproving.

“…that aside,” Magneto manages after a moment spent debating how best to answer, “am I really who you would want raising your child? I’m flattered, but I would have thought there were other people who might do a better job.”

“You grew up to be the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world,” Mystique says. “I think you turned out okay.”

He wants to ask about Charles, but the look on her face when he starts to open his mouth is emphatic enough that instead he says, “Alright” and “It would be an honour,” and does not say “What on Earth would I do with a child?”


XLII

He asks Charles that evening if he would like to light the candles, and it’s a good excuse to reach out and guide his hands in the correct order, to step up close behind him and take hold of Charles’ hands in his. They move the shamash to the first candle and then the second, before placing it back in pride of place. Wax trails down over their joint grip, cracking when Erik adjusts his hold. Where his fingers wrap around Charles’ wrist he can feel the other man’s pulse speeding under the skin, and from the corner of his eye he can see Charles turn to look over his shoulder at him when he starts speaking, listening to the Hebrew prayers without trying to get away at all. For a moment they are close enough that Erik’s lips brush Charles’ temple as he speaks, soft and fleeting.


XLIII

By the fourth night of Hanukkah Erik has relaxed enough to think that perhaps they can get back to where they had been before - that maybe Charles has processed the implications of the list and accepted that Erik is looking out for his best interests, that they are best off with the present arrangement. Raven had had breakfast with them in the morning and commented on the menorah with curiosity, and Charles just smiled and talked to her quite happily, as if everything is fine.

It is a mistake.

After dinner Charles turns on the replacement wireless, tuning it to the BBC World Service, and Erik is not listening at first, concentrating on washing up the dishes and glancing up at the menorah from time to time, smiling to himself, when he catches “…Brazil…”

“Turn that up,” he says sharply, then before Charles can even twitch towards the dial Erik twists it rightward with a quick lash of thought, until it is almost too loud.

The Brazilian government has also sent film footage to the BBC of their prisoners, showing them in chains in prison waiting for tomorrow’s executions. There is speculation this is in response to threats from First Mutant Magneto of the nation we are still calling the United States, in which he stated there would be retribution for any further harm done to mutants. The BBC understands that the mutants are to be executed at dawn tomorrow by firing squad, in accordance with directives from the Brazilian President - ”

Gottverdammt, Scheiße, Mutterficker!” Erik throws the plate he is washing against the floor where it smashes, shrapnel peppering the kitchen cabinets and his legs, one particularly sharp shard cutting through the fabric of his trousers and slicing his calf. He barely notices the pain through the hot rage rising, pushes down the urge to break things - after the last time, not even a week gone, he does not want to lose control and miss the details. “They went ahead with it anyway! This is what I get for threatening instead of just doing. Scheiße!

“It remains to be seen how the First Mutant will respond to this, and we have not yet received a statement from his office, however as we have yet to receive any statements from the United States other than what we are explicitly sent, this is not unusual. The whole world will be holding its breath to see whether the world’s most prominent mutant will act on this in time to prevent the execution of these prisoners, whom the Brazilian government claim are dangerous and must be put down for the safety of other citizens.”

“Erik - ” Charles says, still standing paralysed by the wireless, hand paused in the air near the dial. “Erik, don’t do anything foolish - ”

He is already dressing to go back out. “I’m going to save lives, Charles,” Erik says, and smiles sharply as he pulls the helmet over his head, then leans over to blow out the candles, leaving the menorah dark on the windowsill. “I would have thought you’d approve.”

The helmet going on seems to free Charles to move again; he steps forward, once, twice, then moves to stand in front of the elevator doors, blocking Erik’s path. “An admirable goal,” and his expression is set, stubborn, arms folding across his chest, “if I weren’t sure that you intend to start another war. Can’t you just save the prisoners, and admit that most of the people in Brazil are innocent? The letter you showed me said humans were being killed along with the mutants, you can’t hold them all responsible - ”

“Charles,” Erik says, as fondly as he can, and when he reaches the elevator he puts his hands on Charles’ shoulders, grips them tightly, and then moves him out of the way. “Can’t you see that they just declared war on me? I’ll see you when I get back. Don’t wait up.”

“Don’t do this!” Charles thumps a fist against Erik’s chest, right above his heart. “God, every time I start to think you’re listening to me you do something like this and remind me - ”

“Of what, Charles?” Erik pulls the car up the shaft more quickly than it was perhaps intended to go; the doors open with a strangled chime, and he steps in, pushes Charles back when he tries to follow him in. It is more difficult when Charles is looking to pull that deadly calm down around himself, but he does it anyway, detaches himself from his feelings until everything is clear. “You’re the one who’s always telling me I’m a killer. Perhaps you should ask yourself why you like me the rest of the time instead of wondering why you don’t like me when I live down to your expectations.”

“You’re better than this!” Charles shouts as the doors close, and Erik hears his fists thump against the outside of the doors before he directs the elevator down.

Azazel is only unhappy about being disturbed for the first minute or so, until Magneto has explained the situation, after which he is ready to go immediately, stopping only to grab his sword from the hook behind the door. No questions, no fretting about the morality of killing some to save others. At that moment in time there is nobody Erik would rather have at his side.

When he puts the question to her, Emma does not hesitate, either.


XLIV

He does not think of Charles once that night. He will not.

They teleport into the courtyard of the prison, silent but not unnoticed. The prisoners have been staked out in a row across the yard, each chained hand and foot to a wooden pole hammered hard into the ground; not all are conscious, but those that are scream and jerk against their restraints, trying to get away from the three tall figures silhouetted in the sulfurous cloud, ragged and unkempt and beaten. Magneto barely even looks at them, other than to ensure with a quick glance that all are alive.

The guards behind them, on the other hand, he gives his full attention.

They yell just the same as the prisoners, and when they raise their guns Magneto just laughs and says, “Emma.”

The telepath smiles, cold and brutal, and one by one the guards shoot each other in the head, until just one is left.

“I would suggest,” Magneto says, in accented Portuguese, “that you tell your superiors I was displeased by their response.”

That one is less lucky than his comrades. He is still able to speak when they leave him behind, but he has long since stopped trying to beg.


XLV

WAR OF THE AMERICAS the newspapers proclaim the next morning, already speculating before the news of their attack on Brazil has even reached the journalists. It will be one for the evening radio, most likely. Raven brings the papers up with her when she comes upstairs the next morning, leaves them on the table for Erik to read when he comes out for breakfast.

Charles does not leave his room while Erik is still there. He does not, does not feel guilty, or sorry, or anything but angry at Charles’ delicate sensibilities and refusal to see what is necessary. He does not knock on Charles’ door, though he does stand outside it for a minute, two, just listens to the sound of Charles moving around inside, and does not unlock the door.

He could, but he doesn’t.


XLVI

Charles is still in his room, or back in his room, late that night when Erik returns from a long day of planning, though he is no longer moving around; an ear to the door yields no sound, nothing to suggest he is even there.

Quietly, slowly, Erik tugs the tumblers out of position and out of the doorframe, until they fall into place with a quiet click.

He opens the door.

Charles is curled up on the bed, back to the door and hands clenched up tight to his chest. The sheets are a tangled mess, as though he has been tossing and turning; the blanket is hanging half off the bed, does not quite cover his chest. His breathing is deep, little more than a faint hiss in and out.

It is a long time before Erik can tear himself away from the doorframe, sagged slightly against it, not stepping into the room but unable to leave. He watches Charles breathe for a while, until the human frowns in his sleep and moans, the sound half-swallowed by the pillow, and turns over, so that his face is towards Erik, scrunched up into an unhappy mask, eyes closed more tightly than necessary, as though he is trying to keep from looking.

Erik wants desperately to pull up the covers over Charles’ shoulders, to make sure he will be warm enough, but instead he steps back and pulls the door closed, pulls until he can turn the lock back to where Charles had left it, with Erik on the outside.

He leans his forehead against the door and breathes, in, out, does not open the door again, though he could. He could. He could go in there and lie down beside Charles until he wakes up, be the first thing he sees, try to explain to him again why it has to be this way, why this is the only choice Erik can make. He could roll Charles in close and hold him, as long as the human doesn’t wake up, could hold him until morning when Charles opens his eyes and hates Erik all over again -

He could. He doesn’t. He does not let himself spend the night on the floor outside Charles’ door like a dog, either.

Erik does not need Charles.

He doesn’t.


XLVII

Charles had lit the menorah, too.


XLVIII

Erik turns the wireless up to maximum volume the next morning, and eats his breakfast vindictively, crouched over a bowl of cold cereal and listening to the hosts debating his actions in Brazil, what little information has been released by their government and Erik’s media team. It’s an all-mutant show, so their opinion of him seems to be good. No doubt Charles’ British Broadcasting Corporation is not as complimentary, but who cares what humans think, anyway.

“I think you’ve made your point,” Charles says from behind him, voice sour, and Erik does not turn to watch him as he walks out of the corridor, passes the table to go to the wireless and turn it down. His hair is still tousled and tangled, though he has thrown a sweater over his pyjamas and has socks on his feet. “No need to rub my face in it.”

“One of the prisoners was six,” Erik says without looking up, and sips at his third cup of coffee, turns the page of his newspaper. “Another was thirteen. They were beaten just as badly as the adults. The little one makes flowers grow. Tell me how dangerous she is, Charles. Would you prefer I let them die?”

Outside it is still dark, and neither of them has turned on the lights, so the big room is grey and dim, details blurred in the early morning gloom. Charles makes an inarticulate noise of frustration, and comes back across the room, padding on socked feet around the furniture until he is standing at the opposite side of the table, hands resting on the back of the chair but not pulling it out to sit. His voice when he speaks is sharp. “I’m human, Erik.”

“And?”

Another rough noise, half-swallowed; Erik looks up to find Charles’ eyes blazing, knuckles clenching white on the wood, and he has never been more magnetic than he is now, more fiercely beautiful. It makes his chest ache with want, and below that a dull throb of lust, strong and vicious. “I just don’t understand why you haven’t killed me, or thrown me into some sort of camp,” Charles says, biting out each word as though they have been festering overnight. “Since you hate everyone like me and everything I stand for and everything I am. If you’re going to hate me on principle, then at least have the decency to stand on that principle.”

It takes an effort to sound detached, but Erik sighs and puts down his mug, meets Charles’ eyes as levelly as he knows how. “Do we have to do this now?”

“Why not now?” The human leans forward and the stretched-out neck of his sweater slips down to reveal the line of his collarbone, pale and smooth under the skin. Erik crushes the flush of want that tries to flare up, makes himself keep looking at Charles’ determined face, at the crinkled frownlines between his brows, the tight flat line of his mouth, unhappy. “It’s the only time I ever see you, when I catch you off guard - ”

“That’s not true.” Erik shoves a hand back through his hair to get it out of his face. “I don’t hate you, either. For God’s sake, Charles, how many times do I have to tell you? It’s different with you. I - ”

“Admit it!” Charles shouts, and his sudden rage is shocking, the change enough for Erik to get to his feet, chair legs scraping against the floor. Behind him the wireless is still babbling on mindlessly, the words swallowed up in the shout until it is only background noise to the red flush of anger on Charles’ pale face. “You only like me when it’s convenient for you, Erik, when you don’t have anything better to do. I’m not a mutant, and I can’t go anywhere, so you can just dismiss me when you don’t want me - ”

He is tired, and aching, and frayed, and Erik finally, finally snaps.

“I want you all the time,” Erik shouts back, voice raw and breaking, and immediately regrets it with a rush of self-loathing that colours his voice and makes it rough and bitter, every stitch on his body too tight and grating on his skin like wearing wire wool. He is furious, with Charles and with himself, and he wants to break something all over again, and is disgusted, because he is an animal, just like Charles is always implying with his sidelong looks and smart remarks. “I want you all the time, you ridiculous fool, and I hate myself for it, because it’s pathetic, that I need you when you’re only here because I make you stay! And I hate you, for making me feel this way, and for never noticing that you make me crazy, and for always wanting to leave me, when all I want is for you to be happy! You complete and utter bastard!” His lungs heave, trying to draw in oxygen from a room suddenly devoid of air.

Charles lets go of the chair and takes a step back, eyes wide and mouth falling open in an ‘o’ of surprise. “Erik,” Charles says, and his stare is suddenly too much, the hot red flush that is rising now to his cheeks, spreading down to his chest, across that collarbone, where Erik wants, hatefully, wonderfully, to put his mouth and bite down, then kiss, then bite again. “You - ”

“I’m going to Brazil now,” Erik says, stepping back, “for however long it takes to crush that genocidal scum into a bloody paste, and when I come back I’ll find you somewhere else to be, far away from me, and I will never have to look at you and torment myself thinking about this again. Raven is staying behind, so she will make sure you have everything you need in the meantime.” He turns his back before he can see anything more, rubs his hand across his eyes where they are suddenly dry and full of grit, as though he has been staring too long at the sun.

Then he retreats to his room. He absolutely does not run away. Charles lets him go without protest, and does not move, seemingly rooted to the spot. For once he has been startled into silence.

Erik’s duffle is still beneath the bed where he left it; he yanks it out by the zippers and lifts it onto the duvet where he won’t have to bend to pack his clothes into it, opening it with rough hands that are definitely not shaking, or if they are it is with justifiable anger. In his chest his heart is pounding at the inside of his ribs as though he has been in a fight with a bear. Erik does not own a lot, and what he does have travels well and lightly, for the most part. The suits he will have to abandon with regret, being unnecessary for battle, so he focuses his attention on ensuring he empties the drawers of his dresser, does not forget anything vital. There’s no knowing how long he will be away for, when he will be back, so best to take everything.

He reaches for his shirts and rifles through them, getting rid of any that are too tight or uncomfortable to move in when on the move. With any luck it will be a long time before he comes back, he thinks, and is nearly crippled by a wave of regret and rage that he pushes away with a snarl as he stuffs his underclothes into the foot of the duffel, along with his back-up knives and the spare bullets he had kept in a magnetised box in the bottom of his wardrobe. He doesn’t care. It was a pathetic attraction, anyway, just the latest in a series of increasingly poor decisions made by his crotch instead of his head, when all along he had known what should be done, what he should have done with Charles instead of keeping him, getting attached to him -

“Erik,” Charles says from behind him, in the doorway, and if his voice is shaky then perhaps if Erik ignores that then Charles will do him the courtesy of pretending he didn’t see Erik’s shoulders flinch when he spoke, that the razor in his hand hadn’t crumpled into a ball before he could tuck it into his bag.

He clears his throat as quietly as he can. “What do you want?” Erik keeps packing, absolutely will not turn around to look at the human who has reduced him to this - this snivelling, bleeding heart of a man.

“I had no idea,” Charles says, and his feet shuffle for a moment before taking a tentative step into the room, closer to Erik. “Do you really - ”

“It’s none of your business if I do or don’t,” Erik snaps, staring at the empty dresser, and zips up the bag with a sharp gesture that makes the metal whine as it’s forced to interlock. “I’d say it’s pretty clear that I want you to fuck off, so why won’t you just let me pretend that I haven’t made an utter fool of myself yet again by falling for yet another person who wants nothing to do with me? You and Raven can have a good laugh while I’m away.”

“Erik!” and Charles steps forward again, and puts a hand on Erik’s shoulder.

He moves without thinking, reaches up to grab at Charles’ hand and yanks hard and fast, dragging the human off his feet at the same time as Erik twists around to meet him, shoving him up against the wall hard enough to knock the breath out of him. Charles only manages a grunt of surprise before Erik kisses him, hard, pressing his mouth to Charles’ forcefully and bringing up a hand to cup the side of his face, fingers tangling in that messy hair.

It’s wet, and hot, and Erik moans before he can stop himself. Charles’ mouth has fallen open on a gasp, so that it is easy to stroke his tongue with Erik’s own, to push closer. And then suddenly Charles is pushing him away, chest heaving where they are pressed up against each other, every inhale and exhale moving him against Erik’s body and leaving Erik hard and aching.

“Don’t touch me,” Erik says after a long, silent moment where they both stare at each other, wide-eyed, “unless you want me to follow through. I don’t play games.”

“Neither do I.” Charles’ eyes flicker down to Erik’s mouth, and Erik kisses him again, tightens his grip on Charles’ hair and presses him up against the wall.

“Don’t make fun of me,” he mutters into Charles’ ear when he pulls away again, one of his hands slipping down to the centre of Charles’ chest, where he can feel the rapid drumbeat of his heart right through that thick sweater of his. “You hate me. You make a point of telling me so on a regular basis.”

Charles shudders under the touch and, unbelievably, presses up into it, brings his own hand up to cradle Erik’s cheek in turn, the other hand wrapped around his shoulder to pull him closer. “I don’t hate you.” He shudders when Erik’s teeth close warningly around the lobe of his ear, breath stuttering in his throat before he continues, “I hate what you do, but you’re a better person than this, Erik, I can see it - ”

“I’m leaving today,” Erik says, directly into Charles’ ear, elicits a shudder that presses them together from chest to hip, until Erik’s hardening cock is pressed against the hollow of Charles’ hipbone and he cannot help but thrust against him through his clothes with a feeling like an electric jolt to the spine, gritting his teeth against a moan. “I’m leaving today, Charles, to go to war again. I will probably kill a lot of people. And while I’m sorry for the necessity, I’m not sorry about doing what is necessary. I won’t apologise to you for that.”

Charles shifts again, and this time Erik cannot stop himself from moaning, because Charles is hard, too, and when he speaks again the human’s voice is broken, shattered, shaken by need and surrender, both. “I know,” Charles says, and kisses Erik back.

They fumble at each other’s clothes with an urgency Erik cannot control, dragging Charles’ pyjama top and sweater off together in one big tangle of cloth that he flings away viciously to get at the skin underneath. His mouth on Charles’ chest earns him a moan and then a gasp when Erik’s tongue licks over his tight brown nipples, when he bites down gently and tugs at them until they harden into nubs that he can stroke and rub with his fingers when he comes back up for a kiss. His own shirt is lost somewhere between Charles’ hands running up the broad plane of Erik’s back and when they tumble onto the unmade bed, right-angled to the bedframe and too uncoordinated to care.

Under his touch Charles is pale and freckled and strong, dragging Erik’s head back up to his so that they can kiss again open-mouthed, even as his clever fingers are working Erik’s belt open and worming their way into his trousers.

“No,” Erik says, and grabs Charles’ wrists so that he can pin them to the mattress above his head and hold him there, caught beneath his larger body and unable to pull free.

Charles stares up at him blankly for a long moment, and then starts to thrash against his hold, but Erik has him trapped. “What?”

“Tell me you want me,” Erik says, raw and demanding. He moves to straddle Charles’ thighs, pinning them down as well to stop him writhing. “Say it.”

“For heaven’s sake, Erik, isn’t it fairly obvious?” Charles is beautiful like this, incensed and flushed, with Erik’s bitemarks down the side of his neck and chest and the front of his pyjama bottoms tented out by his erection, hips twitching forward on each breath and looking for something to thrust against.

Erik leans down, careful not to touch him, and kisses Charles again, licks at his lips until the human lets him in and his eyes slide closed, pressing his head upward as far as he can when held down, hungry. “I want you to say it,” Erik says, and kisses the corner of Charles’ eye, the warm throb of his temple, the shell-like curve of his ear. “Do you?”

Charles shudders underneath him, and when he speaks his eyes blaze. “Yes, Erik, I want you, now touch me, please, oh - ”

Erik smothers the sound Charles makes with another kiss as he runs a hand down that heaving chest and in under the loose drawstring of his pyjama pants, the elastic dragging against the back of his knuckles as he wraps his hand around Charles’ cock.

It’s thick and long and already messy with precome at the head, and stroking it is enough to get Charles to pull away from the kiss and groan, deep and low. His hips shove up as far as they can into Erik’s grip, as his head tips back to bare the long line of his throat where it is still unshaved and peppered with stubble. Erik moves his hand again and starts stroking him off in earnest, pressing a kiss to the hollow between his collarbones to feel the vibrations of Charles’ moan against his lips. Looking back along the line of his body to the movement of his own hand under Charles’ pyjamas is enough to make his own cock throb against the hard zipper of his pants, but he ignores it, too caught up in what he’s doing to Charles.

The human tugs against his hold again, insistent now and trying to force his wrists out of Erik’s grip, but he can’t get loose. “Let me touch you,” he says, then whines as Erik lets go of his cock, letting it slap wetly against his belly. “Oh God, don’t stop - ”

“No.” Erik drags down his own trousers with a shaking, come-smeared hand before doing the same to the pyjama bottoms, pulling them down Charles’ thighs so that he can see the thick hard shaft of Charles’ cock as it thrusts against the empty air, desperate for sensation. “This is perfect,” and he reaches down again to wrap his hand back around the red and swollen head, tugging on Charles’ foreskin and making him writhe.

“Erik, I’m going to - ”

“Do it - ” He moves his hand to stroke Charles once, twice, three more times before the other man cries out and comes, back arching against the bed and his come spilling onto his pale stomach and spattering onto Erik’s chest.

“I love you,” Erik says, and presses Charles’ limp and gasping body down into the mattress so he can rut against the hollow of his hipbone until he comes himself, groaning and shaking, his own come jerked out across the mess of Charles’ in a hot rush of ecstasy. His hand loosens around Charles’ wrists and he collapses to the mattress, only just remembering to roll off after a long moment pressed together, skin to skin, Charles’ breath moist and quivering against his cheek.

They lie there side by side while their heartbeats slow, closer than Erik had ever thought Charles would let him be, his forehead pressed to Charles’ cheek and warm lethargy weighing down his limbs.

“Erik,” Charles says eventually, rolling onto his side so that they are face to face, forehead to forehead. This close, his eyes are a myriad of blues, flecked with pale ice and deep ocean colour. “Erik, don’t go. Stay here, with me.”

And as quickly as that the languorous pleasure is seeping away, in favour of cold reality. “I have to.” Erik’s hand clenches where it has fallen on Charles’ waist, caressing the flat line of his stomach and trailing through their mixed fluids where they are starting to dry. He leans in for a kiss and Charles brings up a hand to push him away, pressing against his chest where the scars are concentrated and holding him back. “Charles, I have to go. This,” he gestures between them, at their near-naked bodies so close and marked, “doesn’t change that. Did you think it would?” There is a horrible moment of sudden certainty that Charles had thought exactly that, that the whole thing - that they had sex, he lets himself think, wondering and horrified - was about trying to stop Erik from leaving, trying to control him.

“I hoped,” Charles says simply, and he reaches up to stroke Erik’s hair back from his face, draws his thumb along Erik’s cheekbone and leans in to kiss the place he’s touched, then Erik’s mouth, where he lingers, more softly than they had kissed before. His face when he pulls back is sad. “But I know you too well for that, I’m afraid. No, I knew it wouldn’t change your mind.”

Erik sighs, and when Charles does not object, pulls him in close, so that their bodies are aligned, legs tangled together comfortably. “You have to stay here.” He glances over at the duffel bag, which has fallen onto the floor, spilling its contents across the carpet. “I have to go, and I won’t be back for a while. You stay here and be safe.”

“Erik - ”

“If anyone hurt you,” he says very seriously and calmly, pulling out of Charles’ grip at last and sitting upright on the bed, ready to stand, “I would kill them, and everyone around them, and everyone they have ever loved. And nobody would stop me. So stay here and keep them safe, if you won’t do it for yourself, or for me.”

“God.” Charles blanches, freckles standing out like exclamation marks on his face where the colour has drained from his skin. “Erik, you don’t mean that.”

“I love you,” Erik says, and bends down to kiss him once more, holds the side of his face gently as he pulls back, lips still tingling and wanting nothing more than to lie back down beside him. “Now that I have you, I won’t let anybody hurt you.”

“You’ll never let me go,” Charles says, and the way he says it it sounds like a bad thing.

“I love you,” Erik says again, and leaves.


XLIX

He spends two months in South America. By the end of the first week he has played back that morning with Charles so often it has become ragged around the edges, like a well-loved shirt, or a record listened to so many times that the needle has worn through the vinyl.

Chapter Text

I

 

It’s a hot and sweaty war, fought in running battles and sudden strikes. They sleep in tents and bedrolls under the stars, or in abandoned sheds or high-rise office blocks or sometimes in the jungle, amongst the trees and the calls of strange birds and the rustles of animals they cannot see.

After the first week Magneto leads a raid into one of the biggest steel refineries in São Paulo, after which he has as much metal as he could ever need. It is less malleable after the first few minutes, where the steel is still liquid and hot as hell, and flings itself about with unholy ease at his slightest direction. He makes a note to experiment with temperature at some point in the future, when he is not in the middle of conquering a continent.

It would be easier if not for the vast variations in terrain, the tall thin-aired mountains of Peru and the vast salt plains of Bolivia, the thick, impassable rainforest that straddles the land and allows the humans to attack them guerrilla-style, when their head-on tactics are defeated by the mutants’ sheer power. As it is they do what mutants do best and adapt to their circumstances, find ways to work with what they have and where they are, and slowly, by attrition, they begin to gain ground.

Magneto teaches himself to levitate instead of just slowing his fall somewhere in the depths of the forest, rising above the treeline to look for miles at the country all around, endless and vastly, deeply green. Sometimes at night he practises, feels the ground fall away from beneath his feet so that he can float, quiet and serene in the darkness under the stars, and look north, towards New York, and Charles.

 

 


II

 

Above all else, he hopes that Charles will still be there when he gets back.

 

 


III

 

The idea of him being gone keeps Erik up at nights, sometimes, when he is not too exhausted from fighting to move.

 

 


IV

 

Christmas comes and goes. Erik writes a letter to Mystique asking her to get Charles a gift from him, to make sure there is a tree, if Charles wants one, and decorations for it, and anything else they need. Having never celebrated Christmas himself, Erik is not quite sure what it involves, so he hopes he hasn’t missed anything vital.

He spends Christmas day throwing tanks across Guanabara Bay at the European warships that have come to support the South Americans against the invading mutants, and deflecting missiles into government buildings. If he is particularly fierce that day, grinning mirthlessly at the explosions and controlling vast sheets of metal in long strips like razor-sharp ribbons that cut through attacking forces like hot knives through butter, nobody dares to call him on it.

 

 


V

 

January is a blur of fighting, of new mutants coming from the countryside, from the cities, joining them in droves; of humans, too, approaching them and asking for protection, for safety. Magneto is more confused by this than pleased, but he hands over responsibility for them to some of his less militant lieutenants, has them moved away from the battles where they will at least not get in the way. He does not keep them, but he will not kill them for wanting help and for daring to ask it from mutants instead of from their own people. Charles would be pleased.

They join up with Magma somewhere in the Amazon river basin, and she guides them to where her ragged band of fighters has been harassing the human soldiers, where Magneto and his division of their army can amplify her efforts and make it a rout, drive the humans back, ever back and south.

January is long and bloody. He has spent winters in the Southern Hemisphere before, but it does not stop it from feeling like some vivid and surreal dream, hot and stifling where he knows New York is suffering through snowstorms and cutting winds, that Charles is sitting in his windowseat and looking out on a white world, on grey skies and soot-laced sleet.

 

 


VI

 

In February one country folds after another, like a house of cards, collapsing in their turns as though the fall of their neighbours has stolen the heart from them, like drunks leaning against one another who cannot keep their own feet without the equal and opposite force of their buddies pressing the other way. Brazil is the last to go, largest and most stubborn, their leaders clinging to their power as long as they can.

Magneto stands on the steps of their National Congress Building and makes a speech to the news crews he has given permission to come into the country now that it is theirs, talks about the victory of equality and freedom over genocide, does not try to hide his own cuts and bruises, though he has allowed the medical branch to ease the tired circles under his eyes, to give him the energy to appear vital and strong despite his injuries, so that he is beaten but unbowed, bloodied by determination and passion. When asked about European support for the defeated South Americans he smiles coldly and declines to comment. The flashbulbs going off in his face are like a field of stars, blinding and painful, but he does not let himself squint into them.

He puts Magma and Sunspot in charge of the continent, leaves them a sufficient number of troops - mostly local, but with some of his own trained team to help them get things in order - and goes home in a blazing fanfare, travels with his victorious soldiers in the ships they have taken from their enemies, bypassing the nuclear ruin of Mexico and Cuba in a wide arc that takes them far out to sea. He sleeps better than he has for two months, cocooned in metal and dreaming of New York.

 

 


VII

 

There is another speech to be made on the docks when they arrive, stood on the podium before the press as behind him the mutant soldiers disembark, hollering and calling out for their loved ones. They try to stay in as orderly a procession as they can, given the wide variations in sizes and shapes, making allowances for the very big and the very small, the spiny and the acidic among them, for those too sensitive to be touched. Magneto does his best to concentrate, to keep his eyes on the crowd and not to blink too often or pause too long, but it is very difficult when even from here he can feel the familiar metal of the Cast Iron District and their building, attuned to his power and answering the attention he gives it like a cat purring, its magnetism pushing back against his touch.

There is snow slowly drifting down from the thick cover of clouds. It is getting deeper across the surface of the podium as the wind pushes it into thick drifts wherever it is undisturbed long enough. The press is standing in an area that has been crushed flat beneath their feet, muddied and rough with footprints.

“Magneto,” one of the journalists calls out, a thin-haired man towards the front with a notebook clutched in one hand and a pencil in the other, watery-eyed and nervous. “What do you see as your next move, now that you’ve gained control of two continents? Do you have plans for the rest of the world?”

“It depends,” Magneto says with a smile the man does not seem to find reassuring, “on how they treat their mutant citizens. Those who uphold the decent ‘human’ values this nation was founded on and failed to deliver have nothing to fear.”

“Magneto!”

“Magneto! A question - ”

He hates this part of being in charge. If he could avoid the media entirely, he would. “There is work I need to do now that I am back in the United States,” he says, holding up his hands to quiet those who are still shouting. “Please contact my office with any further questions and let me get back to my job.”

“Sir!” More flashbulbs; he fends them off this time with a flick of the fingers at those closest, jerking their cameras upwards before they can blind him so that their light deflects harmlessly into the sky. The cameramen scramble to keep hold of their equipment, gloved hands clumsy and cursing as they fumble. It gives him enough of a reprieve that he is relatively unimpeded as he takes the steps down toward where Azazel is waiting with arms folded across his heavy winter greatcoat, pitch black against that scarlet skin and with a high slit at the back for his tail.

The teleporter smiles and clasps Magneto’s shoulder in a strong grip. “Time to go, comrade.”

“Before we’re killed in a stampede,” Magneto says, mouth quirking upward; there is a loud rushing sound that lasts less than a second, followed by the feeling of his ears popping, and a moment later they are standing in the area of the executive floor reserved for Azazel’s arrivals, red and black smoke dissipating around them through the open vent in the wall. “Thank you.” He goes to brush the last few snowflakes from his shoulders, but it must be hot wherever Azazel’s teleportation takes them between, because most of it has melted in transit, leaving only a faint dampness behind.

“It is nothing.” Azazel lets go of Magneto’s shoulder only to slap him on the back, cheerful in a way that is difficult to read from his face. “It is good to be home more permanently, after so much back-and-forth. Mystique will be pleased to see you as well, my friend.”

Magneto nods, pushing the cape back over his shoulders now that they are inside and it is warmer. “I’ll come see her later. First I want to go upstairs, have a shower, and eat something that didn’t come out of a can and that I didn’t kill myself.”

The other man grins sharply, and says, “Then my apologies are due.”

“Why - ?”

There is a sound of feet coming around the corner, and there is just enough time for him to register that it is the slap of bare feet on floorboards before Mystique has flung herself into the room, panting as though she has been running and swaddled in several layers of wool, scarves and sweaters and an enormous cardigan over the top of it all that looks as though it might belong to Charles. She pauses just inside the doorway to stare at him, uncharacteristically silent, and he thinks for a moment that maybe she’s angry with him. Then, suddenly, she breaks into a radiant smile, and dashes forward to fling her arms around his neck, dragging him downward into her grip. “Erik!”

He puts his arms around her back in return, embraces her awkwardly while glancing sidelong at Azazel to judge his reaction. The teleporter just shrugs, leaning back against the wall with an indulgent expression, so Erik looks down at Mystique and lets himself smile in return. “I assume you missed me, then?”

“Of course not, asshole.” She pulls back to meet his eyes, arms still resting on the back of his neck where she has not yet let go. “You were only gone for two months. I barely noticed you weren’t here.”

“Liar,” he says fondly, and reaches up to disentangle them, wincing as she takes back her own weight. “Were you always this heavy?”

“Asshole,” she says again, and smacks his arm, but she’s laughing, putting her hands on her hips and shoving back some of the layers so that he can see the bulging line of her belly. It’s shockingly swollen, stretching the sweater out taut and round in front of her; there will be no hiding this by shifting. “I’m six months pregnant, have some respect!”

She’s beautiful, he thinks, as Azazel comes around to wrap an arm around her waist and kiss her hair, tail coming up to coil coyly around her wrist. The thought doesn’t hold the same wistfulness it once did. There is a subtle glow about her face when she smiles, something soft and comfortable, as though she has a secret she is keeping for the pleasure of it.

“Sorry,” he says wryly, and she cocks her head to one side, inspecting him with a quick flick of eyes from head to toe.

“No fat jokes? You should go lie down.” She jerks her head toward the corridor, chin up and a stubborn set coming to her mouth as though she expects him to disagree. “Before you fall down. Didn’t you sleep in Brazil? Honestly, I could set up camp in the bags under your eyes.”

He shrugs, tries to keep his expression blank, though he knows he fails. “You look fine. Good. Pregnant.”

Mystique laughs, and grabs his arm again to start dragging him toward the elevators. “Nice to see your razor-sharp mind is still rattling around in there.” Her stomach brushes up against his side as she pulls him along, firm and full, and even through all those sweaters he feels a sudden bump, is taken aback all over again to think that there is a baby in there, and it may have just kicked him. She rubs at her back, wincing. “Ow, get off my kidneys, baby! I need those and so do you.”

“Are you well? Really,” he asks as they near the elevators, as she reaches into her pocket and pulls out the specially magnetised key that he gave her for the private elevator, which she slides into the keyhole and turns with a sharp twist. Far away there is a deep rumbling sound as the car begins to move in the shaft, coming down from upstairs.

She glances behind them and then leans in and says, “Look, me and Charles have had a fight. We’re not really talking at the moment. So if he’s a pissy little bitch don’t be surprised, alright? He needs to grow up and grow a pair.”

It’s not what he was expecting; Erik jerks to look behind them as well, but Azazel hasn’t followed them. They’re the only people in the corridor, and he turns back to Raven with a frown on his face, thoroughly distracted from her pregnancy. “What? Why?”

The elevator car arrives with a ding, and the doors slide open, but neither of them get in. “Ask him yourself, I give up,” Raven says, and pushes him toward the elevator, folds her arms across her chest once she has let go and tucks them into the crease between her breasts and her pregnant belly. The line of her mouth is tight and flat, but her eyes are sad, he thinks, as he reaches out to hold the doors open. “Go on,” she says, and turns so that the sweep of her hair hides her expression. “He’ll want to see you.”

She walks away when he turns the internal key mechanism for the penthouse apartment, her head bowed forward and arms still folded, and Erik has to wonder what has happened while he was gone.

 

 


VIII

 

The apartment is filled with noise.

Erik winces as he steps out into the living area, pulling off his helmet and glancing around; the wireless is on at full volume, talking away to itself, and there are rattling pans on each hob of the stove, their lids jumping and dancing as whatever is inside them boils up and knocks them askew. There is a fire crackling and popping in the fireplace, bone dry wood bending and snapping in the heat until it sounds like gunshots going off. And there is Charles, standing at the island in the kitchen and singing to himself as he stirs something, spoon clattering against the inside of the bowl. It’s cacophonous, all of it put together enough to make anyone need to cover their ears, surely. No wonder Charles hasn’t even noticed Erik is here – there’s no chance he could have heard him come in.

It’s as though he’s been away forever, and no time at all; he just stands and looks, something that had been clenched inside him loosening. The sight of Charles after so long is like being punched in the gut, mixed with a deep visceral twist as he traces the strong lines of Charles’ face, the messy sweep of his hair where he must have cut it since Erik left, a little ragged around the edges; he admires the broadness of Charles’ shoulders all over again, the dexterity of his hands as he moves about, adding things to whatever it is he’s making. Even the concentration on his face is dear, the absolute focus that lights him up from inside, that makes his intelligence clear without his saying a word. Erik wants that focus for himself, suddenly, to have Charles’ attention turned away from the bowl and onto him.

He glances sidelong at the wireless and turns it off in the middle of a word, cutting off the sound at the source. Its sudden absence is almost as good as silence.

Charles frowns, then looks up and sees Erik stood there, and jerks like he’s been shot, lips parting on a question that doesn’t quite escape. The surprise on his face is dear, too, after months of absence.

“Hi,” Erik says quietly, and puts his helmet down on the stand where it belongs.

“Hi,” Charles says, and puts his spoon down on the countertop before turning and walking away. He shuts his bedroom door behind him with a loud bang. It’s not quite the homecoming Erik was hoping for.

He comes back two minutes later, while Erik is turning down the heat on the hobs, and fidgets just at the edge of Erik’s peripheral vision, more a sense of presence than a shape. Erik can hear him beginning to say something several times, but each time nothing comes out but the first sound, a series of disconnected single consonants and vowels that he cannot string together into meaning.

“Have you forgotten how to speak?” Erik asks eventually, looking back at Charles over his shoulder. “Raven said you two weren’t talking.” He keeps his voice slow and steady, the way he would if he were coaxing a wild animal. Clearly there is something wrong, so he does not reach for Charles the way he wants to, does not put out a hand to touch and pull the other man close, run his fingers through that rough-cut hair and use it to hold Charles close for a kiss.

“You were away a long time.” After another long pause Charles steps past Erik to take the pans off the heat entirely, lifting the lids to look inside and check on his food. It smells like something rich and thick, tomatoes maybe, though they’re hard to come by nowadays. The back of his neck is pale where the hair no longer covers it, oddly naked and vulnerable.

Erik sighs, and reaches up to undo the clasp of his cape, drapes the fabric across the back of the closest chair. Leaning against the countertop is an exercise in finding the spaces between hurts. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be, if that’s any consolation.”

“Not really,” and Charles turns to stare at him as though Erik’s face might somehow give him answers to questions he hasn’t asked. “You tell me you love me, we fall into bed together after six months of arguing, and then you piss off for two months to the rainforest leaving me locked in your apartment with only the wireless for company and nothing to do but count my digits and wonder if you’ve kept all of yours.”

His eyes catch on the bruises and his expression softens a little around the edges.

Gingerly Charles reaches for Erik’s cheek, runs his fingers across the heavy bruise that hugs the bone, sweeps them up to the shallow cut at Erik’s temple. His fingertips are very gentle, the touch barely there, but it makes Erik’s eyes slide shut, and he leans into the touch, hissing when the pressure makes it ache all over again. “You asshole,” Charles says, and removes his hand when Erik brings up his own hand to catch at his fingers, tugs it free of Erik’s grip with a tight twist of his mouth. “No. I’m not going to play this game with you.”

“What game?” Erik asks, lets Charles turn away again instead of pushing it, and after a moment’s consideration he reaches over to the bowl Charles had been stirring, tips it slightly towards himself so that he can see what’s inside. It looks like some sort of batter, and he is about to go for a taste when Charles slaps his hand away, grabbing the bowl and putting it out of his reach.

“Don’t eat that, there’s raw egg in there. You’ll give yourself salmonella.”

Erik smiles. “I’ve eaten much worse in my time.”

Charles scowls at him and moves the spoon out of Erik’s reach, too - wooden, alas. “And if you get sick who’s going to get it in the neck from your minions when they come up here to find you? They won’t be lynching you.”

“Nobody’s going to be lynching anybody,” Erik says sharply, and this time when Charles passes close he catches him by the arm and reels him in, tugs him in close to his body with an arm around the human’s shoulders so that Charles’ back is pressed to Erik’s front. He’s warm and fits perfectly into the curve of Erik’s body, his hands coming up to grab at Erik’s forearm, and before Erik can react Charles has dug his thumbs into one of the deep bruises there, rips the arm away and shoves himself free with fury on his face when he is far enough away to be out of arm’s length.

“Don’t you dare just grab at me like that,” Charles snaps, jabbing a pointed finger in Erik’s face and trembling with anger. “Did you think you could just waltz back in here like you’ve never been away? Bad enough you’re keeping me here against my will, but then you just leave me here on my own for months. I believe solitary confinement is considered a special punishment for bad behaviour. Well, it’s effective, I can tell you that.”

“Charles - ”

“My own sister is keeping me locked up here, like the dolls she got tired of when she was little - shut up in the cupboard and forgotten about except for when they’re wanted. Humans - and I’m including mutants in this, let’s not quibble about genetics for once - are social animals, Erik! So don’t you dare just pick me up again like an old doll. Don’t you dare.” Charles’ hands are fists at his sides, knuckles clenched tight and white so that they strain at the skin, like they might pop out at any moment. Erik notices with sudden horror that Charles’ eyes are wet, but before they can spill over the human wipes them with the cuff of his shirt, glares at him after as though daring Erik to comment.

“I’m sorry.” Erik does not reach for him, this time.

“Fuck you,” Charles says, and this time his bedroom door is very quiet when he closes it behind himself, clicking shut with a near-silent snick as the lock turns. There is a scraping sound as Charles wedges something under the doorhandle, but whatever it is it has no metal in it.

Clever Charles, Erik thinks, slumping against the countertop and rubbing a hand over his mouth, scratching his nails against the grain of stubble just coming through the skin. After a few minutes he forces himself to stand, and dips a finger into the batter Charles has left on the side, scooping up a little blob of it on his finger and sticking it into his mouth. It’s grainy with sugar, and sweet, and poor consolation for his cold homecoming.

When it becomes clear Charles isn’t going to come charging back out after a few minutes again, Erik decides to take that shower, leaves his cape where it is and strips on the way to the bathroom, dumps his clothes on the floor inside the door and climbs in to scrub himself clean before the water has even heated up. Though he’s washed several times since the fighting ended, it still feels like rinsing South America away, like he’s washing away two months’ worth of dirt and blood and sweat.

While it leaves his skin clean, he cannot keep himself from leaning his forehead against the cool tiles and cursing himself in every language he knows, trying to keep his own hands from curling up into violent shapes, because of course Charles would be unhappy. Of course it was the wrong thing to do, even if it was the only thing to do. It doesn’t matter that he had spent every night thinking about Charles, that he had fought as fiercely as he could to end things quickly so that he could come back here, the only place he has ever wanted to return to that was still standing.

When he comes out of the bathroom in his towel, wondering what clothes he has left here to change into - his bag is due to come up from the ship sometime later - Charles is sat on the floor outside the door, knees tucked up to his chest and elbows resting on top, head leant back against the wall. His eyes are closed, but he opens them when Erik stops beside him, looks up at him and sighs. He does not smile, but he isn’t scowling, either. “So I had a fight with Raven,” he says, and Erik decides to take it as a peace offering, stands and waits instead of moving to get dressed, though the chilly air is making his skin pebble up with goosebumps all over his body. “Apparently two of the people on the list were shot,” Charles continues, voice carefully empty of emotion. “Long-range rifle shots. They haven’t caught the shooter yet. Raven says they probably won’t, if they haven’t by now. So she got a bit upset with me when I asked her to let me go again instead of buying me a Christmas present.”

Erik swallows down the urge to protest. He hadn’t truly thought sex would make Charles want to stay, but to have it confirmed is just twisting the knife.

“I guess what I’m really saying is maybe you two have a point.” The expression on the other man’s face is trying to be a smile, but failing miserably. Charles laughs, then, putting a hand over his eyes and pinching at the bridge of his nose, rubbing the corners of his eyes where wetness is still trying to escape. “Even if I can’t stand it. God, Erik, how did I end up here? All I wanted was for people to realise what idiots they were being - you included - and all it did was land me up to my neck in trouble. My life is ridiculous. Here I am, a - a stuffy academic, locked up for my own safekeeping in the apartment of the man who literally rules two continents. I mean - ” he pauses, lifts the hand away from his eyes and gestures at Erik, a sweep up and down like a sales girl showing off a product, “ - look at you, and then look at me.”

“What am I looking at, exactly?” Erik asks, voice gravelled and rough, and Charles shivers, shifting against the wall, knees parting as he resettles, restless.

“Oh, honestly.” Another gesture, sharper this time, and then Charles does the same to himself, a quick wave passing himself by as quickly as possible. “You, tall, lean, handsome, rippling with hard-earned muscle, gone in less than a year from travelling Nazi hunter to leader of two out of seven continents, and me, sitting on the floor in my cardigan, control of my life taken from me for my own good by my little sister and a stranger, soft around the middle and clearly soft in the head, too - ”

“Charles,” Erik says, and drops to his knees on the floorboards in front of this stupid, wonderful idiot, reaches out to clasp Charles’ face in both hands - waiting to be batted away, but this time Charles lets him touch, though his expression is still turned in on itself with self-loathing and misery. “Charles, you are soft in the head,” and before the other man can complain Erik leans forward and kisses him, presses his mouth to Charles’ where his lips are parted on a protest and strokes his thumbs along Charles’ cheekbones, flicks his tongue along that plush lower lip and in, where Charles tastes like cake batter, too, gritty and sugary and an utter hypocrite, the bastard. “Going to give me salmonella?” he mutters against Charles’ mouth, and kisses him again, Charles pushing back against him and tangling his own fingers in Erik’s wet hair, tugging on it in retribution and making Erik snort even as he nips at Charles’ tongue.

They part for breath together, foreheads leant in against one another, and Charles’ chest is heaving with almost-sobs. He has not yet let go, but then neither has Erik. “I’m sorry I left you so long,” Erik says, and presses closer, shifts so that they are tangled up in one another against the wall, on the floor of the corridor outside their bathroom. God alone knows where the towel has ended up. “I’ll try to get you more to do.”

“Thank you.” One of Charles’ hands slips down to cradle the back of Erik’s neck, the other shifting to press against the beat of his heart, fast and heavy in his chest. “I missed you,” Charles says, turns his head enough to lean his forehead against the angle of Erik’s jaw, breathes out warm moist air over the skin there. Erik just tightens his hold a little more, and buries his nose in the space behind Charles’ ear where the skin is soft and untouched.

 

 


IX

 

When Erik goes to bed that night he does not ask Charles if he will be coming too, just goes through his routine as he always has, climbs under the covers unclothed and lays down on his back, arms at his sides, stares at the ceiling for a few moments before closing his eyes to listen to the sound of Charles pottering about in the bathroom. He can hear the sound of water splashing, the abrasive scrub of the toothbrush, then the toilet, flushing; then silence.

It does not take him long to fall asleep, too used to taking naps wherever he can find safety enough and opportunity, but he wakes up some indeterminate time later when the mattress dips and Charles slips under the covers beside him. Charles is silent, tucking his feet in against Erik’s and shuffling over to lie against his side, tentatively draping one arm across Erik’s chest as though he expects to be rebuffed. Huffing out a fond breath, Erik shifts enough to slide his arm under Charles’ neck and rolls them just a little until they slot together more comfortably, brings his other arm around to rest his hand on Charles’ side, and relaxes again, reaches out with his metal sense to test the doors and windows the way he always does, and drifts back towards sleep.

“Erik.”

“Mmm.”

“There’s something under - oh, it’s a knife.”

“Mmm. It’s okay, you can move it if it’s uncomfortable.”

“…alright.”

They breathe one another’s air, recirculate it between them, a sound like sleeping in a seashell. Erik does not dream.

 

 


X

 

“Say cheese!”

There is a loud whirring noise, followed immediately by a loud thud and a screech; Erik has already called the second knife to his hand when he opens his eyes to find Raven pressing herself flat against the wall opposite, eyes wide and terrified and the first knife quivering next to her ear where its blade is buried an inch into the plaster, the quiet hum of its vibration slowly dying away. Charles jerks so hard that he falls out of the bed on the opposite side, helped along by a shove from Erik before he had known who was in there; there is a harsh wheezing coming from the floor where the breath must have been knocked out of him on landing.

“What - verdammt, Raven, what are you doing?” Erik snaps, lowering his hand and slamming the second knife back down on the bedside table. “I could have killed you!”

“Charles got me a camera for Christmas,” she says in a distant voice, raising her shaking left hand with the offending device still clutched in it, a square of film already rolling its way out of the front. “Jesus, Erik, you could have killed me, you psycho!”

“What,” Erik grits out between his teeth, fighting the urge to throw the other knife after all, “are you doing.In my bedroom.Raven.”

“I came up for breakfast.” Some of the colour is coming back to her cheeks, as well as the expression in her voice, and she steps carefully sideways away from the knife, giving it a dirty look. “Neither of you were up, so I waited, but it got to seven o’clock which is much later than usual, so I came to check on you. And Charles’ door was open, but he wasn’t in there, so I was coming to ask you if you knew where he was and/or if you’d killed and eaten him. You two just looked so cute, I couldn’t resist. And then you tried to kill me, Erik, what the hell!”

Charles’ face when he sits up on the other side of the bed is flaming red, but he sounds exasperated when he leans his elbows on the edge of the mattress and says, “How could you possibly think waking up someone like Erik with an unexpected noise was a good idea? Honestly, Raven! Quite aside from the invasion of privacy - ”

Erik’s eyes flick back down to the photograph, which is slowly developing from black into a blurred but clearing image. “I’ll take that.” There are enough metallic elements in the development chemicals that he can yank the glossy paper from the camera before Raven can protest, pulling it over to land in his lap where Charles picks it up. Erik glares at their intruder, who is still looking indignant but also somewhat shamefaced. “Now get out before you see more of me than you want to,” and he grasps the edge of the blanket in both hands, clearly preparing to throw it off.

“Alright, alright! Keep your shirt on,” Raven says, glancing pointedly at Erik’s bare chest, and tosses her hair dramatically before turning on her heel and disappearing back down the hall.

“Oh, God.”

Charles is still scarlet, covering his eyes with one hand and shoulders shaking with embarrassed laughter. He leans on the edge of the mattress as though he usually spends his time sat on the floor, a sheet half-tangled around his legs where he dragged it with him when he fell - thankfully leaving Erik the blanket and his dignity. “At least she’s talking to you again,” Erik offers crossly, and gets up to pull his knife from the wall, tossing it up into the air and catching it again by the blade. “She’s lucky this didn’t go through her throat.”

Charles groans again, slowly getting to his feet and crossing his arms across his chest self-consciously. His modesty is a little late now; he at least is wearing pyjama pants. “Erik, my sister just walked in on me in bed with somebody she didn’t know I was involved with.”

“Are you ashamed?” Erik puts the knife down beside its partner and reaches for the lamp, switching it on and lighting up the room so that he can see Charles’ expression better if he chooses to look; for now instead he goes to his wardrobe and starts pulling out clothes for today, bends to pull on his underwear sharply and without any pause for display.

“No!” Charles’ hand closes on Erik’s arm and he is tugged around to meet Charles’ eyes, which are both kind and worried. The human leans up to kiss him, brief and hard, a press of lips to lips followed by a long and lingering look and a wry smile. “No, I’m not ashamed,” Charles says, and pulls Erik’s dressing gown from the open wardrobe, slings it around his own shoulders and ties it shut without looking away from Erik’s face. “Just British.”

“Are you guys coming out here or not?” Raven shouts from the other room, voice echoing down the hallway but maintaining an impressive volume. “Preferably before I give birth!”

“Quiet, harpy!” Erik shouts back as he fastens his trousers, and beside him Charles muffles a loud snort before stepping around Erik to the door, padding away toward the kitchen barefooted, still in Erik’s oversized robe.

When Erik emerges from the hallway the two of them are staring at one another across the couch like a pair of cats shut in a box together, Raven slumped cosily into the seat and Charles stood at the far end, neither of them speaking. Charles’ hands are buried in the pockets of the robe; Raven is resolutely close-mouthed all of a sudden, lips pressed pointedly tight together. Both of them turn to look at Erik as he goes for the coffee, with a palpable feeling of relief that makes him sigh. “It’s too early for this.”

Raven raises a scarlet brow, the very image of disdain. “It’s after seven.”

“It’s my day off,” he says grumpily, and rolls his eyes when he looks back to find the two of them still as relaxed as department store dummies, all stiff-limbed in faux-casual positions as though Raven isn’t hugging one of the cushions tight enough to kill it and Charles doesn’t have bedhead. “Gott in Himmel,” and he brings his coffee with him when he walks over to take hold of Charles’ arm, steering him into the free space on the couch beside his sister and pressing down on his shoulder until he sits. Erik himself sits on the footstool in front of them, wedged in as it is between couch and coffee table, and glares at Raven from under his brows.

“What?” She folds her arms across her bump, glares back at him with equal force, something he now regrets having taught her to do. “Is it the chunk of my hair that’s now missing that’s holding your attention? Or the mental scarring?”

“Your hair is fine.” If he could bring himself to do it Erik would slurp at his coffee because he knows it infuriates her, but it’s just too undignified, so he settles for sipping at it as menacingly as he can. “And you wouldn’t be mentally scarred if you had even the most basic grasp of privacy - ”

“The door wasn’t closed all the way - ”

“That’s not the same thing as an invitation.”

“Like I said, I was trying to find out where Charles was - ”

“You haven’t spoken to me for two weeks, Raven,” Charles says, folding his arms in an uncanny likeness of his sister and fixing his gaze on the window, jaw set tight, the whole line of him tense and wound tight. “Why on Earth would you care where I was?”

She rolls her eyes, hard, and reaches out to grab his shoulder, turning him back towards her with inexorable force. He is clearly pushing against her, but she is stronger, and it’s all too easy for her to manoeuvre him so he has his back in the corner of the sofa, with no choice but to face her.

“You’re my brother, dumbass,” Raven says, not loosening her grip, mouth pursed with irritation. “One time I didn’t talk to you for three weeks because you wouldn’t let me go to Bobby Finn’s party. Then you fell over and broke your arm so I had to forgive you. I thought this time I might be grown up about it and let you keep your limbs intact.”

“How gracious,” he says, looking away, but there’s less vitriol in it than before.

“Come on, Charles. Give me a break. I’m hormonal and you were being a dick.”

“And what were you even doing taking a photograph?” Charles bursts out, red-faced all over again and gesturing emphatically with both hands. It’s loosened the death-grip the robe had on his body, allowing it to part a little and showing a long, narrow strip of pale chest between the lapels that Erik cannot help but glance at appreciatively. “It’s bad enough you walked in on us - ”

“Sleeping,” Raven says dryly, mouth quirking. “Cuddling.Egads. My poor virgin eyes.”

Her brother sputters. “Erik was naked!”

“So am I, usually, when it’s not Siberian out there.”

“Are you not even surprised?” Charles manages finally, and it’s clear from his tone that this is the real heart of his fluster, from the way his hands still, open and lax on his knees where he’s folded his legs up onto the couch, facing his sister.

Raven shrugs, resettles herself more firmly among the cushions and says, “No, not really. Erik’s a total headcase, and you’ve always loved that. Also, a mutant, which is pretty groovy in your book.”

Charles turns to look at Erik, who is glowering into his empty mug. “Aren’t you even going to protest?”

“And rob you of the chance to defend my honour?” Raven is still smirking when Erik raises his eyes to turn his glower on her, though he knows her well enough to see the leftover nerves from the knife creeping in around the edges. “If you ever take a photograph of me while I’m sleeping again,” he says, putting the mug down on the table with a quiet thud, “I won’t feel any guilt if I don’t miss, because I will consider it assisted suicide. Don’t think that because you are my friend - and I don’t have many, you know that - that it means you can just do whatever you want. Don’t make me regret you.”

There is a long silence while Raven regards him seriously, barely blinking, before she closes her eyes for a second, two - and then opens them and says, “Okay, fine. Consider both of you served with an ‘if you hurt him’ speech about each other, too, save us all the time and grief.” She is smiling, though her golden gaze is still serious, and her hands have not relaxed from their death-grip on the cushion.

“How efficient,” Charles says, risking a smile, and is rewarded by his sister unfolding her legs to drop her feet in his lap, tipping her head back in an artful pose and saying, “Rub them, buster, you owe me for the deep wounds your naked torso has inflicted on my psyche.” And Charles laughs and does as he’s told, curls his hands around the arch of her foot and digs his thumbs into it, both of them grinning at one another, white-toothed and glowing, and they start, slowly, to talk, their usual chatter tentative but picking up speed.

He will never be a part of it, that weird sibling bond the Xaviers have, but Erik loves it nonetheless, loves mornings like this, breakfast just the three of them together and comfortable, the two of them safe and happy and cosied up together the way they do, like kittens. The pale morning light is coming in through the tall windows, reflected from the snow outside, and they are inside, insulated from the cold but not the view of the city plated in snow like a thin layer of platinum, gleaming and not yet dirtied. He can imagine living like this forever; it’s a nice idea, though he knows it’s impossible. He has his work, and Raven has Azazel, and Charles - he will find something for Charles. For the moment, this moment, everything is perfect.

Erik smiles, shaking his head, and goes back to the kitchen for more coffee.

 

 


XI

 

Raven has brought up folders full of newspaper clippings and associated reports and documents, which she leaves on the coffee table when she goes. Erik does not last long enough to finish the chapter of his book he had left here before he is reaching for them, tugging the top folder over to him and propping it up in his lap where he can start reading the first page.

“What happened to your day off?” Charles asks from somewhere behind him, leaning over the back of the armchair and peering down at the clipping on top. “Hmm, oh, I remember that.”

It’s a picture of a sit-in protest at one of the new mutant medical centres that had opened up in Chicago, humans sat chained across the entrance with signs hung around their necks, anti-mutant slogans scrawled in bright bold letters and stubborn expressions on their faces. Erik frowns, glances over at the report beside it which lists the measures taken to move the protesters along and clear the pathway for waiting patients. “It’s a medical centre,” he says, looking again at the photograph, at the humans with their chins held high and hands clasped in a solidarity they wouldn’t share. “What exactly are they protesting?”

Charles comes around the chair to perch on the arm and get a closer look, hip brushing Erik’s side. “If I recall correctly, that the centre is for mutants only. They said it was discriminating against humans.”

“Well,” Erik shakes his head in disbelief and turns the page, this time an internal report on livestock population versus demand, “if they wanted to see a tail specialist, or visit the on-site herpetologist, I’m sure they could make an appointment.”

“I’m not saying it was logical,” and Charles nudges Erik with his elbow, shrugs when Erik glances up at him, a sinuous shift of his shoulders. “But you should - topically enough - think of it as a symptom, not the disease. Erik, you’re going to see a lot more of that in those folders.”

“What do you mean?” The next page is a write-up of recent water quality and radiation level testing, with enough data tables he decides to put it aside to look at later instead of squinting at it now. Instead he reaches for the next sheet, and the next, flicking through them until he finds another article. This time it’s violence at a concert after the lead singer of a popular group announced publicly that she’s a mutant. “I didn’t hear any of this while I was away.”

“You were somewhat busy.” Charles bends to pick at the pages, thumbing through them until he finds another, larger photograph of a large fire blazing out of the windows of some nondescript building, three stories of flame and ash. “This one was mutant retaliation for a hate crime against a local mutant. They torched the high school the gang members go to - not, I suspect, that that would much trouble the sort of young men who kick a woman to death. But two of the janitorial staff died. Ironically, one a mutant and one a human, though it’s not terribly funny.”

There is a sadness to Charles’ expression as he turns the page again, and when he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, he shifts forward and away from Erik to grasp the next folder, dragging it across the table and flipping it open. “These are really just a sample. Humans are reacting to what they see as a conquering, not of their country, but of their species. No wonder these - well, rashes - are flaring up. The body is trying to tell the head it has a fever.”

Erik frowns at the folders, mouth drawn tight as he flicks through the pages, glances through more economic forecasts, diplomatic advances, and more of these ‘rashes’, photograph after article after editorial. “How did you get to be so smart?” he asks, trying to keep his tone light, but he is concerned about these, and the fact that he hadn’t been told all of this was happening at home while he was at war. Yes, he had been focused elsewhere, but he was supposed to be the First Mutant. This is the sort of worrying trend they should have told him about.

“Well, I am a professor, accredited by no lesser institution than Oxford. I understand it’s usually an indicator of at least a few brain cells,” Charles says, and takes the folder from Erik’s hands gently, puts it back on the table, closing it with a thump as the papers bellyflop together. There is still so much he hasn’t looked at. “It’s the winter of our discontent, Erik. There’s no population that isn’t five times more likely to strike back as a hungry one, and the radiation has cut off a lot of food sources. No wonder humans are blaming mutants and mutants are blaming humans. It’s so easy to do.”

Erik looks up at Charles, at the crease between his brows, eyes half-hooded where they’re still fixed on the folders, hands loose-clenched on his thighs. From underneath it’s easier to see the bob of his adam’s apple when he swallows, sleek under the still-stubbled skin. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. They can hardly blame mutants for being born mutants. And which side do you fall on, Charles?”

“You know very well I’m stuck in the middle,” Charles says, but he does not stand up, lets his side continue to press against Erik’s, warm and solid and wanted. “A plague on both your houses.”

It’s a little too close to the bone; Erik thinks of the way that play ends, of the long separation of Romeo’s banishment - if he can cast himself as Romeo without feeling utterly ridiculous - and of the misery on both parts, the impossibility of their being together.

“It’s not going to come to that,” Erik says sharply, and Charles startles, finally looking away from those damnable papers. “I want you by my side,” and Erik pulls Charles’ face down to kiss him, the movement tugging Charles off balance and sliding him half on top of Erik in the chair. He’s sprawled the way he does with Raven, but then Charles doesn’t reach for Raven in return and kiss her back fiercely, fingers curling around the angle of her jaw to hold her face tight, doesn’t let her manhandle him until he is more sat in her lap than collapsed across it. Something in Erik is viscerally, possessively pleased, that Charles doesn’t try to fight it. Charles’ thighs are splayed across Erik’s, knees wedged in beside Erik’s hips and the weight of his body pressing them down into the armchair, held tight against one another by gravity and grasping hands. Erik takes hold of Charles’ wrists to trap him there, closed hands like manacles with thumb and forefinger only just touching above the throb of Charles’ pulse, suddenly desperate to hold on to him, to keep him with Erik, safe and secure and never leaving and never left behind.

“I can’t be by your side if I’m locked up like a prisoner,” Charles says when he breaks away from the kiss to lean his forehead against Erik’s and suck in air; stung, Erik lets go his grip on Charles’ wrists and the human’s hands pause in their new freedom, tentative for a moment in the space between them before moving to explore the breadth of Erik’s chest with sweeping strokes that linger at his sides, the flat plane of Erik’s stomach, everywhere he touches tingling like he’s leaving static behind. He grunts when Erik’s hands find his ass, slipping down his back to take hold of the firm muscle there and squeeze, pull him closer.

The swell of it where it curves out from his thighs is fascinating, and Erik is breathing rough and fast, cock straining against the restriction of his pants, made worse by the answering hardness pressing against his own. Charles is taller like this, on top of Erik, and his spine has to curl for them to fit their mouths together, putting space between their torsos but bringing his hips in to stutter against Erik’s. “Are we going to argue ideology every time?” Erik asks, and brings a hand around to drag his robe off down Charles’ shoulder where it is already hanging loose. It doesn’t take much persuading for the fabric to slip down to puddle around his waist, leaving Charles’ chest bare for Erik to kiss at the hollow between his collarbones, to work his way down to a nipple and suck it into his mouth, catch it between his teeth and bite down gently, then lick it better when Charles moans.

His face when Erik looks up is flushed pink, pupils wide and black nearly swallowing up the blue. “Only until you admit I have a point,” Charles says as he reaches for the hem of Erik’s shirt, drawing it off slowly so that he can drag his hands over the bared skin, now, the same way he had over cloth. “At some point we’re going to have to talk about what this is - ”

“But not now,” and Erik ducks his head, lifting his arms so Charles can get the shirt up and off, then flinches when Charles stops to stare at the cratered, gouged and knotted canvas of Erik’s chest.

It’s the first time Charles has seen it in good light, so his reaction isn’t surprising, but it is an effort for Erik not to reach for the shirt the other man has just discarded, to pull it back on; in the day the scars are all visible, even those which are little more than white lines, now, of which there are more than a few to go with the more obvious ones. Surely Charles must have felt all of this, when he was touching Erik before. Surely he must have known.

“Oh, Erik,” Charles says in a hollowed-out voice, and reaches to press his fingers to the deepest of them, where the broken rib had pulled the flesh in with it and had never quite filled out again.

“Don’t look.” His voice when he speaks is a croak, throat suddenly dry and strange. “It’s not a pretty sight.”

“How can I not?” Charles’ eyes when he looks up to meet Erik’s gaze are hot and molten, furious and perhaps a little wet, making the blue of them gleam brighter. “What they did to you - ”

Erik kisses him to shut him up, puts a hand to the back of Charles’ head to hold him where he wants him as he bites at that plush lower lip until Charles’ mouth opens to let him in, and swallows down what words Charles tries to get out until he stops trying, until he presses closer, instead, lets his hand flatten out on Erik’s chest so his fingers aren’t just touching the scar any more. His bare skin against Erik’s is intoxicating, fever-hot and sleekly scarless, a blank canvas to Erik’s Guernica.

It would be so easy to fuck him here like this, Erik thinks, as it becomes absolutely impossible to leave his pants fastened, the pressure of his cock against the fabric almost unbearable when Charles shifts in his lap and drags the zipper across the swollen flesh, metal biting even through his underwear. He’s already spread open, I could just push up and -

Erik reaches down between them to flick open the button with his thumb, the zipper itself coming open with a thought, and almost before he can groan with relief Charles has put his hand over Erik’s, is reaching in.

“Let me,” Charles says, and wraps his hand around the long line of Erik’s cock where it fills his briefs, strokes it through the cotton with an open-mouthed moan that is almost drowned out by the strangled noise Erik makes, hand tightening in Charles’ hair and tugging against the roots. “God, Erik,” and he strokes again, a long pull of sensation, like every nerve in Erik’s body is concentrated under Charles’ hand, every neuron waiting until he squeezes to fire at once with electric arousal and pleasure. “I knew you were - but I couldn’t see, before - ”

“Look at me, don’t look at the scars,” Erik says, and thrusts up into Charles’ touch, puts his own hand over Charles’ and presses down harder, pushes up against the pressure with a grunt and a shove of his hips that has Charles unbalancing forward against Erik’s body, trapping his hand between them. With his weight resting on his knees it’s easy for Erik to drag Charles’ pyjama pants down to his thighs, leaving only the robe for modesty, and pull him forward so that Charles’ blood-flushed erection is rubbing up against his own knuckles. Charles’ moan is deep and gravelled; he quickly understands what Erik is trying to do and starts pulling at Erik’s underwear to free his cock, so that they can thrust against one another for one slick, glorious moment before he wraps his hands around both of them and starts to jack them off together.

Erik can’t help but thrust up again, push against Charles as he does the same, panting into each others’ mouths, too breathless to kiss. “I want to fuck you,” he says as Charles’ foreskin rubs up against the sensitive head of Erik’s cock, not new but novel, nonetheless. “Slick you up and push into you, push you down on your back and fuck you ‘til you beg - ”

“Oh, God,” and Charles’ hips shove up, hard, his eyes creasing shut, helpless arousal chasing any other expression from his face, lips bitten red and swollen. “Erik - ”

Erik’s hand closes around Charles’ and he pulls once, twice, squeezing their joint grip tight with a shout before he’s coming, striping Charles’ chest with his come and jerking, too-sensitive, as they stroke him through it, as Charles’ face twists into a strangled gasp and his cock pulses against Erik’s almost painfully, coming all over their hands and Erik’s belly, until both of them are streaky and shaking, letting go on a silent consensus that lets Charles lean in against Erik to catch their breath, pressing their warpaint against one another where no doubt it will rub off.

“Be on my side, Charles,” Erik says, as he brings his arms up to wrap around Charles’ back, to hold him there so that he can’t get up, not yet, not that he is making any attempt to. “If you’re on my side I’ll be on yours.”

“Two houses both alike in dignity,” says Charles, and kisses the side of Erik’s neck, before resting his head there, where Erik can’t see his expression.

 

 


XII

 

By the time Rogue comes in to work the next morning Magneto is already at his desk with the folders Mystique had brought him stacked in his out tray ready to be taken away and filed, a pen between his teeth as he flicks through a stack of paperwork that has accumulated in his absence, waiting to be signed. She bustles through the door and jumps about a foot when she looks up and sees him sat there, clapping a gloved hand to her chest and laughing breathlessly. “Oh! Lord, Magneto, you surprised me,” and she takes another couple of steps closer to the desk, stops just on the other side where she can peer at what he’s doing. “Guess ah got used to you being away! It’s good to see you back, safe and sound, if you don’t mind me saying.”

Magneto takes the pen out of his mouth and accepts the mug of coffee she hands him with a small nod, and suddenly he realises he is unexpectedly pleased to see her as well, and gives her a small smile. She lights up like a torch, and he makes a mental note to be kinder to her in future if this is the result. “It’s good to be back,” he says, glancing back down at the papers on the desk before pushing them away a little, already sick of them. “What have you been doing while I was away?”

“Well, there was still a lot of stuff coming into your office that ah was sorting,” she says, and glances behind herself for a moment before stepping back to grab one of the visitor chairs and dragging it up close to the desk, around the side so she’s sitting with him rather than across from him. “Ms Frost gave me some work to do for her, too, and Logan - that’s Wolverine - has been doing some training with me, you know, power stuff. Ah’ve kept myself busy, no fear.”

She’s a bright young thing, sat perched in the chair with feet swinging just a little against the carpet, that great curly mane of hers already trying to escape the elastic she’s tied it back with. Rogue is why he does this job, Magneto thinks, her and others like her - young enough still to be filled up with optimism and hope, with time enough to grow in a world where being a mutant is a good thing. After the unpleasant reading he’d spent the night doing it’s good to have the reminder sat in front of him, keen and desperate for praise. He wonders what Charles would say, settles on “I’m pleased to hear it,” which seems to do well enough; she smiles, anyway.

Magneto glances at the folders on his desk, at the thick bundles of paper filled with his notes, and on a sudden whim he asks, “How much of this do you follow yourself? Not just sorting it into trays, but reading.”

Her feet pause, and she blinks, clearly surprised. “Ah read a lot of it, though the science parts aren’t really my area. Why?”

“I was wondering what you thought of the current situation with the humans.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?”

“It’s just - ” she pauses, bites her lip, then continues, “you’ve never asked my opinion before, is all.”

“Consider it a promotion,” he says wryly, and waves a hand at her, leaning back in his chair. “Go on. It’s not a trick question.”

She tilts her head back as she considers, and her boots start to brush quietly against the floor again, a soft susurration of leather on carpet. “Well. Ah see it like this. They didn’t much like us existing in the first place, and then mutants took over and they had to get used to that even if they didn’t like it. But now the humans got used to it and they still don’t like it - us - mutants. So they’re kicking off all over the place. Plus they’re all scared of you the most and you went out of the country for a couple months, that probably gave them ideas.”

He snorts, and, emboldened, she says, “What was it like down there? Was it awful?”

“War is always awful.” Magneto steeples his fingers under his chin and looks at her for a moment longer before waving a hand and sitting forward again, picking up his pen with a quick flex of fingers that pulls it to his hand. “That’s why you have to do it unto others before they do it unto you. Thank you, Rogue. Could you ask Emma to come and see me when she’s free, please?”

Rogue jumps up from her seat as soon as he reaches for the pen, smart enough to know when he’s done talking. “No problem,” she says, and puts the chair back neatly where she found it, carefully aligning the feet with the indents of where it usually stood. “Is that a ‘come see me right now’ when she’s free or a ‘come see me whenever’ when she’s free?”

He smiles again, and is a little surprised by it, though not as much as she is, by the look on her face. “The former.”

“No problem,” she says again, snapping him a sloppy salute that would never pass military muster, and buzzes out of the room as quickly as she’d come in, where he can hear her picking up the phone on her desk to call over to Emma’s office. He sips at the coffee - still hot, and she’s put two biscuits on the plate, too, though he leaves those - and starts signing the forms he’s been left, leaving a quick sharp M wherever the pages have been marked. There has to be something practical he can do this afternoon, he thinks, twitching his head slightly to realign the weight of the helmet, all the more necessary if Emma is going to be coming down. Perhaps he can speak with Wolverine about the training program, find out what’s been put in place.

“Magneto?”

He looks up to find Rogue poking her head around the door, and nods, gesturing for her to come in. “Yes?”

“Ms Frost isn’t in her office just yet, but Kitty - that’s Shadowcat - will tell her as soon as she comes in, or checks in.”

Entirely possible, then, that Emma will turn up here without going to her own office at all, if she makes use of her secretary’s brain for a day planner and picks out the ‘appointment’. “Thank you.”

“And, Magneto?” Rogue’s still there when he looks up, stood awkwardly in the doorway. “Ah don’t want to be forward, but ah wanted you to know that we do appreciate what you do, you know? What you did? The humans might not see that mutants are doing a better job putting their country back together after they bombed it to bits than they ever did, but we all do, so. Um. Do you need anything?”

“I’m fine,” he says, and she just smiles at him and ducks back out of sight, that white streak in her hair whipping around with her head as she turns.

Magneto thinks about thanking Emma for giving him Rogue when he sees her, but decides against it. It would only give her a reason to be smug.

 

 


XIII

 

“It’s nothing we didn’t expect,” Emma says as she runs a finger around the rim of her cup, legs daintily crossed in a way Rogue never would, the stiletto heels on her feet delicately slender yet no doubt razor-sharp. “What would you have done differently, Magneto, if I had sent dossiers down to Brazil for you of all the little scuffles? If you’re going to nominate me to fill your shoes while you’re gone, then let me do it.”

“Fill me in on what you’ve been doing,” he says, and the door of his office swings shut without a touch, lock clicking quietly into place.

 

 


XIV

 

His favourite is the one Raven apparently suggested, where they sent Azazel to cow the religious fundamentalist groups into behaving.

 

 


XV

 

Charles has been cooking again that afternoon; when Erik comes in he is sat at the kitchen table with a textbook open in front of him and a highlighter pen tucked behind one ear, another one of a different colour in his hand, making slow progress across the page. They eat the spaghetti bolognese he’s made together, quiet and knock-shoulder close at the kitchen table.

“Raven got me a cooking book for Christmas,” Charles says eventually, when both of them are picking at the last of their meals, twirling his fork in the leftover spaghetti and dragging it in tightening circles across his plate. “She thought I might enjoy learning.”

Erik hums around his own mouthful, sips at his beer with the reverence of long absence. “What did I get you?”

It earns him a snort and a sidelong glance, but Charles doesn’t look annoyed. “Some new clothes,” he says, “which I must admit were sorely needed by now, and a haircut, courtesy of Raven. You do understand that the idea is generally to pick things out yourself?”

It’s the most content Erik’s been in months. Warm and with a full stomach, drink in hand in his own kitchen - and Charles, poking gentle fun at him, elbow propped on the table and pen marks on his face where he must have forgotten it was in his hand.

“I’d have sent you something suitably Brazilian, but I didn’t know what you’d like. And explaining it to Azazel would have been an interesting exercise.” Erik reaches out to tug at a lock of Charles’ hair where it lies against his forehead. “Perhaps next time I should cut your hair, if you prefer a straight line.”

Charles laughs, eyes crinkling up at the corners, and leans a little into the touch before reaching for their emptied plates. His hands are brisk and efficient when he stacks them with the cutlery on top, standing to take them over to the sink. “For a girl so obsessed with appearances, she makes a terrible stylist.”

“She’s not really a girl any more, Charles,” Erik says, and picks up the abandoned textbook, eyes roaming over the highlighted passages and finding them incomprehensible, full of words he understands and meanings he doesn’t. “Leave the dishes, you cooked. What’s this?” He slides a finger into the open page and turns the book over to read the title, Principles of Human Genetics.

“I don’t mind,” Charles says, but he leaves them in the dry sink anyway and comes to look at the textbook, taking it carefully from Erik’s hands as though it is a treasure. “I teach from this. Well. Taught.” His eyes are sad as he reopens it to the page he had left it on, runs a thumb across the last section of highlighted text. “I don’t suppose I still have a position any more after such a long absence. And I was on tenure track, too.”

“That’s good?”

“That’s a very good thing. It would have meant a permanent position, eventually. Assuming I didn’t get caught shagging a student or knifing someone.”

Erik smiles. “Were they hard habits to break?”

“What - oh, no, of course not,” Charles says, and closes the book, lays it back down on the table face down, like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

It reminds him, painfully, that while he is content with the way things are, it does not mean Charles is.

Trying to decide whether to ask another question leaves Erik unusually torn, because on the one hand he wants to know everything about Charles, every tiny scrap of information or opinion or history, but on the other he doesn’t want Charles to start thinking about his life outside and make things difficult between them again. He hesitates, but before he can make up his mind the point is made moot by Charles saying, “Enough of that, what did you do today?”

And Erik finds himself recounting his various conversations back to Charles over a sink full of washing up, his hands immersed in the soapy water and Charles laughing helplessly at the story about Azazel and the KKK, leaning against Erik’s shoulder wiping away tears from the corners of his eyes with his free hand and a tea towel clasped in the other.

 

 


XVI

 

He doesn’t tell Charles about the spies Emma has sent into the human resistance, or that Raven was until recently one of them; nor does he tell Charles about the quiet teams they are putting together to deal with the problem discreetly should it get more centralised, more organised. It would only upset him.

 

 


XVII

 

Besides, Charles has left him before on moral grounds, and just because he hadn’t gone through with it last time doesn’t mean he wouldn’t.

 

 


XVIII

 

The textbook gives him an idea, though, and the next day he goes over to the building across the street from central command to get what he needs. The other cast-iron blocks around that one original apartment block have been taken over one by one as their government grew and established itself, the occupants either moving out of their own accord or being paid to move if not. Most have been converted now to offices and labs and training spaces. It’s a good location, and Magneto sees no reason for them to move to another place, seeing as they are working well where they are. The White House and Washington are long gone, with all of their purpose-built grandeur and pomp, so SoHo suits their purposes as well as anywhere would.

It’s not too difficult to persuade McCoy, who vacillates between anxious babbling and energetic enthusiasm like a metronome, slowly distracting himself from his nerves and getting more eloquent and impressive before suddenly remembering who he is speaking to all over again and seizing up until he can barely string two words together without an ‘um’ in the middle. At the very least it means he doesn’t ask too many questions. In the afternoon Magneto has a meeting with the West Coast District leaders in Seattle, so he slips back into the apartment as unobtrusively as possible in the short window he has before his rendezvous with Azazel downstairs. He waves Charles back to his work when he makes to get up, tells him it’s just a flying visit and leaves the cardboard box on the table where Charles will find it sooner rather than later.

“Can’t you stop for lunch?” Charles asks, and it takes Erik a moment before he can say no to the look on Charles’ face, not quite begging for the company but certainly not neutral, either.

“I would if I had time,” he says instead, has not even taken off the helmet or the cape, stands by the elevator doors and lets his hand hover over the call button, not quite able to push it. “I’ll be back later.”

Charles smiles, but even Erik can tell it’s not a happy expression. “See you later, then.”

“I love you,” Erik says just before the elevator arrives, steps inside and does not wait to see if Charles says it back, because if he doesn’t know, then there is an equal chance that he did as that he didn’t. That little bit of uncertainty keeps him warm through his meetings, lets him congratulate the team on their excellent work in difficult circumstances and if he doesn’t think about it then it’s easy to be sure that Charles would have said it, if Erik had waited.

 

 


XIX

 

When he walks back in that evening the living room is a sea of paper.

“Erik, where did you get all of this?” Charles asks from where he’s sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a graveyard of half-finished mugs of tea, an opened scientific journal in either hand and a third in his lap, laid open across his thigh like a wilted flower. It looks like a library exploded, though with less charring and bits of librarian.

He looks for places it is safe to stand; there aren’t many places where the floor is still visible and so in the end he walks across the paper to reach Charles, taking off his shoes first so that he won’t leave bootmarks and obscure the type. The rustling carpet slip-slides against itself, rumpling and drifting around where his feet disturb it and sending pages floating off against one another to land in drifts against the couch. “I commandeered it.”

Charles looks up at him when Erik bends a little to peer at the journals he’s holding, and pauses, biting his lip suddenly and frowning. “Oh - they were for me, weren’t they? I just assumed - ”

“Yes.” Erik interrupts him, and slowly reaches out to rest his hand on the nape of Charles’ neck, rubs a thumb across the soft skin there and is rewarded by Charles leaning into the touch instead of away. “Yes, they’re for you.”

“I can’t decide if this is wonderful or awful.” Charles looks back down at the mess around him, and Erik stiffens, the swelling sense of success punctured in an instant and turning to ash in his mouth. The top of Charles’ head gives him no cues, nor does the pen Charles is twirling between his fingers, an absentminded roll that flicks ink across the nearest paper in a fine spatter when he spins it back and forth a little too strongly. “Damn, where’s that pencap?”

“You don’t want them?”

“No! I mean, yes, yes, I want them,” and the nearest pile is dragged closer to their feet as though Erik might try to take them away, Charles looking back up at him with eyes wide and a little bit desperate, hands clenched in the pages and crumpling them into sharp creases. “Where did you get all of this? I mean, nobody was publishing for so long, but I haven’t read all of these, and there’s so much research here that doesn’t seem to have come from a journal, which I definitely haven’t seen because it’s about mutants, Erik, mutant genetics, and where on Earth did it all come from?”

“What did you mean, awful?” Erik asks instead of answering, and finally crouches down beside Charles to loosen his grip and smooth the paper back out, flatten it as best he can. Another hand lands gently on top of his own and presses down; Charles squeezes, once, and ducks his head to catch Erik’s gaze, lets the papers go.

His smile is wistful. “It’s sort of like being given a photograph of a feast, is all,” he says, “I miss my lab. But I really do appreciate it - it was very kind of you, to bring me this. I assume you liberated it from someone else? A scientist?”

“I’m trying,” Erik says to the floor, tugging his hand out from under Charles’ to rub at his eyes, cover his face for a moment and get a reprieve from being looked at. He does not let the sudden weight in his chest drag him to the ground, stays crouched and able to leave if he needs to, ready to stand. “I’m trying, Charles. I’m not good at this.”

“I know you are,” and there is a touch on his knee, then his shoulder, as Charles reaches for him, slow and steady, the same way he might if he were trying not to startle a bird into flying away, and when did Charles come to be able to read him so well as to know exactly what to do? It’s unbearable, and Erik pushes abruptly to his feet, dislodging the outstretched hand and stepping back, probably crushing the pages beneath his feet and not caring any more, because he can’t be there, any more, trying and failing yet again to make Charles happy, to mend something that has always been broken and will never be fixed, to fill the bottomless pit that yawns wide and black between them. He has never felt more of a fool than he does now, shovelling endless spadefuls of stunted feelings into an abyss that will never be filled.

Charles doesn’t love him, and never will. He cannot say he blames him.

Erik runs away.

 

 


XX

 

“Erik.” There is a long pause outside the closed door, and a creak of floorboards as Charles shifts, uneasy, before he says, “Erik, are you alright? Let me in.”

He hasn’t bothered to turn on the lights in his workroom, content for a while to sit in the dark among his familiar tools and metal, as good as a map to his metal-sense and comforting, in their own way. Erik considers not answering, but Charles knocks again, clearly not going away, so he raises his head from where it has been resting against his hand and says, “It’s alright. You don’t have to placate me all the time. It’s not going to lose you anything if I’m in a bad mood and you don’t jolly me out of it.”

“What are you talking about?” The voice this time is vexed, as though Erik is the one being stubborn, here. “I swear to God, you blow so hot and cold sometimes, Erik. Just make your mind up, alright? And let me in, you ass.”

“I’m busy.”

The floorboards creak again, and even they sound exasperated. “Doing what, exactly?”

Wallowing in my own stupidity, Erik thinks, but does not say; instead he reaches out to the nearest lump of scrap iron and presses it between his palms as he thinks, rolls it into a ball and stretches it out again, over and over. It catches underneath his fingernails, smears across his skin when he makes it too liquid, and it takes concentration to firm it up again to something more the consistency of modelling clay, or play-doh, malleable but not dripping. “I’m working, Charles.”

“You bloody well are not, you liar.” There is a barely-audible sigh. “Look. I’m sorry if I seemed unappreciative. It really was a very thoughtful thing for you to do, and I’m grateful, Erik. Would you please open up? Or at least turn the lights on in there if you’re going to pretend that you’re doing something, I can see it’s dark in there through the gap under the door.”

Enough of this.

Charles jerks backward when Erik opens the door without warning, nearly tripping over his own feet, and Erik snaps out a hand to grab at the other man’s upper arm to catch him, letting go only once Charles is steady again. “Look,” he says, folding his arms and making himself meet Charles’ eyes, keeping his expression as neutral as possible. “Look. You don’t have to pretend to be happy. You don’t have to pretend to like anything you don’t, you don’t have to placate me if you think I’m angry with you. Don’t say things you don’t mean. Don’t play games.”

“What,” Charles says bluntly, and stares at Erik wide-eyed and flabbergasted, putting his hands on his hips and leaning forward into Erik’s space, somehow looming despite his short stature, “are you talking about, you madman? When have I ever pretended to like something I didn’t? First you’re complaining that I’m complaining about not being happy cooped up in here for months, and now you’re complaining that I’m not complaining? Erik, we’ve done that conversation to death already. Forgive me for not wanting to hash it out every moment of every day.”

“It’s not that.” Erik looks away down the hall, back towards the living room and the mountains of paper where they’re spread around the floor, hidden from here by distance and furniture. “I don’t want you to feel that you have to - ”

“Erik, shut up,” Charles says, and reaches up to clasp Erik’s face, one hand on either side turning him back to look at Charles. “That’s not why - I promise I’ll never do something I don’t want to just to - what was your word? - placate you. I might be stuck in a tower but I’m not a delicate little princess, alright? I am quite happy to tell you when to fuck off. Can we be done with this now?”

“How can you be sure?” There is a long silence between them after Erik speaks, Charles’ palms still warm against his cheeks, and each word that follows drops into the quiet like a pebble into water, one after another. “How do you know that you’re not just telling yourself that, to make it easier?”

“Fuck off,” Charles says, and does not look away.

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“Then fuck off again,” Charles says, and when he smiles, tentative and slow, Erik lets his head droop so that his forehead leans against Charles’, breath mingling on a sigh.

 

 


XXI

 

“I don’t know,” Charles whispers later in the dead of night, “but I hope not,” and Erik keeps his eyes closed and pretends not to hear him.

 

 


XXII

 

He knows as soon as he walks in the next day that something is wrong. Raven and Charles’ heads jerk guiltily upright from where they’re sitting tight tangled together on the couch, his arms around her shoulders and hers twined around his waist, her head tucked under Charles’ chin and both of them tear-streaked.

“What’s happened?” Erik asks sharply, looking from one to the other for any clue, but there are none; he wonders if Azazel has done something, or if there is something wrong with the baby, or if -

“The Resistance burned down the mansion,” Raven says in a voice thick with crying, and squeezes her brother’s waist tighter as Charles winces with shared pain, digging his chin into the top of her head and not so much as trying to wipe his wet face.

 

 


XXIII

 

“What mansion?” Erik asks, and then immediately feels stupid, because he knows very well which mansion she means. Charles has never really spoken about it, but he knows from Raven that they came from money, that they were raised rich in a world very unlike the one he had grown up in. Everything he knows about Charles’ childhood is extrapolated from Raven’s, from her stories of their games and pranks and of Charles looking after her, or more often her looking after him, of the two of them the stronger, the most able to dissuade bullies from taking her on and by extension Charles. He knows which mansion she must mean.

“Mine,” Charles says, and though his face is wet his voice is bland, wiped clean of emotion. “Let’s not call it that, it sounds so pretentious. ‘The house’ is much better, less Little Lord Fauntleroy. I suppose they must have thought I might be inside.”

Raven snorts, the sound wetter than usual, detracting from the humour. “Not likely.”

“Yes, well, I don’t suppose they know me or you particularly well, darling.” And Charles kisses her temple, a light press of lips as his arms tighten around her.

Erik wonders if he ought to be jealous, perhaps. He has so little experience with these sorts of relationships, after all; nonetheless, he cannot find it in him to begrudge affection to Raven, even if he can’t offer it himself. He looks at the two of them and considers the space beside Charles, wonders what’s expected of him in this sort of a situation, and cannot quite bring himself to sit beside them when he might not be welcome, to insert himself into their discrete group of two. He stands uselessly, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, and all he can come up with to say is, “I’m sorry.”

“Why? You didn’t do it, not unless you’ve been moonlighting for the opposition,” Charles says with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Don’t look so glum. I hated that house. Really.”

Raven frowns and pulls away with difficulty, sitting up straight so she can look her brother in the eye. “Not really.”

“No?”

“You hated the people in it. You loved the house.”

The expression on Charles’ face turns bitter, a startling twist that changes him into someone new entirely, someone Erik doesn’t know. It’s both disturbing and fascinating, like the sliver of a cracked-open door that has always been locked. “Ah, well. Kurt did make it so very easy, after all.”

“Kurt?” Erik asks, before he can stop himself.

“Our - Charles’ - stepfather.” Raven’s mouth purses up like she’s bitten into a lemon. “Let’s just leave it at he was an asshole, and not in the mostly affectionate way I call you an asshole. And Sharon - ”

“Not now, Raven,” Charles says sharply, and Raven is instantly silenced, something Erik has never seen before.

Was, she had said. Hated. Past tense. “He’s dead, then?”

“Very.” Charles has been sitting so stiffly, supporting Raven’s weight without bending; now he slumps back against the couch cushions, tilting his head back against the seat and looking up at the ceiling instead of meeting Erik’s eyes. “He died saving my life, the bastard. After all those years of beatings and tongue-lashings, he goes and does a thing like that. I could have forgiven him everything else if he hadn’t gone and done something so bloody selfless right at the end and made it impossible to just let myself hate him.”

The very idea of someone laying a hand on Charles makes Erik’s blood boil, and he turns away, hides his hands behind his back so they cannot see his knuckles straining white against the skin at the thought of it, hopes the wish that the man were still alive so that Erik could kill him again doesn’t show on his face. He wonders if the man - Kurt - had used his fists, or a belt, what he had picked on Charles for when surely Charles had been as good then as he is now, no doubt eager to please and to care, given the chance. He very deliberately does not say anything in response, because he is not sure what would come out.

“Oh, Erik.” He glances back to see Charles looking at him ruefully, a small smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “There’s nothing to be angry about now, it’s all very distant history. But thank you anyway.”

“I only - ” Erik starts, then pauses, unsure of what he was going to say.

“Come here,” and Charles reaches out with his free arm to him, beckons him closer. When he gets near enough Charles takes hold of Erik’s hand and tugs him to sit down beside the two of them, hip to hip with Charles in the snug leftover space on the couch. Then it is the three of them sat together, close and warm, Erik shifting to put his arm around Charles and overlapping onto Raven, his hand resting on the back of her neck; she twists to bring her legs up over their laps so that her feet rest on Erik’s thighs, her knees overlapping Charles’. “This is nice,” Charles says, and wipes the wetness from his face with the pad of his thumb, leaning into the cushions and Erik’s arm as though there is nowhere he’d rather be.

“It’s not the house, it’s the memories,” Raven says, after a while. Her voice sounds less damp now than it did before. “Not the bad ones, not - not Kurt and Sharon and Cain. But you and me, Charles, when it was good. It was the first place I could ever really call home, and now it’s gone.”

Erik tries to hide the way he has to swallow down bile at that, along with an onrush of feeling that he ruthlessly crushes, but he’s fairly certain Charles notices, anyway. He thinks about the photograph he is currently keeping in the box in the bottom of his wardrobe, of the pretty little house he had shared with his parents before everything had gone wrong, and he wonders suddenly if they would like to see it, maybe. If maybe it would help if he says that it gets better - it doesn’t - or that he’s suffered the same loss and he understands - he does, all too well.

“Memories don’t burn, Raven.” Charles curls the arm he has around her so that he can stroke his hand over the smooth scarlet of her hair, cupping her head closer in to his shoulder. “The house might be gone, but they can’t take your memories away. Not if you hold on tightly.”

The irony being, of course, that Emma could do that and more without lifting a manicured finger.

“I have nothing that belonged to my parents,” Erik says abruptly, the words coming out of their own accord, without stopping off for approval at his brain, and he wishes intensely that they had, for the way the Xavier siblings turn to look at him, twin expressions of sorrow on their faces when they should be grieving their own loss. “Never mind. It’s not relevant.”

Charles wriggles against Erik so that he’s twisted more towards him, head tilted to one side, considering the look on Erik’s face. “What were you going to say?”

“Nothing. I didn’t mean to say even that much.”

Raven’s heels dig into Erik’s thigh like she’s trying to find bone, and she sits up enough to look around Charles directly at Erik with gold eyes like coins. If they had been silver he might have had to leave. “No, tell us. You really don’t have anything?”

“There isn’t really anything to say.” Erik thinks about the photograph again, about the one or two very precious ones they had had taken on special occasions when he was a child. His mother had sat primly in her Sunday best on a chair in the middle, Erik standing at her side in a too-tight suit and his father behind her, one hand resting lightly on the slope of her shoulder, very much the gentle protector, the benevolent head of their family. His father had been very noble, and kind, with strong, deft hands Erik had loved to watch when he fixed things around the house. He had liked to leave things for people to find that he thought they would like, instead of making a production of it. Mother had kept the photographs lined up on the mantelpiece until Erik’s aunt had warned her that the sunlight would make them fade, after which she had put them safely in the drawer beside her favourite spot on the settle. She had forgotten them when they had left the house that final time, in too much of a hurry to get away to think of them.

Erik is not very much like his father. Not his biological one, anyway.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Raven says after they have been quiet for a little while, swinging her feet down to the floor and getting up with a grunt of effort, rubbing a hand in the small of her back. “Ugh, that’s harder than it used to be. Don’t go anywhere, okay?” And she leaves without further explanation, leaving the men cold-lapped on the couch.

“What do you think she’s up to?” Charles turns so that he’s fully facing Erik, weight resting on one hip and head still leant against the arm Erik has along the back of the cushions, snug in the crook of Erik’s elbow.

Erik shrugs, tries to loosen his joints where they have seized up without his input, tight like unoiled hinges. “I try not to speculate when it comes to Mystique. It’s in the name.”

Outside it’s getting dark now, enough that he reaches out and flicks the switch of the standing lamp so that soft light falls out of it as though he’s removed the stopper from a bottle, illuminating the floating dust as it drifts past like flecks of gold. It only takes a little further effort to snap the dust out of the air with a wave of static that sets the hair on Charles’ arms on end and the hair on his head to floating upward a little bit at the top; Charles shudders, a full-body quiver against Erik, and lets out a gasp.

“What did you just do?”

“I hate dust,” Erik says, flicking the collected fluff into the trash can in the kitchen and out of sight. “There was always ash in my nose and in my mouth. It tastes the same.”

The other man looks at him with a sudden focus, not unkind but considering, even as he strokes down the length of his arms to discharge the static and smooth down the hairs again. “I think this is the most you’ve ever talked about it,” Charles says, gently, so carefully, like he is laying a feather on top of something fragile and willing it not to break.

“He made me watch, you know.” Erik did not mean to say this, either, but it’s as though he cannot stop, now that the floodgates have been opened. “He would have made her carry her myself but I wasn’t strong enough. So he made me watch instead, when they took her away to burn. I could taste it for days. I’m amazed he didn’t make me drag her.” He wipes a hand over his face, cannot decide if he is surprised to find it dry, though he does not really cry, any more. Charles’ expression is white and horrified, mouth slack and nostrils pinched, as though he can smell the crematorium the way Erik still can. It had smelled like meat, sometimes. “Sorry. That was too much. It doesn’t matter any more, anyway. Like you said, it’s ancient history.”

“God, Erik,” and Charles leans up to kiss him once, brief and hard, on the mouth, there and gone too soon. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and for once it doesn’t sound like a platitude. “Of course it matters.”

“It was a long time ago.” Erik bends his head to find Charles’ lips again, returning the kiss as carefully as he knows how, closed-mouthed and chaste. “I’m alright now,” he says against Charles’ mouth when they break away, sighing a little under his breath.

When he opens his eyes Charles is looking at him with a sad smile on his face, but before Erik can ask what put it there Charles kisses him again, and he forgets.

Erik feels the elevator coming before it arrives, but does not care. Raven doesn’t even stop when she sees them, just drops herself onto the other end of the couch as Charles pulls away, flush-faced and swollen-lipped, his hair mussed from Erik’s fingers. “Get a room, guys.”

“Every room in this apartment is mine,” Erik says without rancour, and frowns when he sees the folders in her hands, three or four of them stacked one atop the other on the curve of her belly. “I don’t think more bad news is going to water down the first.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” and Raven puts the folders down on the footstool, reaching for the first one and putting it on Charles’ lap. “They’re photo albums.”

Charles looks gobsmacked, utterly wordless for a moment before he finally manages, “Raven, where did you get these?” His hands are moving before he’s stopped speaking, flipping open the album in his lap with its glossy black leather cover to reveal a first sheet of tissue paper overlying blurred images, which he pulls back reverently to reveal a photograph of a smartly-dressed couple in what is clearly a studio. They’re posed much the same way as Erik’s parents had been, though their clothes are obviously of much better quality, and the woman is wearing a gleaming choker around her neck, a thick shining bracelet at her wrist that catches the light of the flash.

“From the house.” Raven smirks, clearly pleased with herself as Charles turns the page to see another photograph of the same couple, this time – perhaps at a party? There are other people around, certainly, though none in focus, and the image has faded a little so that the lines are not so crisp as they once might have been. “I went back and pinched them when it was clear you were going to be here a while, since I knew you didn’t have any in your place and I wanted them to be kept safe. Good thing I did, huh?”

“Very,” and Charles puts a hand to her face and plants a loud kiss on her forehead with a smack of lips that has her feigning disgust, though she’s laughing. “Oh, Raven, you are a star. Remind me of this the next time I’m being a prig about something and you can have a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“You, a prig? Never,” Raven says, reaching over to turn the page again when Charles pauses. “Oh, look. I always loved Sharon’s dresses. It was the best part of being a shapeshifter, they always fit when I tried them on.”

“Shame you had no idea how to do make-up,” Charles says, and Raven half-shrieks with fake outrage, pretending to smack him upside the head. “No, really, Erik, she looked like a circus clown had mated with a blueberry. It was really a very – aah! – unique look – stop pulling my hair, Raven, and pretend to be a grown-up won’t you – ”

Raven is grinning sharply as she lets go, laying her hands primly in her lap, ankles together like a fine society lady, suddenly demure. “It’s not my fault nobody makes blue foundation.”

There are so many photographs, Erik thinks with a feeling somewhere between disgust and fondness, shaking his head as he reaches out to rub the soft, thick cardstock between his fingertips. It even feels prohibitively expensive. The Xaviers must have owned a camera, or perhaps - he chuckles under his breath - a photographer. They put the Lehnsherr family portraits to shame, these sleek black-and-white images of people in motion, only pausing for a moment in a busy day to be frozen in time before moving on to the next thing, the next extravagance. “Are you in here?” he asks, and lets Charles take back command of the folder, flipping through page after page of the same man and woman, getting a little older each time, until suddenly there is a baby in her arms.

“There he is!” Raven crows, slapping a hand down on the photograph so that Charles can’t turn it over with the rest. “Look at him, all fat-faced and undignified like the rest of us. Isn’t he just precious?”

“Nobody wants to look at that,” Charles says, though Erik is leaning in closer to see the pristine white gown baby Charles is wearing in the photograph, the disgruntled look on his little face as though he cannot wait around to have his picture taken, he has things to be doing. He looks very uncomfortable, actually, and the woman looks uncomfortable too, holding him half away from her body, just secure enough not to drop him, but not enough to keep him from wriggling. In the next photograph Charles is in the man’s arms instead, and looks much happier, hand creeping up towards the tight-knotted tie, about to tug.

“Your parents?” Erik hardly has to wait for the nod, it’s not a giant leap of logic.

“Brian and Sharon Xavier. He died when I was little, and Mother remarried not long after.” Charles grips a thicker chunk of pages this time instead of turning them one by one, and is successful in bypassing the rest of his baby photos - on the next page revealed there are two boys staring back at them, one much bigger than the other, ham-fisted and broad-featured and clearly not Charles; Erik would suspect this of being Raven if it weren’t for the shudder that runs down Charles’ spine when he sees it, and the way he quickly moves them along to the next photograph, which is again two children, but this time one of them is a little blonde girl, and both of them are laughing.

Blonde, blonde, blonde. In every photograph Raven is blonde, blue-eyed, the perfect little Aryan human, the shape of her nose shifting slightly through time, the tilt of her eyes and the proportions of her body, but always, always pink-skinned and unscaled. “Are there no pictures of you?” he asks, as Charles goes for the third album, the first two set aside.

Raven snorts, jabs a finger at the first new photograph, the two of them lolling around in the dappled shade under a tree on a picture-perfect checkered blanket, a wicker hamper between them, like something out of an Enid Blyton book. “Who do you think that is?”

“I don’t know,” and Erik points at the photograph too, “I guess it depends on who you were copying the day you decided on a face.”

“We didn’t dare take any of her blue,” Charles says, brushing both of their hands away so that he can look, tugs a handkerchief from his pocket so he can wipe away their fingerprints from the paper. “In retrospect I wish we had, but there was too much of a risk someone might see. We couldn’t risk it.”

“A pity,” is all Erik says, though he could say much more. It wouldn’t change anything if he did. She looks happy, at least, sprawled across the ground with leaves caught in her hair and head tipped back to enjoy the sunlight where it spangles her skin with leopard-print through the shade of the tree, Charles looking into the camera with a bottle of pop in one hand and a book in the other.

The Raven on the sofa sits up straight and claps her hands in sudden excitement, smiling just as broadly as she is in the photograph, but Erik likes this one more, because it’s really hers. “We should take some!”

“You just want to play at being Twiggy,” Charles laughs, a comment which goes right over Erik’s head, and pokes her in the side, “though you’ve not got the figure for it at the moment.”

“I take it back, you are a prig,” and Raven leans around him to stare soulfully at Erik, who raises an eyebrow at her fluttering eyelashes and does not say anything. “Erik, would you be a dear and get my camera? I left it on the shelf over there and my feet hurt. Because I’m pregnant. And I already got up once and Charles is being horrible to me.”

He tries not to smile, fails miserably, and finds he does not mind overly much. “I’m not getting involved in this.” But he reached out for the camera and floats it carefully over to her waiting hands.

“Smile,” she says, and both he and Charles recoil as the flash goes off in their faces.

“Ow!”

“Damn it, Raven!”

Her laugh is light and breezy and free of the upset of earlier, ringing out loud above the whirring of the camera as it spits out the photograph. “You big babies. Erik, do you think you could hold the camera out and take a picture of all three of us together?”

In the end Charles has to get up to look through the viewfinder to make sure it’s focused correctly and pointing in the right direction, but they manage, Erik slowly relaxing from the stiff awkwardness he had felt in his childhood to a half-smile the two of them charm out of him, and it’s almost reflexive to squeeze the button down when Raven jabs Charles in the side and makes him laugh, eyes creasing shut even as the bright light leaves spots dancing in his eyes and another photograph joins the pile of glossy squares on the floor, slowly developing into something worth looking at.

 

 


XXIV

 

When Charles follows him into the bedroom that evening Erik is kneeling in front of the wardrobe, closing the box he keeps there with a soft thunk that catches the other man’s attention; he wanders over to stand behind Erik as he rocks up onto his haunches and stands, what he was looking for clutched carefully in his right hand.

“This is where I grew up,” Erik says as quickly as possible, handing the photograph to Charles almost dismissively, like passing off a grenade.

“Oh.” Charles takes it from him with the sort of reverence usually reserved for ancient artifacts or mugs of tea, pinched carefully between finger and thumb as though he’s worried he might hurt it. “It looks nice, Erik.”

It feels awkward, showing him, waiting for his - approval? Opinion? Erik shifts uncomfortably, pulling a hand out of his pocket where he’d put it safely out of the way and running it back through his hair, wonders if it needs cutting, ignores the tight little breathless feeling in his chest that’s somewhere between panic and love. “This is after. Someone else lived there by the time it was taken, but I - well. I saw all of yours, earlier.”

“Thank you for sharing it with me.” Charles looks up from the picture to smile at him, and it feels right to reach for Charles in that moment, mimicking that dry kiss earlier, gentler than their mouths have met before, almost soft. Erik presses his lips to Charles’ as carefully as Charles holds the photograph, and it’s like meeting him all over again, mouths and tongues moving against one another slowly, wetting the kiss but not hurrying, not pushing and furious but for the first time… sweet.

Charles’ hands grip Erik’s waist tightly, and for a moment he worries about the photo, but Charles has put it down on the dresser and his fingers are free to curl over Erik’s hipbones, hook through his beltloops and tug, pulling them closer together as Erik touches him in a long caress between his shoulder and the nape of his neck, warm skin under his fingertips that he strokes, careful, and teasing a quiet sound from Charles that tingles in Erik’s chest. He’s almost surprised to find himself stiffening, helplessly aroused by just this simple thing, by Charles’ thumbs rubbing just beneath the hem of his shirt, tracing the skin above his belt and pushing a little under it to trace a scar that tracks from back to front; stranger yet, he doesn’t mind, this time, that Charles has found it. When he tugs Charles closer the other man is hard, too, hips jerking a little against his when they meet, aroused but not urgent.

“Let me,” and Erik pushes him a little, back toward the bed, but Charles goes easily, willingly.

They strip each other, this time, and even this is slow, with pauses for exploration of each new part as it’s exposed until they’re both bared. Erik kisses him once more on the mouth before moving down, and Charles breathes in sharp and shuddering, fingers tangling in Erik’s hair when he takes the swollen head of Charles’ cock into his mouth. He wraps his lips around it and sucks, tracing the leaking slit at the top with the tip of his tongue, his hand stroking and steadying the length of it he hasn’t reached yet. Under him Charles is quivering and moaning quietly, fingers curling and uncurling against Erik’s scalp, each near-catch of his fingernails like the way Erik imagines it would feel to try and harness lightning, all of that electrical energy prickling across his skin and making him shake, too, groaning around the wide stretch of his lips and the cock in his mouth, soft over hard, pulse thrumming on his tongue as he slides lower, takes more, sucks and pushes down the urge to gag.

It’s like tasting Charles’ heart beating, his thighs clenching tight around Erik’s shoulders, and his own cock is dripping onto the covers, hard and begging for a touch he doesn’t want just yet. He reaches up to tangle his hand with Charles’, and their fingers catch and lock together as the human cries out aloud, unable to hold it in; Erik’s tongue strokes the long line of the vein along the underside, traces the join where Charles’ foreskin meets the rest of him, and ignores it when Charles tries to pull him away, sucks harder through the sudden flood as Charles comes, shaking and panting - “Erik! Oh, oh - ” - and keeps licking at the dribbling aftershocks until Charles really is too sensitive and pulls him away more forcefully, up to his mouth for a kiss.

“Erik,” and his mouth must taste bitterly of Charles’ come, but the kiss is no less fervent for it, sloppy and wet as the other man regains a little of the control stripped from him by his orgasm. “What do you want?” Charles asks, between kisses, his breath still unsteady, and when Erik guides his hand to his own cock where it’s desperate for attention Charles is happy to oblige, the first stroke shocking an embarrassingly loud moan from Erik that only gets louder when Charles pushes him over onto his back and shuffles backward on the bed to return the favour.

 

 


XXV

 

Charles sticks their share of the photographs they took to the refrigerator door, which is apparently the traditional spot; it makes getting the milk out in the morning a longer affair, because Erik always pauses to trace a finger over the laughter on Charles’ face, the smugness on Raven’s. His favourite photo is the one where Raven has pretended to swoon across their laps and Charles is grinning into Erik’s neck, face half-hidden but luminous nonetheless.

 

 


XXVI

 

Charles loves to sing. It's one of the things Erik always misses, when he's away, across the ocean or the country, it doesn't matter; there is a distinct absence of humming, of half-remembered words and the lovely timbre of Charles' voice as he potters around the apartment, sleeves rolled messily to his elbows, a pen tucked behind one ear where he's forgotten it and feet bare and padding across the floorboards.

Erik doesn't sing. Sometimes he wonders if Charles would turn and smile at him if he joined in, but he never quite does; instead he listens, makes it part of the background of home, a word he is starting to use more frequently now that it seems he is going to be staying in one place for a while.

 

 


XXVII

 

He spends the next month working solidly on consolidating infrastructure and government, sometimes from his office, sometimes in board rooms and sometimes out in the world, Azazel accompanying him from city to city and town to town for meetings and tours and demonstrations. He gives three speeches, none of them especially memorable save the last, which gathers a crowd of protesters outside with plackets demanding he step down and hold an election for a replacement, one he assumes is intended to be human. When he tries to speak to them the protesters shout louder and louder until he cannot be heard by anyone, and he deflects a few half-serious missiles, expression growing darker with each until eventually he is forced to accept that he cannot force them to listen and gives up, for now. The fact that since his takeover there has been more food, better healthcare for those sick of radiation, and that mutants with applicable gifts are actively working to reclaim some of the land their human politicians had destroyed, seems to have gone over their heads entirely. Magneto is a despot, and nothing more.

He wonders who they would prefer to have in his place, had they the choice - most of the human leaders had been killed when Washington DC had been bombed, and those that hadn’t had gone underground, most of them too sick or weak without their bases of power to do anything practical or conducive to the survival of the general population. It’s all so frustrating, being slandered for being a mutant who took control of a collapsing system and rescued it when what he is mostly doing is a good job.

Magneto also spends time in South America with Magma, working on their own needs and helping to reassure their supporters that they are in control and doing what is necessary. Magma is extremely competent and has things well in hand, but there is something about Magneto and the long shadow his name casts these days that settles the mutants, reassures them that things will be looked after.

Erik wonders, sometimes, when Magneto became this giant figure, this colossus, a rock for mutants to build on and a hammer for humans to fear. When he is home he is grateful that Charles does not see him that way, and that he is very happy to take him down a peg or two if Charles sees it necessary, a few pointed comments enough to rein in any ego he might otherwise have cultivated. Raven, too, teases him whenever she has the chance, something she had not done before Charles, though she had been the closest he had to a confidante; something has changed to make her feel she can mock him now, and have it be accepted in good humour, most of the time. Where once he was iron through and through, cold and unchangeable, solid as that rock, some days Erik feels more like mercury, now, on the inside, shifting and malleable, like a hidden reservoir, or a lake deep underground, slowly trickling through aeons of rock to reach the surface, a bubbling spring bringing things out into the open air where they can breathe.

 

 


XXVIII

 

“Look,” says Mystique, waving her spoon at him after she’s licked it clean, “I might be knocked up, but I’m still Head of Intelligence, which means you have to listen to me when I tell you that the Jets are starting a rumble.”

Magneto gives her a blank look. “What?”

“Not a fan of musical theatre? My mistake. I suppose it would be hard to fit around all your other hobbies.” She scoops up another spoonful of yogurt and eats it with every sign of enjoyment, her feet propped up on the edge of his desk, a liberty nobody else would be allowed to or indeed dare to take. She has the pot balanced on the upper curve of her ever-expanding belly, which seems to swell day by day. “So up until now apart from the occasional assassination the humans have been pretty quiet on the resistance front, which considering their strength of numbers is a very good thing. But they’re getting restless. I think, and all of our operatives think, there’s something bigger coming, that they’re building up to something. We need to decide if we’re going to be ready to mix or not, and how, if it comes to a rumble.”

He sits back in his own chair and steeples his fingers under his chin, forefingers resting in the hollow just under his lower lip, thinking about the protests, about all the little bits and pieces of information Mystique and others bring him every week. Fitting them together is like having the pieces of a hundred jigsaw puzzles thrown in together and trying to fit them together - a cloud here, a corner there. The office outside is very noisy right now - all the better to mask their conversation from anyone who might be trying to listen in, were they clever enough to get past Rogue. “Any rumours as to what this something might be?”

“Not a whisper.” She looks as frustrated as he feels, dropping her spoon into the yogurt and only just avoiding splattering her dress. “We’ve tried getting some of our telepaths close, but we don’t have anyone strong enough to read anyone senior enough from far enough away, and they’re getting pretty good at weeding out mutants from the new recruits. It’s hard to ignore someone thinking very loudly about killing you messily right then and there. I’ve asked Emma for a little of her time, but she has so little to spare, and when we don’t know who we’re looking for…” She tails off, scales flickering in irritation, though she doesn’t noticeably change. “All we have is: big. Unpleasant to be on the receiving end thereof.”

“So no what. How about where? Or when? I’d settle for who.”

Mystique shrugs. “Somewhere in the universe. Some time in the future, which at least rules out the past. Someone who doesn’t like us very much.”

It’s enough to pull a sigh out of him, and Magneto gets up from his seat to pace a little, slowly, just between the desk and the window, looking out at the street below and wondering if this mysterious thing might be happening now, somewhere within a few blocks of where he stands. Mystique watches him move with apologetic eyes, and he knows she is just as annoyed as he is that they have no more information than this, but it doesn’t quite stop him from saying, “So what you’re telling me is that, essentially, we have a sense of amorphous dread and nothing more.”

“Pretty much.”

“If only we had five more of you,” he mutters, as he turns back once again towards the window, arms folded behind his back. “We need to get in there up to our elbows and dig around if we want to find anything, and Mastermind just isn’t as good at subterfuge as you are, more’s the pity. Verdammt!”

She smiles. “You couldn’t handle six of me.”

For a moment, he lets himself think about how it would have been with Raven, had he got there first, before Azazel and before he met Charles. Easier, certainly. There would have been no need to hide and no fear of discovery. They could have lived together upstairs in his apartment, him shaving in the bathroom while she tried on different faces in front of the mirror, different clothes; he would cook, as she was a disaster in the kitchen, and maybe it would have been him she curled up with on long evenings with a magazine or a book, casually disinterested in having personal space. They would have worked together downstairs and everyone would think of them as an inseparable unit, a perfect pair of mutants. Her baby might have been his.

Raven is light and witty and charming, but most of all fierce and determined to stand her ground and protect what’s hers with every bone in her body, no matter the cost. She and Charles both fight him freely as and when they please, never laying down before the battle is well and truly over, and neither one of them is afraid of him or his anger. But he does not know, now, if he could ever have relaxed enough for Raven. She has so much vivacity and so little patience, sometimes. She would never have waited for Erik to come to her, the way Charles does when he’s in one of his darker moods, or known how to nag him out of it without pushing him to outbursts of temper, somehow treading that fine line between sympathy and irritation. She is beautiful, but she does not have the same way of understanding Erik that Charles does, somehow always knowing what Erik is trying to say, however poorly he says it. Charles is strong, and gentle, and fierce in his own way, a pacifist not afraid of going into battle when he must.

He still loves her, all the same, even if it is not the burning ardour it once was. Erik has never been a man to let things go. He just found somebody he loves more.

“Keep all ears out,” he says finally, once his feet have slowed from their pacing to leave him back where he started, stood over his desk, the restless energy useless without a target to aim it at. “Let me know as soon as you hear anything.”

“Don’t I always?” Raven smiles, and goes back to her yogurt, humming thoughtfully around the spoon in her mouth. “You know, you’ve really grown into this, Erik. I know you didn’t think you could do it, but look at you now. I told you so.”

He is quiet for a long moment, then he smiles, an expression that goes all the way to his eyes. “Thank you, Raven. You… know, I hope, that the same is true of you.”

“I’ve certainly grown,” she says with a wry grin, and rubs her stomach, suddenly wincing. “Ow. He’s lively, today. Hey, you want to feel?” And before he can say anything she grabs his hand and tugs him closer, laying the flat of his palm against the taut skin of her stomach through her dress, just right of her navel. “Feel that?”

There is nothing, at first, just an overwhelming moment of thinking about how close they are, and of feeling awkward, before suddenly the flesh under his hand jumps in a way that a stomach never should, and Erik is instead suddenly and shockingly aware that there is a miniature person inside of there, that inside of his dear friend is someone entirely new, waiting to come out. His breath catches in his throat, and he glances up to meet Raven’s eyes, which are very soft and fond. “Weird, isn’t it?” she asks, and Erik just nods, smiles back, everything else - politics, revolution, economics, race - put on the back burner for now, as he takes a moment out for wonder.

“You’re going to spoil this kid rotten, aren’t you,” Raven says, “you big marshmallow,” but she doesn’t sound upset at all.

 

 


XXIX

 

At night Erik learns Charles’ body with his hands and mouth and eyes, burns every inch of him into his memory, until he only has to close his eyes to find Charles on the inside of his eyelids, until it might as well be Charles’ name tattooed on the inside of his forearm, scrawled in messy black ink by a hand that cannot keep up with the mind that directs it.

 

 


XXX

 

Though he wants it badly enough to burn, so much that he feels sometimes he might spontaneously combust if they don’t, they haven’t had penetrative sex, because Charles has not offered or asked, and Erik cannot bear the thought of asking and being told no, or worse yet, of asking and being told yes if Charles does not want it. He has taken enough from Charles as it is.

It’s easy to say it in the heat of things, when they’re pressed flesh to flesh and he’s so turned on he can’t think and his mouth runs away with him, but when they’re not having sex it’s too hard to ask and Charles never says a word either way.

They sleep curled up together, and sometimes Erik lies behind Charles and thinks about it so hard that he has to slip out of bed to jerk off in the bathroom, gritting his teeth against making enough noise to wake the other man, hand slick on his own cock where he has been leaking precome, and never, ever as good as it would be if it was Charles, but he does not wake him up.

He will not ask. Charles has to come to him. Charles has to want it. Erik will not ask -

He gets back into bed after and gathers Charles back up into his arms carefully, shuffles in close and sleeps with his nose buried in Charles’ hair, inhaling and exhaling, fixing the scent in his mind along with everything else.

 

 


XXXI

 

The news comes in the middle of the night, but Magneto doesn’t hear about it until his morning briefing, none of the staff sure if he would want to be called as soon as it came in or not - he makes it clear he would’ve, and that in future they should wake him up, there’s a phone on his bedside table now for a reason - and so presenting it to him as soon as he appears downstairs, a whole gaggle of assistants and ministers crowding him into his office when the folder is handed over.

“Let me read it,” Magneto snaps, exasperated, and forces them all back to make himself some room, reinforcing the words with a solid push on any metal they have about their persons. “All of you out until I’m done. Rogue, you can stay.”

He reads it standing in the middle of the room, a frown creasing his brow as he scans it quickly, reads it again. The report is brief, little more than a few telegrams from their allies and sources within Japan put together into as coherent a briefing as possible. Tokyo is burning, the Japanese mutant population rising up to turn on their government and the American soldiers still posted there - who, after Magneto’s takeover of power in the States had simply stayed where they were, doing much the same job, for lack of other alternatives, exiles of circumstance - and the mutants are fighting for control of the cities with a single-minded viciousness. It has not exactly been hidden that the Japanese harbour a deep and focused prejudice against mutants that goes far past dislike and into making either social outcasts or corpses of anybody unfortunate enough to be found out or stubborn enough not to hide.

“Good for them,” Magneto says, turning over the sheet to see if there is anything more on the back, but there’s nothing - just these few snippets of information sent through on the wires. “Rogue, who’s still malingering out there?”

The girl opens the door a little, just enough to peek out without giving room for anyone to push past. “Shadowcat’s out there, Emma must have sent her. A couple of flunkies from International Affairs, too. Everyone else is just gawping. Want ah should let them in?”

Not particularly, but needs must. Magneto moves around the desk to sit in his chair, laying the file down on the table in front of him. “Alright. Shadowcat first.”

Emma’s assistant doesn’t wait for Rogue to open the door; instead she just walks right through it, appearing from the wood like a movie ghost. There’s a clipboard clasped to her chest and her eyes are wide the way they always are when she talks to Magneto, as though he might bite, or worse, ask her something. When he sees her in the corridor with Emma she seems chatty enough, but something about him intimidates her. Frankly he’d be more afraid of Emma, if it were him. “Sir, Ms Frost would like to talk to you about the Japan situation as soon as possible. Please.”

“Is that what she actually said?”

“Not quite, sir.” Shadowcat bites her lip before continuing, and she looks so young it’s physically painful. “She said ‘tell him I want to talk to him about this before he raises merry hell again.’ Sir.”

The corner of his mouth twitches upward, amused, and he gets up from his desk, shaking his cape into place. “No need to paraphrase for me, I can take the unpolished version. I’d best go see what she wants.”

Shadowcat leads him along to Emma’s office as though he might not know where it is after all this time, glancing over her shoulder every so often to make sure he’s still following. She’s a wisp of a thing, even when she’s fully tangible, and the constant looks make him feel like she’s waiting for him to do something, but he doesn’t know what. It’s almost a relief when she lets him into the room at the opposite corner of the building from his own, closing the door behind her.

Emma looks up as he comes in, laying down her pen with a smart click on the surface of her coffee table. She’s sitting in one of the smart white chairs she has arranged faux-casually by the large windows, taking advantage of the daylight and the view; it’s calculatedly informal, as though she holds mother’s meetings in here instead of running half of the country. Everything is white or cream, from the carpet, laid specially, to the paintings she has hung on the walls, white on white, and the vases of pale flowers spread around and filling the room with fragrance. Emma herself is pristine as ever, her white pantsuit elegantly tailored to her best advantage and her beautiful, crisp-cut features as bland and clean of emotion as they always are, though she raises an eyebrow at him as he comes over to join her. “She’s always staring,” he says as he takes a seat across from her, feeling far too large for the finicky furniture.

“Oh, honey,” Emma drawls, uncrossing her legs and crossing them again, somehow pointed rather than sexual, “I could tell you, but it’ll make you uncomfortable.”

“Not much does.”

It earns him a slow smile, devoid of humour but somehow soft, nonetheless. “Kitty is Jewish. She desperately wants to ask you about your time in Germany, but she doesn’t dare.”

He’s… not entirely sure what to say to that. Magneto tries to keep his gaze level and his expression the same, and if he doesn’t quite manage that then at least she can’t pick his reaction directly out of his head when he’s wearing his helmet. “Hmm,” he says eventually, and glances toward the door, toward a girl he couldn’t have said two things about before and now has too many thoughts about, all of a sudden. “Probably for the best. It’s not pretty.” That, at least, is public knowledge, and safe.

“She’s a strong girl,” is all Emma says, still unusually gentle around the edges, before reaching for her own file, its bright red sleeve stark against the paleness of the rest of the room. “Now. Japan.”

Magneto nods, relieved despite himself to have changed topic. “I’m assuming we haven’t had any direct contact?”

“Not as yet, and frankly I shouldn’t expect any. They seem to be handling themselves.” Emma hands him a sheet of paper, which he scans quickly, glancing at the photograph clipped to it without recognition. “This is unconfirmed, though I think it fairly likely to be accurate. Their leader is a mutant called Sunfire, and he’s not much of a team player. I wouldn’t anticipate him calling for aid.”

“Another fire-related mutant,” Magneto murmurs to himself, looking again at the photograph and the ridiculous mask the man is wearing, which covers his entire face, like some kind of comic book character. “They do seem to be popping up everywhere.”

“He’s very powerful. In effect, he’s taking up your banner.” She hands him another sheet, this one so fresh that the ink smudges a little when his thumb rubs across the words. “The Japanese mutants are all falling into line behind him, and he’s declared himself for ‘Magneto’s cause’. Even in Asia your name is a conjurer’s trick, sugar.”

He hums thoughtfully, tucking the sheet away with the rest in his file to look at again later. “Europe isn’t going to like this,” he says, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers together over his chest. “They were leery enough about South America to send assistance, useless though it was. If Asia starts going too, we could be looking at another world war, if Europe decides they want to step in.”

Emma nods, eyes fixed on his. “Which is exactly why we are going to do nothing.”

The sudden silence is tense and sharp-edged, his full attention snapping to her where usually it would be on their surroundings, keeping track of everything at once. They look at each other for a long moment, two predators sizing one another up.

“And why should I do that?” he asks, maintaining a razor edge of calm. “The quicker we have allies, the more pressure we can lay back against Europe when it comes to that.”

Her voice is neutral, though her eyes are blazing with the love of a good fight. It’s the thing he likes best about her, because he feels it, too. “Getting involved will only make Europe certain that you plan to cross the Atlantic and take the fight to them. It’s an escalation we cannot afford right now, not with two continents to secure and rebuild.”

“Some might say it’s our duty to help our brothers and sisters fight oppression. It’s why we went to war in South America.”

“Two things,” Emma says, counting them off on her fingers. “One, the Brazilian mutants invited us in, which Sunfire has not. Two, I told you not to and you did it anyway, which is why we’re having this discussion now. Enough is enough, Magneto. You can’t take over the world if you don’t secure what you already have, or you’ll go home only to find out someone has reconquered it behind your back.”

He considers what she’s said, listens to the hustle and bustle of their people doing their jobs outside the office, all of them working hard to put into place the things he decides, regardless of what he decides. He could choose, right now, to lend support to the Japanese mutants. It feels right to his gut, to his knee-jerk first reaction. But, perhaps, now is the time to start listening to what others have to say, instead of only to himself and his instincts.

“What would you suggest?” he asks instead, and Emma’s smile this time is not sharp at all but warm.

 

 


XXXII

 

“It’s nice to work for someone who values me for my mind, not what my mind can do, and not for the body it comes in,” Emma says later, before he can leave.

“I’m not Schmidt,” Erik says, and has never liked her so much as when she says “No, you’re not.”

 

 


XXXIII

 

He pauses on the way out of her office, just a moment of hesitation, but he does not speak to Shadowcat after all. Another time, perhaps he’ll offer, if she asks.

 

 


XXXIV

 

Whenever Erik is using his powers in his workroom Charles always seems to wander in, setting himself down in the spare chair and leaning on the edge of the desk as the metal bends and reshapes itself to Erik’s needs. “I could take this into the living room, if you’d be more comfortable,” he says eventually, turning to look at Charles where he’s propped his chin on the heel of one hand, fascination on his face.

Charles shrugs, a fluid motion that looks rather like the waves of a woollen ocean as his cardigan rises and falls. “It’s nice in here. I just like to watch you work. Do you mind?”

“No.” Erik ducks his head and turns back to the piece of iron he’s been trying to mould into something resembling a duck, but it’s coming out rather more like a blob, at present. It’s for a mobile he’s making as a present for Raven and Azazel, entirely different than anything he’s tried to make before, and he has never claimed to be artistic. The menorah had been easier, somehow, than this, springing fully formed from some well of inspiration he had not known he had. “You can stay, if you like.”

“Alright,” Charles says, and when he smiles the corners of his eyes crinkle up in a way that makes Erik want to touch them with the tips of his fingers, not to smooth them out but to feel the way the skin lies when Charles is happy.

The workroom is Erik’s favourite room in the apartment. It hadn’t been, at first; but slowly over the time he’s spent here it’s become less a room he took over from somebody else and more one he’s filled up with parts of himself, bits of metal and tools lined up in boxes and on shelves, paperwork and sketches of things to work on splayed out like the internal works of some mechanical beast, all gears and coiled springs on show for an engineer to examine. There are abandoned mugs here, too, as in the rest of the apartment, testament to Charles’ ongoing commitment to drowning the both of them in tea. Erik has not told him how much it costs now - it’s a small extravagance he can afford to provide, something workaday and invisible for Charles to appreciate without knowing it.

He tinkers with the duck for a while longer, turning the metal over in his hands and pinching it here, reshaping it there. Maybe iron is too heavy for a mobile, though it’s one of the easiest metals for him to work with. Perhaps aluminum, or tin. He’d already planned to use a variety, for the difference in colour. The fact that they all feel different, have a different resonance that is quite pleasing, to him, will make no difference to anybody else. It’s a shame, he sometimes thinks, that he has nobody with whom to share the particular loveliness of pewter, the reassuring weight of steel. He’s tried to explain it to Charles, once or twice, but it’s as impossible to describe the delicate balance of copper and tin in a piece of well-made bronze as it would be to describe a rainbow to a blind man, or a symphony to someone who is deaf.

“What is it you like about it?” he asks when he’s ready to give up on making a duck, crushing the blob into a ball and starting over. Perhaps it will make a better star than a duck. Stars he can do. “Watching, I mean.”

Charles does not answer for a moment, but then he glances up from the metal as though startled, fully absorbed in what Erik was doing. “Hmm? Oh. I like that you like it, I suppose. And what you can do is amazing.”

Is it appropriate to say thank you? Erik finishes reshaping the iron - stars, being geometric, are much easier - and puts it aside, where Charles picks it up and cups it in his palm, twirling it by the long stem Erik drew out at the top for it to attach to the mobile. “I’m trying to improve my fine control,” he says, picking up the next piece, a small hunk of verdigris-stained copper that will make a nice contrast to the iron. “I spent so long on brute force. I’d like to be better at finesse.”

“So you’re making things? To practice?”

Erik nods, then holds out the copper to Charles, presents it to him pinched between forefinger and thumb, its warm ruddy glow gleaming in the yellowish light of his worklamp. “This could be an arrowhead, or a small knife, or any number of things. Making it sharp is not hard. Making it more than that is difficult, for me. So I practice.”

“I think you like it, too,” Charles says, tilting his head to one side and looking at Erik with an expression Erik can only think of as fond. “You like making things. What did you want to be when you grew up?”

Erik’s fairly certain he doesn’t mean post-Schmidt so he doesn’t say, ‘a murderer’. He takes the copper back and starts rubbing it pliable, ready to mould. “I don’t remember.”

“Hmm.” Charles is quiet for a while as Erik starts shapes the copper into a crescent moon, dulling the points so that they are rounded to the touch and carefully dimpling in the craters with the tip of his little finger. The texture of the verdigris makes the surface light and dark like dappled sunlight. Then, “Erik, why do you like me?”

He startles, taken by surprise and unprepared; thankfully it’s only the stem that he crushes between his fingers. “What?”

“Why do you like me?” Charles repeats, wide-eyed and earnest, and does not look away when Erik stares at him, mouth set in a determined line. “I mean, of all the people in all the world, I’m forced upon you by my sister and you just happen to lo- like me. It just seems…”

It’s like having his foot caught in a trap; Erik does not know what to say, how to articulate something he does not understand himself. He is eloquent at other times, he knows, and is not falsely modest about it. But something about Charles is disarming, tongue-tying and disconcerting, and he feels like a stumbling idiot, trying to put his feelings for Charles into words. “It’s not about… this,” he says, gesturing at the room around them, meaning this, this apartment, Charles’ confinement and Erik’s part in that, what he will not think of as his control of that. “I could have put you somewhere else a thousand times over, Charles, if I didn’t… I’ve said so before, to you. But. It’s better when you’re here.”

Charles leans forward, just a little, enough that his hair falls forward into his eyes and he has to reach up to push it back, watching Erik’s face like he expects to find something there. “Better than what?”

And that one is easy. “Than before you were here,” Erik says, and gestures around them again. “Somehow, you make me… I’m a difficult person. I sometimes think I’m like a - chestnut?”

“A conker?” Charles asks, with just a hint of humour.

“With the - the spiny casing,” Erik says, moving his palms in together as though cupping something rounded, hoping they’re thinking of the same thing.

Charles is definitely trying not to smile, now, despite himself. His mouth is twitching, like he’s fighting hard to keep it a straight line. “Are you saying you’re spiky on the outside and nutty on the inside?”

“Forget it,” Erik mutters, glowering at the crushed stem of the moon until it snaps back into the shape he’d intended.

When Charles takes his hand he almost pulls away, but he doesn’t, quite, lets Charles catch their fingers together and hold his hand still, tugging until Erik looks back up to meet his eyes, softer now. “No, I’m sorry, what were you going to say.”

“It’s not about the - our situation,” Erik says, even though he’d rather just get up and abandon the conversation so he could stop feeling awkward. “Don’t think that. I just - you make me - happy. Alright?”

There is an odd expression on Charles’ face, startled and flustered and worried, maybe, but over all of that a slow-blooming sweet smile, made sweeter by the flush that rises to his pale cheeks. It makes Erik’s lungs catch on an inhale, hitching on an upswell of unbearable ardour and affection and embarrassment, and in the moment of respiratory failure his heart thuds hard against the inside of his ribcage. It’s uncomfortable and he hides it by turning his gaze sharply away and back to the metal on his desk, though he is electrically aware of Charles to his side, and when Charles gets up from his chair and comes to wrap his arms around Erik’s shoulders, leaning his forehead against Erik’s temple, pressing in close, it’s easier to show him what he means by turning to press his lips to the corner of Charles’ eye, gently, Charles’ eyelashes fluttering against Erik’s skin and fingers curling in Erik’s shirt.

 

 

XXXV

 

The unrest in Japan is far away, but not far enough, it seems; of course it makes it into the papers, and from there it’s like some kind of visually-transmitted disease. The words and photographs from far across the ocean infect the population here and leave them muttering and ill at ease, striking back at the police who try to calm them and speaking out publicly in a way they haven’t really dared, before, gathering together on street corners and in shady bars to share their malcontent and spread it further.

Three more of the faces on that list, that verdammt list, are shot in early May, one a prominent mutant doctor and two City Leaders, each of them recognised as having played significant roles in the Uprising last year. Only Ghast, the Chicago City Leader, is sniped the way the previous dead were. The other two are killed by regular citizens who have read the list a few too many times and seen a few too many movies. They’re caught, of course. But it doesn’t solve the problem. The population has tasted blood, and they’re hungry for more.

Anti-mutant hate crime is on the rise again, no matter what rights mutants now have to defend themselves - whatever means necessary - and it’s too late to censor the press, to keep the poison from leaching in. The enemy is already inside the walls.

It makes Magneto even less popular, but the curfew is the only thing that even starts to curb the death toll - both mutant and human. The ratio would be in the humans’ favour if only they bothered to make sure of the powers they were up against before assaulting people who can kill with a touch, wipe a mind clean in the blink of an eye or turn limbs to lead, leaving their attackers weighed down to the pavement and screaming for the cops, when their dead, frozen hand is still clutching a knife.

“If people cannot control themselves, then I must do what I can to preserve their lives, regardless of their stupidity,” Magneto says on television, looking down the camera with a practiced assurance he had not had a year ago, six months ago, curls his hands around the lectern and leans towards them, meets the audience’s eyes and stares them down. “If you cannot stop killing one another, mutant or human, then I will stop you.”

At home Charles has fallen asleep in front of the television Erik had brought him, a blanket falling off his lap and head tipped back against the couch cushions, his solitary plate washed and stacked beside the sink. When Erik wakes him Charles smiles at him sleepily and says “Out after curfew? Whatever will the First Mutant say.”

“He’ll probably ground me.” Erik offers him a hand and pulls Charles to his feet, tugging Charles in close and wrapping his arms around him when the other man leans in, drowsy and compliant, tucking Charles in against his chest and sighing. “We can’t keep this up forever. Something’s got to give.”

“People are afraid of being made obsolete.” Charles strokes a hand down Erik’s side to settle at his hip, heavy and welcome in the space between them. “All through history, wars have been fought and lost over human beings’ need to continue their line, to be remembered. They’re afraid of disappearing.”

“Humans are already obsolete,” Erik replies thoughtlessly, and Charles stiffens in his arms, pushing away to frown at him disapprovingly. “You said it yourself, Charles. It’s not personal - it’s evolution. When a more advanced species is born, the less evolved species fades or is killed. It’s in your dissertation.”

“It doesn’t mean they don’t matter, Erik,” Charles says, and for once Erik knows what he means underneath his words.

“Of course you matter,” he says, and when Charles is still frowning, adds, “it’s not as though I only called the curfew to protect mutants. It’s for the humans’ sake, too. Would you really want to try and surprise me in a dark alley?”

Charles doesn’t look mollified in the least, hands stiff where they’re still pressed against Erik’s chest to hold him at arm’s length. “It’s all very 1984, though, don’t you think? There’s a reason they call it a dystopian novel. It’s not supposed to be a model for a good society!”

“What do you want me to do, then?” Erik steps back, letting go of Charles and shoving a hand back through his hair, tired and frustrated and cranky with it. “Let them all go out there and kill each other instead of intervening? I can’t both provide the rule of law and refuse to interfere, Charles, you know that.” He sighs, looking at the other man’s frowning, disappointed face, and cannot be bothered to dissemble. “Do I want to protect mutant lives more than I do human lives? Honestly, yes. You know that about me already. I won’t pretend to be someone I’m not for you. But I’m trying to be fair.”

“I just think it’s a slippery slope,” Charles says, folding his arms and not meeting Erik’s eyes, looking down at the floor. The corners of his mouth are curled decidedly downward, and it’s an unpleasant change from the smile when he first woke up, one Erik has to work hard not to resent.

“If you can suggest to me an alternative,” not that there is one, not really, and they both know it, “then I will be happy to hear it, because this is killing me out there every day, and enforcing it is going to drain our already strained resources, and I would call the whole thing off if it wouldn’t mean facilitating a continuation of this murder culture.” A laugh chokes its way out of him before he’s even registered what caused it, and then the words are coming out of Erik’s mouth after, gravelled and dry. “Which is ironic, coming from a murderer.”

Charles looks stricken, and it’s too late to take those words and hide them somewhere Charles will never see them, though Erik would dearly like to try.

“I’m going to bed,” Charles says, face pale as milk, stepping back and walking away without a further word said between them. Erik stands in the living room and curses himself in every language he knows. It takes long enough that when he slips into the bedroom Charles is already asleep, and barely shifts when Erik lies down, snuffling a little into the pillow, curled in on himself on the far side of the bed.

 

 


XXXVI

 

They end up tangled in together the way they always do sometime during the night, and though for once Charles wakes up before Erik he doesn’t get up, is lying there looking at him when Erik opens his eyes, searching Erik’s face again for that unknowable something he always seems to be hunting down in the line of Erik’s brow, the narrow breadth of his mouth, unused to smiling.

“Do you ever find it?” Erik asks when Charles doesn’t say anything, unwilling to detach just yet, warm under covers in this hollow space between arguments, a moment taken out of time.

Charles startles, though he must have known Erik was awake. “Find what?” His voice is still raspy from sleep.

“I don’t know,” Erik says, letting his eyes slide shut again, heavy-lidded and impossible to hold. He shifts against the pillow, digs himself in a little deeper. “Whatever it is you’re hoping to find in me. You’re always looking, so I assume it’s always missing.”

There is a long silence, then, “Maybe I’m admiring it.”

Erik snorts, then gathers his will and rolls over, swinging his legs free of Charles’ and sitting up on the edge of the mattress, his back to the other man, stretching his arms out above his head and cracking his vertebrae back into place. “I have to go to work.”

“Erik,” Charles says quietly, and the tone of it is enough to make him turn against his will, twisting to look back over his shoulder to meet Charles’ gaze. “I might not always agree with your decisions,” Charles says, hands clenching in the covers where he’s pushed himself onto his elbows, and if nothing else his eyes are steady now on Erik’s, focused and awake. “Or your opinions which are, frankly, on certain matters, offensive. But sometimes I’m just looking at you because you’re important to me and I’m trying to understand, alright?”

“Is today one of those times?” Erik asks, curious, and at least Charles is honest enough not to lie.

“No,” he says, with only the smallest of hesitations first. “No, not today. Today I’m a human first and Charles second, and last night you told me my whole species is obsolete.”

“I didn’t mean you.”

“So, what, I’m the exception?” Charles raises his eyebrows incredulously, sarcasm dripping from his words like thick tar, and he’s mostly naked and yet still so - so arresting, biting. “Well I never. Of all the millions of humans on this planet I, Charles Xavier, am the only one whose existence has not been rendered meaningless by the advent of mutantkind. I must be some kind of paragon. We’d better hope Raven’s baby doesn’t turn out human, or we’ll be in a right pickle. We’d have to get rid of it, of course.”

Erik blinks, taken aback and feeling utterly lost in this conversation, as though somehow Charles has taken the map from his hands and handed it back, only for it to have turned into another country entirely, one Erik cannot navigate. “…what?”

“There’s no guarantee the baby will be a mutant,” Charles says, calm as you please but for the simmer of anger underneath, the hot flush rising on his chest like a burn. “It’s entirely possible Raven and Azazel will have a baby who’s one hundred percent pure-bred human. Will you tell her her baby is a lesser species, Erik? Are you going to refuse to be the baby’s godparent if he or she is human?”

His eyes are blazing like blue fire, like they could set Erik alight with a thought. “It might be years before we know for sure, the child would be old enough to know you’d turned against it. He or she will probably ask you why. Are you prepared to tell a child that they’re not good enough for you, because he or she is genetically inferior? Will you tell Raven to try, try again to do it right this time? I mean, gosh. I’m not sure she’d take well to that.”

“Stop it,” Erik says, jumping to his feet and pacing like a trapped animal between the bed and the door, full of a fraught energy that keeps winding tighter in his spine, like the mechanism of a wind-up toy. The mattress springs back into shape once his weight is removed, and Charles rocks to the side, momentarily off-balance. “Just stop! What do you want me to do, Charles? A year ago I would have laughed in your face, and yet here I am, softening for you, at least trying to be fair on both sides. How much do you want me to bend? Why don’t you just tell me how you would prefer me to be constructed, so that we can cut out the parts that don’t please you. It might leave a few holes, but I’m sure that wouldn’t bother someone as self-righteous as you if it meant you could lobotomise me of opinions you disagree with. You could lead me around on a leash like your dog and tell me when to bark.”

His breath is heaving in his chest, heart pounding counterpoint in his ears like soldiers marching as Charles stares at him, agape. Erik’s fists clench as he continues, “I’m trying! I haven’t ordered culls, have I? I haven’t gone out of my way to destroy humanity. Everything I do benefits them as well as mutants. That I’ve given mutants more right to exist than they ever had under the previous government - something you yourself campaigned for - I just want them to be happy and to be safe and to live their lives without fear of being killed for being blue, Charles. Nobody did that for me, not until it was too late.” His voice breaks on the last sentence, and he feels humiliation rattle him down to his toes.

“Erik - ” Charles starts, and his voice cracks too, stricken, before Erik interrupts.

“Imagine being me, Charles,” he says, “and seeing the worst thing that ever happened to you happening again all around you, only this time you’re old enough and strong enough to do something about it. Could you stand back and watch it all over again, knowing you could stop it if only you stepped up to the task?”

There is no sound in the room, then, but their breathing, and the faint sounds of the city waking up outside, if it ever really sleeps. In the dim light the space between them is a vast, ragged canyon, and it is nothing at all; they are close enough that they could fall back into each other in seconds, to fight or to fuck, inescapable gravity like a black hole sucking them in. Charles pushes himself upward to sit fully upright, leaning back against the headboard, and chooses his next words carefully, if the slow way he says them is any indication.

“What happened to you was awful,” Charles says, meeting Erik’s eyes solidly, without flinching. “I can only hate the people who did that to you, to your family, to everyone who was hurt by the Nazis. It was evil, what happened, pure and simple. But it does not mean that an entire species can be written off like that, Erik. You can’t wave your hand and make humans into old technology, swept aside for upgrades. I’m human, and you tell me I’m not obsolete. You don’t mean me. But the only reason you don’t mean me is because I’m the only human you know well enough to see as an individual rather than as a thing. I’m only an exception because you can no longer lump me in with the rest of the herd of nameless, faceless animals. And it is far too early to be making speeches like this at one another. Please think about what I’ve said, instead of dismissing it as - as bleating.”

Erik feels himself tremble, and he leaves the room to step out into the corridor before letting out a loud shout of anger, his back turned to the doorway so that he doesn’t have to look at Charles, frustration bubbling up inside him until he has to let it loose, before it finds its own pathway, one he might not like. His fist collides with the wall before he’s even realised he’s lashing out, and the plaster splinters under his knuckles with a satisfying crunch that it takes a moment for him to register is as much bone as wall. “Scheiße!

“Erik?”

“Go away!” He cradles his hand and goes to press on the knuckle, but it shifts under the lightest touch and he draws in a sharp breath of pain, suddenly woozy. “Scheiße, dummkopf, Erik, bravo.”

“What did you do?” Charles asks from right behind him, and makes a disapproving noise when he sees the wall, then another one, louder, when he sees Erik’s hand. “What did you do that for, you idiot? Let me see.”

“No,” but though Erik tries to keep it away Charles shoves at him until he manages to get hold of Erik’s wrist, and then he’s pulling it around until he can see the hand itself, hissing between his teeth when he does.

“You idiot,” he repeats, not touching the already-swollen knuckles, turning the hand carefully over so that he can get a better look at Erik’s fingers. “Can’t you talk it out instead of beating things up?”

Erik’s eyes are watering with the pain, and he blinks, hard, trying to get rid of it so Charles won’t think he’s crying; he’s lost enough dignity already for one day, and they’re barely out of bed. “I thought you knew I was a brute already. I’m only helping you decide which parts of me to excise first by putting them on display.”

“Oh for goodness’ sake,” and Charles tightens his grip on Erik’s wrist, glaring up at him in exasperation. “Would you please stop it with the surgical metaphors? I don’t want to change you, I want you to change yourself because you see that maybe I have a point. It’s not the same thing.”

“Sounds to me like you want to hand me the knife and have me smile while I cut myself,” Erik says, staring at the purple colour rising under the skin and slowly darkening. “I’m sorry, Charles, but I won’t do that, not even for you.”

Charles makes a sound halfway between a growl and a shout, letting go to grab at his own hair with both hands, tugging at it as though he might try and pull it out. “Erik, for God’s sake, you’re a good person! I just want you to let that out from under all of the walls of anger and self-defence and not-giving-a-shit that you’ve buried it under! Would that be so bad, for people to see that you actually care about something?”

“I told you that I care about you,” Erik says, trying to wiggle his fingers and stopping before he can even complete the motion, and it’s only with a great deal of effort that he keeps from swaying on his feet. It hurts, a lot. “And you never say it back, do you?”

Charles’ breath hitches, like he’s been taken by surprise.

“The thing is,” Erik continues, gritting his teeth and flexing his fingers anyway, just to prove he can, “that I don’t want you to if you don’t mean it. We can keep playing house here like an I Love Lucy rerun if it makes you happy, Charles. I’ll take what I can get. But don’t expect me to just roll over for you. I’m doing the best I can - I’ve never been in charge of a country before, and neither have you, so let me do my job and you are welcome to your opinions, and I’ll listen to them, but I won’t let you lead me around by the dick.”

The other man’s mouth opens as if he’s about to speak, then he hesitates, one hand lifting slowly, ready to touch; it’s awful, waiting for pity, or worse, a lie, so Erik says, “I’m going for a shower,” and ducks into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. He turns on the water full blast before Charles can try and talk to him through the wood that separates them. It’s loud and it echoes from the tiled walls like standing inside a waterfall, and Erik lets himself imagine for a moment that he’s lost at sea, leaning on the sink with his head bowed and eyes closed, surrounded by the smell of brine.

 

 


XXXVII

 

Charles isn’t waiting for him outside the bathroom door, this time. Erik can hear him moving around in the master bedroom – the one he used to sleep in – but he doesn’t go in. Instead he just gets dressed and goes to work. It’s the best way to avoid picking up where they left off.

 

 


XXXVIII

 

He lasts half the morning before he finally goes to see the medical staff, who pronounce his knuckles cracked and tut loudly at him while they wait for Azazel to fetch Elixir back from whatever medical conference the man is at this week. It’s intolerable, and by the time the other mutant arrives Magneto has scared off all but the last of the nurses, who is scowling right back at him with her hands on her hips. He’d admire her balls if he was in the mood for anything other than complete and utter submission from everyone in his path.

“How did you do this?” Elixir asks once he’s scrubbed up and taken hold of Magneto’s hand, trapping it between his palms. The touch of his skin is warm, at first, then grows hotter, heat bleeding into the skin as the bone starts to reknit with a feeling like ants crawling around under the flesh.

Magneto refuses to flinch. “I broke it on the faces of my enemies.”

“Mmhmm. I hope the other guy looks worse.”

“Oh, almost certainly,” Magneto says, and because he’s a fool, hopes the opposite.

 

 


XXXIX

 

“Erik.”

Charles is waiting for him when he comes back that evening, sat in his windowseat in the dark watching him come in with an expression so neutral there must be something big going on under the surface, but hidden so well Erik can’t even catch the edges of it.

“Hello,” he says instead, removing his helmet and setting it down on its stand.

Charles swallows, turns so that his feet are on the floor instead of tucked underneath him the way they were before. He’s backlit by the city lights, his shadow cast out long between them and almost reaching Erik on the far side of the room. “Erik, if you could – if everything went away, and it was safe, and you didn’t have to worry, would you let me go?”

It’s like he’s swallowed a stone, a heavy press in his stomach drawing down, and Erik doesn’t answer at first, takes a moment to breathe – which Charles gives him – before saying, “If you were safe. Yes. Of course.” It would kill him, but he would do it. The thought of being without Charles is –

He doesn’t think it.

“Oh,” Charles says, and he sounds surprised, as though that wasn’t the answer he was expecting. “Really?”

“I’m not a monster, Charles,” Erik says more sharply than he intends to, and wishes for a moment to punch the damn wall again, harder this time, see if he can break right through. “Of course.”

Charles shifts, uncertain, and then stands, the gleam of his eyes little more than a suggestion in the darkness of the apartment. “I’m scared,” he says, and steps forward, closer to Erik, until his shadow is lapping over Erik’s feet like waves, burying them. “I can never be one hundred per cent sure that what I feel for you is real, and not just – manufactured by this situation. I don’t want to lead you on, Erik.”

Erik laughs. “You’re already sleeping with me, Charles. How much worse can it get?”

“Then – ” the other man hesitates, steps closer, until his shadow reaches Erik’s waist, leaving him hip-deep in Charles’ shade, eclipsed. “Then – Erik, I – ”

“Don’t,” Erik says, in sudden alarm, and steps back and away. “Don’t say it – ”

“I don’t want you to think I don’t care, Erik. I love you,” Charles says, and he looks as spooked as Erik feels, biting at his lower lip until it’s wet and shining. “Regardless of all the reasons I shouldn’t, and ignoring everything else. I love you.”

It’s like being punched in the gut.

“No, you don’t.” Erik can feel every cell in his body fizzing and crackling with a rising elation, one he firmly tries to batter down, resolute. “You don’t.”

“I do,” and Charles steps forward again, once, twice, three steps until he reaches out and pulls Erik’s head down to kiss him, hard, teeth knocking together and fingers tight. “You are – a prejudiced, violent, wrongheaded, funny, gentle, unexpectedly kind misanthropic neanderthal,” Charles says when he pulls back, leaving Erik’s lips stinging from the force of his kiss. “Every time I think you’re unsalvageable you do something that changes my mind all over again. And it’s all very well me sitting on my high horse about it, but. I’m already so deeply tangled up in you that admitting it makes very little difference to me and a big difference to you. And I want you to be happy, too.”

Everything stops for a moment, and Erik finds that his heart is thudding so hard in his chest it might burst, his breath shallow and shaky. When he forces himself to inhale it makes a sound like a sob, though it’s not, it’s absolutely not, and he cups Charles’ cheek in his palm and kisses him back, just as hard, his other hand moving to press between Charles’ shoulders and drag him in close, until they’re leaning against one another and biting at each others’ mouths, and he feels half-crazed and euphoric and terrified.

Charles says he loves him. Loves Erik.

How is he ever going to let him go?

 

 


XXXX

 

They stumble sidelong into the bedroom as though drunk, making it there only by way of the couch, where Charles had got his hands up under Erik’s tunic; the kitchen table; and then the wall in the corridor, where they had slammed up against it, still kissing, half-stripped and tripping on abandoned clothes. Charles’ skin against Erik’s is burning hot, branding him everywhere they touch, until he’s surprised not to be covered in red welts when he looks down at Charles’ mouth on his chest, kissing him above his heart even as he pushes Charles down onto the bed, climbing up over him and leaning down to meet his mouth again.

“Please,” Erik says against the hard puffs of Charles’ breath, strokes his hands over all the skin he can reach, and hopes that he is branding Charles too, covering him entirely with Erik’s name. There are fingers in his hair, scraping over his scalp, holding him there as Charles’ hips jerk against his own, rocking them together and shaking a moan out of them both.

“Off,” Charles says, and pushes his free hand down the back of Erik’s pants, grabbing at his ass and pulling them closer even as Erik goes to undo their belts, making it all but impossible; he resorts to using his powers, shifting the metal around the leather instead of drawing it through and popping the fastenings open with excessive force, probably ruining the zippers. “Erik!” Pulling them down and off is awkward, but he manages, the steel dragging the fabric with it and flinging it off the end of the bed.

The covers beneath them are still tangled from the morning, crumpled and uneven beneath their bodies; it must be uncomfortable to lie on, and Erik shifts his hands to grip Charles’ neat, narrow hips, before rolling them over, pulling Charles on top of him to straddle Erik, looking down at him with surprise in those bright eyes. “I love you,” Erik says, and his voice is choked, because there has never been a time when he has felt so many things all at once, not so strongly, not for years. It makes Charles’ face go suddenly soft and hot all at once, scratched up as it is with stubble and bee-stung lips, and this time when he rolls his hips Erik feels it right down to his toes, arches his head back and groans, his cock hard and jutting upward, leaking pre-come and begging for attention.

“I love you,” Charles says, and his voice is thick with arousal and things unsaid, half an octave lower than it usually is, throaty and intense. “God, Erik,” and it’s like he can’t help himself when he puts a hand to his own cock and jerks himself once, eyes slipping closed and biting at his own lip, groaning.

It’s impossible not to help, for Erik to put his own hand over Charles’ and drag their fingers up his shaft, not to want him, with every cell in his body. “Let me,” and it’s never going to be a better time than now, when he feels like maybe he could ask and have Charles say yes, when Erik wants it so badly - “Let me fuck you, please, I want - ”

“Do you have anything?” Charles asks, hair wild and tousled from Erik’s hands, thrusting hard into their combined grip, mouth falling open on a gasp that Erik just has to sit up and swallow, almost attacking Charles’ mouth with his own as he pushes himself up so that their chests are crushed together, their hands dragging up along Charles’ length between them, and he has to try twice before he can say, “Nightstand, my side. Really?”

“God, please, I want you,” and Charles is shaking against him, too, though whether with eagerness or fear, Erik can’t tell.

Charles has to let go to reach over to the nightstand, half climbing off Erik’s lap, and it’s cold where he’s been until he comes back, plastering himself tight and close against Erik’s chest like a new coat of paint. He presses the tube into Erik’s hand even while kissing him, sloppy and open-mouthed, legs splayed wide across Erik’s thighs; his body is taut and compact and strong, softer where he hasn’t had to fight his way through enemy after enemy, but spare, lean enough that Erik can feel the muscles shifting under the skin when Charles moves against him, rolling his hips and thrusting against Erik’s belly.

The lubricant is cold on Erik’s fingers, but it warms quickly, and Charles groans when Erik reaches for his ass, leaning into him and hiding his face in Erik’s neck when his fingertips find the crack of his ass, trail with growing confidence down toward Charles’ hole. It clenches tight when he brushes against it, puckered and so small, surely too small.

“Please,” Charles says, and Erik curls his fingers, strokes them over Charles’ hole, and when it earns him a loud gasp and a moan and lips mouthing at the tendons of his neck, does it again, circling it carefully, rubbing the lubricant slick across the taut muscle, getting it wet and pushing against it until just the tip of his finger slips inside.

His hips jerk up against Charles’ without his input, and the friction of his cock against flesh is enough to make him harder still, every inch of his skin hypersensitive. There’s so little room in there, muscle pushing down on him like it’s trying to push him out. “You’re so tight!” Pushing again gets him in to the first knuckle, then the second, until it’s all the way in, and Charles is shaking, lips parted and breathing hot moisture into his shoulder, tight-shut eyes fluttering against his skin. “Mein Gott, Charles, are you - ”

“Another,” and Charles pushes back against his finger, rocks onto it wantonly, moans when Erik puts another slick finger against the first and slides it slowly inside him. “Oh, please, Erik, I want it, alright, just - ”

“I love you,” Erik says, and spreads his fingers, stretching, and the sight of them disappearing into Charles, seen over a heaving shoulder, is almost enough to undo him right then and there. “Let me - are you ready, is it - ”

“I’m ready, I’m ready, just - ” Charles finally lifts his head and kisses Erik again, reaches back and takes hold of his wrist, pushes the fingers back in and out, pistoning and moaning so loudly surely everyone must be able to hear him through the walls, through the floor. “Just - curl your fingers, just - ” and when Erik does, it’s like Charles has been electrocuted; he cries out, shoving Erik’s hand up against himself, hard, thrusting erratically against Erik’s belly and says, “I want you, now, Erik, please - ” and pulls Erik’s fingers out.

It’s almost too much for Erik just to touch himself with the lubricant, and he has to squeeze the base of his cock hard before he can slick himself up, but Charles is urging him on, and as soon as he lets go to try and line them up Charles is pushing down onto the blunt head of Erik’s cock, and Gottverdammt he’s so tight, so - even with the preparation, he’s tight and so hot and wet inside with the lubricant. Erik has to clench his jaw shut tight to keep from shouting aloud as Charles pushes down onto him with shaking gasps and groans, fingers clenching tight enough on Erik’s shoulders to leave bruises. He feels -

“Please,” Charles says again, and Erik fucks up into him, unable to stop himself, and when it makes Charles cry out he does it again, pulls halfway out and shoves up and into that tight hole, stretching wide around his thick, hard cock and clenching greedily around him. It’s never been this good before, with anyone. He’s never wanted it this badly, bruises and the bites Charles is sucking onto his skin, which may or may not be hidden by the high neck of his tunic, and he fucks up as Charles pushes down onto his cock, holding him tightly in his arms as they find a rhythm together. He adjusts his angle, shifting until he hits that same place Charles had shown him before, the one that makes Charles jerk and half-scream, and keeps at it, over and over, until Charles is begging; Erik’s hand on Charles’ cock between them seems to tip him over the edge, and it only takes two strokes before Charles is coming over the both of them in spurts, splattering them with come while Erik keeps thrusting up into him, working him through it. The tight clench of Charles’ orgasm drags Erik over with him, and he comes with a breathless yell, spilling deep inside him, hot and wet and hard enough to hollow himself out, turn himself inside out.

They collapse together against the headboard, half-sitting, half-lying, sticky and still joined and close enough to be one animal with eight limbs and two heads, wallowing somehow between the pillows, and Erik has never been so happy in all his life, or so scared of losing something, now that he has something worth losing.

 

 


XLI

 

“I meant everything I said,” Charles says later to Erik’s chest where his head is resting, eyes shut.

“I know,” Erik says, and wishes he could forget about the argument that came first.

 

 

XLII

 

Raven has her baby in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, and nobody tells Erik that she’s gone into labour until he’s between meetings, the ministers filing out of the room in an uneven stream; Rogue has to struggle to push past them, and in the end it’s the threat of her ungloved hands that makes her a path, mutants shoving one another to get away from her bared skin.

“Ah thought you would want to know right away, but they said you weren’t to be disturbed,” she says, jabbing a thumb over her shoulder towards the guards still stood outside the door, who are very deliberately not looking in at the two of them. “Ah tried to get in this morning when ah first heard, but you’ve been in here for hours.”

Magneto grimaces, tries to be angry, but he can’t quite manage it past the sudden rush of adrenaline and worry that has leapt up to hollow out his belly, like a sudden drop in pressure. He’d given the order to keep everyone out - the meeting about food supply had been put off twice already, and things are getting to the point where they have to make a decision or the entire chain could collapse, leaving the more isolated cities to starve. “Where is she, medical?” he asks, focus shifted utterly away from his work and leaving his papers where they lie - more papers, always papers, he’s sick of paper! “Cancel my next meeting. We’ll reschedule.”

Rogue bites her lip and doesn’t move, clasping her hands nervously in front of her. “It’s the Radiation Committee meeting. You said that if anybody tried to rearrange ah was to use my power to knock them out and drag them along here anyways.”

Scheiße.” He raises a hand to his face, covering his mouth and turning away for a moment until he can get his expression back under control. “Then ignore that. I have to take this one. Verdammt!

He wants nothing more than to run downstairs to check on Raven for himself, reassure himself that she’s alright, but outside the room he can hear the first few committee members arriving, chattering amongst themselves and asking the guards if it’s alright for them to come in. There’s only so long they can be kept out before they start wondering what’s wrong and peering in at him through the open door, like tourists at the zoo.

“I’m sure she’ll be just fine,” Rogue offers, and smiles when he looks at her, moving to shuffle his papers back into some semblance of order. “Azazel is with her, and last ah heard everything was going well. This way you get to miss the messy bit and come in for the nice bit after.”

Magneto doesn’t tell her that the messy parts are the ones where it’s most important to be there - if she doesn’t yet know that, then he doesn’t like to take that innocence from her. He thinks of Raven, put together with his vague understanding of the process of childbirth, and has to forcibly remind himself that he is not her husband, nor her brother; he is, at best, her friend, and Raven would likely not want him there. It doesn’t make it much easier not to head for the elevators, but it helps just enough to keep him in the room until the committee members come in, and if his leg is jumping throughout the meeting, if his fingers drum impatiently on the tabletop and he gives even shorter shrift to the usual waffle and blather, at the very least they are smart enough to pretend not to notice.

 

 


XLIII

 

The meeting goes much the same as every one that’s come before it: a whimper after a series of loud bangs.

The radiation zones aren’t growing, but they aren’t shrinking, either; it’s all the field teams can do to keep the spread of the ones nearest their remaining populations contained enough not to carry any further than they already have, and without finding more mutants with applicable powers they could be in serious trouble when the teams they have burn out. It’s not a compulsory position, though it might have to become one if any of them actually try to quit; Magneto doesn’t relish the prospect, because he knows how he would feel about it if it were him, but it’s keeping more of his people alive longer, and without containment their shaky new foundations would collapse like rotten wood under the weight of bodies.

He doubles the containment teams’ pay and agrees to commission more research into other ways to combat the problem. Someone, somewhere, must have a way to do it. For the time being, there’s a matter more pressing on his mind.

 

 


XLIV

 

Or, rather, two matters. It takes longer than he had hoped it might to persuade Charles that he can’t go storming downstairs to the medical floor to see his sister, but Erik can’t blame him for that. Charles rants and rages at the walls, throwing books on the floor that he immediately bends to rescue with apologies - to the books - for bent pages and dented covers, before turning to Erik with a desperate expression, helpless and frustrated, slumping with defeat. There’s nothing he can do without breaking cover, and Erik almost - almost - regrets being able to go himself. If it would make Charles feel better he would stay, though it would drive him half mad, too, but instead he is practically shoved back out with the camera in his hands. Charles stands just on the other side of the elevator doors until they close, hands stuffed in his pockets and rocking back and forth on his heels like he might jump in after Erik at the last second.

 

 


XLV

 

Raven is propped up in the bed when he gets down there, and though the nurse tries to stop him outside - his old foe, still just as formidable as before - she calls out when she hears him and eventually the grumpy old hag steps aside, flicking her overlong fingers at Magneto as though he is just another naughty little boy she longs to take by the ear.

The new mother herself is glowing against the bleached white expanse of the bed, though her hair is sweat-tangled and strewn about her head in a red cloud; she looks exhausted, draped across the pillows with blankets tucked across her protecting a modesty she has long since discarded. “Erik,” Raven says, smiling with a sort of tired joy as she reaches out a hand to him, which he takes. “Come to see me at my most hideous?”

“Of course not,” he says, squeezing her fingers in his and smiling in return, taking in the soft ripple of her scales as her skin settles and resettles, already trying to contract itself back into its proper size after months of stretching. “I’ve come to see Azazel about work. Your hideousness is just a bonus.”

She laughs. “Asshole.” When she shifts on the bed she only just manages to stifle a sharp inhale of pain, but he sees it on her face anyway. “It’s nothing, don’t worry,” Raven says when she catches his expression. “I just pushed a baby out of my vagina, I’m bound to be a bit sore.”

There are certain things he doesn’t want to think about, and he’s fairly certain that shows on his face. “I’m dutybound to report everything you say,” he says, trying to derail her. They both know to whom.

Her mouth twitches into a wicked curl. “Please tell our mutual acquaintance all about my vagina, then. He’ll probably die of embarrassment. It’s like trying to pass a - ”

“Much as I’d love to have to work out how to hide his corpse instead of being caught by the press and painted as some kind of kinky sex-murderer,” Erik says, unable to decide whether to laugh or be appalled, “I would rather not have an apoplectic fit on my hands when I report in. Where is Azazel, anyway?”

Her face softens into that same smitten joy he’d seen before, her fingers curling in his grip as she flushes navy, gold-yellow eyes creasing with love. “Showing off, probably. Oh, Erik, he’s so beautiful. You should see him, he’s perfect. It’s like someone took me and Az and blended us together right down the middle.” Raven’s eyes well with tears, and Erik fumbles in his pocket for his handkerchief, a little baffled by the way she’s still smiling broadly enough that it looks as though it should hurt, handing it over and waiting patiently while she mops the wetness from her cheeks. He sits gingerly on the edge of her bed by her legs, twitching his cape to the side and out of the way.

“It’s a boy?” he asks, when she’s done, though she still looks a little watery. “A mutant?”

“Yes and yes. Well, you’ll see.” Her eyes flick down to the camera in his other hand, and she pulls a face. “Oh, really? Now, when I’m pretty much as disgusting as I’m ever going to be? Erik, it is so good you’re not trying to date women, let me just say that right now.”

“I’m on orders,” he says, and lifts it to take a quick snap of her crumpled-up face before she can knock the camera away, chuckling at her belated protest. “He’s worried, you know.” Neither of them have said Charles’ name yet, and he doesn’t intend to. Safer to talk around him, if other people might overhear.

“I’m fine,” Raven says, but she’s smiling, fondly, and he takes a photograph of that, too, lets the polaroid fall out onto the nubbly hospital blanket to develop, slowly, in the beam of sunlight that falls in on them from the open window. “He’s going to love the baby, Erik, so much. I think secretly he’s always wanted a brood of his own, you know? He’s going to be a great uncle.”

Somewhere upstairs the uncle in question is probably pacing, Erik thinks, anxious and waiting for news as he sets the apartment back to rights after his anger earlier. There’s probably wringing of hands and biting of lips, glances at an elevator that never moves to bring Erik back to him. “He will be.” Erik tries not to think about the brood he can’t give Charles, a new and previously un-thought-of addition to his long list of worries. “Have you named the baby yet?”

“About that - ”

“Magneto!” Azazel swings into the room with more bounce in his step than Erik has ever seen before, and a smile so wide it’s disturbing to see on his normally sober face. Even his tail has bounce in it, coiling energetically in figure eights and s-curls over his shoulder as he strides into the room and immediately goes to the far side of the bed to kiss Raven firmly on the mouth. There’s a bundle of blankets in his arms, and something that might be a tiny hand has escaped to curl its fingers loosely in the fabric. It’s very definitely blue. “Magneto, my friend, comrade, isn’t she more beautiful now than you have ever seen her? Though it is not Mystique you have come to see, I think,” and if anything the grin grows somehow wider, until Erik is concerned that the top half of Azazel’s head might simply come unhinged from the rest of him. “I have a son!”

He has to smile back, then, because the other man is so honestly happy it’s impossible to resent him for the last small wisps of jealousy that he’s never quite rid himself of. “So I heard. Raven was just about to tell me what you’re naming him.”

Azazel is too busy beaming at Erik to see the tiny wince cross Raven’s face, but Erik sees it, the smallest of narrowings of her eyes and a twitch of her mouth that betrays her. “I know how important family is to Mystique, so we have agreed to name him after her brother,” the Russian says, bringing up his hand to cup the baby’s head and peering down into the nest of blankets. “Kurt. It’s a good name.”

Erik cannot help but glance at Raven, but she shakes her head minutely, and so all he says is, “A very good name. Can I see him?”

“Here,” and before Erik can protest instead of just being shown he is being handed a bundle of blanket and baby, Azazel stretching out his arms with a confidence Erik definitely cannot match as he fumbles to take a good grip, a sudden image of dropping the tiny person filling his vision and making it near impossible not to follow through. He must be a sight, because Raven grabs the downed camera and snaps a photograph of his face with a laugh that makes the bundle in his arms wriggle and squawk, and then he is looking down at a tiny face and there is a baby in there, a tiny blue baby with a thick thatch of dark hair plastered down across its forehead and big yellow eyes looking blearily up at him with a little pucker of a mouth squeezing up for another reedy cry.

“Oh,” he says, and lets Raven tut at him and rearrange his arms until the baby - Kurt’s - head is supported on the swell of his upper arm, his body held in close to Erik’s chest and tilted inward slightly, to make sure he doesn’t tip out. The escaped hand only has two fingers, thicker than baseline human, and a prehensile thumb, so at least he will be able to grip; his mother tucks that back into the blankets where it’s warm, and the thumb finds its way into the baby’s mouth almost immediately, eyes slitting closed until only a sliver of gold shows under the heavy dark lashes.

There is another flash and crack of the camera going off, and he startles, head shooting up to stare at Raven, knocked out of his fascination to find her smiling at him, her eyes creasing shut just the same way, dear and familiar.

“He has her colouring,” Azazel says, hand coming to rest on Raven’s shoulder and squeezing, red against blue. “Is good he didn’t come out purple, Janos will have lost his bet.”

Raven reaches up to place her own hand over Azazel’s. “He has a tail,” she says, “and your ears.”

“Congratulations.” Erik looks back down at the baby, Raven’s son, Charles’ nephew, and cannot believe that she grew this little person inside of her, all those months. Kurt shifts again, twisting to the side, and he can see the long point of the boy’s ear poking through his hair, sharp and elfin. “Do you want him back?”

“Nah, you keep him.” The look on his face makes her howl with laughter, her hands flying to her stomach right after as she winces and curls in on the sound, “Ow, ow ow. Give him here, then, before you have a bachelor-panic attack.” She’s very careful when she takes the baby from him, as tentative as Erik though she hides it better, pulling Kurt in against her breast and staring down at him with something akin to wonder on her face. Erik suspects she’s just as amazed as he is that this is the result of her months of being swollen and grumpy, round and heavy-bellied and constantly hungry, demanding footrubs from Charles and bitching at Erik for every little thing that annoyed her. He takes the camera and raises it to his eye, takes a couple of photographs, which she ignores, though when he goes to take a third she raises her middle finger at him and it ends up framing the shot, baby and Raven to the left and rude gesture to the right.

“That’s one for the album,” he says, and shows it to Azazel, who laughs from somewhere so deep it comes out sounding like it’s a noise escaped from a bottomless pit, deep and booming. The angry nurse from before sticks her head around the door and glares at all of them, but it doesn’t quiet the Russian, who acknowledges her presence with a polite nod that does not curb his good humour.

“There are other patients who need their rest,” the woman hisses at them eventually, in a voice like an overheated kettle. “Keep it down or go away. That goes for you too, Mister First Mutant.”

“Ma’am,” is all he says, nodding his head in a show of respect, and it is this more than anything that flusters her enough to make her bustle off to bother some other troublemakers.

“I guess you should take some photos of the spawn,” Raven says with a wry grin, and peels back the swaddling enough that he can see more of the baby, enough to see the boy is sleek-skinned like his father and unscaled, the same deep dark blue all over. He makes a striking picture against the pale blanket, and obliges them enough to open his eyes and look up at the camera quietly for one or two photos before curling his face away and burying it against his mother, who wraps him up again with gentle hands.

It’s time for him to go, Erik realises suddenly, as Azazel curls in towards his new little family, both of them focused in on the bundle in her arms. He’s only a secondary concern compared to this, what should be their moment. “I’ll leave you alone.”

Raven looks up at him when he stands and smiles, reaching out a hand again to squeeze his palm, strong and glowing with happiness. “Come see me tomorrow, okay?”

“Of course,” he says, gathering up the photographs, and takes them back to Charles.

 

 


XLVI

 

Erik doesn’t even have a chance to get out of the elevator before Charles is pushing his way through the doors and tugging the photographs from his hand, flicking through them right there in the elevator car; he stares at each one in turn as if by looking hard enough he might somehow be able to step into the frame and look at his new nephew for himself.

Stood so close, Erik can see every little change on his face as he looks through them, an echo of Raven’s own expression in his eyes, tender and tremulous in their happiness. It’s only a very little effort to keep the elevator doors from closing behind them and disturbing the quiet.

“Is she alright?” Charles asks when he finally looks up, but his anxiety is fading into a sentimental, misty-eyed kind of pleasure that Erik finds utterly endearing.

Erik points to the photograph on top of the pile, the one where Raven is giving the camera a perfect view of her middle finger. “She’s fine. They both are.”

It earns him a smile, sweet and spreading as the other man looks back down at the pictures in his hands, shuffling through them once again and pausing on one of the last, Kurt staring up at the camera, fat little baby fingers curling up by his cheek. “Boy or girl?”

“A boy.” Erik considers for a moment not mentioning the name, and leaving it to Raven to explain, but decides on honesty. “I should tell you something.”

“Yes?”

“Let’s get out of the elevator first.” A hand on Charles’ elbow is enough to nudge the man back out and into the living room. It’s slow going, Charles’ attention on the photographs instead of on his feet, and Erik gives up on getting him to the couch, stops him once they’re stood far enough in to send the elevator away discreetly, out of reach. “Raven wanted to name him after you,” Erik says, and the look on Charles’ face shifts from surprise to delight in the moment it takes for Erik to grit his teeth and say, “but Azazel – I’m not sure what happened, but somehow he thinks his child’s uncle’s name is Kurt, and Raven hasn’t corrected him.”

“Oh.” Charles looks back down at the photographs again, the excitement draining from him slowly until even the pleasure that had been there before is less, and Erik feels like a total ass. “Oh. Well. I suppose it’s to be expected, since she can hardly tell him I exist.”

She told me, Erik thinks, and does not allow himself to wonder what that says about him, or Raven’s relative feelings for Erik and Azazel. “Kurt is a good name,” he tries, and steps over to put a hand on Charles’ shoulder, standing close beside him. “Regardless of who else might have worn it first.”

“Erik, is there really no way I can go and see her?” Charles asks suddenly, twisting to look up and meet Erik’s eyes with determination. “I want to meet my nephew, make sure my sister is alright with my own two eyes. Photos are all very well and good, but it’s just not good enough.”

His heart sinks and clenches, and Erik’s expression must answer the question, because Charles turns away with a huff of frustration, laying the pictures down finally on the coffee table and going to sit on the couch, elbows propped on his knees. “I’m sorry,” Erik says, coming around to join him, and setting the helmet down on the table beside the photos. “There’s simply no way to do it that guarantees you won’t be seen. And even if you weren’t, Emma would pick you out in a heartbeat, and she’d be more likely than not to shoot first and ask questions later. I value your brain unscrambled too highly to risk it, Liebchen.

A finger-tousled head comes to rest on Erik’s shoulder, but only for a moment before Charles is sitting bolt upright again and giving him an incredulous look, eyebrows rising. “What did you call me?”

“Nothing,” he mutters, and reaches up to undo the clasp of his cape from where it’s suddenly tight around his throat, lays it aside over the arm of the couch and does not meet Charles’ eyes. He has a terrible suspicion that he might be blushing.

When he turns back Charles is smiling at him, wry and warm, but he doesn’t ask the question again. Instead he says, “We’ll have to get them a present. What do you think they’d like?”

“She’s your sister.”

“He’s your godson.”

“Charles,” Erik says, with a dash of amusement at his own expense, “I barely managed to hold onto him without dropping him, what makes you think I have any clue of what an appropriate gift would be? Besides, I’ve been making the mobile. You’ll have to think of your own gift.”

“Rats,” and there’s good humour there again too, Charles pulling his legs up onto the couch to sit tailor-fashion, tipping his head back against the cushions to stare thoughtfully at the ceiling. “You would have to go and be all German about it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

A grin. “Desperately efficient and making the rest of us look bad. Look, can’t I claim some sort of couple’s benefits and bogart yours? Joint present?”

“I think the metalwork might give it away.”

“I’m an uncle,” Charles says, and his voice is full of wonder. Erik has no choice but to look at him, to take in the long line of his throat where Charles is swallowing down amazement, the loose curl of his hair, getting rather long again - it will need cutting again soon - his broad, strong shoulders and blunt, capable fingers, the trim line of his waist and the easy stretch of his thighs where they press against the fabric of his trousers. Sometimes it’s hard to think of anything else but Charles, the easy grace of him. He feels everything so strongly that sometimes Erik thinks it might be catching, because he can barely breathe sometimes for feeling things.

“Raven will bring him up as soon as she’s able, you know that,” he replies eventually, meeting Charles’ eyes when the human tips his head to the side to look at Erik and smile, hair flopping across his forehead and getting caught in his lashes. “She won’t be able to resist showing off.”

“You’re terrible.” Charles’ arms shift, though, to lie across his chest as though he’s cradling a baby, his gaze somewhere fond and far away. “He’s obviously a mutant - I wonder what his power will be, if he has one. If he’ll have one or both of theirs. It’s going to be very interesting, finding out what it means to be a second generation mutant.”

“It’s going to be interesting enough trying to get diapers to fit around a tail.”

“He has a tail?”

“You can’t see it in the photographs, but yes. He looks a lot like his father.”

“He looks a lot like my sister,” Charles says, “like his mother,” and he spends the rest of the evening looking up from whatever he’s doing at the time at some invisible point off in the distance, smiling quietly to himself. Erik doesn’t interrupt him. The look on Charles’ face is enough to keep him from speaking, somewhere between longing and pride.

 

 


XLVII

 

Erik spends a lot of time thinking about being a godfather over the next few weeks, watching Charles and Raven cosset and coo over Kurt, taking his own turns at holding the child, though he only slowly becomes more comfortable with it. The baby sometimes seems to want Erik to drop him, the way he wriggles. He is a pretty child, sleek and blue and sleeping more than he’s awake, at first, blinking up at their faces as though he is wondering who they are, these strange caregivers, big gold eyes shining from under the dark mop of his hair. It is hard for Erik to imagine ever having been that small, that helpless. But when Kurt curls his strange little hand slowly around Erik’s index finger, holding onto him without curiosity, just a need for touch, Erik does not, cannot pull away, caught wide-eyed and wondering, and filled with a strange sort of emotion, very unlike anything he’s ever felt for anyone else. Kurt is something fragile that someone has entrusted him with. It’s a strange feeling.

Raven spends half her time with Azazel and half of it with Charles, though much of the time she is upstairs in the apartment is spent with her sleeping in the spare bedroom while Charles minds his nephew, who is by all reports not nearly so calm and quiet at night. Erik becomes used to returning home to the smell of baby powder and the sound of Charles talking to his little captive audience of one, carrying the baby around with him on his shoulder and showing him all the things in the apartment as though they are brand new and not old friends, by now, after a year of these four walls.

Downstairs Magneto’s government rolls on regardless, and he does not comment on Azazel’s renewed fervour, just lets him into the meetings about security and listens to what he has to say. It’s no surprise the man would be more passionate about quelling the rising violence, now that he has something very precious to protect. Mystique has always been reason enough, but she has been fighting alongside them all since they met. Kurt is a very different matter.

And Erik -

Erik wants to build a world his godson can be proud to live in, one where Charles can be proud, too, can be proud of Erik.

In June they break up three large-scale plots across the country, tracking from one to another like following the roots of a weed, spreading underground until the rains come and let the flowers bloom. A mutant medical centre is bombed, killing several of the staff along with many of the patients and their families, some of whom are humans taking their relatives to the doctor. The press alternates between vilifying the humans and the government for the restless and roiling public, for the attacks and the protests, for the mutterings in alleyways and bars and on late-night radio. And Magneto helps build a new railway system between some of the remaining cities where the tracks have had to be redirected around the devastated zones, lifting the metal from where it used to run and laying down new lines, new connections spreading outward, linking people together, for better or worse.

 

 

XLVIII

 

By the end of June they have been forced to introduce identification papers for every citizen, though of course they are no sooner produced than forged; it weeds out the opportunists even if it does nothing for the best-organised groups of human terrorists. Lone vigilantes and glory-seekers’ sloppy ink and poor copies are picked out before they can commit their crimes, and though it fans the flames of the growing wave of discontent and anti-government underground publications it does at least discourage the more casual criminals.

Erik hates it. In policy sessions Magneto argues against it as long as he can - it brings back too many memories, none of them pleasant, and he knows too well the slippery slope, no matter what Charles thinks - but eventually even he is forced to concede that it is a necessary move, if they are to try and quell the violence.

The mutant status field is new. When his papers are issued - on camera, of course, like everything these days, though it seems to make little difference - there is a red M beside his name, within a perfect circle. If he had requested papers for Charles there would have been a blue H instead, in a square.

He doesn’t, of course.

 

 


XLIX

 

He’s popular with mutants at least. Now that the dust has settled enough to get some reliable demographics the remaining population is approximately forty percent mutant, their proportions drastically increased after the massive human death toll from radiation and related complications. New York has become an epicentre for mutants and mutant culture, many of them moving to the city to be closer to the leadership and what they see as relative safety to start building a life for themselves as a new type of people. There are mutant bars, now, and mutant-run businesses filling streets that had been abandoned before, catering to a clientele of every shape, size, colour and need. Specialist tailors with fabric suitable for those who burn particularly hot or cold, or have unusual body shapes; there’s even a mutant cabaret, and mutant street-entertainers, though Erik has little time to go out and see what it is they’re building in the space he’s claimed for them.

It’s not unusual to walk through the park and see a child playing frisbee with himself and himself, or a pack of teenagers showing off to one another the way children of that age always have, but with added extras. They’re young in a way he never got a chance to be, and he cannot resent them for it, not when this is why he fought. That the humans are unhappy, that they feel they are playing second fiddle to freaks just because the mutants are no longer hiding from them, cannot help but be secondary to this.

 

 


L

 

“I think the problem here is one of escalation,” Charles says when they’re sat across from one another over a game of chess, watching Erik contemplate his next move. He’s swirling the glass of scotch in his hand slowly, the amber liquid lapping at the sides of his glass like a wind-roughened sea. “Every time they escalate you’re forced to escalate your countermeasures, so of course they escalate their violence. It’s going to end in tears.”

Erik moves his knight forward to capture Charles’ bishop before responding, catching the piece between his finger and thumb before moving it over to his side of the board. “It already has, for too many people.” He leans back in his seat and takes up his own glass, but does not drink. “Oh, I agree with you. But there’s nothing to do about it, Charles, either we respond and they escalate or we don’t and people die anyway and blame us for our inability to do anything. If you have any suggestions I’d be more than happy to hear them, believe you me.”

It takes Charles a while to answer, his hand hovering over the board until finally he reaches for a pawn, ducking it carefully out of the reach of Erik’s Queen. “Have you tried talking to them?”

“They’re not interested in talking, Charles.” Erik sips at his scotch before setting the glass down firmly on the table with a soft thunk. “They won’t be happy until they’ve got a human back in power and me and mine six feet underground, preferably buried alive I’m sure.”

“But have you tried? I mean, face to face, not a speech or yelling back at protesters but actually sitting down across from somebody and talking things out.”

Erik spreads his hands helplessly, shakes his head. “Who would I talk to? They have no organised leadership that we’ve been able to uncover, no spokesperson or figurehead I can send an engraved invitation to. And they’d have to be idiots to come out from the shadows if there is a leadership out there, let alone come willingly into the same room as me. They think of me as a vicious, coldblooded murderer. Never mind what I’ve actually done since taking over leadership. If they came out to us then we’d know who they were, and then we could find them again, or Raven could impersonate them, or Emma could control them, if she knew which brains to go after. If they were fools enough to agree to it then they’d be no threat at all, because they wouldn’t be smart enough to be dangerous.”

Charles sits back in his chair, mirroring Erik, and props his hands up on his stomach, eyes steady on Erik’s. “Well, think of it this way. If you make the offer then one of two things will happen. Either they come and you get to talk to them about all of this and try to break this vicious cycle, or they don’t come and you get the moral high ground for offering to talk. It’s win/win.”

“Or they come and I have them all jailed, breaking the cycle. Or they don’t come and I’m accused of planning to capture them by offering false parlay.”

“That’s very negative, Erik,” Charles says mildly, taking a mouthful of scotch before continuing. “If you only ever expect bad things to happen then of course they do. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make an offer in good faith and they take it, then you betray them, it would only make things worse. And either way you’re getting bad press right now, so at least you’d be doing something different. Even if it changes their thinking just a little then it’s worth it, surely? A single grain of rice can tip the scale.”

“And a straw can break a camel’s back.”

“You asked for my advice, I’m giving it,” Charles says, stretching out his foot to kick at Erik’s shin. “Are you going to move or not? I’d like to finish this game before we both die of old age.”

“I don’t know, I think I see a few grey hairs already,” Erik teases, and gets kicked harder for his troubles.

 

 


LI

 

“It can’t hurt, I suppose,” Emma says the next day when he puts it to her, cocking her head to one side as though she can see right through him. “It could be very good for your image, in fact. Rather out of character for you, pet.”

“Just set it up,” Erik says, and does not answer the unspoken question, though it hangs heavy in the air between them.

 

 


LII

 

They don’t come, of course. He receives a politely worded refusal in with his regular post, unsigned and carefully printed on the most non-descript and untraceable of papers, written in unremarkable ink. It outlines their objections to his rule - namely that he took over by force, that he did not offer elections, that he is suppressing humans and raising up mutants in preference, that his whole cabinet and government is made up of mutants, that his policies are unjust. There is no return address either, for him to try and open up a line of communication, of discussion.

They don’t try to poison him, though, which he chooses to take as a positive.

 

 


LIII

 

“Maybe it’s me,” Charles jokes, but Erik doesn’t think it’s funny.

 

 


LIV

 

He dreams almost every night, now, not about the camps but about the ghettos before that, about his parents’ faces even before that every day when they opened their newspaper, pinched and white-lipped, the rapid-fire whispers stopping as soon as they realised he was listening. He’s not really sure he can call them nightmares, because they’re horrible but not frightening, not really. Erik has most certainly had more disturbing dreams.

And yet - and yet -

He wakes up panting and sweat-sodden for no good reason, wiping a hand across his face to mop his brow of this deep-seated anxiety that rises in his chest like a swelling canker, putting pressure on his lungs and making his breaths short and shallow. At least he hasn’t woken Charles, he thinks for the long quiet moment before the other man rolls over, eyes barely slitted open, lids clearly trying to slip back closed.

“Are you alright?” Charles asks, voice still gummy with sleep. “Nightmare?” His hand comes up to rest on Erik’s chest, above his heart, slightly cupped as though he wants to hold the beat of it in, press down on it until it slows, steadies. His forearm lies on Erik’s stomach, a warm and welcome weight, like the line of Charles’ body pressed against his side.

Erik sighs, lets his head tip sideways so that his forehead rests against the top of Charles’ head, hiding his expression. “Not really. Just remembering, I think.”

“Remembering what?” Charles shifting to get comfortable shuffles the bedclothes around them, tugging and pulling them into a new shape, and Erik shifts a little too, making himself a better shape to fit Charles’ loose curl.

He thinks for a minute, lets his fingers tap against the line of Charles’ shoulderblade. “I’m not sure,” he says eventually, and it’s easier, somehow, in the dark, to let the words slip out instead of holding them tight to his chest, guarded like a hand of cards. “All of this - the violence, the identity papers, the racial hatred - reminds me of my childhood.”

“Mmm. Oh. Well, you know what I think,” and Charles yawns, though he’s clearly trying to stay awake. “Maybe you’re trying to tell you something? If it makes you think about that. There are - ” he yawns again, a wide stretch of his mouth that he doesn’t bother to cover, “sorry - rather obvious parallels.”

The dark ceiling above them is another country, shadowed and cracked where the building has shifted, like being below deck on an old-fashioned sailing ship. Sometimes Erik feels that he might be able to see stars through it, just out of reach in an ebon sky. The two of them adrift together somewhere, far away from everyone else. “I know.”

“Am I the Jew, then, hiding in your basement?” Charles asks, and props himself up on the arm braced on Erik’s chest, resting his chin on his fist so that he can meet Erik’s eyes, his pupils dilated so large that his eyes could be all over black, dark and bottomless in the greyed-out bedroom. “Why do you do it if you know it’s the same? How can you let it happen?”

Erik wants to hide his face, but there is nowhere to hide it, this close; he has no choice but to let Charles see his mouth draw in tight and unhappy, to see the real feelings he’s been trying to crush with pragmatism. “What choice do I have? My reasons are different than theirs. It’s the only thing I can do to try and get things back under control.”

“Not the only thing.” He can feel Charles’ warm moist breath brushing against his face when he speaks, they’re so close.

He sighs. “I tried talking. They didn’t take me up on it.”

“Then keep offering. Maybe eventually they will, if they see you’re serious.”

“They’ll never believe I’m serious, Charles.”

The human huffs, brows drawing together in a frown that Erik wants to ease out with his thumb, rub the line between them until it smooths. “Of course not, if you don’t show them you are. Isn’t there some gesture you could make, to show you mean it?”

“Like what?” Erik asks, intrigued despite himself, and waits while Charles thinks, head tilting slowly to the side until his ear is resting on his hand instead of his chin, then slipping his hand out from under so that it’s resting directly on Erik’s chest, rising and falling with his breath. He tries to make his breathing gentler, a smoother inhale and exhale, so it doesn’t jostle him too much.

“Maybe you could set up councils, or committees, for human concerns?” Charles says slowly, as though he’s feeling out the edges of the idea, still exploring its tangled corners to check for holes, like an unknown pocket, picking out the lint to see what’s inside. “You have mutant-specific offices. What if there were human-specific ones?”

Erik only just stops himself from shrugging. “The mutant offices are there to fill special needs mutants have on top of the regular infrastructure. Humans don’t have those additional needs, which is why they don’t get offices.”

“Well, I don’t need tea, but I am happier when I have it,” and Charles smiles, small and sleepy. “As well you know.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, nothing.” The smile deepens, is hidden behind a hand that comes up to rub at Charles’ eyes. “Just - you don’t get anything for nothing, Erik. You have to put in raw materials to get a finished product. If you put in goodwill you might find you get goodwill back, and more of it.”

“More likely they’ll look at an offered hand and cut it off,” he mutters, but he knows better than to just ignore Charles’ advice. Even if he disagrees, it often helps him think in a new direction that he might not have found on his own. “I’ll think about it.” Grudgingly, perhaps, but he’ll do it.

Charles shifts again, reaches down for the bedclothes and drags them higher, up over the both of them and in close, patting them into place and letting his hand fall back to Erik, fingers curling against the skin and tingling pleasantly. “Good. Now go back to sleep,” he murmurs, and soon enough he’s snoring quietly, lax and heavy overlapping Erik, using him for a pillow. It takes Erik a while longer to fall under himself, but he manages it eventually, and dreams of rocking side to side in their little boat, surrounded by the creak of boards and the snap of sails, and absolutely nobody else.

 

 


LV

 

“Bah,” says Kurt.

Erik looks up from his work at the table to see the baby staring at him from where he’s been laid on his back on his mat on the floor, eyes wide and a hand mashed into his mouth as though he’s going to eat it. Just as often it’s his tail that gets gummed at; any and all appendages seem to be of interest, something Erik does not really understand. At four months old Kurt is much more mobile than he had been at first, and more often awake, though as of yet he doesn’t seem to really - do much.

“Oooo,” Kurt says around his fingers, and he’s still staring at Erik, waiting for a response.

“I’m working,” Erik says, then feels stupid for trying to hold a conversation with an infant. It’s not as though Kurt is going to tell him he understands and find something else to do other than try for the world record in not blinking. “Your Mama will be back eventually, or Charles will play with you when he’s done with his bath.”

This earns him a derisive sneeze, which leaves the baby’s face covered in sticky green snot. “Uh,” says Kurt, and reaches for it with curious fingers.

“Alright, no,” and before he even realises he’s moving Erik is up out of his chair and tugging his handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe up the mess before it can make its way anywhere else, most probably into that toothless mouth. “You’re disgusting,” he says as he kneels beside the mat and folds the handkerchief to find a clean spot to wipe again, trying not to scrub too hard. Kurt just laughs and grabs for the handkerchief, which Erik twitches out of his reach quickly.

The thing is, Erik really does love this baby, even if he doesn’t really understand babies, but… it’s just, Charles spends so much time looking after him, or with him and Raven, or talking about what Kurt did today, and Erik is maybe feeling a little… displaced?

It’s stupid, he knows this, even as he looks down at Kurt where the baby is still looking up at him trustingly from flat on his back on the mat, limbs jiggling excitedly because Erik is paying him attention. Kurt has only just learnt to lift his own head, he’s hardly competition. But. He keeps Charles busy, and interested, and gives him something to think about when Erik is not around, which is good, but it spills over into the time when Kurt isn’t there, too.

“What do you want?” Erik asks, and Kurt says, “Ooooo,” and waves his little hands, fingers curling and uncurling into fists.

He gets up slowly, dusting off his knees. “Alright. I have work to do. You stay there.”

“Buh,” says Kurt.

Erik sits down and turns his attention back to the documents Emma had told him had to be read by tomorrow, and tries to ignore the little blue wiggle he can see from the corner of his eye, the occasional coos and exclamations as Kurt discovers another toe he had forgotten he had.

When Charles comes out of the bathroom he only pauses by Erik long enough to brush his hand over Erik’s shoulder briefly before going to the baby and scooping him up again, as though he cannot bear to put him down.

 

 


LVI

 

Japan falls. It took longer than predicted, after China got involved, but once the Mutant Underground of Singapore start their own uprising the front is split and the former powerhouse’s faltering resources aren’t enough to quash both.

Or, indeed, as it turns out, either.

The backlash spreads from country to country in Asia until, like dominoes, one after another, they come under mutant control. Magneto watches with something he can only describe as pride.

 

 


LVII

 

Of course the Europeans don’t like it at all.

 

 


LVIII

 

In September Charles takes to wearing his oversized sweaters again, wrapping himself up in them with every sign of enjoyment at being swaddled in wool. This one is grey and cable-knit, apparently an old favourite, thin at the elbows and stretched so that the v-neck lies wide and low, slumping as though it might slip off at any time. Erik can’t help but think it would be lovely if Charles weren’t wearing the white shirt underneath it, if it just bared a whole swathe of his shoulders and chest for Erik to slide his hands down and inside the sweater, over all that skin. Mornings are slowly becoming dimmer, the sun growing more sluggish as autumn creeps in. Outside it’s only just starting to lighten, long fingers of sunlight creeping inbetween the buildings and reflecting from windows.

He himself is shirtless; it’s a little chilly, perhaps, but the new easiness between them has left him more comfortable within his own flesh, scars and all. There’s a certain level of enjoyment in not thinking about it, though the first time Raven had walked in when he had his shirt off she had gasped and clapped a hand to her mouth, the other one cradling Kurt’s head against her shoulder. It had taken a while to get her to calm down, and he’d had to bat her hands away when she’d reached out to try to touch one of them, uncomfortable and too damn proud to go put on a shirt once she’d already seen.

Charles has seen them all, and never flinches.

“I’d really like to publish some of my work,” Charles says as Erik is lifting his coffee mug to his mouth, and looks up at him over the newest of the journals Erik has liberated from McCoy downstairs, meeting his eyes with the sort of calm he only adopts when he knows he’s asking Erik for something he won’t want to give. “It seems like such a waste if nobody else is ever going to see it.”

It’s really difficult to pull a face and swallow his coffee at the same time, but Erik manages, somehow. “How would you do that without your name on it?”

Charles frowns. “Of course my name would be on it. It’s my work. It’s not as though it would have my address printed alongside it to call the angry mobs to our doorstep.”

Erik puts his mug down on the countertop beside his hip and tries not to sigh, because it won’t help anything, would only make it worse to have to say, “Using government data, clearly not gathered by any university still standing. Using data that our scientists would be sure to recognise, and ask where you got hold of it. And raising the issue of your continued existence again the minute someone recognised your name and flagged it up to the people who want to kill you for liking mutants, by publishing a paper on mutation. Charles…”

“You only ever say no,” Charles says, dropping the journal on the table with a loud flap of paper. His hands are clenching into fists, though he consciously smooths them out after a moment to lay flat on the table, palms down on the paper, pinning the scientific text down like Erik might try to take it away. “It’s always no, no, no, and I know why it is, but I hate it, Erik, I hate that it’s always no. Why can’t you just say yes, just once?”

“Because I don’t want you to be hurt, Charles. I’m not trying to be cruel.”

“It is cruel, though,” and Charles gets up from his chair, shrugging his sweater back into place and shoving the sleeves up above his elbows, leaving his forearms bared. “You might not have made things this way, Erik, and you know how I feel, but it is cruel. I’ve had to give up everything I loved in exchange for you - my work, my whole life gone, and four or five hours of your time every day is just not enough for me to not go crazy. I need something to do, something useful and constructive, so I don’t just sit around counting my fingers for hours on end. I’ve checked already, I have ten.”

Erik grips the edge of the countertop behind him with white-knuckled restraint. “I never - this - ” and he gestures between them, “ - this was not a planned thing. It’s - I never wanted you to give up anything for it. I never asked for payment for it.”

“I know that, Erik, you didn’t even like me when we met!” For a moment Erik thinks Charles is going to walk away, his arms lifting to wrap around himself, but instead after a moment of hesitation he steps forward, coming around the table to stand in front of Erik, not reaching out but close nonetheless. His bare feet are between Erik’s, pale against the cold terracotta tiles. “But a man can get sick of no.”

“I certainly don’t do it for the sake of a quiet life,” Erik says, thinks about pulling Charles in with a hand curled in the fine grey wool, tugging him in to lean against Erik, about kissing him to show him what he means. “I don’t know what you want me to do. I can’t make the situation go away. I would if I could,” and in that moment he can let himself believe that it’s true.

Charles smiles at him, a bit weakly, but he does, the corners of his eyes crinkling fondly. “I know. But I want this work to get out there. Science has to keep moving on even in this new world, and I want to be part of that.”

His coffee has cooled when he takes another sip, lifting it to his mouth and giving himself time to think of the best way to respond. “The problem still stands - you can’t publish under your own name, Charles, not without setting yourself on a heading to disaster.”

“A compromise, then?” Charles steps a little closer, until his sweater is brushing Erik’s bare skin, tantalisingly near, probably on purpose. “What if I agreed to publish under a pseudonym?”

It would be so easy to say yes, to give him what he wants, to earn a smile that spreads across Charles’ mobile face, to light up those eyes and not worry about the consequences of agreeing, except that the only thing Erik fears more than failing the nation of people under his care is losing Charles, enough that sometimes he wakes up and has to lie about his dreams so that Charles won’t know how many times he’s seen those same eyes wide and staring and emptied of love, how many ways. Bullets, fire, sickness, accidents - or even just Charles choosing for once and for all to walk away, sick of Erik and his bullshit and his possessiveness, getting out somehow and vanishing, never letting Erik know if he’s alive or dead, just disappearing one day, as though he’d never been here at all.

“Wouldn’t you need credentials?” he asks, and hates himself for saying it when Charles’ face falls, clearly not having got so far as to realise that a pseudonym wouldn’t have any, wouldn’t be able to prove their bona fides.

“Quite right,” Charles says, slowly, and when he leans forward into Erik it’s not like he wanted at all, limp and defeated, face hidden in the crook of his neck, though he can feel the expression Charles is wearing, anyway, crumpled in on itself. “Quite right, damn you.” And he makes a stifled sound of frustration into Erik’s chest, wordless, a string of stymied vowels. “God damn it.”

There has to be a way to make it better, Erik thinks, but he has no idea what it is. “I could show it to McCoy,” he says before he can think better of it, and immediately wishes he hadn’t, because Charles’ head rises slowly from its sag, curious hope stirring on that beloved face. “I can’t promise anything, Charles. I can’t tell him it’s yours or where it came from, and if he asks too many questions then I can’t keep doing it, but I can see if he can use it, at least.”

“Henry McCoy is the young man you keep stealing my journals from, is that right?” Charles’ expression is lightening as he watches, despair seeping away like a drain has been opened. “He’s really very clever, Erik, you should give him more responsibility. He leaves these notes in the journals sometimes - I feel quite bad about your appropriating them actually, because he clearly intends to go back to some of them - ”

“Never mind McCoy,” Erik says, and kisses Charles, pressing his mouth against Charles’ and stroking Charles’ tongue with his own. He swallows Charles’ sounds of mild protest, tugging him closer where they’re both now leant against the counter, and nips at the swell of his lower lip until Charles melts into it, bringing up his hands to cup Erik’s face and kiss him back. Ink-stained thumbs caress Erik’s cheekbones as though they are something precious, Charles leaning in against him until they are pressed all along one another, warm bodies nested together, and Erik never, ever wants him to stop forgiving Erik for all the things he has to do to keep Charles safe.

 

 




 


LIX

 

Sometimes Erik hates the fact that he loves that he has, by default, become nearly everything to Charles. But that’s hard to remember when they’re not fighting, when he feels like he has everything he has ever wanted.

 

 

LX

 

McCoy is effusive over the work, taking it from Magneto with curious hands, immediately lighting up as he runs his eyes over the first page, reading faster than Magneto would have thought possible. “This is wonderful! Whose is this? I’d love to talk to - ”

“No,” Magneto says, and McCoy halts mid-flow, flinching as though he expects to be hit. “The source is above your paygrade. Just - see what you can do with it.” His tone makes it clear that further questions will be unwelcome.

The boy is silent for a long minute, looking back at the sheaf of papers in his hands. “What would you like me to do with it?” He glances up through those coke-bottle glasses to meet Magneto’s eyes for a moment before ducking his head again.

“What do you normally do with scientific data?” Magneto shakes his head, waves a hand dismissively. “Just - put it to use, McCoy. Let me know what comes of it.”

A nod. “Yes sir.”

He smiles, then, tries to be encouraging though inside he’s quivering from a nervous tension that McCoy might put two and two together, might be smart enough to work out where the papers have come from and follow a hypothesis through. “Good. I’ve heard good things about you from all over. Keep it up.”

“Oh!” The boy’s face is one of pleased astonishment, mouth twitching into a genuine, shy smile. “Thank you, sir. I’ll try.”

“See that you do,” Magneto says stiffly, and it’s a relief to leave, though whether or not he’s got away with it will have to wait and see. Charles, at least, should see some use of his work, even if he can’t follow it through himself.

 

 


LXI

 

Mystique goes back to work that month, too, once Kurt is old enough to sit on his own, propping himself up with one hand and drawing things to him with the other or with his tail. She comes up in the mornings, more often than not, and leaves him with Charles to accompany Magneto to his meetings. She is as sleek and sinuous as ever, not a hint of her motherhood remaining on her body save for the quieter curl of her smile at times, older somehow than before.

Some days she leaves Kurt upstairs, or with others, and vanishes for hours, off on some mission of her own which she does not always tell Magneto about, orchestrating her own comings and goings in any of a variety of skins. After so long an absence it’s taking her a while to work her way back into the resistance groups, earning their trust slowly as a new face.

“They’re still working on whatever it is,” she says one day in his office, silhouetted against the bright sky outside his window, watching the traffic scurrying about down below. “The rumble. And the fact they’re still working on it is worrying. I haven’t got deep enough to find out anything more yet. I’m working on it, but it’s going to take time. And I think they’re nearly ready.”

Magneto hums agreement, coming to join her and standing at the opposite side of the frame. On the street below there are protesters again, their signs too far away to read from here but surely of a theme with the past three months’ worth of complaining. “What can we do to get you in deeper on a faster timetable?”

She snorts, turning to glance at him with yellow eyes that catch the light for a moment like a cat’s, opaque and gleaming. “Let me assassinate you on live TV in my human mask and become a hero overnight?”

Despite himself, he smiles. “Perhaps not.” A speck of a human throws himself at the guards holding the perimeter and is tossed halfway back across the street for his trouble, bowling his fellows over like a felled tree, clearing a hole in the canopy that is instantly filled with new bodies, new heads. “Tell Emma you need her as a matter of urgency. She might have plenty else to do, but this takes priority. As soon as she’s able to tie off whatever she’s working on, she’s with you.”

“Oh, the Ice Queen won’t like that,” Mystique says, smirking and scales flickering like falling snow all over her body until she stands a little taller, hip cocked and frowning delicately with Emma’s face, one hand curled gently by her cheek and subtly flashing those talons Emma likes to wear for nails. “You know how she likes to play the spider, not the fly.”

“She’ll do it.”

“She’ll do it, but she’ll probably give me some kind of terrible mental itch that won’t go away.” She runs her hands down her smart white dress and it slides back into blue beneath her palms, her skin rippling out from the centre until she is herself again. “Just watch your back, alright? We have no idea when this is going to happen, and everyone knows you’re Humanity’s Most Wanted.”

“And you’re on there twice, Number Three.”

“Don’t forget Number Twenty-Two. Or do I get promoted when they knock off people above me?” she asks, and tries to grin, make it a joke, but both of them are grimacing, because it’s not funny, not really.

Charles is Number Fifteen. Or Number Eleven, now. Mystique may be Number Three, but Raven Xavier is now only Number Thirteen.

“Watch yourself, too,” he says, and when she steps in to give him a hug he allows it, bends enough to be Erik and offer her a shoulder to hide her face in for a minute, stretched up on lengthening legs to keep off her tiptoes, scales brushing like dry paper at the skin of his cheek.

 

 


LXII

 

That night Erik kisses Charles fiercely and holds him more tightly than usual, and Charles does not ask for an explanation, just lets him, touches him back with as much fervour, pulls him close after and brushes Erik’s sweat-tangled hair back from his forehead silently, and does not complain when Erik makes him stay there for a long time, tucked in safe inside the curve of his body.

 

 


LXIII

 

“They want to send a delegation,” Emma says, handing Magneto the thick, creamy sheet of parchment with absolutely no indication on her face of her feelings on the matter. “Intelligence differs on whether they’re looking to ally as equals or join us.”

He looks over the letter, reading it slowly and with a rising sense of satisfaction. “Excellent. Let them come, then. We’ll send Azazel.”

It’s a mistake.

 

 


LXIV

 

From the moment it’s announced that the Asian Mutant Coalition is sending a delegation to America to coincide with the anniversary of the first nuclear explosion that had started the whole sorry mess, the already tempestuous public atmosphere explodes, humans and mutants getting into fights in the streets and newspapers sniping at Magneto, at humans, at each other, each more incendiary than the last. Chatter coming in through Mystique’s networks increases tenfold, until it’s impossible to sort the gold from the dross; television debates rage, and Magneto can hardly go outside without questions and accusations being shouted at him.

“If Europe had offered to send a delegation, I would have received them,” he says in a carefully-controlled press conference, all of the reporters present warned that they will be thrown out if they don’t keep quiet while he’s talking. “That the AMC have offered to come and open relations with us has no bearing on my European policy, nor my policy towards humans. That you are all obsessed with accusing me of plotting genocide and think I would need foreign aid to follow through is as insulting as it is idiotic.”

From behind the camera, her back to the press, Emma widens her eyes at him as though she cannot believe what he has just said, and Magneto stifles a sigh, qualifies his previous comments by adding, “I lived through the Holocaust, ladies and gentlemen. I have no interest in wars or genocides. I have had quite enough of both to last me. I only want to see this great country live up to its potential as a world leader, and to do that we need to speak to other nations, to cooperate and share ideas.”

“First Mutant, isn’t it also true that you personally destroyed several European ships in the Battle of Guanabara Bay?” one man asks, a pencil hovering nervously over his notepad as he cranes his neck to meet Magneto’s eyes where he’s stood on the podium.

“Considering they were firing long-range missiles at me at the time, I would consider this to be a reasonable response,” Magneto replies dryly, and earns a few chuckles, at least, from the people in the room. “If the Europeans would like to open talks with me I would be happy to let bygones be bygones. Two years after the Month of the Atom, the world as a whole will be stronger if we work together than if we stand apart. I will not be the one to draw that line.”

“Aren’t you European yourself?” someone else asks, hidden in the middle of the crowd.

Magneto spreads his hands wide, cape falling dramatically as a backdrop behind him, and looks into the camera instead of at the press pool. “I am a mutant. The Nazis took my nationality from me long ago.”

 

 


LXV

 

Charles wanders into the second bedroom just as Erik is inspecting the hem of his cape to make sure all of the metal weighting is firmly attached where it cannot easily be seen, his tunic and trousers laid out across the bare mattress along with his helmet and gloves, the fabric of each splayed out like an animal for dissection. The weight in the cape gives it the mass and momentum to sweep more impressively, and is also a ready hand of metal should he need it; along with the flat, malleable sheets of steel in the pockets of the tunic and pins in the high collar, it gives him a small but versatile arsenal should he need it, one he is determined to have ready before the AMC delegates arrive tomorrow.

“What are you doing?” Charles asks, perching on the edge of the bed by the headboard, out of the way, and watching as Erik picks up his left boot, turning it over to check the tread for wear.

“Preparing for trouble.” The sole is a little worn, but still good; it won’t pose a problem, and there are iron nails holding it to the leather of the boot, if he should come up short. The light in here has no lampshade on it, and it makes the light stark, unforgiving; it glints from the nails, shows every crack and scuff on the leather of the boot. “Sunfire is notoriously hotheaded - the irony in that does not escape me - and I won’t trust him further than I can throw him until we have more of a read on his intentions. Just because he started something similar to what we’ve built here does not make him a friend. And we know little or nothing of the others he is bringing with him.”

Charles shifts to draw his legs up onto the bed and sits tailor-fashion, resting his elbows on his knees and propping his head on the heel of his palm. His fingers toy with the hem of Erik’s tunic, rubbing the heavy fabric back and forth with an almost-inaudible susurration, a quiet hiss of friction. “Surely they wouldn’t ask politely to come visit if they were planning on turning on you. It sounds more like a regular tea party than the Boston Tea Party to me.”

“Still.” The second boot is alright too, if a little more worn - he must be tending to lean his weight to the right. Erik makes a mental note to correct his posture from now on. “Better prepared than not. Nobody ever died of overpreparation.”

“I don’t know about that, you haven’t tasted Raven’s cooking.”

Erik laughs and the tension breaks, some of his nervous energy bleeding away as he glances at Charles fondly, shaking his head and letting the boot fall the the mattress beside the rest of it. “Then I am suddenly very glad the two of you aren’t blood relations.”

“I’m not,” Charles says in a voice that is almost sharp, and gets up from the bed, jerking his head towards the corridor. “Come on. There’s nothing you can do about it until they arrive, anyway. You’re already loaded for bear.”

It would be easy to catch him by the wrist, to draw Charles back in and ask him what’s wrong, but instead Erik lets him go, follows more slowly back to the living area and lets Charles gesture for him to sit on the couch. He turns on the wireless with a flick of his finger at the dial and smiles back when Charles shoots him a delighted glance. The human has never gotten over the simple pleasure he gets from Erik’s power, the edge of it never dulled despite all the little ways Erik uses it every day for the most banal of tasks. It’s made him think about it - more than ever before - as a gift rather than a tool, as something to enjoy instead of just something he uses to further his plans, for workaday and ordinary purposes. It’s easier to find it wondrous when Charles’ eyes are shining with guileless enjoyment of Erik’s abilities.

Charles reaches for the chess set, ready to drag the table it’s set up on close enough to the couch for a game, but Erik shakes his head, leans back into the cushions and lays his legs out long in front of him, barefooted and relaxing slowly. “Not tonight, if you don’t mind. There’s going to be quite enough strategising and calculated movements tomorrow.” He sighs, inhales again slow and steady until his chest is taut and full of air before releasing it. The lessening of tension feels good, too. “Can’t we just sit?”

“What do you think I do all day?” Charles asks, but he comes over to sit beside Erik obligingly enough, before twisting around to lay his head down in Erik’s lap, stretching out along the length of the couch. His head is a welcome weight on Erik’s thigh, which fits into the curve of Charles’ neck as his eyes focus up at the ceiling, fingers lacing together over his belly. “Are you worried? About tomorrow?”

“It’s not been a popular decision, letting them come.” Erik moves his hand to stroke Charles’ hair slowly, lets Charles take his free hand and pull it down to rest with his on his sternum, tracing the valleys between Erik’s fingers and the callused rises of his knuckles, the roughness of a life spent putting them to good use.

“Hmm.” Charles turns their hands over, draws abstract patterns in Erik’s palm with his nails, a soothing scratching feeling like the nib of a pen. “Well, I think you’ve reached a point where they seem determined not to like anything you do, so you might as well just do what you feel is necessary and wait for them to calm down. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but wait for people to stop winding themselves up and get bored of it. It’s not elegant, but there you go.”

Erik snorts, lets his eyes slide shut so he can concentrate more fully on the sensations in his hands, one soft, one sharp. “You make them sound like toddlers.”

“It worked with you,” Charles says, and laughs when Erik cracks one eye open to give him a shirty look, turns his face into Erik’s stomach and rests it there, the firm line of his nose brushing against the fold of Erik’s hip and groin, the curl at the corner or his mouth still clearly visible. “There’s no point in worrying, Erik. All it accomplishes is tiring you out and making you too stressed to deal as well with the situation as you would if you didn’t bother. It’s always better to stay calm and in control, that’s when you can look for ways to reach the best possible outcome.”

“Is that what you do?” Erik wends his fingers around the back of Charles’ ear where he knows the skin is tender and sensitive, strokes back and forth in the valley between the shell of Charles’ ear and his scalp.

The only answer he gets is a hum of approval, and it’s hard to tell if Charles is genuinely nodding off or just avoiding the question, because his eyes are closed and his expression is hidden in Erik’s shirt, but the smile from before has loosened, lost its depth.

“Don’t worry about me,” Erik says, and bends awkwardly to press his lips to Charles’ temple, smooths back the hair there and breathes in, out, before sitting upright again. It’s too uncomfortable to stay furled up tight like that for long, an awkward C-shape around Charles. “I’ll have Raven with me, she could scare anyone into submission. And you can watch it all on television.”

“Oh, good,” Charles murmurs, “I get to watch my lover and my sister get ripped apart by a screaming mob.”

“Cheerful.”

Charles rolls back onto his back, looks up at Erik with a serious expression. “If I say it, it won’t happen,” he says, holds Erik’s hand still now, just presses the flat of it to his chest and reaches up to run his hand over Erik’s cheek, touching the hollow under his lower lip, the swell of his cheekbone, the soft corner of his eye and the broad expanse of his brow, runs a thumb across the lines worn there by years of care and frustration. “I love you. Don’t make me watch you die, alright? Be careful.”

“Of course, Liebchen.” Erik smiles, bends again to kiss Charles’ mouth this time, brief and chaste. “I’ll try very hard not to die for you.”

“You’d better,” and Charles sits up to kiss him again, deeper this time, half-curled around until he’s almost falling into Erik’s lap, sat sideways on to him with one hand pulling Erik’s head to a better angle. “You’d better.”

 

 


LXVI

 

Erik leaves Charles sleeping the next morning when he slips out to finish final preparations for the arrival of the AMC delegation. It’s difficult, when all he wants to do is climb back under the covers and wrap himself around that warm, drowsing body, bury his head in pillows and ignore the rest of the world. But he does it anyway, carries his boots with him and puts them on once he’s in the living room, so he won’t wake Charles with his footsteps. He can’t quite resist sitting on the edge of the mattress watching him for a few moments, but Charles doesn’t stir, and Erik really does have to go.

Raven meets him downstairs with an excited, energised grin, and they go to Emma’s office together, for a final conference before they leave for the arrival point, which is already heaving with crowds of mutants and humans and press, all waiting and watching and filming, ready for history to happen.

 

 


LXVII

 

In the days before, the politicians and media men would have staged this whole thing on the southernmost tip of Florida, put Magneto against a backdrop of the place nearest where everything had started. They would have made a symbol of the devastation of Cuba. As it is, it’s far too radioactive for anybody to go there, let alone to hold a press conference; instead he stands in Battery Park on the shore of Manhattan, Ellis Island at his back, the point of entry for so many strange and wonderful minorities who had come to this country. Had his family escaped, he might have been one of them; instead his one and only association with the place is the sight of the Statue itself, and the barely perceptible place where he had stolen metal to crush Schmidt to death. He’d come back to repair it a while after, bending it back into shape until the edges merged in and vanished, a little piece of his history neatly wallpapered over and put away.

They’d argued back and forth about the appropriateness of the location, had decided in the end that those who hated him hardly needed the reminder, and that those who had forgotten that he had put a stop to the Month of the Atom by killing its instigator before he could let loose another nuclear blast might benefit from it.

He wonders if there are still specks of the man’s blood there, on the stones at the statue’s foot, or on the metal, or even inside of it, and it seems appropriate, somehow, for freedom to stand in and on and spattered with the blood of those who had to be crushed to make it so.

The helmet lies heavy on his head and neck, pressing down along with the cape and adding so much weight, today. Normally he feels as though he is used to them, but today… Magneto paces back and forth on the crushed grass underfoot, restless and on edge. The staging is broad, and open, surrounded by guards but essentially visible from all around, making it into a spectacle. Bread and circuses, Charles had said last night. Kill a few vestal virgins and they’ll be eating out of the palm of your hand. From the fenced-off backstage area it’s difficult to see the extent of the crowd, but they can hear them loud and clear, a cacophony of competing voices, buzzing like a disturbed hive. It’s a beautiful day, skies clear and bright blue, sun shining. Emma probably arranged it this way - he’s heard her mention a young weatherworker a few times, a promising talent.

The sun is hot on the top of his head, slowly heating through the helmet and making him sweat under the heavy fabric of the cape and tunic, skin slick and uncomfortable. There’s bunting. When did he become someone who has bunting when he gives a speech?

Grimacing, he goes over his speech once more, flipping through the cue cards Rogue had prepared for him. The tip of her tongue had caught in the corner of her mouth as she’d carefully printed each one out on her typewriter, making sure there were no misplaced commas or awkward typos. She’d wished him good luck this morning. There’s coffee laid out to one side, a whole spread of food and refreshments which the others had at least picked at, but he has no desire to even look. Not when he’s this keyed up on adrenaline and focused so tightly, goal in sight. He can feel every artery and vein in his body, a rushing sensation like liquid metal running through him, pulsing and tingling under the skin.

He looks out at the massed people waiting for them to come out, waiting for him, forces his spine to iron, unbendable, sets his shoulders back, broad and strong. Show no weakness. Let them see a leader, like him or not. Let them see him unbowed, capable, a force to be reckoned with and one to have on their side. Let them see the reminder of his power behind him, that he was once their hero who finished an evil man. Let him be that again.

“Hey.”

When he turns, Mystique smiles up at him with teeth that shine very white against the deep blue of her skin, the harsh, gorgeous red of her hair, beautiful, beautiful, and says, “It’s time.”

He manages to let his mouth twitch into a curve for a moment for her, and does not sigh when she reaches up to adjust the lay of his cape, tugging at it until the clasp at his throat is level. “Let’s go,” he says, and she nods, takes up her place at his right shoulder, makes room for Emma to take his left.

Together they push aside the curtains at the foot of the steps, step out into the limelight, and the crowd roars as they climb the steps, one by one, carefully paced and dignified, leaders.

Together the women pause as he steps up to the podium, lets his hands fall open onto its surface, grips the edges, leans forward, and looks.

There are thousands of people here, crammed all around the scattered trees and sculptures, on the pathways and the grass, men and women and mutants and humans, adults and children, looking at him with anything from disgust to respect to awe, but as he looks at them they slowly fall silent, waiting for him to speak. Behind them the towering shape of the New York skyline juts above the trees, much closer but less imposing than the far-off silhouette of Liberty behind him, where he had come out of the water a vigilante and crossed back over a king in the making.

A hot simmer of excitement is rising in his chest, an energy he cannot describe, like the feel of metal bowing to his will.

“Today,” he starts, and the microphone picks up his voice, makes it ring out loud in the silence until it is everywhere, until everyone can hear him. “Today, we welcome new friends, and remember old ones. We remember the devastation of two years ago, which started on the whim of one man, and was carried on by many; we remember that we are still here when many others are not, were killed in the madness of that month. And we remember that we are still fighting that battle, that - ”

There is a loud crack and a bang, and for an instant he thinks it is Azazel teleporting in, missing his cue; then he is flinging up a raw burst of force to deflect the bullet from smashing into his face and caving in his skull, artless and without direction.

Screams explode from the crowd and people panic, trying to get away and shoving and pushing at one another, tripping over feet and the fallen and there are more bullets flying now, from more than one gun, and Magneto is deflecting them as best he can, trying to keep them from hitting him at the same time as trying to find where they’re coming from, but his focus is on staying alive, and then there is a scream from behind him at the same time as he is flicking his hand to deflect another wave, and he half-turns, the force turning with him and twisting the bullets -

Mystique wrestling with another human, one with a gun Magneto cannot feel - ceramic, with ceramic bullets, what the -

Emma fighting another one, blood gushing from the man’s nose and splashing onto her diamond skin as she takes over his mind and crushes it ruthlessly -

Another burst of metal bullets at his back, and he flings up a hand desperately at the last moment, deflects them even more gracelessly than before, no thought in it, just the raw need to repel them -

They bend around him, arcs of force -

And there is a choked scream from Mystique, which cuts off sharply as there is a sudden spray of blood, and Erik screams as she -

falls -

limp, like a doll whose strings have been cut, the human beneath her already dead from the bullet that had been deflected right through his right eye socket, left a gory mess behind where the back of his skull has exploded outward from the force.

There is a moment in which everything. Stops. Time freezes in an endless second of pure and unadulterated agony.

Before he can even think about it Erik spins and reaches for the guns out there, mindless of any bullets that might be winging towards him right now, and wrenches them from their holders, lashes out with them, too full of rage to fire them and instead simply battering at the gunmen until they, too, fall, screaming, and then, not.

When he turns around again Raven has not moved, is laying there like a thing discarded, and he knows, then. He knows.

His heart has turned to a rock in his chest, hard and unbeating. It feels like it could fall out at any moment, from the hole in his chest where someone has stoved it in.

Anyone could kill him now and he would hardly notice. Erik slides to his knees, legs giving way, and cannot force himself to join Emma when she moves over to see, to grab for Raven, to put fingers to her pulse before noticing the great hollow in the centre of Raven’s torso where a bullet had punched right through her.

There is nothing, just numb disbelief and so much horror he cannot believe he has not died himself, has not destroyed himself from the inside out, torn apart by this wrenching, awful, empty void like a black hole, swallowing everything and leaving behind a wreck, the hollow bones of a sinking ship stripped bare.

Somewhere in the city, he knows, Charles is doing the same.

Oh, God. Let Charles have slept too long to have seen this.

He won’t have.

 

 


LXVIII

 

Erik doesn’t remember the next part. The next thing he remembers is being covered in blood and screaming at Emma to get away from him, for somebody to find those responsible and torture them until they give up the next layer and the next layer and the next, until all of them are dead.

She tries to tell him that he killed them already when he took their guns from them, but he doesn’t listen, just grabs at everything metal in the vicinity and whips it up into a maelstrom of sharp edges and glinting scales, keeps them away from him and Raven, huddled in the eye of the storm together where everything is quiet.

 

 


LXIX

 

The next thing he remembers is throwing up noisily over the edge of the stage, retching until his throat is raw and only more blood is coming up, and he can only hope that it’s his, because he can’t remember, he can’t, he won’t -

 

 


LXX

 

He did this.

 

 


LXXI

 

No.

They did this.

 

 


LXXII

 

Oh, God.

Charles.

 

 


LXXIII

 

It’s Azazel who finally pulls her away from Erik, falling to his knees alongside the two of them with his face slack from grief and horror, and Erik lets him take her, lets his arms fall loose and stares at his hands while the Russian yells and bellows his rage to the empty park, full now only of their people, dotted around like abandoned toys, helpless and doing nothing useful.

“I’ll let you be,” Erik says, and his tongue feels thick and swollen in his mouth, like perhaps he has bitten it. He can’t be certain because everything tastes like blood at the moment.

At some point he finds himself in the elevator going up to the apartment, and when he looks down all he can see is red and red and red, and maybe some of it is his tunic but too much of it is - not.

When the doors open it’s all he can do to force himself to step out. There is no sign of Charles here but for the smashed mug on the rug between the couch and the television, cold tea still soaking into the fibres and leaving a dark stain among the shards and dust of broken crockery. The armchair has tipped over onto its back, legs in the air like a stranded animal, as though someone stood up too quickly and caught it with the backs of their knees, not caring to right it.

Erik stands among the wreckage and wonders, distantly, if he should clean this up. Instead he walks over to the sink in the kitchen and washes his hands, grabs the nailbrush from the windowsill and scrubs until the skin is raw and pink. The tunic he drags over his head in a sudden panic and stuffs into the trash, leaving him in his undershirt, which is speckled yet with rust where it’s soaked through.

From down the hallway there is a sudden loud sob, like the sound of a heart breaking. His hands clench on the cold metal of the sink as he tries to force his breathing under control; it’s coming in and out in short, sharp gasps, too shallow to be useful, and his head is bowed so low it’s pressing down on his windpipe, making it even harder to draw in air. His fingers tighten and the sink crumples in his grip, leaving deep dents in the shapes of his hands, and yet he can’t let go, has to force his hands loose enough to fling himself back and away from it, crashing into the table and making an almighty racket as wood clatters on tile.

“Erik?”

He wrenches the words from his throat, throws them back. “I’m here.”

The figure that appears in the doorway to the corridor is wretched, curled in on itself, tear-stained and swollen. Charles’ eyes are so red it’s as though every blood vessel has burst at once, leaving him looking more like a mutant than he ever has before. “Erik,” he says again, and steps forward, hesitant, then faster, until by the time he collides with Erik’s chest he’s built up enough momentum to drive all the air out of him, and Charles doesn’t even move his arms, just leans in against him as though that’s all he can do, all he has energy for. “Oh God, Erik. Raven. She… she’s…”

Erik finds he cannot say anything at all, finds that his face is wet, that he is holding onto Charles so tightly that he cannot move for fear of cracking wide open, feels brittle and honeycombed, like something waiting to snap.

They do not move for a long time.

 

 


LXXIV

 

When Erik wakes up the next day Charles is weeping again, somewhere out in the corridor. His side of the bed is tangled and cold, the sheets torn away from the mattress by his restless tossing and turning. Erik is surprised that he himself fell asleep at all, but then, he’s used to seeing terrible things whenever he shuts his eyes.

He stares at the ceiling, that far-off other country, and finds it stripped bare of meaning, napalmed and naked-soiled, salted and burned.

Charles’ breath is heaving and sobbing, trying to be quiet, but his nose sounds blocked up and it makes his voice wet and cloying, louder than it would have been if he hadn’t tried to keep from waking Erik.

For the longest time Erik cannot move, cannot muster the will to do anything but breathe and blink, slowly, like cleaning a lens of the mist that draws over it again and again, to see his grief and self-loathing more clearly. Eventually he musters the energy to roll onto his side, to look at the open door and let his limbs fall where they may. After that it takes even longer to get up, to stagger out into the corridor and past Charles into the bathroom to be noisily and painfully sick, until there is nothing left in him.

When he comes back out he falls down next to Charles and they lean in against one another, say nothing.

For once he is left alone for the entire day. Nobody tries to get in touch with Erik at all.

 

 


LXXV

 

The next day he knows what he has to do.

“Finally,” says Emma.

 

 


LXXVI

 

With Emma working on it full time, the network that had organised the hit is torn apart, its secrets shaken from its members - all human - and used against them to find more, always more. Erik builds the compounds himself with hands that do not shake, that he cannot let shake. It is too reminiscent of his past, but then, he was not the one who staged a reenactment of Schmidt’s most heinous crime against Erik, was not the one who put Erik - put Magneto - right back to the place he has always fought hardest to get away from.

If the humans want to play at being oppressed, then Magneto will show them what the word means. And they will never, ever, get to anyone he loves ever again.

Charles - says nothing, just looks at Erik as though he cannot muster any greater disapproval. It’s enough to make Erik flinch, but not enough to change his mind.

 

 


LXXVII

 

They never have Kurt up to the apartment any more. With Raven gone Azazel doesn’t know about Charles, and subsequently has no thought as to using him for a babysitter. This, too, the humans have taken from Charles, the same way they have taken everything else. Erik blames them for this, too.

 

 


LXXVIII

 

They move to the new headquarters the next year, a grand and imposing building suitable for a proper government. Eventually Charles’ grief softens, becomes background to the foreground of their lives, and slowly they become used to one another again, start to function again.

They stay that way for the next four years.

Chapter Text

 

 

Part Five: A Room with a View

 

 

 

I

 

Erik takes the latest journal with him when he finally gives up on wrestling the last set of reports into something resembling coherence, tucks it under his arm as he keeps the bowl of custard-covered pie steady in his other hand, trying not to spill. The main office outside his door is dark, the usual bustle of aides and secretaries emptied for the night, rows of desks lined up like shadows with only one or two still lit and in use. His own desk occupies most of the space in his private office - the South Americans had sent him one built entirely of stainless steel as a moving gift. At the least it makes it impossible for visitors to forget whom they have come to see.

He checks that the drawers are locked with a casual flick of his power as he leaves, gives Rogue an absent wave when she looks up from her paperwork to wish him goodnight.

Out in the Capitol Building proper - it’s more palace than parliament, but the name seems to have stuck - he follows the path his feet take him without really thinking about where he’s going. The carpet beneath his feet is soft and deep, swallows his footsteps, until he feels as though he’s somehow been transported back in time, to when stealth was his stock in trade. Caught briefly in the reminiscence, it’s easier to follow the steel bones of the building than to pay attention to his route, to use them like a map, feel out their resonance for his landmarks. And at the very top of the building – he is always aware of it, always has it at the edge of his mind, like a touchstone - is the solid metal box surrounding the apartment he shares with Charles, keeping Emma and every other psy-talent out.

There are no memories of Raven here. It makes him fonder of the place than it deserves on its own merit, but he is fond of it nonetheless.

Erik takes the central stairwell as high as it will go before he has to turn into the private wing where the guest rooms are, walks along to the far end of the building before he reaches the way up to the penthouse suite. Nobody bothers him along the way. He’s a regular enough sight in the Capitol that they all know to leave him alone at this time of night.

He can feel Charles moving about when he gets close enough, and on the landing at the top of their staircase he reaches out to find Charles through the bracelets he wears all the time, caresses the metal with his power, the warmth of skin on the inside and cool air on the outside curve.

It’s easy to hold Charles’ wrists still for the moment while the door is open, to hold him where he is with hands paused above the page until Erik is inside and the door is shut against Emma’s mind. Charles himself is sat at the desk writing something, curled up in his chair. When he turns to meet Erik’s gaze his blue eyes are half-squinting from looking at print all day, and then he smiles, a little, just the corner of his mouth curling upward, hair tousled and chest wrapped up in one of his enormous cardigans the way he always is. Charles gets cold easily now, skinnier than he used to be, but he’s too stubborn to put more wood on the fire.

Today is a good day - Charles is working, not sat at the window, or curled up asleep on the bed, limbs held in close to his body and blankets dragged close around him, face hidden in the pillows. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s moved at all while Erik is gone.

“I haven’t had dinner yet,” Charles says disapprovingly when he catches sight of the pie in Erik’s hand, but it’s half-hearted at best. He tests his hands, finds he can move them again, and unfolds from the chair to go to the kitchen, stretching his arms up high above his head as he goes to fetch them a couple of forks from the top drawer. After a moment of consideration he pours two tall glasses of milk and brings those, too, pads barefoot across the wooden floor to Erik’s side.

Erik puts the bowl down on the table with a soft clink of china. “It won’t be as good if we reheat it.” He takes his glass from Charles and reaches up with his other hand to loosen his collar, undoing the hook at the top that keeps it close to his throat, high and formal. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

The twist of Charles’ mouth is wry and knowing, self-mockery in the dimpling of his cheek. “Who would I tell?” he asks, and sits down, dragging his chair in toward the table with a scrape of wood on wood that makes Erik’s teeth ache.

It’s awful.

Even after five years, Charles still cannot stop prodding at their situation, like a tongue in the gap where a missing tooth once sat, probing at the empty socket. For Erik it’s more like being stabbed in an old wound, a knife that has been left there twisted once again by a hand that cannot leave well enough alone. He winces around his first mouthful of pie, but when Charles glances up at him with a questioning raise of his eyebrows Erik only says, “It’s hot.”

“Liar.” Charles scoops up a thick glob of custard onto his fork, closing his mouth around it and letting his eyes slide shut with a rapturous groan. “God, I’ve missed custard. Did you get a new cook?”

It’s an easy out, one Charles has practically handed him, and Erik pauses for a long moment, torn between letting it slide and not letting it go. He drags a hand back through his hair, resists the urge to pull. Maybe it’s time to revisit the reasons why Charles has to stay here, because even though Charles knows them, agrees with them - or says he does - sometimes the human finds it hard to think rationally about it, and that’s when he gets restless, starts asking and asking and asking again, pushing at the boundaries in ways that can only get him killed. Erik does understand, he does, but he’s only one man, and after five years -

After five years, Erik is tired, and just for once he wants to eat his pie and not think about Charles being unhappy about being here with him.

“I don’t know,” he settles on, finally, slumping down in his chair once the silence has become awkward and even Charles with his steady, unflinching gaze has glanced back down at the table. “I brought the latest Annal of Genetics for you.”

Beast had dropped the journal off with Rogue earlier while Erik was in meetings. There are two papers in this month’s edition that he thinks Charles might be interested in, and a third has used his work - without his name attached, but then Beast has always declined to use his own, either, instead publishing it as a joint project of the ‘Mutant Genetics Research Team’. He’s been looking forward to giving it to Charles all day.

He wants, more than anything, for Charles to be happy.

“Oh! Hand it over, then,” and the moment breaks as Charles makes a grabby gesture at him with his free hand, filling his fork again with the other and shovelling pie into his mouth as though the two are mutually exclusive. “I want to see if anyone called out Gorodovsky on his blatant misappropriation of Werner’s theory.”

“Exciting,” Erik says, dry and amused, suddenly, wonderfully. There’s a great wash of relief he cannot quite hide as he passes the glossy journal into Charles’ waiting hand; he’s sure it shows on his face, but Charles isn’t looking.

He cannot mind that it diverts Charles’ attention away from Erik, that the first thing he does is flick open the cover to look at the index, because when Charles sees his name - the cypher of his name, the substitution, but nonetheless his - he smiles broad and beautiful, eyes crinkling at the corners as though he has won a prize, as though he has not had countless papers published before and will likely have countless more, because he is brilliant. Beast always says so, and Erik can only imagine the conversations the two of them would have, if they could meet.

He drags the bowl towards him across the table with two fingers hooked over the rim, finishes the last of the pie while Charles is still reading, chases the last crumbling fragments of crust around the bowl with his fork and watches Charles read. The pie is delicious, made with the last of the summer’s meagre haul of fruit, boiled and softened until it could be spread thinner, shared among more people. When he’s done he stands and gathers the dirty bowl and glasses to put in the sink for later, looks down at the top of Charles’ bowed head, the uneven line of his parting and the tumble of his hair. “I’ll leave you two alone.”

“Mmm,” is the only response he gets, along with a twitch of Charles’ right hand as though he’s trying to tap a pen he isn’t holding against the tabletop. Erik has always found it an endearing habit, and he correctly locates Charles’ favourite fountain pen where he’s tucked it behind his ear, plucks it from its perch and slides it into Charles’ hand. He presses a kiss to Charles’ temple, soft and brief. The skin is thin there, and he can feel the pulse just under it, beloved and throbbing warm in time with Charles’ thoughts.

Then he takes the dirty crockery away, and goes to change out of what he has come to think of as his uniform into something more comfortable, which lets them both pretend for a while that Erik isn’t essentially the ruler of the world, now.

 

 

II

 

After all of their caterwauling and wailing and gnashing of teeth, Europe had essentially bent its neck to him of its own accord, and he had hardly had to do any conquering at all.

In the wake of Raven’s death, it had been rather disappointing. He could have done with somebody to fight, to take out his anger productively against, something he could beat; something he could defeat with the strength of his mutation and his fists, physical and draining. Sometimes it’s the only way he can keep a wound from festering, by burning out his feelings with something stronger.

 

 

III

 

Sometimes Erik feels like he could never love Charles more than he does already, and then every time Charles will turn and look at him or smile or say something, and he finds a little more room to love him even more fiercely, has to crush the feeling down until it crystallises to make more space, like a diamond.

Other times it feels more like a pearl - beautiful, but there is a speck of dirt, an irritant at the heart of it, and there is no way to get it out without breaking it.

 

 

IV

 

In the late evening the light is dim, soft and encroaching only from the fire in the other room, yellowed and old-fashioned. It makes the bedroom close, intimate instead of claustrophobic. Tonight Charles kisses him back with passion, pulls Erik down on top of him with hands that catch and cling to his clothes, drag him in close; when Erik reaches for the hem of Charles’ sweater the human raises his arms to make it easier to take off, slithers out of it and before Erik has even tossed it to the side Charles is grabbing for Erik’s shirt in return, baring them both to the waist. They slide together, sweat to sweat, slick and wanting.

Keeping Charles is a guilty pleasure as well as a necessity. The only place Charles can be really safe is here, with Erik - it’s absolutely necessary, for him to be safe. And here.

But Erik cannot deny that there is a part of him that likes having something precious that belongs to him alone, a captive treasure he doesn’t have to share. He knows it’s not - right.

But.

He’s never really had anything like that, before.

“Please,” Charles says, face flushed and eyes very blue, hair mussed as though he’s already been debauched once, left rumpled and strewn across the bedclothes. “Please, love.” When Erik bends to press his lips to Charles’ throat he lets out a moan that goes straight to Erik’s cock, leaves him wonderstruck all over again even as he’s running his hands over all that bared skin, pale and freckled from old sunshine. When Charles wraps his arms around the backs of Erik’s shoulders and arches up against him he can feel the cool outer surface of Charles’ bracelets rubbing against his shoulderblades, a distinct hum that he has come to associate with home, with love.

He worships Charles’ body with his mouth, lets Charles gasp and writhe underneath him as Erik sucks him off, and wishes, not for the first time, that every night could be like this, instead of the nights where Charles turns his face away, turns his back, and Erik cannot sleep for hours, for wanting him.

 

 

V

 

When Charles murmurs, “Love you,” as Erik slips out of bed the next morning, it makes it all worth it, all over again.

 

 

VI

 

“They have not changed,” Azazel says sharply, leaning forward over the polished surface of the conference table. “Still they hate us, wish us dead. We see it in the camps whenever we go there. Why would we let these humans go when all that will happen is they will start the cycle again?”

The windows in here are tall and graceful, letting in the late summer sunlight to gleam across the glossy furniture. It makes Azazel look particularly stark, red and black and sharp, like a knife. “If it were up to me, they would not have been left alive, let alone loose,” he finishes, and sits back. Behind him his tail is rigid and uncoiled, full of the tension that he is trying to hide.

It’s hard to disagree. Magneto still remembers the sound of the shots, the tacky sensation of Mystique’s blood drying on his hands, his shirt, his face, drawing tight as it clotted and congealed on his skin, catching his face and trapping it in its worst, most hateful expression.

Azazel occupies Mystique’s seat now, at Magneto’s right hand. They never discuss it.

On the other side of the table Emma sighs, cupping her cheek in one manicured hand in the affected way she adopts when confronted with something she thinks unbearably stupid. “And what do you propose we do, keep them there indefinitely?” she asks, raising one pale eyebrow in a perfectly sarcastic curve. “If we didn’t kill them immediately, there’s no way we can do so now without causing a civil war. Politically we’re stronger than we were back then. And we cannot keep the humans in the camps forever, not with the drain on our resources and the slow chipping away of our political capital. It’s simply not possible.”

The other mutants around the table murmur among themselves, glancing between the two lieutenants as they glare at one another, white against red, then at Magneto, trying to gauge his position no doubt. He keeps his face impassive, sits still and imposing in his chair at the head of the table, but inside -

“What are you proposing?” Elixir asks from further down, looking up from his briefing with curiosity on his face. “Rehabilitation?”

- inside, Magneto is fighting a war between his feelings and his practicality.

It’s been four years since they set up the encampments to contain those humans judged to be the biggest risks, since he put up the fences to lock them away the same way the Nazis had his family, his whole people, everyone they didn’t think deserved to live among ‘decent’ folk. Unlike the Nazis, Erik tells himself in the early hours of the morning when he lies awake going over every inch of that decision, every choice and every step, unlike those the Nazis had taken, these people were murderers, arsonists, rioters and merchants of hate, selling their prejudice onto the rest of the population, a drop of poison in the water spreading. It is exactly the same as what was done to him, and it is not the same at all.

The regular review meetings they have to discuss the situation are always fraught, full of shouting. He always catches mutants staring at his arm when they think he’s not looking, as though they might somehow see the tattoo through his clothes, the marks Schmidt left on his body.

He reminds himself, every time, that this situation is the reverse - it is people like Schmidt who are the prisoners, and people like him who are the guards, this time. For once the murderers, the torturers, are the ones imprisoned.

“Rehabilitation is exactly what I’m suggesting,” Emma says smoothly, and gestures for Shadowcat to step forward from her spot against the wall behind Emma, papers in hand. The girl starts handing them out, placing one in front of every council member. “It’s good for our image, and it removes their power if we are the ones who choose to release them. Eventually they will escape, if we don’t, no matter what we do. It’s plain statistics. If we make that decision - free them without outside pressure - we are the strong ones.”

“And if they go back to killing us off, one by one, from their little list?” Magneto asks, turning his head to look at her, keeping his voice deliberately steady and firm. “What then?”

“Then we kill them in self defence and hoist their bodies from the mainsail,” Emma says, smiling sharply. “I’m not advocating clemency. Quite the opposite - I suggest we make them our bitches.”

“It would help to win over the rest of the human population that has not yet accepted mutant rule,” Shiftscale says slowly, her pebbled skin fading from dark green to a pale lavender colour as she thinks. “Our highest disapproval rating always comes from a perceived lack of interest in human rights and equality. Anything we can do to balance that out will stabilise things considerably.”

The rumble of voices is louder this time, voices both agreeing and disagreeing.

“This is lunacy,” Azazel snaps, shoving back his chair and getting to his feet. “Let them loose? They will run and hide like rats, and shoot from behind, like always. I will have none of this.”

It’s not hard to see he intends to teleport away - before he can Magneto snaps out a hand to grab at the Russian’s wrist, catching it tight and glaring at him. “Sit back down. You can’t argue your point if you leave the discussion.”

When Azazel does as he’s told - grudgingly, but obedient, nonetheless - Magneto turns back to the rest of the room, looks at each of them in turn. With the door at the far end of the room, and him sat at the head of the table, it’s almost like being enthroned, accepting supplicants, which is exactly why he does it. No-one is more aware than he is that he took his position by force, and that while he would make it difficult for them, anybody of sufficient power could do the same to him. Most of those who would be able to - who would have the interest in doing so - are in this room.

And yet, they hang on his word, waiting silently for him to speak.

“I lost a good friend to these humans,” he says, feels his hands clench tightly on his own thighs until his fingers dig into his flesh hard enough to leave bruises. “Mystique was one of the best of us, and she was murdered by humans who want nothing more than to do the same to everyone in this room, to all of the mutants out there who want nothing more than to live their lives. She died in front of me, at a speech I was giving, when these very humans tried to kill me, for talking of peace. They have killed hundreds of us for no bigger crime than for daring to live.

“And yet,” he adds after a long pause, “I listen to Emma’s advice, although I disagree, because she tells me things I don’t want to hear.”

“How statesmanlike of you, honey,” Emma drawls, flicking her long, loose curls back over her shoulder with a quick toss of her head that draws all eyes back to her. “It’s a nice way to say you’d rather gun them all down.”

His smile is tight, curt and controlled in a way it would not have been five years ago. It’s easier, now, not to say ‘fuck you’ the way he might have done, before. “I’ve been there before, and I don’t care to revisit it. No, killing them would only invite further comparison to my upbringing.”

“So instead you want to keep them all prisoner for the rest of their natural lives?”

“If need be.”

“And then? Do we add new offenders to the gene pool, so they can breed more terrorists in the primordial soup we’ve provided them with?” Her expression stays as neutral as his, but her eyes are fixed on his, daring him to look away. “They are having children in those camps, Magneto, and while we have been removing the obviously mutant children for their own safety we are leaving the human-seeming children with their parents.

“But what happens if they breed a human-looking, mutant child powerful enough to break them out? What happens if they breed a whole civilisation of humans in there who are dedicated to our destruction?” She shakes her head, slapping a palm down on the surface of the table and making a loud enough noise that several of the others present jump half out of their seats. “Better to let them free on our own terms and control them when we do so that we are the ones who decide, not them.”

“How do you propose to control them?” Magneto sits forward in his chair, plants his index finger firmly on the table, pinning down his point and focusing all of their attention back to him. “You’re strong, Emma, but I can’t imagine you intend to mindwipe all of them into obedient little slaves. Surely that would undermine the entire exercise. If you can present me with a reasonable plan of how this would work, I’ll look at it, but you know my opinion on this - you wouldn’t release a mutant murderer just because it would win us political points. A murderer is a murderer.”

“You would know,” she says, and he stiffens, breath catching in his throat in a moment of pure and utter affront, muscles snapping taut with hot and fiery rage.

“Don’t make me show you how well I know it,” he rumbles, in a voice like a storm breaking, gravelled and furious. His scalp prickles with static, pen rattling on the tabletop, metal nib and cap flicking it up and down in a rocking motion that transfixes the half of the room that aren’t leaning back and away from him, eyes wide. “I am being very openminded letting you even suggest this, Emma. Raven died in your arms. Many more have died and will die if I let you follow through with this - this ridiculous plan. But I, at least, was courteous. This meeting is adjourned.”

Most of the committee members leave without looking back, palpable relief rolling from them as they scoop up their papers and escape. Emma and Azazel stay seated, like an angel and a devil at his sides, one on either shoulder.

“It’ll be on your desk this afternoon,” Emma says, smoothing her skirt across her lap until it lies smooth as satin, her expression as serene and untroubled by his anger as it ever is. “You know full well I don’t love humans either, pet. I’m not suggesting this idly. I’m just being pragmatic.”

Magneto scowls at her, the pen still writhing and roiling on the table, like a thing in pain. “Get out.”

“With pleasure,” and she blinks, slow and deliberate, long lashes a sweep against her cheek, before rising to her feet and turning to click out of the room on those spindly, elegant heels she always wears, perfectly poised and unhurried.

“Kurt and I have been reading together, lately,” Azazel says, leaning forward to catch Magneto’s eye and drawing his attention with a grim smile that has nothing of humour in it. “Last night we were reading C.S. Lewis. He asked me if Frost is related to the White Witch.”

And despite himself Magneto laughs, hoarse and uneven, raising a hand to his face to wipe at his face. It’s as though Azazel has somehow found the release valve and let the fierce pressure of Magneto’s rage out, deflated it enough to let him cool down and contain himself again. The pen falls silent, lays still and unmoving on the tabletop, exhausted. “She does bear certain similarities.”

They’re quiet for a few minutes, the teleporter content to sit in silence while Magneto gathers his thoughts, considers the meeting. In a funny way it reminds him of Mystique, though she would not have been quiet. While he has never and will never be as close to Azazel as he was to Raven, in many ways they have become better friends from her loss, comrades in misery. Azazel is always willing to sit with him, drink themselves into a stupor and not talk about it, something Erik appreciates.

“How is Kurt?” he asks eventually, letting the issue of Emma drop for the time being.

Azazel swells with pride, something he has never tried to hide. It’s one of the best things about him. “He can teleport a full ten metres now. His range, it increases day by day. Though his control, not so much.”

“He’s a talented lad,” Erik says, thinking of the little blue boy, long since out of diapers and skinny in that way only children are, long-limbed and inquisitive and with his mother’s sweet heart. He’s no longer the only mutant child who lives in the Capitol Building, but he is far and away the ringleader of his little band of ragamuffins, full of creative ideas for getting into trouble. “Tell him I’ll try to come visit some time this week. It’s been too long.”

“I will wait until after you have done battle with the Ice Queen. I would hate to explain your embarrassing demise to the boy when he is expecting you.”

When Erik reaches up to tap his fingers pointedly against the metal of his helmet the other man just smirks, baring his sharp incisors. “Even so,” Azazel says, and vanishes in a cloud of sulfurous smoke.

 

 

VII

 

Erik dreams of Charles in a garden, bending over a flowerbed overflowing with lupins and larkspur, fingers trailing through the sapphire-coloured flowers. Unhurried and relaxed, he walks through thigh-high swathes of tall grass, just starting to bend with its summer seed, hair blown loose and messy from the breeze, like fingers running through it. Golden sunlight turns the air to amber. In the background the sound of bees humming mixes with that of crickets chirping and the far-off rush of water, and amongst the bright blooms Charles’ white shirt is like a pure flame, slowly getting streaked with pollen and grass stains as he walks, plucking acorns from the ground where they have fallen and planting them in the dirt. His broad fingers are gentle as they scoop soil over them, tucking them in until they can grow into oak trees.

Erik cannot tell if he himself is in the garden, following, or if he is just an invisible observer, not present at all but separated by some invisible membrane, a screen he cannot break through. There is a bench, and a notebook; Charles must be working outside, taking advantage of the good weather, Erik thinks, and wants nothing more than to join him, to sit at his feet and look out across the rolling hills that spill out from the skirts of this one, golden and soft-curved against the brilliant blue sky.

When he looks down at his own hands, though, he sees blood instead of dirt worked into the nails, and steel bracelets at his wrists, seamless and smooth.

Charles does not even look up, does not so much as know Erik is there. He turns his head to every new trill of birdsong, waits patiently as a bumblebee ambles slowly across his top page, legs smearing the wet black ink into beautiful curlicues, leaving tiny footprints across the paper.

Erik, himself, seems to have left no mark on Charles at all. He is forgotten, irrelevant, unable to leave even the faintest trace.

He’s not sure he wants to. It is lovely, here. No need to spoil it.

When he wakes up he curls his face into Charles’ hair and breathes deeply, tightens his grip despite Charles’ sleepy murmur against him, and does not go back to sleep.

 

 

VIII

 

The folder is on his desk when he goes into the office the next day, precisely aligned with the edge of the tabletop and innocuous in its simple cream cover, unlabelled.

It doesn’t have to be. Magneto knows who it’s from, and he scowls the moment he sees it, Rogue’s runthrough of his schedule momentarily forgotten. “When did she leave it here?” he asks, interrupting his assistant without waiting for her to come to a natural stop.

Rogue pauses mid-sentence, taken aback, her mouth falling open for a moment before she recovers the clipboard where it’s drooped in her grip, threatening to slip. “What? Oh, the camp dispersal plan? Yesterday afternoon, ah think. ‘Bout four o’clock? Shadowcat dropped it off, said Ms Frost wanted you to have it asap.” Her feet shuffle on the carpeted floor, and she pushes the long, white lock of her hair back behind her ear with tentative fingers, a nervous gesture she’s never quite trained herself out of, though he’s suggested it to her once or twice. “Ah had a readthrough, like ah usually do, and… are you really thinking about doing it? Letting them go?”

It’s only with an effort of will that he doesn’t stomp around his desk to the far side where his chair is, unwilling to act like an angered child even if Emma would dearly like to paint him as one. The folder is just as clean and crisply perfect up close as it had looked from far away, not a mark to stain its gleaming cover. It’s as good as a fingerprint. None of the people bustling around in the outer office would have left it like this, though one or two of them are glancing in at him now, curious. “I have to consider every idea put to me,” he says, masking his distaste as well as he can. “Whether or not I follow through is another matter entirely.”

When he sits down the folder is centred precisely between his hands where they rest on the cool metal of the desk. Mein Gott, Emma must have briefed the girl for ten minutes just on how to leave the damn thing, to make him as exasperated as possible. On impulse he stretches out his index finger and knocks the damn thing askew, so it sits at an angle, no longer perfect. Much better.

“But do you think you will?” Rogue persists, and does not back down when he looks up at her, that little rosebud of a mouth pursed up in determination and not at all scared of him. Give her another five years, he thinks, and she’ll be a formidable asset. Some day she might fill Emma’s shoes, or his own. “Come on, you can’t lie t’me and tell me you like it, Magneto. Ah know you too well.”

“Did you turn blue when I wasn’t looking?” He scowls at her, but they both know he’s not really angry with Rogue. “No? Then get out of my office and let me work.”

The girl gives him a wry look, clearly more amused than intimidated. “Yessir, nossir, three bags full sir,” she says smartly back with a snappy salute, and spins on her heel, marching out of the room stiff-limbed and deliberate, like a wind-up soldier. “Let me know when you want t’know the rest of your schedule, sir.”

His mouth quirks into a smile despite himself, and he hides it behind his hand until he can straighten it out, aiming for neutrality. “Get back in here.”

“Yessir,” and she comes back in, looking smug.

“And stop the impertinence while it’s still cute.”

“Nossir.”

“Rogue,” he says sternly, and the girl grins, then relaxes from her military posture into a more natural ease, coming around the desk to stand by his side and show him her clipboard, pointing out each appointment as she goes.

It takes half an hour to finalise all of his meetings for the day, but all the time he is hyperaware of that damn folder waiting for his attention, drawing his gaze like a lodestone. Once Rogue has left - for real - he has no excuses left to put off opening it and taking a look at what’s inside.

The sunlight beats in through the window at his back and heats through his tunic as he turns to the first page, makes every word stand out stark black against the white paper, and as he reads he feels his schooled, calm expression grow tighter and tighter, jaw clenching tight with suppressed frustration. It’s elegant, truly inspired. There is a reason Emma is his second-in-command, and this is it - she is fantastic at this sort of deep planning, at strategising and putting together ideas until she can outline with pinpoint accuracy how she intends to achieve a goal five years from now, with none the wiser as to how she manipulated them to reach it.

He rubs a hand across his face, but this time it’s not to hide a smile. He likes to draw a line between who he is in private - Erik - and who he has to be to lead this country - Magneto - and most of the time it works, lets him switch off one from the other when they would only get in his way. He has taken compartmentalising his life to the level of an artform. But now…

The part of him that is Magneto, that is practical and pragmatic and takes the best political approach to achieve the best possible outcome, is telling him that Emma’s plan is not only feasible but might just be the best possible choice, given the circumstances.

The part of him that is Erik is screaming.

Good thing he has the helmet, really, or Emma would know just how torn he is over her brilliant, elegant, awful, idea. The thought of her knowing is almost worse than the thought of telling her they can discuss it.

Which, of course, they can’t.

Except they have to.

Gottverdammt.

 

 




IX

 

Magneto sits for a while, brooding over the plans Emma has laid out for him, twisting his paperclips into ever more Rorschach-like shapes on the desk and ignoring the rest of the work waiting for his attention.

The numbers she has laid out on the third page are damning, the cost of the camps and their running laid against the likely outcomes of various courses of action. Try as he might, he cannot dismiss the simple blue line she has drawn alongside the best possible endpoint, the red underlining of the various undesirable consequences from taking other paths.

His fist clenches, and the paperclips crumple together into one uneven lump, going from Rorschach to Picasso. “Verdammt.” He hisses it quietly under his breath, because he’s going to have to call Emma’s office, and grit his teeth against the fact that she will either be utterly calm about it all - as though nothing is amiss - or sickly sweet and smug, the tone of her voice enough to set his teeth on edge when he cannot help but feel that he is backing down, though he had made no commitment either way.

His reflection in the brushed steel surface of the desk is too blurred for him to see his own expression, just the barest shape of a man, leaning forward for the telephone at the far edge.

The receiver is smooth under his grip, and he’s just about to pick it up when he hears a high-pitched shriek from outside his door, shrill and unexpected. Forgetting the phone, Magneto lifts his head just in time to see Kurt tumble in across the lintel, tripping over his own tail and vanishing halfway to the floor only to reappear facedown on the carpet with a loud noise like the world imploding and a burst of dark smoke. The boy makes a disgruntled sound and gets up easily enough, pushing himself to his feet and brushing the dust from his short pants with his three-fingered hands as though this happens all the time, which it does.

The irritated little pout is the mirror image of his mother’s, rendered small and rounded by childhood.

“Kurt,” Magneto says as sternly as he can, and the boy startles, jumping straight into the air and turning 180 degrees mid-leap until he lands facing his godfather, feet smacking down with those golden eyes wide and surprised. “You know you’re not supposed to be playing in here.”

The pout deepens, and Kurt drags one - bare - foot across the carpet, biting at his lower lip and rolling it between his teeth. “Was an accident,” he mumbles, but the way he’s glancing up through his lashes is enough to let Erik know that it’s more calculated than cowed. “I was in my bedroom and then I sneezed and fell in your office. Sorry, Uncle Erik.”

In the big, stark room, wood-panelled and old-fashioned in that old-world style that Erik hates but knows gives gravitas to his position, and against the thick cream carpet, four-year-old Kurt is a flash of colour, of blue skin and muddy knees and messy hair that he refuses to have cut, his red t-shirt still too big for him and bagging away from his body like it’s trying to escape - Azazel tends to buy bigger, to give him room to grow into them. It hardly seems any time at all since he was a tiny thing, unable to take care of himself and motherless, crying for days when she didn’t come back.

Erik has always tried harder than he might have otherwise, for that, and for the loss of the boy’s real uncle, too. Somebody has to compensate. He’s not very good with children, but he tries, nonetheless.

When he smiles at Kurt it’s enough to encourage the boy to sidle across the room to his desk, leaning up over the edge to peer at the multi-coloured trays. “Wotcha doing?”

“Oh, nothing important,” Erik says, and takes the reprieve. He’ll go and see Emma later, once he’s thought a little more about what he wants to say. “Come on, I’ll take you back upstairs. Your nanny will be wondering where you’ve got to this time.”

Kurt crosses his arms across his weedy little chest and pouts up at him, stubbornness in the line of his brow. “I’m not a baby, Uncle Erik. I know where my room is.”

“I know.” He stands up from his chair, reaches down to take Kurt’s hand in his the way Azazel does, the way he thinks Charles might, given the chance. It folds into his palm, very small and soft, if slightly sticky. “Come on. I have meetings all day, so if you don’t hurry up then I’ll have to hand you over to Rogue to take back.”

“I like Rogue,” Kurt says, but he trots along happily enough at Erik’s side when they go out of the office, chattering away about the things he and his friends have been up to, and it’s difficult not to think that the people Emma wants to free are the ones that meant Raven never got to have this.

 

 




X

 

Magneto goes to see Emma that afternoon, but apparently there is some kind of natural disaster happening in Africa and they spend the rest of the day, that night and most of the following day on that, instead, gulping down cups of strong, overbrewed coffee and eating whenever food is presented to them. Erik doesn’t go home until the following midday, and Charles just puts him to bed when he gets back, strips him of his tunic and cape and tucks him in under the bedclothes, brings a book along with him and sits down beside Erik to read it, one hand resting on Erik’s hair where his forehead is pressed against the bone of Charles’ hip, arm looped over Charles’ lap to hold him there as he falls asleep.

 

 


XI

 

Erik has spent so many nights sleepless or waking up in the early hours of late that at first he has no idea why he’s woken up, tries to remember what he had been dreaming - nothing, his mind is for once a sweet blank darkness, exhausted beyond nightmares by the all-nighter - and then Charles leans over and kisses him again, wet and filthy now that Erik’s conscious, and Erik presses back without thinking, a low moan rumbling in his throat before he’s even really registered what’s happening.

Charles drags his mouth away, panting, only to press it instead to the line of Erik’s jaw, sucking and nipping along it and working his way to the throb of Erik’s pulse below his ear. He stops there long enough for Erik to really wake up, dazed and blindingly aroused, hands coming up to grab at Charles’ shoulder and hair. “Mmph, Charles, my helmet isn’t going to cover that - ”

“And we can’t be having people think you ever have sex,” Charles murmurs against Erik’s skin, pulling away reluctantly and leaving a sudden chill where his lips and tongue have been. His warm breath on it makes Erik shiver. “Don’t worry, this isn’t high school. I don’t need to give you a hickey for you to be mine.”

Oh, Erik thinks, with a flush of astonished pleasure that leaves him wordless.

Under the blankets the space between their bodies is hot and close, and while Erik stares at Charles, wide-eyed and startled, the human moves his leg so that his muscled thigh is firmly between Erik’s. When he drags it up against Erik’s stiffening cock it’s enough to make him groan and arch into the pressure even as Charles’ answering hardness presses against Erik’s stomach. “You - ” Erik manages between kisses, rolling his hips to press up against Charles again, finding a rhythm between them that leaves them both panting. “I am,” he says in the end, and finds to his embarrassment that his eyes are a little wet.

“Oh,” and Charles is staring back at him, biting at his own bottom lip where it’s swollen and red. He must have turned the lamp on before waking Erik up. “Oh, Erik. Let me - would you - ”

“Anything, anything - ” If only Charles will say it again.

“I want to fuck you,” Charles says all in a rush, like the words are stumbling over one another to get out, as though someone might stop him if he doesn’t say it right then and there. His chest is heaving fit to burst, and Erik’s hips stutter, jerking hard enough that Charles is nearly thrown off; his hands grab at Erik’s chest for balance, palms over either nipple and catching at an angle that makes Erik whine and gasp, thought gone for a moment in sharp pleasure-pain from the friction. “Let me,” and Charles bends forward to kiss him again, thumbs Erik’s nipples deliberately this time, thrusting against him and leaving the skin of Erik’s belly wet and white-streaked, shifting to straddle Erik’s hips properly and sitting back on the trembling muscles of his thighs.

Charles has never asked for that before.

Erik tries to think, but between his surprise and the overstimulation it’s difficult to do more than cry out as Charles ruts against him and run his hands over as much of Charles as he can reach, pulling him as close as Charles will let him - which isn’t very, he seems to want to stay leaning over Erik, in control and making him writhe. Charles so rarely asks for anything in bed even when he starts it that the request alone is something new and unusual, let alone asking to -

“I’ve never - ” Erik manages, taking hold of Charles’ wrists - manually, with his own fingers, not his powers - to stop him for a moment, try to think, though it doesn’t stop the steady rocking of their hips, grinding against one another and distracting him with a hot pleasure under his skin that makes him feel like he might burst out of it at any moment. “Charles, I - ”

“Please,” Charles says, and leans down between his caught hands to kiss Erik’s mouth again, sweet and aching, fingers curling in Erik’s grip so that he can feel the tendons moving in Charles’ wrists. “Let me. You said anything.”

There’s a thrum of what he wants to call adrenaline but knows is unreasonable fear thrumming alongside the pleasure now, because nobody has ever done that to Erik, opened him up and pushed into his body instead of the other way around, made him vulnerable like that.

There have been men, before Charles, of course. Erik hadn’t come to him a virgin, and he knows Charles has had others before him, faceless men and women Erik tries not to think about too much. But Erik has never allowed anyone to fuck him. It would be too much like intimacy.

The idea of it is…

Charles had said Erik was his, he thinks, and wants with a desperate urgency to be closer, to be his.

“Okay,” he hears himself say, and the look of astonished disbelief on Charles’ face is enough to make him say it again, more firmly, before he can change his mind.

Charles smiles then, soft-edged, and looks at Erik like he’s - like he’s something special, something precious. “Oh, darling,” and his voice is hardly above a whisper in the quiet of the night, the endearment like a brush against Erik’s naked skin, “oh, sweetheart,” and Charles kisses him, kisses him like he wants to be here, hands cupping Erik’s face where Erik has unfurled his grip and let him reach out to him. The kiss itself is the strangest mix of tenderness and aggression, like Charles is trying to hold himself back but can’t, quite. Then Charles sits back and reaches for the bedside cabinet drawer.

Erik has a minute, first, to freak out silently, before Charles has finished slicking up his fingers.

When he brings his oiled hand to touch between Erik’s legs it’s impossible not to flinch, but Charles is still sat where he can hold Erik down and he presses forward anyway, waits for Erik to settle before laying his fingers against Erik’s hole and waiting for a moment while Erik swallows down the urge to throw him off entirely. His touch is hot and slick, a gentle pressure that nonetheless feels bizarre. “Sssh,” Charles says, and starts moving his fingertips in a slow circle, rubbing at the puckered skin as though they have all the time in the world, though Erik can see how hard Charles is, the way he’s biting at his lip this time not to tease himself but to stop himself from pushing too far too fast.

Erik tries not to move, shifts under him, restless. There’s nowhere much he can reach to touch Charles without getting in the way, and his hands flex where they’re laid on the mattress at his sides, longing to reach out.

After a minute or two the muscle relaxes enough that Charles dips the first knuckle of a finger in, and Erik hisses and tips his head back so he can stare anywhere but at Charles, because it feels so strange, and unwelcome, and he both wants it and doesn’t want it, his body flexing around the intruder unable to make up its mind whether to expel it or draw it further in, and Erik is in no state to help with the decision. Part of Charles is inside him, is pushing further on a sleek trail of oil that Charles is working into him as he loosens Erik up, fingers dragging where they’ve never been before…

“No, look at me,” Charles orders, and it is an order, his voice firm as it’s ever been and firmer than it’s been in a while; Erik’s chin snaps down to his chest so that their eyes lock, and that’s when Charles finds Erik’s prostate, fingertip pressing in against it and jolting hot electricity straight up his spine.

Erik makes an incoherent noise halfway between a scream and a moan, and his body convulses of its own accord, shoving against Charles’ fingers in him as the second one joins the first, easing its way in while Erik is too busy trying collect the parts of himself that have scattered around the room, draw them back together enough to process that feeling -

Charles does it again.

“Aagh!” He’s half-sobbing now, trying not to look away from Charles’ eyes, which are fixed on his face in something like fascination, mouth half-open and breath heaving in and out as though he’s the one with the fingers up inside of him, being - oh -

“You look - ” Charles says, doesn’t finish his sentence, just does it again, presses up against Erik’s prostate to make him squirm and cry out, pushes Erik’s legs out of the way with his free hand when they threaten to dislodge him. “Oh, Erik - ”

“Please,” and Erik is surprised, himself, to hear himself beg. “Please, Charles. Please.”

When Charles pulls his fingers out and starts oiling up his own cock Erik feels empty and open, loose somewhere he has never been loose before, and for a moment it’s awful and he wants to say stop but then Charles is pressing the blunt, fat head of his cock against Erik’s hole, and pushing - in -

“Oh, oh, Erik!” Charles’ voice wobbles just a little bit, his jaw taut and gritted as he slowly slides into Erik, spreading him wide open and surely too big, ow, fuck, it feels like he’s being split - “God, Erik, you’re so tight - ”

Erik keeps his eyes fixed on Charles’ face, meets his hot gaze with his own watering eyes, this time from the strange sensation of being penetrated by something much bigger than fingers, legs splayed to accommodate Charles’ body and this man, this man who he loves, is - is -

Charles is fucking him open, his hips moving slowly at first, eyes watching Erik’s reactions before speeding up, moving faster, deeper, until they snap back up to catch Erik’s gaze and hold it, hot and intensely blue and aroused and Erik has never felt more strongly that Charles loves him, that Charles wants him, just like this -

“Kiss me,” he says, mouth and throat dry, and Charles bends forward as Erik half sits up as best he can for their mouths to meet, sloppy and wet and Charles is fucking him, cock sliding in and out of Erik’s ass with a grunt on every instroke and a hiss on the way out, the sounds fed into Erik’s mouth one by one, like they’re his. It hurts, making space for Charles inside of him, but he likes it, there’s pleasure in there too despite the pain. There’s an arm around his shoulder and Charles’ hand comes to wrap around Erik’s erection between them, tight and still wet with oil; when he starts to pump it, dragging his hand up and down the shaft, it’s all Erik can do not to come immediately from the double stimulation.

They move together on the bed, and even though he feels stretched open and sore Erik wants it, pulls Charles further in with his calf braced against Charles’ back and grunts when it makes Charles grind against him, hard and fast, eyes struggling to stay open as he thrusts.

Then those blue eyes open, and Charles’ face twists as he comes, fucking hard into him with short, sharp thrusts that pound into him mindless and endless. “Erik - ”

He can feel the hot come inside of him as Charles ejaculates into him, wet and slick around the pulsing thickness of Charles’ cock, but he doesn’t have enough time to decide how he feels about it before the hand on his own cock is jerking him harder, pulling on the sensitive head until he comes himself, crying out and convulsing around Charles inside him and squeezing down tightly enough to make the human groan and pull out, trailing fluid that leaks out of Erik’s ass after him and drips onto the sheets.

Charles bends over to kiss him again, and this time it’s gentle, this time it is - like every other time - perfect, perfect. Erik curls his fingers into Charles’ hair and kisses him back, tangles his tongue with Charles’ and can’t help but wonder if it can be like this every time.

When they break apart, Erik cradles Charles’ head in his hands, curves his palms to the shape of the bone and says, “What brought this on?”

And Charles bends into him, runs his hands down Erik’s sides, gives him this enigmatic look and says, “Brought what on?”

“Nothing,” Erik says, “never mind,” and tries to get Charles to stay straddling him, bearing him down into the soft down of the mattress under them, for as long as possible.

 

 




XII

 

The next day Charles says, “Erik, you need to let me go.”

 

 




XIII

 

“What,” Erik says, sitting up and shoving the blankets down so that they sit around his waist, blinking away sleep and raising a hand to pinch at the bridge of his nose, try to bring his eyes into focus. There’s a deep ache between his legs that he would have liked to consider, decide if he likes it or not, but instead he’s naked in bed with the sun only just rising outside and Charles is fully-dressed in the armchair against the far wall, sat calmly and neatly, as though he’s waiting for the doctor to call him in. “Charles, I’ve only just woken up.”

“I’m sorry for the timing, but I want to discuss this now.” Charles’ face is blank of emotion, painfully neutral. All except for his eyes, which are hot and determined in a way they haven’t been for so, so long. “Before you put on your armour for the day and go off to be Magneto again, the way you always do, and pretend I’m not here until it’s convenient for you to come home.”

Erik pauses, lets his hand fall back to his lap and away from his face, and really looks at Charles, driving away sleep with an effort of will.

The human is thinner now than he was, despite the lack of space for real exercise, his cheekbones a touch more prominent, the lines of his body more sinuous now than they had been when he’d carried a little extra weight to soften his frame. In his crisp white shirt and tweed waistcoat Charles is dressed more smartly than he has bothered to be for a long time, but more than that he is alert, as though someone has taken a whetstone to the edges that had long since been blunted by his slow acceptance of his situation, has left him sharpened and ready to cut to the heart of the matter, to say his piece.

It’s difficult for Erik not to say something deep and cutting out of reflex, to get his wounds in first before Charles can make his. Not to mention how Charles has cornered Erik while he is naked and Charles is dressed, while Erik is still reeling from the way Charles had fucked him last night, tender and forceful by turns, as though Erik was something precious, something Charles wanted to keep.

It’s vicious in a way Charles so rarely is, and Erik cannot help but be a little bruised by that.

“Charles,” he starts, and is disgusted by how he can hear weakness waiting to creep into his voice, forces it out and lifts his chin to tighten his vocal cords, make sure they don’t tremble. “Charles, you know why things are like this. It’s not something I - it’s not what I would choose for you. But wishes aren’t horses, and beggars don’t ride. Nothing’s changed to make it any less of a bad idea.”

“I refuse to spend the rest of my life living in a box.” When Charles leans forward he curls his hands around the arms of the chair, white-knuckled like he might tip right out of it if he doesn’t. “That’s not living, Erik, it’s pre-emptive interment. You might as well nail me up in a coffin right here and now. I’m as good as dead to the rest of the world anyway. It’s killing me, Erik.” He leaps to his feet as though he can’t sit still any longer, and then just stands there, looking down at Erik with a mix of emotions on his face that move so quickly it’s impossible to interpret any of them before they change, melding one into the other. “I - me - the things that make me who I am - are suffocating here like this. I can’t stand it any more! I have to get out, before I go entirely bonkers and there’s nothing left of Charles Xavier but a husk that used to be him. You have to let me go.”

Erik flinches. It’s like being shot in the chest, everything imploding and driving out the air from his lungs. Erik wonders if this is how Raven had felt in the moments before she died, and then wishes he hadn’t, because the thought of her ever feeling like this is horrifying enough to deserve its own contemplation. Outside he can hear birds starting to sing to welcome the dawn, just one or two at first, then swelling, as more of them join in, a symphony as background music to his frustration and pain.

When he says Charles’ name it comes out so desperate that he is disgusted, has to look away from Charles’ beloved face and meets his own gaze in the mirrored door of the wardrobe, can’t look at that, either, because he might as well be skinned, flayed open and his insides put on display.

Erik closes his eyes to hide his heart. “You’re the only person I’ve ever loved who hasn’t been murdered yet.”

There is silence between them, for a minute, two, as Charles stands stock still and Erik does not dare to move for fear he might get up and grab at Charles to make him stay.

“Nonetheless,” Charles says, and his voice is gentler, now, if no less implacable. “nonetheless, Erik, my darling, no matter how much you love me - and I don’t doubt that - I cannot stay here. I’ve let this go on for too long while I was still muddle-headed over Raven, and maybe I still am, but it’s very clear to me that unless I leave now I never will, or if I do what leaves won’t be me any more. I love you desperately. But I never got the chance to find out if I would still have loved you without all of this. Wouldn’t you rather know I love you for you instead of loving you for being the only person I ever see?”

When Erik opens his eyes Charles’ expression is - it is -

“No.” It’s easier now to get up from the bed, heedless of his nakedness, and stand beside it, look at Charles from the position of an equal, across the space between them, barely an arm’s length. “No. I am very selfish, liebchen, and I won’t let you kill yourself by giving you what you want when I know I will lose you. No.”

“Erik - ”

“No!” His hands curl into fists at his sides, and he turns away, goes to the dresser to pull out fresh clothes for the day. “No, Charles, no. You know I hate saying no to you. Stop making me say it, again and again we talk about this, and again and again you force me to say it, and then I’m the bad guy yet again for not wanting you to die. I held Raven’s body in my arms, Charles. It was her blood on my face when I came back to you after, and it’s never really washed off. So no. I can’t do it.”

He steps into his underwear with sharp, short motions, dragging them up his legs and on with a physical frustration he cannot take out on Charles, wincing as the elastic scrapes over his swollen hole, and then arms are closing around him from behind, wrapping around his chest and holding him there gently, palms spreading flat against his body and pressing above his heart, his ribs. “You love me so fiercely,” Charles says, laying his cheek in the space between Erik’s shoulderblades, leaning into him so that Erik cannot pretend to be aloof from him, has to lean back, skin-hungry and desperate. “Can’t you love me enough to let me choose for myself?”

“Can’t you love me enough not to leave me?” Erik asks, voice cracking as he lays his hands over Charles’, something inside of him breaking as his head bows with the weight of his grief.

 

 


XIV

 

Charles doesn’t say anything at all to that.

 

 


XV

 

Erik has never wished that he and Charles had never met; it’s pointless, and besides, it would be like excising a huge part of himself now, like separating two trees that have grown around one another, entwined with bark grafted into one skin, conjoined.

He tries it, to see if he can summon up the feeling, but it doesn’t take. He didn’t really expect it to.

 

 


XVI

 

He’s fairly certain Charles knows Erik is brooding over it, because the human backs off after their - fight? Discussion? - and does not raise the issue, just gives Erik space and does not ask to fuck him again. When Erik tries to kiss him - hurting, wanting - Charles kisses him back, but gently, without the fire to turn it into anything more.

Erik spends more and more time alone outside, walking in the grounds, but the more he walks the more he remembers that Charles can’t do this, and he’s rubbed too raw to harden himself against it as a necessity the way he has before.

Eventually he goes to Emma, who has been giving him space as well, and she is not smug about it at all when he lays her plan on the table in front of her and says, “Let’s talk.”

 

 

XVII

 

Emma coordinates everything; they hash out the details together over the next week, fine-tuning the minutiae until both of them are happy with their roles and where they’re going with it.

Erik doesn’t tell Charles about what he’s doing; instead they both pretend nothing is wrong, though Charles is always watching Erik with quiet eyes, asking a question he never voices and Erik cannot yet answer. They muddle along awkwardly, like a car with a slowly flattening tyre, still driving along though it’s tilting to one side ever more precariously, drifting towards the central reservation.

They still eat together, spend their evenings on the couch at their respective tasks and sleep side by side, but when they lay down there is a good foot of space between their bodies now, and when they wake up as tangled up in each other as ever Charles slowly separates himself, careful so as not to wake Erik, and gets out of bed so he can pretend he is merely rising early.

Erik always wakes up. He keeps his eyes closed, though, to allow Charles the deception that he is sparing Erik pain.

 

 


XVIII

 

The first thing Erik has to do to put their plan into action is to hold a meeting with the leader of the People’s Integrationist Party.

Moira MacTaggert is a strong, eloquent woman who would look delicate if it weren’t for the burning determination she seems to wear like a permanent mask, big brown eyes that could be soft instead sharp and passionately intelligent. When she argues for integration of humans and mutants she is arresting, engaging in a way that has gathered her a following despite her ‘party’ being no more than a well-organised focus group without governmental approval. It’s also earned her several very credible death threats, and two near misses, one with a bomb, but it doesn’t seem to have scared her off - quite the opposite.

Magneto can admit that she is beautiful, in a very human way that is only enhanced by her keen mind. She walks into his office with her chin high and her pantsuit impeccably pressed, her heels at least as high as Emma’s, precarious-looking, though she doesn’t so much as wobble on the thick carpet.

He’s heard she was a CIA agent, back before the Month of the Atom. Meeting her fierce poise with his own as he rises from his chair to greet her, he can well believe it.

“First Mutant Magneto,” she says, offering him a hand to shake as soon as she is within range, her voice polite but cold. “Thank you for inviting me.”

“The pleasure is mine,” he replies, and takes her hand once a quick glance has determined it to be empty of threats. Her grip is brief but firm, though her palms are a touch damp - not so immune to nerves as she’d like to appear, then. “Please sit down.”

“No Emma Frost?” MacTaggert looks around with every pretence of surprise, even as she lowers herself gracefully into the chair opposite the one he sits back down in once she is settled. The little corner arrangement had been brought in especially for this meeting, not that she needs to know that. There are even fresh flowers on the coffee table, snapdragons and sea thistles, most likely Frost’s idea of a joke. “I would have expected her to be here to check if I’m telling you the truth.”

Magneto smiles tightly. Emma would hardly need to be in the room, if reading MacTaggert’s mind was their purpose. “That’s not what this meeting is about.”

Her eyebrows rise, at least as eloquent as her televised speeches have been in her ongoing campaign to be recognised as a political party. Both of them know he has the power to approve that, a carrot to dangle from a very particular stick. “I must confess I’m at a loss as to what this meeting is about, sir. You’ve never shown any interest in the PIP before other than to call us ‘a bunch of troublemakers and whiners’.” She flips her long brown hair back behind her shoulder with a dismissive hand, her gaze still fixed steadily on his, not giving an inch. “What is it you wanted to speak to me about?”

“An area of mutual interest,” he says, as Rogue knocks on the outer door and comes in a moment after, carrying a tray of tea and coffee, which she places carefully on the table between them. “Rogue, see to it Ms MacTaggert and I aren’t disturbed.”

The girl nods, glancing between the two of them with scarcely an ounce less curiosity than a cat. “Yes, sir.” At the very least she is well-trained enough not to sass him in front of company.

“I wasn’t aware we had mutual interests,” MacTaggert says once Rogue has closed the door behind her, leaning forward to pour herself a coffee. Black, which is telling in and of itself. “In fact, I would say we have mutual disinterests.”

He resists the urge to smirk. “Not if you want to be legally recognised.”

The coffee cup pauses on the way to her mouth, then slowly lowers back to its saucer with a quiet clink of china, resting neatly on her knee. “I’m listening,” she says, and waits for him to speak.

 

 


XIX

 

Charles has taken to baking again, which is a better obsession for him to return to at least than the month he had spent building a matchstick house. His fingers had been permanently glue-spattered and raw, and the apartment had smelled like old fish for at least a month after he had given it up for a bad job and binned the thing.

There is already a huge chunk of today’s cake missing, more than Erik would have thought even Charles with his sweet tooth could have eaten in one sitting. The human is curled up on the windowseat watching people go by outside, but he has a notebook in his lap and a pencil in one hand, so he has not, at least, returned to the absent days when he had gone wandering so far off in his own mind that Erik had been afraid he might never come back.

The sunlight that creeps in through the windows as the sun goes down plays softly in Charles’ hair, makes it halo-like in silhouette, the line of his nose and jaw so familiar and dear to Erik that he stops for a moment just to look at him, heartsick and longing.

He’s not ready for this to be over, for there never to be Charles again, to turn and look at Erik with eyes that know the worst in him and still smile to see him watching. “Hey,” Charles says, quietly, his face half-hidden in the shine of the bright outdoors. “Is everything okay?”

“I just love you, is all,” Erik says, and tries to smile in return, but it’s weak, a mere twitch of his mouth that could be a grimace. Taking off his helmet is a welcome excuse to look away. Underneath it his hair is sweat-soaked and disarranged, and he runs his hands through it, irritated and trying to flatten it down. He doesn’t hear Charles coming closer until there is another hand on his head, smoothing along the line of his skull and pressing his hair back into place.

“Oh, Erik. I love you, too, it’s not about that.” Charles’ face is very close to Erik’s, and his eyes crease at the corners with a matching longing that Erik recognises, suddenly, like looking into a mirror. “I just don’t want to make you think I’ve backed down, because I haven’t. I don’t want to lead you on that I’ve got it out of my system and I’m staying now. That’s been our problem all along - every time I fight you on this I just let things go back to normal, after, and you’re too used to that.”

He shrugs, hand staying in Erik’s hair, curling to the shape of his head. “It’s not going back to being like that, Erik. I won’t let it.”

“A fate worse than death,” Erik murmurs, and leans forward until his forehead meets Charles’, rests there, lets his eyes close so he doesn’t have to look at Charles’ expression any more, pained and affectionate. “What did you make today?”

Charles’ hand moves, half a caress. “Lemon sponge cake,” he says, his breath warm on Erik’s face. “Would you like some?”

Erik shakes his head, gently so as not to dislodge the point of contact between them, the tip of his nose brushing across the bridge of Charles’. “I’m going to go shower.”

He thinks about asking Charles to join him, but since the only answer after that conversation can be no, he spares himself the rejection. Instead he thinks about Charles while the water is loud enough to hush up the sound of him jerking off, hard and fast and utilitarian, more a function than a fulfilment.

Erik thinks about a lifetime of this, of an empty apartment and unsatisfying nights with his own hand, of living in an emotional wasteland, stripped bare of anything and anyone to care about. He thinks about a lifetime of captivity, locked in with someone who loves him but unable to leave, unable to live a life of his own.

In many ways, Erik thinks, he’s as trapped by love as Charles is, because while Charles cannot bear to stay, Erik cannot bear to let him go.

 

 


XX

 

MacTaggert agrees, of course. She has nothing to lose and everything to gain, and their second meeting is short and to the point, the suspicion on her face outweighed by the promise of getting that step up on the political ladder she has been needing but unable to reach without assistance from somebody at the top.

“You’re much more gracious than I expected,” she says demurely when they’re done, though her eyes are sharp as ever. “You must know I’m entirely human, First Mutant.”

He allows his mouth to curl in a humourless approximation of a smile. “Would you prefer it if I pretended to smell something bad?” Magneto turns away from the window and back to face her where she’s sat in the same chair as last time, legs neatly crossed and with the excellent posture of a martial artist. He thinks of the calluses on her hands, just so, in the places he would expect to find them on someone who is rather more than a hobbyist markswoman. “I hate politics, Ms MacTaggert, but not so much that I can’t play along with the best. This is a transaction, not an offer to braid one another’s hair and talk about boys.”

She snorts, unladylike and somehow he likes her more for that, despite himself. “Hmm. Yes, I suppose it would be rather difficult with the helmet in the way.”

Sometimes it seems as though he cannot move for sassy women, he thinks with a certain amount of chagrin, and waves his hand at the documents on the coffee table beside her, cream-foldered and ring-stained from her cup, underlined where they have debated certain points and she has taken a pen to it, made her own notes. “Unless you have anything else to discuss, I assume we’re done? Ms Frost will be in touch with you to arrange the specifics of the press conference.”

“As it’s to be my press conference, don’t you think I should be in charge of the details?” MacTaggert picks up the folder, flicking through it again. “I’m doing you a favour, here. Eventually you would have had to ratify us, will it or nil it. This only speeds up my timetable. Convenient, yes, but absolutely irrefusable, no.”

“I believe it is considered somewhat gauche to point out that I am to all intents and purposes the ruler of the world,” Magneto says dryly, and crosses to his desk, summoning a pen to his hand that flicks easily into his grip. The woman’s eyes snap to it with gratifying focus, this tiny little demonstration of his power. “There are very few things I have to do, any more.”

“There are a lot more humans than there are mutants, even still,” she answers, standing smoothly and smiling blandly. “It’s a big planet for one man to hold all the puppetstrings if the puppets decide they don’t want to play. Strings go two ways, which you know, or you wouldn’t have approached me in the first place.”

He shrugs, the long line of his cape sweeping against the floor with a quiet sound. “And I shall enjoy watching you dance.”

The human woman just keeps smiling, doll-like and clean of any hint of what she might be thinking. “With Emma Frost as Pied Piper, no doubt. I’ll show myself out.”

“This won’t make you popular with the hardcore humanists,” Magneto says, signing the topmost paper on his desk and placing it into his out tray. From the corner of his eye he can see her pause at the door, half-turning to look at him. “Working with us instead of against us.”

“I didn’t get into politics to be popular, Magneto. I did it to make a difference, the same way I always have.” The door closes behind her with a soft click.

After a moment’s thought, he puts in a call to his security team, and asks them to arrange something for Ms MacTaggert, covertly, at least until after the press conference. Wolverine makes a surprised noise when he realises his new protectee is human, but he’s smart enough not to ask questions, and at least if she puts two bullets in him when she spots him - and Magneto doesn’t doubt she will - the man won’t die.

 

 


XXI

 

“Charles? Where are you?”

A far off sound of water splashing, then, “Here.”

Erik stops beside the couch as the door swings shut behind him, having only determined before that Charles was far enough away not to need Erik to hold onto the bracelets, not precisely where he was. He’s having a bath, then.

Considering the way things have been between them - chaste, more like roommates than lovers, Charles avoiding intimacy beyond the most simple of conversations - all the momentum he’d built up on the walk up from his office vanishes, and he’s left unexpectedly wrongfooted. He’d made up his mind to tell Charles everything once it was set in motion, everything agreed; sitting downstairs with the agreement in place it had seemed a good idea, but now -

“Come here,” Charles calls, voice echoing off the tiles. “No point yelling between rooms.”

- now it’s awkward, feels as though he’s telling his wife about the present he’s buying his mistress.

Erik walks through to their bedroom where the bathroom door is, tugging off his gloves as he goes. “I wouldn’t want to intrude.” Once in the bedroom he can talk to Charles without shouting, but he doesn’t move to open the door, stands outside it instead, uncertain of his welcome. His cape and helmet he dumps on the bed, the tunic after, so he’s left just in the cotton undershirt that goes under it, a little damp with the day’s sweat.

There is a sound of water against porcelain again, of wet skin on wet skin. “It’s fine, Erik. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before.” There’s another sound, louder, and then the bathroom door is swinging toward him, Charles leaning half out of the tub to push it open, one hand braced on the wall beside the frame. “Is everything alright?” he asks, settling back into the bath and under the bubbles, sliding in with a quiet splash, knees rising from the foam like pale islands.

The bathroom is all white, tiles and fittings. Charles in the middle of it is a splash of colour, his eyes and dark hair shocking against the winter snowfield of the room.

Erik bends to slip off his boots and socks with brisk efficiency, leaves them at the foot of the bed and pads through into the bathroom. There’s just enough space to sit on the floor by Charles’ head, settling onto the cold tile and resting his elbow on the edge of the tub. The spilled water there soaks into his shirt sleeve immediately, turns the pale grey fabric cool and translucent. It feels as though they haven’t seen each other for days, moving past one another like strangers at a bus stop instead of lovers at home. “How are you,” he says, awkwardly, and is momentarily distracted by a driblet of water as it trails down the side of Charles’ face from his damp and curling hair, curving down to the corner of his mouth. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Charles smiles, and the beaded water runs onto his lip and inside. “I’m well, thank you. How about you?”

“I’m good,” Erik says, rests his chin on his arm, shifting sideways onto his hip so he’s turned towards Charles, doesn’t have to twist so far. The bathroom smells like sea salt, like whatever it is they mix in with the bubbles these days to make it smell like the ocean. Charles has his head tilted back against the sloped side, cheek to the cool porcelain so he can look at Erik, eyes half-lidded and relaxed.

There is a lot more skin on display, pale, freckled and damp-sleeked, than Erik has seen for the past several weeks. Charles would appear utterly unselfconscious if you were to go by his expression, but his chest is flushing just the faintest bit pink, and Erik is not the only one more used to regular sex than abstinence, over the past four and a half years. “What,” Charles says when Erik has been silent for a few moments, just looking, his calm becoming a little bit flustered.

Erik tries not to smile, but fails, mouth quirking, thinks about licking a line up between Charles’ pectorals where the light gathers in the water along the dip. “Nothing you’d be interested in.”

“Look,” and Charles sits a little more upright, blushing, but only reveals more skin as the water sheets off him, bubbles receding. “Did you want something or not, then? You sounded like you wanted something.”

To tell him or not to tell him.

Erik holds his tongue a little longer, considering, then finally says, “We’re decommissioning the camps, Charles. Things are in motion to have them taken apart by the end of the year, early March absolute latest.”

Silence. Charles’ mouth falls open, but no sound comes out, his eyes widening in surprise; his fingers clench on the side of the bath, gripping tightly, white-knuckled. “What?”

Erik draws a line through the spilled water along the top edge of the bath, then a second, idle and feigning a disinterest he doesn’t feel. “We can’t do it directly without people accusing us either of being unable to follow through or of pandering to public opinion, or worse, covering up something else. So we’re doing it through a third party. There’s simply no way we can sustain the resource drain.”

That seems to spark something more than surprise, at least. “Nothing to do with morality, I see,” Charles says dryly, lifting a hand to push his hair out of his face, slicking it back along the line of his skull. He looks pleased, though, and thoughtful. “Regardless, this is wonderful, Erik. Except… what are you going to do with the people?”

“Eat them.”

“Erik!”

He snorts, lets his hand trail over the side of the tub so that his fingertips just dip into the water, sending ripples across to beat gently at Charles’ side. “What do you think we’re going to do with them? The ones who have committed a specific crime are going to be tried for terrorism. The rest of them go into reintegration programs. We’ll have some telepaths and sensitives on standby to make sure they’re not planning further atrocities.” When he glances up Charles’ face is caught halfway between approval and cynicism. It looks uncomfortable. “Charles, I wouldn’t let mutant mass-murderers off either. You can’t just call it a clean slate for people like that.”

“I know. I do know that.” It’s perfectly clear that Charles is thinking of his sister in that moment, his expression faraway and sad. “Who’s the third party?”

“The People’s - ”

“- Integrationist Party?” Charles interrupts, grabbing at Erik’s arm and getting his shirt even wetter. “Erik! You’re working with integrationists?

“It’s not that exciting.”

“Bullshit,” and Charles is smiling, really smiling, delighted and shining. “Erik, you - would it be patronising to tell you I’m proud of you? Because I am, that’s wonderful! It’s - oh, Erik, I knew you’d see sense.”

It’s infuriating, and Erik immediately feels a wave of affront, prickling like all his thorns are rising to the surface, defensive and insulted. “I didn’t do it for you,” he says, angrily, “or for your approval,” and he goes to get up, but Charles tightens his grip and holds on, keeps him kneeling beside the bath. “Let go.”

“Don’t be mad.”

Erik scowls. “Don’t imply I’m an idiot who only needed guidance from you to see the light.”

Charles sighs, half-pouting with an exasperation he doesn’t deserve to feel. “That’s not what I meant.”

“No, I’m just the dick who got your sister killed,” Erik snaps, and it’s the first time he’s ever said it out loud.

They stare at each other for a long moment, Erik kneeling outside the tub and Charles sat in it, his hand clasped tightly around Erik’s upper arm loosening, falling open as though he cannot bear to touch any part of Erik, all the blood draining from his face and leaving Charles as white as the tiles.

They’ve never discussed it, though it sat between them like the elephant in the room for months while they moved around one another like automatons, alternately clinging together and solitary in their miseries. Erik feels sick, instantly wants to take it back, to never have let those words out where they might have to deal with them. There’s a weight on his heart and lungs, making it hard to breathe. “I’m going to go,” he says, but instead he ends up sagging back down to the hard floor, covering his eyes with his palm so he doesn’t have to see Charles’ expression any longer. Inside his eyelids is all blood instead.

Charles’ grip comes back, a hand squeezing tight around his bicep like an anchor, and then the other hand is peeling Erik’s away from his face, forcing him to meet Charles’ gaze, blue and unexpectedly tender. The line of his mouth is soft, forgiving where it ought to be hateful. “That’s not true, Erik. It wasn’t your fault.”

Erik just laughs, rough and bitter, and says, “If not mine, whose?”

“The men who shot at you,” Charles says, voice unexpectedly fierce, brows drawing tight together with determination, his grip tightening. “Regardless of what you did to defend yourself - it was an accident on your part, but deliberate on theirs, Erik. They murdered her, not you.”

“Some might say you’re biased.”

“I should hope so.” Charles bites at his bottom lip, indecision on his face, before he leans forward over the rim of the bath to press his mouth to Erik’s, and though his expression is still determined the kiss is gentle and chaste. “It’s an ugly thing to admit, but I’m glad you killed them,” he says when he pulls back, and looks ashamed.

Erik leans forward and kisses Charles back hard, desperate, cups his hands around Charles’ face to hold him there, not that he needs it - Charles’ lips open easily under his, and the human moans, kisses back just as hard, his tongue making way for Erik’s to meet in Charles’ mouth, jaw still stubbled where Charles hasn’t shaved yet, rough and dragging against his grip. They push against one another like two souls lost at sea, adrift far from shore and treading water side by side, alternately biting and soothing, all the stronger for the long absence.

When they break for air, leaning against one another and sharing the same breath, lips just barely brushing, Erik says, “So am I.”

“This isn’t - I’m not taking back what I said,” Charles says two kisses later, eyelids heavy and drugged, flushed prettily all over and still in the tub, still gleaming sleek with water and bath oil. The floor is one big puddle and Erik’s shirt is wet and clinging to his skin, practically transparent where Charles’ body has pressed to his. “Erik, I still mean it. You have to let me go. I’m not backing down.”

“I know,” Erik says, sliding his hand down into the water to take hold of Charles’ cock, and starts stroking.

 

 


XXII

 

MacTaggert gives the press conference two weeks later, with no mention of Magneto’s government having proposed the idea to her whatsoever; instead she puts forward “PIP’s” idea to reduce the strain on the system by closing down the camps and putting those who weren’t a threat to society back into the working population, trialling those who were known criminals and moving away from a police state now that the rioting has been sufficiently quelled. She presents it in a manner halfway between accusatory and cooperative, pitches it perfectly to what was discussed.

When it opens a public debate it is easy then to step in and be persuaded to agree, to make it obvious that the government is willing to listen, is looking to take a more liberated standpoint, agrees with her. Emma takes the forefront on this one, fields any questions about Magneto’s opinions on the matter deftly, smooth as silk and wrapping public opinion around her little finger so that he barely has to discuss it at all.

 

 


XXIII

 

“You’ve never been avoided properly until you’ve been avoided by someone who can teleport away the instant he sees you coming,” Magneto says to Emma at one of their one-to-one meetings, coordinating and agreeing on the process and timetable for decommissioning the camps in a controllable manner. She’s conceded enough to the relative informality of their recent dealings with one another by deigning to slip off the beautiful fur pelisse she’s taken to wearing as the weather gets colder, the long cloak draped instead across the back of her chair like a throw. When he’d asked her if she was copying his cape she’d merely said “Don’t look to start any fashions, darling,” with an infuriating little smirk on her face, and wouldn’t be drawn any further.

“Azazel is still angry with us,” Emma replies, adding another notation to the chart they’ve been building together. “Not everybody has your pragmatic streak. Thank the tiny baby Jesus you do or I’d be forced to take over the government myself, and I’d much rather be the power behind the throne.”

Magneto adds his own note beneath hers, pen scratching across the paper. “Hmm, I can see how the crown would give you hat hair.”

Her laugh is the best thing about her when it’s genuine, because it’s full and hearty, a very real sound from an often artificial woman. “Absolutely. Now, back to Azazel - he’ll stop avoiding you eventually, sugar, but it’s no use trying to catch him until he’s ready to be caught. He’s a terribly sulky man. Better off leaving messages with Kurt’s nanny to get back to him.”

“I haven’t seen much of Kurt lately,” Magneto says, then pauses, thinking about it. He really hasn’t - it’s far more normal for Kurt to be popping in and out of rooms at will or by accident on a regular basis, but there hasn’t been hide nor hair of him for the past month or so, maybe more. Perhaps it means his control is getting better, but at four years old - even four-and-a-half - it seems unlikely. “That’s odd, actually. Have you seen him?”

Emma shrugs, glancing up from the chart with one eyebrow raised curiously. “Oh, only in passing. But then he never came to my office very often. Why, are you getting broody? You should get out there and make little mutant babies of your own I can book into photoshoots to show you have family values.”

“Fuck off,” he says companionably, and she laughs again, taps at the next line of the chart with the end of her pen. “What about this?”

He resolves to follow up with Kurt, make sure everything is alright, but things are so busy that it takes a while to have the time to trek up to the nursery to look in on him, and when he does the boy isn’t there. He could, of course, ask Emma to chase him down mentally, but without cause for concern he has no real need to open himself up to further Mama Bear jokes. Instead he leaves a note for the nanny to ask her to let him know when they’ll be around and goes back to work.

There’s a moment on the way from one room to another between meetings when he spots Azazel stood outside Emma’s office speaking to her in the doorway, and when the floor creaks beneath his boots the teleporter’s head snaps around with all the speed of a striking snake; Azazel gives him the strangest look, somewhere between anger and disbelief, and vanishes in a cloud of smoke before Magneto can so much as greet him.

That night Charles grabs Erik as soon as he walks through the door and kisses him as though the world is ending, as though they are about to die and there is nothing more important than this, than mouths clashing and meeting and skin on skin, flesh sliding against flesh. They don’t even make it to the bedroom, just fall onto the couch and make love there, fast and desperate, their hands tangled together jerking them both off alongside one another, coming almost an afterthought to the intensity of getting closer and closer still, until there is not an atom’s worth of space between them. After, Charles stares at the ceiling, eyes wide as though he’s trying not to cry, but when Erik tries to ask what that was for Charles just kisses him again, kisses him incoherent until all he can think about is round two, and questions are long gone.

“Don’t,” Charles says between rounds two and three, once they’ve finally moved to the bed, covering Erik’s mouth with his hand and pressing his hips up into Erik’s grip as he spreads his legs for Erik to finger him open, breathless and panting. “Please, just - can you just - oh, Erik - ” and Erik complies with only the lingering sense of disquiet in the back of his mind, not enough to stop him from taking what is offered to him again when Charles asks so prettily, moans low under his breath and pulls Erik to him so he can slide inside, closer, ever closer.

Erik thinks, I will never love him more than I do now. As Charles’ mouth falls open on a low and trembling groan, his eyelids fluttering shut as his head tips back with worn-out pleasure, Erik makes a decision, buries his face in the side of Charles’ neck so the other man won’t see the devastation and love and desperation and pain written in his expression, just fucks him the way Charles loves best, pulls Charles into his arms and kisses the skin above his pulse, beating hard in the crook of his throat where Erik can hide his decision until tomorrow.

The next day will be the last day.

 

 


XXIV

 

It is, but not in the way he planned.

 

 


XXIV

 

“Charles, I need to talk to you,” Erik calls as he comes in the door, closing it behind him. It’s difficult to juggle the package he’s carrying and sliding off the helmet, but he manages it with a little assistance from his powers, placing it down on the sidetable before he turns to face the living room where Charles is perched on the windowseat again.

Emma and Azazel are sat on the couch like bookends, looking at him with steady, unblinking gazes, her legs folded neatly, his arms folded across his chest. Neither of them is wearing any metal.

“Erik,” Charles says from where he’s got his back to the glass, and if his posture is perfect, strong, his voice is breaking, trembles on his name.

For a second it’s like being hit with a wave of icewater, blood freezing in his veins with horror and disbelief; he only has a moment to think scheiße, the helmet before Emma has pinned him with her mind, reached out and caught him in place with his own muscles like a statue, stood facing them with his whole body trembling against her control and everything he’s ever heard about to use against telepaths rushing to the forefront of his mind.

Emma just looks bored, raises an eyebrow as though it’s no trouble to keep him there, and maybe it isn’t. “Don’t bother, honey. Once I’m in I’m in.”

There is literally nothing he can do; when he tries to reach for metal she’s blocked that off too, so Erik simply stands in his own living room and stares across the room at the love of his life and cannot decide between betrayal, guilt, self-recrimination or fury, the sheer animal reaction he would usually have defaulted to curbed by Emma’s mind, so he cannot even lash out, remove the threat. Charles is beautiful backlit like this, broad-shouldered and messy-haired, perhaps a little wet-faced - has he been crying? Erik will kill both of his lieutenants if they’ve hurt him - and oh, he loves him, his heart is hammering in his chest like it wants to burst free and attack the pair of them by itself where he can’t, when every cell in his body is terrified for Charles.

“Oh,” Emma says, both eyebrows rising, and her blank mask falls, is replaced with surprise. “Oh, Erik. I had no idea.”

“What?” Azazel asks, his voice rough, still staring at Erik with a dark, implacable expression that is likewise broken when Emma says, “Magneto loves him. Rather desperately.”

I’ll kill you, Erik thinks as loudly as he can, and fights against her restraint on him, but it’s almost impossible to know where to begin when he cannot even find the means to move his arms, has never had to think about generating a motor impulse to clench his fists, to move his feet forward toward a threat. Leave him out of this, what do you want? What are you doing here? Get out!

The teleporter looks shocked, twisting to look over his shoulder at Charles, who has not yet moved - just stares back at Erik, hands clenched around the edge of the windowseat. “Loves him?” Azazel’s arms have loosened, hands falling into his lap where before he was posed so self-righteously. He looks wildly out of place on their old worn-in couch, among all the journals and books Charles has left scattered around, the mugs of tea he either hasn’t finished or hasn’t washed up yet, the Formica kitchen cabinets and Erik’s metalwork on his own desk, Charles’ projects on his. Neither Azazel nor Emma fit into this apartment, into this part of Erik’s life that he has tried so hard to keep separate, to keep for himself - Emma with her elegant, rich poise and Azazel, more knife than man, and neither of them should be anywhere near Charles -

The first thing he says when Emma returns control of his voice is, “Charles, are you alright?” When that gains him a nod, the second thing he says, with a sensation like the bottom of his stomach falling out, with a sudden flash of unwanted insight, is, “You knew they knew, last night, didn’t you? You knew.”

“I knew,” Charles says, and finally, finally stands up, moves forward from the window so that the light from outside is no longer bright enough to hide his face in contrast to the dim inside of the room, so that Erik can see the sorrow in his eyes, the downward curl of his mouth, unhappy but not cowed. “Azazel followed Kurt here yesterday when my nephew - his son - came to visit. Raven had photographs, he recognised me. We talked.”

It’s awful, a shot to the heart, and Erik sags against Emma’s hold on him, because Charles will never believe him now that Erik had decided to let him go on his own, before anything forced his hand, that Erik would have given him his freedom willingly. A choice that had torn him in two, relegated in one fell swoop to a footnote, irrelevant. Because Emma is a bitch, she gives him a look that could almost be called sympathetic, but then abruptly lets go of him so that he has to fumble for his own controls so as not to fall over, staggering just a little as his knees refuse to straighten.

“That’s where Kurt’s been going, then,” Erik says when he has reclaimed his own posture, stands as straight as he can, folds his arms behind his back, feet together, shoulders back and down. Dignity is a poor panacea, but it’s what he has. “And you - ”

“Kept it from you, yes.”

Erik looks to Emma, as sleek and pale and implacable as ever, like the diamond she becomes. Without his helmet there is no question who would win if it came to a fight, especially with Azazel on her side; there is no point to a confrontation. With an effort he pushes all of his feelings down and away, imagines them locked up tight in a pit below the earth out of her reach, chained like Atlas, or Milton’s Lucifer in the lake of fire. “What do you intend to do?”

In the corner of his eye he can see Charles wrap his arms around himself, looking at Erik as though he’s kicked Charles’ puppy, as though he’s the one who gets to be heartbroken here. He does not look back.

Emma purses her lips, twines a lock of her hair around her finger slowly before answering, her gaze never leaving his. “He can’t stay here forever, sugar. Frankly I’m impressed you’ve kept Xavier secret for so long. But eventually someone other than us is going to find out, and then the fallout is going to be catastrophic. The Great and Powerful Magneto, First Mutant, has been hiding a human fucktoy in his apartment for five years, and no lesser fucktoy than Professor Charles Xavier, of Number Fifteen fame?”

“Don’t talk about him like that,” Erik snaps before he can stop himself, and Charles makes a soft noise, one that hits him like a dagger. He has to turn away, turns his back on them all while he rubs a hand over his face, over his stinging eyes where scowling is making his face hurt, push his hair back away from his forehead, stare at the helmet where it’s sat on the table, gleaming innocently and worthless, utterly worthless now.

There’s a slither of fabric, probably Emma uncrossing and recrossing her legs, a click of a heel settling back on the hardwood floor, final. “That’s what they’re going to say. All of your reputation - shot to shit in seconds. Everything we’ve built rests on your shoulders, as loathe as I am to admit it.”

“And what about you, Azazel?” Erik turns just far enough to see the teleporter over his shoulder. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to contribute.”

“You’ve been keeping my brother-in-law in your apartment because my wife asked you to,” Azazel says, and the scar down his cheek has more expression than he does. “Raven was many things, Magneto, but no fool. I am - she did not tell me. I have plenty to say to her, if ever we meet again.”

“He’s human, you know,” Erik says, testing, and Azazel gives him a disgusted look, replies, “I believe the correct term here is ‘duh’, to take a note from my son.”

Charles steps forward into his eyeline, bending his head to try and catch Erik’s gaze. “Erik - ”

He turns away again. Looking at Charles now would be too difficult. “I was going to - I - never mind,” and when he meets Emma’s eyes Erik has set his expression to hard and unfeeling stone, wiped away emotion and crammed it all back down. “I suspect MacTaggert would be happy to help us with this, as well,” he says, and sees her understanding in the way she smooths her skirt, gets gracefully to her feet and ignores the creak of the old couch.

“Erik, what were you going to do?” Charles asks, and moves around from behind the couch to walk right up to him, where Erik cannot ignore him. Erik tries, but when Charles reaches for his face he does not resist, cannot, and lets his head be turned for him so that they are looking at one another, close, so close, keeps his expression blank even as Charles gives him sorrow and remorse and determination and love, looks at him with everything in his eyes that Erik doesn’t want to see. “What were you going to do?” Charles asks again, and if his voice is soft it is still a demand.

“I was going to let you go,” Erik says, and pulls Charles’ hand away from his face. “Azazel, if you could.”

Azazel steps forward, and for once does not make a smart remark. “Of course.” And then he is taking Charles’ arm, and Charles is pulling against his grip, trying to reach out to Erik, saying “Erik, I’m sor-”

And then they are gone.

“I love you,” he says to the space where Charles had been, and Emma has the decency to let herself out.

 

 


XXV

 

Erik spends the next month alternating between drunk and hungover, though the latter rarely lasts for long.

It doesn’t help.

 

 


XXVI

 

The month after that he realises how freeing it is to have nobody to care about, to be responsible for nobody but himself and his actions, just as he used to be after Auschwitz, before New York; there is nobody to tell him he’s selfish, or irresponsible, or to eat or sleep or do anything he doesn’t want to, or to see him sit in Charles’ windowseat watching everything happening outside with no desire whatsoever to take part in it.

 

 


XXVII

 

He very deliberately avoids hearing news about the return of Professor Xavier as much as he can. It’s for the best.

 

 


XXVIII

 

He doesn’t see Charles again for two and a half years.

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I

 

It’s blisteringly hot in Versailles in August, the French sun beating down on their heads from a sky that is utterly blue, wide and open and free of clouds. It makes the yellow stone of the Palace seem warm and welcoming, the tiled floors and high arched ceilings of the building old in a way that simply does not exist in America. The weight of it is more like the antiquity of his childhood, the weight of an ancient, dusty and blood-soaked European history.

The conference is due to be held here mid-week, a sideways nod to old world diplomacy. Magneto arrives early, takes the opportunity to wander the building with only one or two attendants before the main mass of people and press arrive. It’s… serene. He absorbs the deep quiet of the place into his bones, only the far-off voices of the staff and delegates to disturb him.

Outside the gardens roll away from the house in every direction, green and well-watered by the groundsmen, the long glittering expanse of the Grand Canal, the sweet-scented Orangerie. His footsteps echo, slow and steady, his helmet - sleek and grey-metalled again instead of the red, stripped back to bare necessities like everything else about him - weighs heavy on a head that no longer wears it full time. It had taken him a long while to decide to trust Emma enough to go without when back at the Capitol, but he does, now. He might even consider her a friend, though he would never say as much to her face, and she would never want him to.

They turn back towards the front of the building, having exhausted the lower floor, and he’s just waving Warren forward to ask about the schedule - Rogue has long since been promoted, but was far better at hovering unobtrusively than Archangel, which is ironic in an assistant who can fly - when they turn the corner back to the entrance hall and the man and woman talking there turn to look at them, and it’s Charles.

Magneto stops dead, as though his feet have somehow become one with the bedrock below, rooted to the earth as everything - stops - his breath catches mid-word, hitching painfully in his chest along with his heart. Charles looks just as surprised to see him, though surely he must have known Erik would be here. He’s wearing a smart suit at least, instead of one of his cardigans, something grey in a light summer fabric, surprisingly unrumpled considering how little attention Charles usually pays to his appearance.

Erik had told himself he was over it, over this man, but then he has always known that was a lie. It only takes one look at Charles’ familiar face, slightly tan and with more freckles than before, handsome and speechless, lips parted in soft surprise, for Erik to feel everything inside of him seize up, all of his moving and mechanical parts coming to a halt, like a wound-down watch.

Charles recovers first, dips his head respectfully, but those blue eyes do not leave his, follow up through his lashes, cutting through all the bullshit Erik has built for himself over the past two and a half years. “First Mutant,” he says, and though his voice is quiet, proper, it makes Erik’s blood sing.

“Professor Xavier,” he replies, polite, so polite, and bows his head just a little.

“First Mutant,” the woman says, and it’s only then that he realises it is Moira MacTaggert here with Charles, standing beside him and looking between the two of them with curiosity written across her intelligent face, eyes flicking back and forth between him and Charles.

Charles.

“If you’ll excuse me, I have things I must attend to.” Erik waves to Archangel again, though it is hard, so hard to tear his eyes away from Charles Xavier, stood confident and strong in the entrance hall of the Palace of Versailles in the summer sunshine that pours in through the open doors. He must be attending the World Conference for Integration, there is no other reason for him to be here. Erik is due to give a speech, later, and the thought of giving it in front of Charles is - surprisingly troubling.

It is harder yet to walk away, to turn his back and head outside, though the sudden claustrophobia makes it easier. His steps sound very loud on the marble floor, and it’s a relief when he breaches the doorway and can feel the sun beating down on him directly, hear the distant sounds of birdsong and water flowing. There is a rustle of feathers from Warren scurrying to follow, and Erik reminds himself that this is the only thing he can do as he descends the steps and turns right to go around the Palace itself, to find the gardens and get lost for a while.

“Eri - Magneto, sir?”

Gravel crunches behind him and then Charles calls out to him again, closer still. “First Mutant, if you’re going for a walk, I would very much like to take the opportunity to talk to you.”

Erik - Magneto - Erik does not turn, but he does stop, shoulders tensing. “I’m going to be rehearsing my speech, it’s likely to make for dull company,” he says, looking at their long shadows laid out on the ground beside one another, almost but not quite overlapping.

“If you don’t mind, then neither do I.”

Footsteps again, coming closer, and the shadow beside his gets bigger, overwhelming; when Charles reaches his side, Erik lets his eyes slide shut for a moment, swallows, then opens them and turns just enough to meet his gaze, the tilt of Charles’ head, questioning, the neutral expression on his face. He can’t look away, thunderstruck all over again. “Archangel, I shan’t be needing you for a while. You may as well take some time to yourself before things get going this evening,” he says, still staring, and when his assistant hesitates, adds, “I hardly think Professor Xavier is going to murder me and stuff me into the hedge, Warren.”

Charles’ mouth quirks and he lets out a low chuckle of amusement, achingly familiar. It’s that more than anything that starts Erik walking again, long strides away and out of view of the Palace. Movement is the only way to keep from grabbing at Charles and kissing those long-lost lips, from staking a claim he has no right to, not any more; as it is Charles walks along with him easily enough, hands in his pockets and blessedly silent but for the crunch of the gravel.

They turn the corner and Erik thinks about pushing Charles up against the wall of the Palace in the shade, about kissing him breathless, about touching him everywhere, finding all the things that have changed and making them known, about running his hands through that tidy hair and making it more like he remembers, perpetually tousled and fussed with. He thinks about telling Charles he still - he -

“I hear you’re dating Emma Frost now,” Charles says blandly as they enter the long tree-lined walk, the sound of leaves rushing in the breeze all around.

Erik sputters, finally looks at Charles again, meets eyes which are examining his face as though looking for something, the line of Charles’ mouth tight and serious. “What? No,” and he stops, turns to face Charles properly. “No, I’m not.”

“She’s very beautiful.” Charles stops, too, hands still in his pockets and ruining the line of his jacket. His tone gives nothing away. “Did you know they call her the Ice Queen?”

“They call me The Mutant in the Iron Mask.

“Only because you never have facial expressions any more.”

Erik smiles, wry and self-deprecating and just a little bitter, and says, “I had those amputated too, along with all of my human emotions.”

And finally, finally, Charles’ face falls, the blank mask gone, and that’s when he reaches out to touch his fingers to Erik’s elbow, very slowly, as though he is an animal that might startle. “Oh, Erik.”

“I still love you.” Erik closes his eyes against the painful blue of Charles’, breathing in shakily. The touch of Charles’ hand is like a brand, even through his sleeve, suddenly intoxicating. “Rather desperately.”

The other man makes a stifled noise; his grip tightens for a moment - then loosens, lets go, and Erik thinks, of course it doesn’t change anything.

“Let’s go,” Charles says, and when Erik turns to look at him he has folded his arms behind his back, neat and out of the way. “Come on, there’s still plenty of time for a walk.”

They meander into one of the smaller side-passageways and walk for a while, side by side, not speaking. It’s so green out here, the elaborate landscaping and topiary on every side mirrored and kept perfectly preserved, like a painting of the past; there’s nobody else around, the two of them alone in some strange Eden. Erik tries to think of something he can say, what would be the right thing to say to Charles after all of this time and after everything that had happened. It used to be easy to talk to him, before.

The trees lean over them from either side, make it a long archway of dappled green-gold sunlight, a susurrus of wind in the leaves. There are smaller bowers to either side, smaller gardens, fountain-studded and well-groomed. Charles beside him is a sweet ache, one he cannot look at and yet cannot not look at. Eventually Erik says, as neutrally as he can manage, “I hear you’re working with PIP now.”

A momentary pause, then, “Yes, Moira was very happy to let me get involved. The Xavier money never hurts, of course, but it seems she wanted me for my mind,” Charles says, and he sounds excited, getting more enthusiastic as he speaks; his hands come back into play, open and gesturing along with his words. “She’s helping me get back into teaching, too - along with some public speaking, here and there. I’m to run for a seat in Little Parliament next election.”

Erik smiles at him, for him, as they come out of the avenue and into a bright open space full of red and purple and yellow and white flowers, stunningly beautiful, like an untamed meadow in the middle of all of the carefully-contained, trimmed back hedgerows and uniform grass, insects buzzing and birds singing, and at the far side, a long slope down toward the shining surface of the Grand Canal like a far off strip of silver.

“I had a dream like this, once,” Erik says, coming to a halt, and Charles glances up at him curiously, luminous in the warm sun. “We were in a garden, and I was gone and you were happy.”

“Do you really think that would make me happy?” Charles lifts a hand to shade his eyes, and his face and voice are blank, utterly blank of anything that might give Erik a cue of what to say, what to do.

Better not to touch on an answer, he thinks, and starts walking again, down toward the slope, hopes Charles will follow. “I also heard you’re rebuilding the manor.”

The human comes after him, more slowly this time, not quite level so they don’t have to look one another in the eye. “Yes, I’ve hired a firm who say they can recreate it from the filed floorplans. With a few sensible adjustments, of course, since we’ve the chance. The pantry was always in the most ridiculous place, and there’s really no need for a servant’s staircase any more.”

“Mmm, of course.”

“I still love you, too, by the way,” Charles says, and smiles, a little, when Erik turns to stare, wide-eyed and abruptly off-balance. “I just thought you should know.”

“…were you waiting to see if you didn’t?” Erik asks, once he’s opened and closed his mouth a few times. His heart is pounding in his chest, hard enough he feels dizzy with it, surely loud enough to hear from outside.

“Yes.” Charles looks away, ahead, keeps walking down until they break past the last of the trees and out onto the lawns, the grass soft and springy underfoot. “Can you blame me? I had to be sure. But I do.”

“I…” Something like hope is filling him up inside, burning like whisky on a split lip, and he stops again, plants his feet and refuses to move so that Charles has to stop, has to draw to a halt. When he reaches up to pull off the helmet Charles makes this tiny sound of protest, and then it is easy to drop it to the loamy earth, to ignore it rolling down the hill away from their feet, and lean down and kiss Charles, there on the lawn, catch his face between his hands and lick at his mouth until Charles’ lips part and he’s kissing Erik back, hard and desperate, clutching at Erik’s waist as though he’s never going to let go.

When they finally break apart for air, dishevelled and flushed, Erik clings to Charles’ shoulders to stay upright and leans his forehead against Charles’, unimpeded by the helmet and out in the open in the middle of the Palace of Versailles where anyone could see them, tangled up in each other. “I know this doesn’t - I don’t expect you to - ” He takes a fresh breath, starts again. “Charles, I - don’t deserve it, probably, but I would like a chance to start over.”

The human looks at him with searching eyes, mouth pulling tight and uncertain. “Just because I love you doesn’t mean that’s a good idea,” he says, but he doesn’t step back. “There’s - a lot of history, here, Erik, that I can’t, won’t backslide into. Just because I love you doesn’t mean it’s real now. It might still be artificial. These things don’t go away overnight. And I won’t go back to living like that. I’d rather die.”

“Just because it might be artificial doesn’t mean it’s not real,” Erik says, and he is the one to move back and away, one foot then the other, pulling loose of Charles’ grip. “I just want you. I - look. It’s very nice to meet you, finally, Professor Xavier. I’d like very much to take you to dinner and get to know you better.”

There is a long pause, where neither of them says anything, just stand across from one another, caught on an inhale while Erik waits for an answer.

And then Charles smiles, slowly, and when he leans back to meet Erik’s eyes his own gaze is warm. “Alright. I would like that. Very much.”

 

 


II

 

Magneto delivers his speech that evening to a crowd of hundreds of people, but he only has eyes for one.

That one applauds him when he’s finished just as loudly as everyone else, but his is the only approval Erik needs.

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First off: wow. I can’t believe this fic is finished. As I’m sure many of you know from previous author’s notes, I never intended for Stockholm to be much of anything at all – a 5,000 word bit of smut, maybe, about Charles trapped in an attic catering to Erik’s sexual whims.

That’s not quite what happened.

132,000 words later (oh my God) and six months later (OH MY GOD) probably the biggest thing I have to say is: thank you all, so incredibly much, for making me want to keep writing this and making it such an enjoyable, exciting, nerve-wracking and overall wonderful experience. Every comment and every word of encouragement has meant a lot to me, and I couldn’t have done it without that push every week to keep going.

And an incredible thank you to every artist who has so kindly produced art for the fic – you have no idea of the conniptions I went through every time, seriously. I am very glad I live alone because it got embarrassing. You are all incredibly talented, amazing people who I am so glad to have met.

Everyday Love in Stockholm is probably my favourite thing I have ever written, and I suspect it will remain so for a long time to come. Thank you for reading!

I value every comment and bit of feedback, big or small, so please let me know what you think. And thank you again – this is why I love fandom.

I will be tidying up my notes and art links to put into one chapter so they're all collated, so watch this space for that!

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I was lucky enough with this fic to be gifted by several extremely talented artists some beautiful, amazing fanart for the story. There may have been clapping-of-hands and frothing at the mouth involved. To say thank you would never be extreme enough to express how truly touched I was and am that people wanted to illustrate the story and made such lovely things from it.

 

In chronological order of when I received them:

Loobeeinthesky did this beautiful fanart of Charles and Erik in Part One (or Part Five!) which has rightfully gathered more notes on tumblr than anything else I have ever had the privilege to post first. I may have almost ruined a friend's business call when I opened this as he was on the phone by trying not to scream.

mirime did this lovely comic of the scene in Part Two where Charles and Erik discuss Faust as a metaphor for Charles' inability to escape.

The amazingly talented keio did these beautiful illustrations of parts XXXV-XLI of Part Four, starring Erik's hands, Charles as an ocean and Erik in the shower, and the art is so gorgeous I frothed at the mouth for like five minutes. Go tell her how amazing she is, because, guh.

etirabys made this lovely fanart of Erik thinking of Charles while he is away in South America.

keio then went on to make this exquisite art for the end of Part Four, with Charles and Erik on the couch the night before the fateful speech, Erik watching Charles sleep, and then the Fall. More frothing may have been involved.

As if that weren't enough, she also did some more GORGEOUS art of Emma, Azazel, and Erik and Charles. Truly amazing.

bourbonss made this beautiful fanart inspired by Erik's garden dream in Part Five, which is so perfectly coloured and gives me so many feelings asdgshdshfgsgf.

palalife made this fantastic art for the story, which is so atmospheric and yet so simple, perfection!

pomadka made this lovely collage of the moment when Charles cannot betray Erik and Raven at the end of Part Two.

shaliara made a fabulous cover for the fic, along with many other amazing XMFC fics! Really understated and wonderful.

ladyfassbender did this gorgeous illustrated page of a section from Part Two of the fic!

palalife did this astoundingly beautiful illustration of a scene from Part Five, which makes my heart go pitterpat

And yaegakisawa made this lovely animated artwork of Charles in a birdcage, holding Erik's heart captive!

~~~

A fanmix I made for this fic can be found here: Birdcage

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