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The man at the table by the window doesn’t see or hear him. He isn’t aware of Charles as other than one of the human furnishings of any pub, anywhere.

Charles thinks he’d be able to hear and recognise him from half the city away.

He’s well dressed, put together with precise care from the skin out, and Charles sees his hands twice: once as they are now, resting on the table and his thigh, and then again as they moved this morning, pulling trousers up over boxer briefs, buttoning his shirt down and tucking it in. Belt and then socks. Shoes and coat at the door, gloves pulled from coat pockets, tugged on over wide palms and thin fingers.

They’re arresting hands, long-fingered and bony. Charles sees them gripping the man’s hard cock and cupping his balls. He wanked before he got out of bed and then again in the shower, short bursts of relief that faded as soon as he’d come, leaving him sore and vaguely sick to his stomach. There was nothing in his stomach, not even coffee, but he brushed his teeth for sixty seconds, eyes fixed on his watch, until he could no longer taste the bile.

Scarf over coat over jacket over shirt, fitted jigsaw-perfect one into the other. In the lift the scarf came loose, caught in the strap of a neighbour’s shoulder bag. She pulled a thousand dollars worth of cashmere free and tucked it back into place around his neck, smiling up at him. Said something forgettable and inane. As he thanked her he imagined tying her wrists together behind her back with the scarf, pushing her up against the lift wall. Licking her out then fucking her like that, her skirt rucked up and pants shoved down, the elastic digging red marks into her thighs. Her taste coating his tongue, her wet cunt and her tiny gasps and his fingers in her mouth, shutting her up.

He would have gone directly to work afterward, stopping in the lobby toilet before going up to his office, wanking to the scent of her still on his fingers and then washing their mingled come off in the sink.

Secondhand and untouched, Charles wants a shower. The man wants to fuck the woman standing next to Charles at the bar, but he stays where he is, drinking his scotch neat, carefully. His mouth moves no more or less than a swallow; his gaze rests unblinking on the woman.

It’s a counterweight, his outward physical precision. His mind is fragmentary sensation, liquid and choking, every pore supersaturated.

Someone is drowning; Charles thinks it may be him.

His throat and ears are stuffy and stuffed up, cotton-thick with congestion. He thinks of climbing in the Alps and white, high ceilings, and he reminds himself that yes, he does know how to breathe.

He bites the inside of his cheek until there’s iron on his tongue, until the pain blots everything else out, and then he presses two fingers to his temple and tells the bartender, ‘A pint of bitter for me and a vodka martini, stirred, two olives, for the lady, please.’

Her surprise is green, like her eyes. It’s almost quiet, a lovely contrast to the blue chaos across the room, but her mouth is not quite a smile and her eyes are blank. ‘How did you know?’ she says.

‘Lucky guess.’ He offers his hand. ‘Charles Xavier.’

She raises her eyebrows as she takes it. ‘You’re here for the symposium.’ Her shake is firm brevity. ‘Barbara Gordon.’

‘Not really,’ he says, ‘but—sorry, it is Dr. Gordon, have I got that right?’

He doesn’t need her mind or her amused, ‘Oh you got me, all right.’ He recognises her name as surely as she did his.

Were she anyone else, were they at Oxford or Cambridge or anywhere else, this would be the bit where he tells her she’s a stunning example of mutated MC1R protein, except that she—she already knows, she’s a handful of degrees ahead of him, terrifyingly intelligent, and, well, quite terrifying in her own right. Behind wire-rimmed glasses her eyes are intent. Behind them her brain is absorbing and cataloguing everything around her, himself and the man by the window included.

It’s intimidating to listen to the ordered click-clack of her mind's keyboard and know he's not even scratched the surface of how much she’s learned just from watching him. The stray bits he's managing to catch already constitute an astonishing amount, given that she’s entirely human.

He wonders if this is a judgment on him for not erecting better shields, for thinking he could manage a city like this one after a year of aggressive quiet. Perhaps he’s paying the price for indulging his curiosity.

He knows what Raven would say. He has a feeling he knows what Barbara would say as well and the inevitable flush begins its blotchy slide up his cheeks, her smile managing what the man’s thoughts could not.

‘That’s a new one,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think they grew them like you anymore.’

‘Obviously you weren’t looking inside Oxford genetics labs,’ he says, and her laughter comes in low, throaty and inviting.

The bartender sets their drinks down with a dull thump. Charles’ hand jerks, knocking into his glass, and the buzz at the back of his head swells; the man by the window is no longer looking at Barbara.

Charles is no longer furniture.

Tan foam is subsiding, sinking down into dark amber ale. There’s nothing for it but to pick up his glass. ‘Cin cin.’ He smiles and holds it out and Barbara retrieves her martini and returns his smile, albeit wryly.

She doesn’t return his toast, inclines her glass and her head toward him before drinking.

Charles makes the most of his own swallow. He angles the glass, angles his chin just so.

He tastes hops and sea salt. There should be water, he thinks, an ocean of it.

The man looks away first.

-

‘You should go,’ Raven says two days ago when he, when they both of them still know blissful nothing. ‘Who knows, maybe this time it’ll be him.’

Charles places her cup in front of her and sits down across from her in front of his own cup. Steam rises, condensing in wet patches on the kitchen windows. Through them the grounds are green like tossed waves, drowning under a wavering curtain of rain.

His hip and lower back ache with the sudden drop in barometric pressure. His hands are cold, fingers tingling, and he cradles his cup in them, letting the heat and the smell of Ceylon’s best warm him.

‘It’s Gotham,’ he says. ‘Erik hasn’t achieved quite that level of insanity.’

‘Not yet,’ she says, and he looks across at her, bare and blue and gorgeously out of place in anyone’s kitchen.

‘Have you any notion how perfect you are?’ he asks, but she only laughs at him and says, ‘Nice try, big brother. Not this time. This one’s all yours.’

‘Why?’ he says, curious.

‘Because it’s Gotham, Charles,’ she explains, impatient in her exaggerated patience. ‘It’s a whole different kind of freak show, one you need to see.’

Her skin ripples, ancient life stirring within millennia deep of water; he wonders who’s trying to get out.

‘It’s been a year,’ she tells him. ‘You can’t hide here forever.’

The rain is really coming down. It sounds like (crossfire, his ears are ringing even before the mine explodes and then Logan comes down almost on top of him, claws blood to the hilt and shouting, but he's already half deaf) like it's going to start hailing any second.

‘Drink your tea,’ Charles says. ‘It’ll be getting cold.’

-

Barbara watches him stand without looking away or offering help. He likes her the better for it, and he already liked her a good deal before.

‘You wouldn’t happen to be related to Commissioner Gordon?’ he asks as she walks with him to the lifts.

‘My father,’ she says. ‘Why?’

‘Shameless curiosity. I’ve an early appointment with him tomorrow.’

There’s real amusement in her laugh. ‘I’m sorry to hear it. He’s a bear most mornings, and that’s after a pot of coffee.’ The lift chimes and a set of doors opens; the couple next to them gets on. Neither he nor Barbara moves. ‘Your name wasn’t on the list of speakers,’ she says as the doors slide closed.

He shakes his head. ‘I declined, with thanks. As I said, I’m not here for that.’

‘Our loss.’ Faint lines ladder her forehead. ‘How long are you in town for?’

He shifts his weight, leaning into his cane’s support. Easing the pressure on his bad hip. ‘I’m not sure. My stay is presently open ended.’

She puts her head to one side; her index file mind shuffles lightening fast through possible outcomes before settling on three. She discards all but one and says, ‘If there’s a no show would you consider giving a short talk, maybe doing a Q and A session?’

Persistent is perhaps not quite the word. ‘I’d consider doing so, yes,’ he says. ‘But I make no promises.’

Good lord, her smile is deadly. ‘Understood.’ Deadly and brief: the nearest thing to hesitation he’s seen from her. ‘There’s a thing tomorrow night, courtesy of Bruce and the WE R&D division. You should come. I know Bruce would want to… renew old acquaintance.’

‘Bruce Wayne?’ He has met him before; given the circles they both inhabit it’s more improbable that he wouldn’t have, but this is Wayne’s city.

‘The one and only,’ Barbara laughs. ‘Come on, Charles, it’s a bunch of drunk, handsy science geeks plus an even larger bunch of equally drunk, bored execs—how can you resist?’

‘When you put it that way,’ he says.

Her eyes are unreal, something more than green when she laughs. Charles wonders how on earth Erik can believe all humanity lesser when there are humans like this one occupying it. ‘I’ll pick you up tomorrow night,’ she says. ‘Eight o’clock, business casual. Don’t let Dad scare you away in the morning,’ she adds as she holds out her hand.

Charles takes it, staying deliberately in his own head. ‘I don’t scare easily.’

There's something like calculation in the moment she takes to respond, as though she’s reevaluating him. She drops his hand. ‘No, you probably don’t,’ she says. ‘Nice meeting you, Professor. See you tomorrow.’

‘Likewise,’ he tells her retreating back. She’s as spectacular going as she was coming. Charles spares a moment for regret; he hasn’t the energy for anything more.

The lift chimes again. When the doors open this time, he gets on.

-

He’s alone in the lift, if not in his head, and it’s a relief to prop his cane on the rail, to lean back against the wall and close his eyes.

It’s a smooth ride; he could almost imagine Erik had been at work here. One floor slides seamlessly into another, thought voices ebbing and flowing with the climbing numbers.

He doesn’t know he’s looking for a specific voice until he can’t find it.

The man by the window left before they did—the pub if not the hotel. Charles curls his fingers into fists (‘I don't need your reasons, Charles, it's an easy tell. Lose it.’) and concentrates.

He’s on the fifth floor in a room that’s not his own. He isn’t alone.

The lift stops on eleven. Charles limps out and the corridor stretches away from him forever. He is wretchedly tired and Raven, Raven is too far away. She has been for a long time; he’s known that nearly as long as she’s been gone from him, but it’s only now, years after the fact, that he’s beginning to feel it.

-

Commissioner Gordon is just as he ought to be. Rarely has Charles met a man who embodies his profession so well in so many ways.

‘Professor Xavier?’ he says, rising from behind drifts of paper that have done for his office furniture what the ice age did for the polar caps and extending his hand: his shake is as brusque as his daughter’s. ‘Ah, sorry about the mess, just shove it off.’

Charles lifts the stack of files from the chair and sets them down on the floor—there is nowhere else. He sits, resting his cane against his leg, and Gordon emerges from his drifts and leans against what is probably a desk.

‘Coffee?’ he says. ‘It’s godawful, but it gets us through the day.’

‘No, thank you. I’m fine.’

‘Smart of you. Stuff ate a hole through Montoya’s favorite mug last week.’ Gordon folds his arms over his chest and meets Charles’ eyes. ‘What can I do for you, sir? I don’t get many stray professors of genetics wandering through here.’

Charles pulls the folded paper from his pocket. ‘I thought you might be able to tell me what this means,’ he says as he holds it out.

Gordon takes the paper and unfolds it. His uncertainty flares orange behind Charles’ eyes and Charles shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of outward reaction, but he is; Gordon’s thoughts are too jumbled to sort out. Charles thinks his eyes may flicker once behind his thick glasses before he looks back up and holds the paper out to him without refolding it.

‘Seems pretty clear to me,’ Gordon says. He nods at Charles, present and accounted for, perched on his uncomfortable chair. ‘I figure you got the message all right.’

Charles smooths the paper out, laying it open on his lap. ‘Commissioner, this is a printout of an untraceable text message left on my mobile three days ago. I’ve had no previous contact with your city’s, er, guardian, and I’ve no sure way of getting in touch with him.’ He glances down at the sheet.

It’s short, as far as communications go, two words only—You’re needed—followed by a stylized black symbol that needs no explanation.

‘I had heard you’ve a way to contact him?’ he suggests without looking up.

Gordon takes a while to answer. ‘I doubt he’d come for it,’ he finally says. ‘Things are… tense. Have been since that stupid cult business. But you’re here. I’ve got a feeling that’s all you’ll need to be.’

-

‘What do you want from me?’ Erik says a lifetime or a few days or thirteen months ago.

He is naked, standing in the middle of one of the boat’s cramped cabins. He’s running a towel over his arms and chest, drying himself off and Charles’ mouth out. It’s enough to make Charles glad he finished changing first and before Erik joined him, or it would be if Erik wasn’t so… Erik.

Erik's irritation surges through Charles and blurs his own mouth, and Charles hears soft and dead and too easy. The back of his throat is thick with rust and revenge.

Charles suspects smiling at Erik will only encourage him in all the wrong ways. He does it anyway. ‘Only what you care to give,’ he says. ‘I can’t speak for the CIA, of course.’

Erik snorts. He discards the towel and reaches for the knit trousers donated by some unwitting Coastguard. ‘I’ve dealt with them before,’ he says as he pulls the trousers up over his bare hips.

‘How nice,’ Charles says. ‘You’ve already got a working relationship in place, then.’

Erik finishes pulling a black t-shirt down over his head, exposing his frown. ‘Have you heard nothing I’ve said? I thought you were in my head.’

‘Well, yes,’ Charles allows, ‘not that I’ve had anything like enough time to sort through everything, mind. I’ve been a bit busy, you know.’ He smiles at Erik, what Raven calls his dimmest bulb in the chandelier smile and holds his hand up, thumb and forefinger nearly meeting. ‘Tiny bit.’

His poker face is shit, as Moira once put it. It lasts all of a few seconds before he’s bent forward and gasping, laughing harder every time he chances to look at Erik.

Erik’s mouth twists queerly, up and then down before settling into a line. ‘You’re impossible,’ he says. His mouth twitches once more and then his profile is to Charles as he sits down on the bunk.

‘You shouldn’t make it so easy for me, my friend,’ Charles says, but he swallows the rest of his laughter. Erik may look calm but his mind is on a different continent an ocean away from amusement, and Charles couldn’t bear it if—well. He pulls himself together and tries to remember where he misplaced his self control. Shoves his hands into his pockets and he watches Erik pull a pair of trainers on over bare feet as long and bony as his hands.

‘You’re right, of course,’ he continues when it becomes apparent Erik doesn’t intend to respond. ‘I’m quite hopeless, as my sister can and will tell you at great length. I look forward to introducing you one day soon. The pair of you may then abuse me soundly to your hearts’ content.’

Erik knots the second lace and stands. His eyes are blank, nearly colourless in the light, as though he’s looking through Charles to his next move. ‘A pleasure I’ll have to forgo. Thank you for the ride.’

Really, Charles thinks, there are no words. None that wouldn’t get him laughed at, at any rate. He swallows around his dry tongue and says, ‘It’s not my intention to get in your way, but have you considered an exchange of information? We have the same goal.’

Erik folds his arms over his chest. Charles expends a ridiculous amount of willpower keeping his eyes on Erik’s face.

‘You’ll forgive me if I take leave to doubt that,’ Erik says, but the mental image he’s projecting is more malleable now, less a tritanium wall than say, mercury; both are dangerous, but one is possible to navigate. The shivery slide of his thoughts isn’t wholly averse to Charles’ suggestion.

Charles moves in for the kill. ‘All joking aside, our paths would appear to be converging for a time.’ God, he hopes he sounds less desperate than he thinks he does. ‘Why not take advantage?’

Erik stares at him so long Charles is sure the answer will be no. He’s beginning to rethink the ethics of a very small (near infinitesimal, really) mental suggestion, when Erik huffs a sound that could mean almost anything and says, ‘Why not indeed.’

-

Barbara is waiting for him in the lobby; she looks as though she’s been there a while and Charles glances at his watch. He’s a half hour late.

‘Sorry, sorry,’ he says as she slides her Blackberry into her handbag and rises from a grotesque green and yellow sprawl of armchairs the management no doubt believes appears inviting. ‘I lose all notion of time when I’m not marking it by class schedule.’

‘It’s fine,’ she waves off his apology. ‘There’s no set beginning or end to Bruce’s parties. A couple of times they’ve gone on for days without him.’

‘I’d heard something to that effect, yes.’ And taken it with a grain of salt, but when in Rome.

Barbara takes the coat the concierge hands her and pulls it on; Charles takes the opportunity to appreciate her. ‘May I tell you you look stunning without giving offense?’

She pulls her hair free of the collar and smiles at him. ‘Why not? But only if I get to say the same.’

‘Oh, please do,’ he replies, ‘I assure you, my ego will thank you for it.’ He takes the arm she offers, gets a better grip on his cane and lets her lead him out to the kerb. She hands over a slip to the valet and they wait while he brings her car round. He pulls up next to them and gets out, holding the driver’s side door open for her.

Charles doesn’t know or care much about cars, but does note that this one’s sleek and black, dignified rather than sporty. He thinks he may be a little disappointed. He was picturing something rather more in keeping with the rest of her.

Possibly his expression says something to that effect: she gives him an amused look. ‘I’m a cop’s kid, Xavier. In my experience the only thing red gets you is nailed.’

He avoids looking at her hair as he lowers himself into the passenger’s seat, wedging his cane up against the door once it’s closed. ‘You aren’t, by any chance, a mind reader?’

‘No, I just play one on TV.’ She slides in next to him, slamming the door then waiting for him to belt in before she starts the car.

‘So this… do.’ He tugs at his collar, loosening the first two buttons. He’s hated ties and tight collars since his mother first stuck him in a tux at six years of age. He doesn’t know how Erik can bear to spend so much of his time in polo-necks. ‘Anything I should know going in? Professional vendettas, boardroom character assassination… someone nicked someone else’s research pre-last published paper, that sort of thing.’

She’s laughing. ‘Not really. Of course, I’m only speaking for team science. We’re a pretty boring bunch unless you get between us and the wet bar. Just one thing,’ she adds, checking the rear view as she pulls out into traffic. ‘If Ted Kord and, or his friend Mike ask you to do anything, run away.’

‘Right, right. In point of fact, boring.’ He wonders if they put something in the water here, if he’ll be as infected as the rest by the time he leaves.

She slants a grin at him. ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. No, I take it back. You’ve met Bruce.’

He’s starting to wonder about that, as well.

-

Bruce Wayne is the hollow crack of gunshots, a broken strand of pearls scattered over green yellow red-stained tarmac.

Charles reels back out of his head into his own, drowning in a wash of blood and cordite and wondering how he managed to avoid shaking the man’s bare hand previous to now—some warning would have been nice.

‘Chas!’ Bruce says, letting Charles’ hand go only to hook an arm around his shoulders, ‘glad you could make it. I thought for sure Babs would have to hogtie and drag you to get you anywhere near here.’

‘You thought right,’ Charles says. ‘I’ve the cord marks to prove it.’

Bruce tightens his grip on Charles, laughing; Charles stifles a wince. The incipient contusions won't show until morning but they feel like they want to immediately: Bruce’s grip exceeds even Erik’s.

He finds himself picturing that handshake, then running the image through his mental shredder: there are some things that should never be. He doesn’t quite manage to hide his wince when Bruce lets him go with a light punch to his upper arm.

‘Ha, ha, he’s always such a kidder. Isn’t he a kidder, Babs?’

‘If you say so.’ Her eyes narrow, focusing on something over Charles’ shoulder. ‘Damn it. Sorry to abandon you to this lunatic, Charles, but damage control needs to happen.’ She flashes him a distracted smile as Bruce half turns to look.

‘Come on, Ryder’s a big boy. He can take care of himself.’

‘So can Beatriz. It’s not her or Jack I’m worried about. Or do you want to have to explain why one of your guests burned down your building and several of your other guests to the claims adjusters? Oh and Bruce,’ she’s suddenly focused on him, ‘call me Babs one more time and the Rio story in all its unexpurgated glory will be in Vale’s message and in boxes tonight.’

‘Darn it,’ Bruce says as she clicks off on three inch gold lamé heels, ‘how does she always do that?’

‘Gee, I don’t know, Bruce. That’s gotta be one of those questions for the ages. You know, like, why do you always talk like a fucking dickweed at these things?’

Charles’ eyebrows go up; from the corner of his eye he can see Bruce’s mouth twitching. ‘Language, Jay,’ Bruce says, and the teenage boy now standing so close to him as to be his shadow smirks. ‘Professor Charles Xavier, Jason Todd.’ Bruce’s expression remains unquantifiable. ‘My son.’

‘Adopted.’ Jason ignores Charles’ extended hand; Charles isn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved. The boy cocks his head like a pert bird, looking Charles up and down. ‘What’s your damage?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Jay,’ Bruce says.

Jason rolls his eyes. ‘Whatever,’ he says. ‘How’s it hanging, Prof?’ He grins at Charles, blue eyes bright above viciously straight white teeth, and Charles looks from his face to Bruce’s and wonders if he’s going to be sick.

‘Janet Drake’s boy is here with her, why don’t you go keep him company?’ Bruce says to Jason.

‘That stuck-up candy ass? Are you kidding me?’

‘Do I ever?’ Bruce is still smiling, but there’s something unsettling around his eyes and the verges of his mind. Charles stops himself from thinking unkind thoughts of Barbara and shunts Jason’s red and black hostility to the back of his mind.

Jason shrugs. ‘Don’t blame me if shit goes down. I’ve wanted to punch him all year, easy.’ With a careless, ‘Later, Prof,’ he shoves his hands into his pockets and slouches off.

‘Kids,’ Bruce says. ‘What can you do?’

Mind blank, Charles opens his mouth. He has no idea what’s going to come out of it, but he feels he should at least attempt to say something. ‘What happened in Rio?’ he hears himself ask.

Bruce claps him on the shoulder, almost knocking him off balance; he catches himself on his cane, jarring his hip in the process.

‘You know what they say, Chuck,’ Bruce’s voice reaches him through spangled black and white pain. ‘What happens in Rio stays in Rio. Unless Babs knows you’re there. Come on, let me introduce you around.’

-

Every mind has its own unique energy signature, a continuous level of activity rising and falling with consciousness and concentration, alongside other factors, but never wholly going away. There is no such thing as perfect silence in Charles’ experience; he can’t imagine what that would be like, and he doesn’t really want to.

There is, however, such a thing as sanity. One can take only so much screaming before one joins in.

He can function in cities; he can even live in them. He can walk through subways, through crowded malls and society functions without catching more than the disconnected flotsam of strong emotion.

It’s harder, though, with minds he knows. Harder to ignore the familiar. It niggles at the edges of his awareness, demanding attention like greedy children demand sweets until he gives in and touches.

Usually a quick brush of surface emotion serves to quiet his disquiet, but sometimes—

‘—Sullivan, rookie from the New York offices. Brandon, Charles Xavier, top of the genetics food chain. He still won’t come work for me after—how many offers has Lucius made you?’

Sometimes he’s taken by surprise, hijacked and dropped straight down into the maelstrom.

‘Upwards of twenty,’ Charles says. ‘I think. I started tossing them on the fire unopened after the fifteenth.’ Please, he thinks, don’t touch me.

Brandon, it’s me, pick up. Pick. Up. Brandon. Braaandonnn. Where are you. Brandon.

The man from the pub blinks Erik’s eyes. He keeps his arresting hands to himself. ‘Xavier. That’s a strange pronunciation,’ he says, and it’s Charles’ turn to blink.

‘It is,’ he agrees. ‘An English corruption of the original Basque, I believe.’

‘Is it?’ says Brandon Sullivan. ‘I didn’t know. I’d just never heard it spoken that way.’ Which appears to be the whole of his interest in Charles or his name; his attention is already wandering, along with his gaze.

Charles lies, ‘A pleasure meeting you,’ and begins to back away. His smile feels fixed and unnatural, directed somewhere over Brandon’s shoulder so he doesn’t have to look at his face.

He’s beyond relief, well into abject gratitude when Bruce steadies him with one hand on his arm, hands him a glass with the other and says, ‘On the rocks, right?’

‘I’ll drink most anything,’ Charles says, and then does.

Bruce says, ‘That’s the spirit, tiger,’ and Charles wants to ask him if they’ve regressed back to the forties, then immediately hears Raven whisper in his head, ‘Pots and kettles, big brother, remember groovy?’ He can feel Brandon’s attention sharpening, focusing on someone approaching, and suddenly dread is building a small city somewhere in the vicinity of his upper respiratory regions. Charles clutches his glass between numb fingers and a room’s worth of anxiety spikes in his temples whilst a wave of displaced, unadulterated lust rolls over him.

He breathes steadily through the tumult, odd coloured spots coming and going before his eyes, and he manages to push both alien emotions away without letting them pull him under, but it’s a close thing. When he can move again without vertigo blurring his sight he moves as far from Brandon as he can without being obvious about it. He’s beginning to feel less like his head is about to implode when Barbara says, ‘Look who I found over by the olive bar.’

Charles is looking. He’s thinking that for once, Brandon’s reaction was normal.

The man standing next to Barbara is no less than physical perfection. Together, the two of them could conquer worlds with a pair of smiles.

Bruce’s smile is manic. ‘Brandon, I don’t think you and Barbara have met? No? Brandon Sullivan, Barb Gordon. She’s way out of your league, but it doesn’t hurt to try, right?’ He’s not looking at her. It’s as though none of them exist for him as more than cardboard cutout props. All of him is focused on, ‘Richard Grayson, Charles and Brandon. Richard is—’

‘Your ex-ward,’ Richard puts in cheerfully. ‘You can say it, Bruce, it won’t kill you.’ He turns his smile on Charles, holds out his hand, and Charles falls headfirst into eyes the colour of Raven’s skin. ‘Call me Dick. Pretty much everyone does,’ he laughs, and Charles is helpless to do anything but take his hand whilst wishing he’d worn gloves.

The unintelligible whisper of Dick’s thoughts comes as a pleasant surprise. Charles returns his smile with real feeling as he lets go of his hand. ‘It’s a pleasure,’ he says with some truth. ‘You work with Bruce, then?’

‘God, no,’ Dick says as he shakes Brandon’s hand and Charles shakes off another wave of raw lust. ‘I’m a cop over in Blüdhaven. I’m in town for the weekend, though, so—’ he shrugs, looking like he’s about to say more, but there’s a muffled shout and a crash. Dick and Bruce and Barbara all turn unerringly toward the source.

‘Jay,’ Dick says. He sounds resigned. ‘And—oh my god, Tim. Jesus, Bruce, I told you not to—’

‘Tell it to Jason,’ Barbara interrupts. ‘You too, Bruce.’ She’s already stalking off in the direction of the disaster area, Dick in tow.

Bruce’s mouth is a tight line, nearly as tight as his shoulders. ‘Excuse me, gentlemen,’ he says and walks away, leaving Charles with a glass of excellent scotch, a ringing noise in his ears and Brandon Sullivan.

Charles has been in worse social predicaments than this, he knows. He’s merely having a difficult time recalling them at the moment.

-

Brandon doesn’t seem inclined to speak, and picking up the conversational slack falls by default to Charles.

‘Have you worked long for Bruce?’ he asks.

‘Four months. I’ve been in Gotham two of them.’ Brandon’s gaze drifts past him, following the couple walking by. The man barely registers, but the woman—

(titspussyasscockcunt)

It’s horrible, made more so by how random everything is. Charles is wading through bits and pieces, humanity gone, lost, broken down into its component sex parts.

Some are outstanding within the flood: the tight curve of one woman’s arse in motion; hard nipples jutting up under red silk.

Barbara’s hair tangles around viscerally familiar fingers, the line of Richard’s throat curves back, exposed to mouth and teeth and oh god, Charles’ mouth is red and open, waiting to be filled.

Charles stares at the back of a woman’s long, bare neck (‘Why did I come, he won’t remember me, I’m an idiot’) and doesn’t look at Brandon. He can’t look at him and deal with the clamor in his head, not when watching him is like watching Erik drown again, again, again.

Sweat and aftershave sharp in his nostrils, pre-ejaculate slick salt in his mouth and he can’t stop breathing, he can’t swallow, he—

He says, Be quiet.

And there is imperfect silence.

No, not even that, but Brandon—

‘You were in my head,’ he hisses. ‘How did you—what did—you were in my head.’

‘Yes,’ Charles says and reaches without reaching.

Inside.

Go home, he says, just enough compulsion to override the existing one. Sleep.

Brandon puts his drink down on something Charles suspects may be art and starts to walk away. Before he’s gone a yard, he stops.

He turns back to Charles and there is so much (why what did I why did he what should I), there are so many questions but only one that matters.

‘I’ll be there,’ Charles answers. And for what it’s worth, I know and I’m not about to say anything.

Brandon leaves without another word or backward look. Around Charles, the room comes back into focus.

Neither Jason nor Dick is anywhere in sight, but Barbara’s back is to him; she’s paying him no mind, speaking with animation to a pair of mismatched yet somehow similar men. Bruce has turned round and is watching Charles from across the room. He’s smiling again, though not much. Nothing like before.

Charles is thankful he can hear nothing of his specific thoughts over the generalised hum of gathered humanity.

Deliberately, Charles catches Bruce’s eye. He raises his glass in salute before swallowing what’s left in it. He sets it down next to Brandon’s on the might-be-a-sculpture and follows his rare sterling example: he leaves.

-

There is a shadow in his room that doesn’t belong. His head is so empty it aches with reverberating quiet.

‘I don’t like metas in my city,’ says the Bat.

Charles pushes up on one elbow and stares at the suggestion of points; there’s something white and opaque where there ought to be eyes. ‘I was under the impression I’d been invited?’

‘One of yours is working with one of mine.’

‘I see.’ He clears his throat and struggles out of the bedclothes with as much dignity as he can manage and into a mostly upright position. ‘If you could clarify what you mean by mine, it might help. You are aware you’re shielded, yes?’

‘Hellfire,’ the Bat says, like it’s an answer in itself.

‘Do you mean Sebastian Shaw?’ Charles counters, feeling more than a bit ridiculous. He’s interrupted with: ‘He runs one branch of it for Frost. It’s her syndicate and she’s here.’

‘What, now?’ Charles says. He’s half asleep, peering into a void where he knows there should be someone; he’s entitled to a little incoherence, thanks ever so.

‘I want her gone, Xavier.’

Charles stares at him. It’s becoming a habit. ‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘just a suggestion here, but have you tried asking? Emma has a lovely, rational if somewhat mercenary mind, and can be reasoned with on occasion.’

There’s a noise like rocks grinding against one another.

‘Yes, all right,’ Charles covers his yawn with his hand, ‘forget I mentioned it. What about—’

‘Quiet.’

He’s not unused to being told to shut up, usually by Raven, but neither is he inclined to let a stranger who is all definitions of strange encapsulated into one shush him like a recalcitrant child. He’s about to say so when the eyeless eyes are again turned towards him.

‘Top of Central, tomorrow, twenty-thirty. Be there.’

There’s a flap, a strange fluttering rustle, and then the shadows feel emptier than they did a moment ago.

Perhaps he left the way he came in. The problem there is, Charles doesn’t know how that happened the first time.

‘Well,’ he addresses the wardrobe. ‘Wasn’t that nice? Let’s never do it again.’

He settles back down in bed but it soon becomes apparent that he’s not going back to sleep any time soon. He says, ‘Bugger this,’ and goes to run a bath.

He’s dead tired and his hip is aching and he’s just been conversing, if one can call being barked at repeatedly a conversation, with an urban legend. He deserves a bath.

He also deserves a double scotch, but for now the bath will have to suffice.

-

A year and one month ago, Charles stumbles into the alley behind the pub to answer his mobile. His cheeks and mouth feel unwieldy; they’re wind stung and drink swollen, and he licks his lips and tries to catch his breath, takes one breath and then another before raising the phone and saying, ‘Yes, Xavier, here.’

‘What happened to hi, hey, how are you? Stop trying to sound like the grownup you aren’t,’ Moira says. ‘Wait. I know that voice. You’re drunk, aren’t you? Oh my god, Charles, I don’t believe you.’

He’s laughing, shaking, propping up the wall with his unlikely self. ‘Can’t a chap have a cold one of an evening with a few friends?’

‘When the chap in question is you? No. Not one.’

‘Low blow,’ Charles murmurs. ‘What’s wrong, love? You sound—’

‘Like hammered owl shit?’ She makes a short, exasperated noise. ‘I’m sorry Charles, it’s just,’ he can almost see her scooping her hair out of her face with rough, impatient shoves. ‘Hell,’ she sighs. ‘What isn’t it, lately?’

He settles himself more comfortably against the brick, nudging a wadded piece of newsprint and something that makes a disgusting squishing sound away with the toe of his shoe. If this is going to be one of those nights, he may be here a while. ‘That’s what I asked you,’ he says. ‘Going to tell me or should I ring off now while I’m ahead?’

‘Up to you.’ A keyboard rattles somewhere down the line. ‘Charles.’

‘Still here, darling, although I must say, I can’t promise how long that’ll be.’

There’s an edge to her voice that wasn’t there before. ‘If I didn’t know better I’d say you took your second degree in being an asshole.’

He grins because she can’t see him. ‘You ought to know, you were there for most of it. In fact, I do believe you’ve been there for most of the low points of my adult life. There’s very little you don’t know about me and certainly enough blackmail material there for a few lifetimes. So, lovely,’ he says as gently as he knows how, ‘are you going to tell me what you rang me up to tell me, or shall we relive the exploits and humiliations of our graduate years?’

The keyboard rattles again, a burst of noisy indecision, and then Charles listens to her breathing for as long as she needs him to.

The pub door bangs open, spilling a clump of inebriated students out onto the pavement next to him. He grins and waves, and they wave back, laughing, before staggering off, arms round one another for a balance that isn't being regained with any alacrity.

The sounds of traffic and the roar from inside the pub seem muffled after their drunken good cheer. Moira's voice is a quiet addendum.

‘We’ve got a situation. That double I told you about? The one I said could be an M? Well, he’s not just a double, he’s—Jesus, I don’t even know what he is, but it’s bad, and he’s got at least three other Ms backing him up.’

Charles’ chest twinges. He realises he’s been holding his breath and he lets it go. ‘Born or made?’

There’s no humour in her laugh. ‘We don’t know. That’s where you come in.’

‘Of course. And I will do my utmost, I promise you,’ he tells her. ‘As soon as I reacquaint myself with sobriety.’

‘You’d better,’ she says, but then the half joke, half threat goes away and she says, ‘Charles. Thank you.’

He laughs and says, ‘Mo, do you know, sometimes you are a darling idiot.’

‘Oh sure,’ she says. ‘That one I’ve always known.’

-

He spends the day on his laptop accessing various library archives, which turns quickly into an exercise in frustration.

It’s not a lack of information that’s the problem; it’s the high volume and easy availability of that information which manages to be somehow disturbing.

He’s beginning to wonder if he’s put more faith in humanity than he ought. The answers are right there if one looks.

But then, humanity as a whole is congenitally, wilfully blind to the things it doesn’t wish to see. And most humans don’t have his advantages.

Most of them can’t know that the sound of six bullets fired thirty years ago still echoes through Bruce Wayne’s head. What they could learn, if they cared to, is that for three months after those bullets were fired Bruce’s eight year old face was everywhere, on television and front pages and magazine covers. They might learn that a year after the furor had died away he was nowhere, not even the society page; they’d know he stayed that way for seventeen years.

He was the missing heir, no one from nowhere. Until, quite suddenly, he was once again everywhere.

For the year following his return, Gotham’s headlines were full of her prodigal son, of his empire, his parties, his lifestyle, his women and occasionally his men.

The Bat didn’t rate nearly as much attention, but Charles supposes that was the point. And he was there, that year for the first time, and then for every one that came after it.

Coincidence is always a possibility and Charles is a scientist: all possible variables should be considered, confirmed or ruled out. Bruce Wayne could have been what he appeared, a damaged child in the body of a grown playboy. But then the circus came to town.

There’s a photograph; Charles remembers it from the papers. The boy is kneeling between his parents’ bodies. Bruce is standing near the edge of the frame, his shadow just long enough to touch Mary Grayson’s open hand.

There’s even a video clip—Swan Song: The Flying Graysons’ Final Flight. Tasteless and horrifying, yes, but also revealing in its stark black and white simplicity.

There’s little video footage of the Bat and his partner, and even fewer stills. There are no quotes, no interviews, no contact at all outside the signal, and that for an exclusive few only.

Of course, there are always the society headlines. One or two make him laugh out loud.

Gotham’s Prince Adopts Crime Alley Cutie

He’d give something to have seen the look on Jason’s face.

Two sons, two partners. One flown from the nest whilst the other—

Charles sits back in his chair and studies the two images on his screen. The differences are obvious. It’s a matter of knowing where to look, after all.

Batgirl is the only piece he can’t quite fit into the whole. She’s visible, much more so than Batman or even Robin. She appears to be a free agent, but she avoids the press as assiduously as her male counterparts do. She’s an interesting dichotomy, a puzzle, and Charles has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with puzzles.

He’s frowning at a new string of headlines when his mobile buzzes. The number Barbara entered for him the other night shows on the display; Charles picks up the phone. ‘Dr. Gordon, what can I do for you this fine—oh, well, it is evening already,’ he says. ‘Living without schedules is hell on good intentions.

Her laughter is rich and low, even over the phone. ‘That’s what they say,’ she says. ‘I heard you left pretty early last night. You ok?’

‘Never better.’

‘I’m glad to hear it,’ she says. ‘We’ve had a couple of cancellations.’

He isn’t smiling. Is not. ‘Do you never give up?’

‘You don’t actually need me to answer that, do you?’

The smile that isn’t there bursts out of him as a laugh. ‘No, Dr. Gordon, I do not. And for what it’s worth, you’ve your patsy.’

‘Oh good,’ she purrs. ‘How about I buy you dinner and make it up to you? I promise to ply you with expensive alcohol and let you share your notes for your next book with me.’

‘It sounds lovely,’ he says, grinning outright now, ‘and I’m so sorry I can’t. I’ve a late meeting, drinks and dinner to be included.’ It’s not quite a lie. There will be drinks downstairs, anyway, and then after the Bat there will probably need to be more alcohol. Lots more if last night’s encounter is a reliable indicator.

‘Rain check?’ Barbara says.

‘Absolutely,’ says Charles.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow, then.’

‘If I don’t run off to join the circus in the meantime,’ he says. ‘In all seriousness, though, I’ll be there for the roasting.’

She’s still laughing when he disconnects and tosses the phone onto the bed. Glancing briefly at the clock, he leans his head against the chair back and watches night settle over Gotham through the half-open shades. He really does need to get going.

He closes his laptop and grips his cane, but as he climbs to his feet something that’s been nagging at the back of his mind all day rises to the fore. The symposium is being held in the main auditorium at the Gotham Institute of Science and Art. Some of the attendees are staying at the Grand, yes, but Barbara lives in town.

There was no reason for her to be here night before last. Unless, of course, she was sent.

Charles leans the cane against the desk and sits. He wakes his laptop and pulls up one of the few colour images of Batgirl in existence.

Moira once asked him if he ever got tired of being right. He can’t remember how he answered her then—something unpardonably flip, no doubt—but if she were here to put the question to him again, for this one moment he’d have to say no.

-

He takes the same seat at the same table Brandon was seated at night before last and immediately understands why he chose it.

He can see everything. Wait staff, customers, the outside entrance, and through the open inner doors, the hotel lobby.

He sees Brandon come through the revolving door. He sees brief hesitation, the smile the concierge gives him (cocksucker lips). He sees him turn his steps toward the pub, tugging at his gloves and scarf, and he sees the jerk of his shoulders when Brandon sees him.

‘Get you something?’ a waiter asks.

It’s an easy recollection. ‘Scotch, neat, twice,’ he says, watching Brandon come towards him. Brandon moves nothing at all akin to Erik’s fluid prowl. It helps.

It also helps that Brandon’s personality is near to being Erik’s polar opposite. There’s wariness in his eyes, open fear that Erik might feel but would never show.

Not that Brandon wants to be read. He’s trying to hide, but he’s experienced at hiding all the wrong things, and now everything is on display. Or perhaps it’s only on display for Charles.

It’s hard for him to judge, sometimes, which perceptions are peculiar to himself, as opposed to those perceptions inherent to the billions who don’t share in his telepathy.

Brandon sits down opposite Charles without looking at him. His gloves have been tucked into his coat pockets; the hands he rests on the table, fingers laced together, are bare, knuckles reddened with cold. He says, ‘Who are you?’

‘Charles Francis Xavier, professor of genetics,’ Charles replies. ‘But you already know that. The answer to the right question, the question you meant to ask, is something else entirely.’

‘You were here,’ Brandon says. ‘Two nights ago.’ His gaze darts from his hands to Charles’ face, to the two women sitting three tables away, then back to Charles. He licks his lips before he says, ‘Were you following me?’

It startles a laugh out of him. ‘Good lord, no, why would you think so?’

Brandon looks away. ‘I… I don’t know.’

But he does do. It’s there on the surface of his thoughts, clear enough to be a shout. He thinks someone at Wayne Enterprises must have heard something, found something (what? how? he’s kept his work hard drive clean this time), and put a tail on him. Why they’d want to do so he doesn’t know, but it’s all he can come up with; nothing about this, about Charles, makes sense to him.

‘I promise you,’ Charles murmurs, ‘I’m not investigating you. I’m not here for you. The only reason I said anything is, well,’ he puts a note of apology in, ‘you project loudly. It’s hard to avoid hearing.’

Brandon is back to staring at him. ‘You said you knew. You said—’

‘Thanks,’ Charles takes the glass the waiter sets in front of him and sips. He looks back across at Brandon and says, ‘Yes.’

Brandon’s hand grips the edge of the table, white-knuckled. He leaves his own glass where the waiter puts it. ‘I don’t believe you.’

Would it help if I said it this way?

Brandon starts visibly.

Or perhaps I ought to tell you some of what I know. For instance, I know why you frequent hotel pubs in lieu of those in your own neighbourhood. I know how often you come to this one. I know about the men’s toilets in Robinson Park and I know about Thirty-Second and Starlin and the Hill. I know how often you vary your route to and from work. I know why you left New York.

Brandon breathes evenly in through his nose and out through his mouth, deep inhalation, longer exhalation. His pupils are dilated, but he looks less like a man panicking than one going into shock.

‘Everything,’ Charles says. ‘I know everything.’

-

Twelve months, two weeks and five days ago Erik is watching him from across yards of darkened pavement. ‘You lie extravagantly,’ he says. ‘Impressive.’

Charles stares back, struggling to recall which part of him believed this was a good idea. ‘Erik—’

Erik interrupts. ‘You saw Edie.’

‘Your mother?’

It’s not a laugh. Not quite, some mockery directed at himself or at Charles, Charles can’t tell. Erik is smiling slightly, arms loose at his sides; the briefcase he’d brought with him sits forgotten on the ground. ‘I never knew my mother. You should know that. You know everything.’

‘Most everything,’ Charles amends. ‘Some memories are difficult to reconstruct, too fragmentary.’ He tries again, ‘Erik—’

‘No,’ Erik cuts him off again. ‘Erik Lehnsherr is not my name. I don’t have one. Edie Lehnsherr was human. She helped me once.’

His breath comes in clouds of frozen cold; Charles can see the glitter of his eyes through it like black ice on winter roads.

‘She died for it,’ Erik says. ‘Essex will die for that, but he’s not entirely wrong.’

At this point Charles realises two things. The first of them is this: whilst Erik has been speaking he’s also been walking, one slow step at a time, and he’s now only a few a few feet away.

The second thing is this:

Charles started backing up when Erik took his first step. He knows because his back just hit the side of the building.

Erik takes one last step forward and rests his hands flat on either side of Charles’ head. ‘Survival of the fittest, Charles,’ he murmurs. ‘We are.’

The wall is cold under his shoulders, hard beneath the back of his head; he rolls his head side to side, no, Erik. Not us. Not yet.

'You're not only what he made you, Erik. You're more than that. You don't have to be what he intended.'

Erik bares his teeth. ‘Then stop me. I know you can. You’re the zenith of our kind, fittest of the fit.’ His voice, his breath, they’re soft in Charles’ ear, hot against his wind-chilled skin.

He looks at Erik, who is become the agent of his own self-fulfilling prophecy, and he says, ‘Stop yourself.’ He raises his hand to Erik’s cheek, night cool, stubble rough under his fingertips. ‘I could, you’re right. But I won’t.’

His face is tilted, waiting, and he’s already leaning up and in when Erik leans the rest of the way down.

-

The boy is just that: a boy. ‘What’s up, Doc?’ he says, and he flips himself into the air, twice around, landing crouched in front of Charles.

Red and black, green and gold. He’s caped and masked and smirking, and he just walked the length of a railing on his hands, this boy who is just a boy, this boy who is only human.

It’s a bit like saying his partner is only a man who wanders about at night in a cape and a cowl with pointy ears on.

‘Robin,’ the Bat says from behind Charles, and the boy bounces to his feet. ‘I told you to wait in the car.’

Robin shrugs. ‘Got bored. And I don’t see why I had to wait.’ He jerks his chin at Charles. ‘Not like this one’s gonna be any trouble.’

‘Go wait in the car,’ the Bat grits from between clenched teeth. ‘Now.’

‘Jesus Christ, B, what—’

Now.

Robin’s lower lip is protruding. Charles is enthralled. ‘Fine, whatever. I’m going,’ Robin snarls and starts to stomp off.

The Bat says, ‘No cigarettes.’

Robin pauses, snarls again, then he steps off the edge of the roof and vanishes from sight.

‘Your partner?’ Charles says. ‘He’s quite—’

‘Irrelevant. Emma Frost.’

‘I’d have said talented or young would be a better fit, but let it pass.’ Charles looks about him. There’s not much on the roof aside from the usual things one finds on roofs, and of course the bat signal, but there is a thick concrete bench built into the access sidewall. Charles steers himself over to it and sits.

‘It’s the cold,’ he explains. ‘It aggravates the joint.’ The Bat makes no reply. If Charles hadn’t been expecting it, he might’ve been... well, not hurt. Say miffed and leave it there. ‘Let me talk to her,’ he goes on. ‘Emma, I mean. We don’t see eye to eye on most issues, but we’ve never had what I’d call an adversarial relationship. And there is the fact that I could tie her up in knots inside her own mind, and she knows it.’

The Bat could be looking at Charles. He could be staring at the wall behind Charles, at the ground, at anything, really. It’s impossible to tell.

‘Ivy’s children mature fast. You have twenty-four hours,’ he says. Charles wonders idly what happens after that. He wonders if the Bat alters his voice deliberately or automatically.

He wonders if it’s possible for the opposing halves of a split personality to cooperate towards a common end, then he thinks of Raven and decides he doesn’t want to know.

‘Twenty-four,’ he echoes absently.

The Bat is already most of the rooftop away.

‘Why the lining?’ Charles calls after him. ‘I’m not completely obtuse, no matter what you may think. Those images were deliberate. You allowed me to see. You and… Batgirl. You must know I shan’t say anything.’

Shadows shift, they swirl together before solidifying, stilling into some new shape they’re pleased to own.

The Bat’s voice is the next thing to subsonic. ‘You’re not the only telepath in Gotham. That’s not what this is about.’

‘No?’ Charles says. ‘What, then? Ego?’

‘Choice, Professor Xavier. This one is always yours.’ He leaves the same way his bird did, and without giving Charles the chance to respond.

It is, Charles is beginning to understand, the nature of the beast.

-

Brandon doesn’t ask the right question until Charles is getting up to leave.

‘What the hell are you?’ he says. His fear is acrid and stifling, his curiosity no less so.

Charles finds a smile hiding in his reserves of patience and pulls it out. ‘Need you really ask?’ he says, and the discordant static he's having difficulty keeping to the fringes of his mind dies away.

He has a brief respite, less than a minute before it starts up again.

‘I don't think so,’ Brandon says.

Charles brushes a hand over his shoulder. ‘I’m in 1124. If you want to talk,’ he emphasises the last word.

‘I’m not stupid, Xavier,’ Brandon says after three seconds without Raven, without Erik, three more seconds Charles won’t ever get back.

‘I’m counting on it,’ he says, and leaves.

-

He’s half asleep when his mobile starts vibrating. He pulls it out from under the other pillow, checks the screen and something that’s been tied tight within his chest loosens into comfort.

‘Raven,’ he says and her laughter is low and welcome in his ear.

‘Hey, big brother. How’s bad old Gotham treating you?’

‘Not as a lady ought, I’m afraid,’ he says, pushing himself up, propping the pillows behind him. Raven is snickering.

‘Try treating her like a woman,’ she suggests. ‘Not all of us aspire to be ladies.’

‘Although of course you, given that you are my pure innocent baby sister, do,’ he says pointedly.

She says, ‘Whatever helps you sleep at night, Chucko,’ and they both laugh.

There’s crackling in the background and music, loud but muffled. He shouldn’t ask, but he always does anyway. ‘Where are you?’

Raven laughs again. ‘You just can’t help yourself, can you?’ The crackling noise repeats itself, and he finally identifies it.

‘Packets of noodles aren’t proper nutrition.’ He’s beginning to sound like their old housekeeper.

Raven must agree because she says, ‘Whatever, Mom. Ramen is my friend. And speaking of friends,’ she continues before he can retort, ‘made any new ones recently? The big black flappy kind, maybe?’

‘I don’t think he has friends.’

‘Allies?’

He considers it. ‘Possibly,’ he allows. ‘He has a team of sorts.’

Something hisses and bubbles, boiling water poured out over nutrient free noodles. ‘If he’s got them, what does he want with you?’ Raven asks.

Charles pinches the bridge of his nose. ‘Emma,’ he says, and as he expects, Raven snorts.

‘Somebody’s really got it in for you.’

‘Tell me about it.’

‘No,’ she says thoughtfully, ‘I think I’ll let you tell me all about it next time I see you. When are you headed back north?’

His hip is starting to ache. He slides down the bed onto his back and lies staring up at the ceiling, one hand resting on his chest. ‘I don’t know. I need to speak to Emma, but that won’t take longer than an hour. She hasn’t contacted me but she knows I’m here.’

‘I’ll just bet she does,’ Raven says around what sounds suspiciously like a mouthful of something outrageously sugar laden. ‘What’s her deal this time? Selling kids into sexual slavery? Can’t be much worse than selling out your fellow muties.’

‘Raven.’ Charles searches for the right words. ‘She didn’t know. If she had she’d have stopped it.’

‘Yeah, right,’ she says. ‘She’s a fucking saint. Hello, telepath, she should’ve known. She should’ve been paying attention. You would have.’

He lets it drop. There are some things they will never see eye to eye on and Emma Frost is the least of them. ‘In any case,’ he says, ‘I may stay a while longer. I told someone I would and he’s—I suppose he’s a friend, in a way. If at all possible I intend to follow through.’

There’s a clatter, like someone just dropped a piece of crockery onto a hard surface. ‘Back up a little,’ Raven says. ‘Are you telling me after a year of going without, Charles Xavier got laid?’

It startles him into a sitting position. ‘What? No, it’s nothing like that. He’s—’

Her whoop of triumph nearly takes his eardrum out. He holds the phone away, waiting for the shrieks to die down before he puts it back up to his ear.

‘So you finally realised there’s emotional and sexual life beyond Erik that rat bastard Lehnsherr,’ she’s saying. ‘Charles, I’m so proud of you.’ She sounds so happy for him he feels guilty for having to readjust her perceptions.

‘Well, no, not exactly. It really isn’t like—oh bugger,’ he says, because he’s cocked this one up nicely.

‘Charles,’ she says in a completely different tone of voice, ‘you found another Erik clone, didn’t you? You fucked an Erik clone.’

All these years and she can still turn him red in the face in record time. ‘Raven, that’s—no,’ he says firmly. ‘I did not… sleep with him.’

She’s quick to pounce on that. ‘But he is a he. And also an Erik clone.’

He stumbles over the words, because really, there are no good ones for this. ‘He looks... that is, he’s not, he—’

‘Reminds you of that rat bastard Erik,’ she finishes for him in a flat tone.

Charles sighs. ‘Yes, I suppose he does, in a way.’ It’s one sort of truth and less hurtful than many others, and he has no intention of discussing this any further, not even with her. ‘How’s Logan?’ he says, hoping to derail her attention long enough to redirect the conversation to a more harmless topic.

What he gets is uneasy silence. ‘Raven?’ he says, but it’s still several seconds before she answers.

‘That’s part of why I called you,’ she finally says. ‘He dropped off the radar two weeks ago. It’s not unusual,’ she adds quickly. ‘What we do… it happens sometimes. But this time—’

There's an unfamiliar note in her voice. It caroms around the inside of his head a few times before sliding down from his ears into his stomach. It sits there uneasily.

‘It feels wrong,' Raven picks up her unfinished thought. 'Hell, Charles, I didn’t like the set up when he went in—neither of us did—but there were kids involved and… damn it.’

He watches the shadows blur neon blue and red and green into shapeless black shapes out on the balcony whilst he waits her out.

It took him years to learn that when she’s like this she doesn’t want or need advice; she just needs him to listen. He wishes he’d learnt sooner, wishes he’d always listened to her words instead of assuming her emotional array would tell him everything he needed to know.

‘I’m letting you know now,’ she says. ‘If I can’t find him, I’m calling Erik in. I don’t like the son of a bitch. I’d love to gut him for screwing you up worse than you already were, but he gets the job done.’

He closes his eyes and turns his head, resting his cheek against the cool wood of the headboard. ‘I know, dear. I’m sorry.’

‘Not your fault. Well,’ she amends, ‘not all of it.’ Charles is grateful she’s not here to see what he suspects is a bad imitation of a smile.

‘I’m a terrible brother, I know.’

‘Nope,’ she says, ‘just a first class idiot, sometimes. Which reminds me, getting back to the subject you did your best to get me off of,’ the laughter is back in her voice, ‘I think you should drag your Erik clone back to your lair and work some of your issues out. Ride him hard enough, he won’t care whose name you scream.’

‘I suppose there’s not much hope you don’t speak from experience.’ Charles is having some difficulty breathing, not an unusual occurrence when speaking with Raven. ‘Additionally, you must know you are a horrible person.’

‘Sure am. I notice you didn’t say you weren’t going to do it. Just saying.’

He feels his smile fade along with his laughter and tries to keep it out of his voice. ‘You don’t know how much I wish I could. Keep me in the loop if you can, Raven. Be safe.’

‘I will if you will,’ she hedges. ‘Idiot. Don’t fall off any roofs while you’re down there, ok? Flying’s not your mutation.’

‘Right.’

He can almost feel her smile. ‘’Night, Charles.’

‘Goodnight.’ He keeps the phone pressed to his ear until it shuts itself down.

-

This is what Charles doesn’t tell her:

Most of the time Brandon doesn’t remind him of Erik. He only looks like him.

It’s a truth Charles appreciates a little more with each minute of every passing hour.

-

‘Thank you for that,’ Barbara says on the way down too many flights of stone steps. ‘I’m sure you could have found better ways to waste your day. You’re a good sport, Professor.’

‘As to that, I think glutton for punishment is more appropriate to the occasion,’ Charles retorts, and she laughs and stops him on the next landing. She leans in, her hand on his shoulder, and kisses him on the mouth.

A string of kids with packs and padds pushes past and Charles feels amusement from them, irritation, even some envy. Barbara smells like citrus. She tastes like tea leaves and tech and he has just enough time to think, oh lovely, before she pulls away, grinning. She says as she starts down the last flight in the kids’ wake, ‘So, can I collect on that rain check?’

A little out of your league isn’t she, darling?

Emma does so love to make an entrance. Charles sighs and follows Barbara down. ‘If only you could,’ he says aloud, then, Few of the good ones aren’t. Are you free?

You have a way with words, Charles. The Teahouse. Ask for the Russian Room. She sends him a flurry of images, directions in pictures moving fast enough to spin vertigo up from his stomach into his throat.

‘Charles?’ He feels Barbara touch his arm and turns his head, blinking her into focus. ‘Are you all right?’ There’s concern on her face and in her mind, but her tone is light, unassuming. Charles dredges up half a smile.

‘I think I must be more tired than I believed,’ he says.

Her fingers curl warmly through his. ‘Let me give you a ride back to the Grand.’

‘Thank you, love,’ he says. ‘But I’ll be all right. New York natives learn how to hail cabs in their cradles, I think.’

She gives him a searching look, but she takes him at his word, or at least pretends to. ‘If you’re sure.’

‘I am, really.’

She nods as her hand loosens and falls away from his. ‘Thank you again for today. And give me a ring before you leave town. We’ll do dinner.’

‘Sounds good,’ he tells her, and he half expects a handshake; instead he’s hugged to within an inch of his life and pecked on the cheek.

‘Go sleep,’ Barbara tells him as she steps back. ‘God knows you look like you need it.’ Before he can begin to formulate an answer she gives him a final, fleeting smile and turns on her heel, striding briskly toward one of the lots.

Charles watches her out of sight, then he steps into the seething mass of students covering the green and makes his slow way through them down to the street. I hope you enjoyed that, he sends peevishly. Emma’s amusement shatters inside his mind, clear and cutting.

You're capable of reaching your own conclusions, she says.

Unfortunately, yes. A taxi pulls up in response to his mental nudge and Charles climbs in, biting back his sigh of relief at being able to finally sit down.

Emma’s tinkling mental laugh raises the hair on the back of his neck. Manipulating humans for your own benefit? I’d never have believed it of you, Charles. Her tone is her usual combination of boredom and mockery, and Charles decides he’s had enough: a little Emma goes a long way, and he still has to get through the next hour or so.

Glass houses, dear, he returns before gently shutting her out.

‘Where to?’ asks the driver.

Charles leans back against the seat and closes his eyes. ‘The Teahouse. Long way round, if you don’t mind.’

-

The cab driver’s name is Armando. He’s twenty-five, with a devastatingly beautiful smile and a boyfriend named Alex, and he’s halfway through a degree in molecular biology he began for at least one of the same reasons Charles went into genetics: he’s not human.

He’d be finished with his degree by now, but he’s also the sole source of support, financial and otherwise, for his younger twin sisters, whose pictures he’s attached to the inside of the driver’s side sun shade. Stopped at a traffic signal, he pulls the shade down to show Charles. ‘My girls,’ he says, grinning at him in the rear view mirror. ‘They’re gorgeous, aren’t they?’

‘They are,’ Charles agrees. They’re also mutants, just like their big brother, his boyfriend, and that boyfriend’s two younger brothers.

The quite astonishing thing is, the only information Charles lifted from Armando’s mind was Alex’s name and boyfriend status; Armando made him a gift of the rest of his personal details in the way of cab drivers throughout America. Charles feels rather like he’s been knocked sideways through someone else’s looking glass.

‘And you don’t encounter difficulties living openly?’ he asks. ‘As mutants, that is.’

‘Nah,’ Armando says as he steers the car into a turn, his hands moving easily over the wheel. ‘No more than anyone else does.’ His laugh is a delightful extension of his smile. ‘Gotham’s pretty open-minded about that kind of thing. It’ll knock anyone on their ass, doesn’t matter if they’re sape or mutie.’

‘Democracy at work.’ Charles pushes his disquiet away. ‘And Batman? He doesn’t… trouble you?’

Armando’s surprise feels unfeigned. ‘You kidding me?’ he says. ‘The Bat’s the man. He doesn’t put up with that kind of bigoted bull, not in his town. Remember when they kicked the mutant ID bill down to state level? The riots and protests all over?’

Charles’ mouth tightens involuntarily. ‘Yes, of course.’

The dimple in Armando’s left cheek deepens. ‘We didn’t have any of that here. Okay, the protests, yeah--we've got those every weekend pretty much for just about everything--but not the riots. The Bat and the Commish and DA Dent, they made it damn clear how it was gonna be, and the mayor always goes along with what they do. After that,’ he shrugs, ‘it was all over but the shouting.’

New Jersey, Charles remembers, was one of twenty-four states that didn’t pass the bill. ‘You live in a remarkably open-minded place, my friend.’

Armando’s laughter has an odd hollow ring to it this time. ‘I’m telling you, man, where Gotham leads, the rest of Jersey follows,’ he says as he pulls up in front of a monstrous building which appears to be made entirely of mirrored glass. ‘This is it. Teahouse is close to the top floor.’

‘Ah,’ Charles says, looking up. ‘Which floor would that be, exactly?’

‘Hundred-something, I think? It’s Wayne Tower. Dude does things big, you know?’

‘Indeed,’ Charles murmurs.

‘Want me to wait?’ Armando asks after Charles has handed over the better part of twenty dollars.

Charles pauses halfway through the door and turns to look at him. ‘Tell you what,’ he says. When I’m ready I’ll give a shout. Sound good?

Armando’s mouth drops open. Charles grins. Charles Xavier. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Armando.

‘Whoa,’ Armando says, sounding winded, then he grins back at Charles and it’s like the sun coming out. ‘Ride back’s on the house, man. You go right ahead and shout. I’ll be listening for it.’

-

Aside from the gold Cyrillic lettering bordering its windows and doorways, the Russian Room is done in shades of white. It suits the woman sitting on the chaise facing the entrance as well as does her white leather skinsuit.

The man standing to attention behind her looks a trifle out of place, though, rather like a demon would at the North Pole, or so Charles imagines.

‘Emma,’ Charles says as the door shuts quietly after the attendant. ‘And Azazel. I thought we’d declared a temporary truce?’

‘Azazel, be a dear and make yourself scarce.’ Her smile is as icy as her laughter was, but Azazel seems not to care.

He says, ‘As you wish,’ nods to Charles, and vanishes in a puff of black smoke.

Charles stays where he is, enduring the whisper of Emma’s mind through his whilst she looks him over. ‘You look like hell,’ is her assessment. ‘Tea?’

‘If there’s brandy to go with it, please,’ Charles says as he lowers himself into the chair opposite her.

The low table in front of her is full of glass bottles and bone china; Charles sees her glance at his cane as she pours. ‘I spoke with Magnus afterward,’ she says, pushing his cup towards him. ‘He mentioned a wheelchair.’

Charles slams a shield down on a few inquisitive tendrils poking where they ought not and retrieves the cup. ‘Thank you.’ There’s a suggested smile flickering around her mouth when he looks up; he doesn’t bother returning it.

He owes her nothing, but if a slight sacrifice of privacy on his part will make her cooperative, he won’t quibble over means. ‘The wheelchair was temporary. If Logan hadn’t stopped Erik from removing the bullets immediately, it might not have been.’

He was floating at the time, not really able to hear or see, but he remembers that much. It was the crowning moment of the entire surreal episode. After Afghanistan he’d thought he’d been done with both bullets and Logan. Odd how these things worked out.

There's not much left of her smile, and what there is... ‘I'm sure we all thank god for Logan on our knees every night.’

Perhaps we ought to.

Raven is insane.

Charles stirs before he sips. They seem to get on well enough. I’m told there’s a deal of growling and clawing involved.

He's always liked redheads.

Raven is much more than that. As she has good cause to know. He fits his cup to its matching saucer, sets them both on the table and meets her amused gaze. ‘I’ve been asked to—well, plainly put, asked to ask you to leave the city. I don’t suppose you’d like to try the easy way for a change?’

She’s thinking of going diamond. Her consideration is as clear as her secondary mutation, but her eyes narrow and then she says, ‘I’m in the market for a new experience.’

Charles says, ‘What?’

It cannot be this simple. Nothing about her is, she’s thinking in facets, he can damn well hear her.

Emma is examining her nails, a faint line running down the centre of her forehead. ‘For a sociopath, Pam’s a nice girl, but she’s… extreme.’ She flicks something from her thumbnail and looks up at him.

Charles stares at her. She appears extreme. To you.

Parameters are necessary.

‘I see.’ He’s beginning to, anyway.

‘I'm glad to hear it. If you’ll excuse me, Charles, I’ve got a teleporter to catch.’ She’s standing, gathering her fur-trimmed cloak round her as she rises.

‘Emma?’ Charles says, and she pauses in the midst of arranging herself to raise an eyebrow in his direction. ‘I’ll have the truth, now. If you please.’

Slowly, she sinks back down on the chaise. He feels her prodding at the edges of his mind, but he’s in no mood for her games and he keeps his barriers in place.

She’s quick on the uptake. She always has been. Her mouth quirks and she settles herself against the chaise, displaying everything there is to display to best effect—not for his benefit, but to feed some need of her own. Her smile is open enough for a white glimmer of teeth.

‘Why not?’ she says. ‘He’ll probably begin by telling you himself.’

He was half expecting her to say something of the sort, but expectation is never the same as confirmation. The faint, satisfied curve of Emma’s mouth says she’s getting away with more than he’ll ever know, and Charles… Charles has no reliable backup.

God, but he misses Raven. And Moira.

-

It’s barely 2002, the ball has just dropped and Charles could not care less.

He says, ‘But why?’ and starts to sit up, but the room spins madly and then he’s looking up at the ceiling from the floor. ‘I think,’ he informs the ceiling, ‘I think I may be slightly impaired.’

‘Just slightly,’ Moira confirms, her voice shaking with laughter. Charles glares blearily at her before grabbing a fold of her denims and tugging.

‘Come down here, I can’t see you properly all the way up there.’

‘Mom always told me never to argue with drunks,’ she says agreeably, and slides down off the settee to join him on the floor.

Charles rolls himself over until he’s on his back looking up into her face, his head resting on her thigh. ‘You can’t, you know,’ he tells her.

She’s smiling down at him, ruffling her fingers through his fringe. ‘Why not?’

He thinks about it. ‘Because,’ he says, ‘because we’re going to make the world safe for mutants. You and me. We’re going to do it with science!’

She’s laughing, he can feel the vibrations of it shaking her leg; he can feel the fond, rueful Moira-ness of her soaking into him and he burrows into it, pulling her around him like a blanket.

‘Charles,’ she says in a choked voice. Her hands are gentle, smoothing his hair away from his face. He hears her take a deep breath, hears her let it out. Her hands fall away from him and she says, ‘Did I ever tell you why I picked Oxford?’

It gives him pause. ‘I don’t… think so?’

She smiles a little. ‘Because it wasn’t Stateside. I picked genetics because Dad told me I’d never make it in the sciences, because I like research better than practice, and because mechanical engineering was never my thing.

‘I wanted to know if I could do it,’ she says. ‘Turns out I could. Now I want to know if I can do this.’

On the telly, Times Square is still whooping it up. On the floor, Charles blinks because she really is the most ridiculous—

‘What you do mean, if?’ he says. ‘Of course you’ll do it, you’ll run circles round those Quantico Feebs.’

Moira laughs and leans over him, cupping his cheek, her hair a dark, powdery curtain around them. ‘That’s the FBI, not the CIA. Also, you’re adorable,’ she tells him. ‘Misguided but adorable, and I do kind of adore you.’ She takes her hand away and kisses him where she touched him, and, ‘Thank you,’ she whispers as she pulls away.

He says, ‘Hmn,’ then, ‘Let’s try that again,’ and reaches up to pull her back down. Moira stops him with a finger touched briefly to his mouth.

‘Get a grip on yourself, cowboy.’ He sees a hint of regret in her eyes, but what he feels coming from her is so wholly removed from regret as to be its diametric opposite.

It leaves him with only one thing he can in all conscience say.

‘You’re worth a thousand of them and us combined,’ he tells her. ‘Give them hell, darling.’

-

Charles rolls over onto his side and looks at the clock on the table: it’s not quite midnight and Brandon is pounding on the door.

Almost, he doesn’t get up. Doesn’t flip on the bedside lamp and struggle out from under his covers; doesn’t fumble for his cane, cursing the Bat for his summons, Raven for refusing, and Brandon for being bloody stupid at all hours, including this indecently late one.

In another universe, one in which Charles ignored the knocking, he’s already gone back to sleep. In this universe he opens the door and Brandon stares at him from dark-ringed grey eyes.

Here and now, he says, ‘Are you coming in?’ And then he’s stumbling backward across the room, propelled by Brandon’s hands and desperation. His cane is the first casualty, a muffled thump lost somewhere down on the carpet, then the backs of his knees hit the end of the bed; Brandon shoves him onto it and follows him down. He crawls on top of Charles and pins him there, hands on his shoulders, knees cradling his hips.

The door closes with a soft click.

‘Can you,’ Brandon says hoarsely. ‘Make me stop. Can you stop me.’

And god yes, Charles has been expecting something like this, but here and now this, this is— ‘My dear, no, I’m sorry. I cannot.’

A choked sound pushes out of Brandon's throat, muffled and thick. His breath breaks in a smoke-ruined wave over Charles' skin as his fingers curl into Charles’ loose cotton t-shirt. They leave sweat wet streaks, clenching up around thin fabric, keeping Charles close: a wave of stale sex floods his mind and his nostrils; this close to Brandon the air is redolent of sweat and semen.

Brandon rests his forehead against Charles’ collarbone. His knees tighten on Charles’ hips, pulling a wince from him. ‘Can’t or won’t?’

‘Both,’ Charles says, and Brandon raises his head, bloodshot eyes fixed on Charles’ face.

‘What good is it, then?’ he rasps. ‘Fuck, what’s the point of having these powers if you can’t—if you—’

His voice trails off as Charles reaches up, smoothing away the wetness dotting his forehead and streaking his cheeks. ‘Listen to me, my friend,’ Charles chooses his words with care. ‘I cannot resolve this for you. Any attempt would at best be temporary and at worst—’ he closes his eyes against the memory of cold hands and lips so white they looked blue. ‘At worst I could damage you beyond hope of repair.’

He can feel Brandon’s breath, warm and uneven on his throat. ‘Ask for help and I will do my utmost to find it for you. Don’t ask me to fix you. I can’t.’

He’s felt hope die before, within himself and others, like watching a star collapse in on itself, devoured by its own gravity well. When Brandon’s mouth slams down on his, he tastes it as well as feels it. He keeps his eyes closed and lets it happen. He’ll deal with the guilt later. Just now he lets Brandon kiss him.

When he’s sure of what he needs to be sure of, he says, Stop.

Brandon’s head lifts slowly, at Charles’ will. Charles opens his eyes and looks up at him. ‘You will not use me to hurt yourself,’ he says. In the warm glow of the lamp Brandon’s pupils are pinpricks. I can show you what you want to know.

Brandon has been with men before, a good many of them.

Charles can see them in his mind, a confused welter of body parts somehow disconnected from the bodies they belonged to. Mouths sucking him, hands wanking him. Arses he licked out. Faceless, nameless bodies fucked against bathroom walls, in alleys, the back rooms of pain and fetish clubs.

He’s had tongues, fingers, dildos, cane and lash and whip handles, bottle necks, women with strap-ons inside him, sometimes singly, sometimes in various combinations, but never someone’s cock, not in his mouth or his hole. (Not now, not since… no, just. Not.)

Some irrational part of him wonders if after everything else he’s done it’s just that simple. If he lets a man fuck him would it all finally… stop?

Would he even want it to?

It wouldn’t stop, the rational part of him does know that, but Charles thinks there’s little about Brandon that’s rational anymore. And that most irrational part is still wondering.

Charles pushes with mind and hands and Brandon rolls off him onto his back. Charles sits up, arranging himself somewhat painfully against the headboard. His hip is going to make him pay for this later. ‘You can’t choose it for yourself. You can’t choose anything but the moment. Everything else has to be done to you, not taken by you.’

Brandon’s sweat reeks of fear. His mind is a drain, all sucking lightless need. When Charles lets go of it and him he slumps against the bed, gasping like a sprinter forced miles past his threshold. His hands dig into the bedclothes, grounding him.

Charles lays his hand palm down next to Brandon’s shoulder, not touching. ‘Do you want to know?’ he says. ‘If you do, you must ask. You must say so.’

I won’t choose for you.

Brandon turns his face away. Outside the room people pass by: a pizza deliverer is on his final delivery, aware of little aside from the music piped through his earbuds into his brain and a desire to get home to his new game. A woman coming back from dinner and movie walks quickly, her heels hard clumping irritation (‘Four hours down the drain, god what a pig.’)

Yes.

Brandon’s face is still turned away from Charles. Charles reaches for his hand. Gently, he loosens Brandon’s grip on the blankets and threads their fingers together. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Tell me. Look at me and tell me what you want.’

It’s his last hope of reprieve and for a moment he’s sure it’s his. Then Brandon moves. His fingers tighten around Charles’ fingers and he looks up at Charles and says, ‘I want you to fuck me.’

Somewhere, Erik is smiling; that or he’s about to kill someone who looks exactly like Charles. Likely both.

‘I’m not going to fuck you,’ Charles tells Brandon. He says, ‘I’m only going to make you think I have,’ and Brandon’s fingers in his make it so very easy. Skin to skin, he pushes into Brandon’s mind as he once pushed his cock into Erik’s body, splits Brandon open on his fingers, on Erik’s cock.

It could have been anyone. He could have chosen any one of the men he took back to his Oxford flat in years past and tumbled down onto his futon, laughing and drink flushed. A bit of fun, lighthearted and unregretted on either side.

It would have been the wrong choice.

He wants Brandon to see what he saw when he looked at Erik, feel what he felt with Erik around and inside him. Charles wraps himself around Erik, moaning, and Brandon’s throat is an arch, his mouth is open and his cock is a hard, thick line under the placket of his trousers. Charles is beginning to lose feeling in his hand. Brandon can’t let up, he won’t let go, and there is—

Sissy

Charles almost loses the thread, almost drops it. Because Brandon does know. He’s been here in this place of specific, sharpened need, but he doesn’t stay, ever. He can’t, it’s wrong. No, he is wrong and he won’t be, he can’t, because if he is he’ll—

Shatter. He knows he will shatter, and in Charles' mind everything is possible if only for a moment. Brandon knows he'll shatter and he does: he breaks himself open on the wall of Charles' ignorance and Charles gasps his silence out with him.

Charles' breath comes in sharp jerks of Erik, Erik, no. He doesn't want to be hard but he is, and then Brandon's fingers are wringing the last of the feeling from his hand as Brandon comes inside her and around Erik’s cock. Brandon comes into Charles’ mind and his own trousers, his face wet with more than sweat, his teeth clenched, and Charles has to, he can't not.

He follows him down.

-

This is not their after.

This is now, and Charles says, ‘Is it enough?’

He can hear the harsh rasp of Brandon’s breathing and very little else; his mind feels as though someone has turned his head upside down and emptied most of what was in it out.

Brandon’s thoughts move sluggishly, dense and intricate and like nothing in particular. Nothing real. He breathes without speaking until he is breathing calmly enough to answer, and then he says, so hoarse it’s hard to make out, ‘No.’

‘No,’ Charles agrees. ‘I am so sorry.’ He leaves his hand where it is, clammy and half numb in Brandon’s clasp. He closes his eyes and begins again somewhere else.

-

The line of ones and zeros begins at the base of Erik’s neck, just below his collar line.

Charles rolls up onto his elbow and touches lightly with two fingers. He traces the blurred numbers marching ten abreast down the bumpy well of Erik’s spine to his tailbone, and Erik says, ‘I was sleeping.’ His head is turned away, his voice muffled by the pillow. ‘Shouldn’t you be?’

‘Possibly,’ Charles says. He lays his hand flat across the small of Erik’s back, covering tight-packed lines of binary code. When did these happen?

‘Something else you don’t know?’

Erik moves faster than most people can think. Charles’ hand is on his back and then he’s on his side, hands wrapped around Charles’ wrists yanking him down and in until Charles can feel his breath puffing out against his mouth. ‘Feel,’ Erik whispers, another breath. He’s moving Charles’ hand up and around to just under his shoulder blade.

‘Feel,’ he says again, and Charles pictures the raised ridge of scar tissue under his fingers, faded, white on white, but different to the skin around it. He slides his fingertips over it. The muscle ripples under his hand and he sees—

‘They put identification chips in you—in all of you.’ He can see them through Erik’s eyes, huge dark eyes in small white faces. ‘You… ripped yours out when you manifested, so they… oh god.’

He’s inside Erik and then he is Erik, feeling the thing they’ve placed inside him. They attached it to the bone this time, but it’s still metal, no metal of his, this belongs to them and it must come out

Remembered pain repels Charles back into his own mind. He’s panting, swallowing the taste of bile over and over because he will not vomit. Erik didn’t. He bit through the blankets he’d stuffed into his mouth, almost through his tongue before he passed out. He was twelve, then, and Charles is not going to disgrace himself now. His forehead is slick where it’s pressed against the hollow beneath Erik’s collar bone; sweat trickles down from his temple onto Erik’s skin when he turns his head.

He can barely hear his own voice. ‘They couldn’t chip you so they. Coded the information longhand.’

‘Essex’s notion. I still have the second one.’ Round and ragged round its edges, someday Erik will drive it through Nathaniel Essex’s throat. He’ll let him choke on his own blood for a bit, let him heal himself just enough, then he’ll rip his throat out from the inside before dragging the ragged metal chip up the line of his spine into his brain.

Cut his head off, burn him. Only way to be sure.

Charles’ mouth is liquid and sour. He swallows bile and saliva and concentrates on the steady thump of Erik’s heart. He has to work to block the image out, it’s that clear.

He sags against Erik, leaning into him, and Erik’s hand slides up from his waist to lie over the back of his neck, heavy and warm. Erik has beautiful hands. They’re one of the first physical details Charles really noticed about him, long-fingered with palms broad enough, strong enough to hold whatever he’s given to hold.

More than strong enough to hold Charles in place, to carry him with him when he rolls to his back. He spreads his legs, cradling Charles loosely between his thighs, and cups his cheek in one broad palm. Charles can feel him hard against his bare abdomen.

There’s moonlight coming through the cracks in the blinds. The room isn’t so dark that he can’t see the corners of Erik’s mouth curling up. ‘You woke me,’ Erik tells him. ‘You can either get up and run with me or you can fuck me.’

It’s either disgusting or amazing how quickly that word in Erik’s scrupulously precise English can get him up, even after the last ten minutes. Perhaps it’s both.

Charles is already reaching for the slick.

-

They’re going to fine him or worse for the cigarette between Brandon’s fingers, but just now there isn’t enough of Charles present to care.

Brandon has to stop his hand shaking before he can take a drag. ‘I told her she disgusted me,’ he says.

Charles remembers as though the memory were his own. ‘Yes.’

‘I wasn’t—I meant—’ he turns his head, looking to Charles. Asking for an absolution that isn’t Charles’ to give.

‘I know,’ Charles says, and it is not enough and also more than enough. It’s both for no other reason than it has to be.

-

It could be the crick in his neck that rouses him. It could also be the cold: his hands feel like solid blocks of ice.

It could be either of those things, a combination, or one or more of several other possibilities, but Charles is going to cast his vote for the shadow looming up from the foot of the bed, blocking out the light coming through the shades he forgot to close earlier.

‘You could always ring, you know,’ Charles says. ‘I’m quite sure you could find my number if you cared to.’

‘Frost,’ says the Bat.

Charles pushes himself up against the headboard, turning his head back and forth until his neck snaps back into place. ‘Ow. Sorry, sleeping sitting up does terrible things to one’s spinal column.’

‘Frost,’ the Bat says again.

Charles sighs. ‘One day someone will teach you how to converse. Sadly, or more likely not, it won’t be me.’ On the bed next to him, Brandon makes a low, questioning noise and turns onto his side. Charles gently nudges his mind toward deeper sleep and lowers his own voice. ‘Emma has folded and bowed out. I presume you already know how to deal with your lovely if poisonous vine.’

‘You’ll neutralise any surprises Frost leaves behind.’

Surprises, yes. Possibly inside Pamela Isley’s head. That would be like Emma. ‘All right,’ he says. ‘I don’t suppose you intend to tell me when and where?’

‘Tomorrow night, twenty-two hundred. The Botanical Gardens. You’ll be met.’

‘Thank you,’ Charles says when nothing else is forthcoming. ‘That’s very… reassuring.’

He’d feel more assured about even the smallest part of this farce if he thought his co-conspirator cared one way or another for his opinion, but he’s always been one to consider the source. He doubts the Bat heard him; he doesn’t even appear to be listening anymore, staring fixedly at—

He’s staring at Brandon; at least the eerie white lenses are pointed in that direction.

Charles has the sudden urge to pull Brandon closer to him, pull him out from under the shadow spread over them both. ‘I know why you brought him here,’ he says, and gets no response he can detect. ‘I don’t know what you hope to accomplish,’ he continues, and though he shouldn’t have said anything to begin with he’s determined to say this much at least, now that he’s begun: ‘But I can tell you, whatever it is, it won’t work.’

‘We don’t kill.’

His voice shakes; he can hear it. ‘God help us all, there are worse things.’

‘There are,’ the Bat agrees.

Charles thinks he leaves then. He doesn’t know.

-

Brandon in broad daylight is a revelation, not an altogether unpleasant one.

For one, the resemblance is lesser in natural light and Charles finds himself stupidly thankful for that. For another, he looks as lost as Charles feels and there is consolation to be had in miserable solidarity.

‘I must ask you something,’ Charles says. ‘I shouldn’t, I know, but—’

Brandon’s eyes are flat within their dark rings. He wanked twice in the bathroom already this morning; Charles could hear him desperately trying not to think about anything but coming.

He knows Brandon feels he has nothing to lose by saying, ‘So ask.’

-

‘Do you have it in you?’ Erik presses an openmouthed kiss to the back of Charles’ neck and shifts his hips and for a timeless fraction of time Charles is much too busy seeing tiny white dots and trying not to come to think, much less answer.

Erik doesn’t let that stop him, although to be fair, there isn’t much that stops Erik. Charles is one of the few things that can, or would be if he could get his brain working again. But if he did then Erik would simply start moving again, just like that

And then Charles would be back to where he is now, bent over his own desk in the middle of the afternoon, praying Raven won’t suddenly take it into her head to come looking for them, squirming and whimpering and half mad from the slow rub of Erik’s cock inside him.

‘Will you back down?’ Erik murmurs now against Charles’ shivering skin. ‘Or do you imagine that I will?’

In me, Charles thinks incoherently. What’s in him, what does he have? What is he made up of, atoms and molecules, DNA, all the tiny mutations, the slowly evolving genome that has given him all that he has, all that he is. Flesh and power and pleasure, but not willpower, no.

Not with Erik in him so deep Charles can all but feel him in the back of his throat.

He can feel Erik’s mouth sliding damp and warm up the side of his neck to suck hard on the underside of his jaw. ‘Do you have it in you to let me, Charles?’

‘I am letting you, oh god, Erik, move.’

Erik is laughing silently, the bastard, his chest shaking, sliding sweat-slick against Charles’ bare back. He murmurs, ‘Make me. I like you desperate,’ he adds, but he cups Charles’ balls and squeezes, and Charles moans and bites the inside of his cheek. Erik bites down on the join of Charles’ neck and shoulder and rolls his hips against Charles, rubbing up against him everywhere, inside and out.

He works Charles with his cock and his teeth and tightens his fingers, pulling gasps out of Charles with every squeeze and he—he wasn’t joking, he does like Charles like this. He loves him like this, Charles can feel how much Erik wants him just like this, flushed red and wrecked and coming on his fingers and his tongue and his cock. He never stops moving. Sucks hard on Charles’ neck and slides his hand up around his cock, and he keeps thrusting in and in, his balls slapping against Charles’ arse, until Charles shudders and destroys the article he was working on this morning with his clawing hands and says, ‘Oh thank god.’

He comes hard enough that he loses track of himself and everything else for a bit.

Not so hard, though, that he isn’t conscious of his bare arse and Erik’s open flies when Raven strolls through the study door. And he can’t see his own expression but he can feel it. He can certainly see Erik’s.

He’s never seen Raven laugh so hard in his life.

-

Charles doesn’t know who he was expecting—the Bat, possibly the boy bird. He’s fairly certain he wasn’t picturing close to six feet of physical perfection in a domino.

Although, this one is a bird (was?). He’s almost positive of that, even if the name presently escapes him because he refuses to cheat; he’s going to stay on his best behaviour if it drives him mad. Which means ignoring the tantalising sounds (is that a calliope of all things?) coming from behind intriguingly solid shields.

Someone taught this delightful man how to block and Charles would now like to know the answers to a great many questions that nearly all begin with the letter w.

‘It’s Nightwing,’ says the man in skin-tight black and blue. His grin is as devastating as Barbara’s. ‘It was supposed to be Batgirl but she got hung up with the League. I’m filling in.’

‘Ah,’ Charles says, clueless and happy to be so, on this point at least. ‘I, er, don’t suppose your boss—’

‘He’s not my boss,’ Nightwing says flatly.

A number of dark gaps opened by supposition are abruptly full up with blinding clarity. Charles clears his throat. ‘As you say.’

Nightwing laughs and shakes his head, rubbing at the back of his neck. ‘Sorry, Professor. Didn’t mean to jump all over you.’

‘No, I quite understand,’ Charles assures him. ‘Partnerships are complicated endeavours complete with covered snake pits, boiling oil and booby traps set with poisoned arrows, yes?’

‘You got that right.’ His smile is softer, less full of the sharp, slippery edges Charles seems to spend his time tripping over, but it slides away a moment later, replaced by the same odd sort of distance he’s encountered from the Bat.

Nightwing looks like he’s listening to something only he can hear. It doesn’t last long, though; soon enough he’s turning back to Charles. ‘B’s done playing. Ready for this?’

‘Let’s find out,’ Charles says. He indicates the path between winter dormant rose trees. ‘You know your way, so if it’s all the same to you, I’ll follow your lead.’

-

Most of them are thugs, muscle only, coerced via one of Ivy's more inventive pollens for a single job. They were told nothing more than was necessary and Charles is glad to be done with them as quickly as he is. Innocence is relative to many variables, and these men are innocent of nothing but knowledge; he’ll want a gallon of scotch and at least three showers to feel clean again.

‘There’s nothing,’ he tells the Bat when he’s done. ‘They’re clean.’ He glances at the man out cold on the ground behind him. He has four gang tattoos and five warrants for his arrest in as many states. ‘After a fashion.’

‘Isley?’ the Bat says.

‘Best for last,’ Charles snaps and, clinging to his cane, he limps across the greenhouse to kneel in front of her.

She meets his eyes, her own eyes huge and hazy with whatever drug the Bat administered to counteract her abilities, fear underlying her defiance and contempt like flesh decaying beneath a thick layer of rotting leaves.

I won't hurt you, Charles tells her.

Fear blossoms into terror, but she doesn’t let it bloom. She shuts it down, ruthlessly clipping her deadwood and spitting, ‘Mutant,’ at him like a curse. ‘Next stage of evolution like hell,’ she tells him. ‘Mutant or human, you’re all compost.’

Well. If it’s going to be like that. He says, I am sorry for this. Sleep, and she slumps sideways in her bonds, eyes falling closed.

Charles leans in, touching two fingers to her temple.

Inside her head Pamela Isley is like no one he’s encountered before.

Not mutant, not human or alien, she is the possible evolution of flora munda, mistaken evolution cruelly induced by one man’s insanity. Her mind is more alien than J’onn’s and Lilandra’s minds combined and Charles is lost in a tangle of vines, every thorn a point of remembered pain waiting to prick him, each leaf an unfurling idea so complex he’d lose himself in an attempt to follow it to its conclusion.

Unable to navigate as he would have in another mind, he chooses one thread, a vine twice as thick as those surrounding it, and rides it inward to a cluster of blossoms, some furled, others in full bloom.

The largest is every colour conceivable and some not yet perceived, countless thought petals whorled together, impossible to see where one leaves off and the next begins. Charles takes a metaphorical breath, steps off his vine, and falls forward into endless colour.

When he emerges he is certain of two things: that Poison Ivy hates mankind more than Erik does, and that Emma Frost left no trace of herself behind. If Charles couldn’t manage it, Emma would have no hope of doing so.

He withdraws slowly, not wishing to cause damage in a place where he’s unsure what would constitute damage; he opens his eyes and drops his hand, and then he is on his feet, yanked there by the hand wrapped tight around his wrist.

His cane is still in his other hand. He plants the end on the ground, steadies himself against it and looks up into blank white. ‘Is there some reason for this, or do you merely enjoy manhandling your coworkers?’

The Bat’s hand tightens around his wrist; it doesn’t hurt, exactly, but it is uncomfortable. ‘What did you do to her.’

He won’t let himself flinch. He isn’t going to react. Reactionary retaliation is Erik’s arena, not his, and he has no desire to change that. ‘Let go of me,’ he says, and immediately, the Bat’s fingers are gone. Charles doesn’t rub his wrist. ‘I didn’t have to come here,’ he says. ‘That choice was mine, as was this one. If you have a problem with that, find another telepath next time.’

‘What. Did. You. Do. To her.’

Charles’ fingers want to curl into fists. Two of them want to rise, press in against his temple and show this human what he’s asking for. For once, he’s glad of the Bat’s paranoia: the lining in his cowl puts this choice in his hands.

Charles keeps his own hands loose. Holds them relaxed at his side and around his cane until his fingers feel less like ten unspoken lies than they do a pair of hands.

‘What you asked me to and no more,’ he says. ‘She’s clean, if it matters.’ He turns away then, walks away from the Bat and, he supposes, from Gotham as well.

Nightwing catches him up halfway between the greenhouses and the park entrance. ‘Sorry about that,’ he says, not even close to being out of breath from his sprint. Charles stops in the middle of the path, braces himself on his cane, and looks at him.

‘Why have you not committed Batricide, or whatever it is you call it, yet?’

Nightwing’s laughter lights up his face, makes him look a mere boy. He says, ‘Why haven’t you switched off that dude in the helmet?’

‘I thought it must be something like that.’ Charles shoves his free hand into his pocket and examines his shoes; they want polishing.

Nightwing puts a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. ‘Don’t take it personally, Professor. He has this thing about mental stuff.’ He hesitates. ‘Someone he trusted took some of his memories, once, by force. He was, um, really not happy about that.’

Charles laughs tiredly at what sounds to be a tactful yet gross understatement. ‘I imagine not.’

‘I’ve got my bike,’ Nightwing says after a moment that promises to become uncomfortable in short order. ‘Can I drop you somewhere? Your hotel?’

Charles squeezes the hand on his shoulder once before letting go. He wonders if Nightwing even felt the touch; his own fingers feel scraped. ‘Thank you, but no. I have my own transportation and,' as it's not midnight yet, thank god, 'an appointment to keep.’

Nightwing’s hand drops; his mouth curves up. ‘Kind of late for an appointment, isn’t it?’

‘My dear chap,’ Charles drawls, ‘you’ve no idea.’

-

It's barely morning when he walks through the Grand’s main entrance and pauses, one hand braced against the wall, trying to unravel the kink in his twinging hip. He leans into the wall, breathing harder than he ought after the short walk from the alley Azazel left him in, glancing at the front windows as he does. A ray of early sun caroms off the glass, smacking him in the face: the sky is just beginning to lighten, painting the deserted lobby the soft pink and gold of dawn.

He knows to the day how long it's been since he last stayed out until daybreak. His body likes him no more for it now than it did then--less, even--but he's still on his feet, at least.

He pushes off from the wall and the concierge looks up as he straightens, smiling at him. He tries to return it but he doesn’t think he manages very well. After that, the empty lift is a blessing.

The eleventh floor corridor seems even more endless than usual, but his room is somehow where it always is. Inside, the shower is going, wisps of steam hovering outside the not quite closed bathroom door. He closes the main door behind him and limps over to sit on the edge of the nearest bed.

He looks from the running clothes draped over the far chair to the crumpled dress shirt and trousers balled up and tucked into the small space between the desk and the television cabinet.

He wonders if in addition to sweat and come he’d smell perfume or strange cologne on the latter set of clothing—or both? He wonders how and when Brandon moved into his hotel room.

He decides he doesn’t care. He toes off his shoes, props his cane on the bedside table and stretches out, closing his eyes.

The shower cuts off. Charles opens his eyes and the ceiling spreads out above him, white without end. His head is throbbing. The couple in the room above is at the tail end of an argument and the sullen backwash of emotion has settled in his right temple.

He wishes they’d move on to the make up sex. It’s what both of them want: they’re new to each other physically and this is their first real disagreement as more than friends. Neither of them can remember what started it.

It was two things, actually. The real, underlying reason (whether or not to visit their families as a couple over the holiday) and the excuse: one woman left the cap off the toothpaste; the other woman is rather anal about such things.

Charles’ temple throbs again; his desire to ‘suggest’ they get on with it grows exponentially. It’s just as well that perhaps half a minute later one of them reaches tentatively out to the other. Charles all but whimpers his relief, and then the bathroom door opens and Brandon comes out wearing fresh trousers, a towel in his hand. He smells improbably good considering his hair is still wet, and he sits down on the bed next to Charles and starts toweling it dry.

When he’s done he throws the towel at the closest chair, turns enough so he’s facing Charles and says, ‘Who’s Erik?’

-

It’s always cold at night out on the water, even off the South Florida coast, but he’s warmly dressed. There’s no reason for the chill that feels sunk into him at the atomic level, no reason aside from the glittering adamantine wall his mind just strolled smack into. That and—

‘Oh my god.’ That was his voice, he’s sure of it, but Moira is shouting now, pushing him somewhere and he can’t—

Oh god.

Not a wall, not this time: a steel spike driven straight through his temple into his brain.

He’s not sure how he manages to speak around the (ragepain) reverb in his head—his tongue tastes like iron and feels like lead—but he does.

‘There’s someone else out there.’

-

Brandon's gaze trails Charles from the bed over to the desk. In the early light, newly washed and half dressed, he can't look like anyone but himself. He looks up at Charles like a child waiting for a coveted story, and Charles is inclined to give it to him.

There's so very little else he can give him.

‘Do you really want to know?’ Charles says. ‘I can show you.’ He thinks, be damned to you, Erik, and raises his fingers to his temple.

-

The lift is a jewel box of glass and steel, offering stunning views of the WE building’s internal architecture and no visible indication of security cameras.

Charles doesn’t bother looking for them.

If he’s right there’s no need for concern: there will be no possibility of electronic surveillance. If he’s wrong… well, he does trust Brandon, for certain values of trust, and he dealt with the guards himself already.

He’s not wrong, though. He knows that by the third floor. The office he wants is on the ninety-eighth floor, and the lift is well maintained but not quick.

It’s a long way up.

An ice age comes and goes, leaving the bones of strange, furred creatures in its wake. One aeon passes into another. The gene pool leaves Charles and his kind behind for the next phase of evolution and there’s still not enough time for him to accustom himself before the lift slows to a stop and the doors slide open.

He steps out into an unlit corridor that lights up of its own accord as he walks.

He was never a particularly fast walker, even before the surgeons dug two bullets out of his hip and spine, and one more out of his gut. Afterward his rate of forward progress grew, as a matter of course, even slower.

Now he feels as though he’s slowed to a crawl, through reluctance more than anything else.

Two more lights come on ahead of him, illuminating a door that’s already opening, and his feet shuffle forward on their own, inertia at work. Charles wishes he could make himself stop them. He’s not a coward—he learnt that in the midst of one of the most ill-conceived wars since Vietnam, but this dragging, inevitable promise is far removed from the brutal anticipation of Afghanistan’s mined roads and towns. He’s not ready for whatever new war may be waiting for him on the other side that door. He doesn’t know that he can be.

He doesn’t have to be. It’s a conference room, empty. A second door opens onto another empty corridor in the process of lighting itself.

Charles walks through, looking back once. Behind him, the lights have gone off. The doors are closing. He faces forward again and resumes walking.

More doors swing open for him as he moves toward them, once, twice, before he’s confronting a final set of them. They’re already opening and he steps through them into Lucius Fox’s office, stumbling a little when his cane catches on the carpet’s thick pile. Then he’s inside and they’re closing after him and Charles can see again after a year of stumbling about in the dark.

‘How many players?’ a soft, genderless voice asks.

‘Two,’ Erik responds. ‘Pawn to E4.’ The holographic chessboard hovering over the round table in the centre of the office moves the white piece accordingly.

The room is large, its layout generous, befitting Bruce Wayne’s CEO. One wall is composed of glass and Erik stands in front of it, hands tucked into the pockets of his tailored black trousers. The helmet is nowhere in sight; he’s wearing one of the ubiquitous polo-necks it took Charles far too long to understand his reasons for favouring.

The time that passed in the lift rewinds in a matter of seconds—it rewinds further, all the way back through the present to thirteen months previous.

Erik is facing the glass wall, his face slightly in profile. Gotham’s neon night throws his cheekbones and forehead into stark relief and makes hollows of his eyes, but it’s his face, not the helmet, and Charles can’t feel anything but gratitude. Erik stays as he is as Charles walks towards him, but Charles must make some noise or movement that catches his attention because he turns his head, looking back at him over his shoulder. His mouth curves up on one side; even with the helmet gone Charles can’t tell if he’s being smiled at or mocked.

‘Response?’ the voice prompts.

‘Hello, Charles,’ Erik says. ‘Your move.’

‘Which game?’ Charles replies. He wishes Erik wasn’t so damned beautiful when he smiles.

-

This is Erik.

And this is Charles.

Seated on opposite sides of a prototype holo game in someone else’s office. Under the circumstances Charles thinks he may be forgiven for believing this place at this time is all they’ve ever been meant for, together.

‘Pawn to E5. What do you want with him?’ he asks.

Erik stops contemplating his threaded fingers in favour of contemplating Charles. ‘Wayne? Nothing. He’s welcome to his city and his technological gadgets.’ He unlaces his hands, flicking two fingers at the board. ‘Are you daring me, Charles? Pawn to D4.’

Charles watches Erik watch him lay his cane across his knees. ‘Emma mentioned a device.’

‘The redoubtable Ms. Frost.’ Erik’s lip curls. ‘I don’t doubt she did.’

‘Really, Erik.’ It’s his best disappointed effort. Anyone not Erik or Raven would probably believe it. ‘Surely you didn’t expect her to lie to me?’

‘I didn’t.’ He’s half smiling again, the corners of his mouth twitching. Light from outside divides his face into stark blue and green hemispheres, casting odd shadows that turn the curve of his lips feral. ‘Whatever are you looking for in here, Charles?’ He taps his temple. ‘I trust you’ve found it?’

Not tonight, no. Emma’s been meddling again. Or J’onn?

No, Charles is suddenly sure, watching Erik’s eyes change colour in refracted light. It wasn’t J’onn. This fire burns too hot not to catch hold.

‘Response?’

‘Revert to manual,’ Erik says, and the holo flickers. ‘That’s one problem with these toys. Artificial intelligence is a contradiction in terms.’ He stretches his legs out in front of him, but they’re ridiculously long and the table is in the way. He lets them fall open, knees out to either side.

Charles looks away from the familiar outline of him, less comforting than the unfamiliar view of Gotham's skyline. ‘AI. Cerebra, for example.’

Erik shakes his head, clicking his tongue. ‘Clumsy. I expect better of you.’

Charles leans forward to study the board. It’s still hovering but the pieces now appear solid. His pawn feels smoothly real under the push of his fingers, but Erik’s pawn vanishes beneath it, reappearing midair beside the board. Charles looks back up at Erik.

‘I used to expect better of you,’ he says.

Erik’s discontent overflows his defensive constructs, spilling over onto Charles. Everything else about him is tight and still, and there is the Erik Charles knows best.

Erik twitches his fingers. A stream of paperclips rises from the desk and streams towards him. He says, ‘Fox had a young man in his employ—a Dr. Henry McCoy—who is almost as intelligent as young Mr. Cho.’ His eyebrow rises when Charles looks up sharply. ‘One of yours?’

That, at least, he may answer truthfully. ‘No.’

‘Not yet.’ Erik makes possibility inevitable in two words. Charles rubs at his temple, at the frustration building there; it's a sensation he's overly familiar with.

‘Why do you insist on dividing us up? This one for your side, that one for mine or Raven’s, and so on. These are living, sentient beings. People, Erik, not chess pieces.’

Erik’s voice lashes out, low and smooth with something stinging underneath. ‘And the humans?’

‘What about them?’ Nausea is rising, curling up from his stomach into his throat: he doesn’t want to have this conversation again. He already knows how it ends.

‘Twenty-four states. Not even half. Registration, Charles.’ The room is alive with the low-level vibration of metal. ‘That’s how it started for Genosha. Before that was Cambodia. Before that the Holocaust. The Inquisition. The natives of this country were slaughtered wholesale with its government's blessing.' Something creaks; Charles prays it's nothing too necessary.

Erik's jaw moves, tightening, but his hands are open. Liquid silver weaves steadily over and between his splayed fingers: the remains of the paperclips. His voice is even when he says, 'How many times must this happen before we put a stop to their malign ignorance?’

Charles leans forward, hands clasped together, gripping tight. ‘So we must stoop to their level to rise above their mistakes? Need I explain to you the fallacy inherent in that line of thought? This is a beginning, don’t you see? Those twenty-four are twenty-four examples of mutants and humans coexisting without fear. In this city there are mutants who live as mutants without fearing for their lives.’ Armando’s smile is one clear patch in the chiaroscuro of Erik’s face. Charles tries not to see into the shadows surrounding it. ‘Would they thank you for uprooting them, for destroying their lives and those of the humans who are their friends and neighbours and colleagues? Their families?’

He swallows dry the inevitability of his own fear, living as it does in the back of his throat. ‘By your definition Essex was one of us. Edie wasn’t. Where do we draw the line?’

Erik stirs within his shadows; they shiver around him before settling. ‘You believe those are my intentions.’

‘What else am I supposed to believe?’ Charles’ hand rises, sweeping out in a gesture as futile as he feels. He wants Erik to tell him otherwise, but he’s learnt better than to hope. ‘You want this Cerebra, this device that will grant a telepath—grant Emma free entry into any mind anywhere on the planet. Erik.’

His head is too heavy. His neck doesn’t wish to support it and Charles can’t remember why he wanted to hold it up in the first place. He rests his elbow on the chair’s arm and leans his forehead into his palm.

‘Tell me you haven’t considered the destructive possibilities.’

Erik sounds almost amused. ‘Would you believe me if I did?’

Charles doesn’t lift his head. He shakes it slowly back and forth, sweat clammy and cold between his forehead and his palm.

‘Then I won’t.’ Erik’s voice is cool. ‘The mind is Ms. Frost’s area of expertise. We had an agreement. Unfortunately,’ his shrug is a brief ripple of muscle, his expression disinterested, ‘Dr. McCoy destroyed his research and decamped. Now we begin again.’

He closes one hand into a fist. The paperclips reform and clatter down onto the table.

Erik uncurls himself from his chair, saying, ‘Abort game,’ as he stands. Almost before the holo winks out he's around the table, standing over Charles. Charles lifts his head to look at him.

The angle is bad; Erik’s face is in shadow, but a strange trick of the light picks up the widening streaks of grey in the hair over his temples.

Charles isn't sure what Erik sees, looking down at him. His skin is a thin trap and his mouth is sealed; it strains, stretches and cracks open, bleeding words out to feed this pointless ritual of theirs. ‘Worried you might not win?’ his lips bleed freely. ‘White rarely fares well in a center game.’

Erik’s hands are back in his pockets. He’s frowning now, the webs of lines at the corners of his eyes fanned tight. ‘He’ll be found.’

Charles tips his head back and to one side; he brushes his thumb over his lower lip, but it comes away dry. ‘Yes,’ he agrees, ‘but by whom.’

‘Us, if you’d stoop to assist.’ He extends a hand to Charles: he’s looking at Charles’ cane, not him.

Charles raises it, stands it between them. He gets to his feet on his own, straightening his stiff back and hip gradually, and then he raises his head and meets Erik’s gaze with more calm than he feels.

Erik’s eyes crinkle at the corners. His hand is still out, and instead of dropping it, he lifts it, ghosting his fingertips over Charles’ cheek.

Before he knows he’s going to do it, Charles is gripping Erik’s wrist. ‘What are you doing, Erik?’

Erik could make him let go easily. He leaves his wrist in Charles’ grasp, his skin warm under Charles’ fingers, his pulse steady. ‘Why ask questions to which you already know the answers?’ he says.

‘It’s the human thing to do, and Erik,’ oh, but this smile hurts, it cracks his mouth the rest of the way open, ‘I’m afraid I’m only human.’

‘Are you?’

Erik has a way of looking at him sometimes, eyes wide and intent, mouth not quite parted. The way Charles imagines a new believer would look directly following conversion.

It would be more effective, probably, if Charles didn’t know it’s also how Erik looks right before he kills someone.

‘Are you human?’ Erik says. ‘I wasn't aware humans were capable of such intrusion.’ He stares at Charles, makes him the focus of his intentions and Charles realises he’s not assuming Erik’s intentions anymore; he’s within Erik’s thoughts, sharing them at the source.

The shards of Emma’s mind walls are brittle glass around them. As they were meant to be, Erik says. Nothing she built could withstand you.

There’s a tug at Charles’ wrist. He looks down and sees that Erik has reversed their positions. Charles’ fingers went slack of their own accord long since and it’s now Erik’s hand grasping Charles’ wrist.

Erik’s fingers feel nothing like steel. They feel like skin wrapped around bone wrapped around Charles’ wrist, pinching his skin uncomfortably between them.

‘Finish it. Knock them down, Charles,’ Erik murmurs. ‘Take back what’s yours.’

Charles wants to be better than this. He wants to pull himself out of Erik’s mind, tell him no, but Erik is spread out before him like a martyr’s feast, clean steel order smelling faintly of iron and copper, every piece meshing perfectly, the whole of it ticking away like a neatly wound antique watch: Charles couldn’t back away if his life depended on it.

He pushes tentatively at what’s left of Emma’s work. It’s a flimsy construct, not meant to do anything but distract; Charles shoves and it’s there and then gone, and then Erik is everywhere he hasn’t been for thirteen months.

Everything Erik wants to do to Charles, everything Erik wants Charles to do to him, images and sounds and sensation—Erik kisses down to the base of Charles’ spine, his thumbs open Charles up, and Charles falls back into his own mind, his lungs straining, the curve of Erik’s mouth all he can see.

His held breath streams from his mouth. He pulls in air sharply through his nose and it’s a mistake: Erik still smells like himself and Charles’ chest is caving in, but he makes himself step back. He forces himself to say, ‘We should go.’

Erik’s hand tightens on his wrist, but it’s Charles' belt and zip that betray him, reeling him back in at the slightest twitch of Erik’s free hand. Erik’s impatience spikes like red flares going off behind Charles’ eyes. ‘Come now, Charles, be reasonable. They can’t know.’

Charles blinks the glare from his eyes, shakes away the haze inside his head. ‘You don’t understand. He’s allowing this.’ Erik’s smirk is as exasperating as he remembers. ‘Erik, you don’t know this man.’

‘Don’t I?’ Erik's curled lip twists, leaving something not quite a smile on his mouth. He follows the under curve of Charles’ lower lip with a careful finger. ‘Let him watch,’ he says. ‘It’s what he is.’ He takes his finger away and replaces it with his mouth.

Charles could stop this; Erik is all but daring him to.

He can feel Erik's amusement and expectation in his head and against his mouth, in the gentle, mocking curve of Erik's lips pressing into his.

He lets it happen for a number of reasons, some of them good, some of them not so much, but mostly because he wants Erik's mouth. He takes it, takes the memory. Then he pushes him away and steps back.

Erik crosses his arms and stays where he is, watching Charles with that same unholy expectation in his eyes.

Charles swallows a burst of inappropriate, half hysterical laughter and concentrates. A moment later Azazel appears, a look of comical confusion on his face.

Erik looks him over before returning his attention to Charles and raising one eyebrow.

Exhibitionism was never one of my vices, Charles says.

Just voyeurism. There's barely a quiver in Erik's voice. 'My apologies,' it's Erik at his most charming and his most insincere, 'there was some confusion over the issue.'

Don't goad me, Erik, you won't like the result. I'm in no frame of mind to be kind just now.

Did I ask that you be?

'Yes, well,' Charles says hastily. 'I'm sure Azazel has no interest in that. I apologise for disturbing you again, my friend,' he says to Azazel, who looks more amused now than anything else. 'But if you'd be so good?'

Azazel shrugs. 'It's as Frost wishes,' he says and holds out his hand.

Charles takes it and then Erik is behind him, Erik's hand on his shoulder. 'You did lose it,' Erik says against his ear. 'Exceptional.'

A shiver skates down Charles spine, grounding itself somewhere in his pelvic region. Erik's thumb is soft pressure on the skin just above his collar. 'I'm not sure that I did, actually,' he says. 'I rather think I only misplaced it.' He hears Erik draw breath, but whatever he intends to say is lost in the disorienting rush as Azazel takes them away.

-

Brandon is still for a long time after Charles lowers his hand. When he finally moves he does so in abrupt, disjointed jerks: standing, walking to a chair and sitting; standing again almost immediately and reaching for the clothes laid across the foot of the other bed. Stopping and starting, a wind-up toy down to his last wind.

He pulls the rest of his clothes on slowly, dragging them over his skin like regret, like penance, his or Charles’, Charles can’t know. He won’t look.

Brandon fits himself as carefully together as he always does, clockwork soldier perfect. He doesn’t say anything until he’s at the door looking down at his hand gripping the handle. His profile is to Charles, a jumble of lines and angles around the downturned curve of his mouth. Charles can feel the handle’s chill under shaky, gloveless fingers.

Brandon doesn’t ask. Not the regular way.

Let’s try for something less fraught, shall we? Charles replies. I’ll be in the lobby at half seven.

Brandon nods.

The room isn’t warmer or colder after he leaves. It’s much less complicated than that.

-

Last night Erik says, ‘Come with me.’

Refusal is, by now, Pavlovian. He opens his mouth and Erik kisses him hard and says, ‘Don’t. Not yet. I want you to think of it, Charles. Think what you, what we could accomplish.’

Charles doubts he’ll be doing much else for the foreseeable future. After all, he’s spent the past year doing very much the same thing.

-

He left his mobile on the bedside table and the vibration of metal and plastic against wood are enough to wake him. Charles picks the phone up without otherwise moving and looks at the display. ‘Marvellous,’ he says, ‘that’ll be the firing squad, then, slotting me in for an early morning fag. Yes?’

‘What the fuck are you doing, Charles?’ Raven asks him.

He presses his cheek against the cool spread and lays the phone over his ear. ‘I was sleeping,’ he says, ‘but now I’m listening to you. If you’d hang up, I could go back to sleep,’ he suggests without much hope.

‘Idiot,’ Raven says. ‘Remember when your equally stupid ex ripped up half the Pentagon? Remember New York?’

He rolls to his back, holding the phone to his ear. ‘How could I not? Raven—’

‘Don’t bother lying. Logan said he smelled you on him,’ she hisses.

It pulls him up short, makes him blurt, ‘On whom?’ even though he knows, he does.

‘Don’t start with me.’ More than her words, Raven’s voice is her warning, low and flat. ‘You won’t win.’

Charles sits up, rubbing his temple. He’s developing a headache. He must be because his temples are hot to the touch and his eyes are prickling. ‘You’re being ridiculous.’

‘You want ridiculous? I’m not the one fucking Erik.’

‘No, you’re fucking Logan. All the difference in the world.’ There’s a white explosion somewhere off behind his left eye. ‘Raven, what does it matter if I want to—to fuck someone. That’s what this is about, yes?’ He presses his fingers just above his eye, hoping to relieve some of the pressure. ‘Yes, I was… with Erik. I fail to see the problem. You seem to have no problem working with him.’

He can hear her moving on the other end of the line, restless, prowling steps. ‘That’s different.’

‘Oh yes, very,’ he says, pressing harder. His right eye throbs in response. ‘I’m trusting he’ll wear a condom, a practice I am able to enforce, whereas you are entrusting him with your life, which I highly doubt he values as he ought.’

Her laughter doesn’t belong to her, frenetic and unravelling her into him through the receiver. ‘See?’ she says. ‘He’s doing it again.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Screwing with your moral compass. Making you think what’s important isn’t, and vice versa.’ Laughter again, but hers now: angry. ‘Believe me, I know how that works.’

‘Which means what, exactly? That I need your permission to fuck him?’ He understands her intolerance for his habit of patronising surety; she shares both those tendencies of his, as well as others, enough that he’s occasionally surprised to remember they aren’t blood siblings. ‘As I recall you don’t ask for mine before you sleep with my friends.’

‘Oh don’t even go there, Charles, that’s bullshit. You’re not Logan’s keeper.’

‘And you’re not mine,’ he says coldly. ‘So again, I’ll ask you. This is your business in what way?’

'It is my business,' Raven snarls. ‘It’s my business because when fucking Magneto drags you into another mutie war zone, gets you to compromise your principles, fucks your head up and proves himself a bastard again, right before he gets you shot again, I’ll be the one putting your god damn pieces back together again.’

He’s not thinking. If he was… but there’s nothing to think, and then he hears himself say, ‘Perhaps we’ll both be more fortunate next go round. Perhaps instead of my back, the next bullet will go through my head.’

It’s a kind of silence, incomplete yet all-consuming.

Raven’s breath is coming in gasps, panting sobs magnified in Charles’ ear so many times past their actual volume they seem to fill up more space than there is inside his head, until they’re all he can hear.

He thinks she says his name and he knows he’s saying hers, he’s curling down into the bed, his hip aching nearly as much as his head. He’s babbling foolish inadequacies. He wishes he could manage better but, ‘Raven. I’m sorry, I’m… god. Raven, I am so sorry. I am.’

She’s crying or laughing, some kind of rusty sobbing laugh. She’s saying, ‘I know, but you don’t get to pull this shit on me, Charles, you don’t get to do this to me. You just don’t, you’re all of, you and Logan are. You’re it.’ She gulps air noisily, in harsh draws. ‘So don’t, ok? Don’t.’

Charles is nodding. She can’t see him, he knows this, but he keeps nodding, scraping his cheek on the cheap hotel coverlet.

She says, ‘Christ, Charles, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,’ and the pressure in his temples, under his eyes, it’s gone. His eyes want to close, he’s not had enough sleep the past three nights to amount to anything, but he wills them to stay open.

‘I take it you… did find Logan, then?’ he asks.

‘Oh yeah,’ she says. ‘We found him. We found all of them.’

His swallow clicks in his ears, jams his tongue high and dry against the roof of his mouth. ‘He wasn’t—’

‘No. He wasn’t.’ It’s neither laugh nor sob. ‘Too bad I can’t say the same for everyone else.’

His lungs are frozen. Something cold drops from the centre of his chest into his stomach and he says, ‘Oh Raven.’ She’s truly crying now, deep ugly sobs that seem to wrench words out of her with them.

‘They were almost all kids—god, Charles, they, this girl… she’s just a baby. They had her with Logan because she—she can drain—’ her voice breaks on the word.

‘Breathe,’ he murmurs through the aching chill that used to be his own breath. ‘You don’t have to tell me now.’

‘Ok.’ Her breathing hitches again before it evens out. ‘Ok.’

He counts breaths, matches his to her deepening breathing, and if he concentrates… yes. There she is.

Not close enough to communicate in words, but he can send himself, how much he misses her, wants her close, how much no one else will ever be able to replace her. Steadily, they breathe together; over the phone he hears a soft murmur; he hears Raven muffling the phone to answer the speaker: a child, he can feel that in her distant presence.

The little girl who ‘drains’?

Raven’s voice is harder, sharper when she lifts the phone again. ‘You know, most of the time lately I think Erik’s right. They’re cockroaches, Charles. They should be exterminated.’

‘Raven.’ He presses the phone to his ear and his face against the bed. ‘Where are you?’

The old question. It’s the first time she’s answered it, her voice halting as though part of her wants to hold on to her accustomed silence. ‘I… we were so close to the border, and I thought… the house,’ she says dully. ‘I don’t know where else to take them.’

When he realises she’s asking for his permission his fingers flex; he hears the phone casing creak. ‘No, that’s brilliant,’ he tells her. ‘You acted for the best, for all of you.’

‘Good to know,’ she says. Then, more quietly, ‘Thanks.’ He can hear several days’ fatigue in her voice now the anger is gone.

‘Have you slept?’ he asks. She huffs a sound a little south of a laugh.

‘I’m supposed to be now. We’re upstate, pulled off for a few hours. It’s Logan’s watch.’

He lets his exasperation drain out of him with his sigh. ‘Then for god’s sake, sleep.’ She forces a chuckle.

‘Same old Charles. You always think you know best.’

‘Well, I do,’ he says. ‘On those days that don’t end in y.’

Laughter is something he’s always been able to share with her, even when they’re at their worst, when everything between them feels forced: something they’re determined to have rather than something they want. It’s a terrible relief to know that hasn’t changed.

‘I should go,’ she says when they’ve both quieted. ‘See you soon?’

‘As soon as possible.’ Charles pushes himself up, glancing at the clock as he does. It’s nearly seven in the evening. He says, ‘I have to go as well. I’ll ring you—’

He cuts himself off. The line is already dead.

-

The waiter sets their glasses down in front of them and leans her hip against the table. ‘Can I get you boys anything else or are you set for now?’

Charles suggests, ‘You could tell me where you acquired your stunning wings,’ and she grins at him. The wings in question fan the air. She turns, showing them off: she’s wearing ripped blue denims with a backless, sleeveless mock polo-neck, and her mutation appears even more fantastic within its mundane setting.

‘Sorry to disappoint you, but they’re one-hundred percent me,’ she tells him. ‘Nice, huh?’

‘They’re beautiful, dear,’ he says. ‘Magical, really.’ Her smile widens into delight as her smooth, tan cheeks go a little duskier. Charles decides he’s going to remember this moment the next time the Bat is at his most irritating.

‘Angel, table twelve!’ the bartender calls over the noise; the waiter jumps.

‘Coming,’ she yells back. She smiles at Charles one more time. ‘Just holler if you need something.’ She mingles easily with the crowd as she goes, laughing at some remark made by another waiter, swatting a customer’s hand away when it becomes too familiar.

Going about her work in the same way people everywhere, in every walk of life go about theirs, fearless in her self and in this space she’s made for herself within the world.

‘Would you say that’s the norm, here?’ Charles asks. ‘Mutants openly displaying their mutations?’

‘It seems to be,’ Brandon says. He’s trying not to stare at Angel. Trying to think of her in non-sexual terms, as a person and a mutant. It’s not working very well, but he’s trying, Charles will give him that. ‘I’d never really thought about it before.’

Before all of this and you, Charles hears him finish in his head. I’m sorry, Xavier.

Charles shakes his head and smiles a little ruefully as he picks up his drink. ‘According to Raven,’ he says, ‘one should never drink anything the colour blue. This,’ he holds it up for inspection, ‘is unquestionably blue.’

Brandon squints at it. ‘I think you’re right,’ he concedes.

‘With one or two notable exceptions, I generally am,’ Charles says. He drinks half the glass in one go. ‘My sister,’ he continues after wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, ‘is also blue.’

Brandon blinks at him over the rim of his own glass. ‘Blue.’

‘Mmn. Blue and perfectly, militantly mutant. She could and would break your neck with her toes if she wanted, but you will never so much as glimpse her from afar if I have anything to say to it. And believe me, I do.’

Brandon tips his head back when he laughs. It sounds like conversion and looks like perfection.

Erik, Charles thinks. Erik.

-

‘He won’t stick around long,’ Raven tells him the week after Miami.

‘You don’t know that,’ Charles says.

Down below, the cloud of firearms hovering around Erik rises and spreads out. The guns fire as one, leaving neat holes in man-shaped targets.

‘Headshots, every one of them.’ Raven turns away from floor to ceiling glass. In the burst of late day sun she’s little more than a dark blue outline, a shadowed hole where her face should be.

Then she moves again and comes back to him, slides back into his sister’s skin. ‘Oh yeah,’ she says. ‘I know. Want to know what else I know?’

She’s going to tell him whatever he says. He says nothing.

Raven folds her sleek, scaled arms across her bare chest; she may be smiling in her head; she feels as though she is. She says, ‘I know you’re not a dumbass, no matter how much you act like one sometimes. I know you know I’m right.’

Charles looks past her through the glass. Erik is taking the guns apart with his power. Stripping them down to their constituent parts then putting them back together. ‘He wants to stay,’ he tells her. ‘I know, I’ve felt it.’

Raven looks at him as though she is the elder by far, not four years his junior. ‘Oh Charles,’ she says. ‘Since when is wanting enough for anything?’

-

‘I am,’ says Brandon, ‘I’m drunk.’ He sounds surprised by this.

‘We are at that,’ Charles agrees, and finishes off his scotch, not the least surprised by anything.

Brandon is frowning at the collection of empty glasses in front of him. ‘Is this less fraught?’ he asks.

‘Dear god, I hope so,’ Charles says, mutters really. Brandon smiles uncertainly at him. His hair is mussed and his eyes are slate and he smells like too many pints and the scalding hot shower he took just before he left to meet Charles. He looks like a child who’d like to get up to some sort of mischief, only he isn’t sure how to go about it.

He smells only like himself, thank god, but he does look a little like Erik—a very little.

He leans into Charles, all blurry eyes and mouth and mind, a bit too blurry for panic; it’s a while since he last allowed himself to lose control in any way save the one. ‘’S cold out there. I need to sober up. Walk back?’

Charles looks up and around, catches Angel’s eye and a small corner of her mind, and waves her over for the tab. He nudges Brandon’s shoulder with his own as he says, ‘Don’t mind if I do.’

-

This is how Gotham works:

A man turns the corner and walks towards them, hat tilted down, hands tucked into the pockets of his overcoat.

They keep walking and Brandon says, ‘Jesus, it’s cold,’ and fumbles his cigarette, dropping it on a loud, ‘Fuck.’

Charles says, ‘You should quit,’ shoving at him with his shoulder, careless and giddy with it. Brandon shoves back, grinning: the smile looks strange but good on him. The man draws even with them, passes them by.

Charles hears the footfalls go a few feet more; he hears them stop the way one hears background noise; he hears, ‘Naughty me, I almost forgot,’ and he looks back reflexively.

The man is standing in the middle of the pavement under a lamp, facing Charles, and he’s smiling, white everywhere but his red, red mouth. He says, ‘Howdy stranger, you can call me Sheriff J. Just consider me the rail riding you out of town.’ He says, ‘By the bye, sweetie, Pam says hi,’ and then Brandon says, ‘No,’ and shoves Charles to the ground.

He lands hard, jarred elbows and bruised hands, legs tangled up with his cane. His tongue is bitten bloody and his ears are ringing.

He remembers two gunshots.

-

This is how Charles doesn’t work:

He doesn’t know didn’t hear him why didn’t I didn’t why didn’t I and then he’s inside, he’s holding the seconds at bay, and he does know.

The man in purple doesn’t know who he’s going to be from one minute to the next. He never knows what he’s going to do until he does it. There is nothing for Charles to catch hold of, laughter and swarming black clouds and—no. Not clouds, no, they’re—

Shrieking and squealing, flapping their wings around him, tiny fangs white in open mouths. Charles gasps and pushes out

And the man is crumpled on the ground, blood leaking from eyes rolled back to white, from his ears and nose. The gun is in the gutter. Charles makes sure of that as he untangles his legs from his cane and drags himself over to Brandon, and then he is on his knees, screaming into every head within a twenty mile radius.

He yanks off his overcoat, his jacket, his scarf, pressing them down on Brandon’s chest and gut. ‘They’re coming, do you hear?’ Sirens, distant but present. ‘They’re coming.’

‘She’s… Los. Ange—les.’ Red bubbles at the corners of his mouth. Charles can’t wipe them away, he has to keep the pressure on, but he nods, nods. He listens to the bubbling in Brandon’s chest and floats his mind out, blanketing Brandon’s, putting himself between Brandon and the pain as best he can.

He can stop the hearts of every person in this bloody city simultaneously but he cannot stop time.

‘Tell… her.’ Brandon chokes, coughs. His teeth, chin, mouth, they’re all of them red, as red as Charles’ hands. ‘Tell her…’ sorry, my fault, I… I’m sorry, ‘not her. Not her fault.’

-

There is a shadow in his room that should belong there.

‘Charles,’ Erik says.

Charles looks past him through the open balcony door; he hasn’t bothered locking it since his second night in town. ‘Where have you been?’

‘Why?’

‘Answer the question, Erik.’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Shouldn’t it?’

Erik is wearing the helmet, and it’s surprisingly funny after all: there’s the Bat with his cowl and Erik in his helmet. Both of them favour capes.

The caped and the cowled, good god—it sounds like one of those dreadful soaps Mother used to watch when she was at the maudlin stage of drunk, which was fifty percent of the time. Charles wants to laugh but feels he’ll never stop if he begins.

‘I thought Raven would have told you. There is—was—a CIA-sanctioned facility in Canada,’ Erik says. ‘They had Logan. Among others.’

Charles’ stomach heaves and twists. ‘I… Raven did say you’d found him.’

‘The atrocities were new. The organization was not. You’re aware of what they did to him the first time.’ Erik's gaze is warm, light on his skin, but the nausea came first and right now anything would be too heavy.

Charles nods once. He doesn’t wish to vomit, not now.

‘They were experimenting on children, Charles. Mutant children, one of them the son of the facility’s director. Logan I could almost forgive them. No one else.’ He steps closer, close enough for Charles to smell him, cold, metal-infused cloth over hot skin. ‘Has MacTaggert never mentioned Weapon X or the Phoenix Project?’

Charles steps back. ‘Why should she? She was never part of research and development. She’s a field agent, counterterrorism.’

‘Precisely,’ Erik says.

And Charles says, ‘Oh.’

Erik’s mouth curves up.

Physically, Charles has never been a fighter by inclination. He's evolved for a different sort of combat. But thousands of years of genetic imprinting cannot be erased in a single generation and sometimes his fingers remember the shape of fists, of knuckles battering into and being bruised by flesh and bone. Sometimes the instinct for physical violence is still preeminent, even in someone evolved past the need for it.

He's only once before wanted to hit someone as badly as he does Erik, right now. He won't, of course, but he's still sharp with adrenaline when Erik steps forward again and says, ‘Charles.’

He holds out his hand. ‘Come with me, Charles. I still want you by my side. That will never change.’

The cape and the helmet add bulk to Erik's outline; there's too much of him too close. Charles grips the edge of the desk and tells himself not to be a fool for the thousandth time.

This is his, of his making. Denial isn’t an option any longer, much less wilful ignorance. He offered, he invited, and he did so with his eyes open. He supposes he deserves whatever he gets, but Raven and her fugitive children do not.

He swallows until it doesn’t hurt to swallow anymore. Until he can say, ‘No, Erik,’ without the words damaging more than his throat, and then he closes his eyes.

Erik is wearing the helmet. With Charles’ eyes closed, he might not be there at all.

-

‘Did I kill him?’ Charles says when he can no longer hear the flap of Erik’s cape. He hears someone else’s cape instead.

The Bat says, ‘No,’ then, ‘He’s back in Arkham,’ and Charles’ aching throat and chest tighten one notch closer to dissolution. If he holds still perhaps it won’t come. He opens his eyes and sees nothing.

He feels nothing.

He tries to remember Armando and Alex and their siblings, Angel’s wings proudly displayed, but there is only Logan, his memories gone, his body twisted by humans into inhuman metal shapes, and Sissy Sullivan, falling apart over the phone three thousand miles away from Gotham.

‘I’m... sorry,’ the Bat says.

‘You aren’t,’ says Charles. ‘And no, I’m not reading your mind.’

Somewhere close by a motorbike engine coughs to life. A siren soon drowns it out. ‘That was all?’ Charles says.

‘Yes.’

‘Thank you.’ For what is anyone else’s guess. ‘Please leave.’

He keeps his eyes on the balcony door; he doesn’t look away once. He still doesn’t see him go even though he knows he must have done.

After a while there is a thin drift of snow on the carpet. It’s more than enough to turn Charles’ feet numb when he stands in it to close and lock the door.

-

Raven?

I’m on my way.

I… all right. Raven—

I know, Charles. You can sleep now, ok? I’ll be there when you wake up. Go to sleep.

-

Some yesterday ago Brandon says, ‘If you could go anywhere in time, future or past, be anything or anyone you wanted, when would you go to and who would you be?’

‘Oh my friend,’ Charles laughs. ‘The question you really want to ask yourself is, when and where and who would I not be?’