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and these, from atoms

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i.

 

On a Cuban beach, Erik held Charles in his arms and asked his help in building a future dominated by the next stage of evolution.

Charles refused him.

The pain was distracting; even weeks later, the things Charles remembered best were sporadic and irrelevant. The cutting taste of sea salt in the corner of his mouth. The quiet absence of Erik’s mind. Grains of sand caught beneath his ear, and the way he felt only half of a man—the loss far more than merely his legs. The rest of the memory was repaired through a careful screening of how it appeared through the eyes of his students, and with that came a more perfect clarity. On bleak nights, Charles thought of Erik as a casualty of war. Though he’d been the one on his back, bleeding into his suit, it was Erik that died in the submarine and was buried with his creator.

And yet, Charles knew better. The vengeful self-preservation that molded Erik’s life philosophies had always existed in him, had been touched by Charles’ telepathy and forgiven wholeheartedly the evening they surfaced from rancid waters, alive and together. It was a part of Erik—it shaped him into the friend that Charles treasured—and Charles saw that violence and tried to gentle it and failed Erik in this. It was a bitter realization to come to terms with. He’d promised to help Erik. Instead, he’d given him something that could only be taken away.

On better nights, Charles reached out for Erik with his mind, trying to call him home. Missing him. Starved for the connection they’d woven in such a short amount of time. Only once was he able to touch Erik’s thoughts, and he was so startled by his success that Erik felt him and responded, Go to sleep, Charles.

No, please listen to—

There’s nothing to be said. For a second time, Charles felt the helmet as it slipped over Erik’s ears, nudging him from a place he no longer had any right to be.

 

ii.

 

Finding other mutants and organizing an entire school from scratch took effort. It was time well-spent, however, to hear the echoes of laughter in the hallways of what was once an empty, near-barren home. Charles taught them history. He taught them literature. He taught them to accept the extraordinary qualities they hid away, both mutation and simply individual. He hoped he’d learned from some of his past mistakes, but only the seasons would tell.

For the first few years, the focus in everyone’s mind was on recruitment. Strength in numbers. Safety. The recruitment missions took a turn for the worse more often than not, because Charles and Erik both had the best of taste and recognized potential when they saw it. Frost, the telepath—Charles could no more keep her from gleaning information from the minds of his students than he could stop himself from reaching out to Erik and, on lonelier moments, Raven. They always seemed to know where he was. Charles was too respectful to return the favor.

Some students, Charles lost to Erik’s charismatic presence and displays of power. He knew he didn’t cut quite so impressive a figure in his wheelchair; his smiles were a little too kindly, his mutation an invisible companion. Other times, though, mutants lost would return to Charles and he didn’t turn their wary, jaded thoughts away. They were Erik’s people. They were Charles’ people. What was Erik’s became Charles’ became Erik’s became the future.

When they clashed over the growth of their armies, there were no words spoken. Charles protected his own and Erik (he called himself Magneto now) looked straight through him. They played the parts they’d auditioned for flawlessly.

Like this, four years passed before Charles had the dream.

 

iii.

 

Charles dreamt of stairs.

He knew he was dreaming, but this was no ordinary dream. He did not know these stairs—twisted, gnarled as oak, descending into an utter blackness that came closer with every step. As he went down them, Charles held onto a railing made of glass bottles and his mother’s hair. The walls only existed for as long as he could look at them. Sometimes he heard someone walking behind him, but it was only hindsight, heavy-footed.

At the bottom, there was an ivory-hued bed. Charles sank down into the mattress and waited, and all the light faded around him until it was just that: the bed, the rumpled sheet, and Charles, who could always walk in his dreams. Somewhere, he heard garden-gloved hands ripping cattails out of the lakeside. You have no idea what you’ve done, he wanted to say. The cattails would spin out into the gutters and swell, becoming cats.

“Good men do not always follow orders,” said Erik. He sat behind Charles, their shoulder blades and spines pressing lightly together as if bridging ships; without looking, Charles knew that he was wearing the jacket that smelled like his aftershave. He was warm, and solid, and impressed in Charles’ heart like an ache.

Charles listened to the hisses of strays and Erik’s breathing to guide his thoughts. They never made it very far. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Somewhere you can’t go. You must not follow me.”

“I thought you wanted me.” It came out regretful, soft-spoken.

“I did. I do.”

“Then—”

“You’re dreaming. Go to sleep, Charles.”

 

iv.

 

When he woke, the pillow was damp and his muscles were sore, save for his legs, which had not moved in the night. He recalled the dream and its obvious warning perfectly. You must not follow me.

Had he some idea of what was to come, Charles would (might) have listened. As it was, the dream stayed with him; it was a bauble to examine and turn over in his hands, yet he never found the manufacturer’s mark.

 

v.

 

A few months later, a mutant held nearly forty men hostage in a coal mine in central California.

Charles was playing a game of chess with himself when the matter was brought to him, quite out of blind chance. Without knocking, Alex came into the study and crouched before the television set that Charles was only half watching. “You’ll want to see this,” he said, adjusting the channel until the black-and-white face of Theodore Granik dissolved and the American Forum of the Air made a clumsy transition to the news program.

“What is it, Alex?”

“Just watch.” Alex balanced back on his haunches, rapt on the screen.

They had grown so far. Charles rested the tips of two fingers on the man’s shoulder and felt his affection swell. He watched, because Alex was someone who only ever came to Charles with a purpose or question.

“… don’t yet know whether the miners are all alive. It has been impossible to get near the main entrance to the mine. Half an hour ago, officials attempted to deliver food and water for the hostages, but as soon as they neared, the elevator shaft spewed black clouds of dissolved coal so thick that they had to withdraw. Their attempts continue as…

Charles rubbed at his pensive frown, tugging it out of shape. He let the words fade from his consciousness, even Alex’s eager, “It has to be one of us. They’ve been trying to get close for over a day now and the same thing happens, every single time. I’ve been watching, but I wasn’t sure if—”

Shh, Charles hushed. He reached. Hank? I need Cerebro to confirm something.

 

vi.

 

In less than an hour, they were in the Blackbird. “He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy we’d be interested in,” Sean said, curls pillowing his head as he rested back against the seat. “I mean, what with the threats to kill all the men down there if anyone gets near them. You know what I think when I hear that?”

It was Alex that answered at last, resigned. “What?”

“Psychopath killer.”

“But he hasn’t killed them,” said Charles. He looked out the window at the spider-work of clouds. “He can’t let them go because he will be exposed. He can’t keep them because if he were out for their blood, he’d have taken it by now. The situation’s grown beyond his control. Instead, he’s locked in. Trapped. Panicking.”

Hank adjusted their flight path. “Are you sure, Professor?”

Charles gave him a faint smile. “A man who can draw combustible rock, even anthracite, from its coal bed or seam. How simply extraordinary. I’m sure that must be it—perhaps some variant—it will be worth reviving the boiler in the kitchen.”

 

vii.

 

They could see the crowd surrounding the mine shaft entrance as they flew in low over the town—families hovering on the outskirts, kept back by a line of miners and police officials. Small camps had been erected on the perimeter, and in the center of the chaos of the colliery, a mine rescue communications system had been stationed. Charles traced the communication line, coiled together beside the table like a snake, all the way to the mine shaft entrance where it disappeared into the gaping yawn of black. He wondered, and then knew, they weren’t having much luck.

He understood little of coal mines, beyond what information he’d gleaned from books and Hank’s offered knowledge on the way to California. The structure itself was impressive: a long column that rose to a turbulent sky, a series of brick-and-wood buildings haphazardly scattered, the entrance a single square set into the hillside and fixed with wood pillars. Charles attempted to dip into that dark space, searching with his mind. He found nothing but emptiness. The mine itself reminded him abruptly of diamond walls (whatever you’re doing, it’s working), but he forced the idea away before it could draw him into melancholy.

He had to hope that Erik didn’t draw the same conclusions that they did about the hostage situation. This was no place for a standoff.

“Should I set her down in the trees, Professor?”

“No, Hank. A moment, if you will.”

Charles pressed his fingers to his temple. He closed his eyes. Down below them, mere pinpricks of color and movement, the crowd began to slow, shudder, halt. He drifted through them, touching a myriad of ragged thoughts—why haven’t we heard anything what is going on my husband my brother eating eggs together only this morning will I have to bury another knew we should’ve moved to the city this place will be the death of us my baby my darling what is happening oh Lord Almighty like the entrance to Hell and the hounds won’t let him go my darling darling—and quieting them, soothing them to a dull ache. He gave them a moment of peace and froze them in it.

Soon, nothing moved below.

“You can set us down now,” Charles said.

 

viii.

 

Over time, he’d grown accustomed to the limitations of the chair. At first, Charles accepted the aid he knew he needed—before the school could be rebuilt to adjust to his needs, before he’d grown confident of wielding the sleek contraption that moved him. He could remember Moira pushing him through the garden. Alex swinging him around a corner. Feeling as though, even if he were trapped, his mind was still free to travel as it pleased.

It only took until the first spill to realize his full helplessness. Staring up at the ceiling, the sound of the wheels spinning next to his ear, Charles asked himself, And what do you do now?

The humiliation writhed like a worm inside of him, finding home in the rot he’d been ignoring. He was reliant. A cripple. He’d never know the simple pleasure of jogging, the ease that stairs once were—and worse, Charles could hear that minute hesitation that others had when they saw him. What they thought of him. The chair diminished him in their gaze; when they looked at him, what they saw first was never his smile, his bright and keen eyes, his health. Charles forgave them that, but he felt frustrated with his inability to overcome their perceptions. Professor Charles Xavier had to become something more than this, something that could still be looked up to even when he was—obviously below their line of sight, as it were.

Since then, he refused to let anyone push him. He trained himself to get stronger, to function without an aide. He explored and memorized his boundaries, and told himself that it wasn’t about keeping his pride intact, but keeping their faith.

(And it was why, when he wheeled the chair out of the Blackbird and hit pebbled gravel, when Charles gripped hard and pushed the contraption through the terrain inch by agonizing inch, not a single member of his beloved team saw it was so—in their eyes, he gave them something flawless, let them forget his efforts, delivered them the dream. To his X-Men, he barely touched ground.)

 

ix.

 

The closer they came to the mine shaft, the more ill-defined shapes Charles could sense in its depths. Thoughts, scattered and fragmented. The formations of hysteria from men who had no idea what was happening. He fished around for a while, but couldn’t find anything solid to grasp.

Instead, Charles turned to the mine rescue communication system. Sound-powered, he noted, and while the radio would hardly be sufficient with the layers between them, it was obviously doing the trick as well as it could. “Hank, if I could borrow you a moment,” he murmured.

Hank pushed his glasses up nervously and crouched down to the coils. He examined them, then the radio box, and picked up the transmitter. “It’s a little crude,” he said, almost in apology, as if he’d been the one to design it. Charles smiled at him.

“But it will suffice. Alex, Sean—if you could, let’s keep an eye on the skies.”

“You don’t think they’d come here,” Sean said, nervous, after a long moment. He didn’t bother to specify who they were and he didn’t have to.

Charles took the transmitter from Hank and shook his head. “I only wish I was that type of psychic, Sean.”`

(Oh, how many times he’d wished that. If Charles could have known—if he had seen in Erik the things that would bleed between them—what would he have done? Perhaps it was better he didn’t have the gift of foresight, because then Charles would have no excuse for not changing a thing.)

 

x.

 

“Gregory,” spoke Charles into the transmitter. He waited, hearing only spits of static. Then, “Gregory, my name is Charles Xavier. I’m here to help you get out.”

Silence. Then, amongst the uneven bursts of noise, a desperate and torn breathing. “Come near an’ I’ll blow this place sky high, I swear to God.

“Oh, I wish you wouldn’t. I don’t think you’re that kind of man, really, though I’d believe you were frightened enough to try. You don’t have to be frightened anymore, my friend. Believe it or not, I’m here to get you out of this mess.”

There was nothing. Charles exchanged a glance with Hank.

He tried again. “What happened, Gregory? Did you already know of your unique talents? Or did you just now come upon them, but it was too late to hide them? Are you afraid of the men you’ve kept trapped down there telling the world about you?” Charles projected as much warmth and gentle care as he could through the transmitter alone. “Was there an accident? It wasn’t your fault—”

An angry, wild cry—the radio screeched in his hand. “Who are you how do you KNOW you can’t know—

“I know better than you think,” Charles interrupted, firm, in control, kindly. “My power manifested when I was little more than a babe, and I’m afraid I nearly damaged a maid that was working for my family. She was quite lovely, too, it was a shame to scare her away. It’s never easy the first time. Gregory. Gregory,” he implored, “you aren’t alone. There are others like you and we want to get you out of that hole and to somewhere safe.”

But there was no answer, not for a while.

 

xi.

 

Charles waited. We have all the time in the world, he told himself, though he knew it wasn’t exactly true. Every so often, he spoke again to Gregory, telling him about Charles Xavier, about telepathy, about the school, about mutation and the beauty of evolution. Then he waited again.

It was a very long time before the radio crackled.

I’ve ruined everything,” whispered Gregory.

Charles felt his heart skip in empathy. “Not at all,” he replied. “Let me come down into the shaft. I’ll show you what I can do. I’ll fix everything.”

… You can do that?

“I can.”

Above them, the clouds roiled and started to blacken.

 

xii.

 

“Coastal weather,” Sean said, staring straight up. “It’ll come in fierce.”

Charles paid him no heed—they’d be done and out before the rain. “Hank, you and Alex stay up top and be ready to pick us up. Sean, I’ll take you down with me.” He couldn’t take the risk of Hank’s appearance setting Gregory off, nor trapping Alex in a cavern filled with explosives and dangerous metals. It was a pity, as they worked best together. “I wish that I could guarantee I can keep these people orderly and quiet, but with the mine’s interference—”

“We’ll take the Blackbird and stay out of sight,” Hank finished. He really was terribly bright and Charles, in the back of his mind, thought wistfully of his sister pressed against a boy in a lab coat, the both of them so young and lost. He cast the image down deep.

“Excellent.”

“Professor,” hedged Alex, “what if they do come?”

“Don’t engage,” Charles ordered. God, the two of them alone against Erik’s favorites, it didn’t bear thinking about. “Stay out of sight until I call for you or we come up the shaft. We’ll give him the same choice they all have—and even Erik wouldn’t be brash enough to cause trouble in a coal mine.”

He hid his smile at Alex’s passing, I wouldn’t count on it.

 

xiii.

 

It had taken him more than a year before he could smile when he thought about Erik. Some part of Charles wondered if he was grieving. He compared it to the long hours spent at his mother’s funeral, staring at the way the coffin gleamed under the cloying summer sun, trying to fathom her silence. He understood that she wasn’t there anymore; he felt nothing when he reached for her.

Only a profound, hollow void.

The first morning Charles woke in the hospital, he fumbled for the bedside rail and the subtle complexity of Erik’s mind. When the nurse came to see to him, his face was wet with tears.

 

xiv.

 

“You’re sure about this?” called Alex, as Sean and Charles approached the mine shaft entrance. The low drone of the elevator grew closer; at least, Charles mused, it meant that Gregory was going to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them down. Or it could mean they’d be trapped several hundred feet underground with an unstable mutant. Well, he preferred to think about the positive end of things.

Still, so as not to make himself a liar, Charles opted not to answer Alex.

The hoisting cage—he’d been thinking of it as an elevator, but now Charles could see its more simplistic mechanisms—rose out of the earth and came to a shuddering halt. It was once painted yellow; erosion had turned it into a mottled brown birdcage, unloved and unkempt. It hovered at ground level for a moment before Sean turned to Charles with a rueful expression. “Who first?”

“By all means.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“Careful,” Charles cautioned him, wheeling forward. It was more difficult now, the ground firmly stamped by work boots but bumpy, uneven. The cage was a foreboding structure, hanging precariously in space, and Charles paused at its door. There was a six-inch gap between his feet and solid ground again.

Sean noticed it almost as hindsight. “Oh! Here, I’ll take your one end, huh?” was what he said.

(But what he thought was: Not sure the professor should be here. And not down there with all that—mess.)

Charles let it wash over him and away. He said nothing when Sean reached down and hauled up his wheelchair, coaxing him into the cage and pretending not to notice their proximity, nor what it meant. His thank you, my friend was distant, if earnest, and they didn’t speak again as the compartment quivered on its wires and started down into the black.

 

xv.

 

Charles had the strangest flash of something—stairs and soda pop bottles—as they passed layer after layer of rock face, dust-cloaked pipes, and a long set of twin ladders that followed them down. He played with the image and discarded it.

“How deep does it go?” Sean finally asked, and there was something approaching unease in him. He squeezed his hands together over and over, his cheeks the same pallid-flush-red they’d been on his first mission.

Charles knew the answer, gleaned from the men below. “It stops at 407 feet. The mine itself goes farther and deeper, but we won’t have to go far past the first room. There’s another shaft a few miles away—it’s as deep as 900 feet. Astounding, isn’t it? That our government could be so preoccupied with building rockets to explore a rock in outer space when we still have so much rock to explore beneath our very feet.”

“If you say so,” groaned Sean.

 

xvi.

 

The first time Charles met a mutant, it was in his kitchen. He had nothing but a baseball bat and his telepathy, though at the time he wasn’t entirely sure he’d defined it correctly. Still, he’d made a friend.

The second times Charles met a mutant, he dropped on his back under the water and slid his arms around him (finding fistfuls and grips in his sweater, feeling hair float against his cheek). They were in the middle of something bigger than they could name. He told him, You’re not alone. You’re not alone.

Charles often remembered those meetings and was forced to examine how neither relationship had ended particularly well. And yet, he’d never replace them. Whatever mistakes they made between them, they had a measurable impact on each others’ lives. Even now, it was Erik’s caution that gave Charles pause when he once blundered on. It was Raven’s frankness that gave him the push needed to take charge in a situation that called for it.

Sometimes he worried what gifts he’d given them in return.

(Had he only taught Raven to hide? Had he only given Erik the power to reshape the world into something less cutting? Charles felt as though his failures had become imprints in their genetic makeup, that by touching them, he’d left garish fingerprints.)

Now when Charles met a mutant, he didn’t say, I know everything about you. It was obviously untrue.

 

xvii.

 

Instead, what Charles told Gregory McHolden was, “You don’t have to be afraid.” It was an untruth in an entirely different way. Gregory had many things to be frightened of: the iron grip of the law, losing his family (a pretty pig-tailed girl and his wife, her chuckle and smoke-stained nails), the once-friends that now reviled him, a mutation that seeped through his fingers without control, without reason. His face was dirty and terrified. He looked much younger than his mind felt. Younger than Charles, who knew what that was like.

Every so often, his big hands would twitch and the mine coughed, quaked, and stilled again. Oh yes, this one was powerful. Running entirely by instinct. They had to get him out.

“Did you do that?” Gregory asked, hoarse. “Is that you? You done that?” He gestured to the group of thirty-eight miners, frozen as if in a picture and huddled together in a clutch around a pillar. It was dark in the mine, but Sean had picked up a safety lantern lying off to the side of an abandoned tub and a crumpled brown lunch bag. The light flickered on in sickly yellow patches, and Charles studied the mine as far as he could see, marveling at its crude ingenuity (oh, oh, I hope this room isn’t really held up just by these pillars, that seems a little… awful).

No, no, he had to focus. Charles smiled at Gregory and ignored the very probable insanity of his actions in bringing them down here. “Yes. It’s also possible for me to wipe their memories clean. They never need to know what happened here, Gregory.”

“You’d do that?” Pathetic, sweet hope.

“Yes. But that doesn’t mean I can make them all forget,” Charles cautioned, hearing the want in the man, the idea that Charles could make the world keep turning as planned and the events of the last few days disappear. If only he were that good. “You can’t stay here. Least of all because you have no idea how to control your mutation. Otherwise, this will happen again.”

Gregory covered his face. He kept his hands there a long time. He asked, in a small voice, “Can you fix me?”

Charles, for one moment, wished he could say yes. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I actually believe your mutation is a wonderful thing. I think you could use it to great benefit, that it’s a part of you to be treasured. But, if it’s a cure you want, I can at least offer you a safe place to stay until it’s found.”

He leaned forward, touching Gregory’s arm as if it might break. “You see, I run a school—”

The hoisting cage shook once.

Then again.

 

xviii.

 

“I don’t understand,” said Gregory. “I didn’t push nothin’ and it, it shouldn’t be movin’ like that.”

“Ah, yes,” Charles said. “But it’s made of metal.”

 

xix.

 

Erik.

If you gave Charles a millennia to explain how he felt about Erik, he’d still need to be stopped in mid-sentence at the sound of the timer. It was nothing as concrete and well-structured as his thesis; in his very atoms, he felt him, through pain and joy and the kind of tentative hesitation that gave birth to a breath. If there was a switch to shut it off, Charles hadn’t found it yet. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Often, Charles questioned whether he was made entirely of metal. He seemed bent to Erik’s will, twisted at a glance. Then discarded.

 

xx.

 

“I think you should stand back,” Charles told the others, very polite considering the situation. Sean took initiative to urge Gregory back toward the slack-faced miners, which was well-timed, because the hoisting cage groaned and began to lift itself up the passage not a moment after. Charles worried it was going to snag on its coils, but he shouldn’t have—Erik had grace as well as strength, and it moved as if of its own volition, as if he’d simply pressed the lift button instead of manipulating each intricate part with his mutation. It was that deftness that made Erik masterful, rather than sheer power.

Charles wished he didn’t admire it quite so much.

“What’s going on?” Gregory demanded, and Charles groaned internally at the thought that he’d have to condense this conversation very, very quickly.

“No cause for alarm. I did tell you we weren’t the only mutants in the world. There are other bands of friends that—”

“I didn’t say they could come down! Make them go away!” The angry vein throbbing on Gregory’s forehead was—ah, it was glowing red, Charles realized with some trepidation. Why did the ones with explosive tempers always have explosive mutations?

“Gregory, please. We mean you no harm.”

Sediment fell in clumps from the low ceiling. Sean put a hand on Charles’ shoulder, but a quick and fleeting brush against his mind told Charles he only meant to regain his own balance as the mine quaked. Once, Charles could’ve spoken to Erik even 400 feet beneath him and warned him that this wasn’t the best timing, but—

Black fumes unfurled from the floor, gathering in wisps around Gregory’s ankles. Charles sighed and pressed his fingertips to his temple. He told him, Rest.

 

xxi.

 

“Professor,” said Sean, and nothing more.

“Steady on, Banshee. We aren’t here to fight.”

“What if they’ve hurt the people up there? What about the miners?”

“Excellent questions. I hope to soon have answers.”

The hoisting cage grew closer.

 

xxii.

 

It settled. The door swept open. There were three, far more than necessary and yet a small display of power on Erik’s—Magneto’s—part. Azazel was the first, the fierce red of his face lit up against the safety lanterns, and Emma walked on his heels as if a shadow, albeit one dressed out of place in her fur boots and pristine white jumpsuit. Charles felt his stomach drop in disappointment (even now, he hoped to see Raven’s childish smirk and the proud tilt to her chin), but he gave away nothing, not even when Erik stepped out of the cage with the poise of a dictator.

Sean’s heart was beating frantically in his ear. Charles projected calm: calm, flight over a timid sea, a pretty girl’s laughter. The walls seemed so much closer; for the first time, Charles realized how small the first mining chamber was. And how out of place he must look.

Erik would have said, We all look out of place, Charles. But Erik didn’t share his head anymore. Instead, Erik’s gaze traveled across them to the huddled miners that remained caught in a pocket of their perceptions. There was a flicker of scorn that Charles expected. When he examined Gregory’s frozen expression, there was a flicker of a smile that Charles expected, too. He said, soft, “Really, Charles.”

“I’m afraid you gave him a startle. I wasn’t enamored by the idea of being enveloped in coal dust or entombed.”

“In that suit, I can imagine why.”

It indirectly, of course, brought attention to Erik’s peculiar outfit. Charles’ gaze flitted across the deep reds and purples before returning to meet the line of Erik’s sight. He didn’t say, I miss your leather jacket. I miss the neutrals you wore that brought out the intensity of your eyes instead of swallowing them. I feel as if you’ve reinvented yourself, but I miss most of all the fact that I can’t tease you about it, my friend.

“They just got here,” Emma said, studying Gregory’s nose in seeming boredom. Charles often wondered if anything fazed her. “You were right. He’s been keeping the miners here under the threat of his mutation. They saw it manifest. He panicked.”

“Erik,” murmured Charles. It was enough to draw his complete attention once again. “The people above ground?”

“Fleeing,” Erik said. “The storm, it seems, has touched down early.”

 

xxiii.

 

The storm? No, Riptide. Charles’ hand twitched against his thigh, then remained still. He hoped that Alex and Hank had obeyed him and didn’t engage—and at the same time, when he thought about the mass panic that must have lit under the crowd’s feet, he wished otherwise. Regardless, their window of opportunity was shrinking with every second. Erik’s brand of chaos inevitably brought the local law enforcement and military running, not always in that order. They had to get the miners to safety and secure Gregory, and while the fastest way would be to release Gregory to Erik’s clutches, the Brotherhood was no place for the man. Charles had seen into his heart.

“This one’s not like you,” he said firmly. “He’s not proud.”

“Only because he doesn’t yet understand.”

He had to concede to that possibility, however difficult. “We don’t have the time to educate him. I suggest that we move this discussion elsewhere to secure that time.”

Erik observed him from beneath the hooked curves of the helmet, expressionless, resolute, unforgiving. “Always so sure that conflict can be resolved by simply sitting down together to tea. I often wonder what it’s like in that head of yours, Charles.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say, You could find out, if you took off that tacky piece of headwear. He didn’t.

Instead, Charles briefly rested his palm against Sean’s back. You must protect the innocent lives at risk here, he told him. Please trust that everything will be all right. I will be all right.

Sean bit his lip hard but didn’t indicate he heard him. His training and familiarity with Charles’ gentle asides had served him well. Charles twisted in his chair and closed his eyes a half-beat, gathering a mental net and casting it out. The thirty-eight miners slowly uncramped from their crouched positions, foreheads streaked with sweat and grime, and stood at silent attention. Their mining cap lights were still alight and against the blankness of their features, the effect was slightly disturbing.

“I don’t think we need these gentlemen any longer,” stated Charles. “They’ll be out of our way if they’re topside. Sean, will you take the first group? Five a trip at most—that cage looks close to retirement.” He ignored Sean’s immediate reaction, naked to anyone who cared to see it, as he realized he’d be leaving Charles behind underground. They had no choice; at Riptide’s mercy, their efforts to procure the miners’ safety would be useless.

“I think it would be more prudent to leave them here while we take leave,” Erik interjected. It wasn’t a suggestion. The screws holding the coal conveyor together against the wall vibrated.

“May I have your word then that you won’t bring down the mine once we’re on safe ground?”

Erik smiled, just so.

The miners went first.

 

xxiv.

 

The sixth time they met after the beach, they clashed in Minnesota at a logging ground. White-flecked trees and snowy dunes that rose higher than Charles’ head (if he could stand). Crisp air that burned in his lungs. There were two park rangers—mostly ignorant, quivering like rabbits out in the open—and a young girl that could grow quills out of her skin as a defense mechanism.

Charles remembered meeting Erik’s gaze. “Go,” he told the park rangers.

They ran.

So focused was Charles on searching for something in Erik that he didn’t see the logging chain curve up through the sky like a snake. He only saw the hot splatter of blood across an aged trunk, and then death in their glassy eyes, peeking from the swells of snow. The rotation of the planet stuttered and failed in him.

“They would have bashed her head open and killed her,” Erik said. “Even though they’ve known her since she was a baby. Are those the people that you want to protect, Charles?”

Charles learned quickly.

 

xxv.

 

The hoisting cage disappeared with the fourth group of miners. Charles cast an eye over the remaining eighteen, counting the many ways in which this wasn’t happening fast enough for his comfort. Nor, it seemed, for Erik’s.

“Release him,” he commanded.

“He’ll bring the roof down on us.”

“Tell him not to. You don’t have much of a choice in the matter, so I don’t know why you’re acting as if you have control. You gave that up when you took on these worthless lives as baggage. You’re outnumbered and, if I’m not mistaken, at our complete mercy.” Erik cocked his head. “Or should I have Azazel remove you from the equation entirely? The world doesn’t have to play by your rules, Charles, so why should I? Don’t waste my indulging mood.”

Charles frowned, but he loosened his grip on Gregory. The man heaved a giant breath and let it out again, wavering on his feet. He’d forgotten his earlier rage, and now took in all of the people standing around him in the room as if he hadn’t been listening the entire time. He very carefully didn’t move, not even to wipe away the moisture above his lip. Not even to blink.

In fact, he was so poised that Charles didn’t catch the flutter of intent before it was too late.

“Did they turn on you when they saw what you could do?” Erik asked, the question hovering in the air between them for a long moment. He went ‘ah’ in artful sympathy. “I can see the answer for myself. I understand your sense of betrayal, your cold-sweat fear. They have the power to take everything from you in their prejudice, and they will if you don’t—”

Wait, thought Charles at the pulse of red. He said it to himself, he said it to everyone in the room, but there wasn’t enough power behind it to make a difference. He was unprepared.

The ceiling split open above them.

“You can’t let them go,” said Gregory, right before he disappeared into a soot-gray funnel that swept aside everything in its wake.

 

xxvi.

 

The smell of earth and coal, the taste of it thick in Charles’ throat—he covered his mouth even as the ground rose up beneath him, a crack separating half of the room from its brother. He couldn’t tell exactly where the fracture was because his vision was a curtain of grainy black, debris falling from above in thick sheets. It happened so quickly, he thought that the entire chamber was going to cave in that very second.

Then the violent shiver that ran through the layers of sandstone and shale ceased, though the formation that surrounded Gregory only picked up more substance. Charles reached out to stop him, only to run abruptly into a second influence trying to do the same thing.

He swiped at the diamond wall. Get out of my way!

(And god, the noise, men shouting and crying out in fear, Erik’s commanding voice—what was he saying, what was he—)

 

xxvii.

 

The second quake came as Gregory ripped into a coal seam far beneath them and pulled it through the floor.

Charles scrambled for his wheels as the chair began to slide back.

He put on the break, but it didn’t stop him from skidding straight into the coal conveyor, his back cracking in pain. A roar of sound. A flash-puff of scarlet. Azazel disappeared with Gregory, the source of the devastation, but the damage was done. Charles didn’t have to read any minds to tell that the pillars were cracked and falling apart. He had sixty seconds, maybe less.

The miners—

No, he couldn’t do anything for them. There was a gaping hole between them now that would not be crossed by, well, by the likes of him. Charles saw in that shift between dread and resignation that he had two choices—stay where he was and die or move further into the mine in hope that he could escape the cave-in radius. If he could get that far. If that wasn’t certain death in itself.

He wrenched at his wheels and threw all of his weight into forward movement. Nothing. His muscles screamed. Something was stuck, he could feel the catch that thwarted his efforts. Gravity was against him, it—

 

xxviii.

 

“Charles,” said Erik.

He was there. He was beside him. That ridiculous helmet still on, his mouth set and grim, and something wild in him; it lashed just beneath the surface. Charles stared at him in incomprehension.

Erik grimaced as if in pain. He reached out his hand and Charles heard the metal of his wheelchair stretch and strain and warp. The room was beginning to collapse around them. What was he—didn’t Erik understand?

“You have to get out,” he gasped. “Quickly, the mine shaft—”

“Infernal piece of junk,” cursed Erik. The squeal of metal cut off. He shoved his arm roughly beneath Charles’ knees, the other cramming down between Charles’ back and the chair. Charles scrambled to regain some of his wits and to grab a fistful of—of that silly cape, that overdramatic cape—and Erik’s shoulder, warm skin beneath fabric, before Erik lifted him free entirely.

Dirt was getting in his hair, his eyes. Charles pushed his forehead into Erik’s neck and hunched inward to shield himself, and then they were moving, moving fast, straight into a pitch black that became absolute as the way shut off behind them.