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Bare King

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“You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.”

            -  Richard II, IV.i

 

            Erik took three things with him from the beach in Cuba: the helmet that had belonged to Shaw, the Reichsmark he had carried in his pocket since the age of fourteen, and the twisted lump of lead that had once been a bullet.

            Everything else he intended to leave behind him.

            It didn’t quite work out that way.

            A year in, he decided that the problem was that those weren’t the only things he brought with him from Cuba. He had taken Mystique too, and with her a link to his past that he couldn’t severe. For a time he had considered sending her away, but she was an ally and he needed all the allies he could get. He also didn’t like to think of how her face would look if he told her to leave, because even now, when she was stronger than even he had anticipated she would become, she was quick to take rejection to heart; this was the inheritance that Charles and Hank McCoy had left her with, and he very nearly hated Hank for it.

            He didn’t hate Charles. He was incapable.

            For a long time, he had waited for the hatred to come. He would have welcomed it, and anger had never before been something he struggled to find. He wanted the guilt and the grief to crystallize into rage, as it had every other time in his life he had done something that later he questioned the rightness of.

            The anger never came. He was left with only his guilt, and his loss. The only feeling he had to compare it to was the death of his mother (because no one else had really mattered since), and even then there had been his fury at Shaw to goad him on, and the pain he had suffered at the doctor’s hands to distract him.

            Charles wasn’t dead, of course, but for the first three months after Cuba Erik hadn’t known that.

            It hadn’t been until the morning after Cuba that Erik had realized that he had left the other man bleeding on a beach with little avenue of escape other than men who had already shown themselves far too willing to eliminate mutants. He had thought of sending Azazel to the mansion to check, but he hadn’t trusted (and didn’t trust) his new allies enough to divulge the location. After three months, he had broken down and asked Mystique.

            Disbelief and indignation had warred briefly on her face. “You’re just now thinking of this?”

            Erik had been unable to tell her that he had thought of little else for weeks, even though he should have been thinking about building the newly named Brotherhood of Mutants – they had a tentative plan to break Emma Frost out of CIA holding, and were working on recruiting – and bringing the war to the humans before the humans brought the war to them. Something of his thoughts must have shown, however, because her expression instantly softened.

            “He’s fine, Er—Magneto. They all are. I called Hank the day after we left. He’s pissed at me, but he told me that they got out okay.”

            He was relieved enough that he couldn’t even bring himself to feel betrayed over her continued contact with the people they had agreed – he thought they had agreed – to leave behind. “You’ve spoken to Hank?”

            Mute incomprehension on her face, and a brief pause as she struggled to find words. “Of course. I had to know, didn’t I?”

            After that, he hadn’t asked if she continued to speak to Hank, just as in the years that followed he wouldn’t ask where she disappeared to after a fight, or how she always came home knowing that they hadn’t spilled more than a little of the blood of their fellow mutants.

            His relief had lasted two days before she had come to him with the news, remembered or only recently offered, that Charles was crippled.

            He had spent the next two days agonizing over that information before deciding, viciously, that he didn’t care.

            Sometimes, he liked to pretend that his resolve not to care had lasted more than two hours. Since he couldn’t not think about what he had done, and since he couldn’t help but, stupidly and fruitlessly, miss Charles, he pushed those things to the back of his mind. He kept them for the long, dark hours between midnight and dawn, and spent his days working to ensure the future of mutantkind.

            The first time Erik’s Brotherhood had clashed with Charles’ X-Men had been difficult, though. Erik found himself pulling his blows, reluctant to hurt the children he had spent weeks watching train, had fought beside, and he had been distracted. Watching Charles hang back as he had never done before, confined by his wheelchair and the limitations of his body but no less in command of the situation for it, had been difficult.

            Subsequent confrontations had not gotten any easier. Erik always held back, and Charles always kept back, except that sometimes he tried to talk, to reason with Erik, and that was infinitely worse.

            One of those times Charles had tried to speak to him in the middle of a heated battle, Erik might have let him, but they had both been diverted by Hank’s scream as one of Azazel’s swords sliced through fur and flesh. After, Charles had been angry enough to break through the protection offered by Emma (because by then, Erik’s plan to liberate her from the CIA had come to fruition) and force Azazel to teleport away, and there had been no time for words as the Brotherhood had retreated.

            Azazel had returned later that evening. “Do you know how cold Siberia is, comrade?” he had asked, clearing up the mystery of where Charles had sent him. “That Xavier, I could—.”

            “You will do no such thing,” Erik had said sharply, and later he couldn’t tell if his memory was accurate when he recalled the flash of rebellious anger on Azazel’s face where before there had been only grudging respect, or if that was simply a thin patina of hindsight filling in the details.

            Mystique had returned much later, her expression dark and furious. “Alex,” she muttered. “Gonna kill him.” Her, he hadn’t reprimanded, and he couldn’t have said if it was because it was Mystique speaking and not Azazel, or because he simply didn’t care as much about Alex’s fate, or because he knew in his bones that she didn’t mean it.

            She didn’t mean it, but by then he’d known that she could spill blood. The first time Mystique had killed, she had been calm and ruthless, beautiful in her deadliness. Erik hadn’t realized until he found her doubled over the toilet later that night the toll it had taken.

            “Raven,” he had said, and it had been automatic and stupid. He hadn’t called her Raven in months. She’d had a new name, a better name.

            “Mystique,” she’d said. She’d reached for the mouthwash without looking at him. “Raven couldn’t have done what I did today.”

            Erik had wondered then what she thought to achieve by leaving Raven behind. Did she think that divorcing herself from who she had been would keep that girl’s hands clean? He had taken on a new name, but it had been nothing more than a symbol, a token of how he had moved on from his old mission to his new one. Erik Lehnsherr had been revenged, and it was time to let that boy go; Magneto was a name to be feared, and would be the one to guide mutants forward. That didn’t mean that the blood Magneto spilt to complete his mission would somehow not stain Erik, or that the two could somehow magically be separated.

            A symbol. A token. Nothing more. Except to Raven, perhaps it was. Mystique was a way to keep the girl she had been pure and spotless while still doing the things that needed to be done.

            “I’ll do better next time,” she had said.

            Charles would have hated the thing Erik was turning his sister into.

            “See that you do,” he had said, and left her to collect herself in peace. Later that night, he had wondered if leaving had been the right thing to do, but he hadn’t tried to seek her out to make amends. He had to trust Mystique to be strong, and besides, he hadn’t regretted his first kill. He had no wisdom to offer her on the subject.

            Sometimes it was awful. He missed Charles and he regretted Mystique almost as much as he depended on her.

            But – sometimes it wasn’t so bad.

            The first time he had donned his new cloak and the helmet, Mystique had maintained a straight face for all of twenty seconds before breaking into helpless giggles. Erik hadn’t smiled, but he had almost wanted to. “Yes, well, let’s hope it does a better job of striking fear into the hearts of our enemies,” he had murmured drily, after a quick check to make sure none of the others were near.

            “But,” she had gasped out, “but it’s purple.”

            Erik shrugged. He liked purple.

            There had been Mystique and Azazel, in the early days, when she had looked at him with the dizzy bliss of a new love and he had watched her as if she was a revelation, infinitely precious and beautiful because she was so strange. Around the same time that Azazel had started questioning Magneto’s orders, Mystique’s feelings had soured, and Erik rather wondered if part of Azazel’s disobedience after that was simply resentment that Erik held such sway over the woman they both cared for, but only Azazel loved.

            There had been Emma’s dry wit, sharp, mean little quips that could almost make Erik smile on a good day. She hadn’t made many of those recently, and Erik wondered sometimes if she had realized he wasn’t Shaw, and that he had none of Shaw’s levity in the face of death and destruction no matter how necessary it was, or if she had realized that he knew she wasn’t Charles, and that no one else would ever compare. That was his fault, Erik supposed; he couldn’t help but measure one telepath against the other and find Emma wanting in ways that had nothing to do with her skill.

            There had been Angel, so painfully relieved to have him in charge instead of Shaw. There had been Janos and Azazeal, who didn’t like him but who would follow him, and Erik had never asked to be liked.

            He hadn’t – actually – noticed when things had started to go wrong. Or he had, but the problems had seemed to be such little problems: Janos and Azazel disobeying him, Emma turning cold, Mystique turning hard. None of that meant that Erik was failing; all it meant was that he had to be a better, stronger leader, and rule with a firmer hand. He couldn’t be Charles. He couldn’t gently manipulate them into following him, and he couldn’t carefully cajole them into being the best versions of themselves. But he could be strong, and they would learn to respect and fear his strength. It would be enough.

            It wasn’t.

            He probably should have realized that sooner. Before Emma hurt Charles, and before it became clear that she must have that same intangible ability Charles did for not only making people bend to her will, but making them do so willingly and with pleasure: when the lines were drawn, the others went with her. All except Mystique.

            Mystique left him soon enough, off to make sure that Charles wasn’t too badly hurt. Or dead. The thought curdled in Erik’s stomach, and he tried to ignore it as just another one of the several regrets he had when it came to Charles Xavier. He returned to the converted warehouse the currently served as base of operations to the Brotherhood.

            He closed himself off in his study, with strict orders that he not be disturbed, and spent the next few hours pretending not to wait for Mystique to return and wondering where, how he had gotten it all so very wrong. He removed his helmet because his neck ached, reckless of the possibility that Emma would use this opportunity to go rifling through his thoughts. It didn’t really matter; she was already an enemy – probably had been one for quite some time – and she wouldn’t become more of one by hearing the distinctly uncharitable thoughts he was having about her.

            He found the note by his chessboard, weighted down by the black king. The king tilted and fell over as he tugged the scrap of paper free, and Erik didn’t bother to right it.

            We’ve gone through two Black Kings, reads Emma’s lazily elegant scrawl. Perhaps it’s time to give a White Queen the chance to rule the board?

            Erik waited to feel angry, and was startled by a rush of something that felt very much like relief. It would be so – easy. Running the Brotherhood wasn’t like running down Shaw; there was someone else willing and able to take the reins if he let them go, assuming she hadn’t already. The mission wouldn’t suffer for having Emma in charge. He didn’t much like her, but she was ruthless and dedicated enough to make the Brotherhood work, something Erik could almost admit to himself that he hadn’t been, not with Charles as his opponent. He could leave, and find another direction to run in.

            Find Charles.

            It all came back to that, didn’t it?

            He had given himself almost three years: three years to stop sitting by his ugly, cheap chess set and waiting for an opponent who was never there; three years to stop clinging to Mystique as a surrogate for a bond that no longer existed; three years to stop spending his nights thinking and wanting. Because he had wanted, almost from the first. He had long since lost count of the ways he wanted. Before Cuba, he had spent hours thinking about the red curve of Charles’ mouth, and imagining the way he would moan if Erik sank his teeth into that tempting lower lip. He had imagined the way Charles’ breath would hitch and stutter as Erik bit stinging kisses into the skin of his neck and shoulders, marking and claiming, and how the scrape of Charles’ stubble would leave his own mouth feeling sore and swollen. He had been able to picture, vividly, how moving the right way, touching the right way, sucking the right way would leave that speaking red mouth unable to do anything but whimper and groan, needy noises that had nothing to do with politics or the shape of the future.

            Erik had very few new fantasies after Cuba. He didn’t know what would please Charles now, and it felt wrong to imagine touching a body that he had broken. He wanted to, but – it was easier, somehow, to dwell on the past instead of picturing a future that would never come. Either way, he was conjuring up the image of something he wouldn’t ever have, and it was simpler to dwell on the things that were entirely outside of the realm of possibility than it was to long for the things that might’ve been possible had he not walked away on that beach.

            It would be easy to leave, but leaving wouldn’t get him what he wanted, and without that there was no point in giving up the only thing that losing Charles had gained him: a mission, a purpose, the Brotherhood.

            Mystique found him, still sitting in his makeshift study, hours later “Charles is okay,” she said, and: “We need to talk.”

            He considered her closely, tried to read the look on her face. Tired, he thought, but she had often looked tired lately. Determined. Content. Strange. “Talk, then,” he said, and motioned to the chair across from him. She took it, and the chess set sat in isolated glory between them.

            “You’re not – happy,” she said, which seemed like an odd move for her to open with. Erik’s earlier thoughts were still weighing heavy, and he knew there could be only one response to that statement.

            “Happiness was never an option.”

            She stared at him for a long moment, and the snort she offered in response was both unappealing and mildly insulting. “Oh my God,” she said, and for the briefest of instants he was reminded of the silly teenage girl she had been, not so very long ago. “Shut up.”

            Erik stared at her in stunned silence. The look she gave him in return was stern and a little amused, at his expense he had no doubt. “I’m sorry, but you’re so... dramatic, sometimes. You never do anything by halves, do you?”

            “Why should I?”

            If Mystique had an answer (and she probably did), she didn’t offer it. Instead, she cut right to the chase. He had always appreciated direct speech from her in the past, and he couldn’t quite pinpoint why he dreaded it now.

            “I’m leaving,” Mystique said, each word as carefully distinct and painful as a thrown stone. “I’m going back to the mansion. I want you to come with me.”

            “No,” Erik said, and it was difficult to get out even that much. Anger and longing conspired to choke him, and he honestly couldn’t say which emotion was more unwelcome right then. He rather wished that both would go away, because if he could have stopped feeling, or if feeling was less complicated, perhaps he could have found some of that elusive peace Charles had once spoken of.

            “Yes,” Mystique said firmly, like that would settle the question. “I’ve spoken to Charles. He’ll take us, and we don’t have many other options right now.”

            He couldn’t pretend to not know what she was talking about. He let the silence stretch between them, and she let him have his time to think, for which he might have been ridiculously grateful had there been room left within him for gratitude.

            He studied the chess board.

            “I can’t,” he said finally, quietly. “I’ve been playing the king these past three years. I don’t think I can step back from that.”

            “Erik,” Mystique said, and for once she made no move to correct herself. There was anger in the twist of her lips, or maybe it was simply frustration and Erik could no longer tell the difference. She reached out a hand and carefully, deliberately, shoved his chess board onto the floor. “Your pawns are in rebellion.”

            He watched as the pieces scattered across the floor, plastic bouncing and rolling across polished wood. A black rook came to rest against the tip of his boot. “I can see that.”

            The maybe-anger drained from her face abruptly, and she reached out to touch his arm. When he made no move to shake her hand off, she spoke. “No. Not me. Never me. The others, though – I’m sorry, but you saw what happened today. You can’t keep denying it, Erik. I don’t know what we could have done differently, but they’re not going to keep following you for long. You’re strong, but can you fight them all?”

            He didn’t even have to consider his response. “Yes.” They were good. He was better.

            No one could match his strength. Charles had taught him that.

            “Do you want to?”

            Yes. No. He had spilled a lot of blood, but very little of it had been mutant blood. If what Mystique was saying was true, he’d have to kill them to keep them; fighting to maintain his place in the Brotherhood might very well mean destroying the Brotherhood. “Fine. We’ll leave. That doesn’t mean we have to go back to Charles.”

            “What if Emma comes after us? Do you think she’ll be content to see you gone? She – I don’t think she likes you very much.”

            Erik shrugged, and didn’t mention the note he had found. “I don’t want to kill her, but I will if I must. Don’t think me such a weakling that I won’t defend myself.” He looked at her, and tried on a smile. He didn’t think it worked very well, and Mystique didn’t smile back. “I’ll have you. We’ll be able to handle anything that Emma Frost is capable of.”

            Mystique was silent. He wondered if she was reconsidering her decision to stay with him. The thought made him uneasy. When Charles had told him that he needed friends, he hadn’t put much stock in it, but he had come to see the value of having an ally to watch his back.

            And—.

            He struggled to articulate his thoughts, even to himself.

            And he had already lost Charles. He didn’t think he could let Raven go too.

            “I’m pregnant.”

            The room tilted alarmingly. “Mazel tov,” he said irrelevantly, before his brain caught up with his tongue. Raven’s mouth had thinned with disapproval. Erik cleared his throat. “Does Azazel know?”

            “No,” Raven said, her voice strange and flat. “I don’t intend to tell him.” She turned to contemplate the mess of chess pieces of the floor, and for a split second Erik thought he detected something very like regret on her face. “He’s not a kind man, Erik. I... I think I loved him, a little bit, but I don’t want my child to grow up to be him.”

            Erik’s eyes narrowed. His mood sharpened and became dangerous, and he felt the helmet and every other piece of metal in the room tremble. “Has he hurt you?”

            He couldn’t quite name the look on her face. Irritation or affection or something in between, somehow hard and tender in the same instant. “No. God no, nothing like that. Doesn’t mean I want him around my kid.”

            Erik relaxed.

            A lot of things made sense now: how quiet she had been the last few weeks, the gray tinge to her blue skin some mornings, the way she hung back during fights, the way that even now one of her hands was curved protectively over her belly. He was an idiot. He hadn’t seen it, just as he hadn’t really seen the trouble amongst the Brotherhood until it had snuck up behind him. He was supposed to be better at anticipating danger than this.

            “How far along are you?” he asked, with as much calm as he could muster.

            “I don’t know.” She laughed, soft and harsh. “I can’t exactly go into a doctor’s office and have them check, can I? Even if I went in looking normal, who knows if the baby does? Some hospitals have those new – what do you call them? – sono-somethings that show a picture of the baby. Whatever. The point is, it isn’t safe. I don’t even know how I’m going to pop this kid out without a doctor. I guess that’s another reason to go back to the mansion. Hank knows how to deliver a baby, I bet. Probably.”

            Imagining the teenage melodrama that would undoubtedly unfold when Hank McCoy was asked to deliver the baby Mystique had conceived with another man was actually too horrifying for Erik to want to contemplate it for long. 

            “It’ll be safe there,” Mystique said, hushed and painfully earnest. “We can always leave if it’s too awful, once the baby is born. Please, Erik. I don’t want anything to happen to mess up the pregnancy. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

            She was scared, he realized suddenly. Not just scared, but terrified, enough so that she was thinking about running back to Charles in the first place. “You could go on your own.”

            It was the wrong thing to suggest; he knew that as soon as he said it. Hadn’t he just been reflecting on the importance of having someone to cover his back? It wasn’t fair that he should consider leaving her when she had been so adamant about remaining beside him. Still, something very like panic had seized him at the thought returning to the mansion, of having no choice but to return.  He didn’t take the words back.

            Mystique looked surprised. More than that, she looked hurt.

            “Please. Please don’t make me do this alone.”

            He hadn’t wanted her to beg. Listening to it made him feel obscurely ashamed of himself, like he had failed in some way that was much more significant than losing the loyalty of the Brotherhood or losing sight of his mission. “Don’t.”

            She stopped, and he sighed. “What if I agree to this? It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t fix anything. Charles will still never understand you, or the necessity of what we’re doing. He’ll still blame us.”

            Mystique studied him for a long moment. “Maybe we deserve to be blamed,” she said, and he was reminded viscerally of finding her, eyes red and breath sour-sweet with vomit, after her first kill. He wondered if she had ever stopped getting sick after bloodying her hands, or if he had just stopped noticing. “Does it matter?”

            Of course it mattered. It just didn’t matter to her.

            Erik’s mouth tasted of ashes and defeat. He knew where that particular sensory memory came from, and he couldn’t help but fight against it, even knowing that he had lost. “This doesn’t fix anything," he repeated, but even he only had so much fight in him. "All right. Fine. You win. We’ll go.”

            He could tell from her face that she hadn’t expected this easy of a concession. He wondered briefly if he could have fought harder to convince her, and then he wondered if he wanted to. He also wondered if she knew how much a part of him had desired this, and how very long he had spent trying not to give in to that desire.

            The truth was, the king might be able to last once the rest of the pieces had been toppled, but he never won.

            “Go pack a bag,” he said. “Pack light. We leave in at hour.” Without another word, he went to follow his own command. His final command.

            Azazel found him as he was throwing the last pair of slacks into a bag.

            “I could kill you,” the Russian said in a conversational sort of tone, “for taking her from me.”

            Erik’s smile had too many teeth and not enough humor. “You could try.” He didn’t bother to say that Mystique was the one taking him, not the other way around, and waited for an attack that never came.

            When he turned, he found the expression on Azazel’s face thoughtful and quiet, and little else.

            “But then,” Azazel said, “she was never mine. Was she?”

            Erik said nothing.

            “Come and get me when you are ready,” he said, and Erik worked hard to conceal his surprise. “I will take you as far as I am able. I would suggest you leave soon. Frost wants your heart in her hand, and I am unsure of how long she will be willing to wait for it.”

            Nothing was said, but the arch of Erik’s eyebrow must have been speaking. Azazel almost smiled, but the expression froze into a grimace at the last moment. “Tell Mystique,” he said, “that I would like to meet my child, one day. Tell her that I loved her, and that I will never hurt her, even if it ties my hands the way yours have been tied, these last several years.”

            There really ought to have been a limit on the number of shocks one man was forced to deal with in a single day. “You know?”

            “I am not a fool, comrade.”

            Erik considered a moment, then offered his hand. Azazel looked at it with a lip curled in disgust.

            “I will not hurt her, I said. You, I will hurt, should you ever give me the chance.”

            “I know,” Erik said. “But we’ve just made a bargain, haven’t we? Tonight you’ll help me one more time, and someday,  maybe, I’ll tell her that you did it for her. Perhaps I’ll even ask her to think about your request.”

            The look on Azazel’s face was almost hatred and almost gratitude. He shook Erik’s hand anyway. Azazel and Mystique did not speak as he teleported them away from the Brotherhood’s base, and she did not ask for his reasons. Erik remained silent, and Azazel left as soon as his role in their getaway was done.

            They were miles away from anything, and it would take them hours to reach the mansion. He still hadn’t trusted Azazel far enough to have him deliver them to Charles’ front door. Erik's bag felt heavy against his shoulder, even though had taken very little with him: some clothing, and a few books that he didn’t want to part with. He had left behind Shaw's helmet, tossed carelessly across his bed with the cloak he had worn for the last few years spread out beside it. A coin and the squashed remains of a bullet had been retrieved at the last moment, with very little thought as to why he didn’t want to leave them behind other than that they were, in their own way, the mementos of the two biggest regrets in Erik’s life.

            “Come on,” he said to Mystique. She was shivering a bit, and briefly he considered putting an arm around her. He discarded the idea almost immediately, but reached out and took her suitcase from her hands. “We have a long way to go before sunrise.”