It was with great care that Charles carefully disconnected one tube from Cerebro and inserted a second, white tube in its place, while balancing three more tubes, a headpiece, and a few screws in his lap. He was still unused to being in a wheelchair, and if he dropped any of the pieces on the floor he was afraid he wouldn't be able to pick them up again. He had already had enough trouble opening some of the higher cupboards in Hank's lab, and yanking out what he needed with a high-reaching cane. Along with whatever else fell out. The young scientist would not be happy when he woke up and discovered what had happened to his organized system.
Not that Hank would let himself get angry, the Professor knew. Everyone had been disturbingly solicitous ever since the diagnosis had come back that he could never walk again. Are you alright, Professor? If you can't reach that, I can. Can I get you anything? Even Alex had been unusually…quiet. (And come to think of it, he hadn't seen OR heard Alex recently. Maybe he should be worried about that.)
The truth was, being treated like solicitously felt like being treated like a cripple. Charles resolved that his next order of business would be handicap-proofing the house until he didn't need to ask anyone for anything. Next, after he found Erik.
It was for that purpose that he had slipped into Hank's lab late at night to "borrow" the latest upgrade for Cerebro they had been working on during the day. The upgrade was designed to increase his telepathic range and strength even further, allow him to slip between gaps in telepathic blocks, and perhaps even allow him to penetrate Erik's exceptionally ugly new headgear. It was worth a try.
He would have tried earlier that day, if he hadn't been stopped by his overprotective student. (He couldn't shake the feeling that Hank had never had any problems with him trying new versions of Cerebro before he'd been injured. Although perhaps he was being unfair, this was pretty damn risky.)
Hank had protested, "Professor, this is too great of a risk! When we first started analyzing my failed 'cure,' I thought we might be able to isolate the physical changes and create something that would temporarily strengthen your mental powers. But we still only have theories about where my first attempt went wrong, and I can't let you try inserting the chemicals directly into Cerebro! We still don't fully understand the possible side-effects." Almost involuntarily, he raised a clawed finger to touch his newly blue hair. "Maybe we can find a way to make this safer, and then try again."
But Charles knew better. They had run every test possible in the lab, but there was no way to be absolutely certain of its effects until someone put the new and improved Cerebro over their head. It was a risk he was willing to take. He'd left too many regrets behind, back on that beach one month ago where he'd lost his best friend, his sister, and his legs. He'd never be able to forgive himself if he didn't give one last try to getting two of the three back.
Contrary to what the children thought, he was not clinging to a dead dream. He understood the inside of Erik's head better than anyone, perhaps including Erik himself, and he knew how fixed the other man was on his path of destruction. He had never been completely blind to it; part of what he could not forgive himself for was that he had known Erik was teetering close to the edge, and had denied it because he didn't want it to be true.
Ever since that day, a million things that he should have said or done had been racing through his mind. He'd been flogging himself for letting Erik go after Shaw alone, and then for mentioning the "just following orders" defense.
Perhaps there really had been no way to persuade Erik. But he couldn't let it go because quite frankly, he didn't feel that he'd given it his best shot. Lying on the beach with blood dripping from his neck and a nagging voice in the back of his head going "ohmygodIcan'tfeelmylegs" he hadn't exactly been at his most persuasive. He'd been trying so hard just to stay conscious that he'd given up too soon. Lying in his hospital bed, he'd had a lot of time to think, and he'd realized that he wasn't ready to give up on Erik yet.
However, what had really been the final straw had been Raven. Hank had kept in touch with a few of his former government friends, and two nights ago he had reported a disturbing piece of information: several of the men who had ordered the attack on the beach had been found dead. Someone had witnessed one of them being shot in the head by his wife, but this report had been deemed to be a mistake because the wife in question had an airtight alibi, having been teaching in front of a full class of students at the time. The conclusion had been obvious. Hank had tiptoed around it with obvious discomfort.
Charles could understand, because he felt the same way—unable to say it out loud. His beautiful little sister, an assassin. To his secret shame, he'd been more upset about Raven becoming a killer than the fact that the man in question was dead. He couldn't help fearing for her. Images of his sister dying in a secret government cell after being subjected to "questionable" interrogation techniques haunted him at night. In retrospect, he could barely believe that he'd told his sister to follow her heart into a violent terrorist organization. He'd wanted to make her happy, not get her arrested or killed. In truth, he'd only told her to go because in spite of everything, he had still trusted Erik. He'd had a vague notion that Raven would just tag along as Erik's student or secretary or something similar. (Maybe he could blame that one on the blood loss.)
If he'd known how it would turn out, he would have told Raven he was dying if that was what it took to keep her by his side and off the FBI's most wanted list. And if it would save his sister now, he would even play the "cripple" card and ruthlessly pump her for every scrap of pity. And that, frankly, was not something he would do for anyone who wasn't family.
Did Erik feel guilty about his injury? Charles hoped that he did. He could use that. He'd already tried reasoning with Erik and Raven using the truth, but this time he was willing to say whatever it took to make them give peace—and him—a second chance.
Unfortunately, thanks to Erik's paranoia he couldn't even talk to them (and it hurt that Erik had shut him out, he understood why especially given that they were likely to end up fighting each other in the near future, but it still hurt). He couldn't even reach Raven, because Emma was apparently doing something to mentally block the rest of the group too. Erik's merry band was hiding from the police, so tracking them down through amateur detective work was unlikely. The only option left was Cerebro, pumped up with Hank's experimental concoction.
Carefully, Charles fitted the last piece into the new model of Cerebro. He was willing to risk it. He'd even gone through with Hank's suggestion and shaved his head to make maximize his use of Cerebro. Somehow, hair had seemed less important after all that had happened. He wondered vaguely if he could make Erik feel guilty over that, too.
There was no sense putting it off. He took a deep breath, and plunged Cerebro over his head.
The landscape in front of him was one he was familiar with, now. People everywhere, humans in black and white and mutants in color. He drifted through this world, pausing to touch on the minds he was familiar with. He saw Hank sleeping soundly in his bed, Sean sprawled half-falling out of his, Alex curled up on the sofa in front of a TV screen,
Erik, he called. Erik, can you hear me?
At first, there was nothing, and he felt a stab of bitter disappointment. Then he noticed a peculiar blank spot in his vision, one which suddenly smelled of metal.
Found you! he cried, and dove forward.
Only to rebound, sharply. It felt like he'd slammed his head into a wall. He'd accomplished as little as he ever had when Erik was wearing the helmet, and suddenly he realized that he didn't even know where Erik (he was sure it was Erik) was—he couldn't see anything about his surroundings.
As he tried to look around, he felt the dark ripple start to fade away entirely. Fiercely, he reached out and latched on. It was like trying to grab a handful of smoke.
A dull throbbing had started to appear in the back of his head. He ignored it. Summoning every scrap of will, he pressed harder, trying to latch onto the elusive patch of where he was sure Erik's mind was. You are not getting away! I shaved my head for this, dammit!
And suddenly, he was inside the smoke, and everything was very very dark, and he was spinning dizzily, dark in all directions.
Someone said, Charles?
And then his mind went blank.
Charles Xavier woke to the faint sound of birds chirping and the rasp of metal bending. He opened his eyes to see a massive twisted heap of metal—pens, jar rims, cord plugs, computer parts, copper wiring, all mingled together and distorted out of shape—placed in front of his wheelchair like an offering before a god.
It was not the noise that struck him, but the silence. There were no voices in his head.
Erik Lehnsherr, recently renamed Magneto, woke up with a faint pain behind his temples and the sense that he'd had a bad dream. Wearing a metal helmet to bed might have explained the headache (he still didn't trust Emma enough to let her protect his mind) and the nightmares were normal except for the fact that he didn't remember this one.
No sooner had he sat up and tried to pat down some hair sticking out of his helmet than Raven bounded into his room, with an alacrity that suggested she'd been waiting outside for the first sign of movement.
"So, have you thought about what you're going to wear today?" she demanded. "I keep telling you that red cape is no good. Remember that FBI agent who tried to get an autograph from 'Superman'? Black, black is the way to go. Though I have a sneaking fondness for blue."
As she spoke, she shifted through a variety of costumes, all while wearing his face. It was like a very creepy mirror. He was struck by how silly the red looked—Raven might have a point there.
The mutant shape-shifter returned to her regular blue self in order to shift through his closet, humming as she tossed rejected items on the floor. Raven—no, he should think of her as Mystique—had matured considerably since she had left with him, into a competent and dangerous young woman…but there were still times when she acted as if she was a small child and expected him to indulge her. He blamed Charles' influence. (He swiftly killed that thought before he started thinking of other things he blamed Charles for.)
He ought to give Mystique a harsh boot out of his room, but his head still hurt too much to shout. He staggered out of bed (dressed in full, because his days as a hunter had taught him to never let himself be caught vulnerable). "Mystique, this is quite ridiculous. Leave at once-"
"Found it!" she squealed. She held up a sleek black cloak, made of silk so fine it looked like a storm cloud."
"That's-" Erik did a double-take. "-not bad, actually."
"It's very light, too. Would go perfectly with your new silver armor." This is so much fun! Charles never let me play dress-up with him.
"Well, I'm glad to know that you joined the mutant cause for such a noble reason," Erik snapped. Raven gave him a look of deep hurt, and then shriveled up under his answering glare, like a puppy who had been kicked. But how had she expected him to respond to a comment like that?
Irritated, he called his silver armor to him. Nothing happened.
"Mystique, did you move my armor?" He couldn't sense it in the room at all. Or the entire hotel.
"No sir, it's right here," she said meekly, holding up the armor.
It was there, and yet it…wasn't. It felt as dead to him as the wooden floor under his feet, which meant it couldn't be made of metal. "Mystique, is this some kind of joke?"
"It's not! What are you talking about?" Calm down, girl, he's just tired.
"I am not tired!"
"I didn't say you were," Raven said, wide-eyed.
Before he could beg to differ, there was a loud pounding on the door. "FBI! Open up!"
Mystique rolled her eyes. "Not again. Ever think maybe we should stop having me impersonate the President of the United States and charge our bill to the White House?"
"But it's so much fun!" Erik grinned as the door fell in.
Five FBI agents in full jackets thrust their guns into the room. "Nobody move! FBI! Hands behind your head and drop to the ground now!" Oh my god blue freak prank call drugs want coffee…
Humans and their toys. Erik casually raised a hand and called their guns to him.
Except, the weapons didn't move.
The agent continued, "You have five seconds to comply!"
Mystique was still regarding him with fearless amusement, unaware that anything had gone wrong. Plastic guns? Did the FBI know who he was? There was no time for speculation now. He summoned every scrap of metal in the room and aimed for their heads.
He was still wondering what had happened when the bullet hit him in the arm.
Mystique screamed, "Azazel, get over here!" and threw herself in front of him.
Commendable instincts, but she was only in his way. He reached out with his good arm and yanked her to the floor, using the armor still in her hands as a shield as he took cover behind the bed.
Guns were firing again and he flexed his right arm. The bullet had only grazed him just below the shoulder—odds were the morons of the FBI had been trying to fire a warning shot. Their incompetence was obvious in the way every one of them was babbling nonsensically, everything from Never shot a gun before, should have spent more time at the practicing range; The freak is naked; What will I tell Molly if I kill someone; Who are these clowns and Mystique herself seemed to be talking nonstop, What's wrong why didn't he deflect them where's Azazel—And each sentence was like a stab of pain in his head, he had to act but he couldn't THINK.
"Stop that!" he screamed in frustration.
There was one more gunshot, then deathly silence. He risked a brief peak over the bed. All five FBI agents were frozen in place, guns extended before them, and in one case mouth still hanging open. He glanced to the side, and saw that Mystique was frozen as well, eyes glassy.
A telepath. Emma? But why would she have frozen Mystique too?
The pain in his head kept increasing—it was now a steady burning through his forehead. There was a nagging chattering he could almost make out, like having ants crawling in his ears. When he tried to stand up, he had to stop and clutch his head, suddenly feeling as if it might topple off his shoulders. An overwhelming compulsion to tear off his helmet went through him, but he resisted—what if this was some new mental attack?
Emma, Azazel, Angel, and Riptide appeared outside the door—about time. With a blast of air, Riptide shoved a few motionless FBI agents aside and the four stepped into the room.
Emma had an uncharacteristic crease in her brow. "Another telepath is here. It's odd—feels like your old friend Xavier. But not quite. Strong, but there's no control. I can't tell where-" her eyes latched on to him.
Erik snapped, "Whoever it is took out Mystique too. Can you fix her?"
Emma frowned. "Maybe." Then: "That was too easy. There was no resistance from another mind at all."
Mystique came awake. "Erik, I mean Magneto's been shot! We have to get out of here!"
"It's just a scratch," he tried to say, but the words came out slurred. He tried to stand up, but the ground rolled around him. His brain was going up in flames, and the world went red then black.
He barely managed to roll so he didn't hit the ground with his face.
Most people would consider it normal not to hear voices in their heads. For Charles, it was horrifying. For a brief moment, he'd believed everyone in the house was dead, as that was the only explanation for why he could no longer feel their presences. He tried to reach his mind further, in a panic, hoping that all three of his young students had decided to take an early morning stroll. But still nothing, no matter how hard he tried. Nothing except an irritating scrapping sound coming from the hinges on the door.
Then it occurred to him that he couldn't hear anyone at all, not the people from the neighboring town, nor even the tiny voices of animals. Despite the deathly silence in his head, it was highly improbably that every living thing within range was dead. Actually, he could hear birds outside, even if he could no longer feel them in his mind. Yes, it wasn't that he had lost his students, it was merely that he had lost the ability to hear their thoughts.
His first feeling was relief, but fear was fast on its heels. What had he done to himself?
The room was a mess. The mess seemed to have been caused by every bit of metal in the area being stripped from its place and laid at the heap by his feet. Did this mean Erik was here?
He heard a long painful creak of metal against wood, that abruptly cut off. He looked up.
The door in front of him fell inward, and a collection of doorknobs, door hinges, metal picture frames, and other miscellaneous items fell tumbling into the room. Make that every bit of metal on the fourth floor. Oh, and the laboratory floor was bulging a little from the chandelier poking through, so he had to consider the possibility that there was metal sticking to the ceiling across the entire third floor too.
He was glad that Hank had, over his hesitant protest, built his wheelchair only out of plastic. If not then this metal storm might have led to some serious injuries. As it was, he was trapped in here until someone found him—which surely couldn't be too long, because it was morning now and because he'd made a mess of the house. If no one else, Hank would notice once he tried to visit his lab.
Shouting seemed pointless because if clanging metal hadn't woken everyone, then the bedrooms on the second floor must be too far away. The boys could be very sound sleepers.
Knowing full well it was hopeless on his own, but frustrated by his own weakness, he wheeled a little closer, and tried to pick up some of the metal and move it out of his path.
His fingers slipped on a long metal table leg. Convinced with a little more effort he could move it, he almost threw out what remained of his spinal cord, and only got a small wobble in return.
The wobble was followed by an ominous rumble. He looked up to see the entire five-foot tall pile start to shake.
Cursing his own foolishness, he tried to spin his wheels backward, but they locked. A tin plate spilled off the top of the pile, and the whole thing tipped over-
-only for the pile to scatter across the room in all directions, whirling around him but never touching him. In a matter of seconds, the room was even more of a mess but there was a clear path to the door in front of him.
Charles considered this for a moment. Then he turned his head to a bent spoon lying on the ground and thought, Move.
The spoon rose a foot above the ground, floating for a few seconds, then fell down again.
A favorite detective of his once said, if you eliminated the impossible then whatever remained must be true. He had tugged and had felt the response. The one who had moved the metal was him.
He had Erik's powers.
The first thing Erik was aware of was that he was no longer wearing his helmet. Thinking he might have been captured, he feigned sleep.
But his notions of capture were unlikely to involve unbound hands and soft mattress, so after assessing the situation he opened his eyes. Mystique was sitting in a chair by his bed, which considerably calmed his paranoia.
"Where are we?" he asked curtly, sitting up a little. His right arm throbbed, and he noted a clean bandage wrapped around his upper forearm.
Raven regarded him with concern, but got straight to the facts. "Emma has a house in California. Azazel brought us here so you could recover." He's certainly quite dashing, and what a tail!
What was with Mystique these days? "Where's my helmet?"
She hesitated. "We took it off. Emma said she'll make sure no one finds us." I had to let her you wouldn't wake up.
"Why would taking off my helmet help me regain consciousness?"
Once again, an inexplicable surprised look. "Emma said-" this is crazy can't trust her "-that you've acquired telepathy."
All he could say was, "That would explain a lot."
It figured that Charles could easily clear a path through a ton of metal, but trying to make an elevator door open a little faster caused a few thousand dollars of property damage. Erik had always made the fine-tune metal adjustments look easy. But if traveling in an elevator with only half a door might not be strictly safe, Charles was too fed up to care. He hated not being mobile and he needed to find his students and make sure he hadn't accidentally bashed them with bits of stray metal.
Hank found him first; he was waiting for the elevator on the second floor. "Professor X! There you are!" he cried. "I was worried when you weren't in your room. Alex and Sean are out looking for Magneto. I was just heading upstairs to check if you were in the lab."
Charles winced to think of how Hank would react when he found what was left of his research room. Perhaps it would be best to break it to him gently. He eased out of the elevator. "Is there reason to think Erik is in the vicinity?"
"You mean besides every piece of metal in the house moved out of place? Well, I admit it seems too pointless to be him. Can you sense if any intruders are here?"
Once again, a chill passed through Charles. "I can't," he admitted. "I can't sense anything. You see…last night…"
There was a load creak behind him. Charles unhappily turned his head to see what was left of the elevator door had twisted into an unpleasant knot. The box shook like a washing machine.
Hank's face paled. "Alex! Sean! Get over here!"
Rapid footsteps pounded up the stairs. Charles attempted to explain, "There's no reason to be concerned, this is my fault."
Panting at the top of the stairs, Alex exclaimed, "What's going on? I heard a real racket coming from here! Wait, who trashed the elevator?"
"We think it might be Magneto," Hank said, at the same time Charles said, "That would be me."
Alex, who had been starting to smolder slightly, relaxed out of sheer surprise. Hank demanded, "You think this is a secondary mutation?"
"It would be more accurate to say this is my new mutation. I seem to have replaced my powers with Erik's."
Hank was always quick on the uptake. "Professor, you didn't…we agreed that technology wasn't ready for experimentation!"
"In retrospect, it clearly wasn't," Charles admitted.
Alex looked around the hallway. Charles followed his gaze and winced—his damage had spread beyond the elevator.
Picture frames had fallen to the floor, the metal ones twisted into pretzels, the wooden ones wrenched in two by their metal wall hangers. Copper wiring poked out of the walls. The ceiling lamp had crawled to the far corner of the room, leaving a huge gash in the ceiling. A loud thumping sound announced that the elevator door was attempting a slow and painful suicide by bashing itself to death against the far wall.
Alex said, "This completely tops the time I set the couch on fire, right?"
Thirty minutes later, they had found Sean and gathered in the second-floor parlor to discuss. Hank brought along some medical equipment that had been out of the range of the most distorting metal chaos, and pronounced that at least the Professor didn't seem to have any physical injuries.
"If I still had Cerebro, I might be able to diagnose what happened, maybe even try to fix it."
Charles felt a wave of guilt. "I promise I'll have someone here to rebuild the lab and deliver new parts by tomorrow. Even if another version of Cerebro might do me little good right now, since I wouldn't be able to use it."
Wide-eyed, Sean said, "Maybe you'll wake up tomorrow and be back to normal."
"That sounds medically unlikely," Hank said.
Alex demanded, "Then can't you do something, science-boy?"
The seven-foot tall blue beast hunched his shoulders over. "I'll try. Maybe at least I can jury-rig something that will monitor your brain waves, see if I can find any clues."
"Sounds like a great idea!" Sean said.
Charles was frankly less enthusiastic, but felt he was in no position to complain. He'd set enough of a bad example today.
An hour later, hooked up to Hank's spare computer with electrodes attached to his head, he wondered if it was too late to back out.
Staring at the screen, Hank suggested, "Concentrate as hard as you can. Do what you usually do when you try to read someone's mind."
Alex and Sean crowded irritatingly close. "Try reading my mind," Sean suggested. "I'm thinking of a number…"
"Lame," Alex protested.
"What are you thinking of then?" Sean snapped.
"Something that would blow your teenage boy's mind," Alex smirked.
Charles ignored them both, and tried to focus on reading Hank instead. Useless gesture though it was, he raised a hand to his temples, the familiarity helping him concentrate.
The room exploded into motion. Pens from the top of Hank's desk sprung into the air, quickly followed by a stapler and a pencil sharpener. Hank's one remaining computer pirouetted around the room like a ballerina, while metal wires, screws, and other components flew out of the monitor and spread in all directions. The brass door handle ripped free of the wood, and the metal legs of Hank's swivel chair bent upwards, toppling the young doctor over. Sean howled in pain as his wristwatch dragged his arm forwards. And in a rough whirlwind, every piece of metal in the room settled itself on Charles' body.
Wires, pens, chunks of furniture, all twisted themselves fluidly around his arms and legs and torso. He jolted at the impact, but they didn't strike hard enough to hurt. Sean, on the other hand, might have wrenched his wrist when his watch glued itself to the back of Charles' head, and his zipper tried to latch on to an arm.
"Magneto?" Sean gasped, trying to break free. His attempts to pull his watch away ripped at what little stub had grown back on Charles' head. At this rate he was doomed to remain bald for life.
"Still me," Charles admitted sheepishly. He tried to force himself to relax. Zen, meditation, inner peace…
"Maybe telling you to use your powers was a bad idea. Fascinating that two different abilities would seem to have the same 'mental trigger'—unless we assume that it was the different nature of the triggers which caused an adverse reaction." Hank looked happy at this scientific revelation until he went to record his discovery and remembered what had happened to his computer.
Charles' mental relaxation tricks were finally starting to work, and metal began to flake off his body. Sean shook his arm (which fortunately didn't appear to be injured) and quickly took off his watch. Then for good measure he began trying to rip his metal zipper off his pants.
Alex said, "Serves you right. I wear nothing but plastic now."
Sean said, "Oh, please, it's not even as if this was an actual attack. Even if that was my first thought—it's tough to get used to the idea of a metal-user who's not the scary guy."
Alex muttered, "I gotta say that 'attack' wasn't quite what came to mind when I first saw every piece of metal in the room trying to hump the Professor."
Then, "What? You were all thinking it. You were totally thinking it!"
Abandoning his helmet was not a choice for Erik, it was a matter of necessity, due to the throbbing headache that threatened as soon as it even lightly touched his forehead. The helmet had never been worn by a telepath before so no one had known what effect it would have. Erik now knew that it was not useful enough to block the abilities of the wearer; it simply made his life miserable until his brain exploded.
Emma assured him that other telepaths would not have an easy time reading his mind now that he was one of them, even if he couldn't really use his powers. She also seemed to be waiting for him to ask her to teach him before she would help, an event that he approached with the enthusiasm he normally reserved for disguising himself as a Nazi.
His initial attempt to ask if there was a "quick way" to block telepathy had led to a smug smirk and the explanation, "Oh, I just turn into diamond. Not sure what the others do." If he didn't probably need her to hide the rest of the team (and give them a house to live in) he would have returned her to the CIA's dog pound a long time ago.
After only one day—okay, twelve hours—cooped up inside, the thoughts of his fellow homo superior were driving Erik insane. Azazel devoted a disturbing amount of time to fantasizing about what it would be like to sleep with each of his teammates—including Erik himself. This was still slightly better than Riptide and his damn stamp collection. Erik couldn't even look at a stamp without checking it for valuable characteristics now. Emma he couldn't read of course, but she managed to be obnoxious anyway. Angel worried about whether her new shoes matched her dress, whether Erik would one day turn out to be as much of a psychopath as Shaw had on closer acquaintance, what part of Europe she could be queen of one day, whether she should have ever left her nice safe job at the strip-club—but mostly about shoes. Did all women care that much about shoes or was it just the ones who frequently didn't wear much besides shoes?
The worst of all was Mystique. She constantly thought about her brother, whether he was recovering, why he hadn't been able to see that their side was correct, whether he'd ever really accepted her, whether she was a bad sister, etc. Erik thought about Charles often enough without having to listen to her think about him too.
What would Charles the scientist make of this bizarre turn of events? Would he call this a new stage of evolution? Erik knew less than his scholarly friend about types of mutations, but he still thought this was too abrupt to be natural. He'd certainly considered this might be the result of an attack, but the FBI agents who'd cornered him in the hotel hadn't known about it, and why would anyone create a weapon that only replaced one mutation with another? A misfiring weapon? The FBI had only thought he was a presidential imposter, but maybe the CIA was involved.
Thinking about this made him feel antsy. He felt vulnerable, despite Emma assuring him (with a small trace of jealousy) that he was a very powerful telepath. Power didn't do him much good if all he could do was listen to his immature teammates' think about their romantic entanglements and kindergartner concerns. He had to get away from it.
Just to clarify, he was not sneaking out of his own house. First of all, it was Emma's house. Second of all, he was tired of hearing about how injured he was and tired of Mystique bringing up the regrettable fainting incident (or as Emma liked to call it, the swoon of doom). That had only happened because of the helmet. A little blood loss didn't affect him in the slightest—he'd once hunted three Nazis through a strip club on a broken leg.
His confidence lasted up until the moment he actually stepped outside.
Emma's house was situated in a very quiet neighborhood, made up mostly of vacation homes, located next to the beach and completely isolated from the nearest town in an attempt to gain complete privacy. There were perhaps thirty homes here, eleven of which had residents at the moment. Erik knew this because he could feel every single one of them inside his head.
Emma had been shielding the house from telepathy—and he'd had no idea how lucky that was.
Scrambled eggs again He's after my promotion Why is he leaving so early My Disney t-shirt So hot Don't look keep walking These pants have gotten looser I should have gone with the red paint I hope she likes Italian What a beautiful Where are my car keys I don't want to do summer homework It's ripped My daughter says One day left I wanted chocolate ice cream letter from the IRS noisy wonder how my cat
The sheer noise almost forced Erik to his knees. It wasn't just the chatter in his head, it was everything that came with it—the feelings, the memories, the personalities of every person weighing down on him. The sensory feedback was overwhelming.
The only thing keeping him from fainting again was the knowledge that Mystique would never let him live it down. Did she have to be so immature? He blamed Charles for that, too—he'd spoiled her.
God, if Charles were here then he could be teaching him to deal with this. But the thought of crawling back to the mansion looking for help was even less appealing than Mystique finding him fainted again. (And who knew if Charles would even let him in the door, after what had happened…)
Erik bent over, but managed to remain standing, mostly due to one hand on the porch railing. Supporting himself with the banister, he edged back to the wall, then stumbled along until he reached the door. He said she lied school basketball 2:15 …
He clawed at the door handle, resisting the urge to put his hands over his ears, and managed to eventually shove it open.
Then hesitated, in the door frame. What was this? Was he just going to give up? Slink back into the house? Spend the rest of his life in isolated locations, or within a five foot range of Emma?
Obviously other telepaths, like Charles, managed to deal with this. He could only assume that they must block out most of the chatter most of the time, or they'd all be insane. Even under the nagging pain in his head, he still felt shame that he couldn't handle what other telepaths could. You didn't see Emma or Charles hiding in their house from the voices.
No, he knew full well that telepaths must be able to prevent themselves from reading minds, because Charles had promised Raven never to read her mind. He just hadn't realized that it took so much effort. He would have assumed that it took a telepath effort in order to read a mind…instead of concentrating just to not read them.
Did Charles have to constantly expend energy just to function normally? Mystique had told him that she thought her abilities had gotten stronger since she'd stopped wasting her power on pretending to be human. How strong did Charles have the potential to become?
If Charles could do it, so could Erik.
Giving up was not an option. He'd been through worse pain. He could take this.
He tried to clear his mind the way Charles had taught him to, and was rewarded with a thrum of power, that felt almost like the energy he used to move metal, but flavored differently. But he could still call it to him, and it rolled like a wave, and when the wave peaked, he summoned every scrap of will he had and focused it all into, "SHUT UP!"
For a brief moment, there was silence. Then…
Did you just tell me to shut up?
Who said that?
What did you say?
I'm hearing voices!
How dare you talk to me like that!
God? Do you have a message for me, God?
Erik Lehnsherr, nee Magneto, buried his face into his hands and slunk back into the house.
Even with a shiny new lab full of equipment (nonmetal when possible), Hank still couldn't figure out how to reverse the accident.
"The most obvious way would be to try again what you did last time. But that's not possible, because you aren't a telepath anymore," he explained, holding up the new Cerebro, which was fully functional and as useless to Charles as a pair of running shoes.
Charles had assured everyone that it was reasonably safe for him to be around Cerebro now, despite the necessary metal components. He hadn't moved a piece of metal by accident since the last incident (small nudges that no one else noticed didn't count). He hadn't really managed to control his powers to any useful purpose either, but he thought he was starting to get the hang of it. The trick was to see the metal as something that was alive, almost like a pet dog, and coax it…
Cerebro might have twitched a little in Hank's hands. Charles reminded himself about Zen and inner peace.
"So we need to find a new telepath," Sean said. "Scary ice-lady was one, so there must be others."
"Do you think Magneto has the Professor's powers now?" Alex asked.
Now there was an absolutely terrifying thought. Erik, skipping through helpless minds with the delicacy and finesse of a man who had tried to bludgeon a submarine into submission. "We could follow the trail of broken minds to him," he muttered.
Hank overheard. "That's not a completely implausible notion. Our rivals do seem to leave a distinctive trail of bodies. Err. Wait, I didn't mean dead bodies. Not…always…anyway."
Suddenly, the tension in the room could be cut by a knife. Even without telepathy Charles could tell that Sean was glum, Alex angry, and Hank ashamed. But he was no longer quite sure why each of them felt this way. It was harder to be a leader when you didn't operate under a full set of information about everyone in the room—for Charles at least, it was as crippling as being deaf and blind.
It was also very disillusioning to see how quickly he started struggling to deal with people once he lost his cheating edge. His relationship with Raven had started to go downhill as soon as he stopped reading her mind, too.
He cleared his throat. "Hank, I'd appreciate it if you could talk to your old friends at the CIA, find out what they know about Erik's location. And-" he ran through his options. "Sean, could you check local police offices? Work with Hank on what areas are the best to look. And Alex, you screen the news for anything suspicious." Charles wasn't sure how much good the last one would do with the government in full cover-up mode, but these days Alex was too angry to play good citizen for officials with information, and he already spent a lot of time watching TV.
Under other circumstances, Charles would be scanning certain minds in charge of the aforementioned cover-ups for clues, but no such luck now. And too many of the mansion's current defenses depended on him seeing things coming—he would have to talk to Hank about that.
As they filed out of the room, Alex looked like a sizzling teapot—the air around him was literally a few degrees hotter. Did he realize that his assignment had been a bit of a brush-off? Was he still angry at Hank? Or was there another reason? Yesterday Charles would have known in a heartbeat.
He wondered how many mistakes he'd make now that he was leading blind.
One failure was no reason to give up, according to Erik Lehnsherr. It might, theoretically, be reason for Erik to try sticking his head out a window instead of actually walking outside. This would insure that in the highly unlikely event that he fainted again, he would fall onto his bed and could pretend to be just sleeping. But possible injury or coma wasn't going to stop him, any more than certain death had stopped him from trying to swim after Shaw…okay, that was a depressing train of thought.
Sticking his head outside the window was…uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. He kept trying to not listen to the voices, but they were too loud. Then he tried listening to them, but there were so many at once that he couldn't even make out one person's thoughts—all he got was a jumbled racket. He tried partly sticking his head out the window, which decreased the volume of the voices—now they were like faint whispers at the edge of his hearing, going on and on and on and on and on and on…
He wasn't going to die, although at this rate he might kill someone. If this was what Charles had to put up with all the time, Erik was truly perplexed as to why he hadn't tried his hands at a little genocide of the human race just so he could get some sleep.
Now there was an idea. Charles could put lesser minds to sleep, couldn't he?
"SLEEP!" he bellowed (mentally).
It turned out that merely yelling "sleep" at someone did not make them fall to sleep. Any more than shouting 'shut up' had stopped them from thinking. However, Erik honestly wasn't sure how else to go about doing it. His new power was more complex than his old one—to give an analogy, before no matter which direction he moved the metal he always used one set of muscles. Now he seemed to have sprung arms, legs, limbs in all directions, and he just didn't know which one he had to twitch in order to walk forward. This was going to take a great deal of (painful) trial and error.
Several hours later, Erik had caused three UFO sightings, repaired a broken marriage, converted at least one person to atheism, and cured a homeless man's schizophrenia. He had also put every human in a mile's range to sleep.
If everyone around him was asleep, then they weren't talking in his head. It was obvious he was not doing this the simplest way, but it was good enough to let him function. Let the homo sapiens make what they would of mass reverse-insomnia.
Erik was ready to move. Someone had done this to him and he wanted answers, followed by payback.
"The CIA has no idea where Magneto is," Hank reported. "Or if they do, no one is telling me."
"Bzzt. Weather tomorrow should be partly sunny-"
"Also, at least one person tried to lure me into a meeting in an isolated location. I don't think I'd trust any information I got anyway."
"Bzzt. Lost five to six, with a tie-breaking-"
Hank cast a glare at Alex, who was flipping through channels on the living room TV, despite being repeatedly asked not to.
Charles didn't bother to making another request of Alex, he just raised his voice. "As a best guess, do you think they have even a rough idea of where to find Magneto and company?"
"Tough to say. On one hand, if they knew where he was I think they'd have confronted him, and I think we would have noticed that level of trouble. On the other hand, something is up—they were acting a little edgy."
"Edgy as in 'we don't want to talk to a mutant freak' or edgy as in 'we're about to launch a nuclear missile down your throat?'" Sean asked.
Alex snarled, "Feel free to open your mouth when you actually have something useful to say, Banshee. As in, never." He hurled the TV remote at Sean with a tad too much force to be playful.
Sean ducked. "Jeez, I was going to say sorry! I didn't mean anything by it—we already know that we're all freaks to them."
"Still talking, ugly" Alex growled.
Hank said, "Drop it already, Alex. I did get the feeling some of my ex-colleagues were nervous to talk to me, even the ones who seemed to still like me. One told me that the higher ups were cracking down on information. But I don't have any reason to believe they're actively trying to kill us at this time. Where do we go from here?"
Hank had defused that nicely. He'd really grown into himself in the last few weeks, Charles thought.I should have been the one to say something. But I'm still trying to figure out what Alex was angry about. It's not Sean's fault, something has been making Alex edgy. Did I really rely on telepathy this much, without even noticing?
Oh, right. "Did either of you two find anything?"
Sean shot an uneasy glance at Alex, and said, "Nothing much."
"I found a funny story about presidential imposters scamming hotels," Alex said. "See? I didn't just waste my time watching TV."
Yes, I definitely need to talk to Alex, Charles thought. Maybe his problem is that he feels useless. I could help with that, find something that requires his talents.
"So what you're saying is this imposter was good enough to be a shapeshifter?" Hank asked. "What makes you think that?"
"Let's just say that Mr. President came with some interesting companions, like a Hispanic girl, silent guy, odd person who didn't let anyone see his skin, and a scowling jerk who sneers all the time and thinks he's the boss of everyone. And if that's not familiar enough, one radio show had a sound bite about the president turning into a blue scaly monstrosity. It was played as a joke, of course. A dumb hick sees aliens."
Great, Hank had known that Alex was talking about Raven but Charles hadn't. What if this whole time he'd been thinking he was smart, when actually it was all based on his ability to read minds?
A pen rattled and fell off the coffee table.
Luckily no one else seemed suspicious about this. Hank picked the pen up and put it back. "We should visit this hotel, find out if there's anything to the story. It's the only lead we have."
Sean said, "That does sound like something they would do. It would certainly appeal to Raven's-"
Alex shot to his feet. "I know I told you to shut up!"
The door rattled.
Sean shouted back, "I'm sorry! Sorry you're such a nut job! You can go ahead and call her by name, and him too!"
"Not in front of Hank!"
"Don't even pretend this is about him!" The door shook harder.
Charles cleared his throat. "If you would both sit down and pretend to have the maturity of, say, high-schoolers, and-"
The doorknob ripped loose and sailed across the room, embedding itself in the center of the coffee table with a sickening thud. Little pieces of glass flew in all directions.
"-control your tempers," Charles finished, shock leaking through his voice. "I'm sorry. Is anyone hurt?"
The door fell forward with a sickening thud. A pair of metal hinges inched sheepishly away from the wreckage.
Hank stepped on them to stop them from wiggling. "I'm fine, the glass didn't spread far. Alex, Sean?"
The two muttered reassurances. Both hung their heads, looking almost as guilty as Charles felt.
Hank said, "I'll get something to clean that up. Professor, you stay where you are, or the glass will puncture your wheels. Then we can go to the lab to run a few more tests-" he stopped himself "-or we could go somewhere else. Away from my new new computer."
Charles controlled his flinch. After all the times he'd lectured Erik about controlling his temper—he had a newfound sympathy for his friend. It felt like not just anger but any strong emotion was enough to set him off. Did Erik have a much better mental discipline than he did? Embarrassingly, Charles had always believed the opposite.
Alex said, "My bedroom and all adjacent rooms have been completely stripped of metal. I'm also working on the second-floor den."
Charles sighed. "Right. Very sorry about this. Alex, please find the address of that hotel you mentioned. We need to track down Erik and see if he can use Cerebro to fix this."
Sean asked, "What if he won't help us? What if he likes having the Professor's powers? Or maybe he wasn't affected and still has his own powers?"
Charles said, "That's quite possible. But Erik has another telepath with him, an uneasy ally at best, and if he can't or won't help she's the only other one I know of."
I need help too badly not to try, he added silently. Not something he could say out loud—no need to scare the others.
The receptionist was a scrawny, middle-aged woman name-tagged as "Mrs. O'Henry," with curly brown hair rippled with grey and eyes that twinkled with warmth even when she was being completely uncooperative.
"I do wish I could help you," she said (and she even sounded sincere), "but the manager has forbidden any of the staff to talk about that incident, on the pain of losing our jobs. I think he's embarrassed about calling his mother to tell her that he had the President as a guest. He's a good sort, really, and I don't think he'd actually fire me, but I also promised Madeline. The poor girl has been through enough, she doesn't need any more reporters and scandalmongers bothering her. That child swears she'll never say the word 'blue' again. And she's a good girl, let me tell you, doesn't believe in drugs, rock and roll, or blue aliens. She's having a bit of rest now and doesn't need to be bothered."
Charles sighed, and gave it up. Repeated attempts to engender sympathy and develop a bond with Mrs. O'Henry had already gotten him nowhere. Apparently being charming to women was another thing he could only do when he had telepathy. And the trail here was already twelve days old—oh, for the ability to just read what everyone here knew from their minds and move on in a matter of seconds…
A pen leapt off the desk and bounced off Mrs. O'Henry's head. She gave it a puzzled look, and put in back in the cup.
He really had to stop accidentally trying to read people's minds while he controlled metal. One of these days he might seriously injure someone, and wouldn't that set a lousy example for his students.
Lucky none of them were here to see that. He'd left Alex in the car and come alone, figuring that his most temperamental student might not be a diplomatic asset. He might have preferred to take Sean (Hank was out for obvious blue hairy reasons) but Alex had volunteered and he couldn't think of a good reason to say no.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind, and he would have jumped if his legs still worked. Alex said, "It's no good. We'll find the bastard another way."
When had he shown up?
Mrs. O'Henry said, "That sounds rather personal. Isn't your friend a reporter?"
Alex shook his head sadly. "No, I just asked my retired ex-reporter friend to help me."
"Retired?" Charles exclaimed. How old did being bald make him look?
Alex inserted smoothly, "My apologies. I'm sure you'll get back to work once you've recovered from your tragic accident rescuing a kitten from a tree. I know I'm a terrible person for dragging you from your hospital bed, but how else could I find my cheating bastard of a stepfather and the money he stole from us?"
Charles was tempted to tell Alex to cut the ham and wheel him out of here, but Mrs. O'Henry looked intrigued. "What makes you think your stepfather is connected to our alien incident?"
Alex lowered his voice. "He has a fetish for painting girls blue. How many others like that could there be? If you said there was a llama involved, I'd know it was him. And I think I can identify the girl, too. My mother's poor little sister, a sweet girl if a tad mentally retarded and prone to picking her nose in public. She ran off with him when he left. We think he might have given her," Alex lowered his voice anonymously, "coke."
Mrs. O'Henry looked puzzled. Alex explained, "Drugs."
She raised a hand to her mouth in horror.
Alex elaborated, "He forces them on all kinds of innocent, nubile women. He's even been known to stick them in unsuspecting people's food."
"That explains all the weird things people saw while he was here! Like when Ken said one of the guests had a forked tail! And I'm not sure I didn't just imagine those funny people dressed like the Ghost Squad looking for mutants."
Charles was unable to tear his eyes away…it was like watching a train wreck. But the last words caught his attention. "Did you say someone was looking for mutants?"
Alas, he was ignored.
Alex was gazing soulfully into Mrs. O'Henry's eyes. "But what really burns me is what he did to my mother. She has diabetes and heart cancer, and he made off with her medicine, her life's savings, and my dead father's pocket watch. Why, he's even tainted the memory of my real father." Alex pounded his fist on the desk in fury. "The worst part is, deep down I think she still loves him! Even though he doesn't deserve her in the slightest and should be set on fire and tossed off a cliff while being eaten by rabid weasels!"
Charles wished he still had his telepathy. Then he would be able to confirm whether or not Alex was suffering from brain damage.
"Oh, you poor thing. Well, perhaps I can tell you-" Mrs. O'Henry uncapped a pen and began scribbling on a piece of hotel stationary. "This is where the funny men from 'macs' said they were going to look for him next. Just give your best to your poor mother for me."
"You're a saint among women. I'll dedicate the bastard's thrashing to you."
Back in the car, Alex waved the paper triumphantly. "Look at this! Golden Gate Hotel at 1314 K-"
"Alex, can we talk?"
"I got the information we wanted. What else is there to say?"
"You seem very angry about something lately."
"I get pissed at dealing with people's crap. I always have. Forget it, it's nothing."
Charles wouldn't have dropped it, except they were still in a car, and with his recent experience with metal and emotionally charged topics he thought he had better go back to meditating for a bit, or this conversation might lead to someone's untimely demise.
Now that he'd mastered the art of shutting out intrusive minds (albeit by bludgeoning them into submission, but who cared about that?) Erik was ready to continue his mission. His condition didn't seem like it was just going to wear off on its own. Also, he was more than a little suspicious that someone had down this deliberately. If he was wrong, well, there was still no loss in hunting down some people on the mutant enemies list.
He hadn't stayed idle while he was 'recuperating'—he'd set his team to see what they could find out from Shaw's old contacts about any group who might have reason to target mutants with some kind of biological attack. Emma had passed on some information about some clowns calling themselves MACS (Mutant Attack Containment Squad) who were apparently a fringe group within the CIA who were carrying out some independent vigilante violence against mutants.
The ridiculous acronym made it hard to take them seriously, but they might be a threat to some weaker mutant. Emma had suggested that they were researching an unusual anti-mutant weapon and might be behind his condition, but he wasn't buying that at all. She was never helpful that easily. Unless of course this was a red herring to throw him off actually suspecting the group. Emma was always playing a game even when she was supposedly on your side—life was her own personal hand of solitaire.
Sometimes Erik wondered how she'd managed to survive Shaw, who as far as Erik knew had always responded to lack of cooperation with sadism. Maybe she'd made Shaw underestimate her by sleeping with him or maybe she'd been more subtle. Erik had no intention of letting her think of him as an easier mark. He still didn't fully understand what made her tick, but he did know that having hooked up with her last boss' killer so easily she would show him no more loyalty.
It hadn't been hard to attract the attention of the group and acquire someone tailing him (Erik's Nazi hunting trick number seventy-nine: convince them that you're the prey). Then he'd let Emma read from his pursuer's mind the MACS' nearest location: a small brown house in Virginia that had every resemblance to a safe house—isolated location, fortified on top of a hill, iron shutters.
Peering through a pair of binoculars, Mystique mused, "Oh, if you still had your powers, what fun we'd have with those shutters. And the barbed wire and the electronic security…"
Erik said, "I found the number and location of people inside."
"I could have done that," Emma muttered behind him.
That did it. "Come on. We have some minds to crush!"
Five minutes later, they had left five anonymous men in plainclothes in their wake—one babbling about strange lights, once convinced he was an alien spy from Venus, one with an extremely strong phobia of shoes, one dancing the foxtrot, and one trying to give them all hugs while shouting, "Mutants, I love you!"
The rest of the team looked on with a twinge of awe. Even Emma expressed her grudging appreciation with, "I wouldn't mind having whatever secondary mutation you got."
Erik attempted to look like a stern and distant leader, and pretended that he hadn't actually been trying to put every one of them to sleep.
Emma said, "Their boss is in the room to the right. I froze him for you—care to do the honors and read his mind, now that your skills have improved so much?"
…Curse her. He couldn't tell if she was on to him or if she was just being her usual obnoxious self. Too bad she was the only one here whose mind he couldn't read.
He also still couldn't figure out how to stop reading his companions thoughts, at least while still leaving them conscious. He now knew far more than he ever wanted to about Mystique's abandonment issues, Angel's obsession with Elvis, and Riptide's stamp collection. He'd forced Azazel to wear the anti-mindreader helmet because if he was forced to "eavesdrop" on one more fantasy about a foursome with Azazel, Mystique, him and Azazel's tail then he might take an electric drill to his own head.
End story, right now he could control minds only a little better than he could control metal (i.e. only a little better than nothing). But to order Emma to do it instead would undermine his authority. He might have little choice if he wanted to get any information—but he could at least try to do it himself first.
The agent of lousy acronyms was middle-aged, squat, mostly bald, and drooling slightly. Erik wondered if Emma had done that on purpose, for artistic purposes (her idea of beauty being a nuclear bomb, she might find infantilized adults to be funny). Erik really had no idea what to do to obtain information from someone's mind. The man was completely silent at the moment, probably due to his thoughts being frozen. What now? Try harder to listen?
Oh there's no way he can do it that diamond witch is
I'm hungry should have eaten the rest of that sandwich
Ought to kick her ass if she
Do these stripes make me look fat?
I need a weapon to cut through diamond
Ooo, is that a blue silver stamp on the desk? Postage amount printed backwards? I must have it!
Erik clutched at his head. How could just three people be so loud? How was he going to survive an actual city? Emma was going to tell him how those helmets were made if he had to hang her up by her ankles, and then he was going to have them mass-produced. And take over the world just so he could make them mandatory headwear.
He glared at the bald mutant-hater. This is all your fault, now tell me what I want to know!
Alas, simply shouting his commands didn't work any better than it usually did. It was like ramming into a blank wall. He pummeled at in and only got incoherent mumblings. The most intelligible sound he could make out was "Golden Gate Hotel."
Emma asked slyly, "No luck?"
Erik was tempted to try and bluff his way out of this, order them off to the Golden Gate Hotel and pretend he knew more that he just wasn't saying. But a voice inside him, the hardened survivor of Shaw's experimentation in the Nazi concentration camps, whispered, Don't. Never prioritize pride over survival. You can humble the bitch later if you must, but first get the information you need.
So he said, "Do it, Emma."
She snickered, but the bright side of being inflicted with Mystique, Angel, and Riptide's mental commentary was that it drowned out whatever smart comment she made.
Emma didn't bother with gestures to her forehead the way Charles did—there was no outward sign of what she was doing. She simply fixed her eyes on the hapless vigilante like snake eying a meal (which was a tad melodramatic in its own way, now that Erik thought about it.)
Then she frowned and shook her head. "I can't read anything from him. His mind's in disarray and it all went comatose, probably a defense mechanism from a rather clumsy intrusion. All I got floating around was a vague urgency about 'Golden Gate Hotel.'" She shrugged. "More than you had, anyway."
Erik kept his face carefully blank so as to show no sign that he was about to go bang his head against a wall.
On the way out, he tossed Riptide's coveted stamp out the window out of spite. There hadn't been anything backwards about it anyway. If it had actually been valuable he would have sold it and donated the money to the mutant cause.
The Golden Gate Hotel that Alex's instructions had sent them to was in Fields, Louisiana. Getting there had taken a while because Charles was unwilling to trust himself on an airplane. True, causing a car accident wouldn't be a great idea either, but if he started to feel the metal around him rattle while in a car he could just step out, whereas this wasn't an option a five thousand feet in the air.
The trip had been long and hot, and having arrived at 1314 Kelvin Street, Charles was feeling less than optimistic. Hopefully this address would lead to Erik, but how would Mrs. O'Henry have any idea where he was? She might have sent them the wrong way simply because of a misunderstanding based on Alex's story. For all he knew this would turn out to lead to a shrink's office. Or maybe Madeline, taking a vacation away from blue girls. And he hadn't forgotten the reference to "funny Ghost something" looking for mutants. That was particularly worrisome.
The telephone pole outside the window began to grind ominously. Charles forced himself to slow his breathing and relax.
Honestly, how did Erik deal with this? He remembered thinking that his metal-bending friend didn't try hard enough to control himself. Now he thought that Erik must have been a veritable Buddha just to not leave a trail of destruction in his wake.
Such thoughts were the only ones he had to distract him, sitting in the hotel lobby while Hank, Alex, and Sean put their clever plan in motion. Once they had entered the hotel, they'd been forced to reserve a room because the cranky receptionist refused to talk to them otherwise. The only rooms available were on the second floor with no elevator. This didn't particularly matter to Charles because they didn't actually want a room. But Hank had insisted on coming along on the trip despite still being, well, blue and hairy. He'd installed tinted windows on their car and made the trip safely, but it was a very hot day to be in a parked car with the windows rolled up. Hank might have insisted that he was fine but his fur was damp with sweat and Charles was genuinely worried they'd come back to find him dead. So now his students were watching the staircase trying to spot a clear moment when Hank could sneak in the window and dash up the stairs to their room.
Charles was feeling a little helpless by himself. He'd insisted on Hank adding metal strips to his wheelchair so he could move it himself, but if he tried there was every chance he'd only destroy his own chair.
It didn't help his state of inner peace and zen that Charles still had a bad feeling they were chasing a dead end. In addition, like most places not having been modified by Hank this room was full of metal, and it hummed distractingly at him—almost as if it was alive, in a state of anxiety, and wanted to run away. He'd never thought of metal as alive before. Anthropomorphizing, no doubt, as a psychological reflex to the disruption in his life.
That, of course, was when the building next door blew up.
Charles jerked in shock when the noise hit his eardrums, then twisted his chair around to look. The window was smeared and sooty, but he could still make out the bright yellow fire cheerfully consuming the brick building next door.
When he tried to turn again, his wheels were stuck. Then he remembered—new metal strips on his chair. He concentrated and lifted his chair up and-
Unfortunately, he was still just plain bad at controlling metal. The metal contracted, denting one wheel, and then his chair shot straight backwards.
There was a sickening thump, like something heavy impacting with flesh. Charles was afraid to look. He really hoped he hadn't accidentally killed someone.
Attempting to twist his neck around, he began, "I'm terribly sorry for the-"
There were a surprising number of Golden Gate Hotels in America. It was another reason for Erik to hate this country, along with their fake tans and their frizzy hamburger-chomping clown.
After searching at 26 different Golden Gate Hotels, Erik had moved "lack of creativity" to the top of his reasons why the British should have curb-stomped the Americans back during their revolution, and thus done something right for once in their limey lives. Americans were terrible at naming places—why else would they have to steal so many names from Europe? Honestly, stick the word "new" in front of a place and claim you were being original! Cretins.
Mystique had been a great help in compiling the list, but she was currently sulking because he'd insisted that she wear the helmet for a while. But what did she expect, when she kept treating him to a non-stop discourse of whether blue skin could tan? He couldn't take it anymore.
Azazel, he had sent on a trip to find and purchase the rare materials needed for another helmet. It didn't matter that he had only a vague idea of how the helmet had been created to begin with. He'd made it clear to the perverted teleporter that he wasn't coming back until he was wearing a new helmet or had had himself neutered. (The red-faced devil had the nerve to leer instead of looking chastened.)
Twenty-six hotels later, he'd been about to give this all up as a lost cause when Mystique had found three more hotels outside California. He wasn't sure if he should praise her for going beyond the call of duty or strangle her in her sleep. Right now he was leaning towards strangle.
The reason that Louisiana had a Golden Gate Hotel was because 20 years ago, a mayor's daughter had married some hippy from California and passed a motion to rename the town in a soppy attempt to keep him from feeling homesick (and a blatant example of nepotism and abuse of authority). The motion had passed general ballot, probably because the town had previously been named Quakerville—after the founder, Quentin Quacker—and the long-suffering townspeople were looking for an excuse to change the name. (Although Erik could sympathize, he thought they'd been a tad too hasty in assuming any name was better than that.)
Erik was forced to know all this inane information because the wretched fool of a receptionist at the hotel was a descendant of the Quacker family (although his birth name had been Brown before he legally changed it in a pathetic attempt to make himself feel unique) and he was continuously thinking about how his ancestors had been robbed of their glorious namesake and making plans to start a campaign to rechristen the town and the hotel Quakerville. The only thing stopping Erik from mind-crushing the fool was the fact that he'd be doing a profound service to humanity.
He hadn't even stepped inside the building yet, but his range only seemed to be growing in size, and he'd been hammered with the fool's thoughts from a block away. He was already in a foul mood just from being in a town full of people. The slam of minds against his was overwhelming. It was like a thousand needy fingers poking his brain, demanding attention like crying babies.
For some reason, when he'd been listening to the thoughts of his fellow mutants, they'd actually been louder, drowning out the rest. Now he only had Mystique, who was wearing the helmet—he'd divided up the rest between the remaining hotels they were checking to save more time from being eaten by this inanity. He'd been hoping for a bit of relief, but even though with most thoughts drowned out by the general rush, the sound of a thousand whispers was eating its way through his brain.
People's thoughts got a stronger the more emotional they were. Unfortunately, that meant the clearest feedback he was getting was from a teenage girl who'd recently been dumped by her boyfriend and the fool receptionist. And someone who was very passionately singing Elvis' new single "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
"Magneto, are you alright?" Mystique asked with concern.
He'd been staring off into space for a while. Bad sign. Maybe one voice would be an improvement over this. "Mystique, take off the helmet."
She took it off. Don't think about what Emma told me about her, Azazel, and Shaw don't think about what Emma told me about her, Azazel, and Shaw don't think about—crap, I thought about it!
"…Mystique, put the helmet back on."
It was an improvement, in a twisted way. Now the sensation of a thousand worms trying to eat his brain was a welcome distraction from the image burned into his mind. Yet another emotional scar Shaw had inflicted on him (albeit indirectly). He squared his shoulders and stepped into the hotel.
Mental trauma was his only excuse for his very slow reaction to danger.
Erik's first clue that something had gone wrong was when the imbecile receptionist glanced at something in the distance, muttered, "Oh, hell, not again" and sprinted for the door. The second clue was that high-school drop-out's voice was no longer running through his mind. He leapt to chase after the fleeing man, not sure what was going on but sure something was wrong. Then the other voices began to disappear from his mind.
A faint voice registered in his head, like a young boy whimpering. Help. He shoved it aside and tried harder to concentrate.
An explosion rocked out behind him. When he turned his head, Mystique was gone as if she'd never been in the room. He fumbled with the door handle, which seemed stuck. And that was when he was hit in his blindspot by a flying wheelchair.
"Erik?" Someone said, and he knew that voice. Knew that familiar presence sitting in the corner of his mind. It usually felt calm and collected, like the touch of a cool hand on a fevered forehead. Now it was bouncing off his nerve tissue, full of anxiety and hope.
And there was Charles Xavier, dressed in a neat pinstripe blue suit with an Oxford tie, a grey top hat covering his head (where was his hair?), lying flat on his back in a wheelchair but still managing to radiate the same smug, always-completely-in-control-of-any-situation-that-I-find-myself-in aura of confidence.
"It is you! I've been looking everywhere for you. Could you kindly help me up, I seem to have had an accident?" Good, I only hit Erik.
Though a bit miffed at this casual brush-off to the damage inflicted to his person, Erik had to admit he really had no right to be angry at this particular person about stray metal hitting him. His right shoulder ached but he'd managed to sidestep at the last minute so he'd only been struck by a glancing blow, not a bone-breaker. He got to his feet and carefully lifted Charles' wheelchair upright.
You lifted it with your hands so "Erik, I want to ask you" weren't able to "I think we may have come here for the same reason" lost his ability "can you still" move metal "move metal?"
Erik clutched at his head. "Ow! Stop thinking and talking at the same time!"
"Oh, you can read my mind! What a relief," Charles said, radiating absolute serenity.
Erik had pictured his first reunion with Charles many times, sometimes in the nagging way things you didn't want to think about would slip into your mind, sometimes as a battle plan, sometimes with ridiculous optimism, and sometimes late at night when all his ghosts came out to play. After he'd heard that Charles would never walk again, he'd started wondering if their next meeting would involve a plastic bullet aimed at his head.
Whatever he'd pictured had not been ever remotely close to this. When had he lost control of the situation, and why did that always seem to happen when Charles was around?
That was when he felt a flicker of heat at his back, and turned around to see the window behind him was on fire.
The children! Erik wasn't sure if Charles said it or thought it. But he suddenly became aware that Alex, Sean, Hank had been by the stairway, and that same stairway was on the other side of a door that had now gone up in flames.
Erik couldn't sense any minds except Charles and he didn't know what to make of that, given how his abilities were unreliable. But he could hear loud and clear that Charles wasn't leaving without looking for them. Not that it really mattered since their exit door had also gone up in flames.
Very odd flames, these. They blocked the path at deliberate locations and burned constantly without harming the materials. Must be some sort of power—he was certain it was a mutant who had done this. He couldn't think of any way this could be in the capacity of a human. But why?
No time to speculate. Right now he was more concerned with the fact they were boxed in, and he honestly didn't know how anything as wimpy as telepathy was going to get them out of this one.
He glanced at Charles, who if he'd picked up on that stray thought should be giving him the "eyebrows." But Charles showed no reaction.
That was when Erik noticed—"Charles, you have a spoon stuck to the back of your head."
It was just hanging there, suspended in mid-air, with no apparent support. Charles stuck a hand to the back of his head and yanked if off. "Oh, that keeps happening. Sometimes it's coins or cigarette lighters. Erik, did you ever this problem?"
Erik had no idea what he was talking about. "Also, your hair-"
"Don't mention the hair," Charles said in a deadly voice.
Erik wisely decided not to ask about the spoon either. He also tried not to think about it. He wasn't having much success, but Charles didn't seem to notice.
Instead, he was furrowing his brow at his wheelchair. The chair jerked precariously.
"Erik, I think I have the hang of making it move. Usually in the direction I want, even. But I'm not sure how to shape the metal into a tool, something sharp enough to punch through that wall. Can you give me some tips, having more experience than I do?"
"Oh, hadn't you noticed?" Bit slow on the uptake, Erik. "We've swapped powers! Fascinating story, really, must give you the details sometime."
"WHAT?" Logic made war with dumb shock. "Then why couldn't you stop your chair from crashing into me?"
Figures he'd ask that. "I was the one moving it, actually. But I didn't hit you on purpose. No time for this, Erik, the fire is spreading."
Sure enough, it was radiating out from the two doors and the windows at a slow but constant pace. Erik felt toyed with.
Can't believe I managed to find him. Have to get our powers back, of course, but this is such a rare opportunity to talk about-
"Shouldn't you be thinking more about getting us out of here?"
Charles looked sheepish. "Right. Now, if I were you, how would you go about doing that?"
"You'll need a lot more metal than those strips on your chair to punch through a wall. You should be able to sense everything in here that has any metal in it. Just try to stay away from metal that is around our bodies, please. You won't actually be able to suck the iron from our blood but you could lead to some embarrassing clothes mishaps."
"I'm listening. What next?"
First of all, my SISTER. How could you let her kill someone? Are you COMPLETELY out of your MIND?
"This isn't the time for this, Charles."
"I'd say it's a great time for you to teach me how to use your powers so we can escape and find my students!"
"That's not what I meant. Just think quieter. You're a telepath, can't you do that?"
"No. I'm not a telepath anymore."
Erik massaged his forehead. "Right. Now, you should pick a point in the room and call the metal to that place. Something not too close to your body since you're a beginner."
"Then I'll try for the ceiling." Charles craned his neck up. I thought I could trust you with her-
"Don't look with your eyes! Sense it!"
Charles closed his eyes. –because I still on some level believed in you, I knew you'd lost your marbles but I still thought-
"Sorry, Erik, I can't feel anything right now, it's very odd." –that you'd at least keep her safe and out of danger-
"Will you shut up about Mystique? She's an adult woman who made her own choice. And part of the reason she left is because you keep patronizing her!"
Charles shot him a reproachful look. "Erik, it's not polite to flaunt the fact that you can read minds. Makes people feel violated. And if you insist in listening to every stray neutron I fire off, then you'll give yourself a headache."
"I don't know how to stop! I-" Erik took a good look at the walls in front and to the side, which were increasingly covered in fire. "We don't have time for this."
"That's what I've been telling you," Charles said. "Now would you help me? I seem to have your power on 'off' and I need to turn it on."
"You don't turn it on, it's always there. Don't you always feel people's minds around you?"
Of all the idiotic balderdash! No wonder you can't act like a functional person right now! "Hm, if that's how it works for you, I can see why my telepathy would be troublesome."
"You're considerably less polite inside your head, Charles, did you know that?"
"You're flaunting again Erik, focus."
"Fine. You have to project your emotions onto the metal. Make it feel what you feel, give it your will."
"Metal doesn't have the capacity to feel, Erik." Too obsessed with emotion, that's how we ended up-
Erik sighed. "Which of us is Magneto? I mean WAS. Is."
What a ridiculous name. But then that red cloak proved you have no taste. "My apologies, I'll give it a try."
Charles closed his eyes again. The unnatural fire covered two-thirds of the walls now.
Erik, if we don't get out of here alive, I really regret not being able to tell you what I wanted to tell you when I accidentally screwed up our powers in the first place.
"That was YOU? Of course it was!"
"Quiet, Erik, trying to concentrate." Metal broke off from his wheelchair, the bottom of the desk, a frame on the wall.
I was scared and had a bullet in my neck and you didn't even stick around to get me to a hospital. Of course I wasn't done talking to you yet.
"Now is not the time for this, Charles!"
"I told you to be quiet! I'm trying to gather emotion, like you said! Now let me get very angry!" The odds and ends of metal collapsed into a floating ball that spun around with centrifugal force, spinning itself into the shape of a long sharp blade.
Because let's be honest, Erik, you don't really care that much about mutant supremacy.
"What?" Erik couldn't help himself. Of all the accusations he'd expected Charles to hurl at him, that was not one of them.
You just needed a cause to believe in. Before it was hunting Nazis, but Shaw was the last one on your list, wasn't he? And I just happened to come along when you were at the tail end of your revenge, and looking for something shiny and new.
The fire was burning brighter, and this time stretching forward from the walls, making the room smaller. Almost as if this mutant's power was also responding to Charles's anger.
And I was happy to provide you with the cause you desired. I wanted to give you a reason for living, Erik. But there was just one little problem—you needed a reason for killing. A vent for that murderous rage inside of you.
Charles' wheelchair was lopsided, which didn't seem to bother him now that he was floating. The metal blade shot forward and drove into the wall with a crack.
Teaching at a school with me would never have been enough for you. Even before the attack on the beach, you had already decided that humans would be the next enemy. You put that helmet on your head before they'd launched the missiles, and you still expected me to hold Shaw steady for you while you drove a coin through his head—and the price I paid, you have no idea!
A thread of guilt nagged at Erik. (He had a suspicion he might know what Charles meant, about Shaw and the coin, because he'd known that Charles could feel others' pain when mentally linked to them. He'd let himself temporarily forget in his rage and thirst for revenge.)
But the walls were completely covered in fire now. There was little hope left. Erik said, "Charles, we don't have time for this."
The fire lapped at the metal blade but did not burn it, and when the blade drew back and sliced forward again, it began to cut away at chunks of wall, slicing out pieces of the fire as well.
"You needed a cause to fight for, and now you have one. Lo on me for giving it to you. But Erik, are you sure this is what you really want? Even if you achieve your perfect world, you said yourself that you don't know how to stop fighting. Misanthrope that you are, do you really want to save mutants you've never met and who might be like Shaw, or are you simply feeding your own need for a war? Who's the enemy once the humans are gone? I'm sure you'll find other mutants willing to fight with you." The knife split into a thousand small blades, and beat at the flames. "If your crusade is victorious, but you kill Alex, Hank, and Sean in the process, will that be good enough for you? If Raven becomes a martyr, will you step over her body and walk on? If I die, will it still all be worth it? What were you trying to protect to begin with?"
But no matter what the metal did, the fire still burned. The flames flickered right through the metal. Even with gaping holes in the wall, the fire remained hovering in mid-air to block off any escape. And now they were growing in size to fill more and more of the room.
Charles sagged back, his wheel-less chair collapsing with a sad thunk. The only thought Erik could read from him was a faint, Tired…
There was a great deal Erik wanted to say in response to that tirade, about blindness and dumb optimism and who was fighting who. But as the fire crept closer, it seemed there wasn't much point in saying anything but: It was nice knowing you, even if you don't seem to feel the same way about me.
Charles' mind was peculiarly opaque. In a soft voice, Charles asked, "Did anything I said get through to you? Would it have made any difference at all if I'd said this back at the beach?"
Erik lied, "Sure. I would have stayed." His skin was already raw with heat and he supposed they only had a few minutes left to evade burning.
A smirk spread across Charles' face. "Don't think I don't know what you're up to, my friend. And don't think I won't hold you to that, now that I know how to get us out of here."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Erik could almost feel the iron in his blood start to boil—even in his current powerless state. "You know how to get out of here. And you haven't said anything!"
Charles shrugged. "Well, I didn't figure it out until about a minute ago."
"Then out with it! We're in a live-threatening situation, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Actually, I'm not sure we are. Or maybe we are and don't know it. Don't glare, I'm getting to it. Obviously our current situation was caused by a mutant, because that fire is not normal. But we're not dealing with a pyro-user, there are too many other abnormalities. Have you noticed how odd this room is, Erik? There's not enough metal. If there's one thing I've learned in the past few days it's that metal is everywhere. But the only pieces I called were ones I could see, like the pen off the desk or my wheelchair. I should have at least ripped the nails out of a few floorboards. Why, one night a bad dream had me destroying every bit of copper wiring on the fourth floor—we still haven't gotten the lights back on."
"Oh, I hate it when that happens," Erik said.
"Then did you notice the way everyone disappeared so quickly? Can you sense anyone else's thoughts right now, anyone in the whole town?"
"We're in an illusion."
Charles pouted. "You stole that idea off of me."
"I don't need telepathy to see the obvious."
Crossly, Charles said, "Then you ought to have noticed that since you did steal my powers, you're the one who has to get us out of here."
Erik sighed. "If you'd been around the past week, you'd understand how unlikely that is. I have no control over this power of yours at all. I'd count myself lucky if I didn't accidentally lobotomize one of us."
"The mind is more robust than you might think, Erik, or five-hundred and thirty one high-schoolers wouldn't have survived my puberty. And we have no choice, you're the only one who can break down mental barriers right now. You must have noticed my attempt to smother fake fire with fake metal wasn't working too well." He shook his head. "The funny part is, I can still sense metal in this room, but I don't think it's in the same place as where I'm seeing metal. It's giving me a headache."
Erik glanced at the walls of almost blue fire. "At least the deathtrap has stopped contracting, but then who knows if that fire can actually hurt us?"
"Once I realized that the fire was an illusion and that my mind was letting me move fake metal objects in the room, I stopped the fire from moving myself. Since the metal here isn't real, I reasoned that if I can move a pen I can move anything. And if even an ordinary mind can influence surroundings here, it is a very amateurish illusion that you should have no trouble shattering. First, you must find traces of the controlling mind and-"
"Maybe I can put him to sleep."
"That's a very difficult maneuver, I suggest you start with something simpler." Erik choked back a hysterical laugh. Charles frowned. "Please take this seriously, I don't think I can hold back the fire forever. I'm not sure we will be required to directly fight another mind because I don't feel like this vision is being manipulated by a still-present person. The details are too vivid, leaving me to suspect that we're generating this from our own minds. That leaves several possibilities-"
Erik's mind was bombarded with information about different types of illusions that Charles could construct, how one controlled them and how one broke them. "Charles, slow down!"
"Sorry. As an ex-telepath I should have more discipline." Thirteen squared is 169, fourteen squared is 196, fifteen squared is-
"And that's incredibly annoying. Stop it."
"Really? I always found it to be soothing." Must vary from person to person. "I'll try to think slowly, and just stop speaking at all so you don't have to deal with overlap."
Focus on my voice, Erik. Can you hear it? Am I the only one in the room?
Charles' voice was like a warm cup of tea on a cold October day. Familiar.
Here I am. Have you got a hold of me? My mind is all over this room, in the metal of the chair, in the fire I'm pushing back. Now look at the pieces I'm not touching. Under the desk and inside the lamp. Can you sense anything else? Someone not-me and not-you?
Erik strained. And there it was, a faint wisp, miniature and nebulous.
Have you got it? I think you have, from your face. Touch it—don't grab—just follow it back to its source.
It was like a thread, and Erik took it in his hand and walked forward.
Where are we now? Outside the room? What's there?
"Nothing. Just darkness."
Good. Now break the thread. Don't be confused, you can do it. It should feel like THIS in your mind.
Erik matched his thought to Charles' memory. In a spurt of impatience, he yanked.
Did it! Charles screamed triumphantly, and for a moment Charles was also yanking at the mental rope alongside him, both tugging on the illusion at the same time, until Erik's grip slipped.
The world jolted and resettled. Except it was different this time, Erik realized. The walls weren't on fire. The door was open, letting in all the cold air. The window revealed a street and buildings which were perfectly intact and un-bombed. Charles was in his wheelchair but was on the other side of the room from him, and now blocked by three concerned boys leaning over him.
Also, he was lying under the receptionist's desk. How had he gotten there? He made sure no one was looking before crawling out. The boys were babbling excited relief that Charles was conscious.
He heard them with his ears, not his mind. He couldn't hear anyone in his head, and it was a blessed relief.
Charles noticed him over Hank's head, and waved, batting away Hank's hand that was trying to take his pulse. Erik wondered why the blue hairy guy in the middle of small-town Louisiana wasn't attracting more attention.
Like an answer to his question, armed men poured through the open door, dressed the same as the ones in the cabin.
It was sheer reflex that led him to slam them back by the metal in their belt buckles. When they actually flew back out the door, he gaped.
There was little time to relish the sensation when a bullet came sailing towards them, taking out a ceiling light.
Truce? Charles asked. And please try not to kill anyone, Erik.
He nodded in response, making no promises on the second one. These fools were firing guns at a bunch of teenagers and Charles and it was going to be a pleasure to make them eat them.
He was readying his powers when a scarlet bolt slammed into his chest, and Alex Summers screamed, "I'm going to kill you!" before the whole world went red.
The past few days had definitely taught Charles that he was not perfect. His emotional control was lacking and he was terrible at reading people's thoughts by their faces and body language. An apt analogy might be a seeing man in a world of blind people who, after going blind himself, discovered his hearing wasn't as sharp as everyone else's.
An example of his flaws in communication: he should have said "Truce" out loud. What had seemed obvious to him—that they needed to work together against an immediate threat—had clearly been not so obvious to the rest of his fellow mutants, who were apparently more interested in fighting each other than the guys with guns shooting at them.
He did a few quick mental calculations (and oh, it was ridiculous but it felt like he was thinking faster) and decided that Erik had better odds of killing Alex than the other way around. It had something to do with the way Erik had leapt up, hair burnt at the tips and smoking, and jerked twenty guns, belt buckles, and assorted buttons into a massive storm and pelted them at Alex with what Charles felt was unnecessary violence towards a teenager. Yes, Alex had attacked first, but couldn't Erik be the better man?
"Hank, Sean, please stop Erik from crippling Alex, with minimal force. I'll take care of our friends in black." Since he had confidence Erik wouldn't actually kill Alex, he felt it was best that he keep his attention on the more murderous strangers. The loss of their guns had a few cowering back, but the rest had recovered, their thoughts shouting that they had known they were dealing with 'freaks' all along and had come prepared—with a few canisters of gas that had them reaching for the breathing masks strapped to their backs. Charles thought he'd better nip this in the bud.
He reached out with his mind and commanded, Stop. The strange men froze.
That would hold them long enough to deal with situation number two, which was not going as he'd hoped. He'd hoped that Erik would get over his initial anger and act like an adult, but instead he'd just tried to whack Sean with a metal lamp and Sean was the one clearly trying to calm the situation down. Hank might be trying to calm the situation down or he might be trying to toss Erik out a window, it was difficult to say. Hank himself seemed to have mixed feelings on the matter.
Oh, and Charles' wheels were stuck again. Five minutes with his beloved telepathy back and he was wishing for the power to move metal.
He tried shouting again, but was ignored. Sean had given him a hard shove away when Alex and Erik had first gotten violent, and while he appreciated the sentiment (it was great to see Sean showing that strong sense of responsibility buried under his reticence) being flung to the other side of the room had left him unable to physically intervene in the situation unless he could get his much-abused wheelchair moving.
Alex had a twisted metal strip that had previously been part of a swivel chair wrapped around his neck, but that wasn't stopping him from bellowing in fury as he fired another bolt after Erik. This one managed to boomerang around Sean and Hank to strike at Erik from behind, but with both his friends still standing so close to the line of fire it was obvious that Alex was barely managing to show them any consideration in his desperation to get at Magneto.
Ironically, it was Erik who bothered to use lift a floorboard by the nails and knock Hank and Sean out of the way while dodging the bolt. Charles had always known that deep down Erik still cared.
One of the armed men twitched at Alex's bolt exploding into the receptionist's desk. Charles muttered, "Now, now, you're seeing a nice field with bunny rabbits in it. Colorful bunny rabbits with big floppy ears."
Keeping this many people immobile at once was causing a bit of strain. Nothing he couldn't handle but enough that he wasn't able to keep their human attackers off them AND suppress the furious four off to his left. At this rate it was only a matter of time before Erik lost patience and did some serious damage to Alex. Intervention was required now.
Charles stuck a hand under his wheel chair and forcefully wrenched one wheel and then the other in the direction he wanted to go. He pulled some tape out of the dispenser on the receptionist's desk (that had come flying towards him when the desk exploded) and stuck it over the dent in his left wheel, which seemed to be leaking air. Then he stuck his hands against the wall and launched himself into the air.
He made a flying impact with Erik for the second time in one day, but this time from the front. He had time to glimpse a look of pure surprise on the metal-user's face before sailing into his chest and knocking him backwards. There was a brief moment when he saw the ball of metal Erik had been floating in the palm of his hand coming closer to his head, and he tried to duck. A sharp pain stuck his skull. He had the presence of mind to send the attackers he was holding immobile to sleep before he lost his grip on their minds.
The world went dark, but he could still hear the sound of metal clanging as it hit the floor. He forced an eye open and tilted his head to see, to his relief, that the piece strangling Alex had also fallen to the ground.
At least he'd had a relatively soft landing, seeing how he was now sprawled on top of Erik. Well, he couldn't very well be expected to stand up, so he'd just have to wait for everyone to stop gaping and start helping.
Despite being pinned to the ground, Erik recovered from his shock first. It was merely unfortunate that rather than being possessed by a useful impulse to help them untangle themselves, he just started shouting.
"ARE YOU COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MIND? DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT HAPPENED LAST TIME YOU POKED YOUR HEAD IN WHERE STRAY BITS OF METAL WERE FLYING AROUND?"
Charles massaged his head, "Actually, I was hoping that remembering what happened last time would convince you to stand down. Funny, normally I'd say the head is the worst place to take a hit from flying metal, risk of concussion and sudden death and all, but this is actually an improvement to the spine."
"Not funny, Charles!"
"I suppose it's not, at that. Would you mind helping me up, and getting my chair upright? Oh, and I seem to have lost my hat."
Erik tipped Charles' wheelchair upright with a thought, and clasped his arms so as to not let Charles fall to the floor while Erik was scrambling out from under him. With a strength born of many hours of weight training he lifted Charles back into the chair. "I'm surprised you have a wheelchair with metal in it."
"I didn't, Hank took it out. Then I got your powers and had some grafted back in—I suppose Hank will insist on taking it out again." Charles looked at a wheelchair arm that had been twisted into a right angle. "Or maybe I can get a new wheelchair."
"Bill Emma," Erik suggested, as he straightened the arm with his powers. "We have all of this leftover money from Shaw that she inherited. Not that I would look too closely at the legality of that will."
"I hope you haven't let her get your signature."
"Do I look stupid?"
There was a muffled growl from the ground. Charles turned his head and looked down to see that Hank was sitting on Alex's back, his face firmly pinned to the floor.
Alex's thoughts were a whirlwind of hurt and fury. He'd finally found a real family, parents he didn't think would turn their backs on him, and then Erik had betrayed that and he hated hated loved hated him and there was something about a little brother he hadn't been able to protect and Darwin. Charles' heart went out to him, but he was going to have to put the comforting off until later. Because right now he could hear in the back of his head the sound of a child's voice crying in terror.
"Erik, these men weren't the only ones that came here. There was a second group and they're attacking another mutant. I think it might be the illusionist who caused us so much trouble so we'll have to be wary on that front as well—but he's just a child. We need to help him."
Sean, standing behind Hank, pointed a finger. "Those guys, are they going to wake up?"
When Charles had felt himself start to lose his mental discipline due to sharp pain in the head, he had put the vigilantes into a deep sleep for the next hour. He would have preferred to keep them awake until the next free moment when he could read from their minds who they were, their numbers, their plans, and other useful information, but he'd thought that it was better to lose the opportunity than to let them start trying to gas his students again.
"They will be out cold for the next hour, shouldn't bother you but if you see anyone start to stir then get some duct tape. Hank, I'm going to go rescue the other mutant, the one who put Erik and I into a coma. Could you please keep an eye on Alex in the meantime?"
Behind him Erik had begun preparing for battle. He'd called the fifteen odd guns in the room to him and they formed a whirling circle around him, cocked and ready. Other bits of metal around the room began to crawl towards him and reshape themselves into long pointy blades that bristled around him like a hedgehog. He hummed slightly to himself as he turned the radiator into a massive shield, and decorated it with blades and its own gun in the center.
Charles considered. "Sean, looking after Alex might be a two-person job. Why don't you stay here as well?"
Hank made a token protest about leaving him alone and Alex thrashed a bit more, but Sean looked very relieved.
And with a wave of Erik's hand he lifted Charles' wheelchair and they were off.
Sean was kind enough to fetch Charles' hat from the corner. He wasn't self-confident enough to want to go around bald without one.
In case you were confused about what happened and how everyone ended up in the same place, here goes:
1. A group of rogue CIA vigilantes hunting mutants travel to Golden Gate, Louisiana after getting reports of a young boy with the power to make people see strange things.
2. Erik is looking for the vigilantes because he thinks that they might be responsible for his condition (Emma put him on their trail for fun, even though she knows full well that this is the wrong group, they don't have that kind of capability. She thinks Erik is funnier with his new powers anyway.)
3. Mrs. O'Henry overhears some of the vigilantes who visited her hotel looking for Erik talking about going to the Golden Gate Hotel next. She gives the address to Charles and Alex because she thinks they are going there to look for Erik. In fact, they are investigating reports of a different mutant; it's just a coincidence that Erik shows up.
4. Erik and Charles are trapped in an illusion by the mutant boy, who has no control over his powers and keeps doing this to people randomly, particularly when upset (like for instance when he is being attacked by some strange men in black).
5. Erik and Charles are now off to rescue the same boy who trapped them in an illusion, Charles because he's just that nice and Erik because he finds beating up on oppressive rogue government agents more fun than beating up small children, and thus intends to take out his anger over everything that happened to him during the last couple days on them.
And if you wanted to know why Erik and Charles' powers switched back, sorry not telling yet. There is a reason, in the meantime feel free to guess.
Oh, and about Alex? During the events in the movie he started thinking of Charles and Erik as his new parents. He didn't take the Beach Divorce well.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The street they emerged onto was silent and deserted. Charles said, "Everyone fled this area at the same time the receptionist did. It appears people have seen this happen often enough to recognize the first signs of an illusion and move out of range. It's coming from that house across the street and two buildings over, the one with the big fence. The illusions are pretty harmless if you stay in one place and don't bump into anything, some people have been known to sleep through them."
"Why us and not the other three?
"I'm not sure. Maybe because the child is looking for a strong adult presence right now; I can hear the poor boy crying for help. But something must have gone wrong when he made contact."
Erik remembered, "Oh, I heard someone shouting at me before the room went funny. Sounded like 'help.' I ignored it."
Charles sighed, "Oh, Erik…"
"And now you sound like my mother."
"Well, if you'd paid more attention we might have gotten out of that situation faster. My powers were wasted on you. Yes, that's the right house. Now, I have to warn you that once we enter we'll be back inside an illusion again."
Erik looked up at the broad metal fence, looming gothic style in front of an enormous brick house. And about ten men in gas masks standing inside, reaching for holstered guns as they noticed the duo approaching. "Um, Charles, I don't think those men are fake."
"Well of course they're not, we're not in the illusion yet. Are you telling me that you can't deal with a few men with guns?"
The tone of challenge held an undertone of amusement and Erik found a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He sent ten guns shooting into the air like fireworks, then reached out with the fence and wrapped it around the men's arms, pinning them in place.
Unfortunately, he forgot the feet, and someone kicked a plastic canister at them. Swearing, Erik leapt backwards, mentally tugging Charles' chair with him. Green gas spilled out and spread at an alarming rate. "Charles, hold your breath!" He started to send one of the metal blades he had floating around him forward, furious at himself for not finishing them off sooner.
The mindreader only smiled, and pressed a hand on Erik's arm to stop him. "Don't worry, it's only sleeping gas. And I stimulated the part of your brain that responds to soporifics so it won't affect us. You can just pull off their gas masks and their own gas will take care of them."
The gas masks did have some metal in the straps holding them around the head—Erik was deeply annoyed at himself for not seeing it sooner and gotten them both masks first thing. Although they didn't need them, as Charles has promised—the gas smelled sickly sweet but wasn't making him do anything but wrinkle his nose.
Charles said, "While you're at it, leave that older fellow on the far right his mask. He has a heart condition, so perhaps it's better if I just send him to sleep naturally. After all, he has a wife and three stepchildren."
Erik rolled his eyes but obeyed.
"Thank you. I'd also be grateful if you'd open the gate—and put the fence back. We both know that I'll be the one who ends up paying for property damage. By the way, I think I deserve most the credit this time since I dealt with the gas and I could have made them take off the masks on my own." He shot Erik a look of challenge.
Oh, so that was how Charles wanted to play it? He was so on.
Charles felt the ripple across his mind as soon as he passed through the fence. Everything around him changed—the cleanly cut lawn was suddenly full of tall pine trees, the house ahead had shrunk to a small cottage, and the path leading to it was bright yellow. It looked like a world born of someone who'd been reading the darker versions of standard fairy tales.
Charles pressed against the vision with his telepathy, trying to gain contact with the mind within it. But his calls generated no reply. He brushed against the boy—his name was Marvin—briefly, and suddenly sank back in his chair, feeling sleepy. He shook his head until the feeling was gone.
He reported, "Erik, we may have a problem. Marvin, that's the illusionist, seems to be unconscious. It means I won't be able to break this vision as easily as I hoped, because he's not even aware of what's real right now. Worse, he may be in danger; if it was some of the sleeping gas before that put him under then those men have already found him."
Erik said, "Then we had better hurry." He took off in a jog, Charles' chair floating behind him.
The telepath said urgently, "Erik, be careful! None of what we're seeing is real and we could run into a something hard any minute now."
Erik casually stepped right through a pine tree. "What do you take me for? I'll tell you what is real. The metal fence behind us is real, the metal wiring in the lights along the walkway is real—there's a step here—and the metal doorknob in front of me-" he placed his hand down on thin air and turned "-is real. And if you'll follow me, I can lead you to exactly where we can find fifteen gas masks, two coats with metal buttons, a gold necklace, and seventeen metal pants zippers, one of which is child-sized. They're in the kitchen—metal stove, refrigerator coils, plenty to work with there."
"Impressive," Charles said. "I can feel their minds now. The child is sleeping but someone is very scared. A woman. It's right that way." He pointed and was rewarded with a sharp pain to his finger.
"That way is the doorframe, which you just stubbed your finger on. I can tell by the hinges," Erik explained. "Just keep your hands in the chair and I'll get us there safely."
"I do not mean to sound discouraging, but there are plenty of non-metal items in a house."
"Less than you'd think. Almost anything manmade has small trace contents of metal in some of its components. And I can recognize an object from the pieces of metal in it and estimate its rough size." Erik began to move them forward. "See, that's a sofa we're swinging around. A very short set of stairs here, I can tell by the nails in the boards."
Charles could still see nothing but trees. But he noticed that when he came close to colliding with a tree, it wavered slightly and disappeared. And the location of the supposed cottage kept hopping around, making him dizzy when he tried to track it.
Erik turned another invisible doorknob. "Right direction, but it feels like that's a toilet. I don't feel another door in here, we'll have to keep going and find another way in."
"I couldn't feel anything with that much precision when we were in the last illusion," Charles admitted. "I barely noticed that the metal wasn't matching what I could see."
"You haven't had my powers for as long as I have," Erik said. "I wouldn't expect you to have quite the same bond with metal."
But his experience living with magnetism did mean that Charles could understand what Erik was talking about now. Another mutant could imitate the sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste of metal, but no one who hadn't experienced it could know quite the way metal felt inside Erik's head. Charles had never truly understood the half of what his friend could do before living with his power first hand. And what a magnificent power it was.
All in all, it was Erik's moment of glory. Charles felt it would be unfair to mention the angry family dog that had been locked in the bathroom that Erik had opened. It had been easy enough for him to calm the Doberman down without anyone ever noticing.
Erik brought them through two more doorways that didn't exist, with Charles careful to keep his hands on his lap. As promised, Erik was able to navigate them around most objects, albeit slowly. Erik went first, so that when they did bump into anything the metal shield he was holding in front of him made impact first, and in this manner they were able to proceed with no damage to their persons. (The house, Charles feared, would need some repairs.)
And then they were in front of what looked like a cottage door. The door was shaped like a half-circle and made of many colored stone, with cottage walls brown like gingerbread and a roof made of unrealistically yellow straw.
Charles said, "This is it, isn't it."
Erik nodded. "I'm going in first. I'll take everyone down, you try to keep the kid from hitting me with any more irritating mental attacks."
"Then I daresay we have as much of a plan that ever survives contact with the enemy." Charles felt no need to mention that he had no intention of leaving the entire fight to Erik.
This time, Erik tried the doorknob and found the door immobile, either locked or sealed shut. Typically, he kicked it in.
The scene in front of Erik was like one out of a Disney movie. Not that he had much experience with fairy tales, but something about the clunky nature of the images combined with the half-hearted attempt to look old-fashioned reminded him of a play he'd been forced to participate in as a child. (Little Red Riding Hood: Erik had been a tree.)
The room was still visually a kitchen, even if the fridge Erik could sense was missing and the stove was as tall as a grown man and spewing live fire. In front of the oven crouched a young woman in jeans and a sweatshirt, wearing a gold necklace. Both of her arms were wrapped around a small boy who couldn't have been more than four years old, red curly hair and fast asleep. Almost certainly she must be the mother. There were several open cuts on her arms and her ankle was bruised and bleeding. The pain was probably what had kept her from falling asleep, as Erik remembered from past experience (he'd once stabbed himself to keep awake after being drugged).
Around the room was an array of grey wolves, walking on two legs with lolling red tongues. The wolves seemed to be locked in combat with what looked like a cross between insects and gnomes—a rather ugly bunch of fairies.
Charles said in a low voice, "The wolves are more of the vigilantes from earlier. The insects are just fake but I'm not sure they realize. They might or might not be seeing the same thing we do."
One of the fake wolves noticed the intruders and pointed a finger at Charles. Or at least he seemed to point a finger—Erik felt a metal bullet fly in Charles' direction. He crushed it mid-air. He wondered what this man saw Charles as—or if he was just in the habit of attacking passing unarmed people in wheelchairs. That and frightened mothers trying to protect their children. Someone was seriously asking for an opponent their own size.
"Charles, do you think you can make them see me as I really am?"
The telepath shrugged. "If you think it would help, I can manage it."
Erik could tell the precise moment when Charles projected the image, as all eyes turned towards him. The looks were exactly what he would expect from someone seeing a lean dark man materialize with a whirl of sharp metal blades floating around him and a tall steel shield with an array of nasty looking guns poking out of it.
"Hi," he said. "If this is little red riding hood, then I guess that makes me the Hunter."
It was gratifying to see that wolves could look scared.
By the way, if you actually shoot anyone then you must realize that I will be your opponent as well, Charles said in his head. Erik was briefly irritated at this interference, but the undertone of esteem in Charles' voice was enough to appease him. It wasn't like he didn't have ample weapons in this room besides the guns.
He pushed his now-not-to-be-used shield in front of the woman and her child, and lifted the kitchen sink to club one attacker over the head, while upending the rest by their pants zippers and belts. The fridge with the metal on the handle made another great club, while he worked on turning the useful bits of pots and pans into a long length of chain.
The woman on the ground had her hands over her ears and was muttering, "It's not real it's not real I'm bleeding that's never happened before but it can't be real it's all going to go away."
Charles said gently, "I'm afraid your attackers are real even if they aren't quite what they seem to be at the moment. My name is Charles Xavier and this is my friend and colleague Erik Lehnsherr. It's a pleasure to meet you, Susan. We're here to help, I promise, and we have the situation well under control. Unfortunately your injuries are not fake, so if you'll come over here I'll help you put something around those cuts. I can't walk over myself, as you can see from my current condition."
Erik decided that Charles had the human relations part well under control, which was good because once the two victims got out of his way he could use that stove as a blunt weapon. It made such a nice crack over the head of another child-stealing racist jerk.
And the best part was, he finally got to see the full effect with his own eyes, as the illusion faded and the real stove replaced the cartoony one he'd been seeing before. It appeared that physical contact with the young illusionist had been what Charles had needed to break the illusion.
Charles looked around the room, at the men lying prone and moaning. "I think they've had enough. I'm also bringing over a couple more who came running at the sound of the racket. They're quite under my control so there's no need to hit anyone, but I think that length of chain you made might come in handy."
Charles was a spoilsport.
Erik surveyed the destruction in front of him with obvious satisfaction. Charles was more polite in his triumph. He was also wondering how long it would take Erik to notice that he wasn't wearing his helmet.
Hopefully long enough for Charles to demonstrate how noble he was by not doing anything intrusive or emotionally manipulative. Also, hopefully long enough for him to quietly memorize the locations to all the Brotherhood's current hideouts and future terrorist plans, because there was a difference between being noble and being stupid.
Susan had her arms wrapped around Marvin with a grip of iron, a justified reaction under present circumstances, and was looking at the two of them with no small amount of fear. Also justified given that Erik had just trashed her kitchen. Charles did a few mental calculations about what the right amount might be to offer as reimbursement, with a bit extra as an apology.
He told her, "We're on your side, I promise," sending out some mildly reassuring vibes. "These men attacked your son because of his unique gifts, and we'd like to protect him for the same reason. I know it has been very difficult for you, but you have help now."
"That's…good…nice…hat…" Susan mumbled before toppling over. The sleeping gas must have finally gotten her.
Charles suggested, "Erik, would please put them on a bed? I might be able to jolt them awake but they'd get headaches, it would be healthier to let them sleep it off."
He had been worried Erik might make some protest to being used as a draft horse, but the tendrils of guilt coming his way indicated that Erik was well aware of why Charles couldn't lift anything and wasn't about to protest about acting as his muscle.
As Erik placed Susan down on the master bed, Charles said, "She's been through a lot, you know, dealing with a child who thrust her into a nightmare world every time he had a bad dream. And she still tried to protect him with her life. In fact, this whole town has been experiencing strange shenanigans, and all of them know it's the boy. She and her husband told them the truth openly, and they all came up with plans to deal with the unusual occurrences without anyone getting hurt. No one tried to chase them out of town. So much for mutants and humans never being able to coexist, eh?"
Erik said, "And told these clowns were the child was, then, if not some of your precious good citizens?"
"That would be Mr. Parker two houses down. And if figures that when an entire town bands together to protect a mutant child who is genuinely dangerous to them, you focus on the one human who doesn't cooperate."
"Well, it only takes one, doesn't it? And the rest to look on in silence."
Charles was about to continue this debate further, but he noticed something that needed immediate attention. "Erik, it appears that our children have been fighting while we were busy."
"Please don't call them that," Erik muttered, and Charles snickered at the realization that he was shuddering at the thought of Emma as his "daughter."
"I think we'd better hurry. They appear to be fairly evenly matched which means the fight is dragging on, and I'm not sure that they are as skilled at non-fatal combat as you and I."
"I admire your optimistic assumption that they don't want to kill each other," Erik muttered as he took off in a run, bringing Charles with him.
A quick mental brush was enough to explain to Charles all he needed to know about the situation. Mystique had arrived with Erik but spotted Charles' trio of students before he had. Seeing that they were outnumbered, she had taken off to the nearest payphone to call Azazel and ask him to bring the rest of Erik's crew as back-up. And then, personalities of this gang being what they were, as soon as the two groups had laid eyes on each other it had quickly turned into a fight.
Charles couldn't help noticing how his three were holding their own against five attackers—it did his heart proud. He gave credit to superior teamwork. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say lousy teamwork by the opposition: Raven had sucker-punched Emma when she thought no one was looking.) But Alex had instantly forgotten his grudge with the other two when under external attack.
"Maybe this will be good experience for them," Charles suggested to Erik. "It might even be a bonding moment."
Erik ran faster.
Erik had this nightmarish image in his head of one of his ex-convicts killing one of Charles' students. Charles would never get over it; he'd likely take it much harder than he'd treated the loss of his own legs. And Erik—Erik thought it would be a waste of mutant talent, which surely explained why his throat was so tight.
But the first person he ran across—almost tripped over—was Emma Frost, lying face-down on the ground.
Charles said worriedly, "Oh dear, it appears that she while she was unconscious she wasn't able to spot the vigilantes-"
Erik ran through a few calculations about whether he could do without Emma, decided that he could, and said, "Her noble sacrifice will not be forgotten. Now, we need to go protect those still living." He quickly left Emma in the dust behind him.
Floating after, Charles said, "I hate to disappoint you, Erik, but she's not dead. What I meant to say was that she wasn't able to tell anyone about the canisters of sleeping gas. Riptide accidentally knocked one of them open in the fight and sent everyone in the vicinity asleep, including Emma."
"I'm not disappointed in the slightest," Erik lied. Now that they were approaching the irritatingly named hotel again, he could see the pile of mutants sprawled out in the ground in front of it.
Riptide was the farthest away, lying on top of an entire pile of black suited ex-government agents. Somehow both Mystique and Angel had one of Hank's arms tucked to their chests like a teddy bear, a fact likely to embarrass everyone when they woke up, but especially the shy scientist. Even more embarrassing was probably Sean using Azazel's stomach as a pillow, while Alex was lightly chewing on the red mutant's tail in his sleep.
"Do you have a camera?" Erik asked Charles.
Charles smirked. "No, but I have something better than that. I have mental projections, which have immortalized this moment for the rest of my life, and can be used for blackmail and humiliation purposes at any time."
As soon as the words where out of his mouth, Charles knew he had made a mistake. This last statement finally triggered Erik's awareness that yes, Charles was a telepath again, and no, he didn't have his protective headgear. If they were still keeping score of who could surprise the other the most times, then that expression would have been worth double points.
Alas, much had changed between them since those days, so instead of saying "Gotchya!" Charles was forced to say, "Erik, I should warn you that Emma Frost is now returning to consciousness, being the farthest away from the gas. I assure you that I will keep her out of both of our heads, which you should appreciate seeing how Ms. Frost is only your ally because she is slightly more amused at a world with you in it as opposed to a world without you. Even once you have retrieved your helmet from Raven's head, I advise you take care you don't end up in a dangerous situation that Ms. Frost might find funny."
Charles had been concerned that, given their past interactions, Emma might have a desire for revenge on Erik. But a quick glimpse of her mind during their current mental struggle had revealed that she was actually rather fond of Erik—albeit in the way that a woman with a fur coat might think a Dalmatian puppy was rather cute.
Erik just gaped at him. It hurt a bit that Erik was still worrying more about what Charles might do than Emma. "I myself have been using my powers only to both of our benefits, and I promise you I have not overstepped my ethical boundaries. If you don't believe that, at least believe I have had ample time to read your mind so any damage is already done. Susan and her son are walking up as well. We need to go talk to them, or at least I need to so that I can offer Marvin a place at my school. I'll be leaving as soon as my students are awake."
They were already starting to stir, Sean jumping away from Azazel as if burned and frantically trying to shake Alex awake as well, while Angel let go of Hank's arm but seemed to find it more funny to try and position Raven on top of Hank then help either of them wake up.
Erik said, "I'll stay here." And without another word he wrenched his helmet from Mystique's head with his powers and called it to his hands, where he swiftly used it to close off his mind.
And to make matters even worse, the scotch tape had flaked off and Charles' wheelchair had developed a flat tire. Between that and other damage he was now tilted awkwardly in his seat. Erik didn't even notice, much less offer to help, and Charles wasn't about to ask.
The conversation with Marvin's parents (Susan called her husband Tim, who returned from his job for the meeting) went smoothly. Both were grateful to have someone who understood what was happening to their child, and if neither was happy about being parted from him, it was obvious that both were painfully aware that they couldn't deal with him on their own. Even less so now that some very dangerous people knew his location.
Charles had promised them that they could visit any time they wanted and that he would pay for the plane fare (as he'd paid for damage to their house and the rest of the town). Hopefully Marvin would obtain enough control to come home by summer vacation, although Charles was reluctant to make promises at this point.
The vigilantes, Charles decided to call the real authorities to pick up. If nothing else it would be interesting to see what happened to them—would they be sent to jail for attempted kidnapping and murder or get off with a slap on the wrist from a sympathetic anti-mutant government? Erik would say that Charles was too forgiving—but Charles thought it was better to have an enemy that he knew about who could be watched for further damage, than create martyrs to the cause.
There was little left to do. Charles had retrieved his powers (albeit he still wasn't sure why). He had found Erik, as he had originally intended to do when conducting experiments with the unholy forces of science sans safety precautions. To avoid further conflicts between their respective teams, it seemed best to leave.
Erik did not argue about Charles taking the illusionist boy back with him. Perhaps he realized he didn't have space for children, or anyone so high-maintenance, while on the run.
The boy had sniffled a little when he realized that Erik wasn't coming with them, and Charles felt vaguely depressed and maybe a little guilty. Marvin seemed to see Erik as his personal hero and source of safety against the wolves of the world, and his absence had renewed his fears about leaving home. But what was Charles supposed to do? Erik wasn't giving him any middle ground here, nothing except 'help me with my vague plans to topple humanity or never see me again.'
Their final confrontation had been painful and brutally short.
Charles had forced his battered wheelchair to point in Erik's direction, giving himself a second flat tire, and said, "And now, we must go our separate ways, since I know full well that you weren't even slightly swayed by what I had to tell you."
Erik flinched. He also jerked his head to bring Azazel a little closer. Trying to disguise his hurt, Charles said, "But I hope you will give it further thought. You told me nothing could bring you peace, but I don't believe you can make anyone else happy while making yourself miserable. And if not to help your fellow mutants, why are you doing this?"
Erik looked away from him. Charles could barely stand the crushing weight of his disappointment, but at least now he knew there was genuinely nothing he could have said at the beach that would have spared them this end.
And perhaps a dozen postcards to Erik's formerly secret hideouts would help him further illustrate his philosophical points. Or at least drive the paranoid bastard absolutely insane.
Sometimes, Charles reflected, you had to take the pleasures of life where you could find them.
Sorry this chapter took longer than usual—but hey, it's three times as long! Only the epilogue is left now. I have a few loose threads to tie up, and yeah I will get around to explaining why their powers switched back.
Settling Marvin into his new room, check. Ordering a large number of repairmen over to the mansion, check. Testing out Cerebro and confirming that it did still work (albeit faultily at any distance greater than a mile), and ordering the parts he'd need to bring it to full efficiency, check. That left just one thing Charles needed to do before the day was over.
Charles knocked lightly on the door. "Alex, can I come in?"
"Sure," Alex called, and although his thoughts were less receptive, Charles chose to take him at his word. He turned the doorknob and wheeled himself in to Alex's room.
The teenager was lounging on his bed, posture loose but not quite willing to meet his eyes. "Am I in trouble?"
Charles said, "I'm not quite sure what would qualify as being in trouble in our household. Given that all of you have taken on the responsibility of fighting armed soldiers and genocidal maniacs, it's not really fair to treat you like children. I'm not going to ground you or send you to bed without supper. And I can't dock your pay like an adult because we've all been doing this hero business for free. Honestly, everyone has been well-behaved enough that I haven't had to think about this before now."
Charles was bombarded with images from Alex of various instances of property damage caused by the boys. He smiled. "Well, I'm as guilty of that as you now, so I can't complain. I suppose in matters of rogue powers we'll just continue to force whoever did the damage to help clean it up. And in the matter of endangering everyone during a mission—well, I don't think I can let you go on any more potentially dangerous excursions until I'm sure you won't do it again. That's all."
Alex pulled himself upright, bare feet dangling over the side of the bed. "Look, Professor, I am sorry. Not about trying to give the bastard what he deserved. But about putting everyone else in danger while we were in the middle of a bigger problem, yes, I'm sorry. If I could do it again I would have listened to you. I would have helped you deal with those suits and made sure everyone was safe before I let myself get mad at that guy."
"Apology accepted. Do you want to talk about why you were so angry? Because if you'll pardon a bit of inadvertent intrusion, I don't think it was entirely about Erik."
"Yeah, him," Alex growled. "Murderous lunatic nutcase. Was there a reason why we weren't kicking his butt before we left?"
"Because we were too busy trying to deal with the people trying to kill us," Charles supplied. "Also, because kicking Erik's butt would be quite a monumental task and likely to result in massive property damage, which the people of Golden Gate, Louisiana might not have appreciated. And I tend to think that we need a reason for starting a fight, not avoiding one."
Alex deflated. "Yeah, I know. I guess we didn't exactly do you proud in that regard today."
"…And yet I am reluctantly forced to admit that I was somewhat proud that you three were managing to handily win against five opponents before the sleeping gas turned it into a mutual KO."
"You think we were winning?"
"Absolutely. You had one down and one on the run, and I have every confidence that your plan with Hank to use Riptide to pin down Azazel would have sealed the fight in your favor. Yes, I'm proud of you, don't doubt that."
Alex said, "Tell me honestly…are you glad that you picked me up?"
"Of course I am! Why wouldn't I be?"
"Well, I haven't exactly done a great job! I blow things up by accident, I killed Darwin, and I watched Erik shoot you and stood there while he waltzed off with Shaw's entire gang!"
Charles said, "I know that you won't believe me just because I tell you that none of that was your fault. But if you're going to take full responsibility for everything that happened, that that also means you were solely responsible for saving the world from a nuclear holocaust, which some people would argue is a bit of an achievement."
"I killed Darwin with my own energy, but then when I saw Erik I wanted to kill him because of what happened with Darwin. Even though he wasn't even there. Isn't that funny? It doesn't make any sense."
"It doesn't, but to be honest I'd still rather you blamed Erik for everything that happened than blame yourself. There, I've established that I'm not perfect either. I'm carrying around some heavy mistakes for what happened then—much worse than your own."
This comment seemed to make Alex angry. "No you aren't, that's what I've been trying to get through to you! That it wasn't anything you did, it was him! Yeah, I'm sure he had all these problems and you feel terrible about not being able to fix everything. But we had something good going, when we were all living together. And then he had to mess it up. I've had a lot of homes disappear on me, often because of what I am or what I did but at least I never threw them away on purpose. I can't forgive him for throwing us away."
Charles said, "Erik and Raven leaving doesn't have to ruin this home. We're going to rebuild, keep finding more mutants. I've already started looking for your brother."
"You know about my brother?"
"I should have known about him sooner, Alex, I'm sorry. If there's one thing this experience has taught me, it's that telepathy doesn't give me more than a shallow idea of what's going on around me. Sometimes, if I want to know what people are thinking, I have to ask. If I'd ever asked the three of you if you had anyone you wanted me to find, then I would have known much sooner. Not perfect mentoring skills, there."
"Well, I could hardly expect you to read my mind-" Alex paused as he thought about that. "Um, I mean, just because you have telepathy doesn't mean you have to make it your business to find everyone's problems and fix them."
"Well, at the very least I can take care of one problem. As soon as I have Cerebro working again I'm not leaving that room until I've found your little brother."
Charles wasn't ready to say anything about his suspicions concerning Darwin and how an ability to adapt might survive massive energy overload—it would be too cruel if he was wrong. But Charles intended to look for Darwin as well. And keep looking, just in case it took a while to turn yourself back from a puddle of energy.
Charles added, "And I do have the right to feel responsible, because the thing about being a telepath is that unlike other people you can't use 'I didn't know' as an excuse. I have made mistakes, mistakes with Erik, that I don't intend to make ever again. That doesn't mean I don't hold Erik responsible for his actions. You can take my professional opinion that neither of you are to blame for anything that happened before our last fight with Shaw, that during the fight you upheld yourself to your full ability and did all of us proud, and Erik did fail you afterwards, through no fault of your own actions."
"Why did he do it, Professor? Sure, the army tried to kill us, but we survived, and then he was the one who made sure we wouldn't go home together."
"I don't really know, Alex. If I completely understood then maybe I would have been able to talk him down. Instead, we don't even seem able to see the same world anymore. But for what it's worth I don't think Erik wanted…" Charles stopped. It would be unfair to give Alex or any of the children the impression that Erik wouldn't hurt them. He himself was proof that intent was different from outcome.
"It doesn't matter what he wanted to do, it's what he did that's important," Alex said, unconsciously echoing Charles' own thoughts.
"Yes, I'm afraid that's how the world works. Intent differs from outcome, and it's not our intentions but our consequences that we have to live with. But Alex, you've already told me that you'd rather protect your friends than hurt your enemies, and as far as I'm concerned that makes you less of a child than Erik is. Welcome back to the team."
Alex's eyes widened. "Will Hank and Sean be upset if you just let me off the hook like that?"
"Both of them approached me separately asking me to go easy on you. Hank said if you hadn't done it he might have."
"Huh. The dweeb has come a long way. Don't tell him I said that."
"I won't tell him you called him a dweeb either, a habit I suggest you modify now that Hank is large enough to snap you in two with his bare hands. Or if I'm feeling particularly nasty I could convince everyone that it's an affectionate nickname."
Alex winced. "Got it, no more name calling. Please don't, Sean would make fun of me for weeks."
"No more reckless attacking, no more name calling, no more setting fire to the sofa. I think if you can just stick to that list, we'll be fine."
"I haven't had much luck with the sofa."
"Ah, well, that's one area where I'm prepared to be flexible. I have some absolutely hideous sofas that my mother brought while under the influence of alcohol, and we haven't gone through all of them yet."
"Professor, just...one more question. I have to know, when I attacked Erik—were you just mad because I had bad timing and didn't consider the danger? Or do you still not want anyone to fight with him, no matter what?"
Alex's thoughts told him this was a very important question. Charles took a moment before replying. "I'd rather you not attack first, under any circumstances. But I'm aware that we are likely to end up fighting Erik someday. And at that time, I intend to win."
Alex nodded. "We will win. We won't let you down, Professor."
It had been the right answer. It had even calmed Alex's anger somewhat to hear it. That didn't change how lousy Charles felt as he made his way back down the hallway, alone.
The simple fact of the matter was that it was unlikely that Charles would ever have a chance to work together with Erik again. Despite their success last time, their diverging methods have been obvious, and it was only going to become worse as human-mutant tensions increased. Erik had already understood that the next time they met would be as enemies. Charles hadn't wanted to accept that, but he had no choice, not if he was to justify the faith his team had in him.
For a second, there was a sound like static in his head. His hands stilled on his wheels and he lurched to a halt. But then it was gone.
The next day was hale and sunny and swelteringly hot—Charles cursed himself for having destroyed the air conditioner during certain unfortunate earlier incidents. Before anyone else had time to start cursing him as well, he'd paid double for some very fast repair service. Charles was pleased to be able to finally restore his home to its former condition, now that there no longer an out of control metal user in the vicinity.
Minus Marvin, who was still asleep (and known to have violently telepathic nightmares when his sleeping patterns were disrupted, so it was best to let him rest undisturbed) the residents of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters gathered around the table for breakfast. Alex had gotten through an entire meal without insulting Hank or even Sean, so Charles considered it a rousing success.
At the sound of a doorbell, Hank got up to let a few more repairmen in, then returned to their conversation around the dining room table. This batch was supposed to look at the elevator. Charles had had to do some very fast talking explaining why their elevator looked like something from the Jurassic had gotten lose inside of it.
As Hank sat down again, he commented, "I only hope we aren't repairing more damage from Marvin in a few days."
Alex said, "What happened last night was partly my fault. Sure, I was startled by a lion appearing in my room, but I didn't have to send a bolt at it. It was only inviting me to some mystical land in my closet or something."
Charles waved his hand. "I'm sure we can find some way to deal with his illusions. Perhaps rooming with me will do for now. If it takes a while to teach him control, then we might try to recreate Shaw's mirror room—never thought we'd have a use for that."
"I still think we should take this opportunity to metal-proof our house. We've seen what damage the Professor did by accident, it would be much worse if a certain someone was actively trying," Alex said.
Charles sighed. "I hate to admit this, but…you may be right. I don't like to think of fighting Erik, but given our present course some confrontation in unavoidable. Remaining unprepared won't change the reality of our situation."
A dead silence swept over the room. Honestly, Charles hadn't thought he was saying anything that profound.
Sean, jaw wide enough to encompass a hoagie sandwich sideways, raised a trembling finger. "Professor…behind you…"
Charles followed with his eyes to where the silver sugar-dish was hovering at chest-level.
Alex and Hank were on their feet, but Charles said, "Not Magneto." He could feel metal in his mind.
No sooner had the realization struck then the dish crashed back into the table. Control still not great.
Hank asked, "Your mindreading…?"
"No," Charles tried nudging the dish a little, just to be sure. It shot straight into the ceiling, leaving an unpleasant dent. But at least it hadn't gone clean through the ceiling this time. He smiled weakly. "I can 'see' how surprised you are, but I can't feel your thoughts."
It felt natural for Charles' head to be full company, but before he could mourn the loss of familiar voices, he found his mine full of iron, zinc, lead, silver, and bronze, jumping up against him like eager puppies. The switch was actually less of a shock compared to last time.
Hank's questions poured out of him in a flood. "Did you feel any kind of pain or physical reaction upon the transition? Could you detect any time lag between the loss of one power and gaining a new one? Does this feel the same as your previous condition, or is your control over metal weaker? Did a particular thought or emotion act as a trigger? Any adverse side-effects? Do you feel dizzy, drowsy, or prone to ripping the iron from our blood?"
"You may relax, I'm fine and I don't feel my abilities slipping. I think my power is weaker when it first appeared, and I also have retained some of my former hard-learned control, so there is no need to hide the silverware, Sean."
Sean, who had been attempting to discretely throw every knife in the room out the window, looked up sheepishly. "Sorry, Professor."
"On the contrary, after what's happened in the past I commend your quick thinking."
Hank steepled his fingers. "This is interesting. I wonder why your cure with Erik was temporary. Of course, we never fully understood why your encounter led to you switching back in the first place, so it's possible that proximity was the cure and distance has now reversed it."
Charles shook his head. "I don't think so. I happened to get a glimpse of Raven yesterday when Emma's shielding slipped while I was testing Cerebro—and they were all the way in Australia. I can't be sure but I think Erik is likely as geographically close today as he was yesterday."
Hank said, "Then maybe instead of distance it's a time-lag effect. We previously speculated that your mental contact within an illusion recreated contact through Cerebro, thus reversing the transfer. But suppose we need a more perfect duplication in order to have a complete cure."
Charles said, "I have a theory. I think we were initially correct, and this is about mental contact—but it's the nature of the contact that was important. My original powers returned to me when I worked together with Erik. And I lost my abilities again just now when I committed myself to taking an action against Erik. I think I might have noticed a similar effect when I was talking to Alex yesterday—I passed it off as tiredness. But that was also when I spoke antagonistically of Erik. And why did I use the experimental Cerebro to begin with?" He answered his own question, "Because I was looking for a way to avoid fighting with Erik."
Only Hank looked enlightened. Charles explained, "I think I can only retain my original powers while in a harmonious state of mind concerning Erik. It's not being in contact that's important so much as positive interaction. When we lose our friendly connection, our powers switch again."
Alex gaped. "What? Why would it work that way?"
"I'm embarrassed to say that I think Cerebro is trying to fulfill the original command I gave it. On the surface I was trying to boost my mind to find Erik, but what I was actually thinking about was reconciling with Erik—and I of all people should know that using telepathy while in a conflicted state of mind often has consequences. My own mistake, really. But Hank, I think this adds greatly to our research into improving on Cerebro's design, now that we understand it can boost my abilities in more than just distance."
"You don't look worried about this?" Sean asked. "I mean, having Erik's powers wasn't much fun for you last time."
Charles shrugged. "At the very least it is as much of an inconvenience for him as it is for me. Puts us on even footing, so to speak. But I'm actually prepared to turn this situation to my advantage. Even leaving aside the pleasure of Erik's company, it is good to know where he is so I can keep an eye on him."
"We don't know where he is. We're going to have to look for him again," Hank said glumly. "Well, we have it narrowed down to a continent, assuming he's still there, but Australia isn't exactly the smallest country around."
"Don't start packing yet," Charles said. "It would be a pity to miss him in mid-air."
Alex caught on first. "He'll be coming here."
"Erik may not have taken his chain of reasoning as far as I have, but he knows that it was finding me that cured him last time. And since he knows where I am, it would be easier to wait for him then try to find him again," Charles said. "This could be interesting."
Interesting? For a second Charles thought he could read minds again. But no, the looks on Hank, Alex, and Sean's faces had been vivid enough that even a metal-bender could read them.
"Your skepticism aside, I like to view this as an opportunity. At least while Erik is here, he is not out assassination anyone."
"Except us," Sean suggested.
"If he wants to stay here long enough for us to work on a real cure, he'll have to behave—or, knowing Erik, put on the sullen appearance of not planning to kill anyone immediately. I won't let him throw you off any more satellite dishes," Charles promised.
Charles couldn't help noticing that Alex was also looking thoughtful, although possibly his thoughts what this was an opportunity to do were going in a different direction than Charles' own. His ability to read people's expressions was improving—there was something to be said for practicing without his powers. That expression on Alex's face was the one which promised high-grade bullying at a focused target. Well, even that Charles could turn to his advantage—maybe Erik's companions would be more emotionally vulnerable if they were jumpy and lacking in sleep from various torments.
This was an opportunity, Charles knew it. With 24-hour access he'd be able to turn up the guilt on his ex-allies. Delay the cure. Have a serious brother-to-sister chat with Raven. Find a project to keep Erik very very busy. There was no shortage of possibilities
Really, he should have been the evil mastermind. He was much better at it than poor Erik.
Charles said, "What you fail to take into your calculations, my friend, is that in the long run, mutants aren't in any danger from humans. Oh, in the short run there's plenty of danger, Erik, you can stop thinking about concentration camps now. But in the long run, we're guaranteed victory."
"Well, I can see you're just dying to tell me how," Erik said, casting a longing look at the door.
Charles set his tea cup down on the living room coffee table. "You lost that chess match fair and square, which means it's my turn to give the speech. I listened to you without interruption when you won, didn't I? What I was trying to say was, the reason why humans can't drive mutants to extinction is because mutants are born of human parents. That means that even if someone managed to kill every single mutant currently living, it won't stop the next generation of people from giving birth to the exact same ratio of mutant children. If you'll note some of these numbers I brought back from Cerebro, last time I had my powers and Cerebro wasn't in tiny pieces, you'll see that the mutant birthrate among normal human parents is actually increasing, while mutant children continue to be predominantly mutant, indicating the inevitability of assimilation. In other words, they can't get rid of us because we are them."
"I doubt they see it that way," Erik muttered.
"And honestly, not that I'm advising this particular course of action at all, but we could probably accept every single anti-mutant law without fighting, and just wait for the laws to become irrelevant because everyone is a mutant."
Curious in spite of himself, Erik asked, "When do you see humans going extinct by?"
"It's not extinct, Erik, because we happen to be humans too. And if we make some assumptions that there won't be any successful mutant genocide and that mutants and non-mutants will be cohabiting, I would say, oh—five hundred years or so."
Erik slammed his fist into the table. "Five hundred years! Load of good that does us right now. You seriously think we should sit back and take crap for five hundred years, while waiting for paradise to develop-"
"If you were listening to me, Erik, I said neither of those things. I don't intend to sit around and I don't hold your optimistic ideas about a mutant-only paradise, either. I'm simply making the point that homo superior is the next stage of evolution and will remain the inevitable end state for humanity whether the current humans like it or not, which I thought you'd appreciate. And you've overturned my tea cup."
Charles' silver spoon hooked under the ceramic teacup and tipped it upright. Meanwhile, Erik's powers were only useful for telling him how damn smug Charles was about having far more control over his second set of powers than Erik did. It really wasn't fair at all.
"I don't suppose you're feeling any mind-reading start to come back yet?" he asked hopefully.
"No, Erik, I'm not feeling nearly reconciled enough with you for that. Shall we play another game?"