Erik deeply resented being made to wait. Somehow the fact that he was waiting to make some sort of ham-fisted apology made it even worse.
For almost a year, there'd been no word at all. Frost made contact a few times, once when Charles left the hospital, and once more to tell him that Charles was retiring from field work. He wasn't sure she hadn't done it just to twist the knife. From Charles himself, there was nothing.
When he did call, it came as something of a surprise.
"Who is this?"
"Have you forgotten me already?"
His voice was instantly affecting and familiar, as if they had just parted yesterday. Erik had to take a deep breath to make sure it didn't colour his reply.
"Gold star for you. How have you been, my friend?"
My friend. Erik's next breath came a little easier.
"Better than I was."
It was true. The relief had taken a while to hit, and when it did Erik found himself initially at a loss as to what to do. He'd never been at loose ends before. Never lived free from the shadow of a very specific fear with a human shape.
Things were becoming clearer, though.
"Good. Come to Xavier House; I have a task for you."
[one year ago]
Emma Frost's face was set in its usual impassive mask as she threw the door open and strode into the room without ever pausing to knock. If Erik hadn't known what to look for, he would never have detected even a hint of anxiety.
The disgust, on the other hand - that came through loud and clear. Not that it mattered. There was only one reason he'd been lurking in a hospital waiting room, glaring at everyone who dared approach.
(After fifteen minutes, two of Frost's pet agents had come in and taken him somewhere more private to wait, because you look like a serial killer out for his next victim, Lehnsherr.)
He stood with a clatter as one of her pet agents pulled the door closed behind her.
"How is he?"
Frost sighed. "Not as bad as it looked. A few broken ribs, shinbone fracture, significant blood loss, concussion. The doctors assure me he'll eventualy make a full recovery." Then, before Erik could draw breath to give voice to his relief, she went on, her eyes narrowing. "Physically."
That pause was more effective than a punch to the gut, and she knew it. Erik had to resist the urge to grab her by the collar and shake.
"Tell me what's wrong."
"His mind shut down to protect itself. I thought..." For a moment, she looked as troubled as he'd ever seen her. "It doesn't matter. He's awake now. I took another look inside and nothing's different."
Erik slumped against the wall, the events of the day finally making themselves known through the bone-deep fatigue in his bones. His next breath came much easier. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I would never have forgiven you if it were otherwise," Frost said easily.
"He'll be touched to know you care," Erik snarled. "Having put him in that - that situation to begin with."
There hadn't been time to think before, or it would have been obvious then. Why else did Frost allow him so much freedom to pursue a vendetta as close to her heart as as it was to his?
Frost's mouth twisted into a parody of a smile. "Well done. I thought you might figure it out, after the fact. Yes, I counted on him to stop you. Obviously, I miscalculated. You're not as prone to sentiment as I thought."
He flinched right on cue. "I never wanted to hurt him."
"And yet, here we are," Frost said, spreading her hands to take in their miserable surroundings.
The urge to hurt her flared into life in a flash - and died just as quickly. He could do just as much damage with words alone, after all.
"You knew there was a price to be paid as well as I did. You made a choice."
"I'm not denying it. I'm a practical woman, Lehnsherr. Charles...is invaluable to me because he dreams without limitations. I will not put him in harm's way again." Then, perhaps seeing the way Erik was barely restraining himself from pushing past her and finding Charles' room, she drew herself up and levelled him with a cold stare. "Don't try to see him."
Erik stiffened. "Is that an order?"
"It's for your own good," Emma said coldly. "I don't know what he'd do to you right now, and I still have a use for you."
Xavier House had seemed ridiculous to Erik the first time he'd set foot on the grounds. Now that he knew what it contained, the sight of the grand mansion bathed in sunlight took on a strangely sinister cast.
He was barely inside the gates when Charles' mind reached out in greeting.
Are you going to let me in?
It would be a fine thing if he came so far to be rebuffed at the door.
Walk up. I'll handle the rest.
Between one blink and the next Erik suddenly knew where he could find Charles, and the shortest way there.
Charles' directions led him to a study on the second floor, dominated by two large armchairs and a massive mahogany desk. Charles sat in the armchair facing the door. His whole posture spoke of relaxation; he smiled at Erik as if he was surprised and pleased. The trappings of wealth made him look like the careless young patrician he must have been once upon a time, indolent and harmless.
"Welcome back. Take a seat."
Erik stayed standing. There was a strange hollow feeling in his stomach - he was actually nervous. A year could be a long time.
"Charles, I - I know that nothing I say can make up for what happened."
"You're not even sorry," Charles said. He might have been discussing the weather.
Emma was wrong; anger would have been easier to bear.
"I can't be, not for killing Shaw. But I never meant for you to get hurt again. Tell me you understand that."
"It's fine, Erik. I knew what you meant."
Erik croaked out a sharp, bitter laugh. "You always do. I can't work out if that's mercy or punishment."
Charles stood very quickly, took the two steps that bought him into Erik's space, and cupped Erik's cheek. Up close, he was very pale and thinner than Erik remembered, but the intensity of his gaze was undimmed in the low light coming through the windows of the study.
"Both, I think."
[one year ago]
The most reliable currency of the mutant underground was information. Despite Erik's best attempts, few were willing to part with the secrets of Sebastian Shaw, a bogeyman to some and an anti-hero to others.
When he did end up with actionable information, he was often a step behind the shadowy reach of Division X. Again and again he'd find a trail cold and their fingerprints all over the dead end. At times, it was difficult to tell if they were collaborating with Shaw or trying to bring him down.
Lately, his sources had begun to repeat a single code name.
"You should talk to the Professor," said Angel. She waggled her eyebrows, as if unable to bear the sheer silliness of code names, and leaned forward across the table. "Everyone says he's after Shaw."
Erik shook his head. "I'd rather not bring the CIA down on me."
"Division X is not CIA," Angel said, suddenly very serious. "Everyone knows that, too. Think about it. Now, tell me what you found in San Diego."
She left the bar an hour later, but not before dropping a card on the table.
Erik waited until she was out of sight to pick it up, and couldn't help a smirk at the big, stylised X. The only other text on the card was a phone number.
It was another two months of limited progress before he folded and tried the number from a payphone.
"Hello. If you're calling this particular number, I assume it's about Shaw. Isn't it too early in the morning to talk about someone so unpleasant?"
The voice on the other end was male, soft, with a strong English accent.
"Never too early," Erik said, and cursed himself for sounding even a little amused. "I have information for you."
He did, of course, but that wasn't the point. Offering himself as bait was the best way to see what Division X did with its Shaw-related informants.
"Do you really. And here I thought anyone who knew anything was either under protective custody or dead."
Erik tensed. "Is that a threat?"
"No, no, of course not. Merely marvelling at my good fortune. Are you by any chance the man who's been on my tail for the past six months?"
His tail. Preposterous. "It's got nothing to do with you."
"No. It's about Shaw for you, isn't it, Erik Lehnsherr."
"If you knew, why haven't you had me arrested?"
He'd committed enough crimes in the course of his hunt for Shaw to get put away for life several times over, and Division X didn't need an excuse to clamp down on mutants using their powers in a way that risked exposure.
"Let me tell you something about Division X. We don't negotiate with terrorists and criminals, but we do occasionally work with them on a strictly confidential basis."
"A fine thing to joke about," Erik said dryly.
The man on the other end of the line had a nice laugh, low and quiet. "Who said I was joking? I'm offering you a chance to get at Shaw. Think about it."
"Tell me your name."
Erik had no idea what possessed him to say it.
"I'll do better than that. Meet me at the Atom tomorrow. Come after six. Let yourself in from the side entrance, I know you know how. I'll be in the White Room."