Chapter 1: Emma
Charles skimmed the datapad with a magnificent lack of concern, barely raising an eyebrow at its contents. "Emma, darling, this is field work."
It was the kind of attitude that reminded her of his first days at Division X, before he understood its true purpose and learned to make the role work for him. She'd thought him free of it until that unpleasant business last year landed him in hospital and prompted him to retire from active service. Speaking of which -
"And therefore beneath you, is that it? Remember your place, sweetheart. If that's even possible for you."
Perhaps she had allowed him too much freedom. Division X thrived by keeping its masters at the CIA oblivious of its true purpose, which had led to some inevitable lapses in discipline. Emma tolerated it for the sake of mutant interests, but it was occasionally very trying.
Charles blithely ignored her amused disdain. "Are you sure you want me for this?"
"Without a doubt. One, you can work with Mystique. Two, you have the right...skill set. Three - "
"I guarantee you haven't had an assignment this interesting since Sebastian Shaw."
The name worked on him like magic, as she knew it would. For a moment, it was as if he was back in that hospital room, small and pale and drugged up to the gills, but bright-eyed with fury.
Emma smiled. Inter-agency cooperation is one thing, but it doesn't mean we have to let SHIELD have all the fun.
I thought you liked me. For the avoidance of doubt: by 'fun', you mean 'investigate a creature with powers beyond human comprehension', Charles said. His face didn't change from its bland, pleasant mask. The grin was in the words, and the shiver of excitement he couldn't quite suppress when he spoke into her mind.
She knew then that she'd made the right choice. Precisely. You are something of an expert.
More than you know. Emma, darling, I have an idea.
[five years ago]
The day Emma Frost rose to the post of deputy director of Division X (and head of department in all but name), the neutralisation of Sebastian Shaw became its primary objective. Some might accuse her of having a personal agenda, an axe to grind against the man who was rumoured to have taken her from her family as a young girl.
Charles knew better. What Emma had was a vision for the future of mutantkind, one where they stepped out of the shadows into the light of day at last. Shaw was their target because he was one of the biggest threats to the realisation of that vision. Any score-setting beyond that was her own business.
They'd always understood each other, ever since the day they met.
Charles felt her before he ever saw her - a mind like diamond, glittering, unyielding and irresistable. He hovered at the edges, like knocking on a door, and was repelled with a sharp spike of pain that he could feel down to his toes.
A fine mind, primed to respond to any slight intrusion. Charles could feel himself straightening, shedding the skin of the stuffy academic he wore like armour. He was already smiling even as he turned to face her.
"Doctor Charles Xavier?"
"Not quite yet, but I will be in a few months. Apologies, I didn't mean to alarm you."
"My secrets are shared on a need to know basis," she said coolly. Her blue eyes were as bright as cut glass. "You don't need to know."
He always needed to know. But that was his secret, and he didn't share those easily either.
"I respect that."
She smiled, indulgent, even a little fond. "If you say so."
In that moment he fell a little in love with her, this woman who was content to let others have the illusion of power while she held all the cards.
That little bit of him she'd always have, to keep.
My name is Emma Frost. What do you know about Division X?
Charles raised his eyebrows. I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate my sister.
Don't concern yourself with that, she said coolly. I have a proposal for you.
Chapter 2: Hawkeye
Charles takes a trip to a SHIELD base.
With the passage of time, they'd come to trust each other. Emma knew almost all of Charles' secrets. All except the greatest, until now.
"I always did wonder what manner of monster created you," she said finally, with the barest hint of a smile. "Why have you never mentioned this before?"
Charles gave her the kind of smile she'd want to slap off his face. "Secrets. Need to know basis, darling."
Perhaps Emma had become far too used to his provocations. Her hand barely twitched, and she looked almost amused beneath the exasperation.
"I needed to know before I sent you to SHIELD all wrapped up in a pretty bow to deal with the mess Loki left behind."
That had been a rather fortunate coincidence. He would have told her then, if he'd known Loki would be back so soon. They could have planned for his return to their best advantage, instead of improvising around SHIELD and every other security agency in the world.
No matter. He would simply have to remember to habour less faith in Asgardian prisons in the future. Disappointingly, Loki's ingenuity in that department seemed to be atypical of his realm.
Charles swallowed back a chuckle with an effort. "Nobody else outside you and Raven knows. It was fine. Fun, even."
[six months ago]
Charles had come back from his enforced sick leave to find the world a changed place, with Loki the culprit. It seemed like a cruel joke after everything else that had happened in the past year, which was just about the only thing that convinced him he hadn't had a complete psychotic break.
Cruel jokes were very much in keeping with what he remembered of Loki's style, after all.
Charles' own sense of humour couldn't get past the body count. SHIELD had been as ready for an unknown alien threat as it was possible to be, and still so many had been killed. It was enough to make one question humanity's place in the universe.
What must have been going through the mind of the man in front of him?
"This is a surprise," Nicolas Fury rumbled. Unease hung in the air around him, none of it showing on his face. He hadn't expected Frost to send an underling.
Charles put on his most harmless smile. "Doctor Charles Xavier, sir. Division X. Director Frost sent me."
"I was told she'd be coming," Fury said mildly, all the while searching all he knew of SHIELD's intelligence on Division X personnel for any mentions of Charles. His mind was systematic, supremely well-organised.
"Director Frost is indisposed. I understand you need a telepath."
Fury had finished mentally reviewing SHIELD's meager file on Doctor Xavier and was now making a note to update their intelligence later while weighing up the risks of letting Charles do the job he'd wanted to entrust to Emma. Aside from what was on the record, he knew Charles was a close confidant of the de facto leader of Division X, which already put him ahead of most so-called intelligence experts.
"What did Frost tell you?"
In truth, not much. Which was unusual in itself. "That SHIELD had sent an urgent request for assistance with a delicate matter."
"You could say that," Fury said wryly. "All right, come with me. What do you know about the background to the Chitauri Invasion?"
"As much as SHIELD has deigned to share with the CIA," which was the safe answer, and therefore the only answer. Officially, Division X knew as much as any other CIA department.
The look on Fury's face as he stopped before a pair of thick steel doors was equal parts amusement and polite skepticism.
"I'm about to share a whole lot more. You understand what I'm saying."
Inter-agency cooperation worked on a strictly reciprocal and confidential basis, especially when it was with SHIELD, the child with all the best toys on the playground. In his field agent days, Charles had heard (and heard) all sorts of stories.
He smiled thinly. "Division X knows how to keep secrets, sir. We've all had a lot of practice."
"That you do," Fury said quietly. He didn't smile back, but something changed in the cast of his face in the brief moment before he turned back to face the security panel. Without his extra sense, Charles would never have recognised it as what it was - a sign that he'd passed a test.
Fury tapped the smooth, dark surface of the panel and spoke into it. "I've got the telepath with me."
"Well, I have been a good boy," Charles said softly, his smile widening at the edges as the double doors slid open to reveal what looked like a medical bay, all bright whites and humming machinery, overlooked by a glass observation deck.
There were some simply fascinating minds up there, not to mention the one belonging to the man perched on the only bed in the room.
Every alarm on the surface of Clint Barton's strictly governed mind had flared at once when he heard telepath.
"Doctor, Agent Clint Barton. Barton, Doctor Charles Xavier, Head of Operations at Division X."
"Hello, Agent Barton, I am so very pleased to meet you."
Barton hesitated very briefly, almost imperceptibly, before he took the hand Charles was holding out. "Wish I could say the same, Doc. But given the circumstances..."
Fury stepped in smoothly when Barton trailed off, unsure of how much he could divulge. "Agent Barton was compromised during the Chitauri invasion."
Funny wording, that.
"Hypnotic mind control courtesy of Loki's sceptre. Unfortunately, we can't be sure of the exact effects, or what...side-effects it may have after the fact."
In other words, SHIELD were concerned Loki might have left them a few surprises, planted deep in the minds of some of their best agents. And who could blame them?
As part of the highly irregular (and to Fury's mind, asymmetrical) deal with Asgard for Loki to be deported, imprisoned and kept away from earth, they hadn't been allowed to keep most of the alien technology left behind after the invasion. Anything that looked like it might be compatible with what SHIELD knew of Asgardian technology had been claimed by Odin's ambassador.
All this passed through Fury's mind in a flash. He'd been most unimpressed at the time, and they'd hidden what they could, but it was difficult to evade detection when they had no idea what the Asgardians were scanning for.
There was nothing more unnerving to an intelligence agency than a potential enemy that was so technologically superior as to be unknowable.
"Ah, yes. I go on leave for a year and come back to find that the sky's fallen on Manhattan," Charles said drily. "The CIA's still mystified by what happened, by the way. You're the only ones with anything close to a complete picture."
Fury would be brilliant at poker. "We'd like for it to remain that way."
Barton slid off the bed with almost no noise. His every movement was quick, precise, his mind turning over like a well-oiled machine.
"Let me do this. Look, no one likes the idea of an unstable assassin running around. The higher ups need to know I'm clean. I need to know I'm clean. Can you do that?"
Charles held his bright, penetrating gaze. "A mind is a mind, Agent Barton, no matter what has been done to it. If there are any traces of Loki's work, I'll spot them."
He knew what the scars left by Loki's work looked like.
"And nothing else," Barton said, narrow-eyed and suspicious. Very wisely, he distrusted the appearance of sincerity, and Charles was nothing if not sincere.
"Of course," Charles agreed. He stepped closer to the bed and had to fight back a surge of nausea at the distinctive and universal scent of medical facilities - no matter how sophisticated, they all smelled basically the same. "If you could just sit back down and relax."
Barton smiled humourlessly. "Do you want me to close my eyes and take a deep breath? Say 'aaaaah'?"
"That won't be necessary. Close your eyes if you're uncomfortable with being stared at."
As he'd expected, Barton didn't even blink. "Go ahead."
Charles raised two fingers to his temple. It had been a very long time since he'd needed the gesture, but it was quite handy for putting people at ease. Somehow, they generally assumed it was an effort to switch his power on.
Clint Barton's mind was just as neatly organised as Fury's, in its own way. Whereas Fury's made Charles picture rows of filing cabinets, Barton's was a maze. The mind was highly resilient - more often than not, it adapted to survive trauma. Barton hid things from even himself.
The sceptre had allowed Loki entrance, but it did not allow him to permanently change the balance of someone's mind. The best he could do was look into the dark corners, rearrange some furniture, sow confusion and fear, and keep the person docile for a short while. Subtle enough, but entirely lacking in depth, and quite likely to lead to future instability.
Barton's resilience had served him well. His mind had already reorganised itself around the damage and eliminated any risk of a breakdown.
"I can't feel anything," Barton said into the silence, brow furrowed.
Charles smiled serenely at him. "If you could, I wouldn't be very good at my job."
"Somehow, that's not reassuring."
"Would you like to feel it? I thought, given what happened - "
For the first time, something resembling warmth flashed through Barton's gaze. "Yeah, fair enough. Thanks. I think I'd rather know, though."
Charles bowed his head. "I'll remember that for next time."
"You're finished?" Fury said. The surface of his mind was all honest concern and he was dangerously close to hovering. It had been more than a little distracting to have such a quick mind whirring away right there as Charles worked. "Anything?"
"Not at all. You're fully recovered, Agent Barton." Charles folded his hands together and put away his smile. "Now, please tell me why I'm really here."
Fury nodded at Barton, who relaxed visibly into a seated position from which he could only kill Charles in about five distinct ways in less than fifteen seconds. "Sounds like you already know."
"I'd like to hear it in your own words," Charles said.
The difference between what people thought and what they said was always instructive.
Fury sighed heavily. "We have in our custody other agents, lower level agents, who are still affected by the sceptre's power."
Not surprising. Blunt force trauma wasn't a guaranteed cure for hypnotic control, and one could never be sure that the person they got back would be anything like the person who'd fallen under. Charles had fiddled with more minds than he'd had hot dinners, but he was always careful to do no more harm than strictly necessary, and Loki's cheerful disregard for the mess he'd leave bothered him on more than one level.
"You were right to contact Division X, Director. I'll see what I can do. "
Barton patted him on the shoulder, grinning with real humour. His matter-of-fact solemnity had struck a cord, apparently. "You always this nice, Doc?"
Charles laughed softly. "I'm on the side of the angels, Agent Barton. Don't you worry."
Chapter 3: Charles
Charles goes home.
With his particular talents, his target proved disgustingly easy to find. Years ago, Charles had formed the opinion that this particular scourge of earth was far more interested in certain kind of attention than in pure destruction, and events since had not changed his mind.
Two days ago, an unknown alien device of Shi'ar origin was stolen from a SHIELD outpost in Poznan. Since then, SHIELD had learned that:
- said device - the Dagger of M'Kraan - could be used for mind control on a limited scale;
- their agents clearly needed more training in resisting psionic attack;
- many European governments did not relish the thought of an US intelligence agency making such a mess in continental Europe; and most importantly
- that Loki was responsible.
In the file Charles had been given, there had been a sardonic note from Emma reporting that SHIELD had been persuaded against its usual 'shoot first and ask questions later' approach after the Hulk fell under the Dagger's power. The vigorous protests from the German government after Loki had set that magnificent creature on the other side of the Polish border had given even the most militant members of the Council pause.
It was a small window - the Avengers were not known for being daunted by setbacks, and would surely try again soon - which left no time for subtlety.
Charles opted to walk right up to the entrance of the overrun base in Poznan. The minds of the perimeter guards were clouded over with a peculiar blue haze, one that Charles recognised. He could break the control - the Dagger was a crude device, designed for brute force and not much else, not for true control as telepaths knew it - if he wasn't saving every bit of his power for what was to come.
Just a tendril, a wisp of a thought over the top - that, he could do. Hello. Please take me to your leader.
Loki dressed as a human was always surprising. He carried his abnormality with the kind of ease Charles had taken years to learn. The disquiet that flickered across his face when Charles set foot in the control room looked almost perfectly genuine.
"Charles. What a pleasant surprise."
"Why are you here?" Charles asked, and had to suppress a wince at the way the words came out - lost, almost plaintive.
Loki perked up like a beast scenting blood. His smile was positively joyous. "Am I not allowed to visit? You've lost all your manners."
"Allow me my petty jealousies." Charles ducked his head and smiled back, not bothering to hide the sharp edges. "You come here again after all these years and you don't even bother looking for me?"
Like all the best lies, it had the advantage of being almost entirely true. He'd been well taught.
"I thought you dead when I left, child," Loki said, so quietly it sounded sincere, and only Charles' powers told him how many layers of lies there were underneath that particular truth. As for what was hidden at its heart -
He closed his eyes and leaned into the touch when Loki cupped his cheek. "You taught me better than that."
And yes, that was real pride on the surface of his mind, and in his smile. "Did they know what they were doing, sending you here? Baiting me?"
"The things Division X doesn't know about me could fill a book. It'd be a good read, too."
"Answer the question," Loki ordered. His fingers were very cold against Charles' skin, digging in hard enough to bruise.
Charles opened his eyes with an effort. "No, they didn't. I wouldn't do that, not to you."
A thin smile. "Prove it."
Only the greatest measure of control kept him looking up into those hungry eyes.
"Tell me what you want done."
Loki gave him a tiny, approving nod. Charles had always been good at coming up with the correct answer. "You've been busy, Charles. Bring me your pet metal worker. I require the use of his talents."
Charles barely kept himself from flinching.
"Erik Lehnsherr is dead."
Loki raised his eyebrows. "Is he really?"
If he was ever going to fall off the tightrope, this was the moment for it.
"Allow me to clarify: Erik Lehnsherr is dead to me. You're welcome to him."
"You're less forgiving than I recall," Loki said approvingly.
"I tend not to have a high opinion of anyone who leaves me in mortal peril," Charles said. Like most of his best lies, it had the benefit of being very close to the truth.
Loki laughed out right, heartfelt enough that Charles shivered. "Lovely. Do you resent me?"
"I know that nothing mortal ever had any claim on you," Charles said, before he could think better of it. "Not like the Asgardians - "
"Answer the question," Loki snapped.
"Ah. Good." The long, cold fingers left his cheek and stroked a few stray locks of hair off his forehead. "What of the machine in the heart of Xavier House? Am I welcome to that too?"
Charles did not have to feign suprise. He had not reckoned on Loki knowing about the machine.
"You inspired it."
Loki had bought out the circlet after the first time Charles demonstrated full control of another human. With it on, his powers were enhanced almost beyond what he could bear. When Loki saw that his mind was overwhelmed, bending and breaking under the onslaught of information, he waited long enough for the lesson to sink in.
You are not strong enough.
Then he removed the circlet, and training began again.
Won't remain a WIP for long - the last couple of chapters are almost done.
Chapter 4: Mystique
The life and times of Raven Darkholme, Division X operative.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Raven. Wake up.
It was like coming out of a long, vivid and deeply unpleasant nightmare. Which Raven decided was an apt description of events, after she had a moment to adjust to being fully in control of all her facilities again.
Whatever Charles said about the Dagger in his freaky snobbery about mind control, it did its job too well for her comfort. Even with all the training he and Emma had put her through, Raven had barely retained enough will to keep to her current disguise of choice.
Eeeergh. I've never been so glad to hear you. What's the plan?
Charles' presence in her mind was light and warmth, chasing away the shadows the Dagger had spawned. For once, she welcomed it.
In a way, it was home.
We're going to need a few more people on this, Charles said finally, after a very long - unusually long - pause.
Fine. Just make it quick. If Loki checks on me now, my cover is toast.
You don't mind bringing others in? Even if one of them is Erik?
What do you need that son of a bitch for?
Her voice dripped with venom. Even a year later, she could barely think about the events of that day without everything going red at the edges.
Charles's mental wince was very loud. Raven, we've been over this -
I didn't save your life for you to almost end up dead again because of that bastard.
Charles' presence in her mind pulsed brighter and warmer for a second - the mental equivalent of a hug, for him.
Noted. Nevertheless, we need Erik's power. Loki knows about Cerebro.
Raven felt a chill go down her spine.
Charles laughed. That sums it up. We need to keep him occupied with his current scheme. He means to use the Dagger to control powerful mutants. Make them strike at the centers of human political power.
What would that achieve? Aside from the worst coming out party ever.
The prospect of mutantkind's great debut being ruined isn't very appealing, I admit. But it's worse than that. The mutant will make targeted strikes on a state hostile to their own, either on its political epicenter or at some other flashpoint -
-then sit back and stroke the flames until everyone's confused and scared and every stand-off turns into a war. Raven whistled, genuinely impressed with the sheer nerve of such a plan. There was the mind of a true megalomaniac. That is clever. And the Council?
He won't turn many of them - that would raise suspicions. But on a consensus-based body riven by discord, one is enough.
She hadn't been in New York for the Chitauri invasion, but she'd seen all the video, enough to be a little jealous of Loki's gift for causing trouble and a lot angry about his petty ambitions. Chaos was once thing - and with this plan, chaos he would get - but for what?
That's pretty good, actually. He's got the humans figured out. What's the point? What does he want?
What does anyone want? Charles answered, after a long pause. She had a feeling they weren't talking about the same thing anymore.
Once upon a time, she'd promised to make sure he never had to sound like that again.
I'm sorry. I should never have let you join Division X.
This time, she got the projected image of a bear hug as well as the warmth. Please don't say that. Loki might have shown me the scope of my power, but you were the one who showed me what I had to do with it. I can't regret that for an instant.
She hugged him back as well as she could, and held on. All right. Are you sure you're all fine to do this?
Sure. Neither of us are strangers to betrayal, after all.
She didn't ask again. He'd talk about it when he was ready.
[ten years ago]
For Raven, mutation had always been more an identity - it had given her the tools to survive, and then to do more than survive.
She started out doing small scams, thieving, anything that got her fed and clothed. The crimes got bigger as she got better at her disguises, and understood more and more of the world. Human institutions had done very little right by her, and she owed them nothing in return. Why not make the best of what she had?
For a while, life was good. Then she got caught.
It turned out bigger wasn't always better. She'd gotten careless with her heists, they'd been a few too many inexplicable events leading up to missing artwork or jewellery or sensitive documents.
She should have never taken the weapon specs job. Stealing from government agencies was always fun, but it wasn't worth having SHIELD on her back. And now she was stuck in custody at some base in the middle of nowhere and probably about to be disappeared into a lab.
The man in charge was a picture of nondescript efficiency, right down to the cuffs of his white shirt and the scuff-free shine of his leather shoes. He hadn't taken his cool, evaluating gaze off her since she'd been bought in. It was hard to tell through the thick glass of her cell, but she was increasingly sure he didn't need to blink. Only the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes hinted at a sense of humour, which would be promising in other situations, but in her experience humour was not always good in jailers.
Maybe she could goad or charm him into some answers. Her favoured blond mask was always good for that.
"I've been here for, what, two hours? You haven't even offered me a phone call. I thought we were still in America," Raven said, and tried a smile.
There wasn't even a twitch on AgentBot's face. "Don't transform. Even if you get past me, there are approximately twenty SHIELD agents and ten locked doors between you and freedom. I will use the taser if I have to, but only if I have to. Clear?"
Ten locked doors. She could do ten. "Crystal."
Two hours later, Raven was just about to give her tentative escape plan a go - out of boredom, if nothing else - when the steel double doors of AgentBot's control room swooshed open.
The woman who came through looked like she had no business being on the secret base of an intelligence agency. Raven had met and conned any number of bored, rich women who looked like her, and it would have been easy to dismiss her as one more but for the way AgentBot tensed, even as he stood to greet her.
Not much, it was true. Anyone else would have missed it. Being an expert on body language was useful in many, many ways.
"Director Frost. May I ask what you're doing here?"
Frost. So that was the infamous White Queen, the woman some in the mutant underground called a blood traitor and others their best hope for the future. Raven leaned forward despite herself, riveted.
"The CIA claims jurisdiction over Raven Darkholme. It's a matter for Division X, you understand."
"If you say so, ma'am," Coulson said, matching her cool smile with one of his own. "I'm going to have to check in with Director Fury."
Frost shrugged languidly. "Go ahead."
Coulson spoke very quietly into his phone. "Director, I have Director Frost from Division X here asking for custody of Raven Darkholme."
"Asking," Emma repeated, amused. "If you like."
Raven's head was spinning. If Coulson was right, and Division X wanted her -
She'd heard of them, of course. Everybody in the unstable, fearful world that was the mutant underground had, and no one really knew what to make of them. Which should probably have been the first sign that the illusion of human control was just that.
"For what reason?" Coulson was asking. He frowned minutely at the answer.
By the time he turned back to Frost, the polite smile was firmly back in place. "Everything seems to be in order, Director Frost."
Frost inclined her head. "Please arrange the transfer. Until later, Agent Coulson."
It took a while before Raven got around to wonder why the intercom had been left on so she could hear the entire conversation. That was before she truly understood anything about Emma Frost, a process that began on their flight back to New York, when Emma turned to diamond and told her the truth.
She'll never forget it.
"I know you've done your best to blend in and survive. We all do it. But mutants won't be in the shadows forever. When we step into the light, it shouldn't be as second-class citizens. Join me, and we can make sure."
Raven tore away her blond mask and took Emma's hand. She could hardly do anything else.
[nine years ago]
When Raven first saw Charles, pale and thin, shivering in a black coat that was much too big for him and all alone at midnight on the front steps of her apartment building, she thought he was crazy. It was the empty look in his eyes that did it.
"Are - Are you all right?"
You're real, echoed through her head, as loud and clear as anything Emma had ever said. He began to smile. Hello.
Then he pitched forward and she had her arms out to catch him before she could think better of it.
Well, she could hardly stand by while there was a fellow mutant in need. Except she had, before. It was a hard world and everyone had to think of themselves first.
Something about his lost expression had got to her. It was the same one she used to see in the mirror, a long time ago.
A single night turned into a few weeks, and before long she got used to having the homeless telepath on her couch. It was a bit like having a cat. He barely spoke out loud, except to thank her and offer to cook (very badly) and do the dishes (barely acceptable).
After two weeks, she made him a key and left it on the kitchen table. The next day, he bought Chinese for dinner from her favourite Chinese place without ever asking her food preferences and had everything ready before she came home.
She probably didn't want to know where he'd gotten the money from, but the sentiment was nice. "Wow. Thanks."
He smiled as if he'd heard the unspoken thought. I should introduce myself. My name is Charles Xavier.
"You're a telepath." Like Emma.
Two weeks ago, comparing him to Emma would have seemed ridiculous. But the person standing in front of her now was nothing like the one she'd found out in the cold. It was like meeting a completely new man.
Raven held out her hand. "I'm Raven Darkholme. But I guess you already know that."
"Yes. Would you please - you don't have to look human," Charles said quietly, as they shook. He had big, powerful hands, cold to the touch, almost entirely free of calluses. "This is your home."
Charles nodded, held her gaze as she rippled into her own blue skin, and beamed at her real face.
"Thank you, Raven Darkholme. You saved me."
Raven shrugged. She'd never been comfortable with an overload of sincerity. "Least I could do for a fellow mutant."
"No, you don't understand," Charles said, suddenly intent with the kind of focus that she hadn't thought him capable of. It was hard to look away. "You saved me. I can never repay that debt."
She hugged him.
"Seriously, don't worry about it. Just promise not to cook again."
That was the first time she heard him laugh.
Charles was Charles again, but he wasn't better. He clearly still needed someone to take care of him and there had been no one else for the job. Raven made sure he was back on his feet, and just never got around to kicking him out.
In the blink of an eye, he was getting his doctorate from Columbia and she was introducing him as my little brother, the Manic Pixie Dream Professor.
Sometimes, they told outsiders he was adopted, and she joked about him following her home as if he'd been a stray cat.
"I once was lost but now am found," he'd say, smiling, and kiss the tips of her fingers.
She laughed, "sometimes you are so creepy," and didn't think too deeply on it.
Somewhere along the line, she got used to Charles the academic and forgot to guard against the person she'd first met, the layers underneath she'd seen in those early days, when Loki's scars had yet to scab over.
She never meant for him to become involved in Division X.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/
That saved a wretch like me/
I once was lost but now am found/
Was blind, but now, I see.
Charles is creepy.
Chapter 5: Interlude I: When Charles Met Erik
Charles, Erik, and the fallout from the Sebastian Shaw affair.
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."
I promise to get better at estimating the length of WIPs. *g*
Chapter 6: Interlude II: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Erik's pursuit of Shaw leads him to Division X and a man named Charles Xavier.
[one year ago]
(As for those who didn't care about legality, their ever-diminishing numbers spoke eloquently about Shaw's resources. Erik wasn't going to let himself become one of the disappeared. Not before he saw Shaw breath his last.)
If the meeting was a trap, it was extraordinarily ill-conceived. He'd become so familiar with the feel of the Atom in the last year or so that he could probably pull apart every single scrap of metal there and put it back together. Since Division X had been spying on him, as was now apparent, they surely knew that.
Known to outsiders for horrendously over-priced drinks and an unabashed dedication to 1950s nostalgia, those who knew the true face of the Atom valued it for its comfortable back rooms, which catered primarily to those who comprised the mutant underground of New York. Erik had spent far more time there in the past year than he'd care to remember, following clues that evaporated into thin air or turned out to be more dead ends.
It was the work of a few seconds to get through the side entrance door and slip inside unobserved. Once inside, he started along the narrow, dimly lit corridor, peering at the heavy wooden doors until his eyes fell on one bearing an empty name plaque.
This was the infamous White Room, Division X's home away from home, where they made under-the-table deals with those they supposedly hunted.
Erik's senses swept ahead of him, seeking an arsenal in the room beyond and finding none. Surely no one was arrogant enough to meet an increasingly infamous mutant terrorist unarmed. Surely not.
Curious despite himself, he rapped smartly on the door. It swung open almost immediately, and he was tugged inside by a firm hand on his wrist.
Erik had the other person by their shirt and slammed up against the closing door before the lock clicked. He glared down at them and got a mischievous grin for his trouble.
"Ooh, hello. Would you let me down, please?"
It was the man from the phone. He looked younger than Erik had expected - mid-twenties at the most, wide-eyed and fresh-faced. Not old enough to have earned the calm amusement in his voice. With the added complication of mutation, though, there was no guarantee that he was showing Erik his true face.
Erik dropped him none too gently and didn't step back out of his space at all. "Don't touch me."
"Noted. It's a pleasure to meet you properly, Mr Lehnsherr," said the other man. He held out his hand, apparently undeterred by Erik's incredulity. "My name is Charles Xavier."
"Is that your real name?" Erik said, amused despite himself.
Xavier smiled, looking up at Erik through his lashes. "I did promise."
He went along with the handshake. Xavier had an assured grip and very cold hands.
"What good is a promise to the CIA?"
"We're not just CIA. And you know it, or you wouldn't be here."
The alternative explanation being that he was desperate enough not to care, which was not something he wanted Xavier thinking. Erik settled for a shrug. "Maybe I just don't care about the dirty politics of security agencies."
"I very much doubt that," Xavier said evenly. "Tell me, Mr Lehnsherr, what do you think about Shaw's gospel? Were mutants born to rule?"
Erik felt a chill go down his spine.
"Humanity is weak. My dear boy, you're much better off without silly attachments to their kind. We were born to rule."
"I think we're meant for something better than mere survival," he said eventually, when he trusted himself to speak.
"Of course. In the meantime, though, we're constrained by what's possible. The first step is to understand just what that is, for people like us."
"Understanding. Somehow, I can't see that being the main aim of Division X."
Xavier rolled his eyes, and Erik revised his estimate of the man's age down by five years.
"We've been after Shaw for a long time. Everyone knows it. Why do you think that is?"
"Some in the underground say you're plotting a revolution."
"Do you believe them?"
"I'm not that naive."
Xavier's smile widened. His eyes were a peculiar, cold blue. "Naivety has very little to do with it." Imagination, on the other hand...
Erik flinched. His knife was in his hand and against Xavier's throat before he processed what he'd felt.
"You're a telepath."
Xavier leaned back against the door. If he was bothered by the threat of imminent bloodshed, it didn't show. If anything, he seemed impressed. Did I forget to say? Yes, I am. And I've been looking for someone like you for a long time.
He smiled, luminous, and Erik found himself staring for a beat longer than he wanted to, caught by the joy in his eyes.
When Xavier led him to the de facto head of Division X, Erik had been braced for some sort of recruitment speech. He hadn't expected Emma Frost to be honest.
"I was adopted by Doctor Schmidt at the age of twelve. The rest - you know the story. You're the same."
The idea of having anything in common with a traitor to the name of mutant would have seemed laughable to him, before. Frost being a former ward of Shaw, though - it made sense. That single fact slotted into place like the last, missing piece of a giant puzzle, and finally shed some light on the behaviour of Division X.
Maybe their ends weren't so different.
"He twists everything," Erik said quietly.
He killed my mother.
Frost nodded. "It's how he works," and maybe she did know exactly what she was talking about, if the look in her eyes was any indication. "Work with us, and you'll have your revenge. We'll find Shaw."
"How can you be so confident, if you've been chasing him all this time?"
"Say yes, and I'll tell you."
"And if I refuse?"
"You walk away from the greatest opportunity you'll ever have to catch him."
Frost's sudden smile looked like something he'd see in the mirror on a bad day, and that was why Erik agreed. He was curious, if nothing else.
The next morning, he was picked up by a black limo at the pre-arranged time. Frost hadn't even pretended not to know his address, and when he made a mocking comment about being too conspicuous, she'd given him a faintly condescending smile.
"You normals have such funny ideas about security."
Erik focused on not grinding his teeth together. "Normals?"
"Non-psionic. I'm surprised you haven't come across the term, with all that time spent underground."
In all Erik's time in the mutant underground, he'd come across two psionics who were willing to admit to it. Neither were very powerful.
"Psionics don't out themselves."
"Don't you think that's sad?" Frost asked. She sounded entirely sincere, and yet something about her smile managed to suggest she didn't want or expect an answer. "But I digress. Security is not a concern. Turn that paranoid mind of yours to something more productive."
"Like what exactly you need me for, perhaps."
"We have a machine that enhances a telepath's range. It's our best shot of pinning down Shaw, given the abilities of the mutants working for him. However...there have been problems in implementation."
Erik felt a sudden chill. "Meaning what, exactly?"
"We had two low-level telepaths volunteer to test the Alpha version," Frost said quietly. "The last one's still in hospital."
The ridiculous grandeur of the mansion they arrived at paled into insignificance next to the machine it housed. Enhancement, Frost had said. What would such a thing be in the hands of a telepath already powerful enough to change minds?
"Where are we?" Erik asked, instead of voicing any of his many misgivings. He had a fairly good idea, but whether or not she chose to lie would be instructive.
Frost smiled knowingly. "Westchester. Welcome to Xavier House. I'm sure Charles will give you the grand tour later, if you wish."
Right on cue: Of course. Good morning, Erik, Director. Please come down to the testing chamber.
Erik's extra sense found and marvelled at the machine in the heart of Xavier House before his eyes ever saw it, a large, sleek metal sphere connected to a mass of wiring and circuitry that was the mainframe, and that to the helmet-like interface.
The testing chamber was presided over by a gawky, nervous-looking young man, who blushed when Xavier gushed about his extraordinary mind and how quickly he got his first PhD.
"This is Erik Lehnsherr. He'll be helping us with the final modifications on Cerebro. And no, Hank, he's not a serial killer. I would know," Xavier said, beaming at Erik like he'd won a prize.
Behind him, Hank McCoy went very pale. The look he shot Erik was half-apologetic, half-terrified, and Erik couldn't help a thin smirk in return.
"Do you often suspect people of being serial killers, or am I a special case?"
Frost made a soft sound that was perilously close to laughter. "Kindly refrain from scarring Dr McCoy for life. What does your extra sense tell you about Cerebro?"
The plates making up the sphere were made of a metal alloy he'd never felt before. They were perfectly uniform, unlike the composition of the wiring running from the interface to the mainframe, and then to the generator outside. He could probably tell more with it in operation, but he wasn't about to suggest that, not after what Frost had said.
"Something in the welding feels off. Did you build this in one go?"
McCoy looked away, abashed. "Ideally, we would have. But even the CIA finds it difficult to source some raw materials without raising red flags. We've had to cut corners."
"Knowing that, you still let mutants test it," Erik said flatly, gratified when McCoy flinched, unsurprised that Frost didn't.
Xavier only smiled wider. "It's not as bad as you're imagining. At current settings, Cerebro is perfectly safe. Test run, Emma?"
Frost raised her eyebrows at the informality, but the look she turned on Xavier was almost fond, like that of an indulgent older sibling.
"Fine. I have to take a call from Fury in five minutes. Let me know the moment anything changes."
The heavy steel doors of the testing chamber closed behind her with a hiss.
"Cerebro-Beta test run #74. Test period set for 30 minutes. Subject: Agent Charles Xavier. Power on."
The machine came purring to life like nothing Erik had ever felt before. For a moment, nothing changed. Then Xavier gasped like he'd been gut-punched, blue eyes wide, and Erik almost powered it down then and there.
The sheer brute force of the thought swept every other out of his head for a long, terrifying moment. When Erik recovered enough control to use his eyes again, he saw that Xavier had begun to smile. He looked as happy as a child with a favourite toy.
Maybe this machine wasn't an abomination, despite what it felt like. Erik relaxed slowly by degrees, leaning back against the outer railing.
"What's Xavier's range in this thing?"
"A few hundred miles, give or take," McCoy muttered, not bothering to look up from the mainframe readout. "He should be able to go much further on full power, but we can't risk that at this stage."
"My, what enormous eyes you have," Erik murmured.
All the better to see you with, my dear rang through his head in reply, along with a curious impression of silent laughter.
Nothing happened for twenty minutes. As far as Erik could tell, the machine worked exactly as it was supposed to.
On twenty-one, all the alarms went off at once.
"I don't understand. Everything's under control," McCoy said, fingers flying over the control panel in front of him, even as Xavier's eyes went wide and blank and he began to shudder. "Where's the power surge coming from? Mr Lehnsherr? Can you feel anything?"
Erik reached out for every section of the outer sphere now lit up an angry red on McCoy's screen, trying and failing to shake the thought of Xavier's face gone lifeless. It hadn't been the composition of the sphere that had been bothering him -
"Shut it down."
"But he said - "
"Now, or I gut you. Do it!"
I'm so sorry about the delay. Almost there!