The late afternoon air had less bite than the morning's as they had broken their last camp. Winter was drawing closer and while it was already nippy early in the day, the afternoons, if the sun was willing, were still warm enough to make sweat spring on one's brow.
The air currents above the Citadel had a welcome feel to them. Erik kept his reins tight as he knew how excited Magneto was to be home. Even had he not shared a psionic bond with the war bird, he would have been able to tell from the tension in the powerful body underneath his saddle.
Having known Magneto for the past nearly three years, since before his evolutionary leap from bird to war bird, Erik had come to know the creature's mind as well as his own. He ignored the rush of affection weaving its way through the bond. He was well aware that Magneto was looking forward to coming home and to seeing the aviary's Keeper.
His squadron pulled into the approach pattern behind him and Erik led them into one last flyover. By habit he let his power flow out, checking everyone's harnesses, feeling the metal of the rails marking the outer limits of the landing field below.
As they touched down (perfectly of course, if anyone asked him), Erik could feel the litany of 'homehomehomehome,' from Magneto, mixed with mental images of clean bedding and the stable hands cleaning and oiling his feathers.
Erik might have rolled his eyes if he hadn't himself been looking forward to an actual bath, clean clothes and clean linen. He ignored the second chant of 'keeperkeeperkeeper,' that Magneto was going through as well. Because Erik had to hand his faithful companion over and Magneto would indeed be pampered and therefore be seeing Charles much earlier than Erik. Not that Erik was pining for him or anything.
And Erik was not jealous of a bird.
The snort escaping Magneto told him the war bird was less than impressed.
As he looked up, he could tell that there was a gathering of both war birds and their smaller siblings off to the side. Of course he was taken completely off guard by the big one he recognizes as Francis stepping aside so he could see Charles.
He could hear him too, cooing and ah-ing at the birds, like they were his oh-so-talented children. In a way it was not too far from the truth, but it still made Erik feel weird. The tone touched the birds deep down, he knew that from Magneto, but it also did strange things to Erik.
Erik still occasionally heard a comment here and there about how strange the Keeper was, how lenient, soft voiced and kind he was and yet he still managed to raise the biggest war birds the Citadel had ever seen.
Even Charles' softhearted speech was cute in its own deranged way. If Charles looked like a happy fool, smiling widely and waxing poetic about groovy mutations, so be it.
"Charles!" The name escaped before he could stop himself and came out far louder than he had intended. If he had intended to say it, of course. And Erik was not at all aware of the eyes of all his riders boring into the back of his head. Nor did he hear Summers chuckling off to his left.
"Erik, my friend, you are back early!" Charles extracted himself from the birds - though he kept Mystique - his newest hatchling on his arm. She had hatched just before Erik had left and she had obviously grown leaps and bounds under Charles' loving care.
As they all did. Crazy he might be, but he was a magician in his field.
Striding over, Charles spread his arms and grinned up at Erik. "It is so good to see you all back, safe and sound," he said, rubbing his heavy gloves through the feathers of Magneto's neck.
It used to be that no one but the rider him or herself touched their bird. But because Charles was Keeper and because he was, well, Charles, he had never bowed to that one. The stable help touched the birds with the utmost respect, Erik knew this, had seen it. Then there was Charles, who touched the birds very differently, paternally, though Erik sometimes felt as if Charles touched Magneto the most, always with a soft, joyous smile on his face.
Of course, the mere fact that it pleased Magneto, meant that Erik felt the rush of joy and endorphins through his own body. It never failed to make Erik's knees weaken and he was glad he was seated in his saddle. Even if Magneto was stepping excitedly from side to side as he greeted Charles.
"Hello, beautiful," Charles crooned while Mystique chirped at Magneto, hopping up along Charles's arm to perch on his shoulder, pecking at the ribbons of his uniform, demanding he share the attention currently focused on Magneto with her.
Erik just stared down at him. There was no way to save face. Quite frankly, he'd lost it the first time anyone had seen him with Charles in public. Erik had a hell of a reputation and he knew that, but he also knew that most of the other riders had grown to understand that Charles was a force to be reckoned with. Even to Erik Lehnsherr. Or possibly especially to Erik Lehnsherr.
Meaning, if he wanted to fuss over one's bird (and sometimes the rider) there was little one could do to discourage him.
Erik took a deep breath, pushing his masked hood up and off his head, letting it fall back, enjoying the feel of cool air against his skin and scalp. He turned in his saddle and shot his squadron the sternest glare in his repertoire. "You know the drill, people. Dismount, take care of your birds and try to stay out of trouble for your two weeks off."
The air was thick with shrieks from the birds and hollers from their riders.
"Big old softie," Charles muttered, but shot Erik an innocent look. So obviously he had been talking to Magneto, who in turn was leaning on Charles like a lovesick chick.
Erik slid out of his saddle, landing on the ground next to Charles.
"Would you be interested in a game later tonight?" Charles asked him, rubbing his gloved hands through the ruff of Magneto's neck, focusing on the bird, though shooting a few glances out the corner of his eye at Erik.
Erik swallowed hard. He had not forgotten what had happened just before he had left on patrol. The night before, they had dined together and he had possibly had a glass of wine too many. He had leaned closer to Charles, to...
It was possible that after that, Erik would have an even harder time hiding his infatuation from Charles. He had managed to stop himself from making a complete fool of himself, but only barely. Even Charles, oblivious as he usually was, could not possibly have missed Erik staring at his lips. Of course Erik had run off before Charles had had a chance of saying anything.
And then, taking the coward's way a step further, not speaking to him before leaving on a month long border patrol.
"If you're too tired," Charles said hurriedly, finally taking his eyes off Magneto to meet Erik's.
"No," Erik said with a shake of the head. "I just have to go change, deliver our reports, get something to eat," he listed, recognizing a battle he wouldn't win anyway. Charles' most powerful weapon next to his voice? The way he would look at Erik. One look, and Erik would fold like a deck of badly stacked cards.
Charles looked hopeful. "I shall break out the wine, the cheese and the fire in the hearth will be hot enough to warm the wastelands."
Erik smiled a little. He had learned years ago that fighting Charles was futile. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea, though I can't promise you more than one game, my friend. It's been a long patrol."
Charles nodded, looking younger than he was as he beamed at Erik.
Who the hell beamed at Erik anyway? Most people scampered to get out of his way - on a good day.
Erik sank into the basin with a sigh. He had opted for delivering his squadron's report before having a bath and he was quite glad to have done so. The report had been nothing out of the ordinary, just like any reports the border patrols had delivered in the past year and a half. While most people apparently considered no news good news, it tended to leave Erik restless.
Getting the formalities over with also meant that Erik was the last of his group to hit the bathhouse and it left him with the steamed up room all to himself. The intricate heating and water circulation pumps meant that the water was still clean, and scorching hot.
Erik closed his eyes and leaned his head back onto the folded towel he had arranged on the edge of the basin. His mind drifted, as it did mostly when he allowed it, to Charles and possibly whether or not he was about to risk their friendship for something more, one of these days. A small smile curved his lips as he recalled meeting Charles for the first time and realizing that he would be their Keeper.
Erik stared up at the ceiling. There was a small crack up there, barely noticeable, but he had been in the same bed for three weeks and he had spotted it a week in.
It gave him something to look at, something to focus on. Something not the gaping hole in his mind, the loss in the pit of his stomach, his heart, his chest...
McCoy leaned over him and shone a light in his eyes. It spoke levels as to how little Erik cared that it barely made him flinch. He could not even manage a sneer, and normally he could make McCoy cringe by merely looking in his direction.
"Captain Lehnsherr, I would like for you to leave your bed for a little while today," McCoy said, a nervous tick making itself at home at his left eye.
Erik considered saying "I would like for you to fuck off," but he knew that would not get him anywhere and besides... it would take too much effort.
Even the constantly recurring dream of wrapping his hands around Shaw's neck and squeezing the last breath out of him scarcely moved Erik. Wishful thinking, was what it was. Everything was overshadowed by the missing psionic bond with his beautiful Magda, whom he had cared for since shortly after her hatching.
Magda, whom Shaw, his own commanding officer, had incinerated in front of Erik, right after he had killed the rest of the squadron.
McCoy sighed deeply. "I'll be back in five minutes and whether you like it or not, you are getting up and out of here for a few hours - you need fresh air."
Erik just closed his eyes and saw Magda die again. Saw Shaw's grinning face.
For an indefinite length of time, no sounds penetrated his little bubble of abject misery.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," someone said, softly. "But have you seen Hank around?"
Erik blinked his eyes open, staring up at the crack in the ceiling again.
A face, not McCoy's, appeared over him. Floppy brown hair and blue eyes. Not to mention a wide smile. Those were the first things to filter through Erik's attention.
"I said, have you seen Hank around?" the young man asked again.
Erik wondered for a moment who he was talking about, then there was a crashing sound from the back room.
"Oh dear," the man said, eyeing the door leading to the ruckus. Fiddling with something, he moved away from the bed. "Keep an eye on him for me, would you?"
Erik stared at the ceiling for a moment longer after the man had gone. Turning his head a little and tilting it down, he looked at the metal frame of the foot end of the bed. The trilling sound greeting him, made Erik blink, wondering if he was seeing things. The most lovely tawny eagle he had ever seen sat there, staring at him with its head cocked to the side. There was still lovely soft, white baby white downs peppering its legs, lining its wings and covering most of its chest. Barely more than a hatchling.
As if it was aware of him looking, it spread its wings, giving him a good look.
Erik could not tear his eyes away. The sunlight from outside shone through the windows, making it look as if the tips of its feathers had been dipped in fire. He cleared his throat and the bird folded its wings back in, eying him curiously. With a small hop, it landed on the bed, walking awkwardly up over the covers. With another small hop, it landed on Erik's chest, claws clutching at the covers.
This gorgeous bird had to belong to the young man he had just seen. What Erik would not give for a companion like this one. He would never forget Magda, never, but it was almost cruel to feel this lovely creature so close and impossible to not want it.
As the bird cocked its head to the other side, scrutinizing him, Erik thought to himself, 'anything, I'd do anything....'
"He might consider you a worthy rider on one condition," someone said.
Erik could not tear his eyes off the bird.
"Sorry, sorry," McCoy said, sounding flustered as he hurried over to the bed, though stopping as he eyed the bird warily. "Charles, really, could you..."
Erik finally turned his head, though it took a lot of self control. He looked at the man again, leaning against the chair next to the bed.
"There have been a few changes since you came back," McCoy said nervously.
"Old man Essex ...retired," Charles said.
Erik just stared at him. His mind refused to draw any parallels from this kid to the Keeper. "What condition?" he asked instead, still focused on anything that had to do with the bird.
"Tomorrow morning, an hour after sunrise," Charles said, reaching out his gloved hand and clicking his tongue. The bird let out a small shriek but it hopped onto the outstretched hand. "Make sure you've eaten well, before you come."
Erik nodded slowly. He felt almost as if someone had pulled the ground out from underneath his feet.
The man grinned widely, transforming his already youthful face from its seriousness to a softness that made Erik wonder just how old he really was.
"Groovy," he said, beaming at Erik. With that he turned on his heel and left.
Erik blinked in confusion. "What just happened?"
"That was Charles," McCoy said slowly. "He's our new Keeper."
The bright morning sun almost seemed to mock Erik's black mood. He knew he was a little late, as it was closer to two hours since the sun had risen. He had lain awake most of the night, fluctuating wildly between wanting to ignore the Keeper and the possibility of a new bird, not wanting anyone but Magda, whom he had lost... In the blackest time of night, he had stared up at the darkened ceiling and his thoughts had been as bleak as ever.
In the end, he had not eaten although the Keeper had told him to, he had barely had any rest, but he had finally stood from the bed, dressed and headed towards the aviary, feeling the pull of the knowledge that inside, was the beautiful tawny eagle.
Erik entered the stables of the aviary, walking down the path with boxes lining either side. Most of them were empty, almost everyone out on the borderlands, everyone nervous after the decimation of Erik's squadron.
After Shaw's deceit.
Erik winced as his footsteps echoed back at him. He was so lost in his own thoughts that he was halfway down the passage before the niggling feeling hit him that he was being followed. At one point he was sure he heard the rustling of feathers, but that could have come from the few war birds still in their boxes.
Slowing down, he turned a little to the side, looking behind him, but found nothing. Shaking his head and wondering if he might be going mad, he turned around again, moving forward. A split second later he hit something warm and fluffy and then he was sitting on the hard ground, staring up at one of the biggest war birds he had ever seen.
The bird bowed its head down, turning it to the side to study Erik with open curiosity. He let out an inquiring trill, but otherwise did not move from where he was looming over Erik.
It was... out of the ordinary to see a bird loose without their rider around. While the birds were amiable enough, getting close to someone else's war bird without the consent of both rider and bird could prove fatal. This one, however... Erik could barely stop himself from reaching out and touching it. It was magnificent, the artificial light of the aviary shining off its beautiful coat of feathers.
The bird made a noise and Erik could have sworn that combined with the guilty look in his eyes it gave the impression of a little kid caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
"I'm terribly sorry," the Keeper said, walking quickly to his side, shouldering the bird aside and offering Erik a hand up. "Francis, really," he said disapprovingly, giving him another shove. Francis made a disappointed noise but finally stepped back.
Erik just sat there for a moment, staring up at him. The keeper. He had missed the previous day just how soft he had seemed, his mannerism, his voice, his face, his eyes... Erik shook himself and accepted the proffered hand. He was too stunned to notice at first that neither of them seemed intent on letting go once Erik was back on his feet.
Then the Keeper did and Erik cleared his throat. He was normally more in control of himself.
"I'm sorry about Francis," the Keeper said, glaring at the bird who willfully ignored him. "He's terribly curious, and selectively deaf, when it suits him."
"Keeper," Erik said, falling back to formality out of habit and because it would be easier to handle the situation this way. "Who does he belong with?" Erik had never seen him before and he could not imagine a rider leaving his animal unattended although if the new Keeper was incapable of handling the birds in his care... well, he would not stay in the position of Keeper for long then.
"He's mine, I'm a afraid," the Keeper told him, leveling another glare at Francis who was heading towards an empty box, hopefully his own, looking for all in the world like he wished he was small enough to crawl into a mouse hole. "And please, the name's Charles."
Erik just stared dumbfounded at him.
Erik stretched out his sore muscles as he settled Magneto for the night. The smaller birds, not yet mutated to their war bird size, were in the south part of the aviary, and in the little light there was in there, he could make out the shapes of other birds, sitting on the bars that ran along three of the room's four walls. There was a lot of rustling of feathers and small chirps and trills.
He ran a finger down over Magneto's chest, feeling him leaning into his touch. It was amazing how fast he was bonding with Magneto, how little he felt it an imposition to even consider taking another bird so soon after Magda's death. He wondered if perhaps she would not have wanted him to anyway. She would have wanted him to grow strong again, to bond with a new bird and face Shaw on the battlefield.
"Sleep well, little one," he told the bird, words barely audible. "Rest, grow strong and grow big so that you may help me avenge her." He could feel the anger burning low in his stomach.
Magneto let out a small chirp, agreeing with him. Which made Erik smile. "You'll be magnificent when you change, won't you?" he asked the bird, not getting any answer this time save for a rustling of feathers.
With a smile on his face for the first time since he had returned from that fateful patrol, Erik made his way to the main part of the aviary, that held the war birds themselves. He was supposed to just head back to his bed and get some sleep, but he felt an urge to say goodnight to his tutor before he could do so.
It had been less than a month and he was quickly realizing that while Charles may not seem like much, the man was a genius when it came to his job as Keeper. The things he would drill Erik through with Magneto ranged from strange to downright weird, but he had to admit that it all seemed to work wonders.
Even with Magda it had taken a few months before he had been able to feel the bond with her whenever he was not near her. With Magneto it had manifested within the third week of their training. He could feel the contentment radiating from Magneto as he walked down the path to the box that belonged to Francis, where he expected to find Charles.
"Give me a hand for a moment, Erik?" Charles voice rang out from the box just before Erik arrived at it.
"Of course," Erik agreed. In the beginning he had found it odd to touch another rider's bird like this, but Francis had long since helped him over that hurdle, made sure that Erik understood that Charles did things differently from most, but that he also had the results to show for it all working.
Stepping inside the box, he moved along Francis' flank, patting the bird friendly on the back which elicited a trilling in hello from the huge body. "What do you need me to do?" Erik asked, stepping up to Charles.
"I need to take Francis' measurements," Charles told him. "He may not function as a war bird in our squadrons, but he does need a harness that fits."
"What happened to the old one?" Erik asked, reaching down next to Charles' hand to grab the knotted rope that Charles was using to measure Francis' chest.
Charles grabbed for the other end as it nearly slipped his grip. "He's growing still, can you believe it?" Charles told him. "Or possibly he's just getting fat," he huffed.
Francis let out an indignant sound and stepped to the side. Unfortunately it was the side both Erik and Charles were at, and the move shoved them to the side, effectively pinning them between the unyielding wooden wall and Francis' heavy body. Well, it actually meant Charles was pinned back against the wall, while Erik was plastered against Charles, Francis's weight rendering it impossible to move a fraction of an inch.
Erik stared down into Charles' wide eyes. He barely dared squirm, because while he had been noticing for the past few weeks how nice Charles looked, he now had his nose full of his scent as well, and any movement would mean friction which in turn would make it impossible for Erik to hide any of the interest he might have in Charles.
And he was not. Interested, that was. He needed Charles' help for this, to gain a new war bird. "I think he disliked you calling him fat," Erik said drily before he could stop himself.
Charles just stared at him, face flushed with exertion for a moment, then he pressed his fingertips against his temple, growling something under his breath.
Thankfully Francis stepped away, allowing them to part. And not a moment too soon, because the growl that Charles had let loose did things to Erik that he would have never been able to hide from Charles with them being pressed up as closely as they had been.
"I'm sorry about that," Charles said, moving away from Erik, allowing him a few moments to draw in some much needed air.
"It's alright," Erik all but wheezed. There had been little room to breathe with his chest wedged between Charles and Francis' rather large frame.
"No, I must apologize for his behavior," Charles continued. "Please, share wine with me tonight. Would I be in luck to find that you play chess as well?"
Erik closed his eyes for a moment. This was such a bad idea. A complication he did not need. "I do," he admitted, knowing he was doomed.
Erik allowed himself another small smile. Three years later, Erik might yet have to have his revenge on Shaw, but he was feeling more at ease than he had in a long time. For all that he was worried about upsetting the status quo between him and Charles, the thought also made heat pool in his stomach.
His mind drifting to his report again, Erik took a deep breath, letting the heat of the bath warm his cold body and tired muscles. There had really been little to report and while he knew the Citadel's council were more than happy with the quietness at the border, it did not sit well with Erik.
He wasn't sure if it would last. It would be nice if it did, but Erik had learned over the years, that life was rarely nice. And if it was? It was just gearing up to come down on you like a ton of bricks later.
Erik's stomach rumbled and just as he rose from the basin, he felt the soft touch of Charles' mind against his own. He was almost embarrassed at the warmth the touch caused him and the willingness with which he invited Charles in.
Smiling, Erik sent his agreement back.
Erik went into the changing room, dried himself off before getting dressed. He shoved his shirt into his pants. Lacing the top was unimportant. If Charles was sharing dinner, he would not have to stand on formal. He did, however, pull the heavy riding jacket on. It might not be the height of Citadel fashion, but the evenings were growing cold so who cared?
Dusk had fallen as Erik left the bathhouse. He walked along the passage walkway built into the buildings that housed his own quarters as well as those of the other riders. Thankfully, they were close to the aviary, partly because no one else in the Citadel wanting to be near the noise and partly because, well, the riders needed easy access to their birds, and that was the way it had been for centuries.
Erik was pretty sure that the quarters, the narrow walk ways and the rickety old stairwell were a couple of centuries old as well. The wooden boards creaked under his boots, sounding as if they were falling to pieces. Not that it hadn't sounded like that as far back as Erik could remember.
He stepped down off the rickety stairway and walked across the dark landing area. The sun had set and the chill was biting at his cheeks, his neck as well where he had left the jacket hanging open. Of course, after having been out for as long as he had, the chill felt almost balmy compared to the wind when they were in flight, where he would have been a fool to leave his coat open at any point. Frostbite was not to be trifled with.
Erik pulled the small side door open, not wasting time with the heavy portal doors. It took a certain knack to open it though, as it seemed to always be stuck. Through the years, however, and especially since Erik had started coming in at odd hours, he had learned the twist it took to get it open. It did not hurt that he could feel the nails in it and lift it just a bit so it stuck a little less.
Erik looked up as he shut the door behind him. The aviary with its boxes was warm and welcoming, the tubes running along the top of the boxes giving off their soft chemically-created light. He found Charles closing one of the sliding doors of a box holding what Erik recognized as Havoc, Summer's war bird.
Charles obviously caught his questioning look, because he shook his head and pulled his heavy leather gloves off, leaving his hands encased by the fingerless knitted gloves he always wore when outside.
Before Erik could stop him, he was at Erik's side, engulfing him in a warm hug. Erik closed his eyes and let out a slow breath. For some weird reason Charles always did this, it used to unsettle Erik, but there was never any doubt that it also drained any tension out of his mind and body. At least for a little while.
Charles cleared his throat, let go and stepped back from Erik. However, he kept a hand on Erik's arm and it never failed to make Erik wonder how, when everyone else found him so stand offish, did Charles never seem to worry about getting close to him?
A shriek from further down the stable drew their attention and Charles grinned as he tugged Erik along. "You haven't eaten yet, have you?" he asked, a mere formality as he had already extended his invitation to Erik.
"I decided to get all the boring stuff over with first," Erik admitted as they walked towards the back of the aviary.
"I thought as much, and I've made sure that there's food for you as well," Charles scolded. "You really need to take better care of yourself."
Erik just grinned. It was an ongoing battle between them and had been since they had first met. Charles, ever the caretaker, was always worried about Erik's ability to look after himself.
Stopping for a moment at one of the boxes, Erik reached in through the open top half, rubbing Magneto's head as the war bird came forward. "Hello, you," he said softly, scratching at the top of the beak.
Magneto did not answer him verbally, but his eyes fell halfway shut. Erik gave him another moment of his full attention, then ruffled his feathers and turned back to Charles, who was watching him with a soft look that Erik could not quite place. However, it was gone before he could ask Charles what was going on. Maybe, if he did not start that conversation, it could still be avoided all together?
Another shriek from the direction they were heading in echoed through the stable.
"Is he out again?" Erik asked as they continued down toward the racket.
"When have you ever known Francis to stay in his box?" Charles said with a fond sigh.
"The professor is a master escapist," Erik agreed as he heard the clack-clack of talons on the hard ground.
"Don't call him that," Charles said.
"Sorry," Erik said, not sorry at all. Everyone had, since Charles had arrived and taken over as Keeper, called his ridiculously big war bird the professor, because the bird tended to get involved in the training as well, caring for the newly mutated war birds in its own way, helping them get used to the extreme physical transformation.
"He's missed you," Charles said with a small smile as he stepped to the side to get out of the way as Francis nearly bowled Erik over, enthusiastically rubbing the top of his head against Erik's chest.
Erik stumbled back against the wall of another box, this one holding Darwin, who merely snorted at them and went back to eating. It was possible that someday Francis would break a rib or two of Erik's showing his appreciation. And it had been so strange to always have been taught that war birds should not be touched by anyone but their rider whenever possible and then to have Charles instated as Keeper, who not only had people help in the stables, but also more than happily shared Francis' loving nature with others. Or at least with Erik. He was not sure he had ever seen Francis behave this way with any other rider.
"Has he now?" Erik said drily, not meeting Charles' eyes.
"Well, it could be that you tend to have treats hidden in your pockets," Charles said with a laugh, pushing at Francis' shoulder. Of course the bird did not budge, still making trilling noises at Erik.
"Not today, my friend," Erik said, making a mental note to remember the next time. Because Charles was right. He did tend to carry treats with him, primarily meant for Magneto, but Francis was a shameless beggar sometimes.
"Off, you big oaf," Charles said, pushing at Francis again. "Go back in your box so I can feed Erik."
With a final rub of his head against Erik's shoulder, Francis finally stepped back and with a loud shriek he did return to his box.
"I'm not one of your birds, you know," Erik said, halfway kidding. He had long since given up deterring Charles from his habits of caretaking.
"I know," Charles said with a laugh as he led Erik up the stairs to his own quarters. They were a lot bigger than Erik's because the Keeper was one of the most important people of the Citadel. However, it never felt unwelcome, even with the size of the place. There were books and scrolls everywhere, a couple of mugs of cold tea and pages upon pages of notes strewn over Charles' work desk.
"You're a mother hen," Erik snorted, but he nevertheless headed toward the dining room, where he knew food would be waiting. He should have know, really. Charles tended to know best. Erik had long since learned at least that.
"I know, I know," Charles said, shooing him along. "I'll be with you in a moment, because I haven't eaten yet either."
Erik was not particularly surprised. If Charles was so much in tune with everyone else, man, woman or bird, he was horrible at remembering to take care of himself. Well, truth be told, he could take care of himself, of course, but sometimes he just became so submerged in his work that hours could go by without him noticing.
Sitting down at the dining table, Erik leaned back in his seat and took a deep breath, whatever tiredness and tension from his patrol duty draining to a level where he could ignore it for another few hours.
Erik bit back a yawn, pushing his unused knife idly back and forth next to his empty plate by the use of his power alone. He felt pleasantly warm for the first time in ages, his stomach was full. Not to mention, Erik thought, lifting his head to look at Charles, he had the best company he could wish for.
"Thank you my friend," Charles said with a small laugh. "You're projecting, by the way."
"I know," Erik admitted, not caring all that much. He knew Charles would not go where he was not invited, so his feelings for him would stay his private secret for a little longer. Where that would leave them afterwards, was anyone's guess.
Maybe it would be easier to just ask Charles to drag it from his mind? It would be, of course, cheating and Erik had that uncomfortable feeling that it would also leave himself feeling not quite in control of the situation.
"Chess?" Charles asked, standing and gesturing for Erik to follow him into the next room. This one was smaller, felt more intimate and it was one of Erik's favorite places anywhere. The walls were lined with dark panels, or at least what could be seen. Most of the walls were covered in bookshelves groaning under the weight of heavy tomes, and two comfortable deep plush chairs were sat on either side of a heavy stone chessboard.
Erik slipped into what he considered 'his' seat and gave Charles a nod in thanks as the man handed him a glass of the sweet wine that Erik preferred.
The first game flew by quickly, in companionable silence.
"It seems my abilities on the chessboard have suffered while I've been away," Erik said with a laugh, feeling the warmth of the alcohol filling his stomach as the game came to an end.
"Well, I take it there have been few opportunities to keep up with chess while on border patrol," Charles replied with a small smile. "I know your squad too well, Erik."
Erik chuckled, not even trying to hide his mirth. "My squad is one of the best in the realm," he said, not even boasting. They were, the men and women under him loyal to a fault and willing to follow him to hell and back for their country. "But they have little patience for games not of the card or die variety."
Charles tsk'ed. "Chess is a game of strategy," he said, "they could learn a lot."
"Too true," Erik agreed, lifting his glass to toast to Charles' words.
"Of course," Charles continued, watching Erik with a soft look that he had trouble placing, "they do have you, and you are a brilliant strategist."
Erik bowed his head, half in deference, half in embarrassment. There was something about Charles' praise that always did this to him. "Thank you."
"There is no need to thank me for the truth, my friend," Charles said to him, his smile widening. "And if you must, then thank me by granting me another game and your company for a little while longer."
Erik let out a soft sigh and nodded. "That you may have regardless."
The second game was laced with more conversation than the first. About the aviary, about Charles' studies and about the new hatchlings.
"Are you still chasing that theory?" Erik asked, more than a little surprised.
"Just because the Elders think it's insane, doesn't mean it can't be done," Charles argued.
"Charles, my dear, dear friend, you're talking about mutating birds that have never been part of this evolutionary step," Erik said, "you've even spoken of mutating other animals, mammals...," he trailed off.
"I'm sure it can be done!" Charles argued.
"Just because it can be done doesn't mean you should be doing it," Erik warned him, their age old debate flaring to life. "I just don't want you to get into trouble with the Council," he finished, sincerely. He meant it, he knew how important Charles considered the research he managed to do off hours, but he also knew that too much negative attention from the Citadel's council could land Charles in a lot of trouble.
Charles sighed, looking more than a little dejected.
"Please," Erik begged, "try to stay out of trouble, okay?" He shut his eyes for a moment, before opening them again, grasping around for another, safer topic. "Tell me instead of the hatchlings, the preparations for the new bondings." He knew that Charles loved that part of the job as well, and as it was part of his job description, would not land him in a world of trouble.
"I have to admit that Mystique is growing fast," Charles shared with him, conceding to his wish for a change of topic. "She will be ready for her mutation far faster than I expected."
"Are you afraid Raven won't have enough time with her before she mutates?" He was always amazed at Charles instinctive abilities with the birds, knowing how to pair them up with the rider that would make the most of them, the most beneficial relationships for both birds and prospective riders.
Charles shook his head and let out a deep sigh as he moved his queen out of harm's way. "I can hold Mystique back for long enough, and she agrees with me, she knows Raven will be hers and is much looking forward to it."
"How wise is it pairing up two impatient beings?" Erik asked teasingly. "Do you expect two negatives to cancel each other out?"
Charles made a face at him, but laughed as much as he did. "I have my hopes that their relationship will mature the both of them," he admitted, "and I of course have Francis to help me tutor them when they refuse to listen to me."
Erik snorted. He remembered his own 'tutoring' by Francis, which had left him tired and bruised on more than one occasion when he had trained to bond with Magneto, before his mutation into the war bird he was now.
The grin Charles shot him told him that Charles was remembering as well.
"I'm actually sad seeing Raven moving out," Charles admitted, their final game played, he and Erik simply enjoying the last of the wine in their glasses.
"She doesn't have to move out to join the riders," Erik said, taking a sip. "Quite a few of them stay with their families for years after they start training."
"You know her," Charles said with a soft sigh. "She's afraid it will reflect badly on her if everyone else thinks I'm favoring her."
Erik snorted. "You wouldn't favor her. You pamper everyone, riders as well as birds," he said, "young as well as old."
Charles gave him a small smile. "You know her, she is very independent and very stubborn."
Erik grinned. "I believe there's an old proverb about a pot calling the kettle black."
Charles rolled his eyes at him.
They sat for a little while longer, the fire in the hearth sputtering occasionally, the crackle of firewood and fire the only sounds breaking the silence.
Erik stared down at his empty glass. He didn't want to leave, but he really should get going...
"I would ask you to stay the night if I thought you might accept," Charles said.
Looking up, Erik blinked to focus on Charles. It was possible the heat and wine had left him a little fuzzy. He was unsure if he had heard right.
Charles flushed, looking down at his glass, then back up, meeting Erik's eyes with an air of determination.
Erik finally caught on, feeling like the air was punched out of his lungs. "I'm not sure that would be such a good idea, Charles," he replied softly, wanting so much for Charles to argue with him, an argument he wanted him to win as well.
It seemed as if Charles deflated, the light in his intense gaze dimming a little. "As I thought," he said, voice surprisingly even, if very low.
Erik swallowed hard, staring down at the drop of wine at the bottom of the glass. "I... no." He took a deep breath and looked up to meet Charles' eyes. "No, I'm not turning you down, Charles," he finally admitted. "But I'll be off the roster for a while to come and I think we should take things... slow. Not risk what we already have by rushing into something new."
All the tension seemed to drain out of Charles, leaving him slumped in his seat.
It dawned on Erik that Charles had possibly been just as worried about this move as he had. And that the knowledge of Erik being on the same page made him relax as well. On many days most people would testify that the Keeper could be more than a little oblivious about the world around him that did not involve his protégés, but to Erik's relief and joy, this was not one of those situations.
They stayed seated in silence, the acknowledgement almost humming like an invisible connection between them, the expectation heating the air as Erik took the first step, getting to his feet, if a little unsteadily, taking a step forward and offering Charles a hand up.
The bright smile this earned him warmed Erik as much as the hand Charles put in his.
Erik yawned as he put Magneto's harness away. Charles had left him a few minutes earlier with the promise of food and company. Not to mention, and this would never get old, curling up in front of the fire, together. Erik's own little cell of a home had only been used for a few hours of sleep for the past week, with Erik mostly spending his time either in the aviary, training with Magneto or with Charles in the man's home.
Magnet made an inquiring sound and Erik heard it echoed from Francis, a couple of boxes further down. Erik allowed himself a small smile. He had vivid memories of Magneto's first few days after his evolutionary leap. Including Francis grooming him with a lot of force and a lot of adoration.
The huff from Magneto let Erik know that his war bird had caught the image of the memory and was nowhere as amused by it as Erik was. Erik ruffled the feathers at Magneto's neck. "Don't fight it, my friend," he said quietly. "When it comes to Francis and in my case, his rider, we're fairly powerless."
Magneto huffed again, but with less pride than before.
"I know," Erik replied, leaning against the warmth of Magneto's body, settling a few feathers that had not been out of place, merely to have something to do. "I think it's been a long time coming, because I'm pretty sure Charles has just been waiting for me to catch up with him," he admitted.
They had not talked about it, specifically. It was more like they had fallen into a familiar pattern as always. The friendship was still there, but now it was laced with a different kind of warmth. It helped with Erik's restlessness and tension around Charles that this at least had been solved. Of course, going back on patrol, eventually, would prove doubly hard now, knowing what he was leaving behind.
What he would have to do without.
The noise from Magneto made Erik roll his eyes. "As if you don't already adore him," he muttered, giving Magneto an apple to munch on. The shriek from Francis' box told Erik that he had been wise when he had pocketed two apples instead of the customary one he normally got for Magneto.
Erik left his war bird and detoured to Francis box, giving the war bird its treat. "I know for a fact that Charles feeds you more than enough," he muttered as the bird chewed the apple down, hard enough for juice from it to fly everywhere.
Erik wiped a droplet off his cheek and shook his head before tapping the lock on the box, checking its strength. Not that it would help, as Francis proved time and time again what an escape artist he was.
"Try to give us a quiet night, okay?" Erik said before leaving the box to go back to Charles' home.
The night air bit harder now, but still not enough to make Erik shiver as he made his way inside the welcoming heat.
Erik locked the front door behind him. Raven had moved to the barracks when she had received Mystique and had begun her training and there would be no one else but Charles and he for the night.
Erik raised an eyebrow as he stopped for a moment, realizing that Charles' voice had come from the study and not from the dining room. "Anything wrong?" he asked when he stepped inside.
Charles stood in the middle of his study, staring at his messy desk with a frown on his face.
"I have no idea what has happened in here," Charles said with a frown. "I know you tend to think that I have a pretty chaotic sense of order..., but I'm sure someone's gone through my notes."
Erik shook his head and held up a hand. "You know your notes better than I do," he replied. He was unsure if he would be capable of telling the difference between a mess and whatever Charles' order was.
"But who would... and why?" Charles asked, throwing up his hands, dislodging another box precariously left on the edge of his desk.
Thankfully this one had metal straps and nails keeping it together and Erik deftly caught it before letting it sink slowly to the ground, out of harm's way.
"Thank you," Charles said absentmindedly as he tried to make some sort of order of his notes, obviously looking for missing things.
"Who'd do this?" Erik echoed him, trusting that if Charles said someone had been in here, then someone had been in here.
"I don't know," Charles said with a shake of his head. "I can't tell just yet if and in that case, what is missing."
Erik sighed deeply. Maybe someone was playing a prank on Charles, however unlikely. Of course, ordinary break-ins were not unknown in the Citadel, but still quite uncommon.
"I'll go make dinner while you have a look at this," he said quietly, walking over to Charles to put his hand on Charles' shoulder. "I wouldn't be any help to you here anyway."
"Mmm," Charles said, distractedly.
Erik shook his head with a small smile. How quickly this domesticity had settled on them. With far more ease than Erik had ever thought could be his. He leaned in and kissed Charles' temple.
"Yes, sorry," Charles said, blinking and returning his attention to Erik for a moment. Long enough for him to share a small thankful smile before getting back to tidying his research.
Leaving for the kitchen, Erik figured they would be sorting all this for the rest of the evening. Or Charles would be. Erik instead vowed to track down whomever had done it, because he did not take lightly to people messing with Charles.
The break-in was far from Erik's mind as he guided Magneto back in over the Citadel, the sun low in the skies. While he was on leave, he was not going to simply ignore his partner's need for exercise and open air underneath his wings. Everything was quiet up there, lovely and tranquil.
Urging Magneto into a slow, upward spiral, using the natural thermals, Erik let his war bird's joy of flight blanket his own thoughts, their bond swelling with it in a way that Erik rarely got to enjoy. Patrol meant vigilance, and left very little time for such simple pleasures.
Erik tied his reins to the saddle, made sure his legs were securely strapped in as well and as Magneto rose to the peak of his ascent, Erik let go. Leaning back, raising his arms above his head, Erik felt the whoosh of the wind around them, Magneto drawing his wings close to his body and shooting for the ground in a death-defying drop.
The sheer power of the fall flattened Erik against Magneto's back, pulled at his muscles and made him feel more alive than any other thing could have. The tightening of his muscles - from his abdomen all the way up through his shoulders, his arms and to the tips of his fingers - it was a burn he happily welcomed.
Maneuvering into a more controlled descent, Magneto lazily caught the thermals again. Erik stayed where he was, stretched back in his saddle, eyes closed and the last vestiges of adrenaline trickling through his system.
Erik sat back up in the saddle, clamping his hands over the helmet, the sides covering his ears. That had hurt!
Magneto made a pained noise and the controlled flight became a tumble towards the landing area. Erik grappled for the reins, fighting to untie them, while hanging on for dear life as he tried to soothe Magneto through their bond.
With little success. He barely managed to stay in his saddle by sheer will, tethering himself to the metal of buckles and harness and after what felt like an eternity, Magneto's talons skittered across the landing area, a few of the stable boys running to help them.
"What is it?" Erik muttered as he stumbled down from the saddle, rounding to the front of the bird. "What is it?" He hadn't forgotten the painful shout in his mind and while he knew that Charles' powers were impressive, he had never had any mental contact with him from such a distance. And it had been Charles, in trouble.
"Sir?" John, of the stable boys took the reins from Erik's hands.
"I don't know what happened," Erik said, shaking his head.
"All the war birds are restless, have been for the past few minutes," John explained, looking worried, "and the birds of prey have been making a racket as well."
Erik walked to the front of Magneto and dug his gloved hands into the feathers of his ruff. "What is it?"
There was nothing coming across their bond apart from an incredible feeling of loss.
"Where is Charles?" Erik asked, feeling the drop of his stomach.
John shook his head.
"Where. Is. Charles?" Erik repeated. "With all this racket, he should be in the thick of it."
Erik turned to find Alex walking towards him at a fast pace, just having exited the aviary. Taking a deep breath he stepped away from Magneto, torn by his war bird's distress as it mixed with his own worries.
"The birds are going absolutely crazy," Alex told him as he came to stop in front of Erik, his own version of standing at attention. Never quite as stiff as they had been taught, but with respect enough for Erik.
"Where is Cha... the Keeper?," Erik asked quietly. "It's not right that he's not here with the birds behaving like this. There has to be something wrong." Oh, how he hoped there was nothing, that perhaps Charles had merely fallen asleep. He closed his eyes for a moment, the painful memory of his own name shouted in his mind.
"Sir?" Alex voice cut through Erik's contemplation.
Erik opened his eyes again. "Come on," he said, gesturing for John to take care of Magneto, sending the bird one last, calming thought. "We have to look for him."
Alex shot him a worried look, but quickly enough followed Erik back through the aviary and up the narrow back entrance to Charles' home.
Erik sped up until he was almost running along the hallway, towards Charles' study. Pushing the door open, he stopped dead, staring in horror at the state of the room.
If Erik had been in doubt of anyone tampering with the study the other day, then there was no doubt to be had when he looked at it now.
"Holy shit," Alex breathed, coming to a stop behind Erik.
"He's gone," Erik finally managed to say, his mind whirling with his own words.
"Gone?" Alex pushed at a chair that still had two of its four legs. The other chair, the one Charles would normally use behind his desk, had been thrown against a wall and had shattered into pieces.
"Taken," Erik said, his voice dropping from despair to icy certainty. He was going to find exactly who had done this and he would make them pay. If any harm had come to Charles, he would make sure they would never know the end of the pain he was going to inflict on them.
"Damn fool idiots," Erik growled under his breath as he stalked out of the council chambers. He found Alex and Sean waiting for him outside, both watching him with a mixture of wariness and restlessness.
"If you think they're too caught up on discussing what to do and what has happened," Erik all but growled, "you'd be right."
Alex huffed out a curse and Sean looked crestfallen. "So there's no search party being put together?" he asked.
Erik raised an eyebrow at him and gestured for them to follow along. "Officially, no."
The two boys followed his rapid march from the Council house to the aviary.
"But we're going anyway," Alex stated as he and Sean almost had to run to keep up with Erik.
"I," Erik began, gearing up to tell them no, but he stopped right inside the aviary stables. Armando was holding the reins of not only his own war bird, but Alex's and Sean's as well. And in their midst stood Magneto, saddled and ready to go, Francis at his side, the riderless bird towering a good foot above Erik's bird.
"No," Erik said, walking forward to stand in front of Magneto, only then noticing Raven's distinctive lithe blue form next to him, Mystique perched on her arm, both of them looking stubborn as hell. "You're not coming," Erik said to her, though he meant the words for all of them.
"Don't be stupid," Raven said with a snort, rolling her amber eyes. "I know you wouldn't let me along, but the others are going with you, as is Francis."
Erik glared down at her. "I'm going after Charles," he said slowly, "alone."
"And how do you think you're going to find him?" Raven sniped at him.
Erik just glared harder. She was right, that was the problem. The telepathy was Charles' forte, and Erik hadn't thought beyond flying off and hoping Charles might contact him.
If he could.
"Francis can find him," Raven told Erik, glaring right back at him. She might be a mere teen, but she was going to be a hell of a rider when she and Mystique grew up.
"Then I'll take Francis," Erik growled. He knew that if Francis wanted to come, there was precious little Erik could do to stop him and Magneto adored the war bird so there would be no help there.
Francis made an inquiring noise and butted his beak lightly against Erik's shoulder. At least he was careful this time to not topple Erik.
"And what are you going to do when you find him?" Raven asked, lifting her head up high, obviously not going to let him off easy. "Charles didn't go voluntarily, so what makes you think that whomever took him will let you take him back without a fight?"
"That's why we're coming along," Armando said easily, ruffling Darwin's feathers. The war bird gave off a cry in agreement. Alex's Havok screeched loudly in agreement and before Sean could stop him, Banshee joined in, scream loud enough to burst eardrums.
Erik turned to look at each in turn. It was possibly luck that the rest of his squadron was spending their time off with family around the countryside, or he would have had to have this discussion with a lot more people. Erik opened his mouth to argue again, catching sight of Hank slipping through the door. "Don't tell me you're coming as well," he said with a defeated sigh.
"Oh goodness, no," Hank said, eyes wide with surprise. He held up a leather satchel. He sneezed and Erik only just managed to catch it by the metal buckles and links.
"Sorry," Hank said apologetically. It was no secret that the physician had an allergy to the birds and for him to get this close simply to hand over something before Erik left...
"What is this?" Erik asked, letting the satchel drift to his hands.
"The best potions I could make for you on such short notice," the young man said with a sigh. "And salves and bandages, should you need them."
"Better safe than sorry," Erik agreed gruffly.
"You have to bring him back," Raven said, her earlier resolve crumbling at the edges.
Erik put a hand on her shoulder, towering over her. "I will," he said quietly, knowing that he could argue with them all until the cows came home, but they would all be going with him anyway. "We will," he amended as there were a few coughs around the room.
Raven stared up at him, scrutinizing him with her amber eyes. They brightened to almost yellow and she nodded. "I trust you, Erik," she said quietly. "Charles trusts you."
The tight feeling in Erik's chest grew at the mention. "We'll be in a world of trouble for this, but I don't care," he said, stepping back and walking to Magneto's side as the bird knelt to ease his way into the saddle. Erik fastened the satchel with the gifts from Hank.
"Mount up," Erik called, voice hard as steel. He looked to Francis who hurried to the open doorway and entered the landing area outside. They all followed behind, Erik at their front. He looked back to meet Raven's eyes one last time as she went to stand by Hank's side.
Outside there were a few shouts for them to stop, but Alex, Sean and Armando all pulled up behind him and their birds soared into the air, a promise of pain and dismemberment for anyone who would try to keep them from finding Charles.
It was with dread that Erik realized that they were heading toward the border of Astyria, the neighboring kingdom that they had been at war with for so long. Strictly speaking, for the past many years, there had only been minor skirmishes along the borders, but Erik had been in more than one of those and two of the major battles. His family could trace riders in their lineage back to when birds of prey had first been mutated into war birds and the disagreement with Astyria had been going on almost as long.
Unfortunately Francis was making a beeline for the mountain range of Uravia and the border ran straight through this. They had left the Citadel mid morning and the afternoon was fast approaching as they neared the border. Erik would prefer to find somewhere to land before darkness fell and the birds would lose the advantage of their good eyesight.
Magneto, however, was fighting him when Erik pressed his wishes through their bond. It took a more steely command and Erik sharing his worries to get him to cooperate. They would be of no help to Charles if they were too tired to free him. Especially considering they did not know what or who they were up against.
Erik realized that it was in fact Francis who urged them on and he guided Magneto up alongside the huge war bird, pushing his command at him like he had with Magneto. He did not expect it to work. The kind of bond that allowed for such mental contact was singular between rider and bird. It did not extend to the birds of other riders.
To the end of his days Erik had no idea why he was even trying. It was possible he was too tired to be rational, or possibly he had grown so used to Charles and Francis breaking and reshaping what could be considered practice within the rearing of war birds.
Francis turned his head and shrieked at him.
Erik raised an eyebrow. He was getting the impression that they were not far from Charles and Francis did not want to land. He repeated his demand, letting his powers pull at Francis' harness. Not enough to hamper the bird, but enough to emphasize his demand for them to land. He made sure Francis understood that Erik wanted to do reconnaissance rather than just barging into a situation they had no idea how to deal with.
After what felt like forever, Erik shook his head and lead Magneto into a downward spiral, eyeing a flat plateau that would be large enough for them to land on. The wind was cold and tore at his uniform and he sent Francis one last mental request to land. He had given up on demanding it, but he needed the bird to know that while he was willing and dead set on finding Charles, he would not risk his riders and their birds - knowing very well that Charles would have his head if he did so.
There were few obstacles apart from a some boulders and smaller rock formations and the squadron settled down, the riders dismounting and gathering around Erik. Erik shot Francis disappearing shape one last look. He did hope the bird would be alright.
Erik did not even have to mention that they would need heat, his team so used to their chores. So he watched as Alex let his powers hammer into a small boulder, heating it up to give them at least a little warmth.
Erik undid enough of Magneto's harness to let him settle, but after that he stepped away from his team, staring into the sky, hoping that Francis would follow them down eventually.
He was aware that Armando came to stand beside him, though as always, the younger man knew better than starting a conversation. Even so, Erik was grateful for the silent company. Armando finally left him on his own, but not without pressing an apple and a pouch with dried meat into his hand.
Erik pocketed the apple and chewed slowly on the meat. He did not feel any hunger, but he knew better than denying his body the nourishment it would need.
Finally, after what felt like hours, the sound of great big wings broke the silence. Erik tensed for a moment, but the alert touch of Magneto's mind told him that his patience had been rewarded and a moment later, Francis touched down.
Erik found himself crowded up against a rock formation, the huge bird chirping quietly as it snagged the forgotten apple from Erik's pocket. He ran his fingers soothingly through Francis' feathers, muttering quietly at him. "He'll be alright, don't worry."
Swaying on his feet, Erik gasped out loud as clear images flooded his mind. A small fortress somewhere in the mountains, steep rock face behind it and a far drop at the sides, barely accessible on foot.
And the sure knowledge that Charles was there.
Erik drew in his breath, hard. "You found him," he whispered.
"Sir?" Sean's voice drifted from his left. "Is everything alright?"
"Yes," Erik said, "or it will be." He ruffled the feathers and urged Francis to join the other birds for a well deserved rest.
Francis huffed and butted at his shoulder before doing as Erik wanted him to.
Erik grinned, feeling lighter for the first time since Charles had disappeared. "Get Armando and Alex," he told Sean. "We have planning to do."
Erik breathed in deeply, held it in for a moment before letting it out slowly. "You've done remarkably well with Francis," he whispered into cold mountain air, "but then again, I shouldn't be so surprised." Erik's lips stretched into a mirthless grin. He was more than ready to rip apart any and every place to find Charles and there was no way he was going back to the Citadel until he had found him.
The chill evening air tore at Erik's clothes, the leather keeping him blessedly warm, save for his face, where his skin was pricking with the cold.
They had not managed to get as much planning done as he would have liked. Not because the hearts of his team members were not in it, but because they had very little in the way of information, save what Francis had been capable of relaying to them. This was one of those times where Erik truly lamented the lack of Charles' telepathy, because he would know exactly what Francis had seen in more than mere images - and it would have been nice to know about guards and weapons.
Not for the first time since they had taken off, Erik focused his thoughts and called out for Charles, every time with the same result. Absolute silence.
After what felt like forever, a magnificent fortress came into view, the one Francis had shown him. No obvious roads led to it, embedded as it was, into the sheer cliff face. However, Erik could feel metal beams in the rock and figured that with the even spacing between them, passageways must be running through the mountain.
Erik signaled for the his team to follow him. Ideally they would have moved in under the cover of night, but the birds all had poor night vision and there was no way they could have accessed this place on foot. So late evening light would have to suffice.
The only thing they could do was go in half-blind. There were no place near enough for them to land and study the place, although Erik kept an eye out just in case. However, with all the metal inside, if he carried it out correctly he could make a diversion by collapsing some of it. Hopefully he would be able to feel Charles before that...
A huge explosion down below tore a large chunk out of the fortress, the heat of it blasting against them as they circled closer. Erik clenched his teeth, hoping that Charles was alright. Then it hit him. The sudden rush of emotion, of familiarity, of a known mind curving and curling around his own.
"Charles!" Erik's shout was drowned out by the combined shriek of five war birds.
Only Erik's deep seated knowledge of his own war bird saved him being jerked to the side and halfway out of his saddle as Magneto fell into pattern behind Francis; Darwin, Banshee and Havok following suit.
Erik had never felt quite so relieved before as Charles' voice filled his head. 'Where are you?'
'Follow Francis, Charles told him, and Erik could feel his attention going elsewhere.
The fortress had a courtyard where a few people were milling about, chaos obviously having followed on the tail end of the explosion. Smoke was billowing from the open wound in the fortress and Erik could tell that more than one fire was roaring along the hallways inside.
Erik gestured to his team and led Magneto into line behind Francis, who was heading, surprise, surprise, for the opening that had been torn into the side of the fortress, rather than the courtyard.
Having spotted a few soldiers in unknown livery as they had first made approach, Erik was ready to face whatever they would have to, to get to Charles, but once they touched down onto the charred marbled floor, he was faced with a sight that he would never have imagined.
On one side stood Shaw, well, stood might not be the right way to put it, he was listing to the side, looking positively red with anger. Across from him was a group of people, including Charles.
Erik's attention snapped back to Shaw as he dismounted and drew his sword, Magneto shrieking with rage as he watched Shaw as well. It was almost as if time stood still. Stepping forward, Erik called out, "Shaw! Why am I not surprised that you are behind this?"
Shaw's head whipped around, blinking as more dust came down from the unstable ceiling. "Lehnsherr," he sneered, "I had heard rumors you had set up home to play the little wife to your keeper," the last was spat at him.
Erik's eyes narrowed. He knew from experience that Shaw's power would prevent any open attack from succeeding, but with all the pent up anger in Erik's blood and the added fact that Shaw had taken Charles, Erik was going to...
'Hold it, Erik, keep him busy for just one more moment,' Charles whispered in his mind.
The request barely made it through Erik's anger, but it was enough to stay his hand for another moment while a young girl crept forward, her face lined with both fear and determination as she slipped a glove off and put her hand on the bare skin of Shaw's shoulder where his tunic had been torn.
Shaw's angry visage turned to ashy grey. He looked surprised and ...afraid, Erik realized. Neither were expressions that he had ever seen on Shaw before.
Erik threw his sword at Shaw, letting his powers guide it hard and deep into Shaw's heart, watching the light leave the eyes that had burned themselves into Erik's memory. He stared in disbelief, as his greatest adversary crumbled to the ground, dead.
For a moment, Erik lost himself in the silence that followed, then he realized that Charles was busy consoling the young girl who was crying and whimpering in his arms.
"Alex, Armando, Sean," Erik called over his shoulder, "let's get these people out of here while we still can." Erik looked at the ragged little group, most of them barely in their teens. A small boy was holding onto a girls with shimmering wings, his eyes covered with some strange contraption of metal. A little girl with green hair was watching it all with an almost hazy look to her eyes, hand curled around the arm of another girl her age, with stunningly red hair. A teen with dark skin and a shock of white hair was kneeling behind them with her arms around them, watching him with distrust.
"Are there more?" Erik asked quietly as he came to a stop next to Charles, watching the young girl in Charles' arms staring up at him.
"These are the only ones still alive," Charles whispered, and the girls whimpered.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," the girl chanted, not tearing her eyes from Erik.
Erik frowned and stared down at Charles tear stained cheeks, sinking to his knees next to him, mind racing with ways that he could possibly alleviate Charles' obvious pain.
'Her power enables her to not only absorb someone's powers, but also to get bits and pieces of memories,' Charles told him.
With a sigh, Erik put a hand on Charles' shoulder. No one, especially not a child, should have seen what Shaw had been capable of.
'I may not normally condone this,' Charles told him, determination coloring his voice. 'But I'm taking those memories away from her.'
Erik squeezed his shoulder. As he stood back up, he gathered what metal he could feel in the vicinity, wrapped it around Shaw's dead body and dropped it over the edges of the torn opening, letting it plummet the depth.
When he turned around, his attention was diverted by the children, as he heard an outburst from Alex. "Summers?"
Alex simply ignored him, kneeling in front of the small boy, who had his hand stretched forward, reluctantly reaching for him.
"I thought you were dead," Erik heard Alex say and it dawned on Erik that Summers had had a younger brother, before the family home had been raided by bandits, and the whole family had been killed. Well, almost, and Erik wanted so much to bring Shaw back to life to kill him all over again.
"Charles," he said quietly as he turned back to him, watching him lift the girl up as he stood, her eyes closed in sleep. "Do you know if there are any guards left?"
Charles shook his head as he accepted a blanket from Sean to wrap the girl in. He handed her over to Sean and instructed him to not touch her skin at any cost. "There are none left, Erik, trust me, Shaw's men ran as fast as they could, probably more scared of him than anything else."
"What happened?" Erik asked, as he watched Armando tend to the last of the children's superficial wounds, mostly cuts from flying debris. Erik could not help but silently thank Hank's foresight in packing the supplies for them.
"I'll tell you on the way, but I think we really need to leave now," Charles said, as another chunk fell from the ceiling. "I'm not sure for how much longer this place will stay standing."
Erik nodded, and although he knew that Charles would be riding Francis home, he wished he could just...
Charles took a step back to his side, turned and stood on his toes, kissing Erik gently.
"What was that for?" Erik asked, touching his lips with a small smile.
"For being you and for coming for me," Charles said with a soft smile, "and because I felt like it."
Erik rolled his eyes but could not quite help feeling a little smug.
The children were divided among them, and although it took a little convincing to get the three youngest girls to let go of each other, they managed to get everyone saddles of the war birds and leave the crumbling fortress behind.
Erik leaned against the wall outside the council room. Charles had been in there for hours now and Erik was torn between annoyance at the time it was taking and nervousness thinking about what they were putting Charles through. He knew full well that Charles could not get around telling the council about his theories on mutation. And he still worried what they might say, or worse yet, do.
'Calm down, my friend,' Charles' voice welled up inside his mind.
Erik straightened up. 'Are you done, are they...?'
Charles pushed amusement at him, but Erik could feel the tiredness underneath it as well.
Erik had barely had time to get the whole story from Charles as they had made their way back to the Citadel and once they had landed and the council had been informed, they had more or less all been divided and, well - interrogated was probably the best way of putting it.
Alex, Armando and Sean had already been by to let him know they had been let off with a slap on the wrist and Raven had swung by to make sure he had something to eat and drink while he waited. No one questioned why he was stubbornly waiting for the council to let Charles go.
What Erik had learned was that Shaw had taken Charles in order to force him into mutating a variety of test subjects. Apparently having stolen some of Charles notes had not been enough. Essex, the former keeper, who had followed Shaw into exile shortly after the man's betrayal, had not been capable of working with the notes alone. Obviously Shaw had thought that taking Charles would make it easier.
They had asked Erik about Charles' research. And while he had refused to share all that much with them, he did know that Shaw's plan had not worked because he had failed to understand the core of the mutation process. The way Charles did things, it could not be forced. With the birds of prey, Charles raised them with them all knowing what would come, and with the knowledge that it was a desirable goal. The children, whom Shaw had wanted Charles to experiment on, had had no such preparations.
Besides, as Charles had said, all the children were already mutants and he had genuinely blanched at the thought what a further mutation might do to them, mind and body.
Erik smiled mirthlessly as he recalled telling the council that whatever Charles researched, they should give it the attention it deserved, because as odd as Charles' ideas sometimes seemed, he did tend to be right.
Of course that had not helped overall with his own case, his attitude, as the Council had listed the charges against him for taking off without orders. At which point Erik had told them to fuck off, and not blame him for being incapable of making decision - if he had not taken off, Charles and the children could very well have been killed, trying to escape the fortress.
"Oh, Erik," Charles said, a tired laugh as he walked through the door that had opened without Erik noticing. "So much rage."
Erik allowed himself a grin, his annoyance with the Council slipping away. Charles looked unharmed and did not seem too worried, although he did look like he would need sleep in the very near future. "You should help me manage my anger," Erik replied with a wink, feeling the tiredness filling his own bones now that he had Charles back.
"Channel it into better use?" Charles said with an answering grin, broken by a yawn as he leaned against Erik's side, obviously happy to stay like that for a moment.
"Bed, Charles," Erik said, quietly.
"Only if you stay with me," Charles said with another yawn.
"Happy to," Erik agree, tugging Charles in the direction of the aviary and Charles' home, not to mention Charles' nice, big bed.