from this fossil of a heart
I hear a beating sound, my love
as they put you in the ground
it's like one of us woke up, my love
The helicopter buzzed overhead like an overgrown wasp, slender and aggressive. Charles hunched his shoulders and tried to press himself down further into the ground. Intellectually, he knew it wouldn't make a difference, but he couldn't help but feel exposed. The soil felt damp beneath the layer of grass and fallen leaves, its chill seeping through his trousers. Back home, the early autumn lent a certain pleasant briskness to the air; it was much colder here, an ominous warning of the approaching Russian winter.
He adjusted the magnification of his binoculars, pushing aside his minor physical discomfort to focus on the mission at hand. The helicopter had landed. Beside him, Levene's mind buzzed with anxiety and adrenaline; Moira's thoughts were cooler, calmer, more focused. And Erik--
"There," Erik said. Savage triumph surged and crashed against Charles's mind like a tidal wave, leaving him momentarily breathless.
"Shaw," Moira confirmed unnecessarily, as the man himself stepped out of the helicopter. "All right, as we've discussed, the CIA can't invade the home of a senior Soviet official. So we'll have to lure him out to us. Charles, it's your call -- can you read him from here?"
"I believe so, yes." Even without Cerebro, Charles's telepathic range extended well beyond the scant distance between them and the Soviet compound, of course. But he felt no particular compunction to alert the CIA to that fact. The tricky part would be slipping into Shaw's mind without alerting his telepath of the intrusion -- the woman was there too, of course, hanging off Shaw's arm very prettily. From their previous encounter, Charles knew that her vapid smile concealed a scalpel-sharp intelligence; he would not be underestimating Ms. Frost anytime soon. If she caught scent of him sniffing about Shaw's mind...well, best not set off any alarms.
Erik only had eyes for Shaw at the moment, but the two CIA agents were watching Charles closely. So he made a show of pressing his fingertips to his temple, furrowing his brow in concentration. People felt far more comfortable with his powers when they could see him using them. He suppressed a private smile and turned his attention to Shaw.
The physical distance between them meant nothing; picking out Shaw's thoughts from the assortment of Soviet soldiers and staff was child's play. But there Charles hesitated, uncertain. Every mind had its own particular flavor -- individual, unique, like a fingerprint. And like fingerprints, most tended to blur together in Charles's mental sight, difficult to distinguish one from another at a distance. But Shaw's stood out at once: it felt as though it were surrounded by a forest of brambles, ancient and nearly impenetrable, thorns poised to draw blood should Charles be so foolish as to reach out and touch.
He snapped out of his reverie to find Erik regarding him intently over Moira's head, his thoughts edged with impatience and something almost like concern.
"Sorry," Charles said. "Shaw's mind is a bit...prickly. Give me a moment."
Erik frowned, but Charles ignored him, closing his eyes to focus back on Shaw. No help for it, he decided, and plunged right in.
He had long practice in discretion -- it wouldn't be much use if any idiot could feel him rummaging about in their head -- but there was a world of difference between skimming across surface thoughts and unearthing hard-kept secrets. As with most people, the surface of Shaw's mind was occupied with the mundane: the wind biting his cheeks, his faint annoyance at the Soviet general's pomposity, the lingering stiffness in his legs after the cramped helicopter ride. Charles filtered through those thoughts in an eyeblink, venturing deeper. Shaw seemed to be primarily a visual thinker; images flickered through Charles's head: glimpses of previous meetings with Soviet officials, a mirrored chamber tinged in an eerie bluish glow, the pale expanse of Emma's naked body arching beneath his, Erik clutching his head in pain--
No, no, Charles couldn't afford to get distracted. Focus. He ruthlessly tamped down his own visceral reactions to Shaw's memories and pressed onward. The plan, what was Shaw's plan?
He pushed forward into Shaw's mind, and saw himself staring right back.
It startled him enough that he nearly recoiled. But no, there he was, the image taken from a grainy photograph from Oxford; except Shaw's imagination had placed him kneeling on a concrete floor, eyes wide and frightened, with Shaw himself pressing a gun lovingly against the back of his skull. The picture flickered and dissolved into a Russian hillside: Charles standing alone in a circle of dead American soldiers, his hands raised in surrender, the side of his face spackled with someone else's blood.
Hello, Charles, Shaw said pleasantly, and Charles snapped back into his own body so quickly it gave him mental whiplash.
"Oh, God," he breathed, rocking back onto his heels. "Shaw knows we're here. He knows."
Erik was already springing to his feet, but the CIA agents just gaped at him. "Wait," Levene said, grabbing Charles's elbow as he staggered upright. "That's impossible!"
"How did the CIA know he'd be here in the first place?" Erik demanded. "Because someone told you. That goes both ways."
"I'm not at liberty to reveal intelligence sources," Levene said heatedly, "but I can promise you--"
His empty promise went unspoken. Charles heard a sort of compressed explosion, a muffled burst of sound right by his ear, and he coughed on the scent of sulfur. Someone was suddenly there beside him: a man with jet-black hair and cartoonish red skin -- one of the mutants he'd glimpsed in Moira's mind during their very first encounter -- the teleporter--
Levene's eyes widened, panic spiking as the mutant wrapped his arms around him, but they both vanished in another cloud of thin, sulfurous smoke before Levene could so much as shout. And then a moment later, Charles heard that noise again, this time from the clearing behind them, and he whirled around to see the teleporter and Levene reappear right in the middle of the protective circle of American soldiers.
"Oh, Jesus," Moira said, leaping to her feet. "Stand down--!"
Her order came a fraction of a second too late. The soldiers had been facing outward, keeping a wary watch on the surrounding forest; startled by the two men materializing in their midst, several swung around with their weapons raised. Charles tried at once to catch hold of the teleporter's mind, but he only caught a glimpse of dark intent before the red-skinned mutant was gone, leaving Levene behind to bear the brunt of the assault alone -- and Charles, still reaching out, unintentionally latched right onto Levene's mind instead as the soldiers fired on the perceived threat.
One of the bullets caught Levene right in the throat; his mouth gaped open, but no sound emerged. Mentally, though, he was screaming. His death seemed to stretch out endlessly, and Charles felt every second drip agonizingly away as though it were his own blood seeping out into the cold, hard earth.
He'd never felt anyone die before.
He was dimly aware of activity around him, Moira shouting, the soldiers in complete disarray. Someone was grabbing him under his arms, pulling him up to his feet; he staggered, loose-limbed, not entirely convinced that his body was still his own and not lying crumpled and broken on the grass. "Charles!" Erik shouted, both aloud and in his head. Charles!
Yes, Charles, he was Charles, not Levene. He shook off the remnants of Levene's thoughts with a mental shudder, blinking awake. Erik still held him upright; Charles pulled away, shaking his head rapidly to clear it. "I'm fine," he said, "but Levene's--"
"Dead," Erik said shortly. "We need to--"
"The teleporter," Charles breathed, remembering that one flash of purpose from the mutant's mind. "He's going to--"
There was that horrible, concussive sound again; this time, the teleporter grabbed one of the soldiers, then vanished with him. When they reappeared, it was high in the sky overhead. And then the mutant let the man fall.
He landed with a sickening crunch; Charles slammed up his mental shields at once, but the soldier's lingering panic and pain was powerful enough to turn his stomach. Without giving them a minute to think or even catch their breath, the teleporter materialized again, repeating the same trick with another soldier. Someone let off another rifle burst at random; Moira staggered back with a sharp cry, clutching her shoulder. Charles could see blood staining her pale fingers. One bullet whizzed right past his head, grazing his ear. It felt like a bee sting.
"Enough," Erik shouted. He strode forward, arms outstretched, and clenched his hands into fists. All of the soldiers' weapons were yanked out of their hands, clattering to the ground. In the meantime, the teleporter continued his relentless, brutally efficient assault.
Wherever the mutant went when he disappeared, Charles couldn't read him there. He only materialized for the briefest of moments at a time, but if Charles could catch hold of him for an instant, it would suffice.
Men were falling around them at a staggering rate, but he couldn't afford to shield his mind, not now. Instead, he cast it wide open, stumbling slightly at the full impact of the dying soldiers' agony. He ignored them as best he could, hating himself for it, swallowing down bile. Another burst of sulfur: the teleporter's mind flickered to life like a flame in the air far above them, then swiftly extinguished before Charles could grasp it, leaving the impression of smoke trickling through the empty space like sand slipping through a clenched fist. Another man screamed as he fell -- not Erik, not Moira, but if he didn't put a stop to this, either of them might be next, and that was completely unacceptable. Charles took a deep breath and closed his eyes, fingertips pressed hard against his temple, waiting the mutant out. And -- there.
He didn't bother with any sort of finesse. As soon as the teleporter phased back into existence, Charles grabbed hold of his mind, hard, freezing him in place. He'd brought an entire hallway of CIA agents to a complete standstill without breaking a sweat; he could certainly hold one single mutant. Once he was certain the teleporter's body was completely under his control, Charles opened his eyes.
The mutant had his arms wrapped tightly around Moira, the sharp point of his tail resting against her neck. Her eyes were wide, but she kept herself perfectly still, breathing in quick, shallow pants. Her jacket was torn at the shoulder where the bullet had hit. The bloodstain was hardly visible against the dark fabric, but it looked like the bleeding had stopped. She had her mind under rigid control, only the faintest trace of fear whispering at the edges of Charles's awareness.
"Are you all right?" he asked her anyway, just to be sure. He spared a quick glance over at Erik, who appeared unharmed, thank God.
She gave him a jerky nod. "Fine. Can you make him release me?"
Her voice was admirably steady. Maneuvering the teleporter's body was more difficult than freezing it entirely, but Charles carefully loosened its hold on Moira, allowing her to pull herself free. She took several hasty steps back away from the mutant, wincing as the movement jarred her shoulder.
"Can you get the information we need from him?" Erik asked in a low tone, coming up to rest a hand on Charles's shoulder. Barely-constrained rage simmering dangerously at the surface of his mind, but his touch was oddly gentle. Charles nodded and turned his attention back to the teleporter.
If Shaw's mind had been a thornbush, the teleporter's was all smoke, impossible to grasp firmly. Charles managed to glean his name (Azazel) and his immediate purpose (snatch the telepath, kill the rest), but the depths of his mind were murky, insubstantial. Perhaps if Charles were using Cerebro, he'd have an easier time of it. Or if he weren't overtired from the long, fraught succession of plane and truck rides that had brought them here, not to mention the mental stress of experiencing the deaths of ten men in a matter of minutes....
He pulled away from Azazel with a grimace, still rubbing his temple. "He's little more than a glorified bodyguard," Charles told them. "A foot soldier. He's only seen pieces of the whole, what little Shaw feels inclined to share." He looked back up at Erik. "But you were right, Erik -- Shaw deliberately led us here after him. He fed the intel to the CIA. And he knows the location of our facility in Virginia. If we hadn't followed him here, he would have come after us there instead."
"Then we finish this now," Erik said at once. His grip on Charles's shoulder tightened. "What are we waiting for?"
"We're completely isolated out here," Moira argued. "This man just murdered our entire escort, not to mention--" Her voice cracked. She shook her head, visibly reining her emotions back in. "Even if we can get to Shaw, we have no way of bringing him in. We'll have enough difficulty getting back to the States as it is. I'm aborting this mission, right now."
"The hell with your mission," Erik snapped. "I'm here for Shaw. He's here, I'm going in."
Charles just managed to grab his wrist as he pulled away. "Erik, wait. All those Soviet guards posted outside that compound, and not one of them reacted to all the noise we were making out here. They must have been ordered not to respond. Shaw's expecting us--"
"He's expecting the CIA," Erik corrected grimly. "Not me. Don't try to hold me back, Charles."
"I never would, but you must think--"
"I'm done sitting around and waiting." Erik shook off Charles's grip with one violent jerk and turned his back on Charles and Moira both, setting off at a run toward the Soviet compound.
But he was already gone. Charles's fraying mental control over Azazel tethered him like a hound on a leash; he couldn't risk loosening his grip on Azazel's mind in order to chase after Erik. Nor could he simply abandon Moira, injured and alone in enemy territory. God damn it, they were so close--
The instant the solution occurred to him, he acted, with no time to waste thinking it through. "We need to get you home," he told Moira, grabbing Azazel's arm. "You've got to warn your people that the facility is compromised, and this is our only way back." He held out his hand.
Moira blanched. "You have got to be kidding me."
"I'm sorry, but we really don't have time to argue this over," Charles said. "You should get that shoulder looked at, and I need you to keep my sister safe. I don't think I can control Azazel from the far side of the jump, so I'll have to accompany you there. But then I'm going after Erik."
In front of the Soviet compound, a long coil of barbed wire snapped up off the fence, then sprang down to ensnare one of the guards. Moira winced and looked back behind them, at the clearing of fallen soldiers, where her partner lay dead. She seemed to have aged several years in the past few minutes.
"I know," Charles said softly. "Let's get you home."
After a moment's hesitation, she took his proffered hand. Charles slipped back into Azazel's mind, implanting there the image of the lawn outside the CIA's facility. The act of teleportation was like a muscle memory for Azazel, requiring no more thought than a sneeze; triggering it was child's play.
Charles could feel the echoes of Erik's cold rage right up until the instant they dematerialized.
Deep down, Charles had long known that the day they found Shaw, he would lose Erik. He'd never let himself think about it overmuch. Erik had made it quite clear from the start that Shaw was his first priority. Of course Charles had done his utmost to appeal to Erik's better nature, to actively engage him in the world he claimed to have forsaken, but Erik's single-minded sense of purpose was deeply ingrained, and Charles didn't delude himself into believing he could change Erik's entire outlook overnight. They'd made a good start of it, during the long weeks traveling the States in search of their fellow mutants. Erik had gradually opened up to him over chess games and bad diner food and miles upon miles of open road, shedding a few of his hard-won defenses, unfurling like a flower in sunlight. Slowly, slowly, but no less beautiful for it. Perhaps, given just a little more time....
But time was no longer on Charles's side.
"Don't do this," Moira said, once they'd arrived on the CIA's grounds without incident. Charles's head was spinning from the effort of maintaining control over Azazel throughout the teleportation, but he did his best to focus on Moira's words rather than the emotions rolling off her in waves. Inside the facility, he could feel the warm presence of Raven and the others -- bored, comfortable, safe. Thank God. "Charles, listen to me. Erik's a loose cannon, and the two of you will be completely cut off from any Agency assistance--"
Charles shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I can't leave him."
"So bring him back here instead! Can't you, um, convince him...?"
"I could 'convince' you to drop the subject entirely, but you'll notice I haven't," Charles snapped, just barely reining in his temper. "I would never do that to a friend, Moira -- how could you even ask?"
"Because I'm terrified you're going to get yourself killed running after him!"
"I'm sorry, Moira," Charles said, and meant it. Raven had caught sight of them on the lawn; he'd long since promised to stay out of her thoughts, but he couldn't help soaking in her curiosity, her bright mental sense of self. "But I have to go. Tell Raven to go hide out in Westchester for a while -- she'll know what I mean. And the others -- oh, I don't know, they can return to their homes or go with Raven or wherever they like, just please promise me you'll keep my sister safe."
Moira hugged herself tightly and took a step back away from Azazel, clearly unhappy. "I will."
"We'll be back as soon as we can," Charles told her. "Both of us."
Moira accepted the lie at face value and didn't push further. "You'd better be."
He nodded and reluctantly pulled back from the edges of Raven's thoughts, sending her a quick pulse of I'm sorry and love you and goodbye, knowing she probably wouldn't understand. Then he plunged back into Azazel's mind, directing them back across the breadth of the planet to Erik, to Shaw.
There was no way Charles would be able to manage a third trip via teleporter. He had no words to describe that strange empty between place Azazel traveled through, but something in the very nature of the void abhorred telepathy. It took all of Charles's considerable focus and mental energy just to cling onto the fringes of Azazel's mind as they traversed it, though the trip itself passed by in a heartbeat. Additionally, Charles was getting the distinct impression that massive jumps of this nature took a very real physical toll on Azazel -- to say nothing of his passengers. The two huge leaps from one side of the globe to the other and then back again in the space of minutes left Charles with the world's worst case of jetlag.
Once the Soviet hillside reappeared around them, Charles pressed his palm to Azazel's chest. "Sleep," he murmured. The teleporter crumpled at once, collapsing to the earth in an unconscious heap; Charles rather envied him. No longer actively engaged in controlling Azazel's mind, the abrupt release of tension left him dizzy and lightheaded. Standing suddenly seemed like far too much effort.
But he couldn't stop to rest. How much time had passed since Erik had run off -- five minutes? Ten? Far too long. The last time Erik had taken on Shaw, he'd single-handedly destroyed an entire yacht; what sort of damage might he be causing here? Charles grimaced and forced himself to move toward the compound, gradually progressing from a stagger to a jog. The brisk air helped clear his head a bit.
The last time Erik had taken on Shaw, he'd nearly killed himself. Charles's jog became a run.
It was easy to follow Erik's trail -- too easy. The gate had been ripped off its hinges; all the perimeter guards were either bound painfully in coils of barbed wire or lay unconscious, knocked out with their own weapons. Charles had to deliberately block their waves of pain from swamping his mind. Sleep, he urged the conscious ones, constructing hasty mental dams to contain their physical distress; crude, temporary barriers. There was no time to spare for anything further. He swallowed hard and kept running.
Within the general's house itself, Erik had apparently taken somewhat more caution, probably unwilling to give Shaw too much advance notice of his presence. More fallen soldiers, but these were all gagged with strips of their own uniforms. One watched Charles beseechingly as he approached; Charles simply put him to sleep like all the rest.
Erik had needed to take his time searching the house. For once, Charles had the advantage -- he simply had to find Erik. As always, the unique patterns of Erik's mind flared like a beacon. His fury was palpable even at a distance, mingled with...uncertainty? Fear?
Charles hurled himself down the corridor after Erik. It belatedly occurred to him that he couldn't sense Shaw's presence at all, but by then, he was skidding to a stop at an open doorway. The room within appeared to be a sort of sitting room; a delicate red couch and several armchairs gathered around an antique coffee table, which had been set with an elegant silver tea service. Persian rugs covered the hardwood floors. Large, militaristic portraits lined the mahogany-paneled walls.
He stepped inside.
"Professor Xavier, I presume," Shaw said pleasantly, wearing a well-tailored suit and a truly ridiculous helmet. He appeared utterly indifferent to the fact that Erik stood not three feet away from him, with a handgun aimed directly at his chest. "How lovely to finally meet you."
Erik flinched, his eyes darting to meet Charles's. No, his mind practically shouted, shouldn't be here supposed to be safe go away--
"Mr. Shaw," Charles said in acknowledgement, dragging his thoughts away from Erik's. Only the barest hint of Erik's emotional turmoil showed on his face; Charles followed his lead, remaining outwardly calm. But the gaping mental void where Shaw's mind ought to have been set him at edge. There was simply nothing there for Charles to read. Nothing, as though Shaw weren't really there at all, or dead, or....
The helmet. It was an ugly, bulbous thing, with jagged accents. Shaw caught him staring, and his smile widened. "Ah, yes," he said, tapping the helmet lightly. "Well spotted, Professor -- or may I call you Charles? This was a gift I received from some friends of mine within the Soviet military. The Russians are a gregarious people at heart; quite a long tradition of generosity and brotherhood. It's constructed from the most remarkable metal alloy -- Erik, perhaps you can sense the composition?"
Erik scowled, grip tightening on his pistol. He eyed Shaw like a wolf preparing to leap for the jugular. "I can," he said shortly, but declined to elaborate further aloud. Osmium, he projected deliberately, loudly enough that Charles winced. Alloyed with something like iron -- the result is similar to steel, but nothing I've ever sensed before. It feels somehow...organic. Why does it matter?
It's blocking my telepathy, Charles sent back grimly. I can't read him at all.
I don't care about reading him.
"I do apologize, Charles," Shaw said, unaware of their mental exchange. "Erik is being most recalcitrant. I assume you two met in Miami?"
Charles opted to ignore the question. "Where is Emma Frost?"
Shaw waved a negligent hand. "Negotiating. She has a very special flair for diplomacy." His tone made Charles's skin crawl. "It's just one of her many talents. What, I wonder, might your talents be?"
"None of your damn business," Erik growled, deliberately clicking off the safety on his weapon. Charles was distantly surprised it had been engaged in the first place. "You already have one telepath in your collection, Schmidt."
"No two mutations are precisely alike," Shaw said. He gave Erik an almost paternal smile. "Oh, Erik, you've come a long way from bending gates, but you still have so much yet to learn." Glancing toward Charles consideringly, he added, "Although it seems you've found yourself a new teacher. Tell me, Erik, do you find his methods to be particularly effective--"
The only warning Charles had was the flare of rage in Erik's mind, boiling hot; Shaw received no warning at all before the pistol fired. But the bullet never hit him. Or perhaps it did -- it all happened too quickly for Charles to fully perceive it. It was as though the air around Shaw rippled with the impact, absorbing it. Shaw simply smiled.
"Oh, Erik," he said, with a satisfied sigh. "I was so hoping you would try that."
He took one step forward, hand extended, and before Erik could react, pressed his index finger lightly against Erik's chest.
"Bang," Shaw said.
The impact somehow threw Erik all the way across the room, the pistol clattering to the floor. Erik's head cracked against the wall hard enough to set Charles's ears ringing, and he slumped to the floor in a daze. It took every ounce of self-control Charles possessed not to run straight to his side. Without looking away from Shaw, he pushed out a wave of concern in Erik's direction, are you all right are you all right be all right, more of a mantra than a coherent thought. In his peripheral vision, he could see Erik grimace. His unspoken reply was fractured, mixed in with pain and embarrassment and unexpected vulnerability -- fine and kill Shaw, kill him and then, more clearly, oh God never knew this whole time--
"You're a mutant," Charles said, hands clenching into fists at his sides. "You're one of us."
Shaw's smile widened. "'One of us,' yes, exactly. We're on the same side, Charles. I'm so glad you see that already."
Charles didn't bother hiding his disgust. "If we are on the same side, you're not doing a terribly good job of showing it. If you had killed him--" He cut himself off, swallowing the words back. So long as Shaw wore that damn helmet, Charles's threats would be empty at best. Shaw had all the power for the moment.
"I could have," Shaw said easily, bending over to pick up the discarded pistol. He twirled it idly on his finger. "My powers enable me to absorb energy; the fun part is what happens once I release it. How much of that gunshot do you think I used up? How much do I still have left?" He pointed the gun at Erik, then at Charles. "Care to test me?"
Erik's surge of blind terror chilled Charles to the bone; worse, he realized, Erik wasn't frightened for himself, but for Charles. Over and over Erik's mind replayed the sight of Schmidt pointing the gun at his mother, the sound of the gunshot, the horrible thump as she collapsed to the ground; only this time, he turned to find Charles's lifeless eyes staring up at nothing instead....
Shaw pointed the barrel of the gun to his own forehead, grinning horribly. "I could use a bit more juice, though, if you'd like another demonstration."
"Don't you dare touch him." It hardly sounded like Charles's own voice; he had no idea where this coldness had come from, but he welcomed it. It made it easier to keep his gaze on Shaw, to shut Erik out entirely. "Your teleporter's mind was an open bloody book, Shaw. I know you came here for me, not Erik. Leave him out of this."
"No!" The pistol flew out of Shaw's hands; Erik gestured again, and the gun twisted itself into an impossible shape, a useless scrap of metal. "Charles--"
You can't kill him, and I can't read him, Charles told him silently. I'm sorry, Erik, but this is the only way to discover what he's planning.
I won't let you--
You can't stop me, Charles thought, sadly, and held Erik firmly in place, unable to shout, unable to run. He only froze Erik's body, leaving the rest of his mind alone; not that he honestly expected Erik to give him any credit for the distinction, but it was the best he could do.
"You came here for me," he repeated, meeting Shaw's gaze levelly. "So let's not waste any more time."
To Erik, frozen in mute fury, he added, I'll do my best to reach you somehow, wherever he takes me. Please, you have to trust me.
Erik was too angry to form coherent thoughts, and Charles had to block him out anyway. It was the only way he could go through with it. From Shaw's considering glance, he clearly guessed that Charles was somehow involved in Erik's uncharacteristic silence. Was this particular aspect of telepathy beyond the pale of Emma's abilities? Had Charles overplayed his hand too soon? Well, there was no going back now.
He and Shaw walked out of the room together, meeting Emma in the corridor outside; she gave a whistle, and somehow Azazel appeared, yanked out of Charles's imposed slumber. He held out his hand. Shaw took it, linking arms with Emma, and she grasped Charles's wrist in her diamond grip, completing the chain.
At the last possible instant, Charles released his mental hold on Erik, too late for him to do anything about it. He left one final thought lingering between them: I am so sorry, my friend.
And then, for the third time in less than an hour, the world dissolved around him.
Moments after their arrival, Shaw sent Azazel and Emma away. "I need some time alone with our newest recruit," he said shortly. "Go help Janos with the next stage of the plan."
Emma rolled her eyes, but she clasped Azazel's hand and allowed him to teleport them both away, leaving Shaw and Charles alone.
Leaving Charles completely alone. Shaw still wore his helmet, and wherever this place was, there were no other people within immediate range of Charles's telepathy. He had never in his life experienced such complete quiet. It was almost restful.
For several long minutes, Shaw contented himself with observing Charles in silence. Charles took the opportunity to study his new surroundings. His first guess was that they were within some sort of empty warehouse, all concrete and gunmetal gray walls. Sparse windows set very high up along the walls allowed in cloudy daylight. He couldn't make out the position of the sun, but it looked to be more or less the same time of day as they'd left behind. Still in the USSR, perhaps? Charles hoped so; all the easier for Erik to track them. Charles's baseline range had expanded exponentially since he'd begun using Cerebro, but he still had his limits.
"Mutation," Shaw mused. "The key to our evolution. How we evolved from single-celled organisms to the dominant form of life on our planet."
Charles inclined his head. "You've read my thesis."
"You're an interesting man." Shaw regarded him coolly. "Wealthy, arrogant, generally unimpressive on the surface. But your work is most intriguing, I have to admit. Not to mention your ability. A difficult man to know."
"Take off that helmet, and you'll get to know me rather better."
Shaw smiled. "I think not, but it's kind of you to offer. Follow me, please."
He led Charles across the empty warehouse, toward a boxlike chamber near its center. As they walked, Charles carefully scanned their surroundings again. The only obvious escape route was through the large double doors at the near end of the building; he suspected they were locked from the outside, though. The windows were set well above their heads, so no real hope there. He could just barely glimpse a wall of barbed wire outside the warehouse. Military compound, perhaps? As they approached the central chamber, a single, smaller door was revealed at the far end of the warehouse. There were no windows along that wall; possibly it led to another building. Hard to say.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"Among friends," was all Shaw would tell him. So. Probably Russia, after all. Good.
He was starting to become restless within the narrow confines of his own thoughts; it was clear he wouldn't get any more information about his current location just by looking around. Time to reach out a bit further. His instinctive range -- the radius within which he overheard the white noise of other minds naturally, without any effort whatsoever -- was at least a mile; with a little effort, he could easily seek out people at ten or twenty times that distance. And he was only just beginning to really test the limits of his abilities. Erik was constantly prodding him -- We're only fifteen miles out of Dayton, Charles, can't you hear him yet? and How many individual people can you sense within the island of Manhattan? and Further, Charles, further! Why do you insist on holding yourself back?
Well, if he ever wanted to rehash that argument with Erik again, he'd best work out exactly where this compound was located. The warehouse, though desolate, was too well-maintained to be truly abandoned; if this was a military base, there must be people within range. Careful to avoid any physical tells, Charles pushed his mind out--
--and slammed right into a solid steel wall.
He staggered back, stunned. It took him a moment to realize that the wall had been mental, not physical. But that was ridiculous. Abandoning all pretence of following Shaw, he closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could. Nothing. And it wasn't as though he'd suddenly gone blind or deaf -- there was absolutely nothing wrong with his telepathy. But it was like trying to hear through ear plugs, or see through a blindfold. If he focused very, very hard, he could just make out a number of fuzzy mental shapes in the distance, indistinct blobs of awareness -- as though he were scrabbling at a veil between himself and the rest of the world....
Charles opened his eyes to the stark metal walls of the compound, the same sleek gray as the polished curve of Shaw's bloody helmet.
And Shaw himself, watching him with a condescending smirk.
"It's really the most marvelous alloy," Shaw said. "Too precious to waste on a building this large, of course, so there's just a thin layer of it worked into the outer walls. There's an entire base full of soldiers just beyond these walls, and you can hardly hear any of them at all, can you? And if you'll just follow me...." When Charles recoiled, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a revolver, pointing it at Charles's chest. "I'd rather keep this civilized, Charles, I really would. We have so very much to learn from one another. But I need you to come with me for now."
The door to the inner chamber stood open. Charles had no choice but to follow him inside.
It was about as well appointed as an officer's private quarters in a military barracks. A bed, a desk, a couple of chairs; there was an adjoining lavatory. The primary concessions to comfort were the rugs covering the concrete floor and a tall bookshelf along one wall.
"You see, I have no desire to torture you," Shaw said, in a gross approximation of kindness. "And your stay here will only last as long as you decide it should. We want the same things, Charles. We are the children of the atom, both of us. And it's not that I don't want to trust you. But trust must be earned. I'm sure you're aware of that."
Charles swallowed, mouth dry. "And how exactly am I supposed to earn your trust?"
"We'll discuss that later," Shaw said smoothly. "For now, please, make yourself comfortable. Feel free to continue your research; if you require any particular additions to your library, just let me know. I'll be back to check in with you soon, I promise."
"And how do you intend to earn my trust?"
Shaw laughed. "Oh, Charles," he said delightedly, "I think we'll get along just fine."
"Will we? You ordered Azazel to murder my allies."
"No, I ordered him to eliminate any obstacles between you and I. Those men were only human, anyway. Lesser, weaker beings. Tell me honestly, Charles, do you grieve them?"
"Yes," Charles said. "I felt them die."
Shaw tilted his head to one side, studying him. "That isn't grief, it's just empathy. And if you hadn't been inside their heads at the time? Would you still care?"
"Of course I would!"
But doubt gnawed at him, sharp and searching. How much of his sorrow was merely his own guilt at having caused their deaths, however indirectly? He hadn't known any of the soldiers, really, beyond an informal brush of minds and the tense camaraderie of their mission. Levene he'd known better, but he hadn't been terribly fond of the man. Did Charles truly grieve any of them?
Yes. Every life mattered; it was irrelevant whether Charles had liked them or not. And there was no such thing as only human. What right did Shaw have to decide that one life was more or less valuable than another?
"Did you lure me all the way out here just to taunt me?" Charles asked, feeling suddenly weary.
"Not at all," Shaw said kindly. "I brought you here to teach you."
"What exactly do you think you can teach me?"
Shaw smiled. "Your place, Charles. At my side. We could be as kings, you know. We should be kings. Deep down, you know it's the truth. There's a revolution coming, when mankind discovers who we are -- what we can do. Would you prefer to be enslaved, or rise up to rule? Your human so-called 'allies' hate and fear you. Why do you insist on defending them?"
Charles met his eyes levelly. "Perhaps because they're not the ones locking me away in a box."
At that, Shaw laughed again. It was disturbing how jovial he could appear. Perhaps this was a secondary mutation, concealing the true monster within.
"That's a fair point," Shaw conceded. "But think of it as a mark of respect. Emma told me she could feel you reaching out all the way to the North Sea. That sort of power -- well, Charles, let's just say I would like very much to have you fighting with me, not against me. And I'm sure once you've had the opportunity to consider my offer, you'll agree. This is my gift to you, Charles. A time of rest, of reflection. None of the burdens of thousands of strangers weighing upon your mind. Emma tells me it's like being swept up in a writhing, screaming mob, without a moment's peace. I can grant you that peace."
"Peace," Charles echoed. The word tasted like dust in his mouth. "I thought you were speaking of revolution."
Shaw nodded, his eyes shadowed within the arches of his helmet. "Nothing comes without a cost. War is peace. Perhaps Orwell was on to something, after all. But then, given the mental gymnastics you seem to undertake to preserve your curious concept of compassion, it seems you're already quite the master of doublethink." He took a step back, inclining his head. "It's been a true pleasure meeting you, Professor. I know you've had a trying day; I'll leave you to your rest."
Then he stepped out of the chamber, and closed the door firmly between them. Charles could hear the scraping sound of the lock. And then he could hear nothing at all but the pounding of his heart and the harsh rasp of his own breaths.
He couldn't remember a time in his life before his telepathy had manifested; he'd always been able to hear others' thoughts. Always. Even when he hadn't wanted to, even when he'd thought the ceaseless rattle of all those dull, monotonous, unchanging minds would drive him mad, even when he'd drunk himself into oblivion in a fruitless attempt to drown out all that noise. He'd developed shields, of course; could block his mind off almost entirely if he so chose. But he'd never really known true silence.
Once upon a time, Charles had thought he might enjoy the peace and quiet of a normal, human brain. Just for a change of pace.
God, how wrong he'd been.
"It's like being in a crowded room," he'd explained to Erik once, on the road. They'd stopped for the night in some dingy little town in the middle of Kentucky. By chance, it was a weekend, so the lone bar in town was positively hopping. They were several drinks in already; Charles gestured expansively with his glass of (awful) Bourbon. "Like -- this bar."
"Not always quite like this bar, I hope," Erik remarked dryly. But his smile was slow and lazy, and his eyes never left Charles's. A good night.
Charles kicked him lightly under the table. (Which they were lucky to have -- Charles had had to use a touch of mental persuasion to free it up for them, but he certainly hadn't intended to remain standing all night in this press of humanity.) "You know what I mean."
"So telepathy is like a crowded, sweaty bar in Kentucky."
"It's just noise," Charles said. "Constant, indistinct noise. Radio static. You know. People get so damn anxious when they learn what I can do, as though I'm secretly eavesdropping on them at all times. As though they're so terribly interesting and unique that I'd want to." He snorted, taking another gulp of Bourbon. "Everyone has secrets, of course. It's just that most of them are so dreadfully dull. Moral issues aside, why on earth would I care enough to pry?"
Erik regarded him with amusement. "You're not making a very strong argument for your personal code of ethics, you know."
"Crowded room," Charles said, firmly redirecting the discussion back to his original point. "Yes, if you really concentrate, you could listen in on any number of conversations -- those two young ladies over there, for example, have been discussing the sexual habits of the bartender for a good five minutes now. And some people are closer, or louder, or easier to make out for whatever reason; others are more closed off. But ninety-five percent of the time, it's all just white noise."
He'd been leaning forward, he realized; Erik's face suddenly seemed much closer to his own. Erik's eyes were really the oddest shade, he decided. He never could quite tell if they were blue or greenish or gray.
"And the other five percent?" Erik asked, voice rumbling low in his throat. His Adam's apple bobbed as he sipped his beer.
Charles found himself swallowing, too. "It's like hitting the only clear radio station in the Appalachians," he said quietly. "Like music. I heard you so clearly in the water, Erik; I don't think you'll ever truly understand what that felt like."
Erik set down his glass, running his fingertip along the rim. "You might be surprised."
"I rarely am," Charles said. "But you've always been rather a special case."
The moment stretched out between them for too long. Charles found he couldn't look away from Erik's long, elegant fingers as they traced mesmerizing patterns along the glass. Then someone stumbled against their table, righting himself with a muttered apology, and the silence shattered.
"Are you about to tell me I have a very groovy mutation?" Erik asked solemnly.
Charles groaned, half-laughing. He couldn't meet Erik's eyes. "You've been talking to Raven, haven't you?"
"Moira, actually," Erik said with a smirk. Charles could feel his cheeks flushing, and he downed the rest of his Bourbon in one gulp. "So tell me, Charles," Erik went on, leaning in close. His voice dropped low, fond and teasing. "How are those terrible lines working for you?"
It was like tuning a radio. All of Charles's senses abruptly honed in on Erik: the heat in his blue-green-gray eyes, the quirk of his mouth, the faint odor of beer on his breath mingling with the pleasant scent of his aftershave. And the unique, familiar rumble of his thoughts, his mood bright and warm tonight like a banked fire, embers glowing. Charles's mouth felt very dry; he licked his lips, chasing the last flavor of the Bourbon, and those embers set off sudden sparks against his mind. Erik's gaze had dropped down to his mouth.
Oh, he thought indistinctly, and felt a sardonic pulse of agreement from Erik, underscored with heat.
Charles deliberately set down his empty glass, pushing it to the middle of the table. "I'll let you know in the morning," he said; and if his arrogance was more bravado than confidence, Erik didn't seem to mind.
There was a slot in the door of his comfortable prison through which meals arrived at irregular intervals. Charles had no sense of who his guards were, whether they were military or Shaw's men, mutants or ordinary humans. He never so much as glimpsed a face or heard a voice; along with the deadening alloy, the chamber was well soundproofed. The food was tolerable at best -- unchangingly dull, some sort of cabbage-based stew with thick hunks of hard black bread. At least he knew for certain that he was indeed still in Russia.
Within hours, he'd lost all track of the passage of time. The lights in his chamber always remained on. There were no windows, nothing whatsoever to connect him to the outside world. He hadn't brought his wristwatch along on the trip to the Soviet Union, thinking it safer back in his quarters at the CIA facility; he cursed that decision regularly. He tried using the timing of the meals to gauge the passage of days, but as far as he could tell, there was no pattern to it -- sometimes he'd be absolutely famished by the time a meal arrived; others, he'd feel as though he'd only just eaten, and would return the tray untouched.
He occupied himself with the books on the shelf, mostly scientific texts, with some sociology and even a handful of novels thrown in as well. Shaw had thoughtfully left him several empty notebooks and pencils, but Charles had no intention of giving the man anything whatsoever in return. No research, no diaries, nothing that could possibly be used against anyone he cared about. After a while -- a day? Several? -- he started talking to himself, just to break up the quiet. It did nothing to relieve the silence within his head, but he talked himself hoarse anyway. It belatedly occurred to him to wonder about hidden microphones in the room, but by then, he was past caring. And had lost his voice already besides.
The boredom was stifling. He slept a lot. And wondered how he ever could have imagined that going off alone with Shaw would be a good idea.
"It's not as though I could have predicted this," he argued with an Erik who didn't exist. "How much time and effort must it take to construct a prison cell like this? For the sole purpose of confining a telepath?"
Shaw's no idiot, he imagined Erik responding. If I'd known he'd found a way to keep your incessant chatter out of my head, I'd have thrown you in his path months ago.
Charles paced the narrow circumference of his chamber. "But that's just the thing! He didn't even know I existed until that night in Miami. How on earth could he have come up with all this in so short a span of time? How could ensnaring me possibly be worth so much to him?"
Yes, Charles, because everything is always about you. Charles could almost hear the teasing warmth in Erik's tone, paired with that particular smirk that never failed to set heat pooling low in his stomach. As though you're the only telepath in Shaw's circle of acquaintance.
Charles stuttered to a stop, pressing his palm against the door. "Ah. You're no idiot either, my friend. Or, rather, I'm not, seeing as you're all in my head."
"Oh, sod off."
But he didn't, because Erik never did a damn thing he didn't choose for himself, even if he was only a figment of Charles's imagination.
You're the one who left me, remember?
Charles closed his eyes, desperately trying to conjure Erik's face in front of his, the precise shade of his eyes and curve of his lips. But somehow it blurred in his memory, insubstantial without the weight of the distinctive patterns of his mind to support it. People never quite felt real to Charles without the sonorous hum of their thoughts. Erik's tone of voice, at least, Charles could imagine perfectly well. "I know. Forgive me."
Forgiveness isn't exactly my strong suit. But for you, I might just make an exception.
"God, I hope you're right."
I'm you, Charles, Erik reminded him. Aren't you always right?
The faces of all the men he'd gotten killed on that Russian hillside flashed before him: Levene and those ten soldiers -- Parker and Thompson and Ramirez and God, he'd led them all straight into Shaw's trap and now he couldn't even remember the other men's names. Opening his eyes to his bleak, lonely prison was scant improvement. The empty void where thoughts ought to have been was deafening in its silence.
"No," he murmured. "I'm really not."
For one long gap between meals, Charles positioned himself right at the door, waiting patiently. When the narrow flap on his door opened for the tray, it posed a very brief window of opportunity: a physical opening between his chamber and the rest of the warehouse. A gap in the horrible osmium alloy through which his telepathy could pass, however briefly. The biggest problem was that he had no way of knowing when meals would be delivered -- the irregular schedule and the soundproofed nature of the chamber kept him from being able to anticipate the flap's opening in time to take advantage of it. But if he sat right against the door, palms pressed to the concrete floor, he could just make out the tread of approaching boots a few brief moments before the unseen guard unlatched the flap.
It was all the warning Charles needed.
The instant the flap opened, Charles reached out, pouring all his mental energy through the gap in the metal, grasping at the first mind he could sense. A soldier -- Aleksey Gerasimov -- age twenty, born in Leningrad, ambitious, bored with this stupid outpost, but Shaw was rumored to be very popular among high command, perhaps this would be his chance at advancement, oh god his head felt like it was going to split open, what was happening--
And then Charles shoved Aleksey into a tiny corner of his own mind, taking him over--
It didn't last. There were two other guards along with Aleksey, and apparently they'd been warned about their prisoner's abilities. The instant their comrade dropped his tray and fumbled for his keys to the door, one gave a shout and hit him over the head with a the butt of his rifle while the other slammed the flap in the door shut. Charles reeled back from the double blow, both the psychic remnants of the hit to Aleksey's head and the abrupt loss of his telepathy driving him to the floor, clutching his skull.
There were no meals delivered again for quite some time.
When Shaw finally returned, Charles was so starved for the sight of another human being that he nearly didn't mind the continued absence of thoughts. Which, he supposed, was probably the whole point. Although he might simply be imagining the man entirely. With that blasted helmet blocking any hint of mental activity, Charles couldn't be certain Shaw was really here.
"Hello, Charles," Shaw said. "I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting, but I'm afraid I had some urgent business to attend to."
"That's quite all right," Charles said. He had been lying on his bed and staring up at the ceiling when the door opened; he did his best to appear nonchalant, but rather suspected it was a losing battle. "I've kept myself perfectly well occupied."
Shaw smiled. "I did hear about your little escapade with one of your guards. An admirable attempt. I could put your considerable mental energies to good use, you know. Although I'm sure that right now you'd like nothing better than to rip my mind apart."
"You overestimate my abilities, I'm afraid," Charles lied, with a thin attempt at a smile of his own. "And no, not at all. I'm sure you're well aware of the psychological effects of solitary confinement; I'm quite happy to see you at the moment."
He tried not to ogle the open doorway too obviously; no, he would not attempt to make a bid for freedom today. An entire army base's worth of soldiers would be waiting for him outside the warehouse even if he did manage to get past Shaw. He might be slowly going mad, but he wasn't actively suicidal. Not yet.
"I thought you might be." Shaw turned and beckoned to someone outside the chamber. For one impossible moment, Charles's heart leapt into his throat in mingled terror and agonizing hope: Erik? Who else could Shaw have wanted to flaunt in front of him? Could Erik have found them already, despite Charles's inability to reach out to him?
But it wasn't. He didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Instead, a very tall, muscular man stepped into the doorway beside Shaw, setting a tray of that awful cabbage stew down on a chair. Though the prospect of a meal was rather distracting -- it had been a dreadfully long time since anyone had dared approach the chamber in order to feed him -- Charles couldn't help but be riveted by the new arrival. He was another mutant for certain. His skin gleamed silver in the harsh fluorescent lighting, as though his entire body were composed of -- metal?
Oh, Erik would love this one.
"Charles Xavier, meet Colossus." Shaw sounded like a proud father. "Like the Colossus of Rhodes -- except theirs was made of bronze. Our wonder of the world has a skin of organic steel."
Organic steel. Charles flinched, recalling Erik's attempt at discerning the helmet's composition. The silence in Charles's head remained absolute. He couldn't read Colossus's mind at all.
"Precisely," Shaw said, eyes sharp as flint. "A real national treasure, don't you think? His particular mutation -- well, you've encountered certain properties of this metallic alloy already, Charles. The Soviets have been working with this young man for quite a long time to develop their own source of this steel."
Oh, God, had they been...experimenting with him, the way Shaw had once used Erik? The repulsion Charles now felt had nothing to do with his inability to hear the man's thoughts. Colossus himself remained impassive, arms folded across his chest.
And Shaw was parading him in front of Charles like a prized stallion. What on earth did he hope to accomplish? Did he think this would somehow endear Charles to his cause?
"Since you've frightened off your usual guards, Colossus will be responsible for your continued well-being from here on out," Shaw told him. "I'm afraid you'll no more be able to read him than a brick wall, but I'm sure you'll find the company welcome nonetheless. Think of this as a token of my esteem. I'm sure your research into genetics has never yielded quite such a handsome specimen -- well, apart from my old friend Erik."
"Yes, thank you," Charles heard himself say. His voice sounded distant to his own ears. "I'm sure we'll get along splendidly."
"Excellent." Shaw stepped back, perusing the room. "I see you've been availing yourself of our little library. Anything interesting?"
Charles gestured to the desk, where a broken-spined copy of 1984 adorned a small stack of scientific journals. "I've been brushing up on my Orwell, since you seemed to regard him so highly."
"I prefer Animal Farm, to be honest," Shaw said. "A cautionary tale. Humans really are all just brute beasts in the end, aren't they?"
"And do you see yourself as a Napoleon the pig or as a Big Brother?"
Shaw gave him a thin smile. "Some animals are more equal than others." He turned away from Charles, nodding toward Colossus. "I'll let you two get acquainted. I have business in Moscow this evening that just can't wait."
The door slammed heavily shut behind him. Charles fell upon the food at once, unable to restrain himself further; it tasted just as unappealing as ever, but God, it was food. He regarded Colossus warily as he ate, uncertain what to make of him. He'd never begun an acquaintance at such a disadvantage before; not that he pried, exactly, but he'd always had a general sense of the shape and flavor of others' minds, a loose sketch of their personalities. No one was truly a stranger to Charles. But Colossus remained a perfect enigma. Was this how normal people felt, all the time? How did they ever get to know one another at all?
"So," Charles eventually said, pushing the empty tray aside. "I take it you're to be my jailer, then?"
Colossus just continued watching him in silence.
"You're welcome to call me Charles, if you like. What name do you prefer? Not 'Colossus,' surely."
No response, not even a twitch.
"I'm afraid I don't speak Russian at all -- do you even understand a single word I'm saying?"
Colossus blinked slowly.
"Splendid," Charles sighed, collapsing back down onto his bed. "So I'm still talking to myself. What a marvelous change of pace."
He rolled over onto his side and squeezed his eyes shut tight, feeling the weight of Colossus's gaze on his back, heavy as lead.
When he next opened his eyes, Colossus was gone. Charles wondered if perhaps he'd imagined him.
He couldn't see any particular reason to get up out of bed, so he didn't.
Erik was by nature an early riser. They'd been on the road together for weeks at that point; it hardly came as a surprise. Charles had become accustomed to blinking awake at the first blush of dawn to the sounds of the shower running, or the hard click of the door locking as Erik went out for his morning run. It hadn't bothered him too much. He would just roll over and try to catch another thirty minutes or so of sleep before Erik's impatience got the better of him and he forced Charles up to face the day.
But it was quite another thing to awaken to the warm, insistent press of lips against the nape of his neck, feeling the rough calluses on Erik's palm stroking up and down his bare arm. As wake-up calls went, Charles thought, this was a considerable improvement. It took a few long moments for his memory of the night before to catch up with him, aided by the images currently flickering through Erik's mind.
"Oh, God," he mumbled into his pillow. "We're still in Kentucky, aren't we?"
Erik chuckled, and Charles could feel the vibrations all along his back. "Of course that's what he fixates on. Good morning to you, too."
"I thought that part went without saying." Charles twisted around to meet Erik's mouth with his own, still too sleepy for self-consciousness. If he let himself think too hard about it, he might be surprised that Erik had stuck around all night, that he hadn't woken up to an empty bed. He might wonder what that meant for the whatever thing that had happened between them at that dreadful bar last night. He might have to put a name to it. All of that was far too complicated for oh-dark-thirty in the morning.
When Charles had set his drink down and walked out of the bar, he'd intended to meet Erik back at their motel room. Perhaps even to have a proper discussion about their intentions in private. But he'd somehow made it no further than a few steps away from the back door, lingering in the dark alleyway between the bar and a dingy convenience store, head buzzing with alcohol and nerves and other people's thoughts and sheer wanting.
Erik had hardly stepped out the door before Charles was on him, catching his arm and pulling him into the shadows. He shoved Erik up against the wall with a strength he'd never realized he'd possessed and dragged Erik's head down to meet his, kissing him until he couldn't breathe, gasping into Erik's mouth and then kissing him again and again and again. And Erik allowed it, never resisting Charles's onslaught for even a moment, loose-limbed and pliable in a way Charles could never have imagined him.
If Charles had ever dared to envision a first time between them, it wouldn't have been anything like this, hard and frantic and far too hasty, shoes scrabbling in the gravel, hips and knees and elbows banging awkwardly, the harsh sounds of their ragged breaths and the zips of their trousers, belts unbuckling in a flash of Erik's power, everything filthy and sloppy and shockingly desperate. But Charles wouldn't have changed a moment of it, not for all the world. He couldn't have borne living another instant without knowing the rough grasp of Erik's hands on his waist, shoving up his shirt to reach the bare skin beneath; the look in his eyes as he stared at Charles, pupils huge and dark; the broken notes of his voice as he whispered Charles's name; the flush of heat and wonder and wild joy in his mind as he came, too soon, too hard, too perfect, dragging Charles along with him.
Besides, the second time, they had managed to make it to a bed, so it all evened out in the end.
Through the broken slats in the motel blinds, he could see the sun beginning to rise. Charles wrapped his arms around Erik, mapping out the cartography of Erik's jaw and neck and collarbone by taste, and decided it was time and past that they went in for round three. And after that, he hoped, perhaps he'd have to stop counting altogether. He opened his mind to Erik's, revelling in the tangled mess of thoughts and desires and pure sensation, and closed his eyes against the coming dawn.
He woke when he felt a large, hard grasp on his shoulder. "Erik?" he murmured, blinking into the harsh fluorescent overhead lights. His mind automatically reached out to him and found -- nothing.
Ah. Not Erik.
"You have slept too long," Colossus said, his voice deep and heavily accented. "Is not good to always sleep. Also you should wash, has been many days, da?"
"I think I prefered it when you didn't speak," Charles informed him. There was nothing wrong with sleeping. He didn't notice the silence when he slept. Figments of his imagination really oughtn't disturb him from his oblivion. "Though I suppose this answers the question of whether you understand English."
Colossus just regarded him impassively. Even his eyes were liquid metal. It was rather disconcerting. "Wash," he said again.
Charles sighed and made his way to the lavatory as ordered. He had lost interest in personal hygiene as the days blurred one into another, but he supposed now that he had a guest, it would only be polite to make himself presentable. "Shaw never provided me with a change of clothes, you know," he called over his shoulder as he stripped.
He heard a faint harrumph from the other side of the lav door, and then it cracked open behind him, just enough for one steel hand to extend inward. After a moment's hesitation, Charles passed over his small pile of dirty clothing. It hardly made a difference to him at this point.
The water pressure in the shower wasn't fantastic, but it felt surprisingly good against his bare skin, very nearly decadent. He stood under the spray for quite a long time. The steam cleared his head a bit, washed away some of the fog of depression from his extended isolation. This was ridiculous. He'd chosen this, after all -- chosen to send Moira away, to leave Erik behind, on some half-baked notion that he might somehow draw all of Shaw's darkest plans out of him with nothing but his own wits to match against Shaw's. How bloody arrogant of him. How stupid. He hadn't made any progress whatsoever, and God only knew where Erik was or what Shaw was actually up to or if Raven and Moira and the others were still safe....
Well. Perhaps he had made some progress. He knew Shaw had somehow coerced prominent members of the American military to plant those Jupiter missiles in Turkey; and Shaw himself had mentioned an important meeting in Moscow. So he was playing both sides of the table. To what purpose? Placing those missiles so close to the Soviet mainland would only provoke them to anger, to fear; the two nations already hovered on the perpetual brink of war. If the Soviets let their greatest fears overwhelm their reason -- if Shaw persuaded them as he had the Americans -- how might they respond? But no, that was madness, no one wanted all-out warfare in an age of nuclear arms.
We are the children of the atom, Shaw had told him. What had he meant by that? And his utter disdain for humanity, his convictions of mutant superiority -- saying outright that he wanted to rule mankind. Sebastian Shaw was a mutant supremacist; Klaus Schmidt had been an unrepentant Nazi.
Good God, he couldn't possibly want another sort of Holocaust...?
The water had long since run cold. Charles was shivering so hard he could hardly fumble with the taps to turn off the shower. He grabbed a towel, but the shaking didn't stop. Shaw couldn't actually be trying to start a nuclear war, could he? That didn't make any sense!
Shaw's mutation allowed him to absorb energy. All forms of energy, he'd said. Nuclear energy?
This was madness.
His clothes were missing. Oh, of course, he'd given them to Colossus. When he stepped back out of the lav, towel wrapped around his waist, he found a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants neatly folded on his bed, obviously too large for him. And Colossus, sitting patiently in a chair waiting for him, except--
Not metal. And Charles could hear him.
He dove right in, absorbing as much information as he possibly could while the opportunity existed. Colossus -- no, Piotr, his name was Piotr Rasputin -- had a bright, quicksilver mind chafing within the frustrating confines of their language barrier; he was nowhere near Hank's level of genius, nor did he possess Armando's breadth of imagination, but he was both intelligent and perceptive. And curious. And frightened--
It only lasted a few fleeting, marvelous moments before Colossus realized he was there; his metal shield flew up in a flash. It really was a sort of shield, Charles realized, fascinated: his entire steel skin functioned as a defense mechanism. It wasn't his baseline state at all. Like Raven's blonde, peach-skinned body -- a protective casing. Did it cost him energy to maintain it? How had it originally been triggered -- out of fear, or as an instinctive reaction to some other stimuli? Did he prefer his metal form, and if so, why had he reverted back to a "normal" human body when he'd thought he was alone?
"I'm sorry," Charles said softly. "I didn't mean to startle you."
In his metal form, Colossus appeared to be a young man, noticeably taller than Erik or Shaw, with a solid, muscular physique. But Charles's glimpses of his human face and within his mind, brief though they were, had revealed otherwise. The boy was young, younger even than any of the new recruits left back in Virginia; he was still a few months shy of his fifteenth birthday. Scarcely more than a child. If this was only his adolescent form, how much more impressive would he grow with age?
God, how long had the Soviets been experimenting with him to develop the telepathy-proof alloy? How much younger had he been when he was first taken?
"Is fine," Colossus said, voice betraying only a hint of his discomfort. He gestured to the bed. "Your clothing is being cleaned. You can wear this for now."
Charles nodded. "Thank you, I appreciate that. I'll just be a moment."
He took the borrowed clothing and retreated to the lav, his mind racing. A child soldier. Shaw had taken him and twisted him to his own purpose, just like he'd once taken Erik. Did Colossus follow him blindly, or was he here against his will? What threats did Shaw hold over his head? What promises? The boy should be in school, not a bloody military barracks!
The shirt was too large, and the sweatpants had to be rolled up at the ankles. Charles hardly noticed, his mind whirring rapidly through possibilities. He'd touched Colossus's mind so very briefly, but still, it felt as though he'd finally woken up properly for the first time in days. For the first time, he knew for certain that Colossus was real. He hadn't gone completely mad after all. The borrowed clothing -- Colossus's own? -- would make him appear younger, and faintly ridiculous. Unthreatening. Good. He might not be able to manipulate his jailer's thoughts directly, not so long as he wore that metal skin, but there was more than one way to influence an impressionable young mind.
Charles returned the the main chamber. This time, Colossus had kept his guard up, still all shining metal. "Ta very much again for the clothes," Charles said, keeping his tone light and pleasant. He gave Colossus a friendly smile as he settled into a chair. "I feel like a new man."
The trip through Kentucky had been the one that ultimately led them to an aquarium in Ohio, and a young man whose voice could literally shatter glass. All in all, definitely one of their better excursions. Upon their return to the CIA facility, Charles found himself more than usually loquacious during his debriefing with Moira and the mutant division's director, expounding at length about Sean Cassidy's marvelous abilities and the community he and Erik were gradually building together. "I'd like to take another crack at Cerebro as soon as possible," he added -- not that he required anyone else's permission, of course, but he was in a good mood, and a little courtesy could go quite a long way. "Sean's a bit on the young side, but he was so much more open to our offer than any of the older mutants we've approached. I think if Hank and I try tweaking the parameters--"
A wave of amusement rolled gently across his mind, and he glanced over to catch Erik watching him fondly, lips curved in a mocking smirk. Charles rarely bothered with embarrassment; even now, he could tell Erik secretly enjoyed his enthusiasm. So he only flashed Erik a quick grin and kept right on talking.
After the debriefing, Moira caught his elbow. "Charles, a word?" Her face remained a polite, professional mask, with no hint as to her intentions. She'd even pulled a light veil across her thoughts. It was enough to pique Charles's interest.
Erik hesitated at his side, but Charles waved him on. If you could help Raven get Sean settled in? I'm sure we'll only be a moment.
Erik's answering pulse of agreement was reluctant. He and Moira had established a truce early on, grudging respect outweighing their mutual distrust, but he'd never felt at ease around her, or with the CIA as a whole. "I'll be in the gym if you need me," was all he said, pointedly ignoring Charles's suggestion. Well, he wasn't really the welcome wagon type. And judging from the distant outline of Sean's thoughts, he was currently very much enjoying the attentions of a pretty girl. No doubt he preferred Raven's brand of hospitality.
Moira cleared her throat discreetly, and Charles realized that he'd been entirely too occupied watching Erik walk away. He gave her his most disarming smile -- not that it had ever worked on Moira, but hope sprang eternal. "What can I do for you, my dear?"
"I'm a little concerned about the new direction you'd like to take with Cerebro," Moira said. "Cassidy's barely eighteen. This is a government agency, not a school -- we can't recruit children."
"No, of course not," Charles said. "But aren't we here to train these mutants to use their gifts to their utmost ability? Any skill is more quickly and easily taught at a younger age. Particularly these mutations -- most of the people Erik and I have approached have spent their entire lives trying to hide their differences, fearing prejudice and discrimination if their talents became known. And for good reason. But that does our mission no good, not when they've repressed their abilities so deeply that they're terrified to even acknowledge them, let alone use them. Armando's been the only exception so far, and he's not yet thirty. Younger mutants -- like Sean, or Angel, or Alex -- are far more open-minded to possibility."
Moira shook her head. "They're also immature, far more difficult to control. And I'm not talking about their abilities. I'm the one who's been babysitting while you guys enjoy your road trips, you haven't really had to deal with them yet. Alex Summers is a very angry young man -- surly, recalcitrant, antisocial -- and don't tell me he's only a teenager, Charles, that's my entire point. They're too young for government work."
"You'd prefer we left him to rot in prison? Of course it's going to take time--"
"We don't have time," Moira shot back, exasperated. "If we want to be able to counter Shaw and his people--"
Their argument was growing heated enough that Charles seriously considered using his powers to deflect attention. The last thing he needed was for the guards to see the lady agent and the head freak at open odds with one another; they were both already disliked enough simply for who they were. If they couldn't present a united front to outsiders....
"I'm sorry, Moira, but we can't afford to be so short-sighted," Charles said, as calmly as possible. "I have to look to the future beyond Shaw. We have a chance to begin building something real here, so much greater than a single mission. Or did you intend to just send them back home once the threat posed by Shaw has been neutralized?"
Moira pressed her hands to her hips, mouth thinning into a flat line. "I understand where you're coming from, Charles, I really do. And I'd like to help you in any way I can. But we've got to get down to business here. I can't let the case against Shaw fall by the wayside while you and Erik gallivant about the states in an endless search for more and more unruly teenagers."
Charles stiffened. "The terms of our agreement with your agency stipulated that we be allowed to seek out more of our kind, without interference--"
"I'm not trying to interfere, Charles, you know that! But the longer you're off scouring the countryside, the more likely it is that Shaw will slip through our fingers. Frankly, I'm surprised Erik's gone along with you for this long."
She was only voicing the doubts that had already been eating away at Charles for weeks; he lashed out all the more strongly because of it. "Erik and I both want to create a safe haven for our people--"
"I think there's only one thing Erik really wants," Moira said. Her tone was quiet but firm. "And he'll stick with us so long as he thinks the CIA can help him get to Shaw. But once he does, Charles--"
"I know," Charles snapped. "Do you honestly think I haven't considered that? Do you really think I don't know that the day he finds Shaw is the day I lose him?"
It was more than he'd meant to admit; he briefly considered wiping the whole exchange from her memory altogether. But when he closed his eyes, his mind could only replay the image of Erik walking away from him, over and over again.
After too long of a moment, Moira broke the silence. "I would never presume to tell you what you should or should not feel," she said carefully. "But Jesus, Charles, you have got to be more circumspect."
Charles rubbed his temples, eyes still shut tight. "No more road trips," he said, dread twisting a cold, hard knot in his chest. "No more delays. Tomorrow we begin training to take down Shaw."
Of course, they never did. That very night, they received fresh intel on Shaw; the next morning, Charles, Erik, Moira, Levene, and ten soldiers boarded a military flight to the USSR.
Colossus soon retreated back into his taciturn shell, but Charles had no qualms about performing to a captive audience. He kept up a fairly constant chatter about nothing in particular -- what he'd been reading, his thoughts on mutations, anything random that popped into his head. He could do blather; he was excellent at blather. All the while, his mind kept working through the theoretical issues of Shaw's plan, and what Shaw intended Charles's role in it to be. There had to be a reason he'd gone after Charles in particular. Then again, it was no great stretch to imagine what use a man like Shaw could have for Charles's particular talents at persuasion. From what he'd seen -- in Moira's mind, in Erik's -- Emma Frost could certainly read minds, and perhaps attack them, but she didn't seem to be able to control them outright. Otherwise, Shaw wouldn't have needed to resort to intimidation with Colonel Hendry, and he could have brought Erik over to his side from the moment Erik arrived on that yacht.
Emma still probably knew more of Shaw's plans than anyone else. Azazel hadn't known much of the bigger picture. Neither did Colossus -- there was no need to try to press the boy for information he almost certainly didn't possess. That would only serve to alienate him.
Instead, Charles did his best to show sympathy toward Colossus, albeit obliquely. He talked about Raven, how frightened and young she'd been when they'd met, how outspoken and bratty and wonderful she'd grown up to be. About surly Alex and wary Angel and easygoing Armando; about all the many fascinating variations found in nature and in humanity. And of course he made sure to mention his friend Erik, how hurt he'd been, but how strong. "He'd love to meet you, I'm sure," Charles said brightly. "His powers enable him to manipulate magnetic fields -- he can sense all metals. You'd be like a symphony to his senses."
Colossus shook his head. "It is armor only. Not music."
"Why can't it be both?" Charles met those strange, metallic eyes, and took his chance. "You're so much more than just a weapon, Piotr. You can be anything you'd like. And armor can be beautiful as well as functional."
He waited for Colossus to bristle at the use of his human name, to react in fear or anger. But it slipped through unobtrusively. Colossus frowned, but he seemed to be thinking it over, so Charles let the matter rest. He switched topics deftly, without missing a beat.
Later, he found himself nattering on about Raven's penchant for pranks.
"She drives me absolutely mad at times, but I wouldn't change her for all the world," he remarked, and wondered suddenly if he'd ever actually told Raven that. Well, he would. If he ever returned home. "Sisters, you know? Or perhaps you don't."
"Yes," Colossus said unexpectedly. "I have a sister. Illyana."
"Where is she now?"
"Safe." Colossus's tone was too vehement. "I keep her safe."
Charles watched him carefully. "I'm sure she's very proud of you."
"I serve the Rodina," Colossus said stiffly. "With Shaw I am serving my country. I am keeping Illyana safe."
Charles wanted to lay a hand on Colossus's shoulder, but with the boy standing a good foot and a half taller than him, it would have been too awkward and obvious a reach. Instead, he clasped his hands in his lap and angled his body towards him, physically opening himself up. "Piotr," he said gently, "did Shaw ever threaten Illyana?"
"Shaw...." Colossus looked uncertain. For an instant, Charles thought he glimpsed brown eyes through the organic steel mask. "I am keeping her safe," he said again, more firmly. "I serve Mother Russia."
"I know you do, and you serve her well," Charles murmured. "But does Shaw?"
Colossus shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, and wouldn't meet Charles's eyes.
Colossus wasn't Charles's constant companion, but as with his meals, Charles was unable to derive any sense of a regular schedule based on Colossus's irregular presence. He supposed it was yet another psychological ploy on Shaw's part -- making him dependent on his jailer for companionship, desperate for human contact. Even better that Colossus was another mutant; no doubt Shaw hoped that it would isolate him from ordinary humans, gradually twist his perceptions to match Shaw's disdain for humanity.
And perhaps, given enough time, it would have. But time didn't seem to be on anyone's side.
"Dress," Colossus ordered him, dropping a pile of clothing on the bed. The garments were Charles's own; he hadn't seen them in days.
He obeyed without thinking. It almost felt strange to don the freshly-pressed shirt and trousers, his soft cardigan, the leather shoes. They belonged to another life entirely. Charles wasn't sure he could fit back into that skin again. "What's the special occasion?" he asked mildly.
"Shaw will be here soon." It was impossible to tell from Colossus's tone how he felt about this. Charles wondered whether he ought to welcome or dread the return of Shaw's attention. Something told him Shaw wouldn't be here to discuss literature this time.
Sure enough, when Shaw arrived, he was all business. And Emma Frost was at his side, her body pure, shimmering diamond. He couldn't read her in that form at all. Shaw seemed to have quite the knack for attracting followers with the sort of physical mutations that blocked Charles's.
"Hello, Charles," Shaw said brusquely. Neither he nor Frost so much as acknowledged Colossus. "I'm afraid it's time for you to make a choice. I believe you've met Aleksey?"
Emma snapped her fingers, and the young soldier darted up behind them, eyes wide beneath his own ridiculous organic-steel helmet. Charles had never met him face to face, of course, but he knew the man's mind intimately. Aleksey Gerasimov, bored and ambitious. He didn't appear to be anything but terrified at the moment. Well, Charles hadn't exactly been gentle with his mind.
Shaw barked an order at Aleksey in Russian. After a moment's hesitation, Aleksey removed his helmet with trembling hands, his thoughts tumbling frantically within his skull. It was all Charles could do to keep himself from being swept up along with them. It had been so long since he'd been able to feel anyone, not properly, and God, he didn't even need to dive in -- it would be enough to just let Aleksey's mind wash over his --
"I want you to force him to attack me," Shaw said.
Charles's blood ran cold. He slammed up mental shields between his mind and the soldier's at once. "Why? So that you can absorb the kinetic energy?"
"Come now, Charles, don't be squeamish," Shaw chided. "I know how difficult these past few weeks have been for you. I'm sure you'd love to punch me in the face right now. So I'm giving you permission -- more than that, I give you my blessing. But only through Comrade Gerasimov here."
"I can't do that."
Shaw sighed, as though disappointed. "Charles, Charles. Of course you can. You controlled his actions before, however briefly. You've controlled Azazel as well -- he doesn't remember a thing, of course, that was expertly handled, but I know what my teleporter looks like when he's made too long of a jump, and you wore the poor man out. Then you held Erik's mind at the General's house, kept him from interfering. Your own friend, and you took his free will away with no more than a thought." He smiled then. It made Charles's skin crawl. "So I hardly see why controlling Aleksey into attacking me poses a problem. It's what you want to do anyway, isn't it? Go right ahead."
Aleksey hardly understood one English word in five, but he'd clearly grasped Shaw's overall intentions. He stared at Charles in naked fear. Charles couldn't bear to meet his eyes. He looked to Frost instead. "You can't do it, can you? You can't control minds in the way Shaw wants. That's why he needs me."
"I can do plenty, sugar," Frost said coolly. "We've all got our talents. But yours would come in particularly handy at the moment."
Charles grimaced and turned back to Shaw. "And if I refuse?"
Shaw shrugged and produced that damn pistol from his jacket, pressing it against the side of Aleksey's head. "Then you get to feel him die in glorious technicolor. And I know how you grieve at a human's death."
Aleksey flinched, his eyes huge and pleading. He feared Charles's power, but not nearly so much as he feared death. The moment stretched out between them. God, he should just do it, shouldn't he? It would be such a little thing to seep fully into Aleksey's mind, control his body, pull his fist back for the punch....
To prove that Charles was precisely the sort of tool that Shaw needed.
Or to do nothing, and prove that he was still his own man, despite everything -- and perhaps after shooting Aleksey, the next bullet would be for Charles. It might even come as a relief.
But what had this young man done to deserve to pay that price for him?
Taking one last gamble, Charles looked back up to Shaw. "What would this prove, Sebastian? I will not help you start a war."
"No, Charles," Shaw said, with a sly smile. "You will help me put an end to all wars."
The war to end all wars, men had once called World War I, and look how well that had turned out. Optimist though he tried to be, Charles was in no way naive enough to believe in a world without war, not anytime soon. So long as humankind existed, there would be those with differing ideals who believed in their causes passionately enough to turn to violence.
So long as humankind existed....
Ah, Charles thought numbly. So he'd been right. It was to be nuclear war.
Looking back at Aleksey, still trembling with the gun to his head, Charles realized that the young soldier was no longer focusing on him. He followed Aleksey's gaze over to Colossus, whose metal brow was furrowed, jaw clenched unhappily. He was the one Aleskey was now silently imploring. Were they friends? Comrades, at least. God, what Charles would have given to know what Colossus was thinking! But it made no difference now. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and chose--
There was a burst of sulfurous smoke, making Charles jump, and Azazel materialized at Shaw's side. "The drydock is under attack," Azazel said rapidly, voice heavily accented. "Janos and I cannot get the submarine back into the water and fend them off at the same time. You must come."
Shaw dropped his pistol from Aleksey's head with an irritated grunt. The relief that spilled from Aleksey's mind was powerful enough to leave Charles weak-kneed and trembling. "Who the hell would dare to attack us? Not the Soviets--"
"Mutants," Azazel said. "They are like us."
Hope flared in Charles's chest, unexpectedly strong. Erik! It had to be -- although surely he wasn't trying to take on that submarine alone, not again. But who else...?
"One fights with energy bursts," Azazel added. "You should be there."
Alex Summers. Erik had gone back to their recruits. And Alex's power was uniquely, horribly matched to Shaw's -- oh, God, if Shaw absorbed even one of Alex's plasma hoops--
"Oh, I'm going to enjoy this," Shaw said, with an awful grin. "Emma, my dear, I do believe we have some business to attend to. Comrade Gerasimov, you're free to return to your post." Aleksey sketched out a sloppy salute and was off like a shot; Charles didn't even bother trying to hold him. He could hear the warehouse doors bang open and then shut again beyond his chamber. "And Charles -- don't you worry, this discussion isn't finished. We'll be back just as soon as we take care of this little...interference."
He and Frost both grasped hold of Azazel's hands, and the three of them vanished in another puff of smoke. For a moment, Charles could only remain standing, frozen in place. Then he realized -- they'd gone by teleport. The chamber door was open before him.
Only Colossus stood in his way.
"Please," Charles said. "Those are my friends, fighting Shaw's people. I told you about Alex, didn't I? He's the boy with the energy bursts. He's only nineteen years old. Shaw will burn him from the inside out with his own powers. Please, help me reach them, please."
"You cannot," Colossus said, but he sounded uncertain. "I have my orders. And I do not know where submarine is," he added, as if to himself.
Charles grasped at that straw with all the strength he had. "All I need is to get out of this damn steel trap, and I'll be able to find them. It can't be terribly far, jumping very long distances exhausts Azazel and he wasn't even winded. It may well be within my range. I just need to be outside where I can hear them."
Colossus hesitated, confusion writ plainly even across his metallic features.
"Comrade Gerasimov, he's a friend of yours, isn't he?" Charles asked, as gently as he could manage with his heart racing and adrenaline coursing through his veins. "You see how cheaply Shaw holds the lives of the people we care about. Aleksey did nothing wrong -- he's never so much as fired his weapon except in training, I've seen it in him. He served your country with honor. And Shaw would have killed him in a heartbeat. Piotr, do you honestly believe he will do any better by Illyana?"
At his sister's name, all the uncertainty in Colossus's expression was smoothed away. "He held a gun to her head," he murmured. "And he said I must change my skin. He said he would count to three."
In the silence that fell between them, the gunshots rattling outside of the warehouse were shockingly loud. The chamber may have been relatively well soundproofed, but the warehouse itself wasn't, and the door still stood open. Colossus was off and running at once, throwing only the briefest of glances back at Charles. After a moment's startled hesitation, Charles darted after him.
Although the warehouse was still thinly reinforced with Colossus's dreaded organic steel, after weeks in the completely telepathy-proof chamber, it felt like a fog lifting from Charles's mind. True, he was still obstructed by the walls of the warehouse, but it was the difference between being completely blinded and merely wearing a veil across his eyes. He could see, however dimly; there were so many men out there, and he could feel the shapes of each and every one of them in his head, blurred and indistinct though they were, and oh, it was glorious.
Except that they were shouting, and some were screaming, and gunshots were still being fired.
The massive double doors to the warehouse slammed open inward, in direct contradiction to the desires of their hinges. Well ahead of Charles, Colossus charged forward --
-- but then his arms jerked out, and his entire body was hurled against a wall, leaving a sizeable dent in the steel. His metallic eyes were wide with shock, his mouth gaping. He couldn't seem to move.
And Erik was there, arms outstretched, eyes wild. Blood trickled down one side of his face from a gash high along his cheekbone; his leather jacket was torn at the shoulder and the sleeve, stained dark. His breath came in heavy pants, chest heaving. He was quite possibly the most beautiful thing Charles had ever seen.
Erik clenched one hand into a fist, and Colossus crumpled to the ground, out cold. His skin shifted smoothly out of its metallic form as he fell. Charles let out a soft cry, rushing forward -- God, the boy had only wanted to help his comrades, but of course Erik hadn't known that, and Charles could only hope against hope that he wasn't hurt too badly -- and Erik's head snapped up at the sound, their eyes meeting.
"Charles?" Erik said hoarsely. He dropped his hands, and the warehouse doors slammed heavily shut behind him, closing the rest of the world out.
Charles wanted nothing more than to hurl himself straight at Erik, but something in the rigid way Erik held himself, the shock in his eyes, the blood on his jacket, held Charles back. He knelt at Colossus's side instead. In human form, the boy looked so much younger -- so much closer to his actual age, though still startlingly large for a teenager. His mind was quiet, but when Charles pressed his fingertips to his throat, he could feel his pulse beating steadily. "You'll be all right," he told the unconscious boy. "Just a bit of a shock."
When he looked back up, he found Erik still frozen in place, staring at him. "Erik?"
"I thought you were dead," Erik said. He took a halting step forward, clutching at his arm. Charles could see blood staining Erik's clenched hand. "I couldn't hear you anywhere--"
At once, Charles let his powers blossom outward, tendrils of thought reaching out to unfurl against the familiar patterns of Erik's mind. "They built these walls with the same alloy as Shaw's helmet," he explained softly. "My telepathy's been locked in with me."
At the touch of Charles's mind, some of the tension dropped out of Erik's frame, and he took another step closer. Charles couldn't even begin to put names to the myriad emotions buffeting about him. It was a struggle just to keep his hands from shaking. "Shaw?" Erik asked.
Charles grimaced. "You just missed him. Azazel whisked him away -- Oh, God." His eyes widened. "I am so sorry, Erik, he's not here, you came all this way for nothing--"
"Don't you dare say that," Erik snapped. "You're here. God, Charles, you're here."
And then he was staggering forward, bridging the remaining distance between them, and Charles couldn't help but reach out to him, pulling him down. Erik dropped to his knees and dragged him close, arms wrapping around him too tightly, pressing his face against the crook of Charles's neck. Charles rested his cheek against Erik's hair and breathed in the scent of blood and sweat and gunpowder, overlaid with the sharp iron flavor of his mind, somehow sweeter than any cologne.
"Erik," Charles murmured, and Erik lifted his head enough to kiss him, hard and desperate and painfully brief. His mind felt too hot and bright, like staring into the sun, and Charles welcomed it in. He would gladly burn alive for this.
Far too soon, Erik pulled back, drawing them both to their feet without ever releasing his grip on Charles. "We have to get you out of here," he said urgently. "Before Shaw figures out that the incident at the drydock is just a ruse--"
Which reminded Charles. "Erik, is Alex Summers attacking Shaw's submarine right now?"
"They all are," Erik said. "All of our recruits. Moira got intel that Shaw would be paying a visit to this compound today, that he was working on a special project with the Soviet military here. Something that might be the key to his entire plan. The attack on the drydock at Sevastopol was intended as a diversion, to lure them away so that I could get in here and find out what Shaw's plans were -- to destroy the project, if possible, whatever it was. But it wasn't a...bomb or a device or anything like that at all, was it?" He grasped Charles's shoulders, giving him a light shake. "It was you. This whole time, Shaw's secret strategy was you."
"But if he manages to absorb any of Alex's hoops -- or Angel's spitfires, or Sean's screams--"
"They know not to engage Shaw directly."
"They're just kids, Erik!"
"Not anymore," Erik said harshly. "Not since they lost you." He managed half a smile. "They've grown up a lot. Moira and Armando have been training them -- they call themselves the X-Men now. After you. I didn't even realize they'd stuck together until I got back in touch with Moira a few days ago. Looks like we recruited quite the team."
Charles gave him a lopsided grin. "Of course we did."
A sustained burst of machine gun fire caught them both off guard. The narrow windows set high in the warehouse walls shattered explosively inward, raining down shards of glass. Instinctively, Charles shoved Erik back against the wall, out of range of the worst of the falling glass. Erik grunted with the impact, starbursts of pain radiating from his thoughts, and Charles belatedly remembered the blood staining Erik's jacket, the awkward way he held his arm.
"Are you all right?" he demanded. It took every ounce of will he possessed not to cast himself directly into Erik's mind for the answer, though he couldn't help but peek.
"I'm fine," Erik said. He'd already shoved the discomfort from his injuries into a steel box in his mind, locking it up tightly. But that was standard operating procedure for Erik, Charles knew, whether the ache was physical or emotional. He let nothing distract himself from his mission. "They've had a chance to regroup; they'll try to smoke me out. But you're Shaw's primary asset. And I know Shaw, anything he can't keep for himself he'd rather see destroyed entirely -- they probably have orders to kill you rather than let you escape...."
Erik's gaze went distant, focused on something beyond Charles's perception; his whole body seemed to sharpen. Charles didn't need telepathy to divine Erik's new intent. "You're not going back out there alone, Erik."
"Someone's got to deal with those soldiers. Their bullets can't touch me."
"Liar." Charles grabbed Erik's arm just below the bloody gash in his jacket. Erik winced, but didn't try to shake him off. "Or did you somehow cut yourself on a passing tree branch?"
"I'd never had to deal with a machine gun before," Erik said, far too calmly. "I admit there was a bit of a learning curve, but it won't be an issue again."
There was another burst of gunfire, shattering the windows on the opposite wall. A shard of glass nicked Charles's cheek, but he hardly noticed. With every fresh opening from the warehouse out to the compound beyond, the fog across Charles's telepathy dissipated a bit further. There were too many Soviet soldiers out there, more than Erik could possibly take on by himself. This was suicide. But Charles couldn't think of any other way out except through those warehouse doors.
"I'm going with you," Charles said. "I can't hold off all of them, there are far too many, but once I'm out of this damn steel trap, I'll be able to take enough of them out of commission that you should be able to force a path through."
Erik studied his face, eyes unreadable. "You despise killing. I thought you disapproved of bloodshed of any kind."
"I don't intend to kill anyone, if possible," Charles snapped. "But I also don't intend to stand back and watch you go to your death alone! So don't you dare presume to tell me what I would or would not do to protect you."
Erik reached up to thumb away the blood on Charles's cheek. "The sentiment is entirely mutual." He dropped his hand with a sigh. "All right. We coordinated my infiltration of this compound to coincide with the recruits' attack on the drydock; Hank should be swinging by in the Blackbird to pick me up within the next ten minutes or so--"
"The aircraft prototype that Hank designed," Erik said impatiently. "You remember, there was a model jet at the CIA facility. Hank appropriated the actual jet when they left the CIA." The shadow of a smile passed across Erik's face. "Turns out the boy's got backbone, after all."
Charles mirrored his smile, perhaps a bit wistfully. "Sounds like you've all been busy. I don't have nearly so much to show for myself from the past -- God, I don't even know how long it's been!"
"Twenty-three days," Erik murmured. "Not that I've been counting."
"Three weeks, then," Charles said, absorbing it. "Only three weeks. Sometimes it felt like months without -- oh! Piotr!"
He rushed over to the boy, who was still crumpled in a large, unconscious heap where Erik had left him. Fortunately, he appeared unhurt by all the shattered glass. "Erik, help me get him up, he's coming with us."
Erik frowned. "Didn't he have a metal skin before? I thought he was one of Shaw's pet mutants."
"He was," Charles said shortly. "Shaw calls him the Colossus. But he's also fourteen years old, and Shaw has his sister." Swiftly, inelegantly, he bundled up the memories of his conversations with Colossus and tossed them directly into Erik's mind. If the shouts outside the warehouse were any indication, they were fast running out of time; he couldn't waste any more of it on explanations. While Erik blinked rapidly, absorbing the new information, Charles pressed his fingertips to Piotr's temples and urged him back up into consciousness as gently as possible. He didn't want to cause any brain damage, but they needed to get moving, and that would be much easier if Piotr were awake.
The instant Piotr began to awaken, his body shifted into its metallic form, frightened and instinctively on the defensive. "Fascinating," Erik murmured.
"Yes, I thought you two might get along," Charles said, getting to his feet and turning toward Erik. "Now--"
Without any warning whatsoever, Colossus grabbed him, his steel arms wrapping around Charles firmly, pinning him in place. Charles struggled against his grip to no avail. "Piotr! What on earth are you doing? Let me go!"
But when he craned his neck to look into Colossus's face, it was clear the boy was still only half-conscious, his liquid metal eyes wide with confusion.
"I'm sorry, Charles," Erik said softly. "But this is the only way. You have to trust me."
It was an echo of the very words Charles had spoken however many days ago, back in the Soviet general's house; Charles felt as though he'd been slapped in the face. "You know I do, Erik. With my life."
"Then let me save you," Erik said. And when he clenched his outstretched hand into a fist, Colossus's metal arms tightened around Charles, almost like an embrace.
Before Charles could formulate another thought, Erik turned and ran, ripping the warehouse door open with a gesture and then slamming it shut again behind him. The moment the doors were again closed, Colossus released his hold on Charles. He stumbled backward, muttering under his breath in Russian, completely dazed. Charles couldn't afford to tend to him; he was already sprinting across the warehouse to the doors.
They were locked tight -- no, not locked, sealed, Erik having partially fused them into the walls with his powers. He pounded impotently on what was once a door, hardly noticing as he split his knuckles open on the unforgiving metal. "Erik!" he yelled. "You can't take on an entire bloody army by yourself!"
"Can't I?" The shattered windows created a gap in the telepathy-dampening walls, enabling Charles to reach out to clearly hear the grim satisfaction in Erik's tone, the sense of bittersweet triumph coloring his thoughts. There was another rat-a-tat of gunfire, and then screams -- not Erik's.
Adrenaline coursed through Charles's body, his pulse racing frantically. He pressed his forehead against the cool metal, trying to remain calm. "You must listen to me, my friend -- you aren't alone anymore. You don't need to do this alone. I can help you!"
He couldn't see Erik's smile, but he could feel it in the very marrow of his bones. "Oh, Charles," Erik murmured. "You already have."
Charles reached out desperately with his telepathy, with every fiber of his being, pressing against the remains of the thin osmium barrier with all the strength he possessed. For a moment, just a moment, his mind linked fully with Erik's. He could see through Erik's eyes, breathe in the scent of dirt and wind and gunpowder, feel the blood sticking at the wound in his arm and the ache in his side and the fierce joy in his own power, and safe safe safe Charles is SAFE and when the Soviet soldiers started running at him from all corners of the compound he laughed and yanked their weapons out of their hands, crumpled every rifle and service pistol and those fucking machine guns into scrap metal, and he laughed and laughed but he didn't sense the team on the roof of the warehouse until it was too late and then there were so many bullets, too many tiny swift individual pinpoints of lead to deflect at once--
--and Charles lost his tenuous grip on Erik's mind all at once to find himself shouting wordlessly, beating his fists against the doors until they were raw. Somewhere beyond the warehouse walls, he could hear a muffled explosion. Abject terror flooded his veins like some sort of awful drug.
Someone was grabbing his shoulder; he tried to shove them away and slammed straight into even more hard, unforgiving metal.
"Stop," Colossus said, his eyes clear. "You hurt yourself. Is my turn."
Gently, he pushed Charles off to one side, and then he hurled his massive metal form at the doors.
The door dented. Colossus didn't.
It took several more tries, but at last, the damn thing tore off its melted hinges and clattered to the ground. Charles staggered outside in Colossus's wake, tasting fresh air for the first time in ages, and all the world rushed back into his open mind like floodwaters surging over a battered dam. After weeks of drought, it was all he could do to remain afloat. He cast about for the unique, beloved patterns of Erik's mind, like a drowning man grasping at driftwood, and found him--
"Thank you," Charles gasped at Colossus, and threw himself across the packed dirt toward Erik's crumpled body.
Erik hadn't been able to deflect every individual bullet, but he had managed to construct himself a crude shield from the door of a nearby vehicle. That kept him alive, thank God, but a tossed grenade had detonated too quickly for Erik to disarm it. It hadn't been anywhere near a direct hit, but still, the blast had thrown him several yards. And now the soldiers were regrouping, terrified of this stranger's freakish powers, and they must kill him, kill him quickly before he could harm any more of their comrades, ready and aim and--
"Stop!" Charles screamed, with all the force of his mind behind the command, and the soldiers did.
They all stopped. Every last man among them.
After all the shouting, and gunfire, and pounding footsteps -- the silence was very nearly deafening.
Charles dropped to his knees at Erik's side, wrapping his arms around Erik's shoulders to try to pull him upright. "Erik! You stupid, stupid man -- what the hell were you thinking?"
"Charles?" Erik shook his head, clearly still dazed from the blast. He allowed Charles to maneuver him into a sitting position. "You're supposed to be safe--"
"I am," Charles said. He wanted to shake him, God, he felt so furious and relieved and heaven knew what else. "And so are you. For now, at least."
"What did you do?"
Charles closed his eyes, tightening his grip on Erik. "I stopped them."
For a mercy, Erik didn't ask him any further questions just then. His face was ashen beneath his tan, eyes unfocused. The wound in his arm was bleeding afresh, and from the way he winced as he tried to sit further upright, Charles was willing to bet he'd at least bruised a couple of ribs in the grenade blast, plus a potential concussion. Not to mention any additional injuries that weren't immediately apparent -- had any of those bullets hit him? God, how was Charles going to get him out of here?
"Piotr?" Charles called. His voice was shaking; how ridiculous. "I think I might need to beg your assistance."
"I'm fine," Erik insisted. By leaning heavily on Charles, he managed to maneuver himself up to his feet, eyes closed against the exertion. Charles stood with him, keeping a tight arm around his waist in support. "Let's go."
Charles let out a short, empty huff of laughter. "Go where?"
Colossus ran up beside them, his metal skin gleaming in the patchy sunlight. He stared at Erik with open distrust, then shifted into his human form. "Is two times he uses me," Piotr said. "Not again."
"Sorry," Erik said, not meaning it at all.
Without his organic steel shell, Piotr's mind was an open book to Charles once more. He felt a bit frightened of Erik -- understandably so -- but had remarkable control over his fear for one so young. And his awe of Charles's control over the rest of the soldiers had given him a healthy dose of respect for Charles, and a new understanding of why Shaw had been so insistent about taking every precaution around the telepath.
"You know what my powers enable me to do," Charles reminded him gently. "In this form, you won't be able to block me."
Piotr shrugged and carefully eased Erik's other arm across his own broad shoulders, taking on the bulk of Erik's weight. "You never tried to hurt me."
"I can feel the Blackbird," Erik murmured dreamily. "Hank's jet. As though it's calling to me." He opened his eyes. "It's a marvel of engineering, Charles, you'll love it."
In spite of everything, Charles couldn't help but smile. "I'm sure I will."
"It's almost here." Erik reached out, his hand shaking slightly. "I could pull it toward me. Like Shaw's submarine."
"I believe you could," Charles said softly, watching the play of emotions across Erik's face, somehow more open and expressive now, as though the haze of pain served as a sort of drug. "My friend, one day, I believe you'll be able to move mountains."
But for now, if Erik really could sense the jet.... Charles closed his eyes and opened his mind outward, stretching muscles too-long cramped within that horrible steel box. Unhindered at last, he felt as though he could traverse half the continent with only a thought. And sure enough -- Hank? Can you hear me?
Hank's mental reply was heavily spiced with mingled shock and disbelief. Professor?
Yes, it's me -- we'll explain later, but you've got to hurry, Erik's hurt. He didn't know enough about their surroundings to be able to direct the jet to their physical location, but he did his best to serve as a sort of mental beacon, guiding Hank in.
He could hear the roar of the engines overhead within minutes. Relief made him almost light-headed. There are a lot of soldiers on the ground, Hank projected, his mental voice wary. I've got some weapons built into the Blackbird if we need to take defensive measures--
Don't worry about the Soviets, Charles told him grimly. The longer he held their minds tight in his grasp, the more likely he'd cause them all permanent brain damage. But he couldn't afford to hate himself for it now. I've taken care of them.
If you say so, Professor.
There wasn't really an airstrip of any kind in the compound, but then, the Blackbird didn't seem to need one. Charles didn't know much about planes -- mechanical engineering had never been a particular interest of his -- but Hank's jet was truly a wonder. It came to rest on the barren earth rather like a helicopter might, though without any visible propellers. Charles definitely approved of its convenience.
"What is this?" Piotr demanded, caution warring with awe in his thoughts as he stared up at the Blackbird.
"Friends," Charles said. "People like us. Help me get Erik aboard."
Erik muttered something disparaging under his breath, but it clearly took all his efforts just to remain upright. Really, Charles should have stepped away and allowed Piotr to support him alone -- that would have been less physically awkward for everyone involved -- but somehow, he couldn't quite bear to release his hold on Erik, not yet. It was too important to continue reassuring himself of Erik's presence, warm and solid and unquestionably real, his mind a bright, constant companion. Trapped within the prison of his own head, unable to sense any other minds, the rest of the world had seemed flimsy and insubstantial to Charles for far too long.
Somewhere nearby, Charles could still feel the trapped echoes of Aleksey Gerasimov's mind, frozen in blank horror. Perhaps it would have been kinder to let Shaw shoot him, after all. Feeling sick, Charles deliberately closed his mind to all the immobile soldiers, turning away as he released them. It would take them some time to pull themselves back together enough to take any action, and by then, the Blackbird should be long gone.
They had hardly made their way up the ramp into the aircraft when Charles was assaulted by a blue blur. He was forced to let go of Erik in order to catch his sister up in his arms. "Raven?"
"Oh, God, Charles," she sobbed out, hugging him tightly enough to hurt. "When Hank said you were speaking with him -- oh, you utter bastard, we thought you were dead!"
He pressed his cheek against her red hair, holding her close. He'd promised not to read her mind years ago, but even with that restraint, he could still feel the relief and anger and love pouring off her in waves, and willingly submerged himself in them. "I know. I'm sorry, love, I'm so sorry."
"I missed you, you asshole."
Charles laughed and kissed her brow. "And I you. You have no idea how glad I am to see you safe."
"Yeah." Raven released him, visibly pulling herself back together. Now that Charles had the chance to have a proper look at her, he noticed that she was wearing an odd yellow-and-blue jumpsuit -- like a uniform of some sort -- beneath which she was unapologetically blue. No more hiding, then. He couldn't find it in himself to disapprove. "But we need to get out of here," Raven continued. "Hank said Erik's hurt?"
"I'm fine," Erik insisted yet again. Piotr was maneuvering him carefully into a seat; Charles could feel the boy roll his eyes.
"Yes, you're only bleeding all over the upholstery," Charles said. "Perfectly fine."
Erik's scowl turned into a wince as Piotr buckled him in, jarring Erik's bruised (cracked?) ribs despite his best efforts. But Erik waved Charles off irritably when he tried to move closer, so Charles sighed and made his way up to the cockpit instead.
"Moira just reported in," Hank said, fingers flying over his console. He was wearing a similar uniform to Raven's, fitted to his lanky form, his agile feet comfortably bare. "She says they've all evaded Shaw's forces for the moment, and they'll meet us at the rendezvous point in twenty minutes."
Charles spent another few minutes catching up with Hank, who filled him in on the skirmish at the dry dock. Apparently Alex had really gone to town on the submarine, doing his level best to slice it in half, while Angel spat her acid-flames at anyone who tried to intervene. Sean hadn't quite worked out the right frequency to distort metal, but he'd certainly given Shaw's people a hell of a headache with his shrieks. And Armando had used his adaptable body as a human shield to get them in and out of the battlefield. They really were becoming quite the team.
Once the Blackbird was back in the air, he made his way back to the seats to discover Piotr reading Erik rather an impressive lecture on his injudicious use of violence. For a boy whose sheer physical size and strength provided quite the advantage in any sort of physical fight, it sounded as though Piotr had some very strong feelings about bullying.
"Charles, are you certain you haven't tampered with the boy's mind?" Erik demanded, tone neatly splitting the difference between annoyance and amusement. "He's a goddamned pacifist!"
"Is not right to use power against people with no power," Piotr insisted.
"What about when people with no power use bullets against people with no bullets?"
"All right, guys, please make sure your seatbelts are fastened, we're going supersonic," Hank announced. "ETA to X-Men, fifteen minutes--"
"No," Erik called out. His voice was somewhat rough with pain, but none the weaker for it. "We have to go after Shaw. This might be our only chance."
Raven frowned. "But you said we couldn't fight him--"
"Erik's right," Charles said quietly. "Shaw is planning to start a nuclear war. He must be stopped."
"Nuclear war? But -- oh!" Hank's eyes widened. "Of course! With Shaw's particular mutation, he's probably perfectly able to absorb nuclear radiation. An A-bomb would...wow, I really don't want to think about that. But he wouldn't have much of a world left to rule at the end of it."
We are the children of the atom, Charles remembered, his stomach twisting. "I think he believes that mutations are a direct result of atomic energy. That any mutants would survive the fallout. It's genocide writ large -- wipe out all the baseline humans, leaving mutants to rule."
"He's delusional," Hank said flatly. "I've got big feet -- that doesn't protect me against radiation."
"But how are we supposed to stop him?" Raven demanded. "We can't hit him, we can't shoot him, Alex can't even blast him. What's left?"
"We can trick him," Erik said.
"This was a bad idea," Charles said softly, pitching his voice low enough that only Erik could hear him over the Blackbird's engines. "You need medical attention, Erik. I'm not a healer."
"I'm not sitting this out." Erik's face was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, his teeth gritted against the pain, but he remained adamant. "If you try to stop me again--"
"You know I won't." I could, but I won't, went unspoken between them. "But taking away the mind's ability to register pain is a dangerous business. You could do yourself far worse injury without even realizing it."
"I don't want you to make me completely numb, I just need to be able to function." Erik deliberately took Charles's hand, bringing it up to the side of his face. "You know how much I hate asking at all. I trust you, Charles."
It was all Charles's fault, really. Seeing Erik so clearly in pain, knowing there was no time to spare in going after Shaw -- and they certainly couldn't take him to a Soviet hospital, in any case -- he'd been foolish enough to remark that since all physical sensations were of the mind, he could use his powers to create a temporary mental block in Erik's mind until they could get him to medical care. Telepathic painkillers. It was a handy little trick. Charles had never endured a hangover in his life.
But of course Erik would see it as carte blanche to get up and run after Shaw all over again.
"All right," Charles murmured. "Just enough to take the edge off. And you must promise me to be careful, Erik."
"I know my own limits," Erik said, which wasn't a promise of any kind. But Charles just nodded and pressed his fingertips to Erik's temples, slipping into his mind. Erik had a much higher tolerance of physical pain than most people -- Charles didn't like to think about why he'd developed that -- which only made Charles warier. It was a marvel that Erik hadn't already passed out. Pushing himself even further could only exacerbate the damage. But he needed to be able to see this through, which Charles could understand all too well. So.
It only took a few moments. Charles was careful only to dull the sensation, not block it entirely, but even so, it was as though he'd lifted a huge weight off Erik's shoulders. Erik sighed and leaned forward into Charles's touch, some of the lines smoothing off his brow, his breathing noticeably easier. "Thank you."
Charles was far too tempted to linger there, indulging in both the physical and mental contact, but Raven and Piotr were strapped into jump seats right across from them, watching curiously, and the jet was fast approaching the drydock. So he pulled away from Erik, casting his mind outward. From the memories at the forefront of Hank's mind, it looked as though Alex had wreaked some serious havoc upon the submarine, which ought to be occupying Shaw's people with repairs for some time. It would be vital for Charles to deal with Emma Frost before she had a chance to take note of their approach. He couldn't afford to be locked in a telepathic battle with her for long -- Azazel alone could wipe the rest of them out, if Charles were distracted.
There. Her mind was far too powerful for Charles to simply send her to sleep, but if he could force her onto the defensive....
He had never before used his powers to deliberately cause pain, but he couldn't come up with any other option. And somehow, that didn't bother him nearly as much as it might once have. It was all too simple: he needed Frost to revert to her diamond form, equally unreadable and unable to use her own telepathy offensively. So he took every endless moment of enforced silence from his captivity, the mind in isolation savagely turning in on itself, the perfect loneliness and creeping terror of madness that had haunted him through those weeks alone, and he thrust it all out at her like a grenade poised to explode within her mind.
Her response was disjointed, fragmented -- Xavier? and what the hell and a scream into the void -- what are you doing to me?
Shaw didn't build that prison for me, Emma, Charles told her. This is what he would have inflicted upon you.
And all at once he was thrown out of her mind, violently expelled, pure diamond encasing her thoughts in an impenetrable shield. He came back to himself gasping and sweating, hating himself for it, but grimly satisfied all the same. Erik was gripping his arm.
"Charles?" Raven called across the jet, eyes wide with concern.
"I dealt with Frost," he told them. "No help for it, Shaw knows we're coming, but she won't be interfering. At least not telepathically. If it comes down to a physical altercation, I'd imagine her diamond form still packs quite the punch."
"We'll see about that," Erik said darkly. He glanced across at Piotr with a grin. "I'll bet the Colossus here would be more than her match."
"Piotr," the boy corrected, face impassive. He shifted into his metallic skin, nearly snapping his seatbelt as his body expanded in its transformation. "But yes."
Raven favored him with an approving smile. "Very groovy." And though the steel didn't give much away, Charles imagined that if he could, Piotr would be blushing furiously at her attention.
"Beginning descent," Hank announced. "I can see the sub--"
And then there came an all-too-familiar burst of sulfur, and Azazel appeared in the front of the jet. Hank had just enough time to do...something with his console, sending out a desperate mental blast at Charles, before Azazel grabbed him, and they both were gone.
"Hank!" Raven screamed.
Charles was already frantically unfastening his straps, staggering to the pilot's seat. "He initiated the landing sequence, but god damn it all, I can't both land the bloody plane and focus enough to keep Shaw's people from attacking again--"
A glance outside showed twin whirlwinds developing below them, all too quickly gathering strength and speed.
"You take care of Shaw's mutants," Erik said from very close behind him. He reached up to press his palm against the curved metal hull of the Blackbird, muscles straining with effort. "I've got the plane."
But his thoughts were a scattered mess of rage and desperation, and he was pushing himself too far already just attempting to keep the jet level. It was Shaw's submarine all over again -- Erik would kill himself if he couldn't channel his churning emotions into his powers. Charles abandoned the console, twisting around to grip Erik's arms. "Erik, listen to me. You must calm your mind."
Erik let out a harsh laugh, slanting Charles a glance. "This isn't exactly a calming situation."
Winds shrieked around them, the jet tilting dangerously without a pilot's hand on its controls, and while Piotr's metal skin might shield him from a crash, Raven had no such protection. Despite all the information Hank had desperately tried to project into his mind in those last moments, Charles knew he couldn't land the Blackbird under these conditions. It had to be Erik.
"You can do this," he said, projecting his absolute faith in Erik as though he could enfold him in it like a blanket. "I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity. Let your anger ground you. You're not fighting the jet -- it's all metal. It's a part of you. Stop fighting and let it be."
Erik squeezed his eyes shut in concentration, jaw clenched. "Charles--"
"I know you won't hurt me," Charles said softly. "Or Raven, or Piotr. Look at me, Erik." Erik's eyes snapped back open, fixing on Charles's like a compass seeking out due north. "I trust you completely, my friend. Bring us down safely."
And slowly, painstakingly, Erik did.
Once reassured that Erik had control over the Blackbird, Charles swiftly reached out with his powers, searching for Shaw's mutants. Of Shaw himself, he could feel no sign -- of course, that blasted helmet -- but the wind-maker was easily caught. Janos Quested, his mind a whirlwind of aggression and anger and the faintest whiff of sly humor; not an evil man, but long forged into complete obedience by Shaw. He longed for orders to follow. Charles ordered him to sleep, and he obeyed with alacrity.
As before, Azazel was a more slippery fish, never remaining in one place for long. He'd delivered Hank unharmed to Shaw and Frost -- thank goodness for small favors -- but was determined not to allow Charles to get a solid grip on his mind again. There had to be some way to lure him out.
"Piotr!" Charles called. "Do you know Azazel at all well?"
"Better man than Shaw," Piotr said at once. "He taught me English, sometimes helped me. Did not like when Shaw did experiments. But did not stop him."
But still, if Azazel were fond of Piotr, perhaps....
The jet came gently to rest by the Black Sea harbor, which was fortunately still deserted in the wake of the recruits' earlier attack. Erik was drenched in sweat, his arms trembling from the exertion, but he was grinning broadly, triumphant. Charles clasped his hands briefly. "That was marvelous, Erik. Thank you."
"Shaw's out there," Raven called. She'd already unstrapped herself, standing atop her jump seat to peer out the high, narrow window. "With his telepath. She's all diamond -- she's the one holding Hank. I can't see the others."
"Janos is unconscious in the submarine," Charles replied. "The teleporter transported him there for safekeeping, but I can't get a read on Azazel's current location." He glanced between Erik and Piotr, assessing. "All right, slight alteration to the plan. Here's what we'll do."
After moving an entire plane, Piotr's metal body felt hardly heavier than a coin to Erik. He levitated Piotr before him as they descended from the jet, very showily, luxuriating in the renewed strength of his powers.
Inwardly, Charles winced. He could too easily feel the stress buried within Erik's mind, glossed over by Charles's little mental block. Erik had already badly overtaxed himself physically; that he could not now feel the pain of it didn't lessen the damage done. At some point, his body would simply shut itself down, desperate for the chance to heal. They could only hope it would hold off until they were through with this whole terrible business with Shaw.
Still hidden within the Blackbird, Charles maintained constant telepathic contact with Erik as he stepped forward to meet Shaw. "Hello, Erik," Shaw said. "It appears as though you have something that's mine."
"As you have one of my people," Erik acknowledged, nodding at Hank. Through Erik's eyes, Charles was relieved to see that Hank appeared relatively unharmed -- mutely furious, though, straining against Frost's diamond grip. He'd lost his glasses somewhere in transit.
Calm yourself, Charles sent him, soothingly. We have this under control.
The damn teleporter's still out there--
Let me worry about Azazel.
"So you were behind the attack on my submarine," Shaw remarked. "I should have known. I'm disappointed in you, Erik -- sending mutants to attack their fellow mutants. We should be standing together, you and I, not setting dogs at each other's throats."
Erik raised his hand. Piotr floated higher up in the air, scrabbling at his throat as though it were being crushed. Charles sincerely hoped that was all an act on the boy's part. "This dog is particularly worthless against me."
Shaw shrugged. "Colossus was never meant for you. He has his uses, though. Doesn't he, Charles?" Shaw called toward the jet. "I know you're skulking about in there. You're a better man than that, Professor. I never took you for a coward."
Charles remained silent and still. Not yet, he sent out to his allies.
"I'll make you a trade, Shaw," Erik said coolly. "Your dog for mine."
"Thanks for that," Hank muttered.
"Nothing personal, Hank."
Shaw glanced to Frost, who inclined her head slightly. "Oh, I don't think so," he said. "You see, your mutants did an awful lot of damage to my submarine. Azazel thinks we'll be held up on repairs for several weeks, at least, and that throws a very large wrench into my plans. Do what you like with Colossus -- as you said, he's useless to me so long as you continue to stand in my way. If you want your pilot here back, I want that violent little terrier of yours in exchange. The blond kid with the energy blasts. He's a wild thing, that one. Completely lacks discipline. I plan to teach him some respect."
Erik shrugged. "I have no idea where he is."
"Then I suggest you find him," Shaw said grimly. "And the rest of your ragtag little army. I want payment, Erik."
"Then I guess you have no use for Colossus here." Erik clenched his hand into a fist, and Piotr screamed, falling heavily to the ground. At once, a cloud of sulphur signalled Azazel's arrival; he crouched down by Piotr, extending a hand to aid the boy--
--and Piotr kicked out with his massive steel foot, catching Azazel right in the chest and sending him reeling. It was enough. Charles reached out and grabbed at the teleporter's mind while he was still off-balance, holding it firmly in place. But even as Charles caught Azazel, Shaw leapt forward to wrap his hands around Erik's throat, squeezing tightly. For all Erik's strength and agility, he was no match for Shaw's superhuman force. Piotr lunged at Shaw, fists swinging; a dreadful mistake. Shaw absorbed the blow with a grin and shoved it right back at Piotr, who flew back against the submarine's hull with a horrible clang and collapsed there, shifting back into his human skin as he lost consciousness.
Grimly, Charles forced Azazel to wrap his arms around Frost and Hank, poised to teleport them away.
When Erik fought against his grip, Shaw kneed him hard in the gut. Though Erik couldn't scream, his sudden agony burst across Charles's mind with the force of an explosion, shattering the block Charles had placed across his brain's pain receptors. Apparently he'd already had some internal damage there caused by the grenade blast back at the military compound; Shaw had only exacerbated the injury.
"Enough of these games, Charles!" Shaw shouted. "Come out here and face me!"
Now, Charles projected weakly. His mind felt stretched in too many directions, holding Janos asleep and Azazel in place and desperately trying to keep Erik from collapsing outright. But they had to take down Shaw. They had to.
Slowly, his fingertips still pressed against his temple, Charles emerged from the Blackbird. Shaw grinned, the helmet distorting his features grotesquely.
"Let him go," Charles called shakily. "I'll release Azazel if you release Erik."
Shaw laughed. "And what do you intend to do with him if I don't? You wouldn't force yourself upon that Soviet soldier even to save his life. I'm calling your bluff, Xavier."
Charles glared at him. "Do you really care to wager on that?"
"You have no intention of killing my people," Shaw scoffed. "If you had, you could have murdered Janos outright with only a thought. But I can and will kill your dear friend Erik."
"You wouldn't dare." Charles strode right up to Shaw and Erik, eyes hardening. His free hand clenched into a fist at his side. Erik's face was going purple as he weakly struggled for breath. The pain and helpless rage rolling off his mind in waves nearly swamped Charles's. He saw red. "I'm giving you only one warning, Shaw. Release him."
Shaw regarded him through narrowed eyes, smirking. They stood scarce inches apart now, Erik slowly collapsing to his knees beside them as he lost the battle for air.
"Very well," Shaw said, and let him go.
Erik fell the rest of the way to the ground, gasping for breath. Before Charles had a chance to react, Shaw brought his hands to his head and in one fluid motion, yanked the helmet off his head and shoved it down onto Charles's, holding it firmly in place.
"I'm really getting sick of your little mind games, Charles," Shaw said, with a horrible grin. "Let's see you play them now!"
But Charles just looked up at him and laughed. "Oh, man," he said, as blue scales flickered across his skin. "Game, set, and match!"
And as Shaw stared down in utter confusion at Raven, who was giggling beneath his hideous helmet, the real Charles reached into Shaw's mind and froze him in place.
As he strode out across the dock from the Blackbird, he released his hold on Azazel, dropping him deeply into sleep. When Emma briefly flickered out of diamond form in a reflexive attempt to ward him off, he did the same for her, as though swatting a fly. Something in Erik's agony, in Shaw's careless cruelty, in weeks of pent up anger and latent madness and sheer frustration seemed to have flicked a switch in Charles's mind. There was no block on his powers here; there was no limit to what he could do with them.
None of these people would ever hurt anyone Charles cared about ever again.
He grasped Shaw's face in his hands, pressing his fingertips to Shaw's temples, and dove in. Unprotected by the helmet, by the alloy derived from Piotr's metal skin, there were no safeguards left to shield Shaw's mind. What once had seemed a forest of brambles to Charles now felt no more opaque than an early morning's mist. Perhaps his telepathy had grown more powerful in isolation. Or perhaps he simply had fewer scruples now. He tore ruthlessly through surface thoughts and recent memories, plunging deep into the darkest recesses of Shaw's mind. Charles pored through Shaw's visions of the future and emerged angry and sickened.
Nuclear war, indeed. An entire planet laid waste in a second Holocaust, the land irreparably poisoned, all life quenched. And Shaw alone ruling a race of irradiated slaves.
Though Shaw was still unable to move a muscle, his other mental processes remained intact; his eyes were wide and panicked upon Charles's own. "I want you to know that this isn't an act of vengeance," Charles informed him coldly. "Nor is it justice -- well, perhaps it might be, but it's not my place to judge you. This is an act of desperation. You would end all life on this planet, massacre all those I hold dear. And I believe all human life is sacred, Sebastian." He dropped his hands from Shaw's face. "Even yours."
"You can't let him walk free," Erik croaked, his voice hoarse. Charles turned to see that Hank had helped him back up to his feet, though he looked as though a stiff wind might topple him. Exhaustion and injury were pushing his body dangerously close to the point of collapse. Fortunately, Hank was much stronger than his skinny frame would imply, and he bore Erik's weight easily. Beyond them, Piotr was slowly pulling himself back up to his feet, leaning heavily against the submarine's battered hull.
"He's right, you know," Raven said. She held Shaw's helmet in her blue hands, toying with it pensively. "With Shaw's mutation, I doubt any prison cell could hold him for long. Assuming you could convince any government to lock him up in the first place."
Charles sighed, looking back at Shaw's immobile body. "I know. Give me a moment, please."
He'd erased memories before -- not often, but he had. Little things, mostly. Looking back, he'd so frequently used his powers for such trivial matters -- parlor tricks, opportunities to show off and feel clever, or simply to hide himself or Raven from notice. God, what a waste of his abilities. How bloody arrogant he'd been. He felt as though he'd aged decades in the past few weeks.
There was nothing ethical about his choice, but Raven and Erik were right. Shaw was a danger to every living being on Earth. He had to be stopped. And Charles was the only person who could stop him.
He didn't just erase Shaw's memories. He erased everything. Wiped Shaw's mind clean of years upon years of cruelty and sociopathy, every thought or dream or idea that had ever passed through his head, every action. He erased Shaw's own awareness of self, and then he searched out the neural pathways that gave Shaw instinctive consciousness of his own mutation and severed them. His body might still absorb energy -- Charles couldn't change the very workings of its cells -- but Shaw would have no ability to use that energy in any form.
For that matter, he would no longer be able to string words together into sentences, or remember what food was, or his own name.
Charles released his hold on Shaw's mind at last. Shaw continued to stand motionlessly, slack-jawed. It was rather horrible to look upon. Charles turned away in disgust, unsure of how much of his loathing was for whatever little remained of Shaw and how much was for himself.
"It's done," he heard himself saying. "He's a blank slate."
He wanted to vomit, but somehow managed to swallow down the bile. The cold wind felt raw against his face. He couldn't bear to meet his sister's eyes, or Erik's.
"His powers?" Hank asked warily.
Charles shrugged. "I can't rewrite his genetic code, but for all intents and purposes, he can't access them. Not that he'd have any desire to, anyway." He forced himself to meet Erik's eyes. "Will that suffice?"
Erik's face was stony. "He killed my mother. There is no such thing as justice for the things that man has done."
"No," Charles agreed heavily. "There is not. But will killing him really bring you peace?"
Erik reached into his jacket pocket with a shaking hand, drawing out a silver coin. It rested innocently in the palm of his broad hand. Charles could just make out the Nazi insignia engraved upon its face. "Peace was never an option," Erik said. "But it might bring me closure. You've seen the worst of me, Charles. Would you really begrudge me this?"
Charles sighed. His mind felt shattered, weary, sickened from his own actions. All that he'd done to Shaw -- in some ways, it was far worse than simply murdering him outright. And yet Erik still intended to take this final crime upon his own conscience. "You are so much more than you know, Erik," Charles said heavily. "More than the pain, and the darkness -- there's good in you, too. I've felt it; I've seen it. You have it in you to be the better man." He forced his lips into a pale imitation of a smile. "A far better man than I, perhaps. But no, my friend, I will not take this choice away from you."
Something in Erik's expression had softened, a certain warmth in his steel-blue eyes that cut Charles to the core. "I know what this must have cost you, Charles," he said, almost regretfully. "But you only did what you had to do. And so must I."
The coin wobbled slowly into the air before him, like a wounded bird attempting flight. Erik had sapped the very reserves of his strength for this. He looked past Charles to the shambling wreck of a man who had once been Klaus Schmidt. "I'm going to count to three," Erik murmured. "And then I'm going to move the coin."
Charles stepped out of the way. Raven caught him, letting the helmet fall to the ground, clasping his hands in hers.
"One," Erik said. The coin inched forward drunkenly, wavering in its uneven progress toward Shaw. Erik's outstretched arm was trembling badly, Hank nearly staggering in his efforts to keep him upright. "Two." The seconds seemed to stretch out agonizingly slowly. The coin shivered in midair. But even all of Erik's determination couldn't overcome the physical limits of his body. His whole body was shaking with effort, but although the coin didn't fall, it only tapped lightly against Shaw's forehead and then stopped there, as though uncertain how to proceed.
"Three," Piotr said, stepping up behind Shaw. His body shifted into its metallic form, and with one smooth motion, he reached out and snapped Shaw's neck. Piotr let the body fall, then looked over it to meet Erik's eyes. "Is done."
"Is done," Erik agreed hoarsely, and collapsed.
It was nearing dawn when Erik finally awoke; Charles was half-dozing in the chair at his bedside when the first tendrils of awareness trickled out from Erik's mind into his own. He jerked upright to find Erik watching him.
"How long?" Erik rasped.
Charles hastily passed him a glass of water from the nightstand, which Erik accepted gratefully, if somewhat awkwardly, given the cast that swathed his right arm. "About forty-eight hours, give or take. I can never keep the time difference from the USSR straight in my head."
Setting the now-empty glass carefully back on the nightstand, Erik slowly pushed himself up to a sitting position. Given the grim determination radiating from his thoughts, Charles resisted the urge to help. Erik hated being tended to. "Where are we?"
"My family's house in Westchester, New York." Charles raised an eyebrow. "Where Raven took the others after they left the CIA facility. They've been training here for weeks."
"I never left the Soviet Union," Erik said. "I contacted Moira through...unofficial channels, and Hank flew them over to Sevastopol to meet me the day before they attacked the drydock. I had nothing to do with their training; I was too busy hunting for -- for Shaw." For you, his mind whispered, and Charles very nearly smiled. "How did I get here?"
"By teleport. The only way to travel, really," Charles said dryly. "With Shaw gone, Azazel turned out to be quite amenable to suggestion. Fortunately for you. I fear we might have done you a great deal more damage if we'd tried to move you any other way." He hesitated, then added, "As it is, I'm afraid you'll be paying the price for my telepathic painkiller. Your right arm was fractured by a bullet a few inches above the elbow, exacerbated by your continued use of it while controlling the jet. You lost a lot of blood from that bullet wound alone. You have one cracked rib and several more bruised, and you're extremely lucky none of them were broken. Plus a laundry list of internal injuries. The doctor's an old friend of my family, he'll be back in a few hours to check up on you, you can get all the gory details from him. I can vouch for his discretion." Charles took a deep breath, deliberately keeping well out of Erik's thoughts. "If you don't want to recuperate here, I'll completely understand and we'll have you moved to the hospital of your choice, but I didn't know where else to take you--"
Erik frowned. "It's your house, isn't it? Do you want me to leave?"
"Of course not! But after what I did to Shaw, after all the times I stood in your way...Christ, Erik, I wouldn't blame you for wanting nothing to do with me ever again."
"You're an idiot," Erik told him bluntly. "This isn't even worth arguing over. You did absolutely nothing that you need beg forgiveness of anyone for. Shaw is dead. And the only thing left in my life I still give a damn about is you."
The rising sun crept through the gaps in the curtains, slanting pinkish-yellow light in a long stripe across the carpet. Charles's face felt very warm. He plucked absently at the coverlet. "Oh," he murmured. "That's all right, then."
"Good," Erik said, "because I have no idea what to do with myself now." He let out a huff of breath, too mirthless to be considered a laugh, then winced as it jostled his tender ribs. "I never really thought there'd be an after."
Charles thought back to the angry, empty man in the water, and reached out to clasp Erik's hand. "Oh, my friend, there is so very much more after than you could possibly have imagined."
Erik gave him a crooked smile. "Ever the optimist, Charles, still?"
Hardly, Charles thought, but he was doing his best. "Are you mocking me?"
"Never." More seriously, Erik added, "I'm glad. If Shaw had broken you of your ideals, I don't think I ever could have forgiven myself."
"There's nothing to forgive. I'm the arrogant fool who threw myself into his clutches."
"True enough," Erik said, but his teasing sounded hollow. He lightly stroked his thumb along Charles's knuckles, tracing small circles there. "Are you still working with the CIA?"
Charles shook his head, shifting to sit carefully at the edge of the bed. "No. I don't think we have quite the same interests at heart. Our so-called X-Men aside, I never truly wanted to train soldiers."
"A school, then?" Erik asked. "I know you mentioned that a time or two. Or twelve."
Charles grinned ruefully. "I never claimed subtlety as one of my strong suits. But yes. Armando and Moira did a fine job training the others for battle, but they could all go so much farther. They've only just begun to scratch the surface of their powers. I think I might be able to help them. And there are so many more of our kind out there, some still just children. If they could be raised to embrace their potential, rather than to fear it...."
"And his sister, Illyana. She's a fledgling teleporter, would you believe it? They're both here now." Charles grinned. "He's the one who sweet-talked Azazel into staying, and Azazel brought Janos along. We're becoming quite the motley crew."
"And Emma Frost?" Erik's tone hardened.
"She elected to go her own way," Charles said, as delicately as he could manage. "I very much doubt we've seen the last of her, though."
Erik clenched his hand tightly for a moment, then loosened his grip again with a sigh. "We still need to train them how to fight. So long as Frost and her ilk are out there -- not to mention what will happen if the humans ever find out about this place, and what we can do."
There was a dark edge to Erik's voice that worried Charles -- this was an argument they would be destined to keep repeating, he feared -- but for now, he elected to let the matter drop. "We need to train them?" he echoed instead, cocking an eyebrow.
Erik's thoughts brushed out against his, indulgent and warm. "You'll find I'm rather difficult to get rid of." He tugged Charles in close with his uninjured arm, pressing his lips against the corner of Charles's jaw, just beneath his earlobe. His warm breath there made Charles shiver. "It sounds like you're planning to house quite a lot of people under this roof, though. I'd hate for you to run out of space. We might need to share a room."
Charles laughed, somewhat breathless from Erik's attentions. "I'm sorry, my friend, I believe I may have misspoken. When I said we were in my family's house, I should have clarified -- this is my family's mansion." He tilted his head to kiss Erik properly, cupping his cheek, taking care not to put any pressure on his injured arm or chest. The wait for Erik to heal up was going to be absolutely maddening, he could already tell. "Once you're feeling up to it, I'd be more than happy to give you the grand tour. But -- here." He pulled away with some reluctance, crossing the room to the curtains. "This window gives a rather wonderful vantage of the grounds, assuming Alex hasn't burned them down around us yet. Would you like to see our future school?"
"Yes," Erik said, with a wry smile. It really was like tuning a radio, Charles thought, the way Erik's mind honed into bright focus alongside of his, brimming with affection and frustration and uncertainty and something very nearly like hope. "I rather think I would."