The world returns in in a swirl of black and red and sun-washed white, the great steps and the marble columns rising up before them. They are not welcome here – this much is obvious from the minds laid open around them, from the heft and shift of angry metal as weapons are raised and aimed and trained – but that is of little consequence.
They are not welcome anywhere, so why should this place be any different?
~ # # # # # ~
The new dining hall was loud with voices as Charles wheeled himself in, the familiar sounds of laughter and playful, youthful protest echoing off the high ceiling. He felt a flicker of amusement as the students fell silent as he passed, a small bubble of quiet that started some eight feet ahead of him and ended some six feet behind, moving just as quickly as his chair. It didn't burst until he reached the staff table and manoeuvred himself into his usual space between Moira and Hank. "They're in a particularly boisterous mood today," he noted as the young mutants returned to their chatter. "Honestly, you'd think that they'd never seen sunlight before."
"The core group have outdoor combat training after lunch," Moira told him, "but the rest of them have a free afternoon." She smiled. "Given the weather, something tells me that we're unlikely to see any of them studying in the library."
"No, they'll all be down by the lake, splashing around and making a mess." Hank sighed, and Charles didn't need to use his telepathy to know that the scientist was disappointed by the thought – Hank was of the opinion that any opportunity to study was an opportunity not to be wasted. "A few of the older ones might head off-site to visit Salem Centre, not that there's much of anything there, and –"
"Not today." Moira said sharply, shaking her head. "Not given the current situation. Right now, I think it would be good for us to keep as low a profile as possible."
Hank shrugged. "You're the boss."
Charles looked at her. "Is that really necessary?" He nodded thanks as a plate was set down in front of him. "We're a government facility, as you're always so keen to point out. 'Federal employees, trainees and wards', or whatever it was you put in the last report back to Langley. Nobody is a prisoner here."
Moira glanced down the table to where the other faculty staff were talking amongst themselves, then out at the students. "Later, Charles," she said softly. "Not here."
Charles frowned but let it pass, settling in to eat while Hank rattled on about his latest Cerebro modifications, apparently unconcerned as to whether or not his audience was actually listening. Over on the student tables, young Jean was talking animatedly with Angelica and Tabitha, the three of them giggling as they cast sidelong glances at Alex and his equally-oblivious brother, Scott. The Proudstar boys seemed to be engaged in a bragging match with Rusty and Julio, refereed by a laughing Sean while Alison, Vance and Lucia looked on in amusement. On the other side of the hall, Warren spread his feathered wings, stretching them up and out and accidentally catching Bobby across the back of the head as he pulled them in again, drawing a loud squawk of protest and a clatter of retaliatory hail that had heads turning from all around the room....
Once upon a time, he and Raven had called this place home, roaming its halls and its stairways with only each other to confide in about who and what they truly were. Now, gazing out over the crowded tables, it was hard for Charles not to feel a certain sense of pride in what they had achieved here, the feeling of community, of identity forged between those who had once thought themselves utterly alone. Five years before, in the aftermath of Cuba, there had been just a handful of young mutants at the mansion where now there were close to eighty. Some were siblings, some cousins, others the only mutant within their families... if they had even had families before being brought here. Some were possessed of powerful abilities, while others could claim little more than minor physical oddities. Some were delighted by what they were, others yearned to be 'normal'... and yet they were all mutants, all a part of the strange genetic journey that the human race seemed to have embarked on. Each was unique, was special in Charles's eyes, and he took joy in helping each of them to achieve their potential even as he mourned the fact that Raven was no longer a part of it.
Even as he wondered – as he so often did these days – if he wasn't somehow making a terrible mistake.
~ # # # ~
Moira joined him in the headmaster's office after lunch, holding the door open so that he could wheel himself through, and then closing it behind them. "How are the assessments going with the Guthrie pair?" she asked, setting into the high-backed leather chair beside his desk. "You were with them all morning."
"Young Samuel and Paige?" Charles smiled as he eased himself back into his usual position, with all of his papers and correspondence close to hand. "Very well – I think they'll fit in here. They seem to have very divergent mutations – actually rather disturbing to observe in the girl's case – and in time I think that the boy, at least, might be suited to your core team. Not yet though – we should give them a chance to settle in first, let them both see what's on offer."
"Of course," Moira said, looking thoughtful. "I'll make a note to have Alex put him through his paces after the end of the semester, put him down for additional training if he proves suitable. It's always good to find more and... oh, don't give me that look, Charles." She sighed and shook her head. "You know damned well that it's the study and utilisation of the core group that keeps this place funded and operational and subsidises the rest of them."
"I know, I know, but that doesn't mean that I have to like that they're being coached for violence."
"You liked it well enough when you first got involved," she reminded him. "I seem to recall that you were the one who instigated the first training programmes here, knowing that the skills you were teaching would be used in anger."
"That was... different," Charles protested weakly, even though there was little argument that he could make to that. He had certainly been a willing enough participant back when they were hunting Shaw, caught up in the glorious adventure of it all... until it had suddenly become too real, too soon, and he had lost far more than just his legs. It had been little more than five years since Cuba; it felt like a lifetime. He sighed. "So why are you grounding everyone? Is this to do with the Froelich case?"
"Of course it's to do with the Froelich case," Moira told him, an edge of tension in her voice, in her projected emotions. "There's still weeks to go before the Supreme Court announces its decision and the papers and the talk shows are full of little else. We've been getting reports of planned rallies, both pro-mutant rights and against, but mostly against. New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, DC – every damned place that's bigger than a dot on the map seems to be getting in on the act." She shook her head. "Tempers are going to be running high and I'd rather not have our kids caught up in anything they can't handle."
"Salem Center barely counts as a dot on the map and they know us," Charles pointed out. "Are you grounding the human staff as well?"
"Now isn't the time to start playing favourites, Charles."
"Who's playing?" he shot back. "We teach these children that they're people just as much as anyone lacking the mutant gene and –"
"And in three weeks' time, they might not be." Moira snapped, then took a deep breath, reining in her temper. "Charles, we can't be too careful right now. You know that."
And the sad thing was that he did. Franklin J Froelich had been convicted of the killing of his neighbours' mutant son, a quiet, studious boy born with golden eyes and a fine coat of brown fur that had turned into a shaggy pelt at puberty. Over the course of six months, young Oliver Reynolds had gone from being a slightly hairy child to an oddly ursine youth whose fearsomely fanged appearance belied the fact that he was still happiest with his nose buried in a book.
Froelich, however, had decided that the boy was a danger to his three daughters and, after hearing that he had been seen sitting with the eldest girl at a well-known local courting spot, had picked up his hunting rifle and then told Oliver's hysterical parents that he had done them a favour. The case had seemed to be a straightforward enough homicide, witnessed and confessed, but Froelich had protested that his mutant victim hadn't been human and was therefore unprotected by the usual laws. His lawyers had been quick to find several scientific papers – Charles's chief amongst them – that appeared to agree that mutants were a new and emergent species, and from there the case had somehow clawed its way through appeal after appeal before finally reaching the Supreme Court for a final verdict.
A verdict that was now less than three weeks away.
"The parents should have taken us up on the place when we offered it," he said sadly. "If they had, then the boy would still be alive."
"It was their choice." Moira leaned back in her chair. "Not all parents want to be rid of their mutant offspring and Ollie was settled where he was. He had friends, he was accepted by his peers – as much as any bookish fourteen year old ever is – and he was –"
"And he was murdered by a man who saw him as nothing more than an animal." Charles frowned, looking down at his hands, at once-soft fingers turned wiry and callused from his wheels. "Would you have put up more of a fight to bring him here if he had been able to shoot plasma bolts or set people on fire with his mind?"
"Where's the point in lying to a telepath?" She shrugged. "Our work here is based around harnessing destructive mutant powers for the greater good and the results so far have been extremely encouraging. We're taking these potentially dangerous young people and training them, giving them purpose, a place where they're valued."
"You're turning them into weapons."
"If we didn't, then somebody else would." Moira met his gaze squarely. "They're still out there, Charles, even if nobody has seen them for a while. Them and others like them. We've been beaten to recruits before."
"They have names," he said softly, thinking of Raven again, of how they had once sat in the windows of this very room, watching the rain fall over the empty grounds and imagining themselves the only people in the world. The only people like them, at the very least.... He shook his head, dismissing the thought. "What do you think will happen?"
"With the Froelich ruling? Hard to tell." She frowned, then stood, crossing to the tall window to gaze out at the sunlit lawns beyond. "The current Chief Justice has a strong record on civil liberties, to put it mildly, but the mutant issue is one that disturbs a great many people. It isn't just a matter of skin colour or gender – this cuts to the heart of what it is to be human. Which, of course, is exactly what the Court is being asked to decide." Moira turned back towards him. "Feelings are running high on both sides, Charles, which is why I'd rather keep things locked down in here as much as possible."
"You're worried we'll find villagers with pitchforks and flaming brands storming the gates?"
She snorted. "I doubt it would be anything quite so dramatic. But I'd prefer not to give people ideas"
He laughed weakly and ran his hands back through his hair. "God, how did we come to this? How can people be so blind? I brought them here to keep them safe, those who would come, but –"
"Charles, it'll be fine." Moira crossed to perch on the edge of his desk, her skirt riding up slightly to reveal several inches of toned, stocking-clad thigh. "Honestly. You and your students are isolated here and under the protection of the CIA – nothing bad is going to happen to them."
"We're safe here, perhaps, but what about elsewhere?" he demanded. "If the Supreme Court decides in Froelich's favour then it'll be open season. If legal precedent is established, then mutants right across the country could be –"
"We'll keep you safe. I promise." Moira hesitated a moment, then dropped her voice and said, "There are safeguards already being put in place."
Moira nodded. "I really shouldn't be telling you this, but there's legislation being prepared by Congress right now, though it can't be finalised in the details until the Froelich case has been decided. I've been working on it as an advisor, calling on my experiences here. We can protect you and the students because we know who you are, where you are and what you can do." She smiled at him. "Things are being set up so that mutants can register themselves with the authorities – that way, we'll know how many people we need to look out for and it'll give us a sense of the size of the overall mutant population. It will give them protection in the eyes of the law, whatever the Froelich verdict turns out to be."
"It seems to be the most practicable option in the circumstances. Purely voluntary, of course."
"And if they don't register?"
"Then we won't be able to protect them, will we?" Moira slid off the edge of the desk and sighed as she smoothed her skirt back down. "A pity, but – their choice."
Charles stared at her, feeling a cold and sudden certainty settle over him as an echo of his past whispered identification is where it starts. "That could be seen as coercion," he heard himself say.
She glanced at him sharply and he opened himself to her emotions, feeling an edge of suspicion, discomfort – she had thought that he would welcome her news, didn't entirely understand why he might not. "The registration programme is being brought in to help the mutant population, Charles. Why would anyone want to hide from it? Unless they have something to hide, of course."
He opened his mouth, a hundred different retorts warring to be given voice, but he swallowed them all as a sharp rap sounded from the door. "Come in," Moira called, turning away from him. "Ah, Hank – good timing, I was just leaving."
"Really? That's a pity, I was hoping to talk to the both of you." Hank was almost bouncing, his blue fur fluffed out with excitement. "I've just got the results back from the preliminary tests on the latest series of Cerebro enhancements. I think that we should be able to pin down location with a much higher degree of certainty than we've managed before. There was still a lot of guesswork involved with the old lat-long refs, but I've been working with the guys at Langley and the Pentagon – correlating databases, survey maps, census data and the like – and we think we should be able to pinpoint readings down to individual addresses now." He beamed, the expression strangely terrifying on his feline features. "Professor, if it's okay with you, I'd like to repeat the last run, see how the results compare. I mean, obviously there would be some differences, people do move around, but if we can just prove that the new settings work then our ability to locate mutants should become a lot faster and more efficient."
"That's – ah – wonderful, Hank," Charles said carefully. He could feel the both of them now, Hank's joy in theory mingling with Moira's sharp consideration of practice. "I'll try to pencil in some time for you soon, unless you'd prefer to wait for the next scheduled session? I believe it's early next month."
"Oh." Hank deflated slightly. "I was hoping that we might be able to do it now? Given that everybody else is otherwise engaged?"
"I'd love to, Hank, but I have a headache after helping Jean with her telepathy this morning. She's still a little loud," Charles lied. He didn't miss Moira's snort of disbelief, although Hank didn't seem to notice. "I'm sorry."
"I think we should let Charles rest, don't you, Hank?" Moira laid a hand on Hank's arm, steering him back towards the door. "We don't want to tax that brain of his too much, now do we?"
Hank sighed and pushed his glasses back up his broad nose. "I guess not. But soon, Professor?"
Charles smiled at him. "I'll see what I can do."
Moira paused in the door as she left. "Think on what I said, Charles – what we're doing is for the best. We have to protect people somehow. And don't leave poor Hank waiting too long; he's excited about this."
"Hank will be fine," he told her wearily. "He'll get distracted by some other project on his way back to the labs and be excited by that as well. It's how he is."
She pursed her lips. "I thought you wanted to find more students for your school?"
"I do," Charles said, and waited until she was gone before quietly adding, "I'm just not sure that I want to track down any more subjects for your research facility."
~ # # # # # ~
They move as one, each intimately aware of the other, the bond between them open and alive and singing with their gifts. There will be no bloodshed here – not theirs nor any other's – this was decided before. Today is not about the fight, today is about making an entrance, making a statement, making their presence know and felt. What is to be done here affects them, affects all of them, and they will not misrepresent their people.
Too many others have done that already.
~ # # # # # ~
"Wow," Bobby said quietly, "that's one whole lot of people who don't like us."
"No kidding." Jean muttered back, her green eyes wide. They were standing on a street corner, watching as an endless procession of humans filed past, shouting slogans and waving placards, each of them fired up with the imagined righteousness of their cause. Bobby wondered how many of them had ever even met a mutant.
The normal sounds of the city had been replaced by the tramp of feet and a chorus of raised voices, sometimes shouting slogans in unison, sometimes descending into meaningless cacophony. The day was warm, carrying the promise of the summer to come, and somehow that just made it worse, that such an ugly scene could be played out on such a pleasant afternoon.
"If this is what humanity looks like, I'm kinda glad that they don't want me," Angelica said, gripping the top of one of the gate-like barriers that had been erected to close off the street, keeping the marchers separate from the rest of the city's population. "I don't think that I want them."
Bobby nodded, eyeing the demonstration with a sick sort of horror. The Professor and Agent MacTaggert liked to tell them that humans and mutants were equals, were friends... but there was nothing friendly about what he was seeing now, nothing at all. They tried to keep them isolated from the concerns of the wider world at the school, but they all knew what was happening. How could they not? It wasn't hard to overhear the conversations of the staff or to read the newspapers that Agent Fothergill invariably left in the library or to retune the radio in the rec room away from the music stations to listen to the news. They knew, and that was why the five of them – himself and Jean and Jimmy and Angelica and Warren, the latter constantly complaining about having to strap his wings down beneath his coat – had crept out before dawn, telekinetically scaling the perimeter fences before catching the bus into New York. Some things simply demanded to be seen.
Even if, now, he wasn't entirely certain that ignorance wouldn't have been preferable.
'Human: Rights – Mutant: Wrongs' screamed one placard; 'Would YOU Let Your Daughter Date A Mutie?' demanded another. What was being shouted was worse. So much anger and hatred – no wonder Jean was looking twitchy, she must be able to feel all of it....
"It's fear, really," Jean said, keeping her voice low. "They're scared of us. They don't understand us and this is how they deal with that fear – with anger, with hate. No wonder Moira and the Professor didn't want us to see this."
"It's certainly different to what they tell us in class," Warren said. He looked miserable and overheated, hunched in his long coat, but to remove it in this company would be tantamount to suicide. "But they can't have thought that we wouldn't find out, surely?"
"Probably waiting until after that Supreme Court thing to tell us," Jimmy Proudstar muttered, peering over their heads – he was easily the tallest of them, even if he still had a way to go before he caught up with his brother, John. "That's what kicked all this off, after all."
"Yeah." There were 'Free Frank Froelich NOW' banners being waved about, and Bobby found himself fearing just what would happen if the man was released from jail. Would all these people find weapons and go hunting for mutants? Were they really that afraid of them? "I guess that'll change everything, one way or the other."
"There's going to be a war, isn't there?" Angelica asked sadly. Warren patted her on the shoulder.
There was a slender, smiling girl in a 'Shoot 'Em ALL!' t-shirt throwing handfuls of something out at the watching crowds from a basket at her hip. Button badges, Bobby realised, grabbing Jean's arm before she unthinkingly reached out to divert one to her. "I'll get you one," he told her, looking to where several had fallen into the gutter. He couldn't imagine that they said anything good, but he wanted to know.
Edging his way along the metal barriers, Bobby tried to work out the best way to get at one of the badges. They were too far out for him to reach through the bars for, but there were several policemen on the other side of the barricade and he supposed that one of them might pass him one of he asked nicely. Scrambling up to stand on the lower rung of one of the barriers, he leaned forward... just as some commotion broke out behind him and bodies struck his perch to either side and Bobby was sent flying. He yelped and brought his arms up to protect his head against the impact with the road....
An impact that never came.
He hit the ground then, feeling the horrified rush of her realisation in the exact same moment as a heavyset woman with a 'MOTHERS AGAINST MUTANTS' placard stopped dead and screamed "Mutant! There's a mutant here!" at the top of her lungs. The watching crowd suddenly seemed to pull away, leaving him isolated, pushing his friends back. "He was in the air – just hovering. I saw him!"
There were cries of agreement, of disgust, of anger. Scrambling to his feet, Bobby looked frantically around for a way to escape, but there was nothing but a furious mob on one side, frightened observers on the other, and wary, armed cops in between the two. He backed up towards the fallen barrier, his eyes wide, and wanted to weep as the protestors followed him.
"...freak!" "...what the hell..." "...dangerous?" "...children here..." "...kill it..." "mutie..." "...freak..."
"They're here! They've come to attack us!" A man was shrieking, pointing at Bobby with a wild-eyed fear that would have seemed more appropriate in the face of a Russian invasion. "Just like the good brothers who were killed in Missouri for defending their families!"
A rising snarl of agreement, a shift of placards as they were gripped like weapons, ready to bludgeon. "No," Bobby gasped, looking frantically at the cops. They had their hands on their guns, he realised, but were making no effort to defend him, instead merely watching to see what happened. The mob seemed to know it too. If he used his powers now, he suddenly realised, they would shoot him. Him, not his attackers.
He wanted to cry. It wasn't fair – he had only wanted to see....
And then a tall figure stepped out of the shifting crowd at his back and took a firm grip on Bobby's shoulder, pulling him in to his side protectively, almost possessively. "Let him be, he's just a boy."
"He's a fucking mutie, is what he is!" snarled the woman with the placard. "Scum like that shouldn't be allowed out in the presence of decent folks! We saw him!"
A loud murmur of agreement from the marchers as they crowed around, scenting blood. Jean's voice was in his head, a constant litany of apology, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, I didn't think, I forgot, I'm sorry, and god, they looked like they wanted to tear him apart and he hadn't even been the one to use his powers....
"Just back off." Bobby's new best friend pushed him behind him, shielding him with his body. "He's a kid and the last thing you want to do here is start a riot. Do you really think that would help your cause? Do you really want to follow your friend Froelich into jail?"
"Fucking mutie-lover!" spat a man in a tie-dye shirt, his scraggly beard flecked with spittle. "People like you make me sick! Brat's a freak!"
"The boy is a person." The voice was firm, calm, coloured with some sort of European accent that Bobby couldn't place. "You want to find yourself on a murder charge too? They do seem to be all the rage these days."
"You can't murder an animal!"
"Back off – he's done nothing to you."
Other voices raised, angry words and insults, and Bobby cringed back, wondering if he could creep away while they had another target but too afraid to actually leave the questionable safety of the stranger's presence. He wished that Jean had let him fall, he wished that they had never come here, had never left Westchester. Jean's guilt was pounding through his skull, a companion to his fear, and he didn't need to be a telepath to know the mood of the crowd as it shifted towards violence. The noise was rolling over him like thunder now, like hoofbeats threatening to trample him into the street, and he didn't want to die here....
Taking a deep breath, Bobby began to gather his power, thinking that he might at least make some sort of last stand if things went badly. He saw his would-be rescuer glance back as the temperature around him began to drop, and Jean's presence suddenly shifted to warning: No, don't, they'll feel it, they'll notice – he can feel it, he needs you to stop, he.... oh.
Jean? Bobby let go of his gift as sudden surprise blossomed at the other end of the link. What? What is it?
And then the mob turned as one and began to beat the hell out of a fire hydrant six feet to Bobby's right.
Not me. A flicker of wonder, of delight. Another telepath.
"Come on." Bobby's champion grabbed his shoulder again, steering him quickly away from the fallen barriers and the angry protestors... and from his friends. "They're going to realise their mistake sooner than later and it would be best if we're elsewhere when they do."
Bobby could only nod mutely, too stunned by the manner of their escape to question it too closely. He was led through the crowd of people watching the march – some now trying to escape from the sudden violence while others pressed closer to see what was happening – and then through a series of turns down one street after another, always moving away until they ended up in an alley between two run-down apartment blocks with only a trio of overflowing dumpsters, pungent and ripe with flies, for company.
Finally allowing himself to relax a little, Bobby took a deep breath and looked at his rescuer properly for the first time. The man was tall, slender, clean-shaven, with sharp grey eyes and short auburn hair faintly dusted with silver at his temples. He was dressed plainly but well, in a worn leather jacket over a polo shirt and pale slacks – comfortable, sensible, anonymous. He was maybe the Professor's age, Bobby thought, but somehow looked as though he'd lived a much harder life in those years, roughly weathered where the Professor was soft and smooth.
He couldn't quite help the feeling that he'd seen him somewhere before.
The man sat down on the third step of the rusty fire escape. He pulled one leg up, resting a forearm on his knee as he looked at Bobby appraisingly. "So who might you be?"
"Bobby, sir. Bobby Drake."
"And you're a mutant? Out in this company, that might not be the wisest thing to be. Not if you get caught."
"I... yes, sir – I mean, no, sir. Though it wasn't me who used my powers back there – that was Jean. She's a telekinetic, she can move things by thinking about it. I fell and she... she was just trying to help." Bobby looked down. "I'm, well – I can do this." Drawing the moisture from the air, he spun an abstract swirl of ice into being, letting it rest in the palm of his hand for a moment before pulling it in and adding to it to form a rough snowball that he threw the wall. "I freeze things."
"Very impressive." The man smiled – a little sadly, Bobby thought – as he watched snow fall away from the rough brickwork. "You're one of Charles's, aren't you? Out of Westchester?"
"Charles? Oh, you mean the Professor?" Again, that faint, nagging sense of familiarity. "Do you know him?"
"I did, once." A sigh, then the man turned his gaze back to Bobby. "My apologies – I'm being remiss with my manners. My name is Erik Lehnsherr. And I can do this."
He raised a hand, his fingers spread wide, and a battered dumpster lifted silently into the air, spinning in place as rats, deprived of their shelter, scattered squealing in all directions. Bobby stared at it, then looked back at the man who was commanding it so effortlessly, suddenly knowing why he looked so familiar – he was one of the faces in the photographs that lined the corridor outside the Professor's office, a little piece of the mansion's past. "You're Magneto," he said. It wasn't a question. "Aren't you a little, um... under-dressed?"
Lehnsherr laughed out loud and set the dumpster back down in its previous position. "You think I dress like that all the time?"
Bobby shifted uncomfortably. "Well, no, but –"
"But it's how the world knows me." Lehnsherr nodded. "Which makes it all the easier to go incognito when I need to, don't you think? Like today? How do you think those people would have reacted to me if they knew who I was?"
"I guess." Bobby didn't quite know what to think, in truth. Magneto was something of a legendary figure at the school – a hero to some and a demon to others, but known to all for his exploits in defence of the mutant race... or for his hate crimes towards humans, depending on who you asked. The two concepts didn't seem to be mutually exclusive. To suddenly find himself in the man's company – to be rescued by him – was rather overwhelming. "I... thank you," he managed at last, suddenly realising that he hadn't said it before. "I thought they were going to kill me."
"They would have," Lehnsherr told him. "You shouldn't have been there."
"I know," Bobby said miserably. "But we... we just wanted to know. They try to shut us away from the world – they say it's to keep us safe, but how can we stay safe if we don't know? It's like... like they don't want us to think about anything too much!"
"How old are you, Bobby?"
"You have a wise head on such young shoulders." Lehnsherr sighed. "Make sure that it stays there."
"Yes, sir." Bobby nodded, rather frantically, suddenly eager to please this man. Whatever Magneto might have done in the past, he had saved Bobby's life and had done it without bloodshed on either side. If the crowd had managed to get their hands on him, if they'd....
His knees suddenly buckled and he would have fallen if strong hands hadn't caught him under his arms and steered him across to sit on the steps of the fire escape. "Careful now." Lehnsherr crouched to look at him. "All catching up with you, is it?"
Bobby nodded, swallowing against the nausea gripping his stomach – the last thing he wanted was to throw up on his saviour. "Oh, god...."
A hand rubbed at his back, a soothing pressure, and Bobby found himself wondering where the others were, if they were safe as well. He ought to be wondering if he was safe, he knew, but he couldn't quite bring himself to feel threatened here, no matter what Agent MacTaggert said about Magneto. It was common knowledge that she hated him and wanted him dead, that the CIA had him on some sort of hit list. Dr McCoy was much the same, citing him as a bad example for young mutants to follow, a dangerous influence that needed to be removed as soon as possible. Alex Summers spoke well enough of him though, when the humans weren't around, and everybody had heard the story of how Sean Cassidy learned to fly, most of them from Sean himself.
Magneto, it seemed, was a believer in direct action in all things.
The Professor always looked rather wistful whenever Magneto's name was mentioned, a little sad. They'd all noticed. There were always a dozen rumours going around about the two men – that the Professor still kept Magneto's room as it had been before he left, not allowing any of the students or CIA staff to use it (not true – it was now one of the rooms given to visiting lecturers); that it had been Magneto who had put the Professor into his wheelchair (possibly true, depending on which of McCoy, Summers or Cassidy you spoke to); that Magneto had run off with the Professor's sister, Dr McCoy's girlfriend (technically true)... or, alternatively, that the Professor's sister had run off with the Professor's boyfriend, a suggestion that had resulted in a chorus of disgust and thrown bread rolls.
So many stories and conjectures and divergent opinions and none of them quite seemed to fit the reality of the man now squeezing his shoulder and stepping back as footsteps sounded from somewhere nearby and a familiar touch ghosted across his mind. Bobby?
He swallowed hard and turned on the step to see Jean, Warren, Jimmy and Angelica sheepishly trailing after a blonde woman wearing a long white coat over an equally pristine outfit that left little to the imagination. Lehnsherr cast an eye over the four of them and smiled. "So who do we have here?"
"The rest of Xavier's strays," the woman said, sounding decidedly less than impressed. "They decided that they were in the mood for a little light bigot-watching, it seems."
"It wasn't quite like that," Jimmy muttered, looking at his feet.
"Yes, it was." Bobby pushed himself to his feet, still feeling a little shaky. "And I guess we definitely saw some."
"If we hadn't been there, you might have seen a lot more than some shouting. Creatures like that aren't kind to creatures like us." The blonde eyed Bobby for a moment, then turned to Lehnsherr. "It's chaos back there – by the time the ones at the front realised they were beating an inanimate object they were trapped by those trying to push in from behind. There were fights breaking out as we left and I'd be amazed if nobody ended up in hospital." She smiled coldly. "Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of people."
Jean ran across Bobby, wrapping her arms tightly around him. "I'm so sorry," she cried, "I forgot!"
"I'm all right." He hugged her back. "We had friends there."
"Yeah." She blinked back tears and nodded, glancing shyly up at Lehnsherr. "What happens to us now, sir?" she asked.
"Now you go home," he told them, looking at each of them in turn. "Go home and tell your friends what you saw, what happened when the crowd realised that you were a mutant. Tell Charles. You all have a right to know what this world has in store for you, you shouldn't be insulated from it. You mustn't be insulated from it. Tell them what happened... and tell them who rescued you." He quirked a small, tight-lipped smile. "Tell them that Magneto might not be the monster that their Agent MacTaggert would have them believe."
They all nodded. "Good." Lehnsherr said. "And be careful. Things are only going to get worse for us from here. Far worse."
A sudden flash of red and black and Angelica shrieked as a demon-like creature burst into being at Lehnsherr's side. The blonde woman snorted. "Azazel is a teleporter," she told them. "He can take you home in seconds. Unless you really want to get back on the bus?"
"Teleporting is fine," Warren said quickly, clearly eager not to have to lean back on his strapped wings again, and the others nodded.
All but Bobby, who looked at Lehnsherr and blurted out, "Can't we just stay with you, sir?"
"Not today." Lehnsherr crossed to place his hands on Bobby's shoulders. "Being with me, now, wouldn't be any safer; quite the opposite in fact. Go back to Charles and think on all that I've said. If, the next time we meet, you still want to be a part of the Brotherhood, then you will be welcomed with open arms." He looked at the others. "All of you will be. Understood?"
They nodded again, and then Azazel had them link hands and they were suddenly in the rear courtyard of the Westchester facility, thirty-five miles and an entire world away from a back alley in New York City.
~ # # # # # ~
"We spent half the day looking for you, worried sick, and then you turn up in the company of a known terrorist who promptly escapes into thin air." Moira's tone was icy. "You were told to stay on the mansion's grounds – was that really so difficult for you to understand?"
"We just wanted to see," Jimmy said for the ninth time in as many minutes, staring at his feet. "They all hated us but they don't even know us."
"That's not the point." Moira paced back and forth across the polished floorboards of Charles's office, glaring at the five young mutants standing in a nervous, shamefaced line in the middle of the room. "The point is that you were given a clear instruction, for your own safety, which you specifically chose to ignore. You then got involved in a terrorist incident that left –"
"It wasn't like a terrorist attack or anything," Angelica protested. "They just helped us when Bobby... well –"
"– that left fifty three people in need of hospital treatment, several of them seriously injured –"
"Yes," Charles interceded gently, "but not by mutants."
"But that's not how it's going to be reported, is it?" Moira stopped her pacing and took a deep breath, visibly forcing herself to calm as she turned to face the students. "And it's certainly true to say that it was mutant activity that was at the heart of this whole sorry mess. If you hadn't decided to go over the fence on your little 'adventure', then those people wouldn't have been hurt and we wouldn't be standing here now, would we?"
"We just wanted to see," Jimmy said again.
"Tell us again about Eri– about Magneto," Charles said to Bobby. "This is the first confirmed sighting of him in years that wasn't a combat situation. How did he look?"
"Look?" Bobby frowned. "Like in the photos in the hall, I guess. A little bit more grey in his hair, here." He reached up to touch his temple, the movement almost a parody of Charles's usual 'tell'. "He just looked... normal, really. I thought he looked familiar but I didn't know who he was until he said his name. Nobody in the crowd recognised him at all."
"He looked tired," Jean said, picking up on Charles's meaning more readily than her classmate. "A bit sad. But otherwise he looked well."
"He wears his colours as camouflage," Moira said, taking a seat beside Charles. He could feel the tension radiating from her, the need for action. "What people associate with Magneto are the helmet and the cape and the red tunic. Take those away, dress him in neutral shades, and he could be anyone." She shook her head. "Jesus, he could be anywhere...."
"He was nice," Jean continued. "He was worried about us. About all of us. I could feel it." She looked at Charles and he felt the pressure of her mind against his as she tried to project all the emotional nuances that words could not encompass. "He was worried about you."
"You went into his mind?" Moira asked sharply. "Of course – if he wasn't wearing the helmet, he'd be vulnerable...."
"No!" Jean said, with a quick glance at Charles – he had made a point of drumming a certain amount of telepathic etiquette into her. "Well, just the surface, just the emotions really. He wanted to help us, to defend us. Look after us. He thinks that we're all in danger." She cocked her head at Moira. "He doesn't like you or the CIA very much, though."
"Believe me, the feeling is mutual." Moira was on her feet again. "I suppose we should be grateful that he brought you back here at all and didn't just forcibly recruit you into the Brotherhood." There was shuffling, a few sidelong glances at Bobby, who refused to meet anyone's eyes. Moira didn't seem to notice. "As it is – consider yourselves restricted to indoor activities for the foreseeable future, and I do not want you spreading any stories around the other students. I don't want anybody else getting any ideas, is that understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," they chorused unhappily.
Moira glanced at Charles. "Professor Xavier?"
"You know what you should do," he told them solemnly, catching the eyes of each in turn. "And I hope you've all learned a valuable lesson today."
"Good. Now get out of here – you're confined to your rooms until dinner, when you'll be eating separately to the rest of the students." Moira crossed to the door, holding it open so that the five could file out to be collected by the two agents stationed outside to deter eavesdroppers. "Go on – go. And don't think that you've heard the last of this."
"Was that really necessary?" Charles asked as she closed the door again, turning to lean back against it with her eyes squeezed shut, breathing hard. "You can't keep them isolated – the story is going to get out. I imagine that it already has."
"And don't I know it?" Moira pushed away from the door and stalked over to the antique drinks cabinet, all dark wood and decanters, guarded by a garish suit of polished plate armour. She poured herself a large scotch and downed it in one. "'I hope you've all learned a valuable lesson today' – Jesus, Charles, could you have been any more vague?"
"They're students, Moira, not your agents. I offer guidance, not orders." Charles released his brakes and steered his chair around to the other side of his desk, knowing that he was trying to put space between them even as he did so. God, there had been a time when he and Moira had been in accord regarding the running of this place, he was sure there had been, but now.... "This may be your facility, but it's my school. And until such time as some of them might end up on your combat programme, they are my responsibility."
She shook her head and poured herself another drink... then sighed and poured a second glass. "In the end, it's all about responsibilities, isn't it?" she said as she carried it across to him. "You to your people and me to mine."
"They're just worried," Charles told her, accepting the glass but not drinking. "They know that things are being kept from them; it's only natural that they try to find out what. We teach them to think for themselves, to consider how the world might react to them as mutants – it's only to be expected that they'd be concerned, that they'd want to see things for themselves. It's only, well, human."
Moira snorted at that, settling herself back into her chair. "All very laudable, Charles, but given what we've just heard... I don't want them all thinking that Lehnsherr is some sort of great mutant hero, out to free them from the evil yoke of humanity." She looked at him. "He's a terrorist, a murderer, a monster. He's not some sort of... role model for them, but if Drake and Grey go out there telling everybody about how Magneto saved them from a human mob...."
Charles shook his head. "I doubt it would make a great deal of difference. A large number of the students respected him even before today –"
"Really?" She frowned. "Which ones?"
"It doesn't matter." Charles sighed, feeling her frustrations beating against him. "What I'm trying to say is that some already respect him and some already hate him, and I somehow doubt that today's story will change many minds."
"And what about you? Where do you stand on the subject?"
"Moira... I'm here, aren't I?" Charles ran his hands down over his face, wishing that he knew where he stood – or, more accurately, sat – these days. There had been a time when everything had seemed so certain, but now....
Identification is where it begins, his memory whispered, soft and treacherous. He wished that he could disagree, but the more he thought about it, the more it seemed like he was already sitting inside an internment camp where children were coached into being living weapons and he couldn't quite work out how. It hadn't started out like this, he knew it hadn't, but –
But the more he thought about it, the more the Froelich verdict looked as though it might ultimately be an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.
Moira sipped at her scotch contemplatively. "Well, if there's one positive to be taken from today's incident," she said, "it's that it seems to have finally flushed the Brotherhood out of hiding. We know that they're still operating in the US and we know that they've been taking an interest in the demonstrations." She snorted softly. "Hell, if it wasn't for Bobby's clumsiness, it's entirely possible that they might have launched a full attack later in the day. Our little idiots might have saved lives out there."
"Maybe," Charles said, toying with his glass.
"'Maybe'?" Moira shook her head. "Don't you see, Charles? The Brotherhood's been off the radar for the best part of a year now – they've been out there planning something big and we both know it. Now that we know they're back and skulking around these demos... this could be our opportunity to finally track them down and take them out of the game once and for all."
He looked at her sharply. "You want to use your combat group to go after them?"
"Of course I do." She met his gaze. "It's a large part of what they're trained for – using our mutants to go after others who might pose a threat. It's no different to what we did when we were going after Shaw."
"My sister wasn't a part of –"
"Your adopted sister chose her own road," Moira snapped, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Charles, but Raven chose Lehnsherr over you and that makes her one of the enemy."
"An enemy that just saved the lives of five of our students?"
"Try telling that to Bobby and Jean."
"No, how about we try telling it to the families of the people they've killed over the past few years?" Moira set her glass aside and started counting off on her fingers. "Kenton, Ohio; Ashland, Maine; Dublin, Georgia; Issaquah, Washington State; Casper and Riverton, Wyoming; Meridian, Idaho –"
"Meridian was the Mutant Liberation Army, not the Brotherhood," Charles pointed out. Moira ignored him.
"– Stuttgart, Arkansas; Cinnaminson, New Jersey; Odessa, Victoria and Greensville, Texas; Claremont, New Hampshire; Rock Hill, South Carolina; Fresno and Arcata, California; Danville, Kentucky; god knows how many places abroad... these people are what we're fighting against, Charles!" She threw her hands up, her exasperation clear. "This is why this place was established, why it's important. If the mutant problem can be seen to be being addressed by –"
"Don't come on all outraged, Charles – you know perfectly well what I mean. Mutant violence against humans –"
"Well, if we're going to be generalising, I'd say that we've missed one very important example." Charles wanted nothing more than to plant his palms against his desk and rise to his feet, to express his anger more physically. "Culp Creek, Oregon."
Moira rolled her eyes. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Charles...."
"What? Thirty six dead, dozens more injured – if that wasn't a textbook case of mutant violence against humans – "
"We were working with the FBI to tackle the headquarters of a dangerous cult, and you know it!" she snapped. "Our aid was requested at the highest level and it provided a valuable opportunity to test out the combat unit in a live-fire situation."
"So, it's acceptable for mutants to kill humans in the defence of other humans, but not to do so in defence of other mutants?"
"Don't try getting clever with me – that was a government-sanctioned operation, cleared on every level, that proved that our funding wasn't just being poured into a black hole." She picked her drink up again, almost losing the amber liquid within as she gestured with it. "This isn't some happy, fuzzy little summer camp for the super-powered, Charles, much as both of us might wish otherwise. The Westchester facility has to earn its keep and this is how it does it. If it wasn't for the combat unit, your precious school wouldn't even exist. You should be grateful for opportunities like this."
"Grateful?" Charles shook his head. "That you're going to try to kill my sister? The man who just rescued five of our own?"
"To stop the group responsible for several hundred deaths in the past few years?"
"All of them, as I understand it, people in some way connected to the deliberate murder of mutants!"
Moira slammed her glass down, disgusted. "Whose damned side are you on?"
"I'm not trying to side with anybody – I just want to understand." He smiled, pushing all of his persuasiveness at her as he slipped into the edges of her mind, tasting her frustrations, her anger, her desperate need to succeed, to prove herself. Moira was a good woman, one who genuinely believed that she was doing what was necessary, was right... but then wasn't that true of all of them, Erik included? "Surely you can see that?"
"All that I can see is you...." She trailed off and took a deep, steadying breath. "Christ, Charles... you don't owe Lehnsherr any loyalties – you saved his life and he put you in a wheelchair!"
"Did he?" Charles's smile dropped away. He looked at her bitterly. "Looking back, it seems to me that he was defending himself from you and I just got in the way. Sometimes I wonder if that's still true."
"Oh, so now you're blaming me?" She glared at him. "That's not what you said at the time."
"At the time, I was trying to save your...." He shook his head, suddenly feeling tired to his bones. "Honestly? I think I was just the first piece collateral damage in a war that was always going to happen. But Erik wasn't the one who fired the first shot."
"Perhaps not. And he won't be the one to fire the last either." Moira snorted and took a mouthful of scotch. "Trust me on that."
"You told me once that you were still on the government's side, still on the side of right," she said, pushing herself up and leaning over his desk, her brown eyes locked with his blue. "Well, Charles, this is your chance to prove it. Help us to take down Magneto and the Brotherhood and the future of this place is secure. And if you can't manage that, just stay the hell out of my way and let me do my job."
"This isn't as cut and dried as you think it is," he murmured sadly, knowing that this could only end in bloodshed. "After what happened today... surely there has to be another –"
"No," Moira told him firmly, "there doesn't."
~ # # # # # ~
They can feel the shock at their presence, the fear. The one feels sorrow at this, the other satisfaction, but they make no move to comfort or combat. This too was decided before. They let the space between them dwindle, let their gifts flow within them, between them, seeking out the points of greatest threat and wrapping tight around their minds and their weapons in the same instant. Guns and thoughts are wrenched away, soldiers collapsing into dreamless sleep as they are disarmed and discounted as irrelevant. The sun blazes down on pale stone as the one takes each step with a measured tread, a sweep of crimson at his back as the other moves weightlessly at his side, glorying in a freedom so long denied.
They are so much stronger together than apart. They should have done this a long time ago.
~ # # # # # ~
Charles woke with a start, suddenly and completely aware that he wasn't alone. His room was black-on-black, no sliver of light creeping past the heavy drapes, but he could feel the dip of the mattress, the slight tightness of the covers, could smell the hint of sweat and a faint echo of hours-old cologne, could hear the soft sound of another's breath. But there was no mind there when he reached for it, no sense of self, and he was caught for a moment in confusion, not knowing if this was dream or reality or –
He reached for the bedside light, groping through the darkness... but it clicked on before his hand even found the switch, flooding the room with a warm yellow light. "Hello, Charles."
Blinking furiously against the sudden brightness, Charles turned and propped himself up on his elbows. Erik sat on the foot of the bed, clad in plain, form-fitting black but for the polished curve of crimson and violet that covered his head. His eyes were lost in the helmet's shadows and it was... it was like seeing a ghost, a whisper of a memory from another age. "Erik?" Charles said cautiously, his voice roughened with sleep. He wondered if he should be afraid. "I... thank you for sending Bobby and the others back to us. It's appreciated."
A nod. "How are they?"
"Recovering. They were badly shaken, as you might expect, and Moira... wasn't best pleased with them." He ran a hand down over his face, feeling the slight rasp of stubble against his palm, that tiny detail helping to convince him that this moment was real. "They weren't supposed to be there, it was too dangerous. Just as –"
"Just as I'm not supposed to be here now." Erik paused, watching Charles for a long moment... then reached up with both hands to slip the helmet from his head.
And Charles abruptly realised that he wasn't the only one who had been wondering if he should be afraid.
"Erik," he breathed, letting the sense of the other's presence wash over him. Purpose and passion and a soul-deep determination to protect, to defend, to fight for his people; old grief turned to new strength and all of it wrapped around a fierce and savage core of love. There was nothing selfish in Erik, no desire for wealth or glory or personal power, just the need to defy history by any means necessary. He was the sword of a people that barely knew itself to be one, the champion of a newborn race, and if the details had altered since the last time Charles had seen him, had felt him, the heart of him hadn't changed at all.
He drank him in, touching the sharp edges of that once-familiar mind and finding no threat. He smiled. "I've missed you," he said softly. "If things had been different –"
"But they aren't." Erik set the helmet beside him on the bed and ran a hand back through his flattened hair. "You sold yourself to the CIA and I... well." He quirked a smile. "I can only imagine that I'm pretty high up on your target list."
"That's not funny," Charles snapped, recalling Moira's words with sudden and painful clarity. "And I didn't sell myself to anyone."
"No?" Erik challenged. "That's not what it looks like from my perspective."
"No. After Cuba, I... I spent some time recovering in a military hospital in Florida. Alex and Sean stayed with me; Moira returned to Westchester with Hank to prepare the house for my return. When I finally did get back, the CIA had, well...." He sighed. "Moved in."
"And you let them? They tried to kill us!"
"Yes, and then you started juggling missiles and they all sat up and took notice!" Charles shook his head and ran a hand down over his face. "Director McCone apparently decided to reconsider his position regarding mutant recruits after that, shunted Stryker sideways into Support or Supply or whatever the hell it is, and gave Moira command of a shiny new, fully-funded Mutant Study Programme under the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology. Based, as it turned out, in my house."
"I repeat: and you let them?"
"What choice did I have? You don't argue – well, granted, maybe you do – with the CIA. And they promised me a new Cerebro. And," he added with a sigh, "they did fit the place out for full wheelchair access, which made my life a whole lot easier."
There was a moment of silence. Erik glanced towards the chair sitting beside the bed. "You still need it?" he asked.
"Oh, my friend, I'll always need it." Charles smiled sadly. "There's no coming back from what happened to me."
"I see. I'm sorry." Erik closed his eyes and Charles could feel his sorrow, his grief for the active man that he remembered. "I should have sent the first bullet back into her throat."
"There are days when I almost wish you had."
"Really?" Erik opened his eyes to look at him curiously. "Those aren't words that I ever thought to hear from you."
"They aren't words that I ever thought I'd say." Charles pushed himself up on the bed, settling himself back against the headboard. "No, I'm not being fair. It's not really Moira's fault, I don't think," he said. "She just feels... she's the most senior woman in the CIA's hierarchy, running this place, and she feels the pressure. It's like she feels the need to over-perform all the time in order to be seen as an equal to her male counterparts."
Erik snorted, then moved up to sit beside Charles. "Humans," he muttered. "They get hung up on the strangest things."
"I won't disagree with you there." Charles turned his head, looking at Erik as he stretched his long legs out on the bed... and for a moment it was as if the last five years just fell away, dissolving in an instant into a time when they had been the closest of companions and anything was possible....
He sighed, feeling cold reality crash in around him once more. Whatever life they had known before was done now, ended on a Cuban beach. "How did you get in here, anyway? Did your teleporter –?"
A soft laugh. "Please, Charles – I've broken into places far more secure than this in my time. Your CIA friends like to think they have the mansion locked down but they're predictable. They like routine." Erik shook his head, amused. "I had Azazel bring me in by the lake and came the rest of the way on foot – it's not all about the grand entrance, you know. Sometimes there's much to be said for stealth and besides," he waved a hand at the curtain-covered windows, "your locks are simple and their security circuits scarcely more complicated. A human child could break in, never mind someone with my gifts."
"Doing things the old-fashioned way? Keeping your hand in?"
"If you like." Erik's smile was sharp. "Although this will be the first time that I've been in and out of a place like this without leaving at least one corpse behind me."
Charles sighed. "Well, there might be time for that yet."
"Do you want me to go after the MacTaggert woman?" Erik looked at him. "Just say the word and I'll get you your house back and –"
"No," Charles said quickly. "No, that... that won't be necessary. I can handle Moira." He moved his hand to cover Erik's on the blanket, feeling the iron strength in the long fingers, the ridges of scars old and new. "So what were you doing in New York?" he asked.
"The same as your children were – observing." Erik shrugged and didn't pull his hand away. "We've been doing a lot of that in the past months. Watching, listening, preparing. What's happening now – this is when it changes, Charles. This is when they'll make their move. What we've seen out there is just a prelude, a taster. If the Supreme Court decides in Froelich's favour then there will be a slaughter, followed by legislation to control and contain what mutants are left – for their own good, naturally."
"And if the Court finds against?"
"The same, just without the initial massacre. And all of it presented oh, so very reasonably that they'll just march right into the trap without seeing the snare. And once that first step has been taken... well, the second won't seem so hard for either side. And after that there is nothing but a freefall into hell...." He sighed and leaned his head back. "I've seen it before, Charles. History repeats itself, it always does."
Charles squeezed his eyes shut, the words catching in his throat. Erik didn't know about the registration plan, he realised... and yet he did.
He always had.
It seemed as though all of Charles's old certainties were fracturing, dissolving into dust around him. And now here was Erik, whose arguments had always given him something to define his own opinions against... only now, he was seeing those arguments in a new light, coloured by five long years of experience with the CIA and their idea of mutant studies.
This wasn't the way that he'd thought it would be.
He reached out, skipping quickly through the mindscape of the mansion and its annexes, an undetectable feather-touch of thought as he checked on each of them, tasting their emotions. Guards patrolled the grounds, their minds numbed by the hour and the dull monotony of routine; the receptionist who minded the phones dozed fitfully, trying and constantly failing to stay alert; two of the younger scientists fucked with furtive intensity in one of the assessment labs. The students slept, all bar Alison, who was filling a glass from a bathroom tap, and Bobby, who was still running the day's events through his mind, unable to settle. Charles lingered with him for a moment, feeling the echoes of terror, confusion, relief, gratitude. And then....
And then there was Moira, sitting red-eyed at the desk in her study with a glass of scotch in one hand and a pen in the other, trying to think of ways to track Erik down and take Erik down and quite unaware that her target sat barely a hundred yards from her rooms.
"She hates you, you know."
"MacTaggert?" Erik snorted and crossed one leg over the other, the image of relaxation. Charles could feel a tendril of contentment threading through the caution that clung to him, a tiny indication that Erik had missed this too. "I'd be surprised if she loved me."
"You've become something of a personal demon for her," Charles told him. "I don't think that she could even articulate it to herself but you're a reminder that not everything mutant-related is under her control. I think she sees your capture as a way to prove her worth."
"A trophy to be taken?"
"If you like." It was Charles's turn to shrug. "And you were a part of the original group, back before Cuba, so she sees you as one of her mutants in a way. Her responsibility. It makes her uncomfortable that you're still out there." He paused, then added, "And it would make her even more uncomfortable if she were to realise that you were in here now."
"And so it should." Erik smiled humourlessly. "So she sees you as being under her control?" he asked after a moment. "Like a pet?"
"I rather think that Moira sees me as more of a... as an inconvenient necessity." Charles sighed. "She needs me to fly Cerebro for her. Jean isn't yet skilled enough with her telepathy and the only other telepath that we know of is with you. Back when this started, we worked together but now... now I fear that we have quite different goals."
"That sounds strangely familiar," Erik murmured, a faint sheen of amusement colouring his thoughts. "Does this happen to you often?"
Charles chuckled tiredly and pressed his fingers between Erik's, stroking his thumb against the side of the other man's hand and remembering a time when he had taken this easy companionship for granted. When they both had, he supposed. But life had had other plans for the pair of them, and now....
"How's Raven?" he asked suddenly.
"Mystique?" Erik smiled fondly. "She's well. Happy. The best lieutenant I could ask for. You probably don't want to hear it, but the life suits her."
"No, no – that's good." Charles sighed. "I rather fear that I disappointed her in those last few years we were together. I never meant to – I just wanted her to be safe while she just wanted to be free. You were the one who finally gave her that." He quirked a small smile. "The strange thing is, I think I'm finally starting to understand how she felt."
"Trapped in your own gilded cage, Charles?"
"That's not funny."
"But it is true." Erik chuckled softly. "If you want to break free, just say the word. You would be welcomed into the Brotherhood without question or hesitation. She misses you." A rueful smile. "We both do."
Charles turned his head to look at him, half-shadowed in the lamplight, at the strong profile and the weathered features, the scars that he was certain hadn't been there before. There was a raw-boned beauty to Erik that he had always found fascinating, intrigued by the way that he bore the marks of his past as badges of honour, of survival, where other men might have hidden them away. Erik was what Erik was, pure and unapologetic, unconstrained by the expectations of others, by any rules or laws beyond his own. "I –"
"I... can't." He shook his head. "I almost wish that I could, but I can't leave them here. They need me."
"So bring them with you – we have the space and young Drake has already tried to defect once."
"He..."Charles blinked. "Bobby did what?"
"He was in the teeth of an adrenaline crash, poor boy – I'm not certain that even he knew what he was saying." Erik laughed softly. "I told him to think about it. I'll see him again, I think. The little telepath too." He turned his head so that he was face to face with Charles, his sharp grey eyes reflecting the lamplight. "Come with me," he said. "Please. What they're doing here, what they're making you a part of – this isn't what you wanted."
"Neither is the life you lead, my friend, and the last thing that you need is a cripple weighing you down." Charles sighed and looked away reluctantly. "I'm sorry."
"So am I." Erik looked down at their hands, at the fingers locked together in awkward embrace. He hesitated a moment, then reached up to touch Charles's cheek. Charles started at the contact, turning back towards him... and gasped softly as Erik threaded his fingers through his hair and gently pressed their foreheads together. "You could never be a burden to me," he murmured.
Charles trembled, understanding the trust that Erik was placing in him with that gesture, more intimate than any kiss. The helmet lay on the covers, just out of reach, but it might as well be miles away for all the good that it would do Erik if Charles decided to prove his loyalty to the CIA's cause. Skin-to-skin and mind-to-mind, he was laid open, laid bare, his sincerity shining through and it would be so very easy....
Why? he asked, a single pulse of thought.
Belong with us/her/me, not enemy/government/human, came the response, meanings falling over themselves as concepts were expressed in their purest, wordless form. No trick/lie/trap. Danger soon, soon, concern/fear/sorrow/need, soon.... And then a complex, visceral rush of emotions and images both bold and subtle and –
Charles pulled back with an effort, hearing Erik whimper softly as the contact was broken, a sound of loss and relief combined. "Oh," he said, then took a deep breath and untangled his fingers from Erik's, trying to pull his thoughts back into a semblance of order. "Oh, my friend, I wish that I could, but my place – for now, at least – is here. I'm sorry."
Erik sat with his head bowed for a long moment, then nodded and levered himself up and off the bed in a single, swift movement. "Your choice," he said, calling the helmet to him and tucking it under his arm instead of placing it on his head. "Be careful, Charles – these are dangerous times that we live in and rest assured that the humans do not have our best interests at heart."
"I still have to try," Charles told him, still feeling the confused echoes of that torrent of emotions against his own, all shaded with the fierce intensity with which Erik felt everything. "Perhaps, when the Froelich case is finished, you could visit again?" he suggested hopefully. "It's been good to see you again. I only wish it could be for longer."
"When the Froelich case is finished, we may well be fighting a war." That they might be fighting on opposite sides was left unsaid.
Charles sighed. "Erik...."
"I'll try," Erik said. "And the next time – if there is a next time – I'll bring Mystique. I know that she has things she wants to say to you."
"Thank you." Charles smiled... and then Erik nodded and was gone, out through the drapes and the window beyond without a sound. Charles sat with the lamp still on for long minutes after he had left, playing through the encounter in his mind and feeling a strange warmth settle over him, a sense of having finally rediscovered something lost, something dear....
He could only hope that, with all that was about to happen, they wouldn't lose one another again.
~ # # # ~
Moira sat at her desk, staring down at the yellow notepad before her. She was surrounded by the detritus of several hours of brainstorming – crumpled paper and coffee stains and a half-empty bottle of whiskey – and an ache had settled somewhere deep behind her eyes, but she had to do this, had to try to work out just what the hell the Brotherhood was up to and how she was going to stop them. They had vanished from the intelligence reports almost a year before and there hadn't been so much as a whisper about them since then.
Until today. The Drake boy, for all of his apparently suicidal tendencies, had done her a favour.
She was vaguely aware that midnight had come and gone several hours past, the night slipping away beyond the curtains and the insect screens while she considered what would come next. Yawning, she stretched and rolled her shoulders, trying to work the stiffness out of her muscles. Just another fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, and then she would find her bed, would sleep on the problem and see if the morning would bring any fresh insights.
Moira glanced at the clock and winced. It seemed unlikely that any insights would be particularly fresh, given that it was only three hours until her alarm.
She rested the heel of her hand against her temple as she read through her latest set of notes, trying to focus through the fog of fatigue and alcohol. In an ideal world, perhaps, she would brainstorm all of this with her senior agents or with Charles and Hank, tossing around ideas and suggestions to form a solid course of action. In reality, though, she didn't dare call in her underlings without at least several concrete ideas to offer them, too aware of what it would mean to seem anything other than competent and commanding to the men – and they were all men – who followed her orders. Hank was too lost in his experiments to be of much use when it came to considerations of the real world, and as for Charles....
She liked the man, really she did, but he just didn't seem to understand what was at stake. The mutant cause was one that she had dedicated her career to but he constantly seemed to be trying to hold her back from her work, to temper her advances and object to the very projects that made his work possible. The world that Charles wanted to see was one that would never exist, a fond fantasy that could never overcome the realities of human nature. He shrank from the idea of violence, yet violence was all that many mutations were good for and they needed to harness that potential for the greater good – if mutants were to be accepted, then the human populace had to see them as having value despite their nature, as being of more use alive than dead....
Although some were of far greater use dead than alive.
She looked at her gun where it sat beside her table lamp, loaded, as ever, with the tempered crystalline ceramic bullets that had been specifically developed with Lehnsherr in mind. She would occasionally fantasise about finally getting to use them in anger, about seeing the look on that well-remembered face as she pumped one untouchable round after another into him, watching the shock and pain fade from his eyes as he died at her feet. But in order to dispatch the bastard, she first had to find him, and Lehnsherr had proved to be all too adept at avoiding them.
But no more. His appearance in New York, coming to the defence of the Drake boy in civilian guise, suggested that maybe they didn't need to actively hunt him down so much as simply set the right bait and wait for him to come to them.
Moira smiled grimly and looked down at her notes. There were other demonstrations coming up in the days before the Supreme Court's announcement on the Froelich case, and while she couldn't imagine that the Brotherhood would be attending all of them, she didn't doubt that they would be there for at least some. If she could just work out which, then maybe young Drake's misadventure could be turned to their advantage. Lehnsherr and his people clearly knew about the Westchester facility – unsurprising, given his history with the place – but they couldn't know all of the students and agents currently living within its walls, wouldn't know their particular skills or loyalties.
Wouldn't know the trap until it was sprung.
Yes, it would take some planning – and require a certain degree of luck – but the demonstrations were known, had been organised and announced ahead of time. Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, DC, Boston were all listed on her pad... but her money was on the heart of it, was on DC. There was no way to know if the Brotherhood would be there in a passive or an active role, not until the day, but that... was a consideration for the morning.
She underlined 'DC' on her pad with two quick, decisive strokes, then capped her pen and stumbled off to her bed.
~ # # # # # ~
Mind and metal alike yield before them, clearing the way as they move as one towards their goal. Bullets are turned aside with ease... and a care for flesh and architecture alike, for there is no room for error today, not with the eyes of a nation, a world, watching them. Today there will be no death, no destruction, no blood or vengeance.
Today is about making an entrance, not an attack.
Tomorrow... remains to be seen.
~ # # # # # ~
They set up at three different points along the route of the DC march, picking places that would afford any observers a good view of the demonstrators while also allowing them to be lost in the watching crowds. Each staging point was manned by three human agents and three mutants – two hand-picked from the combat unit and one young hopeful who would be playing the part of the victim in their piece of planned theatre – all drilled in what to do and what to watch for and how to bring things to a close if things didn't go to plan.
And, most importantly, how to respond if things did.
Moira paced around the room they were using as a coordination post, a second-floor Internal Revenue Service office overlooking Constitution Avenue where it met 10th Street. She could see some of her people from the window, arrayed along the broad sidewalk opposite the National Museum of Natural History – Connors and Daniels and Gerrard, the elder Proudstar and the Sherman girl; she didn't doubt that young Tabitha Smith, the 'bait' for this unit, was somewhere nearby. One of the other groups was up where Constitution met Pennsylvania Avenue, while the last was close to the Supreme Court itself. In an ideal world, she would have had better coverage of the route, but this was what she had and she was just going to have to make the best of it.
If luck was on her side, she wouldn't need any more.
A part of her was itching to get out onto the street and see what was happening for herself, to join the ambush and play her part. But her face was known to the Brotherhood and the last thing that she needed was for Lehnsherr or one of his minions to see her before she saw them and so blow the entire mission. There was far too much at stake here for her to give in to that temptation....
She strode up to the window, one hand resting on her sidearm as she looked out past the blinds once more. She couldn't see any familiar faces beyond her own group in the crowds now forming to watch the protest, but that didn't mean that they weren't out there, watching and waiting in their own turn. Hell, they could even be planning to launch a full-scale attack this time around, close as it was to the verdict, and if it came to that –
If it came to that, well, her group would be a damned sight more use here than in Westchester.
Stoltenberg, their police liaison, was two windows to her right, observing the scene with binoculars and a deep frown. The DC police were used to handling demonstrations but the nature of this one, especially after the New York incident, had them concerned. She'd have more confidence in the man if he hadn't quite clearly been a desk jockey for the past decade – it had quickly become apparent that he had no more familiarity with the men lining the route than she did. Not that he had said much to her, clearly unimpressed that the head of the CIA operation was a woman young enough to be his daughter, but he seemed to be doing his job and there wasn't much more that she could ask of him than that. She sure as hell didn't want to make small-talk when there was so very much at stake.
Narey, the junior agent assigned as her assistant, shifted in his seat and adjusted the headset he was wearing to listen to the police radio traffic – another reason why Stoltenberg looked as though he was chewing a wasp, no doubt. She looked at Narey sharply but he shook his head and tapped his watch. No movement yet, then. At that very moment some two hundred thousand and more people were attending a rally on the National Mall, waving placards and shouting slogans as they prepared to march on the Supreme Court building to express their support for Frank Froelich. If she opened the window, she would no doubt be able to hear them. Moira had little time for bigots of any kind but there was no denying the passions aroused by the subject of mutants, by the terror that they seemed to engender in even the most liberal of hearts. If nothing else, she supposed, mutant issues had at least provided common ground for both sides of the civil rights movement, if only because each side hated mutants far more than they feared each other....
There was a crackle of static and Moira pushed her thoughts aside and snatched up her radio. "Report!"
"Everyone's in place at this end, ma'am." Packer, who was leading the group up by the Supreme Court. "No sign of any targets as yet. Any word on when we can expect company?"
"Negative. Will keep you informed. For now, continue to assume contact at 1200 hours."
"Understood. Packer out."
The march moved off of the Mall at pretty much precisely the designated time, making their way slowly up 12th Street and onto Constitution. Moira listened to the police traffic and waited impatiently for the head of the march to pass beneath her observation post. They – along with every other law enforcement agency in the city – had some agents undercover amongst the marchers in case of trouble, but there was no way to contact them without blowing their cover. She had an uncomfortable suspicion that the Brotherhood might have people in there too, ready to cause chaos, but there was no way to know....
There was no way to do anything other than watch and wait until the time came to set things into motion. And hope to hell that Lehnsherr didn't somehow beat her to the punch.
An hour later, the procession was still filing past Moira's vantage point, the shouted slurs and bright placards now old with repetition. Some of the crowd that had gathered to watch the protest had wandered off, bored, but most had remained, some shouting insults back – more mutants, she wondered, or just human sympathisers? – while others called encouragement. She had seen reporters moving along behind the police who separated the protesters from the observers, snatching interviews and recording soundbites; even a TV crew at one point. But those all seemed to have moved on, seeking pickings further along the route where a counter-demonstration was apparently blocking 3rd Street.
Stoltenberg was in the corner of the office, issuing instructions over the phone while a pair of police lieutenants hovered in attendance. Narey was still sitting with his headset on, a look of deep concentration on his face as he followed the police traffic. "Head of the march has reached the Supreme Court, ma'am," he said. "They're starting to form up for the second rally."
Moira glanced at her watch and nodded. Things were running to time. She picked up her radio. "Packer, report."
"We've got plenty of people here," the agent told her. "No targets sighted as yet, but we're ready to flush them on your word."
"Hold position." She glanced out of the window, to where her agents waited with the crowd, then at her watch, and made a decision. "Set things in motion at 1213 precisely."
"Good." She smiled grimly. "Happy hunting, Agent. MacTaggert out."
Narey and Stoltenberg were both looking at her when she finished relaying the same instruction to Ayers at the Pennsylvania junction and Connors down in the street below. "Seven minutes, gentlemen," she told them. "Get ready."
It was an almost physical ache, having to stay inside, to remain hidden as the mission moved towards its climax. Narey pulled the blinds aside and opened the windows, letting in the sound and the scent of the march as it passed below, the simple act of removing that one transparent barrier adding a fresh immediacy to the scene. Moira bit her lip and positioned herself at the window that gave her the best vantage point, keeping to the shadows as best she could as she checked her sidearm and watched for a target. It would be a risk, trying for a shot from this position, but the moment was so close now, so close, and if Lehnsherr was here....
If the bastard was here, then she was going to be the one to take him down, just as she'd promised herself five years before.
When the moment came, things happened quickly. There was a scuffle down near the police line, a sudden outbreak of pushing and shoving that drew the eye. Then came some bright flares and small explosions as the Smith girl demonstrated her mutant ability in full view of the demonstrators and the watching crowd, and –
There was a moment of shocked confusion as people turned to look, then tried to either flee or close in, cries of fear and fury ringing through the air. The police seemed caught in confusion, some trying to hold the protestors back, some drawing their guns, one firing into the air... and one moving forward to place himself squarely between Tabitha and her attackers, remonstrating with Proudstar and Sherman as he pushed the girl back away from them. Moira squinted at the scene, then took the binoculars that Narey handed to her. The cop was nobody that she recognised, could just be a sympathiser....
Gerrard snatched at Tabitha from behind, drawing a scream, and the cop turned... but didn't move to draw his gun. Moira frowned at that omission, then swore as Proudstar grabbed the cop's shoulder, spinning him around to plant a heavy fist in his gut. The cop folded over Proudstar's arm as the crowd shrieked, and the big mutant immediately followed the blow with a sharp uppercut that caught the man under the jaw and took him up off his feet, arcing back through the air. Moira gasped at the sudden violence, then almost choked as the man rippled impossibly and the scaled, deep blue form of Raven Xavier hit the ground with a cry.
There were cries of shock and revulsion, people suddenly scrambling to get away as the stricken mutant stumbled drunkenly to her feet, bright blood dripping from her nose and mouth and one hand clutched to her stomach. Proudstar took a step forward, his fists clenched, clearly intending to finish the job he'd started and –
And then fell back as his target suddenly jerked and dropped, the sound of the gunshot following an instant later. Moira saw Connors bringing his sidearm down for an insurance shot, saw the splash of red as the blue woman jerked again and went still, and then everything went to hell as the crowd shrieked and stampeded in all directions, desperate to escape from freaks and firearms alike.
"Fuck," she hissed. "That's it – I'm going down there. Narey, with me."
"What?" Stoltenberg snapped. "Are you insane? That's no place for a woman – it's chaos out there!"
"Did I ask for your opinion?" Moira set her jaw. "I think you'll find that I won't be the only woman out there. Several of my own agents on this mission are –"
Stoltenberg snorted derisively. "Muties don't count."
"Today, I think you'll find that they do." She checked her sidearm and ran from the office with Narey at her heels, ignoring his protests the same as Stoltenberg's spluttering as she raced down the stairs. What hope did the damned mutants have when the humans still couldn't even treat each other with civility? She made it out of a side door and onto the street in a matter of seconds, cursing as protesters and observers scattered like sheep, falling over one another and blocking her way as she tried to reach her agents. She wanted to weep – if there were any other Brotherhood members here, they were going to be lost in the throng and if she missed her shot..... "Stay alert!" she screamed to her men over the cacophony, sirens and car horns now adding to the panic. "There could be more of them!"
And, it seemed, there were. Moira turned in time to see a flash of red and black as the demonic-looking teleporter snatched a young man out of the crowd, their departure a split-second ahead of a volley of shots from Daniels and Gerrard that caught several of the protesters trying to flee from this new threat. More gunfire sounded from somewhere close by, but she couldn't see who was firing, could only hear the screams as –
She caught a glimpse of white and gold and glitter from the corner of her eye – Frost, shifting into her crystalline form as the crowd surged around her and then parted in further panic. Moira raised a hand to point, shouting for assistance, but then there was that flash of red and black once more and Frost was gone. "Fuck," she muttered again as she turned back, pressing herself into the lee of a police cruiser to avoid being trampled by the human stampede. "We're going to have to take out that damned teleporter if we're ever going to take the bastards."
For long moments there was nothing she could do other than crouch in her uncertain shelter as the crowd swelled and then thinned, fleeing into the museums and the surrounding streets until only the injured and the hysterical remained. Moira left those to the cops still milling around, pushing herself up to walk over to where the rest of her team were gathering, looking down at the body that lay crumpled at their feet.
Moira allowed herself a grim smile. Teleporter or no, they had taken one of them.
Raven still lay where she'd fallen, glazed golden eyes staring up into nothing. She looked like a brightly-coloured toy that had been dropped by a careless child, Moira thought, with her blue limbs twisted loosely around her on the pavement and a neat hole punched between the mounds of her scaled breasts. Congealing blood was smeared across her mouth and chin where Proudstar had hit her, dark rivers of it drying against the slender column of her throat, and a portion of her skull was gone, red hair matted with black blood and pale bone smeared across concrete for several feet beyond her body. More blood painted her torso from the heart shot that had killed her, a gory stream of it pooled in the gutter at her side, and yet more stained her thighs and her exposed sex from some internal bleed. There was all of the usual voided mess associated with death, made more obvious by Raven's habitual nudity, and god, but she was going to have to make sure that Charles never saw the scene photos from this....
Charles. Fuck. Fuck. She was going to have to tell him that they'd killed his sister.
There were sirens all around, drowning out the sounds of sobbing and the cries of the wounded. Moira looked up from Raven's body and slid her gun back into its holster – if she'd ever had a chance at Lehnsherr, it was gone now. She lifted her radio. "Ayres, Packer – report."
A crackle of static, empty and ominous.
"I said, report!"
"No mutants here." Ayres's voice, sounding shaky. "We staged as rehearsed and some fucker in the crowd pulled a gun and shot Vance, poor kid... Harris returned fire, then the cops and Scott got involved and it all just went to hell. We're looking at maybe six dead, a dozen injured...." A pause, indistinct voices in the background. "Jesus, seven dead...."
"Pull back," Moira told him, fighting to keep her own voice steady. "Get everybody back to Langley for debrief. Now"
"Ma'am, I'm not sure that –"
"Now, Agent – that’s an order! Get your people and go." She took a deep breath. "Packer, if you're out there, you'd better have some good news for me."
"No sign of the Brotherhood, if that's the news you're after, ma'am." Packer sounded a lot steadier than Ayres had. "We played it through, but no bites. Crowd's twitchy as hell, though, so we had to withdraw once it was clear we hadn't caught ourselves any terrorists."
"Just a few protestors tripping over their feet to get away from us, but nothing on our side. We can hear sirens but the cops aren't being too helpful. What's –"
"Get your team back to Langley, soon as you can." Moira looked around at the chaos of blood and bodies, of placards lying abandoned in the road, and felt a sudden, desperate need to be elsewhere. "Debrief at 1400 hours."
"We'll do our best. Packer out."
Tabitha was crying, deep wracking sobs that set Moira's nerves on edge as she strode across to where the rest of the team had gathered. "Daniels," she snapped, "get the truck – we're clearing out. We'll load our dead terrorist here into a bodybag and take her for autopsy at Langley, see if we can't learn anything from studying her mutation."
"Ma'am?" He looked at her startled. "We've got civilians down. Cops ain't going to be happy if we just –"
"Do it!" It was all going wrong, horribly wrong, but if they could shift the blame to the Brotherhood, publically at least, then they might yet be able to salvage something from this.... She turned, gesturing for Proudstar to join her. "How did you know it was her and not a real cop?"
Proudstar shrugged. "A hunch."
"'A hunch'?" Moira stared at him. "Are you insane? If you'd called it wrong, the headlines would all be screaming about how a mutant murdered one of DC's finest!"
"He didn't pull his gun like all the rest of them, even though he was protecting a girl. I figured that maybe he had something more heavy-duty up his sleeve, didn't want to give him a chance to use it. Didn't realise it was a part of him... of her." He looked down at the body, frowning. "And now the papers are going to be full of how there's one less mutant terrorist in the world and blaming it all on the Brotherhood. Not fair that Connors was the one to finish her off, though."
"Trust me, John, from a publicity standpoint, having a terrorist shot by an agent in the middle of a crowd is preferable to having them beaten to death by a mutant in front of witnesses, even if that terrorist is a mutant too." She ran her hands down over her face, feeling exhaustion crash in on her as the adrenaline started to fade. "Let Connors have his moment of glory. Better the rest of us keep a low profile for now – we still have work to do."
"You still want the rest of the Brotherhood?"
"What do you think?" The sun was barely past its zenith and the heart of DC resembled a war zone, all sirens and cordite and death. They had been here and she'd bloodied them, but at what cost? There were civilians shrieking, weeping, dying in the streets, and from what Ayres had been saying, she might have lost one of her mutants as well as taking one of theirs.
It was a massacre, but she was damned if she was going to take the fall, not while Magneto was still out there, not when he'd been here, somewhere, unseen....
Dammit, but she was not looking forward to having to explain all of this to McCone.
Almost as much as she wasn't looking forward to having to explain it to Charles.
~ # # # ~
"We're hearing – hearing that there are at least eleven dead and up to thirty... thirty injured in the attack." The voice fell silent for a moment, the breathless report fading into a background of cries and disjointed thumps, then returning with increased strength. "Eyewitnesses say that at least one mutant terrorist has been killed, shot by an undercover agent in the crowd, although we're hearing... hearing unconfirmed reports of a second...."
Bobby bit his lip, glancing towards Jean. She shook her head and whispered, "Bullets are metal, remember? It wouldn't be him, not if they got shot."
They were all gathered in the rec room, the radio tuned to a news channel reporting on the anti-mutant march now wending its way through Washington. Or rather, that had been wending its way through Washington – as with the New York march, things appeared to have taken a turn for the worse, only this time there were bodies on the ground. The reporter said that the protestors had been attacked by mutant terrorists but, Bobby knew, it had been the humans who had started the trouble last time, who had been the violent ones, and that had been blamed on the Brotherhood even though Magneto had tried to defuse the situation....
He didn't know who or what he was supposed to believe any more.
"...uncertain what influence, if any, this will have on the decision of the Supreme Court regarding the Froelich case – which is, of course, the reason why this march was being held here today. Given the nature of the decision the Justices are being asked to make, it would seem to be counter-productive for a mutant attack to take place so close to..."
"Yeah," muttered Sally, "what are they playing at? They're going to get us all killed!"
"We don't know if it really was mutants," Jimmy said. "Maybe it was humans just wanting to give us a bad name so they get their way."
"Right." Lucia rolled her cat-like eyes. "Just 'cause the Brotherhood saved your sorry behind once don't make them the good guys. We know that they were there at the march in New York."
"And they weren't attacking anybody there, not even to save us!" Bobby snapped. "They're not stupid – they know that the Froelich thing is coming up."
Jean sighed. "Doesn't everybody?"
"...still getting reports of shooting from further along Constitution Avenue, though it's as yet unclear if the attack is still in progress..."
"They are going to get us all killed," Sally groaned. "Why would they do this now?"
Bobby scowled at her. "We don't know if –"
"Will you guys just shut up?" Paige hissed. "Some of us want to hear this. It's important."
None of them could disagree with that and so they all fell silent and listened as a disembodied voice told them all that they needed to know about how the world saw them, and Bobby quietly decided that next time he wouldn't take no for an answer.
~ # # # # # ~
The great bronze doors open with a thought as they move forward, sunlight giving way to shadow as they pass between tall Corinthian columns. There are more columns within, double rows of them rising up to a coffered ceiling in a great corridor, all pale marble and bronze and swarming men dressed in suits with sidearms drawn. They are no more a threat than the soldiers, their fragile minds folding in on themselves as they fall, their weapons disabled and tossed aside and forgotten.
They have more important things to concern themselves with.
Beyond the fallen guards stand a great set of oak doors, polished and gleaming, and beyond those lies their goal. They move as one, focused and yet still aware of their surroundings, alert to any potential threat. This is the point where they will meet with success or with failure, for while they cannot be kept out, others may yet choose to not remain in.
This is known, acknowledged, accepted. They can only come so far before they must be met halfway.
A door creaks open and a slight figure – unarmed, uncertain – slips out to face them.
They stop. They wait.
"The... the Chief Justice says that y-you may enter to observe the verdict of the C-court," the man stammers out nervously. The one slips into his mind, seeking a trap and finding none, just fear and the slimmest thread of something that might be admiration. "Y-you must remain at the... at the back, and you m-must remain silent. I'm afraid that we ha-have something of a full house today, s-so you'll have to s-s-stand."
The one smiles – he has sat for quite long enough – and follows the other as the clerk leads the way.
~ # # # # # ~
He watched as the helicopter descended onto the east lawn, the wash from the rotors lashing at the grass. It touched the ground with a deceptive lightness, resting briefly in place as a slender, familiar figure jumped out and ran clear, then sprang skywards once more to vanish over the trees, the throb of its engines fading as it wheeled away in the direction of West Point.
Charles closed his eyes, listening to the sound of the aircraft's retreat until there was nothing more to be heard. The early evening sun was warm against his face despite the slight breeze, the scent of the honeysuckle that clung to the wall outside the dining room filling the air, but he acknowledged none of it, the physical a mere distraction. The mood of the mansion was crackling with fear and tension, word of the disrupted march spreading like wildfire through the students and the agents alike. Nobody seemed to know what was going on or who was responsible....
Or who had died.
It might not be one of them, of course. The Brotherhood had a dozen or more members these days, he told himself, half of them unknown even to the CIA. It could have been any of them – one of Shaw's, a stranger, a new recruit....
Or it could be his sister. It could be his friend.
Alex was a bright pulse of fury at his side, watching Moira's approach with an angry impatience. At another time, Charles might have tried to soothe him, but today Alex was just another emotional note in the cacophony and he wouldn't deny him his rage, not when he felt its echo burning in his own breast, all tangled with the sick sense of fear and incipient grief. They had both been kept out of the loop in this... and for that, Charles was almost thankful. He didn't think he could bear it if one of his own, one of his original team, had been somehow involved in... in....
He couldn't bear it any longer. Moira was still a hundred yards out, her frame stiff with tension as she strode towards them, and it was the work of an instant to reach out and slip into her thoughts. Exhaustion, anger, guilt and a bitter sense of failure, of justification, of –
"Raven," he whispered, feeling his heart clench suddenly, painfully in his chest. "Oh god, Raven."
He felt the moment of shocked realisation from Alex, but he couldn't respond to it, couldn't do anything but sit there and feel the world crash in around him. Raven, his sister, gunned down in the street; Raven, whose presence still haunted the mansion and its grounds, her memory filling the rooms.
Raven, whom Erik had promised to bring back to him, however briefly. Raven, who had had things that she had wanted to say to him, things that she now never would....
He had never even got to say goodbye.
"Charles," Moira started as she came up the patio steps. "I –"
"Not here," he choked out, aware of the eyes that watched from every window, aware of the sudden flare of protective anger from Alex as he processed his own shock. "My office."
He somehow managed to turn the chair around and propel himself through the tall, glazed doors that led into his rooms, Alex at his side and Moira trailing behind them. He felt numb, scared, and he hadn't see her in five years but he'd always somehow thought that he would again....
"Charles," Moira started again, her emotions a tangled mix of sympathy and stubborn conviction. "I'm sorry, but –"
She blinked, clearly taken aback by his response. "What –"
"He knows you killed his sister," Alex snarled, rounding on her. "You know – blue girl, used to live here? Helped launch your career."
Moira looked at him, then down at Charles, and shook her head. "So much for trying to break it to you gently." She took a deep breath. "But yes, for the record, Raven Xavier was shot dead during an Agency anti-terrorist operation in Washington DC today and while I am sorry for your loss, Charles, the fact remains that she was a wanted criminal, a known murderer, and my job is to defend this country against –"
"Against what?" he asked tiredly, feeling a spark of anger break through the shock. "Was she actually attacking anyone? Were any human lives in danger before you killed her?"
She eyed him warily, a flicker of suspicion ghosting through her thoughts. "She was a terrorist, Charles, as you well know, with a track record of violence against humans. Whether she was actively attacking anybody or not is irrelevant – she signed her own death warrant years again, her and Lehnsherr. If you want to blame anyone for what happened today, blame him."
"It always comes back to Erik with you, doesn't it?" Charles ran his hands down over his face, only realising that he was crying when his fingers came away wet with tears. He stared at them for a long moment, then wiped them against his trousers. He swallowed thickly. "Who else are you going to wind up killing because of your obsession with him?"
"I am not obsessed!" she snapped, but there was a flash of something else behind the anger – guilt and concern and –
He stared at her. "Who else did you kill?" he asked, as Alex said, "Where are the others? The combat group?"
"Langley, being debriefed." Moira folded her arms over her chest, her thoughts as defensive as her body language. "I thought the news about Raven... I thought it might be better if you were told face-to-face but –"
"Langley?" Alex snapped, his temper suddenly flaring; Charles felt him rein in his power with an effort. "What the hell, Moira? The combat team is supposed to be my group, taking my orders and you just –"
"Grow the fuck up, Summers – I'm the director of this facility." Moira's mind was sharp-edged and furious, fearless in the face of all of Alex's destructive potential. "My unit, my call. I felt that you would be compromised on this particular mission and –"
"You decided to set me to babysitting Sam Guthrie through the preliminaries while you took half of my team out looking for targets in a crowd of civilians –"
"We had reason to believe that the Brotherhood –"
"– and ended up publically executing someone who was once a good friend of mine –"
"Which is exactly what I meant about being compromised!" A sharp stab of triumph. "I can't have you freezing in combat situations because you find yourself up against someone you knew five years ago! Do you think Lehnsherr would hesitate to finish you if he had the chance?"
"Actually," Alex spat back at her, "yes, I think he would. I think he'd be a damned sight more discriminating than you and your sorry fucking pack of government goons who –"
"You were happy enough to be one of my 'government goons' in Oregon! And besides, the Brotherhood knows you, you and Cassidy – if you'd been seen then it would have blown the entire operation. So don't give me all this bullshit moralising, Summers – you're a killer the same as any of them. Or is it different when it's human blood on your hands?"
He glared at her. "What would you do if I said yes?"
"Try me." She stalked up to him, her dark eyes blazing. "Just fucking try me."
"Enough!" Charles pushed enough of a command into the word to make sure that he had both their attentions. "We've had enough bloodshed for one day, don't you think?"
The tableau held for an extended moment, the tension singing in the air... and then Alex turned away, shaking his head, anger and disgust – at her, at himself, at the whole situation – rolling off of him. "I'm sorry, Professor," he said, reaching for the door, "but I can't... if I stay here any longer, I'm going to kill the bitch and I wouldn't want to make a mess of your office."
"Consider yourself demoted, Summers!" Moira shouted after his retreating back. "You'll be taking your fucking orders from Proudstar when –"
"Fuck you, MacTaggert – I quit!"
Alex slammed the door behind him, his savage thoughts fading as he stormed down the corridor, and Charles feared for whoever crossed his path first. He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling fresh tears spill down his cheeks as Moira hissed, "Ungrateful little shit...."
"He was the leader of your combat team and you went around him – of course he's upset. That you killed... killed a friend of his –"
A flash of tired exasperation. "Charles, I'm sorry that your sister died, but I will not apologise for taking out a known terrorist!"
"No? What about the civilians?" He opened his eyes to look at her, standing rumpled and exhausted and unrepentant in the middle of his office, and suddenly wondered just what the hell he had let himself get involved in. It hadn't been this way when they had started, he was certain, and for a moment he wished that they could go back, could start anew. He had had such hope once.... "How many died today so that you could claim your one scalp from the Brotherhood? What happened to 'defending this country'? Or doesn't that include its people?"
"Jesus," Moira muttered, turning away from him. "I do not need to hear this from you as well...."
"No?" Charles could feel something coiling in the pit of his stomach, fierce and angry. "You need to hear it from somebody."
She laughed bitterly. "Oh, believe me – I've just had two fucking hours of it from McCone. He's the one who gave me the damned role in the first place, then tears into me when I try to actually fulfil it. I had full approval for today – you know that?" Her emotions were beating at him, sharp and frustrated and combative – she felt as though she'd been forced into a corner, made to defend herself over and over where she was used to praise. "Every damned thing I did today was approved from on high and now they're ripping strips off me because it didn't go entirely to plan."
"'Didn't go –' People died, Moira, and not just Raven!" He was suddenly struck by the thought that he could be having this conversation with Erik, only Erik would take more responsibility for his actions. Only Erik would know better than to go after targets in a crowd of unpredictable humanity. "The last number the radio gave for fatalities was fifteen. Fifteen, Moira, and dozens more injured because you wanted a shot at the Brotherhood –"
"A shot? I wish." She shook her head. "I didn't get so much as one damned shot off at a target – was all over by the time I got clear of the observation post."
"It was your operation!"
"And don't I know it." She groaned and tipped her head back. "The only silver lining is that the Brotherhood will be taking the blame for today. The media has already been briefed, so –"
It was too much. He had worked with her for so long, trying to make a place in the world for mutants, and now they were being blamed for the failings of humans, used as scapegoats in a botched CIA op. Whatever crimes the Brotherhood might have committed, he didn't think that this could be counted amongst them. Moira still honestly believed that what she was doing was right, was necessary whatever the cost, but he –
"Whose shot was it?"
"If you didn't fire – who was it? With Raven? You said that she... that she was shot. Was it someone from here? One of your agents?" Charles swallowed hard and swiped at fresh tears. "Please don't tell me that it was one of Alex's people...."
Moira shook her head, her thought shading back towards sympathy. "Charles – you know that I can't tell you that."
"Can't you?" He met her eyes and reached out, reached in. He had to know....
"John Proudstar and your human agent, Connors," he breathed. "They were the ones who...." He took a deep breath. "The ones who killed...."
Moira narrowed her eyes at him. "How the hell –"
"The same way I knew who'd been killed – I'm a bloody telepath, remember?" Charles felt a sharp, visceral pleasure at the way she recoiled from him, one hand going to her head as if to press her thoughts back inside. Erik hadn't been far off the mark when he'd suggested that Moira saw him as a pet – Charles had long been aware that she considered him safe, constrained by his own self-inflicted morality. And maybe he had been, but now.... "I'm quite capable of finding out whatever the hell it is you don't want to tell me, and believe me, right now there's a lot that you don't want to tell me, isn't there? I can see it all just resting on the surface of your –"
He stopped as she slapped him, the blow rocking his chair on its thin tyres and setting his ears to ringing. "How dare you!"
"How dare I?" Charles choked back a laugh. "I'm not the one who's just got several dozen people killed and injured. Jesus, Moira – talk about no good deed going unpunished. Erik saved Bobby from a mob and you thought to use that against... oh god, Vance? Vance is dead? He was thirteen!"
"He was a volunteer!"
"He was one of my students, a child! He gave himself nosebleeds trying to use his telekinesis – how was he supposed to protect himself against a bullet?" It was all there, racing through her mind – the dead and the injured and the desperate need to succeed, to keep the facility running, to take the Brotherhood and their ilk out of the equation. She believed it, believed utterly that she was working to protect mutants here, to defend their future... but it was a future of her choosing and he didn't know who or what he was crying for any more as Moira struck him again, the blow driving him out of her thoughts and back into his body. "Oh, oh god...."
"Do that again, Charles, and so help me...." She was breathing hard, her thoughts frightened and frantic at the sudden reminder of what he was capable of. "I'm sorry for your loss, I am, but –"
"No you're not," he said roughly, pressing a hand against his reddened cheek. "Seventeen deaths and the only thing you're sorry for is that Erik wasn't one of them."
Moira closed her eyes for a moment, then leaned in, setting her hands against the arms of his chair. "You're right, I am sorry about that. Sorry that he's still breathing. Because he's a danger to us all, him and all that he represents."
Charles smiled sadly. "Moira, I don't think you even know what he represents any more. Only what your mind has made of him."
The look she gave him was venomous, but she straightened up stiffly and waked a few paces towards the door. "You're grieving, in shock – I can't expect you to be thinking straight. But even so... Charles, I'm not the enemy. I thought we both wanted the same things here."
"Maybe we did, once," he said, fighting the sudden sense of déjà vu – he had had this conversation once before, in another time and another place.... "Now – I don't know, Moira. I really don't."
"Finally, something that we can both agree on." She stared at him for a long moment, then looked away, shaking her head, and he could taste her emotions – exhaustion and frustration, anger and fear and a formless disgust. "I need to take a bath and make some phone calls. And you –" She glanced back at him as she reached for the door. "You need to have a long hard think about whose damned side you're on, Charles."
Yes, he thought to himself as she left, her retreating mind no less savage than Alex's had been. I rather think that I do.
~ # # # ~
Charles called them all together in the main lecture theatre after the evening meal, watching as the seats filled with curious and confused young mutants, their usual excited babble reduced to whispers. He could feel their concern, their fear – they knew that something had happened, something major, had either heard or heard rumour of the raised voices and angry accusations. Some no doubt knew what had happened, who had died, others merely that someone had. Rumour spread fast in as closed a community as the school and everybody was quite painfully aware of the nine who were missing, the ones who Moira had taken away with her before dawn that morning.
He was going to have to tell them that one of their number wouldn't be returning.
The younger Proudstar boy was there, whispering nervously to Warren, but his elder brother was still off being debriefed at Langley, for which Charles was grateful. He didn't think he could face him now, possibly not ever. Alex was standing at the back of the room with Sean, his expression closed and wary and his anger still palpable – and not only to Charles, if the nervous looks that Jean kept throwing him were anything to go by. The two Guthries, their newest recruits, sat together beside a scowling Lucia and a frightened Sally, while Angelica looked bereft without Tabitha at her side. Bobby was fidgeting and Julio was biting at his lip and Petra looked like she was about to cry and Charles wanted to protect them all so badly....
He just didn't know that he could any more. It seemed as though it was the lot of mutants to be in danger from all sides, no matter how hard he tried.
Moira had taken a position beside the door, leaning back against the wood panelling as she watched him with narrowed eyes. Hank stood with her and that... was not unexpected, much as Charles might wish otherwise. The scientist had been the CIA's long before he had been his. He looked unhappy, his sorrow clear, but then there had been a time when he had loved Raven too... had loved her without ever truly accepting her. It seemed that it had been a common problem. He wished – god, how he wished – that he had been able to give her the support she needed, but at least he had been able to give her the freedom to find herself. If she had stayed –
If she had stayed, then who knew what purpose Moira would have turned her abilities to?
It was time. Charles wheeled himself out to stop in front of the blackboard and the room hushed, all eyes focused on him. He looked around at the frightened, expectant faces of the students; at the concerned expressions of the Agency-employed lecturers; at the guarded features of those more active agents not currently at Langley. At Moira, who had created her ideal of a training regime and caused a massacre that she would never take responsibility for. This place and these people had been his life for so long now and he had tried, he had tried so hard....
"My apologies for pulling you all away from your studies," he said, fighting to keep his voice level as the tears threatened once more. "I know that this is unexpected, but these are... are unexpected times that we live in, as I'm sure you're all aware. Much as we've often tried to keep the harsher aspects of life from you, you are all intelligent and capable young people and I know that you've all found ways to keep abreast of current affairs." He glanced across at Bobby Drake. "Indeed, some of you have managed to become a part of them."
"It is my sad duty to...." He took a deep breath, tried again. "I regret to have to inform you that today... today's incident in Washington DC did involve some of the people from this school and that one of them, Vance Astrovik, was sadly killed in the disturbance, shot by one of the protestors." He stopped as they took that in, the gasps and soft sounds of denial lost in the emotional shockwave that slammed against him. He rode it out, wondering if the Brotherhood had grieved Raven in the same way, if they had received the news with the same spontaneous tears and desperate disbelief. He hoped that they had. "Obviously, this is a shock to you all, I know – Vance was a popular young man who was working hard to master his gifts and his loss will be... will be keenly felt."
He was crying again, Charles realised, hot tears flowing freely down his cheeks – for Vance, for Raven, for the dream that he'd thought he'd been building. "I want... want you to know that I am proud of each and every one of you. I am proud of who you are and what you are and what each of you has the potential to be. Each of you is special, is unique, is gifted beyond the dreams of the majority and that is your blessing and it is also your curse because there are those who will fear you, as today has so tragically proved. And there are those who would use you, to harness your abilities for their own ends."
Moira's mind was a beacon of building fury but there was nothing that she could do here, no way to stop him without his message becoming all the more obvious. "Your lives and your choices are your own," Charles continued, drawing strength from his own anger, his own grief. "This facility is run by the CIA and I don't doubt that many of you will choose to sign up with them as a career. But it is not the only option available and you should never be afraid of following your own path, of being true to your own desires – whether those desires lead you into the Agency or the military or the workplace or the Brotherhood, who seem to have been rather more sinned against than sinning in recent weeks." There was a ripple of reaction to that, as he had expected here to be, and he reached out, brushing gently against their minds as he said, "Whatever road you choose, let it be your choice. Never just simply accept the roles that others would force you into."
He stopped for a moment, wiping away the tears, then composed himself and looked back up. "I am proud of you and I have faith that you will make the right choice for yourselves. And I hope that you have faith in me to, well, to do the same." He smiled, a little shakily. "Now, you're free to go – I'm sure that you all have a lot to think about tonight. I know that I certainly do."
The students filed out, clearly distressed, some sobbing and clinging to one another; Bobby looked distraught, no doubt realising how lucky his own escape had been. The Agency personnel followed them, speaking in low voices as they disappeared into the corridor, their thoughts concerned. Alex was one of the last to leave, throwing Charles a knowing look as he paused at the door, his anger now tempered by something more thoughtful, considered.
Charles allowed himself a small, sad smile – whatever came next, it seemed that he wouldn't be facing it alone.
Moira, predictably, waited until everybody else had gone before making her way across to where Charles still sat, Hank following on her heels like an over-sized blue dog. "Just what the hell was that about?" she snapped, although exhaustion was starting to take the edge off of her anger. "It's all very encouraging, I'm sure, but if the Supreme Court verdict goes in Froelich's favour, then their choices will be severely reduced. You're selling them false hope."
"Am I?" He looked at her bitterly. "The decision might not go his way, you know. And if it does... well, I suppose they'll still have the choice between the Agency and the Brotherhood, won't they?"
She stiffened, and for a moment he thought that she was going to slap him again. Instead, it was Hank who said, "Professor, they're safe here. That's what you wanted, remember? The Brotherhood... look at what happened to Raven." Hank shook his shaggy head unhappily. "Would you really want that to happen to any of the others?"
"No. But I wouldn't wish Vance's fate on any of them either, and he was supposed to be under the Agency's protection." Charles released his brakes and set his hands on his wheels. "It seems to me as though none of us are safe."
"Safer here than anywhere else," Moira said impatiently. "Raven was the first but she won't be the last. We have to show that we're making a stand against mutant terrorism and if that means –"
"Not now," Charles interrupted, holding up a hand. "Just... not now. I'll talk to you about this in the morning but tonight I just want to be alone. My sister is dead, and whatever the circumstances, I – I need to grieve for her. I'm sure that you can understand that?"
"Of course," Hank said before Moira could open her mouth, his thoughts confused but sympathetic. "It must be hard for you."
"It is. But it's also made a few things clearer." Charles shook his head and wiped away fresh tears with his fingers. "I'm sorry, but I really need to –"
Moira gazed at him for a long moment, then reluctantly stepped aside. "Tomorrow morning," she said, making it sound like a threat. "I'll come to your rooms after breakfast. We have a lot to talk about."
"I know." He turned his chair around and wheeled himself down the ramp out through the door that lay beyond, making for his rooms as quickly as he could. He had a sister to mourn.
And an escape to plan.
~ # # # # # ~
Their entrance does not go unnoticed.
There is a ripple of reaction through those waiting for the Court's decision, through the lawyers and the journalists and the clerks and politicians and the vested interests as they are led past the marble columns and the carefully arranged chairs at the rear of the room. Those closest try to pull away in fear, torn between fleeing this mutant threat and wanting to cling to their hard-won positions. The one finds this amusing; the other, educational.
It seems that even they are not so terrifying as to stand in the way of witnessing history.
The clerk leads them to the side, where they might have the clearest view of the bench, then scuttles away in clear relief. The one sets his back to the wall, grateful for a defensive position; the other scans the crowd, tasting the emotions – fear and anticipation, confidence and concern – and seeking out....
She is there, as they knew she would be, seated on one of the long benches in neat skirt and sensible shoes. She looks haggard, tired, but they feel no sympathy – not here, not now. Not ever. Her eyes are wide as she draws her gun, bringing it up in one smooth and practiced motion, and they know that she thinks herself prepared, thinks herself ready. They know that she is wrong.
The one turns to smile at her, knowing that all she sees is the shot as she unerringly aims for his unprotected head... forgetting that her own is no more guarded. The other slides in behind her eyes, sharp as a knife, and stabs deep, twists hard. She gasps and staggers, sinking back into her seat and sightlessly opening the gun's chamber to spill silver-grey ceramic bullets across the marble floor, rolling away to be lost beneath the feet of her fellows.
Nobody else moves.
"We're not here to fight," the one tells them as the other leaves her blinking in mute confusion, helpless and harmless, humiliated.
"We just want to know."
~ # # # # # ~
The bedside lamp cast its small pool of yellow light across the empty covers, an oasis of illumination amidst the shadows of the room. Charles sat in his wheelchair and stared at the brightly-lit pillows with sleepy fascination, his mind starting to drift with exhaustion. He felt drained from grief, but the desperate raging tears of hours earlier had finally given way to a sense of numb defeat, of loss, and he wasn't quite certain how much of that had to do with Raven and how much with the suitcase sitting packed and ready beside his chair.
The clock on the wall ticked quietly past 3am and Charles allowed himself a moment of concern – he had been so certain that he would receive another late-night visit, so sure that Erik would come to share his grief and try to recruit him once more. But the Brotherhood would be grieving for one of their own, one whose presence wasn't just a five year old memory, and that would be distraction enough to keep them away. And if they did come, the chances were that it would be in anger, an active assault on Moira and her team, the ones who had killed Raven and sparked a massacre and then blamed it all on their intended prey....
But no, no, not so close to the culmination of the Froelich case. It was more likely by far that they would simply not come at all.
He was still fretting some ten minutes later, when Erik arrived in a blast of displaced air, his teleporter at his side. The demonic mutant looked oddly sickly in the lamplight, his crimson skin an unnatural shade of pink, but Charles got barely the briefest of looks before the man turned away and was gone with a flick of his long tail and a pulse of indescribable sorrow.
And then there was just him and Erik and Raven's ghost.
"Charles?" No helmet this time, though the plain black clothes were otherwise the same. He crouched down beside the chair and laid a hand on top of the case. "What's this?"
"What you wanted," Charles said roughly. "Of course, I imagine that you're probably wondering what I pulled out of your head the last time you were here, if I was the one who...." He took a deep breath, scrubbing at his eyes as tears threatened anew. "Oh god, Erik, I can't do this anymore! I thought –"
"I know it wasn't you." Erik caught Charles's hands in his own. "If you'd meant us harm, I wouldn't have left this place the last time. And if you'd pulled the information from my head, then MacTaggert wouldn't have been fishing like she was – she would have been far more focused. There were three concurrent incidents staged but only one of them was observed – by us, at least. That was the one that killed Myst-" He stopped, squeezed Charles's hands. "That killed Raven. If you had taken the details from me, there would have been five attacks and I wouldn't be here having this conversation with you."
"Right, right." Charles reached out, tentatively brushing against the edges of Erik's mind and feeling his grief, as raw and as desperate as his own. The old need for revenge had returned... yet was held in check by the acknowledgement that this was a situation more complex than his hunt for his mother's murderer had been.
And by the acceptance that Charles had a far better claim on vengeance than he did this time around.
"You're joining us?" Erik said after a long moment. "I'm glad. I only wish that –"
"That I'd done it when she was still alive? Believe me, so do I." Charles sighed and pulled his hands back from Erik's. "All that time wasted, and for what? To find that in the end, you were right all along...."
"You should have come with me, on that beach in Cuba," Erik said, pushing himself back up to his feet in one fluid movement. "If you had –"
"No." Charles shook his head. "If I had... no, despite everything, it's better that it happened this way. That I saw it for myself, that I tried. That I failed. In this at least." He sighed. "I still believe that coexistence is possible – I'll never stop believing that – but not on these terms. In this, my friend, you seem to have the right of it – they're pushing for identification, for registration, whatever the Froelich verdict turns out to be. The legislation is already in process."
Erik frowned. "You went into MacTaggert's mind?"
"Yes, but not for that – she told me." He laughed tiredly. "She thought that I'd welcome it."
"A way to keep us safe, to weed out undesirable elements?" Erik snorted. "I've heard it all before."
"I know." Charles looked down at his hands. "Stupid, isn't it?" he said, his tone bitter. "I really thought that I could make a difference here... but in the end, I'm just a government lackey who hasn't been able to do a damned thing except sell his children into slavery...."
"You're doing something now."
"I guess I am. I just hope it's the right thing." He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. "Did she... did Raven ever –"
"Speak of you? All the time." A sigh. "You infuriated her and disappointed her, but you were her family, her brother and her parent and her friend. She loved you and she worried about you constantly." Erik smiled sadly. "I guess that that's in the nature of families."
There was something in the way that he said it.... "You loved her too."
"Of course I did." Erik sat on the edge of the bed, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "She was the first of them to embrace who she was, to step out of the shadows and see what I was trying to do. She was brave and she was beautiful and she got me through that first year almost despite myself. But I wasn't in love with her, if that's what you mean." He looked at Charles sadly. "That was Azazel. It was his child she was carrying."
Charles stared at him in shock. "She was pregnant?"
"Four months gone," Erik said heavily. "She was just starting to show. We were all looking forward to it, believe it or not – even Emma, for all that she'd deny it to her dying breath. She would have had to stay in one of the safehouses for a while, withdrawn from field operations, but we could have...." He trailed off and shook his head. "She shouldn't have been out there today. But it was only surveillance and she insisted...."
"She would," Charles whispered, feeling the horror and the grief wash over him once more. His sister was dead, murdered by the very people he had put himself in league with. His sister, the girl he had found so many years before, wearing his mother's face as she stole food from the kitchen of this very building because she'd had no other choice. His sister, whom he had loved but had never really understood, not in the way that Erik had....
His sister, who he would never see again.
Charles squeezed his eyes closed against his tears. "A child," he murmured. "I would have been an uncle."
"I told you that she had things she wanted to tell you." Erik ran his hands down over his face, looking older than his years in the lamplight. "She knew that the life we lead is dangerous, accepted it. What we are... we're none of us going to die of old age. It's the price we pay to protect our people."
"She was trying to protect Tabitha," Charles said softly, remembering what he had pulled from Moira's mind. "She thought she was defending a young mutant in the same way that you protected Bobby in New York. She couldn't have known that the girl was bait."
"Do you want MacTaggert dead?" Erik asked. "Just say the word and I'll make her suffer for what she's done."
"No, no killing." Charles felt the edge of exasperation threading through Erik's thoughts and smiled through his tears. "No, I'm not being squeamish here, my friend. Killing's too quick."
"It needn't be...."
"I don't doubt your ability to prolong matters, Erik, but if you want her to truly suffer, then there are far better ways." He took a deep breath, trying to find the words... then gave up and simply pressed it all into Erik's mind, the context and the significance of what he wanted to do, the effect it would have on the facility, on Moira.
Erik smiled, a slow peeling back of lips that Charles never wanted to see aimed at him in anger. "Agreed. Do what you need to."
Charles nodded and reached out, his thoughts skipping over minds asleep and awake and somewhere between. Some he coaxed into wakefulness, others he sent down deep, one he found alert and ready and relieved by the summons. When he was done, he opened his eyes and felt strangely light, as though a burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
There would be new burdens to deal with, of course – the Brotherhood might have spent months as observers, but they would return to more direct action soon enough and he and Erik would revisit all of the old arguments again. And yet... he would rather fight with Erik than with Moira. Erik at least saw him as an equal....
"How long?" Erik asked, pulling Charles from his thoughts as he glanced towards the bedroom door.
"Twenty minutes," Charles told him. "Outside on the east lawn."
Erik nodded... then reached out to take Charles's hand again. "You're sure?"
"Yes." He tightened his fingers briefly around Erik's. "I'm sure. Except –"
"There's something that I need to take with us." He released Erik's hand and started towards the door that led through to his office; it swung silently open before he reached it, the lamp on his desk switching itself on as he wheeled himself through. It had been easier to adapt these rooms as a suite, Hank had told him five years before, giving him an easily accessible bathroom attached to his workspace, and he had seen the logic in that, had been grateful for the thought that had gone into it. But he had also quickly realised that it kept him contained within his own home, his work and his injury conspiring to make him spend most of his time in these few – admittedly well-appointed – rooms. His days seemed to consist of wheeling himself between bedroom, bathroom and office, with occasional journeys out to take meals and classes or to sit on the patio and look out over the grounds, but somehow his once far-roaming life had shrunk down to a few hundred square yards of ground level Westchester. He could barely even remember the last time that he had left the facility's grounds.
Gilded cage, indeed.
He stopped at his desk, opening the bottom drawer and pulling out a comb-bound folder with a blue cardstock cover. "Cerebro readings," he said, "everything we have to date. It's not the only copy, obviously, but we should be able to use it for recruitment."
"Beat them at their own game?" Erik flipped through the pages, then nodded. "Anything else?"
He thought about his family home, of the inheritance that would be lost to him, of the generations of Xaviers who had gone before, now immortalised in the paintings that lined the panelled walls. But it had, in truth, all been lost to him years before, appropriated by the government and leaving him with nothing but his name and his pride.
And his memories. Raven was everywhere here, each room containing some trace of their childhoods, when they had been alone in the world and excited for what the future might bring....
"No," he said roughly. "Nothing else."
Turning his chair around, Charles found himself looking across at the suit of armour standing guard beside the drinks cabinet, lost in shadow but for where its polished plates reflected the lamplight. It wasn't real, of course, was no more than a 19th century reproduction built for show, but for a brief moment he wished that he shared Erik's gift, imagining himself invulnerable behind its plated steel, his useless legs no hindrance as he lifted himself with a thought....
"If you want it, it can be done," Erik murmured.
Charles started – he hadn't realised that his thoughts were so obvious. The armour abruptly disassembled itself, the pieces silently lifting, parting, rotating in mid-air. "Care would need to be taken, of course, with those parts that you cannot feel," Erik said, his mind alive with design possibilities, the best ways to adjust and reform, "but it could be adapted...."
"A pleasant thought, my friend." Charles watched as a steel gauntlet was broken down into its constituent parts, a fragmentary swarm of shadow and shine. "But I have no great desire to go from being a prisoner of the CIA to a prisoner of yours. I might have no great love for the chair, but at least I can move under my own steam while I'm in it."
Erik looked at him thoughtfully, pieces of metal circling around him. "You're a telepath, Charles," he said, reaching up to tap his temple. "Can you use your gift to access mine?"
"I –" Charles frowned, turning the thought over in his mind, then reached tentatively out, brushing his mind gently against Erik's as he felt the contours of his thoughts, felt all of his sorrow and joy and determination, the desire the return something once taken. There was a moment of hesitation, of something that wasn't quite fear... and then Erik's mind opened to him once more, fierce and strong and full of hidden depths that might drown the unwary. What is it that you would show me, my friend?
A spark of impatience. "Lift your arms."
"Why?" Charles asked, doing as he was bidden. Steel slid in, wrapping itself around his cardigan sleeves, his chest, forming against his body. He expected it to be cool, to be stiff... but instead it was more a warm, fluid embrace, somehow pulsing with its own unique signature as it settled around him. He could feel Erik's touch within and without as he examined the silvery plate, could sense the concentration focused on him as he flexed his arms, surprised at the freedom of movement. "Impressive," he said, "but this is still all your doing, Erik. The control here isn't mine. Gold or iron, a cage is still a cage."
"For now." Erik frowned, considering. "There was a time when my use of my abilities was very much a conscious effort, but as I grew to understand them, to fully utilise them, they became instinctive. If you could somehow tap into that subconscious part with your power, perhaps you could access mine?"
"Perhaps," he said, turning the thought over in his mind. The trust required would be immense... but it was trust that was required on both sides and the first step had already been taken. "But what happens when you put that helmet of yours on?"
"I do have more than one, you know." Erik walked around him slowly, admiration and pride shining in his mind over the endless pulsing core of sorrow, sorrow, sorrow. "It's a part of the image I need to project but some are simply painted metal. Frost isn't purely decorative, you know."
"Perhaps," Charles said again, but he wanted....
He wanted to be gone from this place. The rest they could deal with later.
The metal was gone again as they left the house, Charles steering himself out through the doors that led onto the patio as Erik walked beside him with his case. A half-moon hung low over the trees, its light illuminating the lawn where Alex waited with some forty five of the others, the ones who had reacted with quiet longing when Charles had suggested joining the Brotherhood. He smiled to see them – Sean and Jean and Bobby, Lucia and Warren and Angelica and more. The Guthries stood together, wide-eyed and nervous, while Doug and Julio whispered to one another, staring at Erik as he set the case down. Jimmy looked torn, but his mind was certain, and Charles felt a flush of pride and sorrow for him.
Sometimes, he knew, a separation was necessary if one sibling was to step out of another's shadow. He just hoped that Jimmy's story would have a happier ending than Raven's had.
"Is this everyone?" Alex asked, jogging over to them with Sean following behind. "Damn, but what I wouldn't give to see MacTaggert's face when she realises we've cleared out...." He stopped, looking Erik up and down, then held out a hand. "I'd say it's good to have you back, man, but given that we're going with you...."
Charles smiled sadly to himself at their reunion, wishing that it could have been under better circumstances. But this was who they were now, five years older and a lifetime wiser, with two of their original six lost to the CIA in one way or another. He looked up at the house, his home... but that had been lost too, years before. What he took with him tonight was far more precious to him than bricks and mortar could ever be.
He suspected that Moira might agree. He damned well hoped so.
Erik leaned against the back of Charles's chair, gazing up at the mansion as Alex and Sean went to organise the others. "Will you miss it?"
"No." Charles sighed. "So what now, my friend? History is happening around us and it seems that we're expected to be caught up in its flow one way or another. Sink or swim. Even the Supreme Court has already made its decision on Froelich – it just hasn't announced it yet."
"Expected, but not destined." Erik's thoughts shaded with a sudden determination. "You know, I told Bobby Drake that he had a right to know what the humans intended for him, that he had a right to be a witness to history. I think it's only fair that we witness a little history of our own...."
Charles looked up at him. "The Froelich verdict?"
"Why not? It affects us all. It's only right that there are representatives of the mutant cause there and who better than us?"
"You want to gatecrash the Supreme Court?"
"Of course." Erik raised an eyebrow, the challenge shining clear in his mind. "Don't you?"
Charles was still smiling at that thought when the teleporter returned and his old life dissolved into a flash of black and red and the warmth of Erik's hand in his.
~ # # # # # ~
The tension hangs heavy in the air, filling the great chamber as the watchers shift in their seats. The one can feel their fear, the ancient itch in the hindbrain that alerts to the presence of a predator, that reduces them all to sheep before wolves. The moment holds, stretches -
And breaks with the sound of wood cracking hard against wood.
The Court rises to its feet as one, an uneasy truce settling as the Marshal bangs his gavel once more to announce the entrance of the Justices. The black-clad men take their seats like so many crows on a polished mahogany fence, shifting and settling as the Chief Justice emerges, tall and severe and imposing in dark robes and silvered hair, in the solid certainty of his choice.
His gaze seeks them out, the one and the other, bright in their colours. A nod of brief acknowledgement, an acceptance of their presence....
And that is when they know.
The Court settles, attention shifting forward as it becomes clear that proceedings will continue despite the uninvited guests. There is a shuffling of papers, an indrawing of breath as the Chief Justice pushes his glasses up his nose and looks around.
"In the matter of the State of Ohio versus Franklin J. Froelich, it is the opinion of this Court that...."
~ # # # ~
They linger after, letting the sheep scatter before them, making good their escape. The clerks move around nervously but with less fear than before, familiarity and circumstance lending them a certain bravery as they clear the room and then scuttle away.
They ignore them. They have much to consider.
It was the decision of the Supreme Court that while the evolutionary status of mutants remained uncertain, they were considered to be persons in the eyes of the law and as such had rights protected under the Fourteenth Amendment. Froelich would spend the rest of his days behind bars, a convicted murderer and an example to all those who would follow his lead.
It should feel like a victory.
"The slaughter has been averted," murmurs the one. He reaches to touch the other, mind brushing against mind, all care and comfort. "The battle has been won."
"For now." The other gazes at the empty bench. "But they'll have their registration laws within the year and the road to hell is ever paved with good intentions. The war has barely started."
The one has no answer to that – they both know what welcome awaits them without, the amnesty extending no further than these walls. He draws back, separating them a layer at a time until only the finest of threads remains, the one that he needs to support himself. He thinks of his sister, of his patchwork family, of all that they have still to do....
And of a friendship rediscovered and a purpose redefined.
Charles smiles and takes Erik's hand as he calls for Azazel.
It won't be easy. But they are stronger together than apart.