When the first bomb hit, no one really expected it. The consensus was that if anything world widely catastrophic would happen, it would be Erik’s fault or at least one of Shaw’s followers. No one suspected that the humans would be the guilty ones. Somehow the Cold War changed into a real one over night and both Europe and America became wastelands of nuclear warfare. As far as one could see, there was nothing but ruins and bodies and more bodies.
Shaw was wrong. Mutants wouldn’t become stronger.
Some of them, the lucky ones, survived, their powers steadily growing. Most of them died. Erik looked over what was once Washington D.C and saw only death.
The end is nigh indeed.
They all noticed changes in their powers. Erik could feel the magnetic north of the Earth more clearly than ever. Iron in people’s blood sung to him and every metal he touched, melted under his fingers into any shape he desired without any effort at all.
Not everyone was as lucky as he was. They hardly ever saw Azazel anymore, there one second and gone another. His powers were erratic at best, chaotic at worst. Sometimes, when the man went back from wherever his teleportation took him, he had the look of a man that just wants it all to end. None of them would do the deed though.
They were so few of them left. They didn’t want to lose anyone else.
It became clear quite early on that severe radiation poisoning was only one of the things Shaw didn’t think about. The other one was food and water. There was practically nothing left for them to use as sustenance and before they found little Ororo, it was almost certain that soon they would join the land of the dead.
She controlled weather and although Erik was sure her powers weren’t supposed to be awoken at the tender age of five, the radiation sped up the process. She was lost and alone, and reminded him so much of what Charles believed in once upon a time that it became a constant dull ache in his chest.
At first he didn’t know if they could help her, or even use her powers in any way. He just took her in so he could die doing something partially good. He tried to help her take control of her powers and she learned quickly. Despite her appearance, she wasn’t a child anymore and he hurt for her lost childhood. Others sneered at him for being soft.
They stopped when it became apparent that if she makes it rain and he flies up to collect the water before it became contaminated, it would be one less thing to worry about. One more thing to help them survive.
He left the Brotherhood behind after one too many squabbles over who they should help and who not. He remembered how he thought about humans and cringed from the realization that everything they went through was for naught; that Charles was right from the start. Nothing was more humbling for men than the End of the World and Erik had seen enough death of humans and mutants alike in the last months to know that there’s not much difference between them. Not enough for it to count now. Raven went with him, because he’s the only one anymore who she counted as a friend. Azazel went with them too, more from the affection for Raven than anything, but it didn’t matter much, as he was still more absent than present.
Their group wasn’t small though. Somehow along the way he found himself surrounded by young mutants, none of them older than fourteen. He tried to teach them to control their powers, his mind flashing continuously back to their time in Westchester when he and Charles taught the boys to use their powers. All the children welcome their lessons, eager to learn how to use their gifts, and even more welcoming for the distractions it provided from the world around them.
Ororo was the first to master her gift enough to use it sufficiently and he’s as proud of her as if she was his own daughter. Sometimes he felt like a teacher on a field trip with his class, the children’s number close to an actual school class, and he wanted to laugh at the irony. He ran away from Charles’ school, never wanting to become a teacher and here he was, being one despite everything. Sometimes he dwelled on the possibility that his little group would be the only chance he’d ever get to have a family and he didn’t feel like laughing anymore.
The Brotherhood celebrated, because for them that war meant victory. He didn’t join them, because he knew how far off the mark they were. This was not a victory for anyone, it was pure death and he couldn’t help but be reminded of the piles and piles of bodies from years before, when he was just a child, helpless and weak. He didn’t think he would ever feel like that again, but it was clear that he couldn’t do anything now. He couldn’t save or help anyone. He had a collection of cans and bottled water in the chest under his bed, a habit he couldn’t break since war and he’s grateful for it now.
It wouldn’t last for long but it was sustenance. It’d have to do for now. And later, he would see. He had no intention of dying. When Raven passed him a bottle of wine with a grin, full of white teeth contrasting her azure skin, he accepted it. He’s not toasting Shaw’s victory, he’s mourning the death of the world when they had even the slight chance of peace.
He said to Charles that peace wasn’t an option for him. It didn’t mean he didn’t want it for anyone else. He didn’t want it to be a premonition.
Mort was the first to get sick and all the children started keeping away from him, no matter how much they liked him before. Erik would like to tell them not to do that, the boy was already miserable with how he was, but he couldn’t do that with a clear conscience. He didn’t know what the sickness was, but he was aware that it couldn’t be good. He didn’t want anyone else to catch it. The precaution was for nothing as they could only watch when one after another of the kids fell victim to the fever and shivers that prevented them from walking.
They were forced to stay in an abandoned warehouse for a week, even if it wasn’t safe. He and Raven tended to the small ones as much as they could under the circumstances. He was only grateful it didn’t befall one of them.
After a week they started walking again. The children were still weak, but able to go further. There were only nine of them now.
The day he found fourteen year old Scott Summers was the day he finally noticed the alien sheen to Raven’s skin that wasn’t there before. She admitted to him in secret that when she remembers someone, it’s hard for her to keep up her natural form and not become them. She said she’s afraid one day she won’t be strong enough and she’ll get lost in other people’s identities. He fed the boy from one of their last cans of baked beans and spent the entire night keeping watch and reshaping scrap metal he found on the way.
He offered Raven twin bracelets, thick and heavy for her wrists, reassuring that if she’d ever get lost, he’d know who she really was and would bring her back, no matter what. She was dubious they’d stand her change and he challenged her to try. No matter what form she took, they stayed, metallic and shiny, around her wrists, sparkling in the early morning sun. She looked at him in wonder and he smiled with teeth stained with blood from exertion and admitted he changed the scrap metal into vibranium, the only metal he even knew that could withstand any mutant power.
She flung her arms around him and sobbed into his neck for a long moment, in gratitude or just pouring everything out finally, he wasn’t sure. She needed that though, and she was the only one who he considered a friend amongst all of them, so he held her back and let her be.
They found an abandoned government research facility and went in, in search of supplies and maybe safe place for the night. They found several bodies laying around on the floor in various states of decomposition, but most of them rotten and stinky already. Little Jean didn’t even bat an eyelash, just levitated them outside into the hole that Scott made with his laser beams. It was a hard work, teaching the boy to control his power enough to be able to keep his eyes open without destroying everything he saw, but they managed it after months of hard practice. They couldn’t afford not to.
There were days when Erik ached for these children’s innocence, but this was not one of these days. They found water and food deep in the building, and Raven stumbled across the room full of medical supplies. Walls were thick and they could be barricaded enough that all of them could go to sleep and not worry about being attacked. It was a good day and the children were happy enough to chatter excitedly and play with each other. He and Raven smiled across the room and he could feel that maybe, one day, they would find some long-earned peace. If not for them, then for these children.
It’s not even a month from the explosion when they stumbled across the pack of what they would later dub Wraiths. The creatures looked like something that might once have been human, but it died and chunks of it went missing. Their sunken eyes looked at Erik’s group carefully as if gauging what they were, as if they were the ones looking grotesque in that situation. Something inside Erik, maybe his preservation instincts honed even since he was a young boy hiding under the floorboards of the house in Poland, screamed at him to run, to run and never look back.
Before he could say anything, Janos stepped forward, cocky and self-assured as always and made a gesture to use his powers to sweep their way from the creatures. They didn’t even have the time to blink before the monsters were upon the man, biting into his flesh and ripping the skin and muscle from his bones. Raven’s fingers felt like vice around his arm and reaching for Azazel’s hand was the only thing that might have saved them all that day. Janos’ screams echoed in their ears for days afterwards and they made sure to always be on their watch, not feeling as safe in their surroundings as they were before.
In retrospect, Erik was glad that their powers hadn’t been fluctuating like they were later. If Azazel wasn’t there, they would all be dead.
Azazel didn’t come back and they find his mutilated, half-eaten body in one of the contaminated streams. Erik had an urge to cover children’s eyes, but he knows they’ve seen worse already, even before he found them.
Raven cried and they built him a shallow, mostly metal grave. No one mentioned him again after that.
When Emma told him she couldn’t go on with them, he was surprised. She didn’t look fazed by anything that was happening, and although he noticed her not celebrating with the rest when the bombs went off, he thought it was more a matter of pride than anything else. He should have just let her go, but in the time they spent together, she became something of his second in command and he didn’t want to lose her now, when they needed each other the most.
She explained to him the agony she felt when everything alive around her was passing away slowly and not even her diamond form could save her from hearing the screams of the dying. He looked at her levelly for a long time and in the end nodded. There were no gestures of friendship or loyalty, she nodded back at him and went away into the night. It could be hours or minutes before he heard the snap of bones and had to wake everyone up. Wraiths were close, and for now, they had a meal, but they should be far away when they finished with it.
They were still weak and in no state to fight when the Wraiths attacked. They didn’t expect the attack, not in the middle of the day, when the sun still shone brightly over the wastelands they were walking through. Wraiths were creatures of night, of darkness, when the still mostly radioactive sunrays couldn’t touch them anymore. Erik wondered if the fact that they became active during the day was due to them getting stronger or maybe to the fact that ozone layer was healing itself, becoming thick and safe veil for life on surface again. He really hoped it was the latter.
None of them thought about the fact that these creatures were human once upon a time. That the only reason they became these hungry caricatures of life was because they were simple humans, ones without any powers, any genetic protection from the radiation so thick in the air at the start of this nightmare. To start on this path would be to court madness, and they had enough reasons for it to walk after them.
So they didn’t think, they fought and they tried their best to just survive. Wraiths were quick and strong, inhumanly so, but his little group wasn’t a group of humans.
It still wasn’t enough.
Something that might have been a woman at some point had crying Scott in its talons, its jaw opening impossibly wide to consume him whole, when there was a piercing scream that made them all curl on the ground, covering their ears. Fortunately, it had the same effect on Wraiths or they would be in deep trouble. He tried to look around for the source of the noise, but after the sound came the blinding light and heat, so much heat, and he just had an irrational moment to think about another wave of bombs before the darkness consumed him.
When he came to, everyone was laying on a scorched earth, unharmed besides occasional singing of clothes. Wraiths were just ash scattered on the wind by now and he crawled to the limp Scott and checked his pulse, almost sobbing with relief at the feel of steady beat under his fingers. He gathered the sleeping boy to him and closed his eyes, not knowing what happened, but being oh so grateful for that.
They all stayed curled on that black piece of ground for an entire day before anyone of them had enough courage to get up and start walking again.
It’s around a year after the first bomb when they came across the steel ruins. At first they thought there was some sort of machine inside, the rhythmic bumps and thumps coming from inside sounded like metal hitting metal. It’s only when they started a fireplace and there were howls added to the cacophony that they realized something was wrong.
It’s a short work for Erik these days to reach out with his powers; expanding his sense and feeling like finally getting free, outstretching his wings towards the sky and flying; and pull all the metal up, thousands of debris floating above their heads. The children squealed and laughed at the display and Raven stood at his arm, trying to find a source of the noise before.
They finally spotted it between them, limp body floating between scrap metal, somehow still held up by Erik’s powers. He frowned and felt out the reason why and opened his mouth in surprise when he could feel skeleton-shaped figure. The twitch of his fingers brought the person down to the ground and after a moment of thought, he brought the debris around them, putting up the make-shift fence that would hopefully pose some protection against night-dwellers.
The person didn’t move at first and they didn’t approach it. You never knew if someone would be friendly enough or not and there was no reason for the risk. It woke up after an hour and the first thing it did was to throw itself bodily on the wall, apparently not noticing that it wasn’t imprisoned anymore. Erik blinked at the memory clawing its way to the surface of his mind while he looked at the half-wild man trying to make his way out of their little camp.
Only when the man finally turned did he recognize that face, a memory of the bar in the middle of nowhere, cigar smoke heavy in the air and the beer looking more like piss than like a proper alcohol, someone dear at his side and the man’s gravelly voice insulting them at the same time as refusing to go with them. He offered the man his half-finished can of beans and this time he gets him to stay.
He woke up with a scream still fresh in his throat, the sound leaving a sour metallic taste on his tongue. No one around him stirred, all of them used to nightmares of their companions. Only Angel, standing watch today turned to him for a moment, making sure it wasn’t an alarm call.
He didn’t remember what the dream was about, if it was a nightmare or a vision that under any other circumstances would be happy and welcomed. All he remembered was a pair of strong hands, pale fingers twined with his, and a smile of bowed lips. He wanted to lean close and taste that smile, but then there was nothing, only ash in the air, choking him in his waking hours.
He didn’t remember the name of a person from his dream, he didn’t remember if he should remember, but at the moment of waking, he felt a loss, so deep and painful that for a moment he could not catch a breath, visions of fire and death and monsters dancing under his closed eyelids.
He asked Raven in the morning if she missed […]. She didn’t answer, avoiding his eyes and curling upon herself, which was answer enough for him. It was a day he turned their group in a different direction than till now, Raven’s puzzled, but grateful gaze following him for hours afterwards.
For some reason the Wraiths hadn’t attacked them since that fateful day with a fire. He didn’t know exactly what it was that saved them and he’s almost as wary of it as he was about their attackers in the first place, which didn’t help any really. It just meant he was strung up on something else than flesh eating monsters. Something that defeated those monsters, when he knew for a fact that nothing else before could.
There was no power between them that could have stopped them, not even now when they’re so much more powerful than they were before. He still remembers Emma’s yells and Riptide’s surprised face when he was torn to pieces by claws and fangs sharp enough to pierce diamonds.
Children of the Atom alright. Only that the Atom didn’t mutate humans to make them mutants, it made them into these creatures, mindless with hunger and rage. Erik wasn’t afraid of many things, but they terrified him more than anything. Not only for him, but for children and Raven, people who were his little family now. He didn’t want any of them to get hurt.
But what defeated the monsters- that is what gave him pause. No one knew what that was. Only that it was powerful and deadly. It looked as if it was on their side, but for how long. He should be preparing for the time when it would stop being their ally, but he didn’t know how. How do you prepare to fight something you don’t even know?
Jean found a flower. It’s hardly anything impressive, a little white bloom peeking from under the fallen car. But it’s the first thing they’ve seen alive in almost a year. They’re almost afraid to breathe on it in fear it’d dissipate in the air or just die for some unfathomable reason.
They ended up leaving it without even touching it. That first sight of green after the explosion. He kept smiling absently to himself as they went, despite Raven’s gentle teasing. The Earth was healing. It’s slowly getting back to its natural state, blooming green again. He couldn’t wait to see gardens again. He’d wait for it to happen years if he had to.
Flying was something he never considered he’d be able to do with his set of skills. He had power over metal which hardly seemed like something that may take him skyward. It was only after his boost in power that he realized that his powers were not mastery of metals, but of magnetic fields. It opened so many possibilities to him that it made him dizzy to think about it too much. He knew his powers were the most precious part of him, something that had been defining him even before Shaw discovered him.
(He wished […] could be with him to share the joy of discovery.)
It happened accidentally. One moment he was explaining to Raven how she should put up defensive walls, both of them joking and laughing, enjoying one of the easier moments of the lives they had now. Next he knew, he was levitating inches above the ground, still holding onto Raven’s hand. She grinned at him and he grinned back, even though he wasn’t sure what was happening and even if it was a good thing. They stopped laughing when he fell a minute later, landing squarely on the wall they just built.
He practiced and he finally mastered the art of levitation. Earth’s magnetic fields bent to his will, just as well as the one around him. It was heady, this amount of power, and he didn’t know what he would do if he was in any other situation.
Something inside told him that he better not question it, that the answer that displeased him was more likely than any other. He liked to think he was a better man, but he knew it untrue. If he was he wouldn’t-
He found a bunker deep in the ground. He didn’t know if it was empty or not or if it was worth it to even open it, but food was becoming scarce and the sources from which to get it even more so. To pass something that might contain uncontaminated supplies would be stupid. The latch opened easily enough and he lowered himself down with the help of Azazel, the flashlight illuminating inside of the room enough for him to see.
It was their last flashlight soon they’d have to do with fire and powers of theirs that gave some illumination. It would be good to find a new light. The beam passed something lying on the floor and he backtracked, moving his arm over the area. There were three bodies there, presumably a family, all of them dead, flesh flaying from bones already. He really hoped that there wouldn’t come a day when any of them would have to try to sustain themselves with the flesh of the dead.
There were a few cans with food and a box of matches that probably was used to ignite an oil lamp standing in the corner. He swept the matches into his backpack. The lamp was useless without any oil, and they didn’t have enough to spare for trivialities like that. He looked around one more time and found the source of the death of these people. Bottles of water with broken seals stood on the shelf near them; If not for that maybe they would still be alive.
Or they wouldn’t. Instead mutating, becoming walking dead that didn’t have a place in this or the next world. He didn’t know what prompted him to bow his head and recite a few prayers over their bodies, but he did it anyway. Maybe, wherever they were now, they would appreciate even that small thought from a stranger that they helped to survive.
They burnt most of their clothes, not needing an extra weight for their travel. He left Shaw’s helmet behind, regret churned in his stomach so violently that he thought he might be sick at times. It didn’t matter anyway. The voice he was waiting for didn’t speak up and he swallowed against bile forming in his throat. He was at fault there. Maybe if he-
There was a smell of rotting flesh following them for days, but no matter how much he searched he couldn’t find a source for it. He asked Raven if she could smell it, but she only grimaced and walked away. Her reaction was almost as puzzling as the phenomenon itself. He would have thought it was his imagination, if it wasn’t for the fact that Logan almost constantly tried to wear some kind of protection over his nose, his super senses apparently gave him that much of a harder time.
He decided to go through all of their backpacks in the search of the horrible aroma, hoping that they could leave it behind as soon as possible. He didn’t have super sense of smell and it was starting to bother him greatly, the migraine throbbing behind his eyes felt like a physical wound. The children were quick to cooperate with him, the sense of privacy they still tried to maintain forgotten in face of a chance to get rid of the stench. The only person who wasn’t cooperating was Raven.
She stomped angrily away from the camp and he looked after her confused. After they confirmed that there was nothing in any of the bags that was giving out that horrible scent he followed her to the edge of the camp. He sat beside her and asked what was wrong. She stayed silent for long enough that he thought she wouldn’t answer, angry at him for some reason or another. He couldn’t think of anything that he might have done to offend her, but it happened before. He wouldn’t be surprised.
Her answer floored him completely. She was the source of the stench. The only things that were keeping her corporeal and sane, her bracelets, acted with her skin cells in a way that made her rot from the inside out. She took one of the things off and showed him her arm, now purple and with bits of flesh falling off. He looked at her horrified and started to say that she should just stop wearing them, but she shook her head just when he started. She couldn’t.
They talked for a long time about what they should do, but in the end it went down to what could be done. And the answer was nothing. Either Raven would go insane and probably kill everyone or she would die from the decomposition of her own body from the thing that was supposed to protect her.
She stayed. They left her behind to die and he tried so very hard to not think that it was his fault. She had forbidden him from doing so and he would respect her last wish. Even if he wished it wasn’t so.
Logan had acclimated into their little group pretty quickly, becoming a valuable asset when it came to finding food and clean water, and also steering clear of predators. It was easy now to just travel uninterrupted, without fear of being attacked by some sort of monsters. Accidents still happened, but he was just glad that for now at least they could focus their worries on rapidly growing powers in the children who appear to not have full control over the changes happening in their bodies.
Just the day before Warren sprouted a second pair of wings to the horror of everyone present. It wouldn’t be as painful to watch if it wasn’t following hours of agony for the boy. None of them knew what to do to ease his pain even a little. And then his back burst open and the wings emerged. What were supposed to be white feathers were covered in blood and pieces of tissue. It looked macabre enough that even he had to look away for a moment before approaching his young protégé and helping him to his feet. The small back was a series of open wounds and it seemed that the wings didn’t help matters, every movement of the new appendages causing a cry to escape the young throat.
He and Logan both sat with the boy and cleaned the wounds carefully, proceeding then to the feathers, so very careful to not break anything. Warren passed out sometimes during the wound cleaning, probably from the pain. Erik could only tighten his lips in sympathy, any pain medicine they had found was gone by now. They hadn’t seen a city in far too long.
They did what they could, and by the end the wings looked even kind of pretty, still a little wet, but white and sleek, becoming shorter and fluffier the closer they got to Warren’s back. The back was different story altogether, still a crisscross of open wounds, blood seeping through the white bandages. Erik sacrificed one of his remaining good shirts for them, but it seemed they would soon just add to the pile of reused ones that they could never really get the stains out from.
The boy slept peacefully for now and they decided together with Raven that it would be safer to just put him on the supply wagon, let him rest while the rest of them walked. There was a lot of pain in Warren’s future and he had to catch as many minutes of peace as he could.
Bathing was one of the activities they didn’t get to enjoy very often. Water was scarce overall, so when they did find a clean supply of it, the more pressing matters was to keep their supply of drinkable liquid full, not getting their skin and clothes clean. Besides, by now no one cared anymore if you smelled when everything around them smelled even worse. Not to mention there could be something said about solidarity in being dirty, all of their faces smudged with dirt and mud, specks of blood still visible when wounds closed long time ago.
Erik knew what He would have to say about it, wrinkling his freckled nose at the state they were all in and procuring a handkerchief from one of his pockets, trying valiantly to clean at least some of the faces. He would probably just end up smudging the dirt, but it would be a valiant effort. There was just too much. The thoughts brought a rare soft smile to his lips, but he shook his head when Raven raised a questioning eyebrow at him. She blinked and gave him a knowing look, which she knew he hated.
This time though they found themselves on the verge of what once had to be some sort of pool or something similar that was made to hold water and he hesitated. Simple things like that could do miracles in raising people’s spirits and this was something they needed lately, if not for anything than because they were walking for weeks now without a sight of anything resembling a city when they could replenish their supplies.
The simplest solution would be to talk to Ororo, but he wasn’t sure if the girl would be powerful enough to fill the pool with rain without exhausting herself in the process. There also came an issue of them being too vulnerable while naked and submerged in water. But in the end he decided that maybe it would be worth the risk just to see the smiles on the children’s faces. Ororo was willing to try and in no time lifted herself to the sky, clouds gathering at her will and the rain slowly fell, soaking them and slowly filling their bathtub.
Raven and Jean made sure that the rest of their supplies were covered, safe from water, Warren and his wings hiding under the tarmac as well. Everyone else just stood and lifted their faces to the sky, relishing at the wetness that fell and left smudges of dirt on their bodies. Sometimes he forgot how they all really looked under the layers of mud and dust.
They split in two groups after small consideration, one taking a bath and the other keeping watch in case anything would happen. Fortunately it was quiet and safe, and after a while even Logan relaxed, splashing kids with water when it was his turn to get in the pool. He observed it all from the sidelines, put his spare clothes on skin that felt alien it was so clean, and smiled. It really wasn’t often they had time to just let go and let the children be children, but they should consider making it a habit.
The laughter, the smiles, it was all heartwarming, reminding him why was he travelling with this little group in the first place. They were going to reach a safe haven for all of them and then they could just forget about the nightmare all of this brought to them. Once, He told him that there was nothing more beautiful than a child’s smile. He had to agree with it.
He couldn’t help staring at the new member of their group, the man looking more rough and wild than the last time they’d seen each other, but still recognizable. He wasn’t sure there was any other person in the world who managed not to look ridiculous with hair and sideburns like that. Logan also kept mumbling angrily about cigars, which made no sense if you haven’t seen the man Before. He did. Not alone though. He could easily recall the smoke filled bar, Canadian hunters and lumberjacks chatting jovially while drinking the type of beer that he wouldn’t even looked on back then. The smell of resin had filled the air, the atmosphere of a day spent in woods on an honest hard work almost palpable. Two men looking like high-end businessmen had garnered few nasty looks back then, but no one really cared enough to approach them.
They had walked to the bar confidently, the excitement radiating from Him so much that he could taste it on the back of his tongue, this was how he loved Him the best, so open and cheerful, ready for another adventure life would throw his way. It was naïve and eventually what had drawn them apart, but at that moment in time, back in the smoky part, he couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful, anything that he wanted to preserve more in his friend.
Of course all the confidence in the world couldn’t help them when the man they approached hadn’t even wanted to hear what they had to say, preferring his solitude and keeping to his honest work. It wasn’t like he could blame Logan for that. Maybe if things were different, in some different world even he himself would have been able to made a life for himself like that, with a two story house, a wife and maybe a few kids. That was his dream life when he was growing up, take over the family watch making business, and how delightful it would be to just use his powers all day and not be lynched for it, marry his childhood sweetheart and have two or three kids. He wanted daughters, always, maybe because he’d always known that he wouldn’t be much support when it came to teaching boys “manly” things, too afraid where the line lay of things acceptable and those not.
He remembered a woman coming over to the man in that bar, swinging her arm over his shoulder and pressing close, his arm automatically going around her waist. They had looked comfortable around each other, homey, like they knew each other for lifetimes. He wondered what happened to her, if Logan still mourned her. He knew that if he somehow lost Him, he would never stop grieving.
They stumbled upon it accidentally while looking for some place in the earth they could fill with water and then stock up on the precious liquid for the rest of their journey. The food was getting scarce and he already cut on daily portions, not enough for children to go hungry but enough for Raven and Logan to notice. After a few days they started to shoot him curious glances, but eventually didn’t say anything, probably figuring out that he wasn’t doing it out of spite. But the water was more important and something they could procure themselves, if they only found a semi-clean place to gather it from.
It was Kitty who noticed the downward slope of the road and ran head first into the valley, Raven close on her heels, yelling about being careful and not separating from the group. They all followed, but stopped frozen at the bottom of the place, the sight before them making something uncomfortable unfurl in his stomach.
There were dozens of rows of simple rocks and wooden cross to sign places of burials and despite the already enormous number of them standing there, he could tell that these were mass graves. Directly below their feet might have been hundreds of bodies, of people who died either in the initial blast or in the attacks of the beasts afterwards. Someone was thoughtful enough to dig these graves, mark them, pay the respect to all these people and he suddenly couldn’t breathe from the pain and guilt that filled him. He had left so many of his own people to be unburied, their bones scattering on the wind, without a prayer, without a grave, without proper sending to the next world.
He wondered who would be so patient and so emphatic to do a thing like that before Raven pointed to something deeper in the valley, somewhere in the middle of the make-shift cemetery and he got his answer. Half-clothed skeleton, still on his knees, the open palms spread on the dirt beneath him, the white hollow cheek pressed to the ground. There was a rosary clutched between bony fingers, proof that whoever it was, he died while praying for the dead around him.
The children around him were trembling, some of them sniffling slightly, no doubt shaken by the sight, not yet desensitized enough to not be moved. He hoped they never would be. He told Raven and Logan to take everyone up, keep searching for the water hole. Raven sent him a soft sort of look, but he couldn’t look at it in that moment, he hardly deserved sympathy. This person, the one who spent the last minutes of their life paying respect to a group of people he might not have even known, that was the person who deserved their sympathy.
He kneeled near the man and gently took the rosary from between his fingers, slowly unbending the stiff bones and laying the person on their back, in a traditional burial position. He was murmuring half forgotten prayers in the tongue he didn’t really know anymore, but it was more of an instinct than anything else.
The grave was the only one with the metal gravestone, the only one with the engraving, the soil freshly turned and still smelling earthy. He put the rosary in his pack and didn’t let go of it for the rest of their journey, hoping that it would keep reminding him what was important in life, even in their circumstances.
He didn’t even notice it, how would he, busy as he was with making sure as many of them as possible survived and got to their destination, he had no time to observe the social cues between his kids or listen to gossip. It was Raven who pointed it out to him, and he thought in retrospect that he should have seen it coming. Some of the children were already on the verge of the adolescence when he found them, it was only natural that they would grow up and mature as the time went by, maybe even faster because of the lives they had.
Still, when Raven pointed out to him a scene on the verge of the camp, unusually timid and shy Scott pushing some weed that could have been generously called a flower into Jean’s directions, it took him by surprise. It made sense, living in a close quarters as they were it was easy to deduce that some close bonds would be created. He just didn’t expect any romance to bloom between who he still perceived as little children. But they weren’t. Jean was fourteen and Scott was over a year older than she, making them perfect age for first crushes and dates.
It shook his world a little; that despite everything that was going on around them, this was still possible. These children could have a seed of normalcy if, in nothing else than in relationships, they built between them.
From then on, he noticed more things. How Warren shuffled after Jean also and made an unhappy face anytime he saw her and Scott together, how Kitty sighed after Piotr, how close were the twins, Ororo and Ilyana, gossiping and playing together. Some of them were relationships that he expected from teenagers, some were just deep friendships. Still, it warmed his heart to know that they would have this, the importance of a family and friends in anyone’s life was not lost on him. Next time when Scott was looking around for another weed to give to his girl, he crouched next to the boy and made a small rose from the nickels he was still carrying in his pocket. Scott beamed at him gratefully and Jean took to carrying it in the strap of her bag for the rest of their journey.
Day 1 074
The gate was bent and half of it just lay on the ground as if the wind knocked it out completely. He knew it was probably something else, but to think of it would be to invite the doubt, a thought that they came here for naught, all their sacrifices along the way were for nothing. He wished Raven was here beside him. She would just be happy, not full of dread like he was.
When he spotted the body laying on the stairs, a wheelchair overturned some distance away, he could swear his heart have stopped. It was not supposed to be like this. This was not what he was looking for all these years. He dropped to his knees and cradled the broken body to him, tears finding their way to his eyes while his parched throat could whisper only one thing.
And then It attacked.
The gap that she left was almost corporeal while they trudged along the way, trying to not look back. Jean desperately clung to his coat and he ran his fingers through the short red hair. It was probably as much for her comfort as it was for his. He didn’t know how well he would do with this group of children without Raven, he was not parental material.
Once, he fancied becoming a teacher, but that was a long time ago.
He didn’t think Logan would do any better considering the man’s penchant for violence and temper tantrums. It seemed to him that the only people not affected by Logan’s temper were him and young Summers, who only gave the wild man a glare and sometimes singed his toes in order to calm him down. It hardly worked, but at least the kid tried.
He didn’t think something could be worse than what they already went through. Three years of this nightmare was enough to be fairly sure of one’s life and destination. He didn’t plan for their supplies to run out. Water was in abundance. Between Ororo and Bobby they didn’t have to worry about that. But food started to become scarce the closer they got to where the big city once was. It was probably because someone else already scavenged what they could from the ruins of shops and sky scrapers, and as happy as he was for someone else who survived, he couldn’t help but be a little bitter that it came with at the price of the difficulty of their own survival.
He was looking for anything that might be edible, which by this point included roots if they could find them. He and Logan had the most chance of finding something, but someone had to be with the kids at all times to protect them from any dangers and to alert the other about the emergency. It left them with half of the supplies they could have found otherwise.
He missed Raven like a limb that was torn away from his body.
He really hoped that once they reached their destination everything would be better. He knew, he remembered that the house had a Nuclear safety net in place, there were rooms of supplies and a bunker to hide in from everything. Hopefully, everything would be alright once they reached home.
Day 1 000
The building was completely destroyed, the beams a crisscrossing patchwork of metal and stone with glass sprinkled around from thousands of windows that once were there. It wasn’t the first and it wouldn’t be the last one like that they stumbled upon. What was different were the cans Erik could feel under all that rubble. Can meant food, or at least some kind of nutritious sustenance hopefully. They couldn’t afford to just ignore that, especially since it felt like there were hundreds of them under the stone. If they could have them, they could survive for months still.
He squeezed Jean’s hand and pulled her along while he stepped closer. His powers were strong, stronger than ever, but he couldn’t miss an opportunity to let the children train with their own. If they didn’t, they would let themselves be devoured, just like Azazel, just like Raven was so close to doing before he grounded her in reality.
They worked carefully and methodically for hours, levitating parts of rumble and floating it to the side, setting it down gently so as to not create even more destruction. There was enough of it as it was. The biggest chunks of concrete at the bottom proved to be the most challenging to move, but they finished it eventually, unearthing a passage to what was probably a basement.
He left Jean with Logan and took the steps carefully, keeping the lamp floating above him to shed as much light on things as possible. It wouldn’t do to be surprised by anything in that darkness.
He could feel his heart sinking when he finally stepped into an open chamber down below. It was an office supply, and shelves were full of cans indeed. Cans of ink. He took a deep breath and walked deeper, examining every one of these carefully in hopes that all their work wasn’t for nothing. He stumbled eventually over a body, swiping it carelessly to the side. Death had no place in their world anymore. What took his breath away was what the body wanted to get to. Food.
There were packages of dried meat, fruit and crackers, all tightly sealed. There were a few cans with soups and beans, even a few with fruits. He could feel relief so strongly that he could hardly keep himself on his feet. It wasn’t for nothing. It wasn’t as much as he had hoped for, but it was enough to last them weeks still. They were saved.
They were so close now he could almost see the silhouette of the house in the distance. He lay at night straining his ears and his mind alike, hoping for any sign that he was recognized and welcomed. They were close enough that it couldn’t be a problem of reach, He was powerful enough to feel him even before the explosion, considering how much all of their powers spiked in such a short time, it was a wonder He couldn’t feel them even before.
He turned from side to side and worried. What did the silence mean? Did that mean that they weren’t welcome? Or was that just him? Maybe He simply didn’t want to talk. He wanted so bad to hear that voice speaking to him though, he would have given anything. It was his only hope, his only tether to this life still, the promise of once again seeing those blue eyes sparkle with mirth and the voice washing over his mind like a warm tide.
He couldn’t recall later the moment that Kitty fell, minutes, hours and days blurring into one shapeless picture in his mind. There was just suddenly an empty space beside Bobby and everyone was screaming and neither he nor Logan could pin point what actually happened. Raven would know, she always saw everything, but there was no Raven and now there was no Kitty.
There was no describable moment when something happened, she was just there and the next minute she wasn’t. There was no danger anywhere near, no monsters, not even any plants. They were standing in the barren field, empty for everything save them and their footprints and she just disappeared.
Bobby was yelling something about the ground swallowing her and it was with growing horror that he realized what happened. Kitty lost control. He exchanged despairing looks with Logan and made his throat work for long enough to commander setting up the camp. They couldn’t afford stopping here, not really, their food supplies were running out and the sooner they would get to the closest city the better. But he would be damned if he just left without giving Kitty the chance to come back up to them. Maybe she was still alive.
She didn’t come back.
They had enough supplies to venture outside the city and they did so with relief, not keen on meeting another group of survivors. Once was enough. He wasn’t sure what it was, maybe something in the air that was making everyone so wild and dangerous. He knew his own group wasn’t the shrine of mental health, but at least they still clung to their humanity, as little of it as they had left anyway.
The children were still mourning. Before, it would break his heart, but now it just gave him relief, reminded him that they were still human. He remembered his people losing all of their ethics and morals once. He was damned if he was going to witness it again. There was nothing he could do for people outside their little circle, but he would rather die than let his children became nothing else but mindless animals ready to do anything to survive.
Once you went that way there was no going back after all, especially in circumstances like theirs. He thinks that He would finally be proud of him. It took the end of the world, but he finally got his priorities straight, realized what was important in life. The thoughts of that conversation waiting to happen warmed him up at night. He couldn’t wait to see Him again.
Day 1 014
It was Logan who pointed out the people ahead of them. By that point he wasn’t even sure there were people besides them alive still. Logically, he knew there were, there had to be someone raiding some of the buildings they had passed since they lacked any supplies that would be useful and the grocery stores should still at least have some canned goods left. But in all the months they’d been walking they hadn’t even brushed by another group.
He couldn’t help but think it was lucky of them. In retrospect they should have taken the longer route and went around the strange group, but they were stupidly curious and wanted to see these other survivors, if they had held up as well as they did considering the circumstances.
The wild look in the eyes of those people was the first clue that something wasn’t right. And when one of them hurled herself with a blood curdling scream at Jean, only his reflexes let him leap between them and throw the woman back with the force of his powers. It didn’t deter her in the slightest and in the end he was forced to tie her to the ground with a metal pole. The rest weren’t better. They acted like a pack of vultures, circling them and waiting for an opening to strike. They were mostly after their supplies, but he wasn’t stupid enough to not know that they would kill anyone who would stand in their way. And that meant everyone in their group.
Ororo was the one to react first after him, summoning the storm that moved even the pieces of metal surrounding them. He was glad she didn’t have to strain herself too much after they realized that these people really were just like animals. Afraid of lightning and thunder.
They avoided any other groups from now on.
He was looking for a can opener in his bag when he found them. They didn’t look like anything special, two rings of metal with not very original or complicated swirling pattern. But they were Raven’s, the very same bracelets he had given her.
He didn’t realize she hadn’t kept them on when she died. And that meant that she knew she would and didn’t want them to go with her. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe, all the air punched from his lungs, and it took all of his willpower to not just slide to the ground. She was his best friend and she knew that. The children and Logan were one thing, but she had been by his side from the very beginning, before the explosion, before the Brotherhood, before Cuba and everything else.
It took him a while to realize that she was gone for good this time. He knew that she was dead, but it suddenly started to sink in that she wasn’t coming back again. There would be no roguish smiles, startlingly white in the azure face, no tinkling laugh and no shoulder to lean on when he just didn’t have strength anymore. He had lost her for good this time and he didn’t know how to live with that to be quite honest.
She was the only constant in his crazy life lately.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, paralyzed with the sudden loss when the little hand slipped into his own and squeezed his fingers. Ororo looked up at him with a maturity in her eyes that he wanted to weep over, because she was just a child, she wasn’t supposed to be anything but. He knelt down to her and she folded herself into his arms easily and for a moment they just held each other.
For now it was enough.
When he finally fell sick it was a surprise for everyone but him. He’d felt bad for days beforehand, every swallow of water a nectar on his burning throat, yet coming up with acid if he gave it enough time. No one noticed, because he didn’t let them. It would be unnecessary worry and he hoped in a corner of his mind that it would pass instead of escalating. He was wrong. He should have never thought it would be that simple. Their food was scarce and they had no medicine, falling sick would be close to a death sentence now. He couldn’t leave the children with Logan.
He fell to Ororo’s yell, her panic reverberating inside his skull until he thought his mind would burst from pressure. It felt like something was building inside of him, seeking release that he couldn’t provide. He could vaguely feel something cool touching his lips, sliding down his throat and making him almost immediately sleepy. Or it could have been Jean’s fault, her bright red hair a smear in the corner of his eye, her little hand caressing the side of his face.
He woke up on the third day of his sickness feeling better and lighter than in days, Ororo curled on his right side, while Jean took up his left one. Logan was squatting nearby, watching him closely. He didn’t know if the man was looking for a sign of sickness or something else, but he felt too sluggish to try to discern it. He pulled his two girls closer to him and leaned back into makeshift pillows made from their almost empty backpacks.
Later, he would accept some more water and a meal made of something that looked vaguely like meat and roots. One look at the other caretaker’s face told him that he was better off not knowing. The smell was pleasant though and it did fill his stomach enough to swallow the medicine the children procured from somewhere. As long as it ensured he wouldn’t leave his little family, he would eat anything.
Day 1 065
The dream this time when it came was dark and gritty, a quiet voice calling to him from the void around him. He couldn’t discern which way he had to go to follow it, turning around himself to try and find the source of the sound. He thought he saw a silhouette of a man at one point, some kind of inner light illuminating the darkness around him for one moment before it was gone. It left a memory of chestnut hair and blue eyes seared inside his eyelids, his hand reaching out uselessly while He disappeared into an abyss, the sound of His voice slowly dying.
He woke up panting heavily, his chest trying to get in as much oxygen as it could. The image was still fresh on his mind and he wondered if it wasn’t some kind of a bad omen to see it now. But it couldn’t have been; the previous two weren’t bad. They were unsettling and they made him ache for Him that much more, but they couldn’t be bad if they showed him that image. He didn’t want to think that their trip might have been one big waste of time, but the doubts were there, in the corners of his mind, just waiting to ambush him at his weakest.
And this night, he was the weakest he’d been since this whole disaster started.
That day dawned upon them like any other before it, with scarce food and lighthearted conversations just to lift mood of the children. He and Logan tried to pretend that everything was alright, everything would change for the better. The children were skeptic, and he couldn’t say he blamed them as Logan didn’t make his disbelief of any happy ending clear before Raven disappeared. The complete turn in the attitude he apparently experienced was a little too sudden for the children to fall for it. Good, that meant that they weren’t naïve. On one hand, he ached for what was supposed to be their childhood, the age of ignorance and bliss. On the other, he knew that they were prepared for everything that came their way, if not physically than mentally at least.
At least that’s what he thought before around noon when there was a silver mist surrounding them and then they were falling into a hole that appeared out of nowhere. He could have sworn he heard laughter somewhere on his right and he narrowed his eyes, yelling for Jean to break the illusion. He knew that laugh. Just as he thought, it took Jean only a moment to make them see that they were still standing on solid ground, Mastermind and the rest of Hellfire club standing nearby. He wasn’t sure why they were being attacked, but he wasn’t going to let any of his children get hurt again, not while he could help it.
Logan fell into step beside him and didn’t wait for any order before he charged, his claws coming out with a sound that still managed to give him shivers. To his surprise, the man was tackled to the ground by what appeared to be a grizzly, but on closer inspection proved to be a mutant. Certainly a feral one, but just a mutant. He didn’t know if he should even categorize the creature as human anymore. Jason was preparing himself to strike another illusion, but Jean was on to him already. She might have been young one day, but now she was one of the strongest fighters in their group, one that was that much more dangerous because she didn’t have to use her psychical strength in felling her enemy.
All around him the children were falling into groups, defending themselves and attacking the enemies. He himself was engaged in a battle with Avalanche. He didn’t usually exercise his power over anything other than metal and he was out of shape, but he was pretty sure that after that day he would be so much better. It was hard, stopping rock with his magnetism, but it wasn’t impossible and their fight was pretty evenly matched.
They were winning, he was sure of it, and he wasn’t actually sure if he wanted any of his children to be a killer. He didn’t have to worry about it though, because the moment Jason realized they were losing the impromptu battle he left Jean to release a huge flash that blinded everyone for a moment. Then there was a smell of sulfur and their adversaries were gone.
He stood shocked in the middle of the field trying to make sense of what happened. He knew that smell and the telltale pop of teleportation, but it couldn’t be true. Azazel was dead, just like his wife now was. Raven and he had mourned the man, it was impossible for him to come back. So was it just another of Mastermind’s illusions? Or was it really one of those impossibilities that weren’t that now they encountered almost daily? He didn’t know for what he hoped more.
There was a bright flash of light and everything was fire and pain and flames searing into everything on the horizon, licking the soles of his feet where they stood against the blackened earth and his cheek where his face was turned to the sky, taking in the terrifying creature with his wet eyes. It looked almost entirely made of fire, but he could just make out a little figure of Jean in the middle, her gaze unseeing, her body limp. It had been like that for hours now though, ever since It attacked her and severed her jugular. Erik never felt so close to despair in his life.
It was enough to lose Charles. He never really had the man before; coming here was just really a distant hope of reconciliation, a goal that they needed to anchor themselves to the world somehow. Even if the sight of his unmoving body laying on the steps of the mansion, half eaten and half rotten, twisted something inside Erik that he didn’t want to think about ever. He felt right then like sinking to his knees and cradling a lifeless corpse to him, so desperate for a miracle he could almost weep. He’d never had Charles, but it didn’t mean he didn’t want to. He did, with all his heart and his very soul, not to own him, but to be a part of the man, to be together like they didn’t have time to before.
And then It attacked. He didn’t know what It was, but he supposed it must have been human at one point. Everything was. But it was mindless and didn’t even care to sustains itself on them, It just wanted to destroy. To dig Its claws into their bodies and see their lives trailing out of them slowly. Erik had never been this terrified in his life. It was different with Wraiths, they had a clear need that once satisfied would give them a moment of peace. It was different, It didn’t care how many of them had fallen, It wanted more blood.
Through it all, Erik sat on the steps, cradling Charles’ bashed skull on his knees, only a shadow of the former beautiful face and chestnut locks left on it after three years. He lost too much time trailing his shaking fingertips over the gash in the bone, nothing left inside but rust. One of the greatest minds on Earth, reduced to this empty shell that carried nothing of its past brilliance. The sobs that wracked his body were a surprise, but when he thought about it, they shouldn’t have been. Charles was his love, the first person to ever inspire such a strong emotion in him. And he has lost him because of his own mistakes.
Then there was a shrill yell behind him and before he turned, Jean was falling, blood spurting from her neck, Its claws covered in gore and Its face twisted in a mockery of a smile. He was shouting before he knew what he was doing, but somehow his legs couldn’t move still. Too paralyzed from his grief to take one stumbling step.
But it got the job done. The creature turned Its attention to him and he realized he didn’t even feel fear anymore, wanting so much to just join his family wherever they were, when Logan attacked. It wasn’t a sneak attack by any standards, Erik wasn’t sure Logan was capable of those. But it got the job done, both pairs of adamantium claws sticking into Its chest, making It choke on Its black blood and fall lifelessly after endless minutes filled with apprehension. But fall it did.
Logan collapsed to his knees next to Jean’s body and cradled little girl to his chest, howls of misery escaping him. The children all made a circle around him, the younger of them crying helplessly at the loss of their friend. Erik would join of them if he could let go of the body in his arms. As it was he could only share in their grief from a distance, not close enough to offer or seek comfort from anyone. He remembered that this was the default of his life once upon a time and wondered how did he survive it then. Now, without Raven and without Charles, these children were everything he had left in the world. And now one of them was dead.
When the fire started, no one noticed, too busy concentrating on the loss of yet another companion. But it escalated quickly, leading from Jean’s heart out over her body and completely engulfing her in flames in no time at all. They all stood gaping as she was levitated from Logan’s arms, the man’s whimpers of pain from burnt hands for now ignored even by him. The fire grew until it resembled a great bird, Jean only a speck inside its heart, even though she was a source of it all. It opened its beak and screeched and then everything was flame and fire.
“I want to live” Fire said looking at the human beneath him with desperation in her red eyes. She was just born, she didn’t want to die just yet, there was so much to see and to experience still.
She showed the human all the possibilities, all the universes in which it didn’t end like that. She showed him all his options, every one of them depending on a miniscule decision he made, changing his destiny from one to another. He stopped at one of them and she looked inside, she saw herself growing up happy and loved, surrounded by life and people instead of the barren wasteland of destruction she saw everyday now. She looked down at the human and saw him crying.
“ I’ll do anything.” The human croaked out, his voice rough with disuse and tears, cradling its broken heart closer to its chest. It was a pitiful sight and she crooned in pain when she realized she could have it too in these different universes. A heart that was split in two somehow, the other part hidden outside her body.
“Then so shall it be.” Fire decided and took every ounce of her power to cover the entire universe, changing it and making it into the image that she wanted to see. The human looked up at her and she saw hesitation in his features, making her feel even worse for that poor creature. “Keep true to your heart, human.” Fire said to him, making sure he understood before she burnt everything to ashes from which a new, better life would emerge.
There was water as far as he could see and feel, water around him, water in his lungs, slowly drowning him, pulling him down and away from oxygen. It didn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if he just took Schmidt to hell together with him. Nothing in the world was more important than that. But his powers were failing him, he was too weak, too exhausted after moving the anchor to stop the submarine from leaving. He should have known Schmidt would have a back-up plan, just in case.
Then there were arms around him and the soft voice in his head, urging him to let go and he thrashed, shaking his head. Couldn’t the voice understand? This was his purpose, he needed to do it, he had to, that was all there was to his life. The arms tightened and pulled him up, up, up, the oxygen entered his lungs as painful as it was relief and it took him a moment to wrench away and turn to whoever saved him. The man was small and being wet didn’t help him in looking anything but a drowned rat. He had a sweater on instead of any water friendly clothes and Erik gaped before the man’s words registered with him. He wasn’t alone.
The day was warm and he could feel sun shining on the back of his neck, sweat pooling under the sweatshirt he was wearing. He knew that if he took it off, he’d probably catch something, the weather not as nice as the sun would let them believe. It probably didn’t help that they were standing meters above the ground, the metal of the satellite calling out to him in a gentle voice that made him glance at Charles’ profile every other minute. His power never felt this strong. It was a slow rise from the way he felt in Miami to now, his powers growing stronger beyond what he’d ever known even without any training. He could swear he could see something burning from the corner of his eyes when he experienced another yet burst of power, but it was gone every time he turned his head.
He didn’t think much of it usually. But right now he was grateful for it. No matter where this new power came from, it would prove useful today, if for nothing else than to catch one of Charles’ rowdy students. Sean was standing on the edge of the satellite, peering nervously over the edge and Erik willfully refused to roll his eyes, Charles’ amused glance told him he didn’t exactly succeed in hiding the intent though. He grinned at the other man and got a smile in return. Sometimes it blindsided him how much would he do just to see that smile again.
Later, in the evening, when Sean was nursing his bruised ego and everyone else was in their room, he sat on the opposite side of the chessboard from Charles and watched the man as he threw his head back and laughed, his fully body shaking with it. He squashed the urge to move, to press his lips against the pale strip of skin. They didn’t have time for distractions like that now.
The traffic in Washington was horrid. Everyone was in hurry to be somewhere, the cars made neat lines along the streets and made their search that much more difficult. They finally gave up and left the car somewhere on in the parking lot, not sure if it wouldn’t be towed after an hour. Erik could care less, the car was government issued, they could worry about their own property. They took a long walk through the park, Charles expressing his regret at losing the mutant they were looking for that day.
Erik couldn’t really care less for now. They had three recruits already and even if some of the rejections stung at the back of his throat, he could understand people that wanted nothing to do with government. Or ones that just weren’t willing to leave all their lives behind for a chance of learning between people like them. He closed his eyes and saw the face of the woman they talked to two states back, her daughter’s curious eyes peeking out from behind her skirts. He doubted he would want to follow Shaw if he had the chance to build a family somewhere along the way.
The steps they sat on were warm, and Erik felt his muscles relax, leaning back on his elbows and looking out at the wide expanse of the park. The topic he discussed with Charles was a grave, serious one, but it wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time they had this conversation. His voice was firm, but his mind was drifting, more at peace than he could ever remember being.
“Listen carefully my friend, killing Shaw will not bring you peace.” Charles said, earnestly leaning forward in his seat and Erik could feel the words burning in his throat. They wanted to be out in the air, but he knew somehow that it could put a gap between him and the man opposite him. A gap that he didn’t want there, not now nor never.
He took a deep breath and leant forward in his seat, his hands stapled and his head bowed. He could feel something nagging at the back of his mind, something touching him with feather like touches. He knew it wasn’t Charles, he could recognize the man’s mental signature now and it wasn’t that. Suddenly, he was scared. No, that was too say too little. He was terrified. Of what, he wasn’t sure, but he looked up and for a moment he couldn’t see Charles, his seat empty and covered in ash and he was choking, scrambling to get him back.
There were arms around him and he clung with all his might, pressing his face to the comforting scent, sobbing at the feel of fingers in his hair. There was warm presence seeping into his mind and he clutched at it desperately, because it meant Charles was here, Charles was alright. He opened his eyes and looked up into concerned face of his friend, trying not to feel as exhausted as he did. He slumped into the man’s arms, not knowing what to do anymore.
“I need to kill him.” He croaked out, clear on that part if not on any other, willing Charles to understand. It wouldn’t bring him peace, but without it he would never get any peace.
“Alright.” Charles whispered after an exhale and tightened his arms around Erik. He wanted to tell the man he could let him go now, but he didn’t want to. He didn’t know what tomorrow would bring and if it was all the comfort he could get, he would take it.
He wasn’t going to stay. All his experiences with governments and its institutions were unpleasant ones, save his brief stint in Mossad, but he wasn’t sure it counted. He got what he came here for, the file on Schmidt the CIA had collected locked safely in his briefcase. It didn’t matter who was working with them, a government was a government and sooner or later they would turn on them. Sooner if he read the looks agents kept throwing them correctly; and he did. They would eventually outlive their usefulness and then it wouldn’t be a problem for the higher-ups to order their arrest and then probably execution for those who wouldn’t want to be turned into living weapons.
He knew how men like that operated.
The voice behind him wasn’t unwelcome, even if it was a little surprising. He was almost completely positive the other man was on his way to the young agent’s room, probably trying to woo her. But he was standing behind Erik instead and somehow, he found himself turning back after Charles came inside, leaving the file where it was and sliding under itchy sheets. He didn’t know what prompted him to stay, but it felt right, like so few things in his life it did.
The smile Charles gave him the very next morning was a very pleasant bonus.
Schmidt’s face wasn’t smug anymore, frozen as it was right now, only his eyes burning with anger that he would probably love to unleash around him. Erik looked down at the helmet in his hands, a million possibilities swarming inside his head. Charles’ voice was a distant murmur, his words desperate and pleading. This would give him protection. But from what? Charles was his friend, he didn’t need protection against the man and Charles could protect him from any other telepaths quite efficiently which he had proved during their meeting with dear miss Frost. The metal started burning in his hands and he discarded it to the side without another thought.
He stepped closer to the man who made his life a nightmare for so many years and fingered the coin in his pocket, its metal comforting in his palm. He wanted to force it through the man’s skull, make him feel every minute of the agony Erik felt, but he discarded the notion quickly. It was his anger talking, and Charles was right. Anger didn’t take him anywhere yet.
“You don’t even deserve that much.” He murmured to the man and took a step back to free his gun from where it was strapped to his thigh. He put it to the man’s forehead and listened carefully to Charles’ instructions. He would have a second long window after Charles let go of Schmidt and before the man regained full use of his body. He liked his odds despite the anxious tone of Charles’ mental voice.
Schmidt’s body crumpled to the floor, his face still a mask of anger, but his eyes staring lifelessly into the ether now. Erik felt light, like something that was tethering him to the ground suddenly disappeared and he could finally fly away. It took him a moment to realize that he was actually floating above the ground and he laughed, and if it had a little hysterical note to it, no one was there to mention it.
Charles was the first to greet him outside the submarine, his arms still felt as perfect around Erik as they felt the evening before.
Humans were foolish and they were afraid, and for a moment Erik felt rage overwhelm him, burning bright in his gut. He wanted nothing but to turn their weapons on them, destroy those who dared to threaten this new family of his. But then there was hand in his and a soothing presence in his mind, and it felt like someone applying a balm to the open wound, stinging but calming and he turned to the man beside him. Charles helped him sever that last tie to his past, but he would never condone killing people like that. If Erik did that, then that was it for their friendship.
He looked into the blue eyes he spent days now studying and let the missiles fall into the ocean. He just wanted to go home.
Russia was cold. He didn’t know why that surprised him, they were all covered in their winter clothes, and yet, despite that, he was shocked when he saw the first puff of his breath escape from him in a cloud. Charles shot him an amused glance and he stomped on an urge to stick his tongue out at the man. That would be very unprofessional and immature. Still, he huddled tighter in his too light jacket and crowded close to the other man in the back of the truck.
He didn’t want to sit close to any of the soldiers, that was a part of it, but mostly he just wanted to share some warmth with Charles. After the call with the dog, Erik kept his hand on Charles’ thigh, feeling the tension spiking in the muscles under his fingers the closer they got to their standing spot. Charles was as nervous as he was, maybe even more, this was his first real operation. Recruiting didn’t really prepare him for infiltration or fighting with foreigners. Not that what followed could be called infiltration in any way.
Still, when he was curled in the armchair in their little motel room, cup of instant coffee between his hands, more to warm up fingers than for the taste, both of them were relaxed and loose. Visions that Frost showed them were a nightmare, but they would make sure nothing came of it.
They fell into bed with laughter, everything finally behind them. Schmidt was dead, the government thought they were all dead, and even now Hank was installing security measures to keep anyone from bothering them. It was perfect. Erik felt like he could finally reach out for that peace Charles kept talking to him about. Especially with the younger man sprawled on the sheets underneath him, eyes twinkling mischievously and lips curled into a small smile.
Erik didn’t hold back anymore, there was just no reason to. He leant lower and covered Charles’ lips with his, coaxing them open gently with soft presses of skin on skin. Charles slid his fingers into his hair and dug his fingers into Erik’s scalp and he gasped, surprised at how good that felt. The other man shot him a smug glance and really, for all intents and purposes, Erik should at least feel a pang of irritation.
Instead, he laughed. He laughed hard and loud until the sound resembled sobs more than anything, Charles held him close still and sent calm warmth into his mind while keeping him close with his body and his voice at the same time. He could have it. He had it. They would build the future together, and he knew there would be disagreements between them, but right now, he had Charles breathing and alive in his arms and the world was living outside the window, everything green and lush and nothing could be more perfect.
Erik woke up to the sun streaming through the window on his right side and for a moment he was so very confused. The house Azazel took them to had no windows, so where did the sun came from. But then Charles tightened an arm he had around Erik’s waist and murmured something about too early and he remembered. It wasn’t real. That dream wasn’t a reality, this was. Charles in his bed, or rather he in Charles’ bed, the garden blooming with late summer flowers and sun lighting everything up and not making everything worse.
They were safe and they were alive and they were going to be okay. The new future waited for them. Erik grinned and turned on his side, curling close to the body close to his. Charles talked about a school, and Erik did know few languages that the knowledge of he wouldn’t be adverse to sharing. He kissed the man awake and smiled brighter at his grumbling, feeling light and happy.
Everything was going to be better now. Better than what, he wasn’t sure, but the certainty burned inside him as nothing else before.
Day 3 668
Erik looked out into the garden where they hosted their annual summer ball for the older students. Charles insisted it was an occasion for everyone to unwind and learn some manners at once, but he was of the opinion that it was all a big ruse to give everyone an excuse to dress prettily. He couldn’t say that he didn’t approve though. He looked out at his students in the evenings like that and he couldn’t help the glow of pride growing inside him. Lots of them were adults already and no matter how Charles wanted to cling to them, they would leave their nest soon.
He looked to the alcove at the side where Jean was curled close to Scott, their fingers intertwined and his cheek resting on her red hair. They looked peaceful and happy, a striking contrast to how they looked almost ten years ago when they arrived at the school. He was happy they had each other, to love and to support. He knew how important a bond like that was.
Charles stepped to his side and placed his hand on the small of Erik’s back and Erik turned with a smile at the ready, planting a kiss on Charles’ hilariously bald head. The loss of his hair was a slow and stressful process, especially taking in the consideration how much the other man didn’t want to admit to it happening. But he was at peace now and Erik was happy, even though sometimes he missed carding his fingers through the thick locks.
He wound his arm around his partner’s shoulders and steered them inside the house. It was time for them to turn in and leave the fun to younger people. For a moment he thought he could see flames enveloping the small alcove where their students sat, but when he turned everything was just as it was before. Charles looked at him with concern and he smiled reassuringly. His sight must be playing tricks on him.
The girl at the steps of the mansion wasn’t older than seven, eight if she was small for her age. She clutched a little leather bag in her hands and was shaking from barely suppressed sobs. Erik could understand that. Her parents had just left her here without a second glance, the relief of having gotten rid of their talented daughter almost palpable in the air. How much worse was it for someone who could read thoughts. It took him to thinking about his own telepath, still deep in paperwork in his study and he exhaled slowly, before reaching to the child before him with his mind, like Charles taught him to.
Green eyes blinked at him in surprise and then he had an armful of red headed girl, holding her close and not paying attention to the wet spot growing on his shoulder. She wasn’t alone and she wouldn’t be ever again.
He frowned and patted the small fire on the child’s bag. He didn’t know where it came from, but he’d seen stranger things happen. He quirked his mouth in a smile and delighted in the laugh that came from Jean at his thought.
Maybe the bag was a mutant too.
Day 11 250
Everything was burning; the flames consumed everything in their wake, purifying the Earth. They could do nothing but stare as what was left of their student floated in the air and rained the destruction upon the entire world. He knew these flames, from half forgotten dreams, its silky voice still haunted his darkest nightmares. It was unstoppable and he knew that. And yet, they fought.
Charles tried desperately to reach Jean, Scott looking tense at his shoulder. They married just two years ago, hardly any time to be together. Erik had decades with Charles and he still thought it too little, too short. He couldn’t imagine how Scott must have felt. Another wave of heat pushed him off his feet, his ankle twisting painfully under him. It was no pleasure, old age, and he could feel it in every bone of his body now. He stared at the sky and its red hue, feeling something wet seeping from the back of his head. He was almost sure he could hear Charles yelling for him, but it was distant and everything was getting hazy.
“Was it worth it?” Fire asked, looking at the crumbled human, its heart the one to cradle him close this time around. “Was it worth it to burn your whole world just to have another chance and die anyway?”
“What do you think, child?” The human answered, smile playing at his lips, fingers curled around those of its heart’s. It was talking to her as if she was still one of its children, when she was so much more. “Of course it was.” He huffed amused and shot a look at another human standing behind it and yelling for help into tiny electrical device. She could remember the feel of that human around her, its arms offering comfort and safety and she reeled back.
“It’s always worth it if you get to love.” The human said finally before his eyes slipped close. She looked down at him and felt something tug into her mind.
And then she was screaming and yelling and howling and everything was flames but nothing was.
Day 11 251
Erik woke up in the hospital bed with his head bandaged and feeling his age in every little crack of his body. It was not a pleasant feeling. But then he turned and saw Charles sitting in one of these plastic chairs, fingers gripping his as if the man was afraid he’d disappear the moment he let go.
He heard the steady beep of a heart monitor nearby and propped himself up slowly to see who he was sharing a room with. Jean lay under the sheets motionlessly, oxygen mask firmly on her face, but there was a flush in her cheeks and her hand was gripping her husband’s tightly.
Erik smiled and kissed the top of his husband’s head. They were alright.