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The war was still in its early days -- leastaways, Erik assumed as much. Didn't need to be a Precog to guess that this one would be a real doozy, likely drag out for a couple years at least. So let it, he thought grimly. It had been a long time coming, and it was a fight they had to win.

His brigade was among the first in when the Independents took the planet of Athens, and it was his first real taste of what the rest of the war might be like. It wasn't usual for a Rim world to support Unification, and its people fought tooth and nail, but they hadn't expected an entire fleet to descend upon their cities -- and more importantly, upon the marble quarries that made the planet relatively wealthy among the outer planets. Though the battle was hard, it was a sure victory. After, Erik was chosen to join the delegation sent to Athens' capital to negotiate the terms of their surrender, serving as the most visible face among the Browncoats' mutant faction.

Turned out, though, he wasn't the only mutant in the delegation.

"No, I'm bloody well not going to Read the gorram magistrate!"

Erik turned in curiosity. They'd been cooling their heels in the marble halls of the Athens magistrate's offices for an hour already, and any sign of life among this bunch was worth a notice. Gorram diplomats all, hardly another soldier among 'em. But this one sounded interesting. Hearing border slang in a Londinium accent would've been odd enough, but a Reader? That was another thing entirely.

"There a problem, gentlemen?" Erik asked, joining the two men. One he already knew -- Commander Kelly, head of the delegation and the commanding officer for the Independents in this sector. His doughy face was near to purple with anger. The other Erik had only seen in passing on the way here, and hadn't spoken with. He was much younger than Kelly, possibly even younger than Erik himself, with floppy brown hair and large blue eyes. Pretty boy, Erik had thought upon their first acquaintance, and soft. But maybe he shouldn't have dismissed the other man so readily. The Independent high command wouldn't have selected a young Core academic as one of their primary negotiators without a very good reason.

"Not at all, Lieutenant," Kelly snapped, hardly sparing him a glance. "Xavier, if you don't comply with my orders--"

"I am a civilian advocate, and therefore outside of your chain of command," the Reader -- Xavier -- said firmly. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides. "And to use my powers on any nonconsenting person, particularly a government official, would be grossly unethical as well as in criminal violation of every legal code in the known 'Verse--"

"Of every Alliance legal code," Erik pointed out. "There are far fewer restrictions on Readers in the proposed Independent legislation."

Xavier turned the full force of his gaze on Erik now. It was fiercer than Erik would've expected, and oddly mesmerizing besides. "Yes, and that will be a great comfort to me when I'm brought up on war crimes after this is all done."

"Here, you talk to him, Lieutenant," Kelly urged. "You mutant freaks think you're a law unto yourselves anyways."

Erik stiffened, and Xavier's mouth pressed itself into a thin line.

"We need to get an unconditional surrender out of Athens's piss-poor excuse for an army," Kelly informed Xavier, oblivious to their combined displeasure. "And if that means using your fancy Core-trained powers on the ruttin' magistrate, then that's what we're gonna do, dong ma?" He narrowed his eyes at Erik. "I need results from this here 'civilian advocate,' Lieutenant. And that is a gorram order."

He stalked off, leaving both Erik and Xavier to stare after him in distaste.

"He's a real qing wa kao de liu mang, ain't he?" Erik remarked.

Xavier snorted. "Indeed." He glanced around them, then stalked over to a marble bench and dropped down into it. Now that Kelly was gone, he didn't look half so angry or fierce, just weary. He propped his elbows up on his knees, rubbing his temples slowly, face drawn.

"You may as well do what he wants," Erik said, after a moment's consideration. He crossed to sit down beside Xavier, careful to maintain some distance between them on the bench. Some Readers could hear a lot more if they were touching you. Given the moral quandary, Xavier probably wasn't the sort to pry deliberately, but Erik didn't want to brush up against him and blast thoughts at him by accident.

Xavier shot him a half-hearted glare. "What part of 'grossly unethical' did you fail to understand?"

Erik shrugged. "Kelly didn't ask you to control the magistrate, did he? Nor influence his opinions. Just Read him to work out a better compromise for our side."

"Our side," Xavier echoed, making a face like he'd tasted something unpleasant. "Sometimes I wonder if there's any difference between the two at all."

"But there is," Erik said firmly. "A world of difference. Isn't that why we're here?"

A thoughtful look passed across Xavier's face. "That is the hope, I suppose." After a moment's consideration, he offered Erik his hand. "I'm sorry, we haven't been properly introduced. Charles Xavier."

Erik took it. "Lieutenant Erik Lehnsherr."

Xavier kept a hold of his hand too long, studying his face intently. If he was Reading him, Erik didn't feel so much as a whisper of it in his head. "Ah, of course, the Brotherhood of Independent Mutants. I read your treatise before it was wiped off the Cortex. Interesting stuff."


Xavier smiled wryly, releasing Erik's hand. "Surprising, I should say. That a mutant growing up on one of the outer worlds should maintain so pure a strain of idealism. You really do believe your Brotherhood can build some kind of mutant utopia, don't you?"

"Given time and the independence to pursue our own governance and societal structure, yes, I do," Erik said, not rising to the bait. He was willing to die for his cause; he could certainly waste a bit of breath discussing it with a skeptic. "I never claimed it would be easy, but possible, yes. You don't think that's worth fighting for?"

Xavier sighed, his gaze growing distant. "Perhaps. It's a pretty thought. If I truly believed that was what this war was about, I might even be willing to bear arms myself."

Erik frowned. "Why do you think the war started, then?"

"The same reason all wars begin," Xavier said tiredly. "Human greed."

"You think the Independents are greedy?" Erik asked sharply, anger rising. "For wanting the right to self-governance? Having been left to starve and sicken and rot by the wealthy slavers in the Core, for finally saying enough is enough? Do you think our anger unjustified? Yes, how terribly greedy of us all, to want to be able to scratch out a life for ourselves!"

Xavier had the oddest expression on his face as he watched Erik, one Erik couldn't read at all. "I never claimed the cause was unjust," he said. "I am advocating for the Independents myself, after all. And the Alliance's greed easily outweighs the Browncoats'. But was interplanetary war truly the only option?" He leaned in, intent. "Have you really thought through the ramifications of this skirmish? The untold thousands to be slaughtered in the name of your independence, the blood of innocents shed alongside that of those you deem your oppressors, the homesteads razed, the cities burned? What do you think this war will cost the very people you hope to liberate? Are all Core citizens truly slavers? Do you think there is no poverty on Londinium, no starving children on Ariel, no crime on Osiris? Do you believe mutant children aren't raised to fear their own powers on any of the border moons? And how can we improve conditions for anyone, on any planet, when we turn their very homes into our war zones?" Xavier's eyes were very bright. "What could violence possibly accomplish that peaceful discussion cannot?"

"Peace was never an option," Erik told him. "I wish it were, but that isn't the world we live in. But that's the world I hope to build on the ashes of this one."

"I do hope you have the chance to build it, my friend," Xavier said quietly. He got to his feet, and Erik was surprised to find he missed the nearness of him. "Because it seems we're all stuck in this mess in the meantime."

Erik never did find out if Xavier used his powers on the magistrate or not. The negotiations went smoother than he'd have expected, and the Independents got all they asked for and more. But a month later, Alliance forces firebombed the city and all its marble monuments, so it didn't make much difference one way or another.

Next time Erik ran across Charles Xavier was on the battlefield, in a burnt out building on Verbena. The Independents had set up a sort of makeshift triage zone in what used to be a hotel lobby, and when Erik came in, elevating an unconscious corporal on a makeshift gurney of scrap metal before him, he found Xavier elbow-deep in blood, his fingers pressed to the temples of a soldier whose leg was half torn off. A mutant with blood-spattered blue fur and a medic's badge around his arm stepped out in front of Erik, startling him.

"Here," the blue medic said gruffly. "I'll take her off your hands. Lower her to the floor, will you?"

"Sure," Erik said, distracted, and let the metal gurney fall gently to the ground. The corporal groaned faintly.

"What's wrong with her?"

"Hmm?" Erik blinked back up at the medic. "Oh, Corporal Lee. Don't rightly know. She just collapsed in the middle of a firefight, not a scratch on her."

The medic squinted at the corporal's battered insignia, then back at Erik. "She a mutant, too?"

"Yeah, low-level Blaster, makes sparklers at her fingertips, but I don't see how that could've knocked her out."

"Could've been a Reader targeting her on the field. I'll have Charles look her over. Thanks for bringing her in."

It was a clear dismissal, and the medic obviously had work to do, but Erik couldn't help asking, "Charles? You mean, Charles Xavier?"

"Yeah," the medic said, blinking. "You know him?"

"We've met," Erik said. He looked back over at where Charles was working. He had grime streaked across his face, but he seemed oblivious to the blood and filth around him. Hardly looked the Core academic now. Erik had done some asking around after their first meeting on Athens, curious, and learned that Xavier had been a genetics professor and outspoken mutant rights activist on Londinium before the war. "Didn't know he was a medic, though."

"He's a Reader," the medic said. "A good one. The mind takes as much hurt as the body, in battles like this one."

"Yeah," Erik said thoughtfully, watching as Charles released his patient's head and rocked back on his heels, clearly exhausted. "I suppose that's so." He looked back at the blue-furred medic. "I'm Lieutenant Lensherr, by the way."

"Dr. McCoy," the medic told him. "And I've got about a hundred guys hurt worse than your corporal to see to, so unless you're a Healer of some kind along with being a Kinetic, I gotta ask you to go back and do your job now so's I can do mine."

Erik nodded, but gave Charles one last glance before he went. This time, Charles looked up at just the same moment, and their eyes met. Felt like a jolt right through Erik's body. Charles seemed just as startled. After a beat, Erik sketched him a salute, and Charles cracked a tired smile.

Hello there, old friend, Charles's voice murmured directly into Erik's head. I'll see you around, I suppose?

"Count on it," Erik told him, not bothering to raise his voice enough to carry over the chaos around them. He somehow knew Charles would hear him anyway.

It was the better part of a week before Erik could come up with an excuse to visit the aid station again. The fighting was fierce, with little respite, and though he was only a lieutenant, he was one of the highest-ranked mutants in the Independent Faction and had to sit in on far too many strategy meetings. He finally got his chance when an enterprising pilot managed to slip through the blockade around Verbena's orbit with some much needed supplies. Protein, mostly, but there were a couple of crates of medical supplies as well.

"Sorry I can't haul it myself," the pilot said. He seemed an unnaturally cheerful fellow, with pale eyes and unkempt blond hair. Nothing military about him -- he claimed to be a freelance contractor -- but any port in a storm, as the saying went. "I'd lend you my mule, but, y'know, this hunk of junk's too small to fit a mule. And I gotta leave atmo before daybreak or I'm humped."

"I can take it from here," Erik assured him. "We surely appreciate your dropping in at all."

The pilot shrugged. "Least I could do. Anyway, I'll catch you on the flip side, Lehnsherr."

"Safe flying, Washburne."

Once the tiny ship had taken off again, Erik turned his attention to the crates. Not all metal, more's the pity, but plenty of nails holding the wood together. It'd do in a pinch. He levitated the crates carefully ahead of him as he strode through the predawn darkness toward the aid station.

The medic who greeted him this time was probably baseline human. She accepted the supplies gratefully, and when he asked about Charles, pointed him in the right direction. He waded between countless makeshift gurneys and did his best to ignore the sounds and smells of wounded men and women. This conditions here were nightmarish, but with the Alliance blockade around the planet and the ongoing siege, there was nowhere else to take those injured in battle. Erik swallowed back his anger at the injustice as best he could before he could accidentally rip the metal in the gurneys apart.

He found Charles sitting on the filthy floor, his back to the wall, eyes closed. Erik hesitated, wary of waking him, but Charles smiled wearily and beckoned him over without opening his eyes.

"Not sleeping," he said. "Just resting a moment. Long day."

"It's nearly dawn," Erik pointed out.

"As I said." Charles did look up at him then, the smile becoming a little less strained and more real. "Have a seat, won't you? You're too tall, you're already making my neck hurt."

Erik did, ignoring the grime and rubble. At least the aid station was in slightly better condition than the front lines. Then he realized he had no idea why he'd sought Charles out at all. They didn't really know one another -- had only really spoken the once, months back -- and had little enough in common beyond both being mutants in a human-dominated war. "How's Corporal Lee doing?" he asked, snatching on the first topic that sprang to mind.

"Well enough. She speaks quite highly of you, you know."

Erik frowned. "I hardly know her. She hasn't been under my command long."

"You don't realize the effect you can have on people," Charles murmured, eyes slipping back closed. "But no matter. You'll be getting Jubilation back tomorrow, probably -- that is, Corporal Lee. Isn't that a lovely name, though? Imagine the hopes her parents must have had for her, to gift her with a name like that."

"Bit of a mouthful, though."

Charles smiled again. "She prefers Jubilee."

"So what was wrong with her?"

The smile vanished, and Charles looked at him again, expression grim. "There's an Alliance Reader targeting Independent mutants. Well, 'Reader' is most likely his classification, but it's not quite accurate. He's more of an illusionist, but he gets right into your head and...mucks about with it. Extremely unpleasant. I can sense him, but I can't Read him -- he's blocking me somehow. But judging by his work -- on Lee, as well as a handful of other mutants so far, none in your brigade -- his powers are somewhat limited. He can only affect one or two minds at a time. And I believe he needs to be in relatively close range. But he can do quite a lot of damage all the same."

"How do you know it's a man?"

Charles shrugged. "It's hard to describe to a non-psionic, but you'll have to trust me on this."

"Then we'll have to take the wei xian dong wu out," Erik said flatly, already strategizing in his head. He hated attacking fellow mutants, but any mutant who sided with the Alliance and deliberately targeted his own kind needed to be stopped. "What else can you tell me about him?"

"Precious little, I'm afraid," Charles sighed. "I'm sorry. I'll keep working on him. There must be a way to break through his shields."

Erik eyed him consideringly. "Just how strong a Reader are you? No one's ever said."

Charles arched an eyebrow, showing a hint of sly humor. "Officially, Level 5."

"Respectable. Unofficially?"

"Stronger," was all Charles would say. "And you? Your file lists you as a Kinetic, but I know how woefully limited the standard mutant classification system can be."

Erik held up a hand, palm up. His dog tags unclasped themselves from around his neck and danced in the open air instead, twirling rapidly. "I can control metal of any kind."

"That's marvelous, Erik," Charles said, with sincere admiration. "Is it strictly objects made of metal, or does it relate to magnetism as well? Could you manipulate magnetic fields, for instance?"

Erik blinked. His tags returned to their proper place, settling together with a faint clink. "I'm not sure. I've never thought of it in those terms. These days, I mostly just use it to stop bullets."

"Also useful, I'm sure," Charles murmured, expression darkening somewhat. He leaned back against the wall, but didn't release Erik from his steady gaze. "You're quite a fascinating man, Erik."

"Hardly," Erik said with a short laugh. "Kinetics are a dime a dozen. And apart from that, I'm just another soldier."

"Not at all, and not only because of your mutation," Charles insisted. "The way you talk, for example. I know you grew up out on the Rim, and you mimic those speech patterns in front of others, but when we're alone you speak with Core-educated grammatical precision, with hardly any border slang at all, and I can't place your accent. Your Mandarin has a border twang to it, though." His eyes were intent, but he didn't seem to be Reading Erik at all. Would've been a far easier way to get quick answers than this straightforward interrogation. Erik found himself respecting the man's open curiosity -- had an honesty to it that appealed to him.

Not that he was willing to give Charles the full story.

"I'm from Dresden," Erik said. "One of Dyton's moons. Kept up our people's old traditions, going back to Earth-That-Was. Didn't hear much English or Mandarin growing up. Learned the English language properly once I had the chance to. Mandarin I only picked up as slang."

That ought to do well enough for explanation. No need to go into details about the isolation of his home settlement, the lack of basic amenities, the hunger and disease and no one from the Alliance ever noticing or caring what happened to one measly moon that had never bothered conforming with their culture in the first place. How the ship led by the man calling himself Klaus Schmidt had seemed a godsend to the village elders. How wrong they'd all been to trust him. There were no settlements on Dresden anymore. A century of history wiped out, hardly even a blip in the info stream of the Cortex. Charles had probably never even known Dyton had terraformed moons. And Erik couldn't blame him for it, of course. He knew where the true blame lay.

Erik had learned proper English from Schmidt, along with how to harness his burgeoning powers, and how to kill. And how to hate. And once he'd gotten away from Dyton, he'd found a universe as intolerant of biological differences as of cultural, slapping those rutting classification labels on any mutant they came across and penning up the ones strong enough to be considered a threat. Erik hadn't been able to save his family or neighbors, but mutants were also his people, and he damn well wasn't about to let the Alliance stamp them out, too.

Charles had once called his beliefs idealistic. Erik thought himself ruthlessly pragmatic. The mutant utopia he envisioned for his Brotherhood had to exist, because it was their only chance at survival. He would kill as many Alliance soldiers as necessary to make it so.

"I see," Charles said softly, and he looked like he understood more than Erik was saying aloud. If he really was that powerful a Reader, Erik's strongest thoughts might've bled through whether or not Charles meant to listen in. The notion didn't bother him nearly as much as it should've. Charles thought him fascinating? Well, the feeling was mutual.

"Why are you here?" Erik demanded. "You had a good life in the Core; I know, I asked around. Powerful family, cushy job -- you could've buried yourself in your studies and missed the war entirely. And you're no soldier. I thought you were just a negotiator. What in the seven hells are you doing working as a medic in the middle of a battlefield?"

"The same as you, in my own way," Charles said. "Anything I can."

"I thought we Browncoats were just greedy." It came out harsher than he'd intended. Well, so be it.

Charles winced. "There's no avarice in wanting to build a better life for yourself and your people. I'm sorry if I said it badly before, on Athens. I suppose I rather envied you."

That took Erik aback. "What could you possibly envy about me?"

"Your fire," Charles said quietly. "Your passion. The strength of your beliefs. I spent years being worn down by endless reports of injustice, the indifference of my peers, the scorn of Core officials. Any idealism I once possessed -- well, my sister tells me I've become a mindless cog in the oppressive Alliance machine. I suppose she's right. I'm just grateful she's still too young for the Browncoats to let her enlist, but it's only a matter of time, and I've no doubt this war will still be dragging on by the time she attains her majority." He scrubbed a hand across his face. "I'm sorry, I'm digressing, aren't I? Wo de ma, I haven't slept in..."

He trailed off, and Erik found himself reaching out in spite of himself, resting a hand on Charles's shoulder. "Charles?"

Charles sighed, leaning into his touch ever so slightly. "Erik, why did you seek me out today?"

Because I had to, Erik almost said, then wondered where the thought had come from. "I don't rightly know. You're...different. Suppose I got tired of talking to soldiers all the time. Why did you let me?"

Charles smiled faintly. "To remind myself of why I'm here at all."

"I don't understand."

Charles didn't respond for long enough that Erik thought he might not at all. When he finally did speak, it was in a low, strained tone. He still wasn't looking at Erik. "There are more than sixty patients in this station right now," he said slowly, deliberately. "At least a dozen of them are near to death, and I'm meant to heal them. I can't put up my shields. I can't block a single one of them out. The pain, the heartache, the hopelessness -- it's all I can hear, all the time, and this war isn't ending anytime soon. And then there's you." Charles finally met Erik's eyes. "You've no notion how wondrous your mind is, do you? There is so much good in you, Erik. I've seen it. No matter the horrors you've endured, the bloodshed and humiliation and persecution, you still truly believe in a better world. You still have hope for the future. Before I met you, I think I'd nearly forgotten what that felt like."

Erik's chest felt tight and strange, like all the air had been pushed out of his lungs. He didn't think he could look away from Charles if he tried. "We've hardly met. What do you know about me?"

"Nothing. Everything." Charles offered him a wry smile. "I'm a Reader. We make friends differently than normal folk."

"Are we friends, then?" The word tasted strange on Erik's tongue. He didn't have friends, exactly. Allies, yes. Comrades-in-arms. Those he commanded and those he followed, and those he simply fought alongside of. Friend, though, that was a word from a different time, as lost to him as his mother's voice or the scrolls of the Torah.

Charles regarded him steadily. "I hope so."

There was no glass in the battered lobby windows any longer, but yellow light spilled through the gaps in the stones. Somewhere, the sun must have been rising.

"Ta ma de," Erik swore, clambering to his feet. "I was supposed to lead the dawn patrol."

"And Sergeant Jenkins is having the sort of nightmare that'll rip his stitches open with thrashing about if I don't ease him out of it," Charles remarked. He sighed, looking far older than his twenty-odd years. "No rest for the weary, I suppose."

Erik offered him a hand, and Charles allowed him to help pull him to his feet. His hand was soft, uncalloused. Even after releasing him, Erik's fingers tingled faintly with the memory of his touch.

"Tell Corporal Lee we're looking forward to having her back with us," Erik said gruffly. "And if you can Read anything else from that Alliance illusionist--"

"You'll be the first to know," Charles promised.

Beyond the battered walls of the aid station, Erik could hear the rattle of artillery fire heralding the new day.

Erik could sense a tank a mile off, could pick out enemy movements by the feel of their guns and belts and dog tags, could stop a bullet in its tracks. War was hell, but it was rarely particularly surprising.

But he never saw the Alliance mutant coming.

One minute, he was shouting orders, getting his people into place to meet the wave of Alliance troops. The next, he was hopelessly lost inside his own waking nightmares.

The physical world held no meaning for him. He was a boy again, strapped down on a wooden bunk on Schmidt's office, choking on his own saliva and terror; he was standing beside his mother's crumpled body and ripping all the metal in the room apart with the force of his rage; he was watching his village burn. Memories shifted and distorted: now he felt the shape of the pistol in his hands, and he was the one putting a bullet in his mother's brain. He was shoved out the airlock of the Caspartina, blood freezing instantly in the vacuum of space. He was standing alone before a firing squad in Alliance gunmetal gray and he couldn't feel any of the metal, none of it. At the head stood a lean, haggard man with mismatched eyes -- one blue, one green -- and a cruel twist to his lips. He lifted a hand, and the soldiers fired, and he still couldn't sense anything and the bullets were zipping toward him and he couldn't stop them and the impacts of a thousand different stings ripped his body open--

No! a voice echoed in his mind, and he thought he ought to recognize it but nothing had any meaning any more. You will not have him.

Someone else was there, but Erik couldn't see properly, blood filling his eyes like tears. The haggard man screamed, high and shrill, like a child. The shriek was endless, agonizing, piercing. Erik was burning alive, could feel the flesh melting from his bones. The scream ended, sheared off like a string being cut, and he was drowning instead, lungs bursting with the desperate need for breath, could no longer tell which way was up or see anything through the inky darkness of the unforgiving waters (or was it the endless black of space?) and he was drowning, drowning, drowning--

Erik! Erik, none of this is real. You must calm your mind.

There was no light, no air, no metal -- he couldn't breathe--

Erik, please. Let it go. Come back to me. I've got you.

He oriented himself toward the voice like a compass seeking out true north, and struggled out of the darkness.

The next he was aware of were two warm hands cupping his face, fingertips massaging small circles at his temples. He blinked awake to look straight up into the bluest eyes he'd ever seen.

"Erik," Charles breathed, both inside his head and outside of it. "Thank God."

Erik's throat felt raw, as though he were the one who had been screaming. "What happened?" he croaked out, struggling to sit up. His whole body felt battered.

"You were targeted by the Alliance Reader." Charles dropped his hands from Erik's face, snaking an arm around his torso in support, helping him to sit. He left his palm pressed into the small of Erik's back. His eyes never left Erik's. "I heard you from half a mile away. Your people got you off the front lines, at least. You're in your own bunk, such as it is."

"The Reader--"

"Dead," Charles said flatly. "I shut down his mind. A Browncoat took care of the rest."

Erik blinked at him. "I thought you didn't believe in violence."

Charles tightened his grip on Erik's back. "I suppose you were right after all. Some things are worth fighting for."

They were both very still for a long moment, staring at one another. The space between them felt thick and charged with potential, like the air before a storm. Outside, gunfire crackled like lightning, and something deep within Erik snapped. He surged forward, grasping at Charles's shoulders. Charles's free hand came up to cradle the back of his skull, fingers carding through his short hair, and then Erik was pulling him into a hard kiss. It wasn't tentative nor chaste -- Charles's mouth immediately opened to his, hot and sweet, stubble rasping against Erik's chin. He felt as though he were drowning all over again, unable to get enough oxygen, but this time, he never wanted it to end.

I couldn't let him have you, Charles whispered in his mind, not needing to pause between kisses to speak. Not when I've hardly had the chance to know you.

"Selfish," Erik muttered into Charles's mouth, running his hands up and down the surprisingly strong lines of Charles's back and shoulders. His own body still ached from the psychosomatic remnants of the mental assault, but he found it difficult to care.

"Very much so," Charles agreed, pulling away ever so slightly. Erik immediately missed the taste of him. His thumb stroked the nape of Erik's neck. "You see, I'd like to believe that we can build a better society out of the ashes of this one, but I don't think I can do it alone."

Erik pulled back further, wincing as his body protested the shift. He needed to sleep for about a week. No wonder Corporal Lee had been out of commission for so long after her own psychic attack. But he gripped Charles's shoulder as strongly as he could manage. "You're not alone, Charles."

Charles smiled brighter than Erik had ever seen. It took years off his face. For the first time, Erik thought, he was actually seeing the young man Charles truly was. "No," Charles said warmly. "I suppose I'm not. And neither are you."

And Erik was surprised to realize that for the first time in many years, no, he really wasn't. The battle raged on beyond these four flimsy walls, artillery rattling in extended bursts, his fellow Independents fighting a war with impossible odds and little expectation of victory, and a migraine of truly epic proportions was starting to build at the base of his skull. But for all that, he supposed he was having a pretty good day.