All our past times
The brick wall hadn't changed since the last time Erik had driven through the iron gate, and the gate hadn't changed either, save a coat of oil to smooth the hinges when Erik tested them. – save the sign hung proudly on it. He liked the gate, mostly iron and the odd flurry of slag, little carbon to clutter up the impression of the metal. Aside from the gate, and odd hints of oxides in the brick and stone, Erik found no more metal – no cameras, no wires, no security.
Idiot Charles. Erik shook his head and levitated over the gate.
An idiot am I? Amusement, not his own, laced through him, ruffling his thoughts like wind over a still pond. I don't think anyone who comes to beg sanctuary has any business criticizing those he's asking for it.
What good is a sanctuary if it isn't safe? Erik half-expected to find his body turned around and marched back over the wall; he continued to glide, settling on the grass, striding purposefully toward the mansion. The leather grip of his briefcase was slick in his hand, the sweat uncomfortable against the cool of late morning, and the briefcase felt heavier than it was.
The lawns rolled on, green and opulent with the spring, vast skirts in which the mansion reposed, surrounded by its embroidery of gardens and forests. Erik stopped at the edge of the drive, boots crunching on the gravel, and stared up at the house, which stared back at him fearlessly with its huge windows and its own permanence. A few shouts, not panicked, drifted on the breeze.
It's all of ours, Charles had said the first time they'd stood outside those walls together. Only the rich could make that kind of statement, a casual offering – as if the giving were nothing at all.
Only, it was something. It had become something.
Erik drifted closer. The shouts resolved into playfulness, coming from one of the wide yards down near the labyrinth, the one that looked out over the fields that ran down to the satellite dish. That dish still loomed, its dish turned toward the house like a single, anxious eye. Erik wanted to tear it apart. He wanted to leave. He wanted to find out what the shouting was.
Of those three, he could do one. When he rounded the corner of the wall and crossed through the shrubbery, he saw it: six kids, all teenagers, playing basketball on a newly-minted court, one boy eeling gracefully through the defenders while one girl chased him with sparks cast from her fingers, all of them supervised by –
The name slipped and slid, not wanting to belong to him. He'd been Magneto for three years, so many other names when ghosting through the human world. More often he'd been nameless – more numbers for ten years, after he'd sworn never to be a number again.
"Erik," Darwin said again, advancing through the now-frozen students, kicking the forgotten basketball out of the way. "Jesus, that's – it's – you."
"I should be saying that." Unless it was Mystique, this was indisputably Darwin. "I suppose the next question is how."
Darwin shrugged. "Some adaptations take longer, I guess. A few years ago, I heard – well, felt, something, anyway – the Prof, when Cerebro went haywire. Couldn't believe it; it was the first thing I'd known in ages, that wasn't drifting like a bad trip. That gave me a place to start looking, and next thing I knew, it's 1976, I managed to miss the war, and I'm standing naked in the Prof's fountain."
Erik breathed in once, deep and hard. The first loss, the first of many; the only one to be un-lost of those he couldn't protect. He shut his eyes against the pain of that, and against the list of names consigned to Trask's abattoirs.
"I'm glad," he said, and was astonished to realize he was, for the first time since – no, don't answer that. It was the kind of happiness that cut; Erik wondered if it was possible to feel something unalloyed, to have emotion like iron purged of its impurities. "I'm truly – "
They'd attracted an audience, the six teenagers who, distracted from their game, were gazing speculatively at Erik. He stared straight back, refusing to be daunted, refusing to acknowledge the thrill of disbelief – he would not call it happiness – when he realized they were, all of them, mutants, they had to be, the otter-slick boy with red-in-black eyes and a girl with purple hair no dye could create, a blond girl popping flashes of light like bubble gum.
"Are you someone's dad?" the first boy asked. The red-and-black eyes, seeing adult and boring, flickered over him with teenaged dismissiveness. "You'd talk to Professor Xavier about admissions. Professor Darwin, Jubilee's cheating again."
"Like you have room to talk," the lightshow girl said, and there was a brief tussle over the ball that Darwin ended.
"I know that," Erik said, clinging to the slippery slope of patience. "I want to know where I can find him."
"How should I know? I ain't his keeper."
"Was he asking you?" Darwin said.
"Yeah, was he asking you?" Jubilee echoed, to the delight of the other kids, who whispered and giggled.
Darwin gestured to the house. "You probably know where to find him. Although," he hesitated, "I'm not 100% up on what went on while I was out, but Alex's class for plasmakinetics is wrapping up in ten minutes, and Hank's bio class is on the first floor and finishing at the same time, so, y'know, you might want to hurry."
"To my own execution?" Erik asked. Never mind Charles had spared him once; he shrugged against the memory, that Charles could have delivered him over to the human authorities, and had chosen not to.
"Charles might be faster than Alex or Hank," Darwin said. "Or at least less messy."
Behind him, the ruckus was growing louder, and the ball, still clutched in Remy's hands, glowed menacingly. Darwin sighed. "I don't think the Prof knew he was going to be spending this much on sports equipment," he said, and with a finality that said he'd washed his hands of Erik and Erik's fate, turned around to end the argument.
That left Erik to head up to the house, through the odd combination of settled permanence and change. The bones of the place remained the same, all the metal of the place settled – or nearly all of it; Erik sensed dimly a great sleeping beast of metal, but couldn't grip it, not through muffling layers of polymer.
He followed the path around to the front, through the wide-open door and into the cool of the atrium after the bright spring outside. Voices echoed, ghostlike, from rooms lying down one wing – no, not ghostlike; these were living, unlike so many, voices raised in question and deeper tones answering, words bouncing back and forth.
You might want to hurry, Charles said, the amusement darker now. Hank might cave on letting the children out early for recess.
Erik did not hurry. He turned around the main staircase and stepped through, past the sign that read Headmaster's and Admissions – Professor C.F. Xavier, and into a room that had changed, its features rearranging itself around the skeleton of smooth-paneled walnut and brass. He gestured and the door shut behind him with finality.
The desk he remembered, and the furniture, and the man sitting behind the desk he certainly remembered, hair cut to respectability now instead of the mop of three years ago or the soft tangle he'd smoothed out ten years gone. The blue eyes he remembered absolutely, but not the expression in them.
"You can't decide whether you came here to ask for my help or to argue with me," Charles said. "But still, welcome all the same, Erik." He studied Erik silently, and Erik felt nothing, no memories stirring up, no emotion of his own or Charles's. He swallowed back the fear, felt it alchemize to anger in his stomach. Charles –
"Or should I call you Max Eisenhardt?" Charles propelled himself around the corner of his desk. Even with the wheelchair he loomed, dominating his space the way he'd once done ten years ago, undiminished. Charles's lip curled. "Or should I call Hank so he can have his turn with you before I send you back to D.C., if you're going to think like this?"
Erik shrugged and thought his apology. "The last time you were in my mind – "
"I did what I had to, to save myself. And I could have left you for the authorities, but as you need to be reminded, I didn't."
"Does your mercy stop there, then?" Erik remained standing, a ploy for advantage, and Charles saw through it with the precision of a knife slashing through gauze.
"My mercy," Charles said, tasting the word, "has to depend on many things. On whether you've decided to bring danger here, to a safe place we've made for our children. On whether you're willing to listen to common sense. On whether," Charles hesitated, and the adamant blue eyes wavered, a moment, "I could possibly trust you again."
He did sit down now. Charles had fixed him, pinned him in place like a specimen, like a small helpless thing. One day, Charles said in that inescapable voice, the one that hid in Erik's subconscious, that had ridden with him and refused to be dislodged even by the helmet, when he'd been Magneto and nothing else – not Erik, not some hybrid of Magneto and Erik. We were together one day, and you went and did what you did.
"I know," Erik said, hating the tightness of his voice. Surely Charles had to be cutting off his breath, but no – no, the thing in his chest and his throat wasn't Charles.
You know, after Paris, Hank said he thought time was immutable, that the future Logan had revealed to us was destined, no matter what we did to change it. He said perhaps Raven couldn't be stopped – that she was a killer, through and through, and we'd be brought to ruin because of her nature. Charles wheeled closer, and Erik wanted to reach out to stop him and freeze those wheels in their place, but couldn't, not through the racketing incoherence in his head.
"He was wrong." Charles had positioned himself by the arm of Erik's chair, so their arms brushed, so he felt Charles's breath and the weight of his presence. He wanted to look away like a submissive dog, but found he couldn't; he had to look at Charles, whose blue eyes hooked and compelled him and drew his gaze like a fish on a lure. "It was you, Erik. You who wouldn't change. You almost sent us down that road."
"I only wanted – "
What you wanted and what you accomplished are not the same.
"Don't lecture me, Charles. I won't stand for it."
"Then you can sit for it," Charles snapped. "If you've come here to bring enemies down on us, to prove your point one last time, then I'll hand you over to them myself." The hand that closed around Erik's wrist was strong as steel, new calluses on the pads of Charles's fingers that didn't come from holding a pen. "We are not tools in your one-man war against humanity, Erik. I'm not going to have you turning my students into another Raven, or Hank or Logan."
How did you know I'm only one man? Erik wanted to ask.
Charles snorted. "I know because I read the news. And because I have parents calling me every day, asking about tuition and scholarships, and what the curriculum is. I know because there's a lovely woman who can make flowers bloom just by willing them to, and she runs a florist's shop in town all the socialites adore."
"I came here," Erik said, once he was sure he could speak again. "Because I wanted, despite your determination to believe otherwise, to talk."
"Again, what you want and what you end up accomplishing are often not the same thing." Mercifully, Charles sat back. "But you were coming to complain to me about my article. How did you find it?"
"It showed up in front of my hotel room door in Brussells," Erik said. He leaned down, hating the vulnerable crawling of the back of his neck, like showing his belly, and flipped the briefcase open, reached in to pull out the now-dogeared and marked photostat.
"'New observations on the frequency and nature of X-gene based mutations in humans,'" Charles said without looking at the first page.
"You said mutations in humans," Erik said, latching on to the first point of contention. He found himself able to smirk at Charles. "In humans, Charles, really?"
"We aren't a separate species," Charles said, refusing to be baited and meeting Erik's challenge squarely, lance set and unwavering. "At least, not yet. My research shows all mutants I could account for were born either from two human parents or," and Charles knew, the pause said he knew what Erik had suspected, "from one mutant parent and one human. In both cases, at least one parent carried the variant I call the X-gene."
"Very modest of you." Typical Charles, typical as whiskey and that damned smile.
"I was thinking more along the lines of how Becquerel referred to the mysterious rays that allowed a chunk of uranium ore to develop his film as X-rays, but I do like the coincidence."
Erik shook his head. "I suppose you think this will help, somehow. Your eternal mission of enlightenment and understanding for all. It won't turn into a witch hunt to track down those with dangerous genes, into attempts to profile mutants, their families – "
"No, it won't," Charles said with the certainty of a man who's seen the future or can reach out and shape it for himself. "It won't because mutants have families, have parents and spouses and children they love. And their families love them. You perennially underestimate – "
"I've had reason to, Charles!" Erik was gripping the armrest tight, and holding the rest of the metal in the room firmly enough to tear it from the walls, to crumple the delicate heads of the chessmen on their board. "I've seen what happens when people see difference and evil at the same time."
"Your mother saw difference." Erik sucked in a breath, and there came the old memory, the fulcrum of his power: his mother steadying his hand as he bent the shamash to the next candle, her soft voice instructing him. Your mother saw difference and saw her son, whom she loved.
Erik wondered if his mother had been a mutant, or a carrier, like Charles had said. Had she seen not difference but sameness? Seen that her son was like her beyond being German, or being Jewish? Shaw had taken those answers from him.
"The Nazis looked at me and saw inferiority, when they took me and my family to Auschwitz." The numbers still burned after all these years; he still felt the needle, evil and corrupting, lacing ink into his flesh like poison. "Your fellow Americans saw, must still see, the same thing when they look at Darwin and don't see past the color of his skin, your Civil Rights Act be damned. You can't possibly tell me they'll all look at Hank or Mystique and take them into their hearts as fellow beings."
"I'm not that stupid, or that blind." Charles rocked his wheelchair back and forth, and his impatience pricked at the back of Erik's head like too-hot sunlight. "It's why I'm stressing that mutants are humans, to give them as much of a community as I can – to give them as much protection under the law as I can. We're out in the open now, where you forced us, and there's no going back to hiding. If we're going to live openly, our lives have to be on our terms, as much as possible."
"Your terms, you mean."
"Because yours would end us." Charles's hand was back on Erik's wrist now, tightening commandingly, and Erik had to look – not because Charles's telepathy said to, but because the pressure was imperative. "Logan showed me that the Sentinels began to track down not only mutants, but humans who carried the X-gene. By his time, according to what he knew, it was nearly eighty percent of the world population. Many of the rest died of famine, disease, as collateral damage when mutants and their allies defended themselves in the cities. The Sentinels annihilated humans they had been designed to save. And I tell you again, Erik, and I'll keep telling you: your terms will bring us to a similar end, only by different means."
This is not my romantic optimism, or my naïveté, Charles added silently. The words came with a sense of loss, like lesser metals pounded out by a hammer, leaving carbon and iron behind to make the steel he saw in the man sitting next to him now. This is evolution. Disrupt a natural process, and it all comes crashing down. We come crashing down. Right now we're bound together, mutant and human, and so our futures are bound together. We'll rise, or fall, as one – and that is not poetry, not some flowery speech. It's natural law.
The blurry black type gazed back up at him when he turned his attention to the paper again, the words unchanged from the first time he had read them. "Was this your summons to me?"
"I don't spend my days looking for you, or my nights," Charles said. "I've had to move past you, Erik. I can't be – I can't afford to be the man who rescued you out of blind hope and desperation. You've scarred me twice," and looking, now, Erik saw a small, pale slash on Charles's left temple, near the place he'd touch when using his powers, "and you know what they say about fooling me a third time."
"I didn't – "
I know you didn't mean, Charles said with the kindness, the all-knowingness, that had Erik's back up instantly. And yet, here I am. You didn't 'mean' because you panicked – you refused the possibility of relying on me, on Hank and Logan and even Raven, and rushed blindly ahead on your own path. You wanted to kill my sister, Erik. You wanted to frighten the humans into attacking, and I couldn't let that happen. I still can't. Too many of us – mutants and the humans we love – would have been hurt. And now you could hurt my students, not meaning to.
"And yet, your home belongs to all of us, does it not?" Erik slipped the photocopied article back into the briefcase and closed it with a click, something similar and final settling around his heart. "Raven," a slip, but he let it stand, "once told me you had told her she would never be alone again. Of course, she also told me you were insufferable and lectured her constantly on everything you could think of. I see not much has changed."
"Maybe you need to be lectured." The light coming through the leaded windows ringed Charles's head, not beatific but dangerous, shadowing his face and making it unreadable. "Listening to yourself has gotten you exile and near-catastrophe."
"And if I listen to you?" He would not hope, not now; he didn't know the feeling, not the faint lifting of a weight in his chest.
"When have you ever listened?" Charles said with a laugh that was not humorous. "Ever since I met you, you've refused to listen to a word I say."
"And yet you wanted me to stay with you." You thought I would, up until I didn't.
"Because I saw you, Erik." And though he could not see Charles's face well, Erik knew Charles was looking at him, that steady, earnest gaze that on its own saw as much as a telepath could, the same gaze that dissected and assessed and studied. "I saw that potential in you. Now, I can't tell if I had seen it in truth, or if I'd only hoped to see it because I wanted – I wanted you to stay so very badly."
"And what do you see now?" Erik asked, forcing himself to sit up straight and meet whatever came.
For answer, Charles raised his hand, and Erik readied himself for another blow, although Charles had little room to maneuver. Instead, and far worse, Charles's fingers settled – not on his own temple but on Erik's, two firm points of middle and index fingers. And then there was Charles, making himself known, his presence filtering through Erik's cortex, seeking, seeking.
I lost my telepathy so I could gain peace, Charles told him, and the fingers shuddering against Erik's skin, the sharp and indrawn breath, suggested a sob half-caught. What Charles couldn't keep back was a gaping emptiness, a desolation that hollowed out Erik's middle and left him dazed. Something wet was on his cheek, not rain; it couldn't be tears. It didn't work. The silence was as terrible as the noise. There was no choice but pain. That's the gift that Logan's given us, that Raven made possible: we have choices other than pain, now, if we want to make them.
Charles sat back, hand falling down to the arm of his wheelchair.
"I know apologies mean nothing," Erik said as he stood. He summoned his briefcase to him. "But I am sorry, Charles. Sorrier than I can say – than I know how to say."
He hadn't begged anything from anyone since Shaw, not since he'd learned that begging only brought more pain, and he wouldn't start now. Whatever was in his mouth tasted bitter as he swallowed and knotted in his throat, like wine gone wrong, something that his body rejected taking into itself. He'd come here – not hoping, no, not that – he'd come here because it had been the last place to come to after three years finding few allies and more isolation, as absolute as the isolation of his prison.
I can't decide, Charles said, as Erik flexed his power to pull open the door.
Erik stopped, his mind attenuated, stretched between the future beyond the door and the man behind him. He didn't dare turn around, like Orpheus turning to see if Eurydice still followed.
You'll need to ask Hank's permission. And Logan's. I can't grant you forgiveness from them; that's their choice, and theirs alone. But I – Charles laughed, a rough, organic sound next to the purity of thought. I want you to stay, to see if I can forgive you. I want, because I'm still a fool, because I still – I want to see if this can be your home.
"You should forgive me now," Erik said, and the door handle trembled, as unsteady as Erik's bones felt, suddenly. "I'll likely do something to anger you in the very near future; I should start with a clean slate."
"Doubtless you will." And Erik did turn around now, and saw Charles had pivoted to look at him, that face – that familiar face, that Erik knew better than his own, knew all the vagaries of, knew the contours and texture of, knew the shades and mysteries of – open now, unbarriered in a way Erik had never thought he'd see again. "But clean slates… they aren't for us, Erik. Our past can't be erased, and it shouldn't be. Not with what we've done, or what's been done to us."
"I thought for sure you'd forgive and forget." The lightness felt dangerous, skipping across daggers or a thin crust of ice that might disintegrate under him.
"No, Erik," Charles said softly. "Not anymore. Forgive… maybe. That'll have to be good enough to go on with."
"It's more than I deserve." The admission shook something loose in him, a realization: it is more than I deserve, but it's what I need. He bowed his head, and if it was submission, so be it. "Thank you, Charles."
"Don't thank me yet," Charles said, that memorable mouth twisting wryly. "Hank will come in soon. But you're welcome, Erik. Somehow," wonder and sadness touched Charles's voice, "you always are."
That frightened him, almost as much as the future he'd seen through the arrowslit of his helmet, staring into the faces of men who would see him and his people dead. Welcome, after what I've done?
Tentative, Charles corrected, wheeling himself over to the table with its chess set, straightening a toppled rook once he got there. But yes. Come and play until Hank arrives?
"Gladly," Erik said. He set his briefcase by the door, its weight of questions still unanswered, and joined Charles at the table, settling into familiar leather, watching as Charles set the board again, anew.