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Theme and Variations: War

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Brick and mortar and stone, closing in on him.

He can hear his footfalls, rapidfire panicked, and he draws a shallow breath that only makes the pain in his side throb more wildly. Like a lance thrust into his lungs, so he can’t get the air he needs, so he can’t run any faster, when he needs to escape.

It’s not even his own life he’s worried about.

Information in his pockets, the corner of a strip of paper poking out of the lining of his suit trousers. One more piece of the puzzle. No such things as keys to the puzzle; neither counterintelligence nor codebreaking works that way, and he knows it, has had it pounded into his head over and over again, till he thinks he might finally be grasping the real truth of it, which is this: that there are no such things as ecstatic cries of Eureka!, because there are no such things as catastrophic discovery.

Instead there are ears listening and minds working and bits of data breaking down, gradually, over long nights and agonizing hours. Sifting and sifting and sifting, monumental amounts of patience that may or may not exist, and, eventually, if they’re smart and if they’re lucky and if they’re good, they get something that might break one more piece of the code. They might get one step closer to the cleartext.

But he has to run, now, and he has to survive, just long enough to make sure the strip of paper in his pocket gets to someone who needs to see it and work on it and figure it out.

And he’s in pain, his hand is so wet and hot and starting to get sticky, and the darkness that wraps around him is starting to blur around the edges.

Charles Xavier is out of options.

Doorways just ahead, one of them deep enough to tuck himself into - or at least he hopes that it will be. He half-collapses onto someone’s stoop. There is a bare lightbulb above him, but it, too, is on its last legs: as he watches, the filament wire glows a faint red-orange and then it sputters out entirely, and he’s left in the semidark, waiting.

Footsteps, voices, cold anger.

Charles grits his teeth, tries to huddle in on himself. His hand comes away from the gouge in his arm with a quiet, unhappy squelch. He can feel the blood flowing sluggishly down his arm, pooling in and on his cuff. He spares a moment to think of the ruined cuff link - it would have to be ruined, since blood can be unusually corrosive, and he’s had more than enough time to know the truth of that - and then he has other things to worry about.

The wound is in his left arm, and most other people would count that a blessing, because most people are right-handed. But Charles’s particular talents lead him to rely on both of his hands - the right for when he has to shoot, the left for when he has to fight in close combat - and now he’s in a position where he doesn’t have a gun and all he has is the stiletto that he has to hold on to in spite of the flowing blood, in spite of the open wound.

The footsteps pursuing him are much closer now. Much slower. Little time remains between now and discovery.

Some part of him hopes that it’s the man Section 8 calls Raider who finds him. A man who hides his ugliness behind a series of social smiles and affability wielded like a blunt weapon. Section 8 wants the man dead, and Charles has one big personal score to settle with him.

Raider is responsible for ferreting out one of the most critical parts of Section 8’s operations. They’ve lost a dozen people to him already, the people who listen in for new transmissions and record them and report them. People they can’t spare and people they’ll have problems replacing.

Including Charles’s own half-brother, the family he hadn’t known he’d had - and now never would.

David Xavier.

There are still too many nights where Charles wakes up screaming, when the memories hold him down in their stranglehold grip: the trucks, and the woman in the bloodstained uniform knocking on his door, and David’s corpse. A brutal way to die: one single large-caliber bullet in his gut. It would have been painful and prolonged and he would have been conscious for a long time. Conscious and screaming.

And sometimes, in the murk of his nightmares, Charles screams David’s name back, the way he imagines David must have been calling for him.

For his family.

If he can take Raider out, if he can put his stiletto into that man’s heart or eye or throat, he’ll twist the knife and kill the man and call it a fair trade, even if it kills him in the process.

“I know you’re here,” says a voice, now, and Charles can’t help but bare his teeth.

The voice of the man who had been monopolizing the attention of the host at the party that Charles has fled. The voice Charles has been listening to and following around for weeks, months, he’s lost count.

The voice of Raider.

The sweeping arc of a flashlight in use.

Charles blinks, fights to be able to see, and blood coats his fingers and the grip of his stiletto, and he takes a deep breath and forces himself to his knees.

“Come on out,” says Raider, almost gently. “Come on out and show yourself, and I’ll identify you and you’ll die. Something quick. I’m in a hurry tonight.”

Charles hangs on to his knife. Thinks of David hunched over a desk, with pads of paper stacked on one side and half a dozen chewed pencils in a battered wooden cup within easy reach. A multiplication of cups of coffee, stone-cold dregs, accumulating at his elbow. His quiet voice, muttering, sounding so much like their father.

The click of the flashlight being turned off is loud in Charles’s straining ears.

Raider is thin and angular and has buck teeth. None of those things match the obscenely expensive tuxedo he’d seen earlier. A smug smile, visible in the shadowed night.

Charles knows he has to make the one and only stroke count.

“Come on,” Raider says again. “Give me back what you took from me, and die here, and I can get back to the party. I left a most interesting conversation hanging and I want to follow it to its end.”

An offered hand.

Charles hisses and tenses and lurches forward, ungainly, but he knows where he’s going now.

The flashlight catches him, a hard blow to the side of his head. It doesn’t matter. Charles murmurs his brother’s name - “David” - and smiles, and he drives the knife into his enemy’s right thigh. It takes everything he still has left in him to follow through, until the blade finally scrapes against bone.

The sound should have been ugly and jarring.

It’s music to Charles’s ears.

Raider falls silently, to his credit: his mouth is frozen wide open in the scream that never came out.

Charles takes the stiletto back, but it takes all his strength, and he is barely able to crawl back and away, awkward on his hands and feet. His head is full of clouds and fatigue and stars shaped like pain, and his entire front is now coated in Raider’s blood, and somehow he finds the presence of mind to make sure he still has the information that was the whole point of the mission, before he falls flat on his back. The stoop and the door might as well both be stone beneath and around him.

He wishes he had the strength to get up and spit on the cooling corpse nearby. “That was for my brother, you son of a bitch.”

Charles passes out just as the sirens shatter the night with their eerie two-tone wail, and he doesn’t have time to worry or hope that they’re the right sirens, that they’re his backup coming and not that of Raider.

All that matters is this:

Another enemy down, and hundreds more to go.

///

Charles limps into a familiar part of the Section 8 offices to muted applause, and to Jean standing by just in case he should fall down, and to an envelope sitting on the desk that he occasionally thinks of as his.

He keeps a far more Spartan desk than his brother ever did; there isn’t even an inkwell for the pen he carries around in his pockets, a battered steel-barreled thing, sturdy and scratched up.

But the chair is comfortable, and it is a nice change from several weeks stuck in bed while broken bones set and stitches healed into pale scars, and he sinks into it with a grateful sigh.

Sean scoots his chair over from one of the other desks. His face is a mass of smiles and freckles and red hair. “Good to have you back, boss.”

“For a given value of ‘back’,” Charles says, wryly. “I don’t even have clearance to go back into the field yet.”

“And yet there is a file on your desk,” Jean says.

Betsy joins them, leaning on one corner of the desk. “I hope it’s something interesting.”

“If by interesting,” Charles says, “you mean dangerous.”

“But that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it,” Sean says, rolling his eyes when Jean snorts.

Before Charles can say or do anything, someone else walks in through the door, and everyone around Charles jumps to their feet. Sean even offers a crisp salute.

Charles shakes his head, and keeps gripping the armrests, and doesn’t trust his own knees.

“Charles,” Emma Frost says. Everyone else gets out of her way, and no one questions why she beckons Charles to his feet. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Likewise,” Charles says. He knows his voice is shaking, and leaves it at that. Fatigue still gnaws relentlessly at his nerves. “And again, may I thank you for sending the car for me at just the right moment.”

“I may not be able or allowed to play favorites, Charles, but I do want to look after my people, and you are one of the best that we have got.”

“I do what I can with the missions you send me on.”

That gets him a faint smirk, and Charles is suddenly grateful when she motions him back into his seat.

The facts about Emma Frost are these: that she single-handedly came up with the entire playbook behind Section 8, that she’s actually been able to kill people with her stylish shoes, and that no one in the government or outside of it (or in the undercroft of it) has a better poker face than she does.

Certainly that calm of hers can be broken - Charles and the others have heard her shout loudly enough, often enough, and been deeply, profoundly grateful that it wasn’t them being reamed out - but no one else has ever, ever seen her break that stony face for something as trivial as a smile.

A moment’s further silence, and then Emma Frost says, “Your country may not know that it owes you a great debt, but you may rest assured that I do.”

“Hence the new assignment, I assume,” Charles says, still trying to get past being thunderstruck at her.

“Yes. Hence the new assignment.” Her hands are still shapely despite the tell-tale crookedness of her knuckles, and she picks up the envelope still sitting on Charles’s desk and offers it to him. “I give it to you in the hope that it will be an easy task.”

Charles finds himself muttering, “No such thing,” as he tears the seal open.

Inside the envelope is a folder, and inside the folder is a dossier. A flutter of onionskin pages, dark ink in neatly monospaced letters.

The only other item in the folder is a small photograph, which Charles passes to Jean when she holds her hand out for it.

“Have I seen this person before?” is the first thing she asks.

Charles looks up at her. “You’re the one with the photographic memory,” he says, “you tell me.”

She tilts the photograph into a better patch of light. “Does this man have a name?”

“I shall leave you and yours to your excellent devices,” Emma Frost says, then, and strides out.

Charles’s attention is quickly reclaimed by the dossier. “Yes, he does. Erik Lehnsherr. Now that I come to think of it his name does sound familiar. Betsy, could you - ”

“On it,” Betsy says as she strides quickly to the boxes and boxes full of neatly filed newspapers in the back of the office. “What am I looking for?”

“The music and culture sections,” Jean says. “Lehnsherr. That’s a name I haven’t heard for a while. There was quite a big to-do about him, some two or three years ago.”

“What’d he do?” Sean asks as he hauls his portable typewriter over. Tell-tale sounds of flexing and knuckling as he gets ready to take notes. “Drink too much, or wreck a concert hall, take a hammer to someone or something?”

“Hardly.” Jean turns the photo in his direction, and Charles raises an eyebrow at the dark-tinted sunglasses. “He was a musical prodigy, until he was blinded.”

Charles’s eyebrow twitches. “Deliberately or accidentally?”

“Unknown,” Betsy says, and drops a handful of yellowing newspaper sections onto the desk. “Car accident, in the dead of the night, just before an important performance for some charitable cause or another. Here’s one of the first reports.” She clears her throat and begins to read from her stack. “Piano prodigy Erik Lehnsherr remains in hospital following the terrible accident of - here’s a date, Jean, exactly three years ago yesterday.”

“Let me guess,” Jean says, “no one saw the car coming, and the driver has not been brought to justice?”

“Not quite.” Charles takes another section from the pile, scans the blurring lines of type. “Apparently the first thing this Lehnsherr did upon waking up was tell people exactly who tried to run him over. That person was literally the last thing Lehnsherr ever saw.”

“And who was it?”

“Anyone we know?” Sean adds.

“All too well.” Charles turns the section around and points to a paragraph. “None other than our old friend Sebastian Shaw.”

“I’ll - just go get those files, shall I?” Betsy asks.

Charles frowns at the name in the newspaper, and thinks of the man whom Section 8 has been pursuing for years. “Please do.”

“And - I don’t get it,” Sean says. “What is the connection between Lehnsherr and Shaw, other than a hit-and-run that is likely to be true but isn’t going to mean we’ll get to see the scumbag finally tossed into a jail cell?”

Finally, Charles picks up the top sheet of the dossier. Underneath the usual EYES ONLY headers is a brief biography of Erik Lehnsherr, but he skips past that to the box near the bottom, which is filled with Emma Frost’s tightly legible shorthand.

Section 8 was established in order to defend the people of Providence from malicious elements based in or around the semi-hostile nation of Genosha. It is the agency’s task to uncover the links between these malicious elements, and to find their backers, through use of counterintelligence strategies. Sebastian Shaw, codename ‘Hornet’, has long been suspected to be one of the main players working against Providence. With elections looming, we expect Shaw/‘Hornet’ to step up his activities, and we need to intercept his messages and signals quickly.

Erik Lehnsherr has a grudge against Sebastian Shaw, as he blames the man for the accident that took his eyesight. This could be used as leverage to allow him to work for Section 8.

“They mean to put him in the Morse group,” Charles says quietly. “A musical prodigy, who was going to be making his living by his chosen instrument.”

“The piano,” Betsy supplies, helpfully.

“Which means - what? He can hear things maybe the rest of us can’t?” Sean says.

“Seems implausible,” Jean mutters as she fixes herself a cup of coffee. “But then, Section 8 in and of itself is implausible. When do we get moving, Charles?”

“As soon as you can complete the dossier and get me a cup of something to settle my nerves,” Charles says. “Let’s just hope I don’t have to, I don’t know, chase this Erik Lehnsherr down, or something of the sort. I don’t think my knees could take the strain.”