Chapter 1: Raven
It starts with a rather innocuous poster. A boy of six, maybe seven, holding up a postcard-size picture of her, blue scales, red hair, yellow eyes glowing like a cat’s. She stumbles as he hands it to her, asking shyly for an autograph. Raven stares at him for two full minutes without blinking until Hank comes and takes her away. She never signs the picture.
She’s gotten better at it since then. She had to. Wouldn’t want to disappoint her adoring fans. That, and she was sick to death of listening to Charles lecturing her on the importance of public relations.
“I think it’s cute,” Hank says, shrugging.
He’s got his own fanclub, mostly consisting of teenage girls who want to pet him. Personally, Raven thinks it’s creepy as fuck, but he genuinely seems to like the attention. So why doesn’t she?
She used to cry looking in the mirror when she was a little girl. Nobody was talking about mutations or evolution back then. She was a freak, whose parents didn’t even want her. And who could blame them? She would have run away screaming if she could. She would have given anything, anything to be normal.
And then she met Charles, who wouldn’t stop staring at her in sheer delight. He made her change shapes over and over again, just for the joy of it, made sketches of her scales, read her passages out of some intimidating-looking books, and beamed at her because she was special. They had no secrets from each other. Raven didn’t just think Charles hung the moon. She thought the entire universe might have burst out of his little finger. It was more than finding a haven in the storm. She felt like she had found a perfect little world, safe and warm, just for the two of them.
Then she walked into the kitchen one evening to find Charles making out with a girl. She was fourteen by then, but it didn’t stop her from shrieking and running out, because it was completely unexpected, and how could he, with some… someone normal. Charles ran after her, of course. She slammed the door in his face. ‘Stay out of my head, Charles! Stay out! Stay out!’ — ‘Raven, what on earth is the matter? Just tell me what’s wrong?’ — ‘Stay out! You have to stay out! Promise me!’ — ‘Raven, just tell me what I did—’ — ‘Nothing, you did nothing, just promise me you’ll never read me again!’ — ‘If… if that’s what you want, of course I… I promise. Now would you please come out?’ — ‘Haven’t you better see to your human friend?’
He did come later with cookies and hot chocolate that she only just managed not to throw in his face. He looked at her like a kicked puppy, but when he asked her what was wrong, she snapped at him. He didn’t ask again. That night when Raven stripped before bed, she stared at herself in the mirror for a long time. She wasn’t marvelous anymore. She was blue and ugly again, always ugly. She hated Charles and hated herself for it.
The years that followed were a different kind of education. But every time she thought she’d learned to accept her lot in life something spilled, hot and rebellious, something that made Charles angry once he realized it wasn’t a mistake. He’d had a lot of practice wiping the memory of everyone she’d interacted with in those days. Their horror and disgust at her true form, they were all for him, and she couldn’t stop showing him. Just admit it, she thought. Admit you feel the same way. Admit, admit, admit. Charles only sighed, his anger draining, but she hated that, too. They used to be together, on the same side, partners. Now, she was a project to be managed. Something to contain. And always, always—to conceal.
Then Charles fished Erik out of the sea, dragged him into their lives like a drenched sabretooth cat, and Raven had lost Charles for good. Those girls were nothing. Even Moira with her adoring eyes and ready agreement with everything he said was nothing. Erik was everything. Erik was like a goddamn magnet—and yes, that’s how she’d come up with the name—drawing all of Charles's attention to him at all times as though nothing else existed. If she was a different person, she’d have found it hilarious. She’d never seen Charles in love before, and it was—a part of her mind acknowledged even then—hysterical seeing him so completely helpless and oblivious, striving to keep up for the first time in his life without any idea why. He could read anyone’s mind at will, and he couldn’t see it. It was funny. She didn’t feel like laughing.
Erik, of course, was an entity in his own right. He, too, looked at her in sheer admiration, but it was different from Charles's. Darker. Charles looked at her and saw someone to protect. Erik saw a weapon. It was flattering. She’d take ‘extremely capable’ over ‘weak and incompetent’ any day.
‘I want to see the real Raven,’ Erik had said and dropped a weight bar on her. Function over form. Efficiency over beauty. Efficiency as beauty. He saw himself the same way, but he didn’t have to sacrifice anything for it, did he? Neither did Charles. Nor Alex, or Sean, or Armando, or even Hank. Angel got it, hiding in plain sight but still hiding. Angel went with Shaw, and they hated her for it, but they didn’t get it, did they? It was easy, being noble and self-righteous when you didn’t have to hide. When you could pass as normal. The boys bitched at Angel when she switched sides. Raven never said anything.
She was no better than Charles where Erik was concerned, though. He said, ‘You want society to accept you, but you can’t even accept yourself.’ And he said, ‘Would you cover up a tiger?’ and ‘No more hiding’. He could read her like a book and manipulated her skillfully to his advantage. He knew the exact words to say, always perfectly balanced. Charles never learned to read people as opposed to their minds, and he failed to see that sometimes they weren’t one and the same. Erik had been learning nothing but for years, seeking out weaknesses to exploit, testing an experimenting on when to use force and when a quiet precise word would suffice. He became a master manipulator of people long before magnetic fields had bowed to his will.
In retrospect, it was funny, too. He was as unaccustomed to failure as Charles was. Yet it was with Charles that he’d used every single tool in his arsenal, every trick in the book, every hard-won and time-tested bit of knowledge—and failed. He tried honesty and failed again. Charles looked at him through the tears streaming down his face, and shook his head, and said ‘No,’ and even with that ugly-ass helmet on, she could see Erik's heart break. Never mind that her own was doing the same thing. Never let it be said that life didn’t have a fine sense of irony.
Raven was a consolation prize. She didn’t see it at the time, too wrapped up in her own emotions. He never wanted her by his side. He wanted her with him, one step behind. It was flattering that he saw her as a weapon, yes. It took years for her to realize that he saw her as nothing but. She was a tool to be used. A magnificent tool, yes, but that was all. He could no more see her as an equal than Charles did. He had played her. And when she stopped being efficient to the cause and became detrimental instead, he showed no mercy or hesitation and tried to kill her.
Would he have tried to kill Charles, she wondered, if it was his blood and not hers that Trask was after? She knew the answer, of course, and it turned her thoughts bitter. Erik was not a man of compromise. And yet the only times he ever stayed his hand was because of Charles. Back then in Cuba. And again in Washington. And again in Egypt. For a man who wanted to hear nothing Charles said, it was quite a pattern.
Unfair, she thought again, that Charles had so much. He had everything. Beauty, in as much as he cared for it. The ability to appear normal. Status, respect, acceptance. He never had to prove himself to anyone. He had a home that was his to do with as he pleased. A home he once shared with Raven, yes, but it was still his place. He could take it away if it ever pleased him. And Erik, yes. He had Erik, as much as anyone in the world could have him. More than Raven ever could, that’s for sure. The two of them, tangled irrevocably in that strange web between them. No matter what happened, it would always be just the two of them in the end.
She wants something of her own. When they rebuild the school, she pushes and Charles gives, and just like that, the X-Men are reinstated. They were his creation, yes, but he can’t have them now, sidelined by the outcome of that first disastrous mission. He can only sit there in his chair and watch them train and cannot interfere. A part of Raven, a part she hates and pretends doesn’t exist, is shamefully happy about that. The X-Men are hers. Finally, something of her own.
How naïve she was thinking that. Of course, Charles wouldn’t give them up. Charles never gave up anything in his life for any reason, why should a mere physical disability stop him now? He runs missions from Cerebro like a mutant equivalent of ground control. He doesn’t take over often, but when he does, it’s enough to set Raven’s teeth on edge. Even more so, because no one else has a problem with it. They don’t get it that they’re her team. She’s their captain. She can’t determine their missions, but she should at least have full operational control in the field, that’s only reasonable.
Except not, if the man driving it from behind his desk miles away is a telepath, everywhere instantly, seeing through their eyes, listening with their ears, responding at a moment’s notice. No one questions it. No one has a problem with it. He is their leader, their true leader. They think it’s the most natural thing in the world. Sometimes, in her darker moments, Raven pictures Charles as the head of his own cult, with mindless worshipers bowing and kneeling, singing hymns in his honor with idiotic smiles on their faces. He sacrifices one of them every Friday at noon, killing them with love.
Hank, God, even Hank doesn’t get it. He’d seen Charles at his lowest point, lived through it with him. He’d seen Charles the way even Raven has never seen him. For all that he was overbearing and condescending sometimes, she never had to actually clean up after him. Hank should have no delusions regarding her dear brother’s sainthood.
Hank doesn’t. And that’s the worst of it. He’s fully aware of every flaw Charles has, and still supports him unconditionally. Raven tries talking to him, but it bounces off like pebbles off a wall. It’s only now, having come back from this disastrous space mission that very nearly cost them Jean that she’s beginning to see. Charles took over, shoving Raven back, and no one had a problem with it, not even Hank, not because he couldn’t see it. Because he agreed with it. Hank didn’t just support Charles. He shared his worldview. For him, it’s not so much that Charles is flawless, but that, regardless of his flaws, he got them here.
“I don’t understand,” he says when they’re cooling down after their usual post-mission stress-relief sex. “You told me you’ve been hiding since you were a little girl, for as long as you can remember. That all you ever dreamed was to walk down the street, blue as you are, and to have people stare at you in admiration. You thought it would never happen, and so did I, but, Raven, we’re here. You’re the most recognizable mutant in the world, and people love you. Little girls want to be like you. They’re painting their faces blue, just to look a little bit like you. You’ve become the inspiration for every mutant child out there, struggling and alone. Hell, Storm said she used to have a poster of you on the wall, when she lived in that shack with all those kids in Egypt.” He runs his fingers gently down her arm, tips dragging softly over the scales. “It seems to me that you’ve got everything you ever wanted. More than you thought was possible, than any of us did. So what is it?”
She turns away from him, annoyed. She didn’t get everything she ever wanted. Why can nobody see that? Yes, they see her in her true form and take pictures and ask for autographs, but it turns to ashes in her mouth. They treat her like she belongs to them. She never wanted to be their hero. Anybody’s hero. She wanted…
‘You want society to accept you, but you can’t even accept yourself.’
Fuck you, Erik. The thought revolves in her head, over and over, unending. He’s right, a nasty little part of her whispers. He said that as a means to an end, yes, but it doesn’t mean he didn’t also hit the nail on the head. Why else did she insist on perfecting her blond form over the years? Why she trained herself to hold it even in her sleep. Why by now it feels more natural to her than her blue one, and the blue one almost feels like a costume. No different than that protective suit she wears when she goes out on missions. Her blue form has become a public domain. It belongs to the people now, to all those young and struggling mutants Hank has mentioned and yes, even to the humans. They hated it, and now they love it, and either way they’ve taken it from her. This has never been something she wanted.
She doesn’t know how to be in the world that isn’t actively out to get her. She’s not sure she entirely believes in it, no matter how many times the President has shaken Charles's hand. She can’t entirely blame Charles for wanting to believe in it so badly, he ignores any and all signs to the contrary. She can’t blame him, but there’s nothing she can do to disprove him just now, and it makes him more arrogant than ever. Maybe she should be more like Erik and disappear off the face of the Earth to shack up somewhere, building a stronghold in preparation for the day when the humans change their minds again and remember who the enemy is. But she can never join Erik. First, because Charles might forgive him all he wants, but it’s not so easy for Raven. One too many betrayals between them. And second, because Erik has given up, and Raven isn’t ready to.
They have both reached their capacity. Charles, believing he has achieved his perfect utopia and ignoring anything and everything that deviates from that imaginary world he’s living in. And Erik giving up the cause for a hole in the ground, too tired to keep on fighting.
And what is Raven to do in all of this? She doesn’t believe in Charles's world, and she doesn’t like Erik's. She’s been drifting for years between their two poles, drawn to one, then the other, never really finding her place with either of them, loving both for an added curse. Is there no third way for her? If even Hank who loves her, but remains Charles's creature through and through, can’t see it, what hope is there?
“Hey,” Hank calls when she gets up off the bed and walks toward the bathroom. “Where are you going?”
“To check on Jean,” she replies. “I want to make sure she’s okay.”
“I checked her out—”
“I know, I want to see for myself, is that all right? Is that allowed?”
“Jesus, Raven, don’t bite my head off. I’m just saying there’s no need to worry.”
She sighs, resting her forehead against the cool glass of the mirror, out of sight.
“I know. I’m sorry. Just—something doesn’t feel right.”
“Okay.” He rolls out of bed, reaching for his pants. “Want me to go with you?”
“No.” She smiles, kisses his head on her way out. “I think I’ll be fine on my own.”
He looks up at her. “You always have been.”
Well. Maybe that’s the answer. Her heart makes an unpleasant lurch as she heads out, an echo of the first emotion she ever remembers having.
They don’t want me here.
She puts some clothes on almost as an afterthought and goes in search of Jean.
Chapter 2: Moira
Over the crowded room, she watches the President thank Charles and his X-Men, watches Charles take the mic. Moira glances over the room. Most people gathered here today are white, rich, and very, very human. They are the epitome of privilege, almost grotesque in their numbers, in the easy arrogance with which they allow Charles to amuse them, to pretend he’s one of them for a few minutes. He’s not, of course, but it’s disturbing to see how easily he fits with this crowd.
Stereotypes. This whole ceremony consists of nothing but, not excluding Charles. He’s short, bald, in a wheelchair, and he speaks with an accent. He looks like a typical cartoonish villain straight out of some comic book created in the 50s. The resemblance is uncanny especially when he shakes the President’s hand. They both look evil.
‘Ouch. You’re ruthless today, my dear. Really, a comic book villain?’
Moira doesn’t roll her eyes, but only just barely, unsurprised that he could follow the train of her thoughts without being distracted from working the room. She sips her champagne.
‘Where’s Raven, Charles? Storm? Jean? It’s not good that you’re here by yourself. Bad for perception.’
She can see him tense slightly in his chair, a frown passing over his face for a moment, unrelated to whatever Senator Walters is telling him.
‘Jean is resting as a precaution. Scott wouldn’t leave Jean. Peter unnerves people, and the last time I brought him he stole the President’s watch. Ororo and Kurt would rather be anywhere but paraded out in public, and Raven yelled at me for twenty minutes the last time I tried to make her come to one of these. So what would you have me do? Offend the President by refusing to attend?’
‘I don’t know, Charles. I’m just saying, it doesn’t look good. These people would sing your praises because you speak their language, but the word on the street is, you send the X-Men out into danger and then take credit for their work.’
The silence that follows could be explained by the enthusiastic greeting and the outpour of gratitude from the Director of NASA, who all but falls into Charles's lap. That would distract anyone, but Moira knows better. She doesn’t have to be a telepath to know that she’s managed to hurt Charles. When he does respond a few minutes later, he sounds suddenly world-weary, alerting her to how much he was exerting himself for her benefit before.
‘I’m not offended, stop fretting. I know it’s not you. At least I—hope you don’t think that?’
She puts her empty glass down too forcefully.
‘Of course, I don’t, Charles. I know you. I know how hard you work. I know better than anyone, but that’s my point exactly. You’ve built up the public profiles for your X-Men really well, but people know nothing about you. Is it any wonder they would say things—’
‘We’ve been over this before, Moira. If you want to know how good a gardener is, take a look at his garden, not at whether or not he’s got dirt under his fingernails.’
‘First of all, do you have any idea how self-centered that sounds? And second, that’s not how it works with public perception and you know it. You know it, Charles, dammit. You’re too smart not to. You’ve been the hidden power behind every mutant-related political decision for over a decade now. You know how these people think, how they come to their conclusions, how they make decisions. You know it better than anyone in history, I think, so you have to understand what I’m saying. It’s almost like you’re doing it on purpose.’
She claps her hand over her mouth, startled, and is not surprised when her response is nothing but silence. Moira takes several deep breaths, as things fall into place at last. Son of a bitch. That… that stupid, stupid son of a bitch. She turns toward the bar and orders a whiskey straight up. She’s on her second one, tucked neatly into a corner, when he stops in front of her, blue eyes bright as ever, if a little bloodshot. His smile is sad.
“You’re setting yourself up to be the fall guy,” she says, before he can say anything. “In case something goes wrong. You’re setting yourself up to take the blame. Jesus, Charles.”
He splays his hands, doesn’t deny it.
“Look at me. We work with what we have, and you said it yourself, I’m a stereotype. Not a good guy stereotype. I suppose, it would have helped if my accent was German or Russian, but every bit counts, right?”
“Look, I don’t want it to come to that any more than you do.” He rubs the bridge of his nose. Up close, it’s staggeringly obvious how tired he looks. “But we have to be prepared for every eventuality. You think I trust the government, trust all this? I’m not that naïve. We’re not there yet. We’re still one bad day away from a full-on catastrophe. You know this. You showed me the schematics for that new facility in Vermont, after all.”
“Are you crazy?” she hisses at him, grabbing his hand. “Say that louder, why don’t you, I don’t think the Defense Minister heard you the first time.”
He smiles, squeezes her hand between both his own. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
She relaxes slightly, still frowning at him. “Charles, what you’re doing… I don’t like it. No, not just personally, although I’d hate that, of course. But you’re too powerful a figure to lose. You’re not a knight, not a bishop. You’re a queen, Charles.”
“Well, that’s always something you want a beautiful woman to call you.”
“Oh, shut up, you know what I mean.” But she blushes all the same. “You’re the most powerful piece in the game, but you can only domineer the board for as long as you’re on it.”
“And I didn’t set this up to self-destruct.” He sighs. “I would rather die than see my life’s work undone, Moira. To see mutants hated again, feared, hunted. To have them” –he tilts his head slightly back at the room—“see us as something less than human again. To know that everyone I love is in danger, could never be safe. No. No, the very thought is untenable. Trust me, this”—he gestures over himself—“is no sacrifice. Let them think I’m the evil puppet-master, if they must. Let them put it all on me, if that bad day comes.”
“Self-sacrifice isn’t exactly your style.”
He shrugs, unconcerned. “Isn’t it? I’m not just a piece on the board, Moira. As I said. We work with what we have.” He looks down at his hands for a moment, then back over at the room. “Raven told me today I enjoyed this. That I love the attention heaped down on me, love to have my picture taken.”
She arches her eyebrow. “You do enjoy having your picture taken.”
He laughs. “It was fun the first few times. Surreal. People who hated and feared me my whole life suddenly wanted to be my best friends. But then…” He trails off, shaking his head. “Raven doesn’t get it. It’s a means to an end, and yes, as those go, I don’t completely hate it. Is that such a crime?”
Moira studies him for a moment. She’s known him too long and too well to be fooled anymore. It’s too uncommon, this strange self-deprecation. Whatever Raven said, it must have really gotten to him.
“You don’t have siblings,” Charles responds by means of an explanation. “They have a way of getting under your skin.” He lets go of her hand, changes the subject. “Any news on those rumors you told me about the last time? About the new type of collars?”
She knows he’s concealing their conversation from the perception of anyone who can overhear, but still lowers her voice.
“Yes, and they aren’t rumors, I’m afraid. You know that supermax where they send every mutant who’s been caught committing a crime? My sources say it’s the latest fashion accessory there, and it seems to be working.” She pauses, looking at him, trying to swallow back her concern. “They have a number of psionics there. Looks like it’s working on them as well.”
“Damn,” Charles swears with feeling. “I swear every time I begin to think we’re making progress, something like this comes up. Is it Stryker again?”
“I have nothing concrete to tie him to it, but his fingerprints are all over this, yes.”
“Damn that man. His own son is telepathic, can he not see—” Charles cuts himself off, rolling back and forth a foot in frustration. “I’ll have to do something about him.”
“You?” Moira lifts her eyebrows. “Not the X-Men?”
“No.” His tone is flat, decisive. “I don’t want them involved. There’s a reason I don’t want any of them to know about this.”
“And I still think that’s a mistake.”
“What would you have me do? Raven’s got the shortest fuse of anyone I’ve ever known when it comes to this, and she’s been stir-crazy lately, gearing up for a fight. If she gets one whiff of this, it’s going to be like her days in the Brotherhood have never ended. Hell, she’ll probably call Erik out of his hideout for this, and he’ll come, and then it’ll be Egypt all over again. I’m tired of fighting on two fronts, Moira. I can deal with humans, and I can handle mutants, but not both at the same time.”
“So you’re lying to your sister and to all your closest friends.”
“Well.” His smirk is wry, bitter. “It wouldn’t exactly be the first time. And I don’t believe Raven can think any less of me than she does already.”
Moira doesn’t know what to say to that. She tried to make friends with Raven once upon a time, but Raven wouldn’t have it then, for some unknown reason. And now, well. They are civil to each other whenever they interact. Raven doesn’t rub her face in being human, at least not out loud. And Moira doesn’t slap her as she’d wanted to ever since that day when Raven had left Charles bleeding and in pain in her arms on a beach in Cuba. None of it is helpful right now.
“Can you put your tac team on standby?” Charles asks. “I won’t ask you to actually take action against him, but I need a transport and an escort.”
It goes against everything in her, but she nods. “Fine. But I’m coming with you.”
“It’s that or nothing, Charles. Someone has to watch your back. Take it or leave it.”
He smiles begrudgingly. “I’ll take it. Just like old times, huh?”
She grins, despite herself. “Well, at least we won’t have to go to Russia this time. When do you want it?”
“Not right away, but soon,” he muses out loud. “I’m concerned about Jean. I need to make sure she’s okay. I’ll call you.”
“You know, usually when a man tells me that he means dinner and drinks.”
Charles smirks. “I can do that. And tell you all about the beautiful mutations you possess, such as your soulful brown eyes and—”
“Oh my God, shut up,” she pleads. “I thought you’d gotten better. Don’t know why, though.”
“I save all my best flirting for the President.” He winks.
“Well, best get back to that, then.” She glances over his shoulder. “Even I can tell they’re impatient that the hero of the hour is letting some nobody CIA woman monopolize you for this long.”
Charles sighs, straightens, and it’s visible, the effort with which his public persona reasserts itself. Suddenly he looks almost radiant with good health and joy.
“Projection.” He makes a face. “Can’t show weakness with this lot.”
She leans over and kisses his cheek. “Get some rest after this, please. You need to take care of yourself, too, you know. Professor.”
She watches him smile his genuine smile at the old nickname, even as he dives back into the expecting crowd. Take care, Charles. For the love of God, take care. We need you too badly to lose you. If Charles hears her thoughts this time, he gives no indication.
The ‘one bad day’ comes so much sooner than any of them have expected that it catches even the ever-vigilant Moira off guard. She’s minutes behind the showdown in New York, and then loses precious time by the hour, demanding answers from all the wrong people. She gets thrown in a cell for her trouble, though by then it hardly matters.
They let her out a week later, acting as though the whole thing was a figment of her imagination. She watches the same clip of Charles addressing the country that every news station seems to have on repeat. The same four minutes over and over again, dating six days back. There’s been nothing from the X-Men ever since, and Moira watches the media work itself in circles until the tides begin to turn. She doesn’t like where they are headed. She absolutely hates it that Charles was right.
Hank calls her out of the blue almost three weeks after the fact.
“Um,” he says slowly. “I, um. I’m going to need some help.”
Moira closes her eyes and swears long and hard under her breath. That son of a bitch. Didn’t he realize she was too old for babysitting?
“Sure,” she says when she has some measure of control again. “I’ll send you the address. Let’s talk.”
When Hank arrives, conspicuous as ever and nervous as hell, Moira smiles at him.
“So. How much did Charles tell you?”
He blinks owlishly. “About what?”
Sweet Jesus. She did not sign up for this, Charles, you absolute bastard. She’s tempted, sorely, to just pick up and go, but she can’t let him down. Which he knew of course. The media, she thinks uncharitably, hoping beyond hope that Charles can hear her, might have the right idea about him after all.
She smiles at Hank. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
Chapter 3: Hank
Hank doesn’t notice for about three weeks. He’s not certain if he would have noticed by then either, if not for Scott and Storm. It’s a busy afternoon on a particularly harrowing Wednesday – even with all the kids, their powers, and lack of control, it’s not every day that someone sets their classroom on fire, disintegrates their teacher (temporarily, thank God), and ends up with severe food poisoning all before eleven in the morning. It’s the first time that Hank even got a chance to sit down since breakfast that he vaguely remembers having. He’s understandably reluctant when Scott and Storm appear in the doorway of the headmaster’s office and stare at him in creepy silence.
“What?” Hank asks. He’s running a little low on patience these days. “What is it now?”
“Um,” Scott says intelligently, and even beneath his visor it’s clear that he’s sort of gaping. Ororo is looking around the room as though she’s never seen it before. “You need to see something.”
Hank sighs. He really doesn’t want to get up. “Come on, Scott, what is it?”
Scott looks at Ororo; Ororo looks back.
“We could tell you,” she says, turning back to Hank. “But I really think you should come see for yourself.”
Her tone is grave, and she only gets like this when something bothers her. Really bothers in a ‘They are talking about deporting me again and they have A-collars.’ Scott’s look of utter bewilderment isn’t helping either.
“Fine,” Hank sighs and looks forlornly at his sandwich. “Lead the way.”
They walk through the school without pausing, walk out into the grounds and don’t so much as look back. The sun is blazing hot at the peak of summer, and Hank feels his patience begin to run thin, just as sweat beads over his eyebrow.
“Look, guys,” he calls after them. “If this is some sort of prank, can we do it another day? I’m really not in the mood just now—”
“We’re almost there,” Storm says, and Hank wants to ask ‘Almost where?’ They are nearing the edge of the property all right. But what…
“Look,” Scott points as they walk out through the main gateway and turn.
Hank looks. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be looking at and opens his mouth to give them a piece of his mind, when he catches the sight of it.
JEAN GREY’S SCHOOL FOR GIFTED YOUNGSTERS
Hank stares. He stares some more. There’s a chill in the air suddenly, and everything shifts as though coming into focus. He blinks.
“All I know,” Scott says, “is that I made it and put it there.”
Hank turns to stare at him. “What? Why?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even really remember doing it. Well, no, I do.” He shakes his head as though trying to clear it. “I remember working on it and bringing it here, but I don’t remember—having the thought of doing it. Like it’s my idea, but I can’t remember coming up with it.”
Hank digests this in silence. After a beat, Ororo says:
“Hank… when did you last see the Professor?”
Hank blinks. The sensation of a chill running down his spine intensifies.
“I—” He stops, his head reeling. “I don’t know, actually. When did you?”
Ororo shakes her head. “I’ve been trying to remember all morning, ever since Scott showed me this.” She nods at the sign. “And I feel like it’s only been this morning, or last night, or the other day, but I can’t remember what we talked about or where I saw him. And the last conversation I can clearly recall was when we first got back from New York.”
Hank is beginning to feel ill. “But that was weeks ago. He’s been teaching—”
“No,” Scott cuts in. “He hasn’t. Think about it. I’ve been teaching his Ethics class for the past two weeks, and Gem has taken over Biology.”
“Did he ask you to sub?”
“No. At least, not that I can remember. I just—knew somehow that I needed to turn up for that class.”
“And what about you, Hank?” Ororo asks him quietly.
“What about me?”
“When we went to get you, you were in the headmaster’s office. And I think you’ve been working there this whole time. When have you last been to your lab? I’m betting it wasn’t at any time in the last three weeks.”
Hank feels the dire need to sit down. “I can’t believe he’d do this. Not after everything.”
“Whammy the lot of us,” Scott says slowly. “He’d have had to. It’s not just us, is it? It’s the entire school. Not a single kid asked me about him, not even the younger ones, and you know how he always reads to them. The last time he’d missed a Friday reading, they nearly tore the place apart. Yet now they act like—”
“Like he’s never been here,” finishes Ororo. “Like they don’t even know who he is.”
“That’s just—” Scott looks pale. “But why?”
Hank says nothing, though he has a very good idea why. It makes him feel sick. Without warning, he takes off, leaving the others to scramble after him. He needs to know. He needs to know right now. He nearly runs back toward the mansion, Scott and Ororo swept in his wake.
Through the main entrance and up the stairs, living quarters, that far corridor that nobody really uses at the very end of the west wing. Not that many people know their way to Charles's bedroom, but Hank has it engraved in his memory, back from the days when the mansion was a haunted house, plagued only by a usually very drunk telepath and the only student who refused to leave. Indeed, the only person more familiar with this particular room is Charles himself.
Hank doesn’t bother knocking as he bursts through the door. He freezes. He suspected, yes, but seeing it is another matter completely.
The bedroom is empty. No, not just empty. Stripped down of anything remotely personal, anything that would make it different from any other bedroom in the house. There are no clothes in the wardrobe. No pictures on the nightstand. The bed is meticulously made with school-standard linens and completely devoid of extra bolsters and cushions that a person who needs to prop himself up in his sleep would use. The bathroom sets it aside a little bit, what with being bigger and having a bench, but other than that. There’s no sign of a wheelchair, even the old one that Charles hadn’t used in years but still had stored in the niche next to his wardrobe is gone. The room looks exactly like any other bedroom in the mansion, ready to welcome a new inhabitant. This could only mean one thing.
“He’s not coming back,” Hank realizes.
Scott and Ororo look at him in shock, but they can see it, too, it just hasn’t sunk in yet. Ororo takes a few steps inside, as though searching for something, a trace of Charles probably, anything he left behind.
“Why would he leave?” she asks, her fingers stroking the coverlet, as though it could connect her somehow to the room’s former occupant.
“What do we do now?” Scott asks.
Hank shrugs, shakes his head. “We keep working. These kids need us, we can’t just—”
“That’s not what I meant.” Scott frowns. “Of course, we keep working. I meant, what are we going to do about Charles? Do we go after him?”
“Go where?” Ororo asks, clearly lost. “We wouldn’t know where to look. He didn’t leave instructions or a note, he didn’t even—” She stumbles, then finishes in a tone that is too even. “He didn’t even say goodbye.”
“He must have had his reasons,” Scott ventures.
“He did,” Hank says, looking at his feet. “Pretty sure it’s my fault.”
The others turn toward him. Hank shrugs.
“When—when Raven died, I didn’t… didn’t handle it well.”
Ororo stares at him blankly.
“Dude,” Scott drawls, incredulous, reminding Hank painfully of Alex. “That’s like, understatement of the century.”
“No, I know.” Hank nods. “And I’m sorry about my part of what happened to Jean. I really am, Scott.”
Scott looks away. “I know. You said. It’s fine.”
It’s not fine, but there’s no point arguing. Hank takes his glasses off to clean them, a nervous tick he thought he’d gotten rid of a long time ago.
“The night after the funeral,” he says, gaze firmly on his feet. “Charles and I, we… talked. It wasn’t good. I said some things, and he was… Well, he wasn’t really himself. He acted like she was—I don’t know. A random guest. Like he’d moved on already. Like he had, before she even… Like what happened was okay.”
“You know everyone processes grief in their own way,” Ororo starts, but Hank lifts his hand, halting her.
“I know. I just—it tipped me over the edge. And I ran to Erik, just like Raven did all those years back.”
He doesn’t tell them that for the first time in decades, he actually understood her at that moment. Hank fell in love with Charles the moment he met him, when Charles looked at him in pure admiration of not only his intellect, but all of him, the whole Hank McCoy package, Bigfoot feet and all. That love, for all that it was platonic and based heavily on hero-worship, never really faded. He both liked Raven and wondered at her, at her relationship with her brother. If Hank had someone like Charles for a brother growing up, he’d most likely count his blessings every single morning. But every word coming out of Raven’s mouth concerning Charles was critical. Even her praise for his genius was full of hidden jibes. And when she left him bleeding out on that beach, Hank had felt anger so powerful he could barely hold himself together.
Yet Charles felt none. He felt her actions were justified. He never stopped looking out for her, hoping that one day she’d find her way home. When she did, he took her back like a gift from God. Never mind that she’d only come back because Erik was in trouble. Hank was happy to see her, of course, he was, but even when she stayed, he couldn’t quite make peace with her attitude the way Charles did. She’d say things like: ‘This was never my home, Charles. It was yours. I only lived here’, and Hank would be stunned all over again by her utter lack of gratitude or appreciation. Something that to him was a Holy Grail, she’d throw away carelessly and stomp on it. He loved her, but he could never understand her.
And then he could. The night after they buried her, when Charles sat across from him, looking and acting like a televised version of himself, trying to pull off the ‘good old days’ routine, Hank finally got it. Charles had a unique talent, almost powerful enough to qualify for a secondary mutation, to say exactly the wrong thing at the worst possible time. That he could just sit there, spouting empty platitudes, as though Raven’s death was some minor accident in a classroom, as though he felt nothing at the thought of her being gone, absurdly, made Hank feel closer to Raven than he ever had before. Charles was useless when it came to taking action, and he didn’t even see it. And Hank—Hank had had enough.
He can’t think about it now without cringing at himself. To run to Erik of all people, just as Raven did. To betray Charles in the exact same way as Raven did. He wonders if it had ever made Raven feel any better. He only knows that it didn’t work for him.
And now Charles is gone.
“Hank,” Scott says slowly, and is the world on the brink of a catastrophe again if Scott is the voice of reason? “Look, whatever you said to him, I’m sure it couldn’t have been that bad as to make him quit his own school. I mean, sure, you were his right hand and all, but come on, dude. It’s Charles Xavier we’re talking about. The guy stared down entire governments. I’m sure whatever you said to him, he could handle it.”
It’s the truth, of course. Charles wasn’t a fourteen-year-old girl to run away from home in a snit. But knowing this doesn’t make Hank feel any less guilty.
“He’s been drinking a lot lately,” Ororo says in the ensuing silence. “You guys notice that? Like, way more than he used to.”
That actually depended on which ‘used to’ she’s talking about, not that Ororo would know that. It was before her time. Hank, on the other hand, distinctly remembers some ten-odd years when seeing Charles Xavier sober qualified for a minor miracle. But she’s right in the sense that it’s been a while. Such a long while, in fact, that Hank didn’t notice the shadow of that old nemesis creeping back in.
“I guess,” Scott shrugs. “I’ve never seen him drunk though, so does it even count?”
“I’m just saying. You don’t do that when you’re happy.”
No, Hank thinks. You don’t. His fault again. His failure. He was so focused on Raven, and Charles was so effortlessly in charge, that it had completely slipped Hank’s notice.
“So… where do you think he’s gone?” Scott asks uncertainly.
Hank sighs, shakes his head. You’d think it would be difficult for someone as easily recognizable as Charles to drop off the grid. After all, he’s been on the cover of every noteworthy magazine worldwide in the last few years. Multiple times. Always friendly, honest, open. Yet there was one aspect of himself he never advertised, and that was the extent of his power. After Jean going nuclear, it was easy to forget, as everyone else paled in comparison. But Charles is an omega-level telepath, and if he doesn’t want to be found, no one will ever come close.
Suddenly, it occurs to Hank that there is another room in the mansion that has been as much Charles's domain as his office or his bedroom. Well, he couldn’t have taken that with him.
But when Hank exits the elevator, Scott and Ororo in tow, he can’t help a funny feeling that this isn’t going to work out either. As it turns out, he’s right. The scanner focuses on his iris, and a melodic female voice informs him almost regretfully:
“Doctor Hank McCoy recognized. Access denied.”
“What?” Scott yelps from behind him. “But it’s your machine! You built it.”
Hank sighs, a reluctant smile tugging at his lips. Charles was thorough.
“And it requires a telepath to operate,” he replies. “And not just any telepath will do.”
“You can get access to it if you wanted to, though, right?” Ororo nudges him.
“Sure.” He shrugs. Charles was a lot of things, but not an engineer or a programmer. “But what would be the point?”
The locked door is strangely comforting. That Charles went through the trouble of doing this speaks of something human. Like a gentle poke in the ribs. Like a part of Charles he chose to leave behind. It’s not much. It’s probably mostly pragmatic. After all, Charles couldn’t exactly dismantle the thing, could he? But—he’d have found a way if he really wanted to. Right? It’s a flimsy hope, but Hank will take it.
“Come on,” he says with a sigh, the weight of authority settling over him, reluctant but inevitable. “It seems we have a lot of work to do now that we’re the adults here.”
“Oh man,” Scott drawls, rubbing the back of his neck. “Really?”
Ororo just looks confused, but it will pass, Hank thinks. This will sink into the walls and foundation, become part of the school lore. Kids will whisper to the newcomers about the legendary Professor Xavier who gave up his home, all his money, and his life to serve his fellow mutants, and then simply vanished one quiet day, leaving not a trace of himself behind.
They’ll need to commission a portrait, Hank muses as they make their way back up. Raven would have had a fit, but it’s only fair. Hank can take the change of the name at the entrance, since this was clearly what Charles wanted. Every time Hank will look at it or hear it mentioned, he’ll flinch just the tiniest bit. He’ll learn to live with it. But he’ll be damned if he lets Charles erase his legacy for good. Whatever mistakes the man made, none of them would be here, and most of them wouldn’t be alive, let alone safe and accepted, if it wasn’t for him.
“I think we need a new course added to the curriculum,” Hank says as they walk back to his (really his now) office. “Mutant History. Or Mutant Rights. I’ll work on the name. Our students need to learn our true history. Where Magneto had come from. Everything Charles has done. Our heroes, our enemies. Everyone from the first class.” God, he really is the only one left now, isn’t he? He clears his throat. “Including Raven. Not the girl they saw on TV. The real Raven.”
It will be a tough story to tell, but he’ll make it happen. Something settles in him even as he says the words. Something that’s been out of place ever since that fateful space mission, has finally calmed down.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Scott says. With uncharacteristic hesitancy, he adds, “I want to write the chapter on Jean.”
Hank looks at him. “I don’t think there’s anyone better qualified to do that.”
Well, there’s Charles, but Charles isn’t here. Vaguely, Hank wonders in he’d make himself available for an interview. Somehow, he doubts it.
“I’ll help,” Ororo says, and Scott’s shoulders relax.
“Well then,” Hank says, “we have work to do. I’ll send you guys an updated schedule tomorrow.”
As the heavy wooden door closes behind him, he takes a lungful of air and closes his eyes. What would you have me do? he asks the empty space, devoid of that comforting, familiar presence.
Live. Work. Thrive.
No, Charles isn’t talking to him, but Hank can hear his voice saying the words, as clearly as if Charles was in the room. It’s easy enough to imagine, to reconstruct from all those times Charles had encouraged him or the others with his unyielding belief in the human potential, in each and every one of his students. Hank lost his faith, and still Charles wouldn’t give up on him, as he had never given up on Erik.
With a sigh, Hank opens his eyes, comes to sit at his desk, pulls out a blank sheet of paper, and starts writing.
Erik casts his net wide. He’s never thought of something like this as a possibility, so after they all haul ass back to New York, he lays low. It’s standard procedure for him after he’s made himself a public nuisance, so he doesn’t even think about going straight home. Not until he knows he won’t be bringing trouble with him.
He waits and listens to the news. He expects hitting the top of the Wanted list again and orders issued for his arrest, but none come. Oh, they discuss it, all right. But then some government official with a conscience leaks the information about the somewhat less-than-legal raid and hauling people away in suppression collars, and the liberals cry foul. There’s a perfect storm in the media that splits the public in two, and the endless debate begins. The moment there’s a first ‘Protect our mutant brothers’ picket spotted in front of the White House, Erik knows it’s over. They’ll get away with a slap on the wrist. It’s good news, but part of him can’t help but feel a little disappointed.
He wonders at the absence of Charles in the media coverage. That is by far his favorite part of the news cycle. Has been for years. Watching Charles run circles around the interviewers who made presidents cry or wipe the floor with bigots was what got him through the aftermath of Cairo. That, and Charles's ardent defense of him, blatant lying as it was. Just because someone stumbles, indeed.
No, that’s unfair. Charles wasn’t lying when he said that. He’s the kind of person who really does believe in that. That there’s good in everyone. That everyone can be helped. Even Erik. Even after… Well. Everything.
Once upon a time Erik thought that it was naivete and that it made Charles weak. He has long since acknowledged the power that comes from that ‘weakness.’ It’s not the kind he could ever wield himself. But in the hands of someone like Charles it became a weapon, much more formidable than anything Erik had or even than his own telepathy.
This time, however, Charles only appears on camera once, the day after they come back. He looks absolutely wrecked, but he speaks with his usual poise. He accepts responsibility for everything that happened, including Erik's actions, which makes Erik snort and roll his eyes. Then he politely but unequivocally suggests that the government should do the same for their part of it. It boiled down to this: Jean and the rest of them caused some damage, yes, and also saved the planet from an alien invasion. Yes, it was an alien invasion, don’t believe the FBI when they tell you it was some random terrorist group. And what does the president have to offer to outweigh his use of secretly developed suppression collars? Did he run this decision by his citizens? Why don’t you ask him?
It was clever and classic Charles. It was also a Charles who was clearly done. The public couldn’t see it, perhaps, but to Erik it was clear as a day. Charles's four-minute sound bite sparked a debate that had taken over all the major media channels for a week and had set off seven separate investigations, but he never appeared before the cameras again. Part of Erik wasn’t surprised when ten days later, as the president made a clumsy overture toward the X-Men again, it was Hank who accepted the olive branch. Charles was nowhere in sight.
He’s grieving, Erik thinks. He’s just lost Raven. They both did. And Jean, for all intents and purposes, was as good as a daughter to him. It can’t be easy for Charles looking up at the sky these days to see the halo of a phoenix circling the planet like a totem. Although, it’s Charles. The impossible man probably finds it a solace.
Since there’s no immediate danger of being proclaimed yet again public enemy number one, Erik takes a trip across the continent, touching base with his contacts. He still keeps an eye out, but his paranoia has long become a background noise, easy to ignore. A raid at the collar-manufacturing facility sounds tempting, but he passes. Surprising himself, he takes a leaf out of Charles's book and advises his friends to enlist some human ‘allies’ for the raid. They’ll need them for PR purposes when they will inevitably land in hot water. That’s probably not the kind of integration Charles had in mind. The thought makes Erik smile.
He’s in Mexico by the time he realizes something odd. Charles isn’t just abstaining from weighing in on the whole Jean Grey incident. He’s gone completely radio-silent. The X-Men are talked about, but never really appear on TV or online. There are exactly two official appearances in three weeks, both featuring Doctor Hank McCoy. Erik frowns as he watches Hank shake hands with the Attorney General on the small screen in a dingy bar. Hank looks as he always does when lights are on him—uncomfortable to the extreme and more awkward than usual. But there’s something different about him this time. Some strange sort of resignation. Erik doesn’t know why his heart begins to pound madly at the sight of it.
He doesn’t have direct contacts in Charles's school—he’s not that crazy. But he has agents who are friendly with some of the students or their parents. Erik is not remotely ashamed of it. It’s how he kept tabs on Charles and his band of merry men all these years. He reaches out with cautious urgency. He needs to know.
The response, when it comes, still shocks him. Apparently, Professor Xavier has retired in the wake of Jean Grey’s death, renamed his school after her (Jesus, Charles), and was gone without leaving a forwarding address. By some strange miracle (miracle, ha), the press hasn’t gotten wind of it, even though students and parents are talking about it freely. Hank hasn’t made any official statements (not surprising at all), but, apparently, he is now the headmaster, and Storm is the head of the X-Men. According to his source, nobody has the slightest idea where Professor X is.
Idiots, Erik thinks uncharitably, but he’s worried. Vanishing without a trace is beyond uncharacteristic for Charles. And him throwing in the towel doesn’t bear thinking about. Charles isn’t the kind of person who gives up. He had a moment of weakness exactly once. All right, so that was a long moment, but he’s not that person anymore. Hasn’t been in over twenty years. Giving up is not written into his genetic code. But perhaps…
Erik stops short. What if that’s not what it is? What if Charles has finally arrived to the same place that Erik had when he’d first set foot on the ground of Genosha? Could it be this simple? Unbelievable yet simple? If Erik could lay down his arms, tired of fighting, could it be that Charles felt the same way?
There’s no way to tell. His gut is telling him that Charles is in trouble. Where does one of the most famous people on Earth go anyway, when he can’t go home? And—oh, that’s another thought that takes Erik's breath away. Charles didn't just leave the school. He left the only home he ever had. His entire family, such as it is, is there. Where does one go from that?
So Erik casts his net wide. He makes his agents search high and low, disregarding any previous assignments. It raises some eyebrows, but Erik has never in his life cared less. Something is telling him urgently that time is of the essence. He can’t be late this time. Of all times, not this time.
But weeks go by and his search turns up nothing. He didn’t think this was going to be easy, but damn you, Charles. Can’t you be cooperative for once? He’s on the verge of losing patience and creating some dramatic and very public disturbance just to flush Charles out, when he gets the call. Paris. Paris. Erik doesn’t know whether to cry in relief or to laugh at the implied ‘fuck you.’ He’s still stuck somewhere in-between when he gets on the plane.
Charles looks like shit. Erik has never seen him like this. Not even when Charles had come to break him out of prison and punched him by means of greeting. He’d been mad then, yes. Angry. Hurt. But also—impassioned. He burned bright even if his flames were devastating at the moment. He had so much fight in him and for once was letting it show, and Erik had a difficult time holding it together. Charles, to him, had never looked more captivating. More alluring.
The man who sits slumped in his chair at a table for one now is anything but impassioned. Charles looks drained. Erik doesn’t think he even needs his telepathy to make people look past him. The absence of that inner fire is a perfect disguise. It also serves to prove that Erik still has a heart to be broken. He grips the handle of the chess set tighter and keeps walking, and he can see the moment Charles realizes he’s there by the abrupt straightening of his spine, new tension flooding his shoulders. It’s not the stance of a man ready for a fight. It’s a posture of someone bracing for impact.
“How’s retirement treating you?” Erik asks, because he’s an idiot, but at least it’s better than ‘Hello, old friend’ that he couldn’t get out of his head since morning.
Charles looks at him, tense, suspicious, clearly expecting nothing good.
“What are you doing here, Erik?”
“Came to see an old friend.”
Charles continues to stare at him, as though searching for explosives. Erik smiles slightly.
“Fancy a game?”
Charles looks down at the chess set, and something shifts in his expression, too quickly for Erik to follow. He folds his arms over his chest. “Not today, thank you.”
He sounds hollow. Beat. He’s determined Erik is not a threat by now, but he didn’t look further.
Erik leans forward. “A long time ago, you saved my life.”
Charles straightens in his seat, caught off guard. Erik has his complete attention now.
“Then you offered me a home. I’d like to do the same for you.”
Disbelief. Incredulity. It’s obvious Charles can tell he’s serious, but he doesn’t believe his own senses. Yet he wants to. It’s written all over his face. Charles never really could hide anything from him. Or maybe never tried.
“Just one game,” Erik cajoles. “For old times’ sake.”
It’s like offering a slice of bread to a starving man who’s so far beyond hope he wouldn’t even ask for it, and Erik should feel bad about this. Part of him does, but mostly, he can feel joy bubbling so close to the surface, he’s scared it’ll overflow at any moment. He’s sitting there, offering two closed fists to Charles, playful, the way he’s only ever been with this man, acting cute, for crying out loud, the way he never had with his wife.
He can tell Charles will give in, it’s not in him to say ‘no.’ Erik knows his weaknesses, knows that he is the biggest one. He never held this one over Charles's head, because in this, they are even.
Charles shakes his head and taps Erik's knuckles lightly, a burst of warmth shooting from the contact. Erik opens his palm and offers a white pawn, unable to help a stupid grin as he looks at Charles. He feels ridiculous, giddy with it.
“I’ll go easy on you,” he says, fighting for composure and losing terribly.
But Charles stares at him, wide-eyed, catching on at last. “No, you won’t.”
And he laughs. Finally, finally, Erik gets a laugh out of him, and it feels like victory. He hasn’t heard Charles laugh in a very long time.
They play abysmally bad, both of them. It’s not on purpose. Erik feels drunk as little by little Charles lets his defenses drop, unconsciously, layer after layer. He can’t get enough. He never had Charles like this, not even in the beginning, with nothing standing between them, nothing separating them but the past. But the past is just that, it can’t hurt unless one chooses to hold on to it. For this, for even a chance at this, Erik would let go in a heartbeat.
The day rolls by around them. They order food, then wine. They chat with a group of American tourists, and then a very cute French couple. They play some more. And then suddenly, the street is getting dark and quiet, and they are the only ones still there.
“Erik,” Charles says softly, gazing at him with such undisguised, pained wistfulness that Erik feels his heart break all over again. “Thank you for this, my friend. For today. But… you know that I can’t go with you.”
Adrenaline floods his system, a sharp metallic taste in his mouth. Calm, Erik tells himself forcefully. Calm, calm. You can do this. He doesn’t know where the thought comes from, must be something straight from God he doesn’t believe in, because what he does next is the single smartest thing he’s ever done in his life.
He reaches over the table and takes Charles's hand in his. Not to shake. Just to hold, his thumb running over the tender underside of the wrist in gentle circles. Charles stares at him. Thirty years and a list of casualties longer than the equator between them, and this, this is what shocks him silent.
“I think you can,” Erik says gently. “I understand if you don’t want to.”
“No, hear me out. Please.” He squeezes Charles's hand. “Please, Charles.”
Charles gives in. He never stood a chance. Erik leans forward.
“We’ve never been here, you and I. I never thought it was even possible, never dreamed it could actually happen. Yet here we are. And I don’t think we’ll ever be here again.”
Charles clears his throat, glances away. “Are you saying 'carpe diem'?”
Erik sighs in frustration. “No. Just—ever since we met, what, thirty or so years back? We’ve been in this strange relationship. We had everything. We betrayed each other, we fought, and fought again, and hurt each other and—don’t you see? We’ve done everything but the good part. Charles. I'm saying this is the time for the good part.”
Charles's gaze is glued to their clasped hands. “You really… you really want this? Want—me?”
Erik narrows his eyes. “This shocks you.”
“No,” Charles replies quickly, but almost instantly amends, “And yes. I… I just can’t believe you still want this. With me.”
“Ah.” Erik pulls back slightly. “So you knew.”
Charles nods, still not looking at him.
“Our first recruiting trip. The girl in Florida, the one who could tell people’s deepest, darkest desires by touching them?”
“I remember,” Erik says. “She touched me by accident and ran away screaming. You said you didn’t look at the memory when you wiped it clean.”
“I lied,” Charles admits. “But in my defense, I was not prepared for what I saw, and I had no idea how to deal with it. I thought she’d seen you killing Shaw in some gruesome way. It never occurred to me… And I wanted—I wanted to tell you what I saw, but I was scared, Erik. Already I could see myself drowning in you, and it terrified me. By the time I found some balls, it was already too late.”
Erik knows what he saw. The image is as clear in his head as it was thirty-odd years ago. Charles would have seen himself pushed against the door, Erik on top of him, kissing him senseless, sliding down his body until he was on his knees, looking up, pulling Charles’s zipper open with his power. The scene rolled on, of course, but the girl had let go of him by then.
“It doesn’t work like that anymore, I’m afraid.” Charles is smiling a little sadly.
Erik leans forward, grabbing both his hands, squeezing hard. “Do you think I care? Charles, for God’s sake. I love you. And you damn well know it.”
“Fuck, Erik. Please just—”
“No.” Erik shakes his head. “No. I won’t. You know why? Because you’re just as bad. You’d have let me rot in prison or given me up to the government and got me out of your way any number of times, if it wasn’t true. You certainly wouldn't have lobbied so hard on my behalf when they didn't want to give me Genosha. Yes, I know about that, don't look so surprised. Tell me I'm wrong, Charles. Go ahead, tell me there's another reason.”
“Fine,” Charles replies, and there is that passion Erik has been sorely missing. Alive and well. “Fine, I’m stupid for you, I always have been. Are you happy?”
“Ecstatic.” Erik grins. “Why are you yelling at me?”
“I—” Charles starts to object, then realizes he has been. He laughs, shakes his head. “God, you make me…” He trails off, still laughing, looking at Erik as though questioning his sanity. “What would I even do on your island?”
Erik feels his grin widening, splitting his face. “There’s a nice pear garden that needs tending. Also, a pineapple farm.”
“I hate you.”
“No. You don’t.”
That night, Erik wakes up just before dawn in the unfamiliar surroundings of Charles's hotel room. Charles himself is nowhere to be seen, and the bed is cold. The balcony door is open though, and Erik rolls onto his feet, quiet like a cat, not seriously worried, but getting there. Charles sits with his chin on his hands resting on the railing, staring into the distance. Just above the far horizon, the sky glows orange and crimson for a moment. It’s the wrong side for the rising sun.
“I’m done,” Charles says without turning, voice quiet and resigned. “I’ve been trying to figure it out for days now, but that’s it. There's nothing left. I’m done.”
No, Erik thinks. And that’s the problem. Charles isn’t done. Not by a long shot. And if Erik lets it, that thought would rip him apart. So he completes it in the only way he can handle. He’s done—for now. Let this be a long now. A long, stretching, never-ending now. That one, he can live with.
“It’s cold out here,” he says gruffly. “Come back to bed.”
Charles turns around slowly, as though coming out of a reverie, looks up at him, and smiles. “Yes, dear.”
Erik drags his chair in with his power in retaliation.
Just one more left...
Chapter 5: Charles
He tries to warn Erik, but Erik doesn’t listen. Erik never listened to him. Charles should have learned by now. It’s the end of their second week in Paris, and it’s been as wonderful as it has been painful. Charles tries to focus on the wonderful bits, succeeds for the most part.
They go to museums, and charming little art galleries, and even to a play once. They pack picnic baskets with fresh bread, cheese, wine, and frequently oysters, because Erik is spoiling him. They play chess sprawled in the grass, take walks along the river. They talk freely for the first time in years, unencumbered by the necessity to play each other.
Erik makes love to him every night. It works sometimes. Other times, it doesn’t, but it hardly matters. These days, it doesn’t take much for Charles. He gets drunk out of his mind on loving touch alone. For years now, decades really, the only bit of human contact he experienced has been clinical, during the routine medical exams when Hank tried to touch him as little as possible out of respect. Charles used to have a massage therapist, but he’d become too busy in recent years to keep the appointment. The pain in his back was physical, thank the Lord. Physical pain he could always just cancel. Apart from the necessary, there was also the official, professional. A handshake here, a kiss on the cheek there. Raven stopped hugging him long before Cuba, and in recent years only ever did it after some major scare. But Charles didn’t risk his life anymore, as she’d pointed out so bluntly on that fateful day. So there was no need.
He doesn’t want to cling to Erik, tries to ration it, constantly questioning. How much is too much? How much is not normal? Barring that, not pleasant? Erik would never stop him, he knows, but Charles doesn’t want to be someone to pity. Already it astounds him that Erik doesn’t look at him that way. He seems to crave touch just as much as Charles does, finding any excuse to reach out. Charles tries not to look the gift horse in the mouth, because that’s the shortest way to ruin it, but he can’t help it. It boggles the mind. Erik had a wife. Erik had plenty of lovers. Erik shouldn’t possibly be feeling the way he’s screaming at Charles at every frequency. Like it hurts him every time Charles pulls back. Like he might die if Charles rejects him. Charles can’t help it. He wants to trust, but he can’t. It doesn’t make sense. So he tests it and questions it and reaches into Erik's mind to check over and over again, but all he ever finds is steadiness and an endless reservoir of patience.
Patience. It makes him want to laugh. If there is any one trait that Erik Lehnsherr, the great and powerful Magneto, has never possessed in his life, that would be it. Erik never had the patience to even think his own actions through when it put his life at risk. Yet now—now, with Charles, he seems to be made of nothing but. Charles can feel it in him, the slight amusement at Charles's continuous reserve. The understanding, the sympathy, and the truly limitless patience they produce. He’s not even offended at Charles's lack of trust as any normal person would be. He simply accepts the whole package.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Erik would whisper, fingers digging into Charles's back, making him moan half in pain half in pleasure as the impossible knots begin to release. “You can check all you want. As often as you want. I want you in there. I want you out here. I want you.”
So Charles lets it happen. Lets himself touch. Lets Erik hold him. Lets him kiss him for hours on end, caress him, make him writhe in pleasure. He tries to give as good as he gets, but more and more as they do this, he feels tears welling up in his eyes. This will end. It is good. It is so incredibly good, and it will end soon. It must. And how is he supposed to live with himself then?
“Aren’t you supposed to head back?” he asks Erik casually one morning over croissants and coffee.
Erik is reading the paper, in French, the show-off, and doesn’t even lift his eyes.
“I’ll go when you go.”
Charles sets his cup down. Ridiculous man.
“Erik,” he says, leaning forward. “You can’t just abandon your home.”
Erik looks up, smiles softly. “You’re right.”
Charles wants to kiss him, badly. Also to smack him really hard. This conflict of impulses is in no way new to him, when it comes to Erik.
“Erik, love, I told you before. You don’t want me on your island. I won’t be of any use to you there.”
Erik puts the paper away, folding it neatly. The traces of humor fade in his eyes, but the softness remains. It’s an adjustment Charles is still struggling with every day, this complete openness in Erik.
“You don’t need to be of use, Charles. You can do whatever you want or nothing at all, I don’t care. I just want you with me. I don’t have an agenda.”
But I do, Charles thinks bitterly. I always do, even if I don’t know it.
He doesn’t broadcast it, but his face must be telegraphing enough, because Erik looks at him like he heard.
“I trust you,” he says simply.
“You shouldn’t,” Charles says, looking away, blinking rapidly, but a tear slips anyway. He wipes it off quickly, angrily. “You shouldn’t trust me, Erik. Nobody should. Even when I do nothing, when I think I do nothing, I’m poison. And when I think I’m out to do good, God. Then everyone should really run for cover.”
Erik listens to him in silence, not interrupting, and something in him solidifies, takes shape. This is the Erik Charles has known all along, the one who never let Charles get away with any kind of bullshit.
“You think I don’t know how that feels?” he asks. “Charles, I might be the only person who understands. At least everything you touched turned to gold. Everything I ever touched turned to rust. But we can’t live in the past. I finally understand that.”
“That’s just what I’m saying!” Charles straightens up, frustrated. “It’s not going to be in the past! Not for me. Erik, I don’t know how to be anything else. How to be any other way. I tried and I couldn’t do it, I never could. If I did, Jean would have been alive. If I did, I’d never have lost Raven.”
He’s crying now, and he can’t stop, and he doesn’t care.
Erik, of course, is unaffected. He’s cold, the way he’s always been when Charles fell to pieces.
“In as much as I understand what happened, Jean isn’t dead. She’s beyond us now, and that’s not a figure of speech. She evolved. You of all people should know that evolution isn’t a choice, much less an expression of someone else’s will. And if you weren’t what you are, Charles, if you didn’t make the choices you made, the Earth would have been lost by now, taken over by those creatures. You can’t question yourself like this. You are the first person who should know better.”
“No. That’s the truth.”
“So help me if you say everything happens for a reason.”
Erik grins. “I won’t.”
Charles shakes his head, refusing to smile. “And what of Raven?”
Erik's smile fades. “She was a complicated person.”
“She was a tortured soul.”
“Aren’t we all? Or are you trying to tell me you sleep peacefully through the night? Because I never thought that, and now I know for a fact that you don’t.”
Charles shakes his head, his eyes closing. “I could have helped her. I should have done more.”
“You’ve done enough. Charles, listen to me. It’s arrogant to think everything’s on you. Yes, we interact with other people. Yes, we influence them. But unless you’ve actually taken her will, she was her own person who made her own choices. Don’t take that away from her. You know I don’t agree with everything you did in regards to her, but Charles, even a blind man can see that you did what you did out of love. Misguidedly, perhaps, at times, but all the same.”
“I’m not sure Raven saw it that way.”
“Oh no?” Erik smiles. “Why do you think she stayed with you for all these years? Not to mention, why do you think she never wrung your neck? Not the best when it came to impulse control, was your sister.”
Charles snorts, despite himself. “No. That, she wasn’t.” He falls silent for a while. “I miss her.”
Charles doesn’t know where the question even comes from, but he suddenly hears himself asking, perversely wanting to know: “Did you and she ever—?”
Erik gives him a sharp look, then relaxes. “No.”
It’s painful beyond belief for so many reasons, but he asks all the same. “Why not?”
“Because there were more urgent matters to attend to. And because the second time she tried to get me into bed with her she came to me as you.”
Charles stares at him, forgetting to breathe. “Jesus,” he whispers, burying his face in his hands. “Oh, my God, Erik. This is…”
“Fucked up,” Erik agrees calmly. “Even more than you think, because that was the only time I was actually tempted.”
“Oh my God,” Charles repeats, unable to process it. “Oh my God. Raven.”
How she could stand to look at him he will never know.
That night, he pulls Erik on top of him almost urgently, wanting to feel all of him, or at least as much as he possibly can. Erik doesn’t question it, doesn’t lecture him on safety or taking it slow, doesn’t act extra cautious. It’s a battle, one Charles doesn’t want to win, not for a moment, but he needs to go down fighting. He needs it to hurt. He needs it to be real. He needs to resist with everything he has so that that resistance could be broken. He needs to be made to surrender, to be brought to the absolute end of his endurance.
He’s not projecting, but he doesn’t have to. Erik gets it. Erik always had this uncanny ability to understand him better than Charles did himself. It’s natural for Erik to take control, so natural that Charles forgets for glorious moments that this is an illusion, that his power isn’t something he can give up, no matter how much he might want to. Erik is perfect like this, ruthless, making Charles moan, and sob, making the pleasure center in his brain explode over and over again, until Charles is yelling at him to stop, not meaning a word of it, thoughts twining through Erik's in all their broken, pained glory, helpless, tortured, and somewhere at the very bottom of the well completely undone.
Charles holds onto him, despite the physical discomfort, as they drift in the murky hour before the dawn, both utterly spent, neither one sleeping.
“I love you,” Charles says, hands sliding up and down Erik's shoulders, his back, unable to let go. “I love you. I love you.”
Erik kisses him, deep, submerging, uncaring that their lips hurt by now, needing to be closer still. He needs to hear it as much as Charles needs to say it, both of them starved for it.
“All those years spent fighting each other,” Erik murmurs. “All those years, I dreamed of this.”
We don’t deserve it, Charles thinks. Neither of us.
“But we have it,” Erik says. “I’m not giving it up. And I won’t let you do it, either.”
Charles can barely move his arms, but he loops them over Erik's neck, tugging him closer still, smiling helplessly.
“No, my friend. I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Charles has always known that his good behavior wouldn’t last. Much like the scorpion from the tale, it’s his nature. He tried to warn Erik, but Erik never listened to him. He manages a month on the island, tending to the blasted pineapple farm, minding his own business, before it starts. Small things at first. Little, insignificant, innocuous things.
The neighbor’s daughter asking to teach her to read. A lone teenager at the canteen, pregnant and scared. Farmers talking about inadequate equipment. An accident in the mines. A young couple, lost in the woods, attacked by a predator.
It leads to more small, innocuous things. Building a library near the command center. Ordering books. Rearranging some personal investments and sending two of the most promising ones to medical school on the continent. Analyzing soil samples and selecting a portion of the land to grow what was called more and more often as ‘superfoods’. Even a small yield marketed to health nuts as organic and miraculous would help establish a firm basis for trade.
And then things begin to become bigger, less innocuous, more difficult to ignore. Weekly meetings of those in charge, ostensibly for the purpose of collecting updates and asking for advice. De facto a proto government. A collective decision to build a hospital, however small. A petition of the assembled parents to start some form of school while the adults are working the fields.
Charles keeps waiting for Erik to intervene, to put an end to it. It’s not like Erik can’t see what is happening. It’s not like it’s a mystery where the wind is blowing from. Charles didn’t want it, but he knew it would be this way. It’s who he is. He can’t help it. He needs to be contained, not released on the unsuspecting population who have been through enough.
“Why don’t you stop me?” he asks Erik one night after they retire to their house. He doesn’t provide context, but he doesn’t need to.
Erik looks at him. “Why would I stop you?”
“This can’t be what you wanted.” Charles frowns. “I know why you’re here, Erik. You don’t believe humanity will ever accept us. You’re waiting for them to turn on us. This place is meant to be a stronghold. A shelter to withstand the attack.”
Erik shrugs. “Of course, I don’t believe humans will ever change, and of course, I’m expecting an attack. I’m working on creating the best defenses we possibly can and on maintaining our intelligence network. But I don’t see why I should stop you from making this place livable.”
“Because it’s more than that!” Charles explodes. “The more we trade with them, the more partnerships we strike, the more difficult it will be for them to attack us. Trade stops wars, Erik. People working side by side get to know one another. Develop relationships. Connections. Feelings. You know I didn’t suggest growing chia seeds because I’m suddenly fascinated by the amazing health benefits. I’m thinking long-term. I don’t want to. It just happens. Why—why are you laughing, you crazy man?”
“Charles.” Erik walks over to him, kneels before the wheelchair, taking Charles's hand. “I know all of that, and that’s okay.”
“That’s okay? Have you lost your mind?”
“Of course, that’s okay. Charles, Liebling, take a look around you. We don’t have to be at war with each other anymore. There’s room for your free trade utopia here or whatever it is you have in mind. It’s not in the way of me building a defense grid or stockpiling weapons. You’re right, I don’t believe that anything can really change the humans or the way they see us, but you know what—you can try. You’re not—you’re not conning me, Charles. I knew what I was getting into when I invited you here. I knew. This place is your home now as much as it is mine. And frankly, we are becoming too big, and governing has never been my forte.”
“I’m beginning to feel,” Charles says slowly after a beat, “that you have conned me.”
“Perhaps.” He leans in, presses a kiss against Charles's lips. “Do you mind?”
Charles cradles Erik's face in his hands, his mirth fading as their gazes lock.
“You need to watch me, Erik,” he whispers. “I always set out with the best intentions, and people always get hurt. I can’t stop me. But I think you can. Promise me you will. If you think I’m a danger to anyone. Promise me.”
“You’ve been doing this for me for years,” Erik says. “I think I can manage it.”
He kisses Charles then, a deep, firm, grounding kiss, full of strength Erik has never been afraid to show.
I am a weapon of mass destruction, Charles thinks. A nuclear bomb, asking another nuclear bomb to hold it in check. That should work brilliantly.
Erik senses his mood if not his thoughts and picks him up despite his protests.
“I think you need to get out of your mind for a while,” he says, lowering Charles down on to the bed. “You can object.” His hand racks up Charles's shirt. “You can scream. You can tell me to stop.” He pulls the shirt over Charles's head and throws it away. Leaning closer, he nuzzles the base of Charles's throat, murmuring, “You know what to do if you actually want me to stop.”
I won’t stop you, Charles thinks, hands reaching for him of their own volition. He can never get enough of this man. It’s been a year, and there’s no sign of him getting used to it.
“I know,” Erik grins, and his eyes turn dark, calculating, hungry. “Tell me.”
“I love you,” Charles says at once. “I’m yours.”
His last coherent thought that night is that power is an illusion as much as the absence of it. Everyone has it. Everyone makes a choice. There was Jean who lived in fear of her power her whole life and in the end chose to embrace it to its full extent, saving not only herself, but all of them. There was Raven, who hated her power all her life, and only learned to accept parts of it and only for a purpose. There is Hank, who ran along a similar path, albeit with less intensity, made a different choice halfway in, and who may yet grow into it. There is Erik, whose power is woven seamlessly into his very core, never to present a question. There are people like Moira, whose power comes from conscious will, from the choices they make every minute of every day. The world is resting on the shoulders of those people.
And there is Charles, whose power has never been the problem. His telepathy, formidable as it is, is but a mere expression of it. His true power lies within, as flawed and confused and unfortunately strong as he is. He can’t escape it, and he leaves scorched earth behind when he embraces it.
Do it again. Do it better. Is it arrogant that he can’t help but try?
Erik's teeth press under his jaw, unexpected, biting down, making him shout.
Stop, Erik's mental voice growls, thinking.
Make me, Charles sends over, cheeky, knowing he’s asking for it, issuing a challenge Erik can’t ignore.
Smooth bands of metal slide around his waist, under his hips, his shoulders, lifting him up, twisting this way and that, arranging him like a ragdoll to Erik's satisfaction. Charles yelps, forcing what limbs he can control to relax. One of those nights then, ones that leave him a sobbing, shaky mess by the end of it with Erik holding him in his arms like he is the most precious thing in all of creation without the slightest intention of ever letting go.
I love you, Charles thinks.
And Erik replies, You are my home.