Azazel takes them away in a whoosh of hot air and smoke, and he deposits them by the side of the road in the middle of a desert, the dry land stretching scorched on all sides for as far as the eye can see.
This is when Erik starts to run.
They collect Emma from the CIA facility a few days later. Erik spends the time between trying to purge himself, to create a leader of mutants who will be feared and respected and maybe, if he’s lucky, loved. He changes his name, his clothing, his demeanour. He refashions Shaw’s helmet into his own and keeps it firmly pressed against his skull, protecting him from anything that would stand in his way. It’s cold on his cheeks but that’s fine, because he needs to become cold to do what must be done.
They collect Emma, and Erik continues to run.
They drive in a straight line, across the country and away from Westchester, and Emma has a distant look on her face as Riptide grips the wheel; after every ten or twenty miles, Erik looks at her expectantly, and she simply shakes her head. They keep going.
It isn’t until they’re beyond Washington DC and halfway to Richmond that she lets out a breath, and nods, with a brittle smile on her face.
They’re out of Charles’ range.
“He keeps looking for you, you know,” Emma says suddenly, in the dark of the bedroom, and Erik looks at her. “Pleading, asking you to come home. He says that he doesn’t blame you for what happened.”
“And so he shouldn’t,” Erik snaps, and turns onto his back to stare up at the ceiling. There’s a patch of mould spreading from one corner; the furniture smells of old smoke. Tomorrow they’ll move on and leave this dirty motel behind, and they will sit in silence in the hot old car. To start with, it was uncomfortable to sleep with the helmet on, but he’s growing used to it – they may be out of range, but he’s not going to take any chances.
“You did shoot him in the back and cripple him,” Emma points out, sitting up to look down at him, and he scowls beneath the helmet.
“I would never intentionally hurt Charles,” he says stiffly. “If the human hadn’t made the idiotic decision to fire her gun at me, we would not be in this situation. If the men on those ships hadn’t fired upon us after we saved the lives of countless people, we would not be in this situation. No, it is the fault of humanity. Not mine.”
“You can protest all you want, but I know that you still feel responsible,” she says flatly, and Erik sits up very suddenly, narrowing his eyes.
“Are your powers getting through this helmet?”
“I don’t need powers to see how much you hate yourself for what happened. But if you want, I can help ease your guilt.”
She raises one hand to touch the very bottom of his helmet, as though to remove it, and in a split second he’s grabbed her wrist and yanked it backwards, twisting onto his knees and rising above her, pushing her away from him whilst holding on tightly.
“Don’t you ever attempt to access my mind again,” he snarls violently, and she pulls at her wrist, but she’s not strong enough to break free from his grasp, and she glares at him mutinously, her eyes glinting.
“You told me that you wanted me to fill the gaps that he left.”
“But that is one gap that you will never be able to,” he says, and releases her with a push. She glares at him in the moonlight, her blonde hair gleaming, and Erik has never hated her quite as much as he does in that moment. He turns onto his side with his back to her, and closes his eyes.
After a few moments, Emma stands from the bed and pulls on a robe, striding from the room and slamming the door behind her. He can feel the anger that she’s projecting at him, but he can’t bring himself to care.
Tomorrow, he’ll run a little further.
Erik no longer has the sheer, indomitable power of Charles’ mind at his side, and he does not have Cerebro – but he has Emma to help him look for mutants, to scan areas as they pass through them. Mystique asks him after a few weeks where they’re going, and he doesn’t have an answer. He doesn’t have a direction yet, or a destination – he’s still running from the beach and the betrayed look in Charles’ eyes.
Emma locates one, finally, as they skirt around the edges of Toledo. He’s an illusionist, she says – a very strong mutant, one who can project sound and touch and smell and taste and sight all at once. He would be useful, she says, but there is one problem.
They approach the prison where Jason Wyngarde is being kept with night at their backs, and it will be a simple extraction; everything is simpler with a teleporter and a metamorph. Erik pauses at the entrance and turns to Riptide, Emma and Angel.
“You three need to stay here in case any extra guards decide to appear,” he instructs, and Emma takes a step forward, her eyes flickering over his face.
“You should take your helmet off before you go in.”
“For any particular reason?”
“I need to be able to let you know if there are guards approaching,” she points out, and Erik thinks of his imaginary line over two hundred miles away, drawn in a wide circle stretching from Rochester to Altoona to Chesapeake Bay, the line that he wants so desperately to cross.
“And he’s not actively looking for me?” he prompts, and her eyes unfocus as she searches for him. “He won’t be able to reach me?”
“I can’t sense him at all. He’s keeping quiet.”
He can feel Mystique watching him keenly as he raises his hands and grips the cool edges of the helmet and pulls it off, leaning his head forwards ever so slightly. It’s a bizarre feeling, the cool wind ruffling his hair and brushing his cheeks, and –
He’s lying flat on his back on the cold floor, winded, and he can hear screams of rage above him, and Azazel is shouting. He turns his head, his whole body inexplicably exhausted, and he can see Raven’s lithe body furiously attacking Emma with an anger that he’s never seen in her before. He struggles to his feet and raises his hand to find any metallic item on Emma that will allow him to pull her backwards, but he’s stopped by Riptide appearing in front of him, pushing his helmet into his hands with an intense look.
“You might want to keep this on, in future,” he says darkly, and Erik looks from the metal in his hands to where Emma is doing her very best to defend herself against Mystique – but nobody is helping her. They’re just watching as Mystique exacts her revenge, and Erik can’t find it in himself any more to pull them apart.
“Don’t break her, Mystique,” he says coolly. She looks up at him, defiant and loyal and empowered, and he turns and walks away.
He can’t trust her – she’s proved that much – but he still needs her on his team. Having a telepath makes things worlds easier, and so he does some research and sends Azazel to steal whatever data is necessary from Hank McCoy.
It takes nearly a month, but eventually Erik turns the adamantium in his hands and twists and shapes it until it is his own; a newer, better, sleeker design that will allow only the weak, unobjectionable powers of a telepath through – but never the ability to directly control him or read his thoughts.
Emma doesn’t look angry or resigned as Erik walks from the room and smiles an awful smile at her. She just looks tired.
He wakes suddenly that night, with no understanding of why. His helmet is secure on his head and Mystique is sleeping soundly beside him, and there are no noises outside the bedroom. Yet he can feel something in the back of his mind, something out of place and both strange and achingly familiar.
I miss you worst on nights like this.
Erik restrains himself from leaping from the bed in surprise, and instead just takes hold of his helmet and grips it tightly. He should have expected this, really – they’re inside Charles’ range, and the new helmet won’t just allow Emma’s directed thoughts through – but hearing it still takes him by surprise.
I know you can’t hear me, Charles continues, and Erik wonders what he’s doing at this moment, at this hour of the night. That contraption of Shaw’s has made sure of it. But I miss being able to talk to you. I have Hank, and Sean, and Alex, yes – but it’s not the same. When they ask me what’s going to happen next, if there’s going to be a war, if we’re going to be safe... I don’t know what to say to them.
Part of Erik wants to stop listening, to swap helmets and block him out completely; part of him is yearning for Charles to tell him more, to tell him anything, just keep talking. It’s been months since he last heard his voice and he’d forgotten how soothing it could be. He wants so much to take off the helmet, to say yes, they will be safe, because I will make sure that they are but he doesn’t. He can’t risk it, can’t risk Charles opening up a link with him and finding him. He knows that Charles would never try to control him; he knows that he would never force him to do anything. But they’re past the point where he can trust him implicitly not to do something foolhardy.
We have a new member too, Warren Worthington. He’s fascinating, Erik, you would be amazed by him. He’s somewhat arrogant at the moment, but we can temper that. You certainly tempered me.
He waits patiently, holding his breath, for Charles to say something else but he doesn’t. Erik falls back to asleep after twenty minutes, and doesn’t tell Mystique about it the next day, and they run that little bit further.
But it keeps on happening. It’s as though Charles takes comfort in talking to him even though he thinks that Erik can’t hear anything; his rambling are candid and innocent and it’s as though he’s writing in a diary or journal of some sort, not projecting his thoughts across to Erik.
He says nothing useful though, nothing that could be used against him, and Erik’s almost grateful for that. It’s mostly inane things – his toast is burnt, Warren and Sean are having a competition to see who can fly the fastest, Hank is building a new X-Jet, the shower on the top floor has sprung a leak, the grass needs mowing.
But every now and then it’s something more intense, something meant specifically for Erik. There’s I miss you, things aren’t the same without you, I need you here, and I can’t do this by myself, and this bed is cold without you in it beside me, and it’s those times that Erik’s fingers touch the bottom of his helmet, and the others give him worried glances as he falters.
When an attack on an anti-mutant movement goes awry and the news is quickly spread across the nation, Erik spends the rest of the day with the desperate prayer of I hope you’re safe, please be safe, rattling around inside his head.
I love you like most people can’t bear to love things, Charles says one day, and Erik is so surprised that he drops the gun that he was holding, aimed directly at the security guard’s forehead. All hell breaks loose. Erik can’t bring himself to care.
Charles is silent, then, for nearly three weeks without a single thought directed to Erik. He begins to wonder if perhaps Charles has finally given up, finally conceded defeat against an enemy as stubborn as he is. And that’s how it should be, Erik thinks. They were destined to be enemies and Charles the fool, the stupid, caring, forgiving fool is going to ruin everything.
This is how things were meant to be. Their ideals are too different, their methods the opposite. They are not supposed to be friends; Erik is the dark mirror to Charles’ soul. He watches the sun rise and thinks, today they will take a step forward. Today he will put Charles and everything that he means behind him, and they will find more mutants for their cause. Today he will stop running.
Come home, Charles says, so quietly that Erik nearly doesn’t hear him after the three-week silence that’s been pressing down on his ears.
Erik turns to look back into the bedroom, where Mystique’s skin glows blue in the early morning light.
He stands in front of the wrought-iron gates, and breathes deeply. It smells the same as it did seven months ago; the shrubs lining the path up to the house blooming, deep green amongst the grey. It could easily be a year ago, before any of this had happened – before Erik had turned a satellite dish from miles away, before they went to war, before Charles fell on the scorching sand.
But this is why he’s come here. Because he wishes that it was a year ago, and if he’s lucky, they can pretend that it is.
He removes his helmet and opens his mind, and Charles’ presence washes over him like a welcome balm, cleansing his pain and loneliness and regret and guilt and replaces everything negative with relief, forgiveness, hope, love. He can’t help it; he shudders at the feeling, so alien in his mind and yet so desperately, desperately needed.
Welcome home it says and fills every corner of him with joy, and he rises to meet it in the burning sun.