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How Deep the Bullet Lies

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Their rental car breaks down somewhere between the middle of nowhere in Ohio and the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. Erik simply takes the wheel, keeping the car gliding down the smooth ribbon of road to Virginia. Charles closes his eyes, feigning sleep to avoid feeling the low hum of power that permeates their immediate surroundings. He is trying his best to avoid the temptation that Erik's mind presents. Here is a man with a thousand secrets and locked doors, a man so very much in need of saving. Yet at this point Charles becomes tangled in his moral code: Erik must be saved, but salvation from without is meaningless.

Thus, Charles rests his head against the car window (glass, this bit is glass, simple and cool) and feels nothing more than the weight of Erik's concentration.

Some hours later, he opens his eyes from actual sleep to discover two things: the sun sliding low on the horizon, marking the border between night and day; and the rusty edge to Erik's focus, flakes falling from a silent wound. "Erik--" he starts to say, and then Erik says, "We should stop for the evening." So he does have some understanding of his own limits, then.

They are, of course, still miles from civilization. Erik has stopped the car on the edge of a field and is setting out blankets with neat, efficient movements. Charles opens his mouth to ask why he didn't stop earlier, because surely they must have passed a town or even a farm house, but the question dies as he realizes with dull horror that it simply never occurred to Erik to seek shelter. He is not surprised when Erik removes a few packets of crackers from the inside of his jacket, but he does ache for the boy who knew hunger, and for the man who does not know satiation.

"I thought you could sleep in the car." Erik holds out one of his packets; Charles accepts, with a slight clench of his jaw when their fingers brush. "I'm too tall to be comfortable, and I prefer the ground." That brief moment of contact was enough to give Charles the impression of long nights spent out of doors, sleep stolen in fragments.

"It wouldn't be sporting of me," Charles says, sitting down on one of the blankets and putting a cracker in his mouth. He chews, trying not to wince the taste of dry and nothing more. "It might surprise you to know that I enjoy the outdoors. 'While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things,' you know."

Erik sits down next to him, closing his eyes as he leans back against the car. This is as close to peace as Charles has ever felt from Erik, peace tattered with wariness, shot lightly through with contempt for Charles for his choice of poetry. There's a trace of affection there as well. Unthinkingly, Charles follows where it leads, past fences of chain link metaphor, through a door and into a room that gleams vivid and vital like blood--

A hand closes around his wrist, fingers like bands of steel. Stop that.

I apologize. Charles draws back, startled. He has no idea how to explain that he didn't mean to pry, that he simply fell into a pattern long-perfected in bars with women. Erik is unsettling, unsettled. When Erik lets go, Charles rubs his wrist where the bones ache beneath the skin. "I was distressed by your lack of appreciation for Wordsworth," he tries, with a quirk of his lips meant to convey self-depreciation. "But I do apologize."

Erik's gaze lingers on Charles for moments, moments that are theoretically only a few but for Charles last long into the deepening night. His face is shuttered as always, but less so: curtains instead of locks. "'Ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe,'" he says at last, the tenor of his voice a quotation Charles cannot place.

"I don't know that one," Charles admits.

A quiet huff of breath, rather like a laugh. "I didn't think you would."

The silence after that is companionable, Erik eating his terrible crackers and Charles nibbling at his so he doesn't starve. (An ache like a monster within, devouring all but the most essential of organs.) No, not starve, never starve. Charles staves off the discomfort of hunger and the dark closes over the world in a sweep of velvet. The air promises to be cool but still warm enough that Charles will probably be able to move his limbs the next morning. Charles stretches out his legs and begins counting the stars as they come out, an old game he and Raven used to play as children.

"The quiet is pleasant as well," Charles says at last, picking up the thread of their old conversation. For Charles, the effort has always been to not use his power: to shut out the clamor of minds around him. It's as though a tensed muscle has at last been allowed to relax. Erik's mind rolls in waves around him; Charles lets it wash through without examining its contents.

"Mm," Erik replies, face tilted towards the sky. The moon is a slit of white in the sky, not enough to do more than illuminate the barest outline of his features. He is searching for the North Star, Charles realizes, a point of the compass, a guide. He wonders if Erik can sense the Earth's magnetic fields.

"When I read that the stars we see had died long ago, I found it quite distressing." Charles's non sequiturs tend to make more sense than most; he responds to the emotions of others even without having consciously read their thoughts. Raven is used to it, and no one else has gotten close enough to witness this phenomenon on a regular basis. Charles tries to look at the sky as well, but he gives it only a cursory glance before he turns back to Erik, who is so very alone in the dark. "I thought that the universe ought to run like a clock, you know, ticking along and certain." He slips into the language of philosophy with ease, pulling it on like a robe. "The stars made time see all wrong."

Erik surprises him when he replies, "It bothers you still."

"Well." Charles smiles, delighted. "I do like to set things in order, but there is only so much that a man can do."

"Then it is a good thing we are more than men."

"Quite." Charles slips off his jacket, folding it to make a pillow for his head. The garment will be in a state tomorrow, but he cannot find it within himself to care. He ought to go to sleep. The world feels too wide, his mind too empty and too full at the same time. He lies down and the stars loom overhead, shining like coins. Charles shuts his eyes against it all.

The next morning, Charles says, "Let's go home."

*

When they do return home at last, it is under the most terrible set of circumstances. One of their own is dead. Erik almost killed a woman in front of him. The threat of war is ashes in the air, coloring everything gray. The grief and fear all around Charles amplifies his own emotions until he is forced to take refuge in his study. For one night, he will be one of the wounded. Tomorrow it will again be time to play the adult.

As usual, Raven is the one who finds him in this state, bringing him a tray of soup and a few slices of bread. Her mind is comfortable, familiar, and he's taught her well enough that he's only just aware that there's another person in the room as he devours the meal. He shouldn't want to eat after the events of the past twenty-four hours, but the body is an impolitic thing.

"Thank you," he says, and she curls up with him on the sofa.

"I think I have no more tears left, so you don't have to worry about that," Raven says, head heavy on his shoulder. "I just--fuck, Charles. I saw one of my friends die."

"I know." He's seen Darwin's death from several different angles, several different minds, but the horror is always the same. Charles tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and wonders anew at a world in which power corrupts so absolutely. He has studied countless histories and yet understands nothing save for the sense of a void torn in the world, a profound betrayal of a promise never uttered.

True to her word, Raven does not weep, but her bone-deep exhaustion is affecting in its own way. He catches glimpses of her thoughts, vague impressions of blistering light. Raven's mind has ever been subtle, smooth as a lake yet changeable as water, and for her, these brief images are naked emotion. He considers smoothing her emotions as he does her hair. There are whole portions of her past Raven cannot remember because he stumbled into her mind all those years ago, a child desperate to help, and left a swath of destruction in his wake. No, he will not do this to her again.

"Come in," Charles says before Erik can knock at the door. Parlor trick, Raven thinks at him, and he pulls a face at her. Then the lock on the door twists free of its own accord, and Erik enters the room, his expression no more grave than usual. Charles feels Raven tense next to him and a taut thrum of attraction that seems to emanate from everywhere at once. "What do you want?" Charles asks, frowning.

"I have come to offer my assistance in designing a training program." Erik's accent is slightly more pronounced on unfamiliar words, Charles notes absently, and wonders how he even knows the phrase offer my assistance. "Shall I come back later?"

"No, no, stay." Charles sits up and Raven shifts to the opposite end of the sofa, dark eyes flicking from him to Erik. He does not try to read her face, because she will tell him what she's thinking at some point of her own choosing. "What did you have in mind, my friend?"

Erik outlines his ideas in much the same way he plots his next move in chess: precise, calculated, and yet never predictable. Charles retrieves a pad of paper and a pen, copying his words. He has few suggestions of his own; Charles knows how to train for sport, and Erik is training for war. He wonders where Erik learned to kill, if he had a natural talent for it. Disturbed, Charles misses Raven's suggestion.

"Hello, Charles," Raven says, dragging out his name in a way she learned when she was fourteen and determined to annoy everyone. "I said that we should design some way of harnessing Alex's power. He'll never learn to control it as long as he's scared of hurting people." She grins. "I bet Hank could do it in about five minutes."

"I hope Hank knows what he's getting himself into," Charles replies, arching an eyebrow at her. Amusement brushes his mind, and he turns back to Erik. The look they exchange is almost parental: See the children. See what they might become. Charles loves these moments, loves them all the more for the contrast they make when set against the moments where Erik thinks of him as little more than a child.

"Oh, for God's sake." Raven kicks Charles in the shin, just enough to hurt. "I see you bonded on your little road trip."

"He is not terrible company," Erik replies, and favors her with a smile. Raven smiles back and the room shimmers underneath, a mirage in the desert. Charles's mouth is dry, his fingers fisted around empty air. The pen has fallen on the carpet without making a sound.

"I'll be back in a moment," Charles says, just remembering to excuse himself, and flees into the hallway. He treads softly lest he wake the others downstairs and tries to ignore the tremor in his hands. Breathe. Let go. His own advice come back to haunt him. He shuts the bathroom door and turns on the tap, splashing water on his face until he forgets the emotion in the pit of his stomach, or at the very least brushes it aside.

When he emerges to find Raven waiting for him, he sighs. Her hands go to her hips and she looks at him as only a sister can, mouth pursed in irritation. "Erik's gone to bed. Want to tell me what that little moment meant?"

"Forgive me if I didn't want to watch my sister flirt," Charles snaps, because if she's going to be that way about it, he might as well infuriate her right away.

But Raven only laughs, shaking her head as though she's the older one here. "God, you're an ass." Her sympathy prickles against his mind, and he recoils, crossing his arms over his chest. He's opening his mouth to cut her off, to stop the words that spin half-formed in her mind, but the sorrow on her face stills his tongue. "How I feel about Erik and how I feel about Erik whenever you're in the room are two very different things." She reaches out and rests a hand on his arm. "You need to face--this. I know you don't want to be different, not this way, but you don't have any control at all." Her eyes are wide, pleading. "Charles, it's always been us against the world. Don't turn on yourself."

He thinks he might be ill. The hallway is dark, the shadows deep; he would not know his way if he had not grown up here. "I can't," he rasps, but takes her hands between his in spite of his words. She is his sister, and she is no longer his only friend, as she so cuttingly observed, but she is his first friend. He owes her this much and more.

"You'll get there." Raven's lips curve, and he can see the mischief on her face despite the dark. "Or at any rate, you'll get dragged there if you keep staring like that."

Charles ignores the heat in his cheeks lest it make her more smug. "Go to bed, Raven. We start training tomorrow."

Before he slides beneath his own sheets, he reaches out with his mind, taking roll: Hank and Alex and Sean, still so young despite recent events; Raven, rushing waters running deep; and Erik, iron and twists of copper wire. Charles closes his eyes, thinking of that mind and the lean lines of that body, and the desire that curls through him is entirely familiar.

He pretends he is not afraid.

*

Charles has never struggled so with his powers before. His own mind besets him at every turn, a thousand thoughts crowding under his skin, seeking release. He runs with Hank for the burning in his legs, the absolute focus that racing provides. He plays the professor Raven named him, giving lessons to the children and tinkering in the laboratory. When he is with Erik, it is always with others to act as a barrier between them, messy teenage emotions thick as walls.

Raven does not push him again, but her disappointment is galling.

The discipline required to be an impeccable student, to complete a thesis, is not enough for Charles to eradicate this piece of himself. He made his choice when he leapt into the sea to rescue a drowning man, without question, without thought. Erik is the anchor around his neck, but Charles has forged the chains on his own. When Erik comes to Charles with a loaded gun, Charles takes it into his hand, the metal warm as flesh beneath his grip, and all he can feel is how much Erik wants him to pull the trigger.

He falters.

The reason he gives is friendship, but the truth is closer to the bone: he will not fall into Erik's spiral of self-destruction, not when he is so preoccupied with his own. This scene is dangerous, and yet he goads Erik further, pressing him to move mountains in the name of--what? He is thinking of science as Erik thinks of weaponry, and Charles longs to teach him not to conflate the two. He can sense no curiosity from him, only the raging despair of a child separated from his mother. It is dimmed by the years; it is not enough to build a life upon.

"You know, I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity." The words fall from Charles's lips as if by accident. This happens, sometimes, when epiphany occurs too quickly for him to process, and he is left with the lingering glow of a solution, mathematical in its clarity. Charles asks for permission to enter Erik's mind without expecting a refusal. He has already seen the darkest recesses of Erik's mind--now he must access the brightest.

Candles flicker in the basement. His mother lights the menorah, hollow of cheek but steady of hand. The soldiers have stolen their voices, but he hears the words echoed a hundredfold: "Blessed art thou, the Lord our God, King of the Universe..." This small, hidden room in itself feels like a miracle, one quiet space to kindle hope in the darkness. His mother smiles, her hand on his face, and this place becomes their home.

He moves as if to brush the tear from Erik's face and feels his thumb glide across his own cheek instead. Erik asks him what he has just done, equally shaken, and Charles cannot hide the wonder in his voice as he answers, nor the tenderness. How to explain to someone that you have seen all that he is, and all that he might be? He claps Erik on the shoulder and tells him to try, try again, because he knows that place in Erik's mind, has felt it inside himself. And oh, all that he feels from Erik, Erik who is a pianist with every finger systematically broken, Erik who senses the music in pocket watches and loose change and the blue of Raven's skin; and here is still more blue, the blue of his own eyes reflected back at him by that bright place in Erik's mind.

Charles does not need to hear the shriek of metal, to view the satellite pointing towards them, to know that Erik has succeeded at last, but he looks because Erik wishes him to, Erik wants him to see him like this. Erik's smile is terrible to behold, but it is also beautiful, and Charles cannot help but join him in his triumph, pulled in by something like joy. He spoke of the power Erik possesses eclipsing his own, but failed to mention the power Erik has over him already. You are not alone, he said to Erik so many months ago, not knowing how alone he himself has been until this moment.

Then Moira leans out the window, her fear a bitter pall across Charles's mind, and tells them that the President is about to make his address.

The snap of Erik's focus is immediate, the sharp crack almost audible. Charles is on alert as well, racing to deny the certainty in Moira's quicksilver mind, the doom closing in upon them like a fist. Will any generation afterwards live without fear of falling bombs? When fire rained upon Pompeii, did its lords attribute it to their own love of power?

They gather before the television set, these children of the atom, to hear the President's proclamation in stark monotone. Charles tries to ignore the way Erik's fingers tighten around his gun when he realizes where to find Shaw, has been trying to ignore that Erik brought a gun into his living room in the first place. (Keep track of your weapons.) He knows what Erik is thinking without having to read him at all.

"So much for diplomacy. I suggest you all get a good night's sleep."

It is with this pronunciation that Erik exits, perhaps to press a gun to his temple for the sake of choosing where the bullet lies. Charles is left to mobilize the troops, to send the minds he has molded into battle, and the resulting flare of resentment leaves ash upon his tongue. In many ways Erik is a reflection of Charles's wonder for the world, the living embodiment of both his research and his aesthetics, but Erik is a mortal man, a man who deliberately tarnishes his soul. Charles turns and watches Erik go, aching for all that he is, fearing all that he might become.

Raven performs the mental equivalent of clearing her throat, so Charles turns to her, to all of them. "Tomorrow is a momentous day for us," Charles says, smiling through the knot in his stomach. "Tomorrow is the day we cease hiding. Tomorrow is the day we save the world." A vision seizes him: that of a world where the good need not fear the powerful, for they are one and the same.

What if they kill us after they're done with us? Raven asks. She at least has the decency not to repeat her thoughts aloud. Hank is already striding purposefully toward his lab, and Alex and Sean are more excited than frightened. Moira is wondering how many will die tomorrow, and whether it will be anyone she knows.

When did you start thinking of your fellow man as "they"? Charles retaliates.

When I realized that we'll always have to hide.

Charles leaves so that she will not have that satisfaction.

*

Dinner that evening is simple fare for the sake of those accustomed to prison or living as though they are in one still. Hank sends a mental apology for not joining them, as he has nearly perfected his serum. When the topic of the next day arises, inevitable, Raven rises and announces with defiant eyes that she will take her meal with Hank. This seems to quell Sean and Alex, who abandon nerves to stuff their faces with teenage gusto. Moira looks on, her expression of disgust and fascination so wonderfully human that Charles does not remind the boys to mind their manners. Food combats the fear of battle; food is a soporific.

Charles breaks his bread in half and then half again, listening to Erik prepare himself for vengeance. This is eavesdropping, this is a deliberate violation of the moral code Charles tries not to break, and yet he continues to cast about for a reprise of that moment they shared earlier, a moment where Erik let go of his singular obsession, where they breathed the same breath. But Erik's mind is polished steel writ in German and French and English. Charles itches to put a hand to his temple, not to use his power but to stave off headache. Charles closes his eyes against the relentless press of the future.

When Charles sends Sean and Alex off with the dishes and moves to retreat to his own quarters, however, the shift in Erik's attention is immediate. Charles allows himself a private smile. "Would you care for a game of chess?" he asks, glancing over his shoulder, and Erik reciprocates the smile with just the barest quirk of his lips.

"Yes," Erik says.

Charles loves the look of Erik in his study, a pawn held between two long fingers, directing a vague frown at the chessboard. Erik is unaccustomed to losing games of strategy, and plays chess with such fierce concentration that Charles sometimes wishes for precognitive ability, since remaining even one step ahead of him is so difficult. Then again, such an ability would be cheating, and then Charles would lack an opponent.

"You look like you were born to sit here," Charles teases. The firelight plays over Erik's features, rendering them soft and sharp by turns. His words are not quite right--Erik is too stark to have been born to this life--but the inaccuracy is worth the gesture of dismissal that Erik makes. Their first round is always serious, and it irritates Erik that Charles can talk throughout it without losing his train of thought.

"I'm used to tuning others out. My own noise is hardly a problem," Charles says aloud, grinning.

Erik just looks at him, challenging. The queen to--no. Moving a valuable piece too soon into harm's way. A pawn, a rook, a knight. Charles is no longer pleased with himself. Erik is thinking at him while maintaing a separate channel of thought underneath. Charles grits his teeth and for the second time this evening fights the urge to use more of his power, to break down the last of the barriers between them.

"Where did you learn to do that?" Charles asks as Erik captures a bishop.

"Saying one thing and believing another is a simple trick," Erik answers.

Charles responds by putting him in check; it is his turn to sit silent and pensive. They never talk about important things during the first game, another unspoken rule that Charles suspects is more for his sake than Erik's. Charles discusses the weather and relates tales of his misspent university years while Erik bends all of his focus on winning.

Erik reaches for a knight at the same moment that Charles reaches for his drink. Their fingers brush and Charles lifts the glass to his mouth, allowing the drink to excuse his flush, to conceal the low flood of want trembling through him. Did he sense the intent to move the piece and thus move his own hand accordingly? Charles lets the alcohol burn its way down his throat. Matters of import are for the second game.

"You've left yourself open," murmurs Erik. Charles shivers and focuses on a spot on the floor. He is not accustomed to being so obvious. "Checkmate," Erik says, pronouncing the final blow.

"I haven't lost so much in years," Charles says, meaning nothing more than chess, but Erik gives him another one of those piercing glances as he resets the board.

The second game is the one where they talk, punctuating their discussions with careless sips of alcohol. Charles skirts the topic of tomorrow, deliberately selecting his topics to be of enough interest to Erik that he will converse about them instead. Charles has an inkling he is being humored, but does not care, particularly when Erik makes an off-hand remark about having read his thesis.

"I didn't know you were so interested in my work." Charles leans forward in his chair, resting his chin on one hand. "Do go on." He's aware enough of himself to know that he's flirting and fortified with enough alcohol that he no longer cares.

That trace of a smile glints again. "It takes you quite a while to make your point."

"I like to have all my facts in order before I begin my speculation."

"But it's not speculation. You're arguing something when you already know the answer."

Charles leans back and studies the board, counting as he draws breath. One, two, three, four, five. The more one is emotionally invested, the more difficult the debate. He's not even sure what they're discussing anymore--a telepath, unable to read a man sitting three feet away. "The idea needs gradual introduction before the general public is ready to accept it--to accept us."

"And the general public will be ready tomorrow?" Erik's smile is ironic. "Which one? America's, perhaps?"

Charles does not reply with they'll have to be. Instead, he attempts a different tack: "Cuba, Russia, America, it makes no difference. Shaw's declared war on mankind, on all of us."

"He has to be stopped. I'm going to kill him." Erik pauses as if waiting for a response. All Charles can do is look at him, listen to the bitter whisper of German in Erik's mind, and pray that Shaw has forged a sword rather than a bomb. "Do you have it in you to allow that?" Erik asks, moving one of his pieces. Charles lets out a slight, mirthless laugh, leaning forward as Erik makes his case.

They argue in truth this time, quiet yet barbed. Naive, Erik calls him, arrogant. Charles lets go the rule of proper debate and casts aside Erik's arguments without further consideration, unable to put into words how greatly he fears for Erik's life after this final murder. Weapons with no further use are discarded. Weapons, all of the team spinning like wheels in the government's machinations--Charles is seized with the desire to take them all and run, but logic says that nuclear war will not secure them a safe haven, despite Shaw's beliefs.

"Peace was never an option," Erik says, looking at Charles as if from a great distance. Nothing has changed from their first meeting. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Charles feels as though he is sucking on air, forcing it into reluctant lungs, but his breathing sounds the same as always. It is another piece of himself that is breaking.

"I want you to go," Charles says, looking anywhere but that flat, dead expression. It doesn't matter: he can still feel Erik's mind.

After the door shuts, Charles knocks the chessboard to the floor.

*

One of the delightful perks of being a recent graduate is that Charles retains the ability to hold his drink. Some distant, responsible corner of his mind is chiding him for getting drunk on the eve of battle, on the eve of possible war, for God's sake, but Charles is quite tired of it all, tired of being the admittedly self-appointed leader of a ragtag band of children who will never be soldiers.

"I'm a bloody professor," he informs his empty glass, then decides that switching to wine is an excellent idea.

What occurs in the kitchen is yet another confrontation, this time with Raven, who has taken to parading about naked and blue, of all things. She all but accuses him of keeping her for his own amusement, for treating her like a curiosity to be brought to light only when it suits him. Raven is trying to hurt him: Charles can sense it on her, feel the intent behind the words she flings at him.

"What's so wrong with wanting to be a part of the world?" Charles demands at last, done with patience, done with both of them. "In case you haven't noticed, we are part of the world."

"We're part of the world when it's convenient, which is just the way it is with you and me, really," Raven snaps. With a toss of her hair, she is blonde and lovely once more. "Oh, Raven, keep me company, I'm so lonely. Oh, Raven, you're my only friend, you've always been there." She shifts back to her natural form, eyes cat-cold in the dark kitchen. "I've been there, Charles, but everywhere I've gone, it's been on your terms. No more."

He catches a glimpse, then, of Raven padding through the hallway, anger a storm beneath her false skin. There is the briefest glimpse of large hands, a kiss. Judas, Charles wants to name her, except the metaphor is imperfect and that means something to his alcohol-dazed mind. Raven is too angry still to have made a conquest: that, too, means something. "Things will look better in the morning," he says.

She snorts. "When we're heading off to get killed?"

"I won't let anything happen to you."

It turns out to be the right thing to say. Raven's expression sweetens, and Charles takes the opportunity to extract confirmation from her mind. She and Erik shared a moment of solidarity, no more. "You and Erik should kiss and make up," Raven says, with a significant glance at the bottle still in his hands. "We'll all take care of each other."

Before she heads off to bed, she presses a kiss to his cheek, leaving Charles alone with everyone's thoughts.

"Right then," Charles says aloud, and places the bottle back in the refrigerator. Sobriety is threatening, telling him to go to sleep, to tuck himself underneath his covers and hide as though from monsters in the dark. He is so tired, so truly weary of wanting one thing and acting as though he does not, tired of pistols and metaphor.

He heads upstairs, cutting through currents of thought and shadow, tracing a path he has not walked in a week and yet knows by heart. He doesn't give himself time for nerves or to consider the significance, only does: he knocks on Erik's door, with only the passing thought that he might be disturbing Erik's sleep.

"I apologize," Charles says, before Erik has even finished opening the door. "Not because I'm wrong, because I'm not, but because tomorrow is only a few hours away and I won't go into it angry at one of my dearest friends."

Erik leans against the door frame, still dressed, still awake. "You make a terrible apology, Charles."

"Yes." Charles swallows, and Erik watches the line of his throat. "May I come in?"

Erik steps aside, expression inscrutable.

Charles enters the room and lets his gaze dart around like a dragonfly, never resting on any one object for long. There is Erik's briefcase, on the desk. There is the lamp, still lit. There is the carpet, worked in patterns of gold. There is the chair. There is the bed. "I just want everyone to be safe," Charles admits. "You've never been safe in your life, but I want that for you, I want that for myself, but it's too difficult."

The footsteps are a steady rhythm, in time to the beating of his heart. Erik reaches out and rests a hand on his shoulder, a simple gesture with a hundred meanings behind it. Charles lets his eyes fall shut at the warmth seeping through the light fabric of his shirt, then opens them to meet Erik's gaze, which tells him everything he needs to know.

"Don't let's talk anymore," Charles whispers.

They move together; who kisses whom blurs into one motion, one touch. This is as inevitable as the stars, as the release of a coiled spring. Charles fists his hands around Erik's turtleneck, pulling him close, as Erik makes a small noise of satisfaction, sliding one hand up to tangle in Charles's hair. Charles feels Erik's mouth against his, hot and sure; feels Erik's desire, the hidden current passing between them. He is actually weak in the knees. One of them is. Both of them are.

Erik breaks the kiss, breathing faster, and cups Charles's face in his hands. The second kiss is no less searing, but it speaks of a gentleness Charles has only sensed from Erik once before. It terrifies Charles as much as it thrills him; this makes it real. The bed, he says, careful to speak with his power rather than suggest, and Erik follows where he leads.

Drowning. This is drowning, their first meeting all over again, the natural conclusion of the moment Charles felt Erik in the water, fevered with anguish and history. Rather than pull Erik to the surface, Charles allows him to drag him under, Erik's hands around his wrists, locking him to the bedsheets. Erik is doing nothing more than holding him, kissing him again and again, and it is the most shockingly erotic thing Charles has ever experienced in his life.

"Are you reading my mind?" Erik hisses against his ear, mouthing the curve of his earlobe as he lets go of one wrist. Charles shudders at such license and presses fingers to forehead, training his stuttering focus on the man leaving a series of teeth marks on his neck. Erik is not doing much thinking in words, but the possessive bent to his thoughts is impossible to mistake, a churning mixture of lust and devotion. Charles drops his hand, tilting his head to catch Erik's lower lip between his teeth before he sees what neither of them can speak.

Charles gasps as his belt unbuckles itself, as the buttons of his shirt glide neatly apart from fabric. Maddeningly, Erik has not yet touched skin beyond his face and throat; a strange thing to complain of when Charles has just been inside his mind, lingers at the edges there still. "Whatever you have to give," Charles says, voice strained with the effort of holding himself back, his fingers ten pressure points on the muscles of Erik's shoulders.

"I was going to say the same," Erik replies, index finger trailing down Charles's jawline, dipping below to locate his pulse.

The effect is immediate: Charles takes a breath and lets open the gates of his mind on the exhale, eyes shutting as his thoughts mingle with Erik's once more. This time is less controlled, pieces of his own emotions bleeding through, raw with need. Touch me, Charles says, caught in the crux between command and plea. Touch me.

Erik strips off both of their shirts in clumsy fashion, swearing under his breath when clothing proves less than obliging to haste. Charles laughs, giddy with shared emotion, freeing his arms so he can lift them above his head. Not that I don't understand your impatience, but I do like this shirt.

Then Erik slides a hand down Charles's chest, resting it just below his navel, and Charles stops being able to think at all. Impressions: his tongue in Erik's mouth, hot and searching; Erik scraping over a nipple, rough and perfect; the shivering wonder of two minds conjoined in a single purpose. Yes, Charles says in body and mind alike, and Erik responds in every language he knows.

One of Erik's hands cups Charles through his trousers and Charles bites his own tongue. Erik tugs off the rest of Charles's clothes with deliberate slowness, as if to demonstrate proof of immunity to Charles's desperate pleas for more, yes, God, fuck. Erik's fingers wrap around his cock, steady despite the ragged breaths between them, Charles sliding a leg between Erik's, angling a hip towards the ceiling, the exposure careless and wanton all at once--

"Nngh," Charles says, holding back as much as he can despite the reverberation of Erik's desire and his own, echoing again and against each other, amplifying. It's too much, it's been too long. He's been waiting for this moment for months, for Erik, Erik disheveled and sweat-damp, Erik his equal and companion in every way, the touch of mouth and hands and mind both the lock and the key to all that they are--and Charles is coming, racked with comingled pleasure.

When he can breathe again, Charles kisses Erik, careful, the lightest brushing of lips, then settles back onto the pillow. Erik watches him through half-lidded eyes, the last vestiges of his orgasm fading: Charles has that effect on people. "I didn't even get your trousers off," Charles sighs, smile belying his words.

"I don't recall any pressing engagements tomorrow," Erik says, and it's a joke, an actual joke. Charles laughs and kisses him again, lingering this time, running a hand down Erik's spine.

They don't sleep much that night.

*

Naive, Erik called him last night, and Charles is naive enough to hope that he is enough to distract Erik from his vendetta against Shaw. Their mission is one of justice, not vengeance, and Erik has nothing more than the latter on his mind, for all its appearance of the former. Not hours ago Charles had looked down at Erik's sleeping face and considered making him sleep for the rest of the day, until the threat had passed. But there will always be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and so here they are, stranded on a bright sandy beach, all of Erik's thoughts turned to German.

Charles gives orders because there is no one else, because if he has control then Erik has a direction other than his own. He is the weight in the back of Erik's mind, he is the compass that he bears.

Then Erik goes into the void.

Charles paces the wreck, brushing aside Moira's concern, all of his concentration on the dead space in the center of the submarine, as though with enough willpower he can smash whatever barrier Shaw has erected. Shaw loomed impossibly large in those few moments he viewed him through Erik's eyes, sheened in blue and sounding like ice. He feels Erik's fear still, fear that enhances the rage rather than blotting it out. Charles pounds a fist against the plane, trying not to cry out in desperation. They are so close to salvation, so close to disaster.

From a great distance comes the sound of breaking glass, and Erik is back. Charles shouts at Erik in triumph, blood racing. More shattering, and then Charles can see Shaw, though the helmet makes it impossible to read his mind. Words are coming from Shaw's mouth, words that Charles cannot quite make out, though he can feel Erik's loathing and a certain, unexpected measure of despair. The words Reich and future filter through, and Charles goes cold. When Erik refers to himself as a weapon, Charles moves to cry out, but then Erik has pulled the helmet off and it's time to hold Shaw, to pray that Erik will not be swallowed whole.

"I can only control this man for so long," Charles tells Moira through clenched teeth, squinting against the sun, seeing nothing but the watery blue glow of the submarine's interior. Shaw's mind is old, twisted with cruelty and more power than any one man should possess. If this is what it is to be a weapon, Charles wants no part in it.

"Sorry, Charles," Erik says with genuine regret, his hands closing around the helmet, and Charles lets his concentration waver long enough to shout plea after plea at Erik, but it's too late, the waters have closed in overhead--

--Shaw is terrified and proud all at once, the murder in Erik's voice is steady and emotionless, a great creation is worth the facing death, yet he struggles against this foreign presence, the urge to destroy sweeter than that to create, cut deeper into the bone--

--and Charles is screaming in pain more psychic than physical, for the physical ceases once the coin passes through the skull, but now the abyss gapes before him, a sightless eye, a collapsing star, and Shaw's consciousness isn't. Charles catches himself on the wall, Moira sliding an arm under to support him. It takes a moment to fight down the nausea, then Charles pulls away from her, staggering out of the plane to see what Erik has become.

The body emerges before Erik, held upright in some grotesque parody of crucifixion. The symbolism is all wrong, Erik is all wrong, drifting through the air as he spouts rhetoric, twisting Charles's thesis to fit his, except it's not Erik, it can't be. Erik isn't there. Charles cannot force the words past numb lips. When Erik challenges him to prove that humanity isn't out to kill them all, Charles raises a hand to his temple without saying a word.

Death is everywhere this morning.

Moira is on the radio, pleading with her superiors, but Charles can feel the answer. There is so much hatred and fear in the world. Erik was right, Erik who isn't here anymore, Erik who might not be enough to stop the missiles of two countries.

It turns out he is enough.

Charles looks at him, his turn to take a quotation and turn it to suit his own purposes. "Erik, you said yourself, we're the better men. This is the time to prove it," Charles says, desperate to believe that Erik did not die with Shaw, that something of the man he knows better than he knows himself remains. Erik pauses; Charles takes hope and then ruins it all by arguing that the men aboard the ships are just following orders.

The more one is emotionally invested, the more difficult the debate.

With the flick of one hand, Erik sends the missiles flying, a gesture of defiance that will seal their fates, that will make it so Erik can never return with Charles. Charles tackles him to the ground, grappling with him on the sand. He hasn't a hope of winning through sheer physical force, but it might help Erik to feel Charles underneath him again, to see him, but it doesn't, he doesn't, and Erik hits him again. Charles struggles to his feet to the sound of gunfire--and then he falls.

There is pain, so much pain, and then Erik is holding him in a way he never has before, cradling him as though he is something precious, apologizing to him, and Charles closes his eyes against the pain and the strange relief. Then Erik's voice turns to murder once more, and Moira begins choking.

"Erik, please. She didn't do this, Erik. You did." Forcing the words past his lips makes him want to gag with effort, but Erik looks down at him, lays a hand upon his chest. Charles cannot feel Erik's mind, but his body is the same, his eyes are still blue, and it makes it all the harder to realize that Erik is utterly, utterly changed. The sky smells of smoke.

"Us turning on each other--it's what they want," Erik says, voice rough. "I tried to warn you, Charles. I want you by my side. We're brothers, you and I. All of us, together, protecting each other. We want the same thing."

I tried to warn you, as though Charles hasn't been doing the same thing all along. Protecting each other, as though Erik hadn't just tried to kill an innocent woman. Charles has to laugh at the absurdity of it all, at Erik destroying the man he loves and then offering himself up in his stead. He laughs as his vision blurs with tears. "Oh, my friend, I'm sorry, but we do not."

Long seconds pass as they gaze at one another across the abrupt rift, the edge between their ideologies lacerating them at last. Charles's head swims with the pain, and it's all he can do to keep it contained within his own body, to reassure Raven. She touches him, tears in her eyes, and he tells her, "You--you should go with him. It's what you want." Because she does want it, and she is his sister, and Charles wants all of his heart broken in one clean sweep. She will leave sooner or later.

"I can't feel my legs," Charles says as soon as they have gone, and he repeats it until the world dims black.

*

"Are you sure you don't need anything else?"

"I'm fine, Hank, thank you." Charles favors him with a polite smile, one that does not meet his eyes. "I'll see you again in an hour or so."

As Hank walks off, Charles allows the smile to drop, though the lovely day doesn't deserve the expression he wears now. Autumn has set the trees afire with red and gold and orange, and the sky is a deep and endless blue. This was one of his favorite spots on the grounds to be alone, but it is rather inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. After his third unsuccessful attempt, he was forced to call upon Hank for help.

Well, he could have turned back and continued to brood in his room, but Charles has had quite enough of the same four walls.

He damps Hank's ears long after he has exited hearing range, though at this juncture Charles is doing nothing more than admiring an unusually warm November day. A flock of geese flies past, cutting a V across the sky, and Charles follows the point with his eyes. He has to consciously relax his fists in order to pick up his bag and remove the pistol.

He relieved Moira of her weapon on the same day he removed her memories. While he was inside her mind, he copied her knowledge of firearms, years of experience learned in the span of a kiss. Both actions were necessary, he reminds himself, irritated at the twinge of guilt. They happen more frequently since the accident, not less, as though his conscience is overcorrecting for some perceived failure.

A weapon is a heavy thing. Charles selects a distant fencepost as his target, narrowing his gaze as he clears his mind. Ready, aim, fire, he thinks, some part of his childhood supplying him with the image of an American cowboy, ridiculous in a hat and vest. But that, too, vanishes, as he immerses himself in the moment. The gun. The safety. The release. The trigger. Charles fires the first shot.

The recoil isn't bad, and his aim is more or less accurate, stolen muscle memory not quite able to compensate for the difference in body shape and stance. Still, the fencepost has a hole splintered in it, and Charles smiles, pleased. He lines up his next shot, adjusting, and squeezes off another, then another, then another, until the fencepost is riddled with holes in the vague shape of a circle.

Now he understands the thing which nearly killed him.

"I'm not sure what I'm to do with this knowledge," Charles confesses to no one, putting the safety on and tucking the gun back into the bag. He brought more bullets, but the intellectual curiosity has been resolved to his satisfaction. He is a scientist still, designing experiments, testing hypotheses. This variable is slight compared to some of the others, requiring no further trials. Besides, the noise frightens the local wildlife.

It's always a question of limits. Charles takes a worn book from his bag and passes the rest of his time outdoors in quiet repose, tracing now-familiar lines with his fingers. His recovery left him with time for a great deal of reading, though he really ought to get rid of this particular volume of poetry. Its constant presence marks him a sentimental fool. In tucking away the book, he drops it and it bounces off his shin. He sees it, but feels nothing.

When Hank arrives, his apprehension precedes him. Charles rubs at his head, wondering why the air is suffused with such tension while Hank greets him with false cheer. "You can't lie to a telepath," he says, more gently than he feels. "What's the matter?"

He knows before he finishes asking the question. Why else would Hank tread so carefully around him: Hank, who has been the most up-front about Charles's paralysis, who has ceased pursuit of mindless perfection and instead accepts things they way they are? "Magneto broke Emma Frost out of prison," Hank says anyway, hands in his pockets.

"Ah," Charles says. "I suppose they are in need of a telepath."

Hank gives an uncomfortable shrug in response, nonplussed by Charles's mild reaction. It isn't as though Charles is one for shouting, except in extraordinary circumstances. This is the new normal. This isn't even surprising: Emma Frost did not seem like one to enjoy a cage except of her own making.

Hank stays silent as he assists Charles over tree roots, silent save for the relentless buzz of his thoughts. When the path is smooth enough for Charles to take over, Hank clears his throat and says, "Pardon my rudeness, but I'm concerned for you."

Charles indicates his wheelchair with an ironic wave of his hand. "Whatever for?"

Such brittle humor is usually enough to stave off Hank's well-meant attempts at comfort, but Hank is worried enough to settle for fiddling with his glasses. It is odd that his amplified mutation didn't correct his vision. "I can't tell you how to grieve, but I don't think your way is helping you move on."

"Grief," Charles says, tasting the word, cold at the center like November. The days have grown short enough that the sun is beginning to set, the deepening shadows carrying the chill of oncoming winter. "Grief is the right word for it, I suppose. I have lost much, Hank, and I shall never recover. Rather than make peace with my loss, I have made peace with reality." Hank hears the statement for what it is: the end of the conversation. He mutters something about helping Sean with dinner.

Charles lingers in the front room, watching the sun set. When he wakes, frost will rime the garden. When he wakes, his dearest friends will not be here. His words to Hank were peaceful, but he recoils against these bonds, raging within his own mind until he is too exhausted to do more than doze in his chair, made elderly by circumstance. Charles drifts, his mind swirling out in ever-widening currents, taking roll as always: there are Sean and Hank in the kitchen, arguing over the menu; there is Alex in his room, laboring to write a letter he will never send to his family. Out his mind goes, stretching over miles, touching upon mutants he identified in Cerebro.

The first star is trembling in the sky when he catches a glimpse of Raven, black hair swept up in a clip. She has transformed herself to look like a businesswoman. She appears to be negotiating something, her mouth curled the way it always does when she's winning hearts. Raven looks happy, though, and that's the main thing. Charles shifts back in his chair, allowing that image to carry him to sleep, where his sore heart might rest.

Afterwards, he cannot tell if what happens next is a dream or a genuine brush with Erik's mind. Erik is walking in the rain, thinking of Charles, a bullet burning into his pocket the way a coin once did. Their regrets are what bind them now, delicate strands that tangle like steel across ideas, across continents. Grief is something Erik is more equipped to handle, but the cold soaks into his bones, and he is near, so near, he can almost touch him, just a stretch of the hand--

Charles wakes at the sound of rain against the windowpane. There is no one at the door.