The woman asked Charles if he planned to stay long.
‘Just until tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’m heading up to Maine, to visit family for the holidays.’
‘Oh, that sounds lovely.’ She finished writing his details into the guestbook, and plucked his room key from its hook. ‘Will you be dining here tonight?’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Charles, with a polite smile. ‘My cousin recommended your inn to me, actually. He told me you have an excellent chef.’
‘That we do. She’s the best in Connecticut.’ The woman beamed and handed him his key. ‘Your room is just down the hall – I’ll bring your bags in a moment.’ She eyed his wheelchair. ‘Do you need help with anything else?’
’No, it’s perfectly all right. But thank you very much, my dear.’
Dinner wasn’t unusual – lobster bisque, followed by rack of lamb and creamy mashed potato, with a dark-chocolate pudding for dessert – yet somehow it was exceptionally delicious. It warmed Charles more than his glass of cognac, making him suspect that the chef’s powers had played a role in her recipe.
He’d come to Connecticut to meet the chef, simply out of curiosity. She was a few years younger than him and had been living in Australia until recently – she was also a powerful mutant who gave him a telepathic vibe, so he was wary of looking further into her mind.
After the meal Charles was still wondering how to approach her. He eavesdropped on the surface thoughts of the few other diners, and was pleased to find that two of them were a newly married lesbian couple: greying middle-aged women on their honeymoon at last. It was beautiful, Charles thought. Groovy, even – a word he still occasionally used in the privacy of his mind.
Gradually all the diners returned to their rooms, and Charles found himself alone with the chef when she emerged from the kitchen to clear the plates. Her thoughts were loud and strong – faint annoyance at him for still being there, and also annoyance at the maid who was meant to clear the tables, but who’d announced the day before that she was pregnant and quitting.
‘It was a delicious meal,’ Charles said. ’Thank you very much.’
The chef raised an eyebrow. ‘How do you know I cooked it?’
‘I read your mind.’
‘Ah,’ she said, unsurprised. She gave him a closer look, seemed to recognise him, and then ducked back towards the kitchen with an armful of plates. ‘Won’t be a minute,’ she told him, over her shoulder. ‘Then we can talk.’
Soon she was sitting across from Charles, her elbows on the linen tablecloth, nursing her own glass of cognac after pouring him another. Her bright blue eyes unnerved him a little as they sized him up. She seemed matter-of-fact and stoic, her skin crinkled from a life of hard work in the sun, although his perspective was probably coloured by Australian stereotypes. He noticed there were a few copper-red streaks lingering in her grey hair.
‘So, I’m Ellie,’ she said. ‘And I know quite a bit about you, Professor X. I’ve always kept a scrapbook of the mutant-related news, and an ear to the grapevine.’
‘Please, call me Charles. You never thought of paying me a visit?’
‘No. I had kids, a husband, a mortgage. That kind of thing. Pretty humdrum, but that’s what I wanted. My powers never got in the way. I never worried too much about my mutant identity and all of that. But I suppose if I’d had powers like yours, and some of the mutants you teach, I would have had trouble settling down.’
‘That’s certainly true.’ Charles decided to change the subject. ‘How did you come to work here?’
‘My sister owns the place. Married a US army bloke, then put her savings into the inn when they divorced. It’s her little American paradise. After my husband passed, she invited me here to cook for a while. We fight like cats and dogs, but it’s a lot of fun.’
‘You must be wondering why I sought you out. I don’t mean to intrude –’
‘Oh, no worries. You’re curious about me, and I have to admit, I’m curious about you. And I’m grateful, really, for the work you’ve done, setting up the school and trying to work with ordinary people. Not like that awful Magento – um, sorry, it’s Magneto, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is,’ said Charles, making an effort not to look amused. ‘And thank you.’
Ellie finished her drink and leaned back in her chair. ‘So my powers. Right. If I was going to give myself a “mutant name”, which seems a bit ridiculous at my age, it would be Genie.’
Charles raised his eyebrows. ‘You grant wishes.’
‘Not exactly. I can sense what someone wants most in the world and give it to them. I just have to touch them, and –’ she folded her arms and did the I Dream of Jeannie nod – ‘poof, voila, their wish is my command. Of course, I don’t live in a lamp.’
‘So you can only grant one wish per person?’
‘Oh no ...’ she leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘The truth is, I can grant as many wishes as I want. I discovered that pretty early, when Mum won the lottery after Dad died in a factory accident. She married a famous actor and moved to Bermuda. My sister and I never saw her again. We were put in a home.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.’
‘It’s all right. All water under the bridge. Let’s just say that after granting many wishes to people I loved, I realised no one should have all their wishes granted. People want things they shouldn’t have. Life should involve some kind of struggle, and some disappointment. And I was tiring myself out, giving everyone everything they wanted, while I didn’t have anything or anyone.’ Ellie gave a short, sad laugh. ‘Now my wish-granting is just for special people and special occasions. And I stick to the old-fashioned genie rule. I only give out three per person.’
‘But you put some in your food, don’t you?’
She grinned. ‘You’ve found me out. The food tastes just like what the person wants to eat most in the world at that moment. I’m really not a great cook.’
They talked for a while longer, mostly about Charles’s powers. He demonstrated his telepathy by speaking into Ellie’s mind, and she applauded him, thrilled. He sent her a few images of his childhood and asked if she could show him some memories of Australia. Then he noticed her yawning, and suggested they retire for the evening.
‘It’s been lovely meeting you,’ she said, before he left the dining room. She held out her hand and he shook it firmly. Then, with a smile and a wink, she headed back to the kitchen.
Only later, in the big eiderdown bed, did Charles realise his mistake in touching her. But, he reassured himself, she saved her powers for special people. He was merely an acquaintance.
Charles woke in a different bed, in a different room. He knew instantly it was different, because Erik was close by. Then he noticed that it was a dark, stuffy room that smelt of cleaning chemicals, and that his bed was small and stiff. His head pounded as though he’d been drugged.
‘Erik,’ he muttered, climbing to the edge of the bed and reaching for his wheelchair. Had Erik finally kidnapped him and spirited him off to his lair? The wheelchair wasn’t there. Surely Erik wouldn’t be so cruel to him – well, not like that.
Then he realised, with a tingle of shock, that he could feel his legs. Was he dreaming? He could often feel them in dreams. He put his hand on his knee and gave a soft gasp. His knee. It was there again. And his other knee. And his ankles and thighs and feet and toes – and everything else below where the bullet had sliced through his spine. Incredible. It felt real. He pinched his thigh several times. Had Erik – could Erik have –?
Something tickled Charles’s cheek. His hands shaking, he touched his face, then ran his fingers through his hair. Tangled and thick, in need of a wash – his hair had grown back!
But no, Charles realised, starting to work out what was going on.
This room was awfully familiar, while something seemed different about the shape and radiance of Erik’s mind. Raven was in the building too, along with Hank, Moira and a few CIA agents Charles recognised. Those agents were all long dead.
Charles stood up in shock and promptly slid down to his knees. He couldn’t remember how to keep himself upright. He kept wanting to reach out for his chair – it had become an essential part of his life, almost a part of himself. But it didn’t exist yet.
It’s 1962 and I’m staying in a CIA facility called Division X, Charles told himself, although he didn’t really believe it yet, on his knees on the thin beige carpet, on the verge of hysterical laughter. So much for all his years of meditation, discipline and control. So much for his plans and expectations, and the person he’d become.
He slumped back against the bed and looked around again. He would have to treat his situation as though it wasn’t a dream or an hallucination – what else could he do? Somehow, that Australian woman had slung him back into the past. He lingered on this thought for a few moments. It was 1962 again, at the height of the Cold War. Woodstock and the Summer of Love were years in the future. The internet didn’t exist.
Being transported into the past, Charles realised, was a little like being transported to another, more conservative country.
Still, when he was being completely honest with himself, he knew this was his greatest desire – a deep, strong, foolish wish that clung to his mind like a leech: to go back to a time where he could change everything, with the knowledge he’d gained through experience. He could tell Raven how much he loved and valued her – prevent the attack that would kill Darwin and all those CIA men – gain Angel’s trust – possibly even talk Emma Frost into helping him, as she’d come to do in later years. Any number of things!
Then Charles’s pleased smile faded into a frown. Obviously, there was Erik. But it was difficult to think about that. The way Charles had felt about Erik in 1962 was vastly different to the way he felt about him now.
Of course he’d been in love with Erik. Of course he’d wanted to spend his life with Erik. He’d wanted a lot of stupid things. Naive, conceited and idealistic, he’d been steeped in power and privilege since birth. How Erik must have hated him at times. Well, Charles knew that Erik didn’t utterly hate him. Erik saw him as a spoilt younger brother, as though they were Cain and Abel.
The goal would be to prevent the invention of Magneto. That would be difficult, perhaps impossible – but surely Erik could forgo the helmet, cape and all those megalomaniac trappings. He certainly wouldn’t need to shoot Charles in the back before charging off to destroy humanity.
It might be better, Charles thought, to deal with it quickly – to drive Erik away and let him go to Shaw. But Charles couldn’t face that. He couldn’t send Erik to his death. And besides, what would Shaw do then? No, Charles would have to find some middle ground, or at least try.
He clambered into the uncomfortable bed, lay on his back and thought about it. Why give up this unexpected chance to be with Erik? Why not take this opportunity to bend Erik’s mind and try to change him? But these thoughts shamed and nauseated Charles, as they had always done. He would never do that. He couldn’t. What kind of precedent would that set? What would that make Charles?
It didn’t seem real yet. Charles wondered if it ever would. His legs itched and ached, and felt like heavy, unnatural appendages. He sank into an uneasy sleep, his head throbbing. When he awoke, Erik was sitting in an armchair near his bed.
Feeling Erik’s mind and seeing him were two vastly different things, Charles found. He gaped at Erik and Erik stared coolly back.
Charles remembered being slightly intimidated and thrilled by Erik’s maturity. Now Erik seemed young and smooth, his eyes relatively kind and his mouth relatively soft. Despite his headache and the oddity of the situation, Charles was flooded with lust.
‘Had a few too many last night, did you?’ Erik asked.
Charles felt like he’d been hit by a bus. So, it was a hangover. His first in decades. No wonder he was so out of sorts, rumpled and badly needed a shower.
Erik, in contrast, looked fresh and alert. He was wearing a chocolate-brown turtleneck and grey slacks, and smelt of a subtle cologne and aftershave. Altogether he was clean, pressed and exceedingly vain, and Charles knew he would never change in that respect.
‘Er ...’ Charles rubbed his eyes. ‘What time is it?’
‘And what exactly did we do last night?’
The side of Erik’s mouth curled up. ‘You mean you don’t remember? You, my friend, are a featherweight.’
Charles raised his eyebrows, gave Erik a pleading look and spoke into his mind. My throat hurts. What did we do?
Erik chuckled. ‘Well, if you really enjoy tales of your own debauchery –’
‘– you, Raven, Moira and Hank played an amusing game of charades, and then you tried to make me join in. When I refused, you sat beside me and insisted you would coerce me if I didn’t behave. Then you dropped off to sleep, so we brought you here.’
‘Oh,’ Charles groaned again, and flopped back onto the bed. Over the years, he’d somehow convinced himself that he’d been quite dignified and fascinating in his youth, despite his flaws. To hear otherwise – to have it brought home that he’d often been a twit – made him flush.
He’s blushing, Erik thought, with a twinge of bright amusement. His ears have gone bright pink –
Yes, they do that.
‘I apologise,’ said Erik, his mind going quiet. ‘I woke you because we need to prepare for our first venture into mutant recruitment.’
Charles searched his memory. Their first trip had been to find Angel, of course – at the strip club. He and Erik had barely spoken aloud throughout that trip and the ones following it. Charles had let Erik as far into his mind as possible. He’d wanted their partnership to be fair: for them to see each other clearly. Much good that had done in the end.
Ultimately, going to find Angel had been foolish – in fact, gathering ‘the kids’, with Shaw on the loose, had been stupidly reckless and self-serving. Charles and Erik had been impetuous young men, but Charles could see it all clearly now. He would have to prevent their journey.
All right. I’ll make myself presentable and come downstairs. We need to talk.
‘Ominous words,’ said Erik, with a smile.
Getting out of bed was easier now that Charles had prepared himself for it. His legs were rubbery for a few minutes, and he had to hold himself up with his palms against the mattress. Then he was able to slowly pace back and forth across the room, sweating and screwing up his face with concentration. He kept stumbling because his mind insisted that his legs shouldn’t be there. He was used to his paralysis, and hadn’t expected or asked for this change.
One thing delighted him, though – the knowledge of being young and having all that life ahead of him. As he showered, leaning against the brown tiled wall, he ran his hands with amazement over his body. He might have been a twit, but he’d certainly been a handsome one.
Towelling himself dry, he remembered Ellie’s words about her three-wish limit. He couldn’t think of any other desire that would eclipse this one. Perhaps everything would turn out all right, no matter what he and Erik did. All three wishes might go into that.
The thought made him feel a lot safer. No matter how Erik reacted to their cancelled trip, Charles still had two wishes up his sleeve.
Erik was lounging on an orange sofa, reading the paper and drinking coffee. The pot was sitting on the table, so Charles poured himself a mug. He sank with relief into an armchair and took a few sips – it was rich and dark, just perfect for a hangover.
‘Erik,’ he said, ‘I’m having second thoughts about our trip.’
Erik’s eyes narrowed and he slowly folded the paper. ‘Oh?’
‘It’s just – who are we to bring these young mutants into this? Do we really need them to fight Shaw? Surely we can handle him on our own.’
Erik frowned like he’d tasted something bitter. ‘I thought this was what you wanted. Why are you changing your mind now?’
‘Cold feet?’ Charles said, trying to look sheepish.
You don’t trust me.
It was a sharp sting, and Charles flinched. He set his coffee down and rubbed his temples, reminded of all those frustrating telepathic conversations over chess while Magneto sat in a plastic cell. He wanted to say, ‘Of course I trust you’, but he knew Erik would see through that platitude.
Getting to his feet, Erik said, ‘You asked me to stay, to help you find these mutants. I would have left, otherwise. I can’t believe you’ve wasted my time like this. Do you have any idea how many years I’ve spent –’ he paused, with a grim smile. ‘Of course you do.’
But Charles could tell there was little he could do, short of holding Erik by force, to prevent him from leaving.
Raven and Hank walked into the room, smiling at each other as though they’d just shared a joke. It was strange for Charles to see Raven like this, in her old, unhappy disguise – the one he’d pestered her to keep. He’d justified it as his brotherly duty to protect her, while she’d seen it as his rejection of her identity. She’d been right, of course. He had patronised her and taken her for granted – he’d seen her as an unfortunate girl, a victim of genetics.
Looking at her now, Charles wanted to tell her everything. Let her see how each painful revelation had come to him over the years, dropped one by one like burning embers into his mind.
‘What’s going on here?’ Raven asked, looking from Charles to Erik. She smirked and gave Hank an amused, knowing look. ‘A lover’s quarrel?’
Erik glared at her and Charles winced when he heard the thought, What a ridiculous joke.
‘I’m afraid it’s a bit more serious than that,’ he managed to say, as Erik strode out into the hall.
Charles relayed their conversation to Raven and Hank, who stared at him, surprised.
‘But I thought you wanted to find the mutants –’ Raven began.
‘What?’ Hank cut in. ‘But ... what about Cerebro ... and all our work –?’
Charles was distracted by Erik’s plans, which he wasn’t doing a terrific job at hiding as he hurriedly packed. He would travel to Las Vegas, to Shaw and Emma’s Hellfire Club, and see what he could dig up there.
And what will you do when you find Shaw? How will you take him on alone? Charles asked, cold and shaken at the thought of Erik walking into a trap.
But Erik shrugged off the question. Soon he was out of the building and using his powers to commandeer the nearest parked car, and then his mind became fainter as he drove away. Charles couldn’t move, could hardly breathe, as Erik’s mind winked out of range.
‘Charles – Charles –’ Raven had taken him by the shoulders. ‘Come on, wake up, out of it. He's an asshole. Forget about him.’
‘Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,’ Charles snapped, and then chastened at the look on her face. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I have something important to tell you – I need to share something with you. To explain why this is happening – and other things. But I can’t right now, because I need to go after him. He’s going to get himself killed, or worse.’
‘And what will you do?’
‘I’m much stronger than Emma now. I should be able to control her if I need to – but hopefully I can convince Erik to return before too much damage is done.’
‘What do you mean, you’re stronger than Emma now?’ Hank asked, pinching the bridge of his nose under his glasses.
‘I – I don’t have time to explain. I need to get to Vegas.’
It didn’t take long to find Erik in Vegas. His mind drifting from person to person, Charles wandered the strip for a few hours. Walking was still an effort, but it was much easier than it had been at first. Eventually Charles sensed Erik high up in a room at the shimmering Flamingo casino.
Charles coerced a bellhop to let him into Erik’s room. He found Erik standing in the dark, staring out the floor-to-ceiling window at the neon lights and cradling a glass of scotch. The room smelt of old cigarettes and perfume, sweat and desperation.
‘Get out,’ Erik said without turning around.
‘There’s no need to throw this tantrum,’ said Charles. ‘I want to explain –’
‘I don’t need you, Charles. I can handle this myself.’ You’re an arrogant, ignorant, pampered fop.
‘Now just a moment – you seemed happy enough this morning –’
‘Just because I humoured you, and buttered you up to get what I wanted, doesn’t mean I care about you in the slightest.’ And stay out of my mind.
Charles’s head was pounding from the strain of hunting for Erik, the constant odd ache of his legs, and the remnants of his hangover. If he could just bring his emotions under control –
Then he felt a hand on his arm, squeezing it firmly. It wasn’t Erik’s hand.
‘What –’ Oh, it’s only Azazel, Charles realised. They must have surveillance in place all over Vegas, waiting for us. But when he tried to overpower Azazel’s mind, he found that Emma had set up some relatively strong shields. He’d underestimated her.
He sensed Erik’s panic as the room vanished.
Azazel dumped Charles in an odd mirrored room and then disappeared. Looking around, Charles realised this was the submarine room in which Erik had killed Shaw all those years ago. But he had no time to react before Azazel returned with Erik, whose mind blared, Charles! Charles! Azazel smirked at Erik for the split-second before Charles crashed through his mental shields and knocked him unconscious.
When Erik saw Charles, his mind quietened. He bent over, resting his hands on his knees. Emotion crashed out of him, negating everything he’d just said to Charles.
You do care for me.
‘Boys, boys,’ said Emma, stepping into the room. ‘There’s no need to –’
Charles focused all of his energy on bending her mind, making it pliant. He’d done it once before, in Russia, but back then he’d only been able to stop her from controlling him and Erik. This time he made her stiffen and say, in a monotone, ‘All right, of course, I’ll let Azazel take you anywhere you want.’ Charles hated doing this to her, but hoped he’d get the chance to apologise later.
‘What are you doing to her?’ Erik asked, with a strong sense of respect.
Charles knew he could control Azazel and Emma at the same time – but then footsteps approached, and with a sinking feeling Charles watched Shaw stride into the room. No helmet as yet, but the bastard had been building defences against telepaths for decades.
The submarine jolted, its metal hull creaking, and Charles stumbled. Everything was shaking, rattling, coming apart at the seams, while Erik’s mind blared chaotic images of death and torture. It was too much – Charles bent over, clutching his temples, as Emma and Shaw slipped from his control. Charles could hardly breathe, assaulted by images of Erik’s mother being shot, of Erik being tortured as a child. But Charles knew he could focus again – he was regaining control – pulling himself upright – reaching out his mind towards Shaw and Emma –
Shaw laid a hand on Charles’s shoulder. Charles tensed under the firm touch, meeting Erik’s eyes.
The submarine stilled as Erik’s mind went blank.
‘Well,’ said Shaw, with his self-satisfied, psychotic smile, ‘I always did know how to tame you.’
‘I’m going to rip you apart,’ said Erik, steady and controlled.
Charles noticed Emma concentrating on Erik, murmuring under her breath. Sweat beaded across Erik’s forehead. He gasped and pressed a hand over his eyes, something cracking in his mind, although his natural defences were still holding. But they wouldn’t for long.
‘He’s hiding something,’ said Emma, under her breath. She glanced at Shaw. ‘He even hides it from himself.’
Emma squinted at Erik, rubbing her temples. Charles felt Erik’s mind start to rip open.
No, thought Erik. Both of you, get out! But he couldn’t stop Emma’s assault. His mind opened.
Charles sagged against Shaw’s hand, struck dumb.
Erik’s love had been hoarded for weeks, like treasure he’d stolen and was ashamed to keep. It spoke first of Charles’s eyes and mouth and body, then of his voice and mannerisms, and lastly of his idealism and intelligence, his irritating flaws and his silly quirks. But Erik carried it as a burden, condemning it as unrequited and pathetic – and so it ached.
Without thinking about it, Charles reciprocated everything, and watched Erik’s eyes as they lit up with understanding.
‘They love each other,’ said Emma, her voice trembling.
Charles, who’d come to know her later in life, wasn’t surprised that she was affected. She was much more like Erik than Shaw – very much like Erik, in fact.
‘Don’t get sentimental on me, baby,’ said Shaw. ‘Can we use Charles to manipulate him?’
I’ll never join Shaw, Erik thought.
I don’t have to read his mind to know he’s going to kill me if you don’t.
We can stop him. You can control his mind before he –
No, I can’t. He’ll know the second I touch his mind. Let him kill me now or watch him torture me to death. Or join him.
Emma gave Charles a quick look. You really want me to get Sebastian to kill you?
Unless you’ll help us escape?
‘Sebastian,’ she said, ‘you should get rid of Charles now. They’re planning an escape. And I doubt Erik will ever join you –’
Shaw sighed and rubbed his hand against Charles’s shoulder, as though to comfort him. ‘Oh, all right. If that’s the way it has to be.’
No, thought Erik, struggling against Emma’s control. Charles!
Shaw put his arm around Charles and said, ‘I’m sorry. I hate to kill a man with your power.’
Charles braced himself. He tried to ignore Erik’s frantic thoughts, countering them with the knowledge that this wasn’t their last chance – that next time, Charles would get it right. But Erik couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe him.
Whatever Shaw did, however he filled Charles’s body with energy, it didn’t hurt. What hurt, what tore Charles apart, came from Erik. He saw himself die, saw his body disintegrate, through Erik’s disbelieving eyes.
Panting, shaking, Charles sat up in bed. His mind echoed with his own and Erik’s screams.
He was back in Division X, in his box-like room with beige carpet. The second wish, he realised, was a repeat of the first. He would be given another chance.
Charles was still calming his mind and coming to terms with his renewed hangover headache when the door burst open, the fluorescent light flickered on, and Erik was kneeling by his side, touching his arms, his face, his hair. Charles tried to soothe him, but Erik’s thoughts were swirling, and the only thing coming through clearly was, alive, safe, alive, safe, alive, safe, in rough staccato.
Then Raven ran into the room, followed by Hank and Moira, and Charles sensed a large quantity of CIA agents behind them. All of their minds shouted the same questions at once, in a tangle: What’s happened to him? Is he okay? Is he being murdered in his bed?
I’m fine, Charles sent to everyone, as though through a loudspeaker, while looking into Erik’s eyes. It was a nightmare. I’m sorry to have disturbed all of you.
Erik stood and backed away from the bed. I don’t know why I thought –
‘Honestly, Charles, can’t you keep a lid on it? I was having the most amazing dream,’ said Raven, but she was grinning with relief, as were Hank and Moira. They said their good-nights and left the room.
Erik moved to follow them, ducking his head, but Charles stood up and took him by the wrist. Charles’s fingers curled over the tattoo that he’d never before dared to touch. Erik’s bare skin was warm and dry, and seemed very vulnerable. He was wearing flannel pyjama pants and a thin grey undershirt, and he smelt of scotch and sleep-sweat.
‘Stay for a moment,’ Charles said, somehow keeping his voice steady.
‘It wasn’t a nightmare,’ Erik whispered, ‘was it?’
Erik sat on the bed and stared up at Charles. ‘Well?’
Running his hands through his hair, Charles started to pace, back and forth in front of Erik. ‘I don’t know where to begin.’ He gave a sharp laugh. ‘I’d forgotten how good it feels to tug my hair and pace around at times like this.’
Maybe Cerebro has damaged his mind, Erik wondered with alarm.
I’m perfectly sane. It’s just frustrating. There’s so much to tell you, to explain. First, you need to know that I haven’t developed any new abilities. I can’t see the future.
What are you talking about?
In one night I have lived decades. Charles weighed this thought down with a sense of its truth, and he could feel Erik begin to understand. I’ve grown old while you slept.
Charles sent an image of himself to Erik. Bald and wrinkled, staring into his full-length bathroom mirror. Slowly he panned the vision down, until it revealed his wheelchair.
Erik stood and put his hands on Charles’s elbows, leaning close. Now that Charles knew it was there, he sensed the pulse of Erik’s love.
How does that happen, Charles?
I’ll show you. Turn off the light, and lie down beside me. I’ll show you everything.
Erik and Charles squeezed onto the narrow bed in the darkened room. Charles took Erik’s hand, large and dry, and Erik rubbed his thumb in circles over Charles’s palm, a nervous gesture. His mind was swollen with arousal at Charles’s proximity, mingled with confusion at the circumstances. His surface thoughts kept repeating, Don’t think it. Don’t think about it. You’re a fool –
Calm your mind. Close your eyes and calm your mind, and come with me.
They were standing beside each other in a strip club. Erik looked around, blinking. I didn’t know you could do this, Charles.
I couldn’t. It took a lot of practice. Charles recognised himself and Erik – well, his memory of them – entering the club and walking towards Angel. There we are. Come on.
This is your memory of the future? Erik asked, as they followed themselves and Angel into the private room.
Erik raised his eyebrows. Right.
Just keep quiet and pay attention.
Charles led Erik through their immediate future – or at least, one of their immediate futures. After picking up the kids, they travelled to Russia and watched themselves capture Emma. Then they learned of what had happened at the CIA facility. Darwin was dead, and Angel had joined Shaw.
Erik’s grip on Charles’s hand became painful. This can’t happen.
It doesn’t have to. Calm your mind and stop trying to break my fingers.
Those days at the mansion followed. Charles focused on their chess games, their conversations late into the night, and the times when they tested each other’s abilities and came to trust each other.
As he showed Erik these images, Charles gradually introduced the sensation of his love for Erik. He immersed Erik in his memories of those fantasies, those plans for the future, that he had naively entertained.
When Erik understood that Charles loved him, he took Charles’s other hand. The visions ended and Charles was sitting on the bed, looking up at Erik. Dawn was breaking outside, the sun filtering through the venetian blinds, and there was just enough light for Charles to see Erik’s eyes. They told him what he already knew.
Erik slid his hands up Charles’s arms, over his shoulders to cup his face. When do we become lovers? Show me that. I want to experience everything between us.
Charles swallowed and pressed his forehead to Erik’s. We were never lovers.
Erik brushed his mouth against Charles’s, soft and hot, but Charles reached up and pressed his fingers to Erik’s lips. Erik drew back, bewildered. It was one of the hardest things Charles had ever done.
Let me show you what happens next.
There was no way to be gentle. Charles showed Erik everything, and made him feel what Charles had felt that day on the beach. Erik cried out in pain as he felt himself put on the helmet – as Charles’s mind was wrenched from his. Even while Shaw died, Erik's triumph was tempered by Charles's agony. I can’t stand this.
Prepare yourself for something much worse, my friend.
When the bullet hit Charles, the vision froze. Then their connection broke and Erik scrambled off the bed.
‘Tell me this doesn’t happen,’ he said, his voice shaking. ‘Tell me this will never happen.’
‘It won’t happen. Not now. I’ve already changed it by telling you all of this.’
Erik relaxed and knelt beside the bed, reaching out to hold Charles’s hand. ‘I would never hurt you.’
‘Yes. You would.’
But I would never want to.
Yes, you would. You love me, but I’ve never been your priority.
Erik fell silent and hid his face in his hands.
The room was lit by early morning sunlight, Charles realised. They wouldn’t have much time before someone disturbed them, and there was still so much to relay. He moved quickly through his memories, giving Erik enough fragments so that he would understand the essential points.
‘And this Genie woman sent you back here?’ Erik asked, when Charles told him about Ellie.
‘Yes. And I’ve already used up one wish.’
Charles didn’t go into all the details, but he showed enough so that Erik clutched his hand and said, ‘We can’t let that happen.’
‘We won’t.’ Charles took a breath, and then realised he’d rather say the next part telepathically – he didn’t think he could say it aloud. But Erik, I don’t see how the two of us can live and work together. You want different things from me, and I think you always will.
I only want to live in a world where no one can harm us. Where we’re the ones with power. After all, we’re better than them. We’re the next stage of evolution, Charles.
You follow a Machiavellian path. I can’t do that. And despite what the Nazis did, despite your hatred for them, you agree with their ideologies about the master race.
Erik pulled away from Charles and stood up. ‘So there can be nothing between us? You think I’m no better than the Nazis? Why did you tell me all of this, then? Why did you put me through this?’
Charles rubbed his temples. ‘I wanted to see what would happen. I thought it might influence you – change your mind – but now I know that it can’t. It doesn’t matter that you love me. Your mind has been fractured and your beliefs have been warped.’
‘You’ve been through my mind thoroughly, then?’ Erik shouted. ‘You’ve looked all the way through it and passed your judgement? How do you know that my beliefs are false? They’re based on experience that you will never understand, no matter how many minds you read. You were raised in paradise – you spoilt –’
‘If you want me to utterly invade your mind, to sift through it, then I’m happy to,’ said Charles, sad and tense. ‘I don’t see what difference it will make, but –’
Come in, then. You can look at anything you want. Maybe you’ll learn something, finally.
All right. You’d better sit down.
Erik walked away from the bed and slumped onto the room’s lone grey armchair. There was no love in his eyes now, only a challenge. Go ahead, Charles. Our time is limited.
Charles had visited Erik’s mind several times. He’d delved in deeply and briefly when they’d first met, diving as much into Erik as the ocean. Since then Charles had explored what he could, but Erik’s mind had been stoppered up in many places. Gradually, mental shields like broken-glass fortresses had been constructed, visible whenever Magneto removed his helmet.
This was the first time that Erik lay open to Charles, who moved inside without hesitation, slipping past consciousness into the subconscious, and down into its furthest reaches, beyond memory.
There Charles walked the crooked paths of Erik’s dominion. Towering furnaces of revenge overshadowed childhood memories, which flitted about like fireflies. On an iron gate hung the heads of the men Erik had killed, all Nazis or Nazi-sympathisers, stuffed and mounted like hunting trophies, their mouths sewn shut. Beyond the gate were Erik’s mother and father, shivering in the rain and calling out for their son.
On the path in front of Charles stood Erik as a child, dressed in ragged brown clothes. No wonder, Charles realised, the adult Erik took such care with his appearance.
‘Hello, my young friend. What do you do for fun around here?’
‘Fun?’ the boy scoffed. ‘I have better things to do.’
‘What do you love?’
The boy pointed towards his sobbing parents. ‘Them.’ Then he pointed at Charles. ‘You.’ Then he pointed to himself. ‘And me. Sometimes. Although I might fail. I might not do what I need to do – the only thing I need to do.’
‘And what would happen then?’
The boy looked solemn. ‘I would die.’
‘I see.’ Charles noticed a towering black wall in the distance. ‘What’s that? Is it hiding something?’
‘That’s what I’d like you to help me with. Erik doesn’t know it, but I wanted you to come here. I’m glad he invited you.’
That didn’t sound right. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I want you to help me get rid of it. Actually, there are a lot of things here that I think you can fix. I want you to help me, Charles.’
From behind the black wall came the sound of a child screaming.
Charles decided to leave Erik’s mind. But his feet were stuck in the muddy path. ‘Erik –’
‘You can fix me, can’t you?’ the boy pleaded.
‘Let me out of here.’
‘No. You’ll never come back.’
Charles wrenched one of his feet from the mud, but then the boy leapt forward, grabbing Charles’s wrist. Charles struggled with him, but the boy’s hands had fused to his skin. ‘Let me go.’
‘No.’ The boy clung on, stubbornly.
‘I’m stronger than you. You need to let me out.’
Charles pulled and twisted, tore and slashed, as around him Erik’s world became unglued and incoherent. The golden memories winked out, while the black wall loomed and became a whirlpool of violence and trauma. Charles realised, panicked, that he was destroying the foundations of Erik’s mind, and he tried to be gentle, calm and reasonable. But there was no place for that here.
As Charles came free, as he broke the surface and returned to his body, Erik’s mind slipped away in the opposite direction. It slipped far from Charles, who reached out for it even as he was escaping it. He couldn’t grasp it. Erik’s mind was gone.
When Charles opened his eyes, and looked at Erik sitting in the armchair, he saw his worst fear realised. Erik was dead.
Only a few minutes had passed since Erik had challenged him. Charles hadn’t heeded the danger because he’d been too curious. He hadn’t thought it could come to this. He’d always overestimated his ability to make everything turn out for the best.
So, Erik had been right – Charles had learnt something.
Numb, Charles stood and walked to Erik’s body. He closed Erik’s blank eyes and knelt beside the chair.
‘One last chance,’ said Charles. He lifted Erik’s limp hand to his lips and kissed the still-warm knuckles. ‘But maybe I’ve been wrong. Maybe we lived in the best of all possible worlds.’
There was no time for grief. Charles coerced a CIA agent to come to his room. When the man arrived, stiff and expressionless, Charles asked for his gun. The man handed it over. Charles closed the door, walked back to Erik and took his hand.
Charles raised the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
Charles awoke. He got out of bed and pulled on his dressing gown. Keeping his mind quiet, he walked through the silent building to Raven’s room.
She wasn’t asleep having amazing dreams, as she’d joked. She lay awake, blue-skinned and yellow-eyed, halfway through Jane Eyre.
‘Oh, hi Charles,’ she said with a smile, closing the book and changing her appearance to that blonde, false shell. ‘I thought you would be dead to the world. You overdid it a little last night.’
‘You don’t have to change for me, you know. I’m happy to see you as you really are.’
She frowned. ‘But you always –’ she squinted at him. ‘You look different. Has something happened?’
He sat on the bed beside her and took her hand. ‘Everything has happened. The worst has happened. I’m so glad to be alive and here with you. You know, I love you as a sister. I think of you as my equal. But I made some terrible mistakes – and I want to set them right.’
As he let her feel how much he loved and appreciated her, and how sorry he was, tears began running down her face. She clutched her book in her lap with shaking hands. ‘Okay.’
Charles told her everything. Absolutely everything, even when it made him squirm with shame, even when it filled her with horror. It took less time than it had with Erik, because Raven never interrupted him.
‘I need to ask you something,’ said Charles, when he’d finished. ‘Would you still like to join Erik? Do you think he should become Magneto? I won’t – I’ll try not to blame you if you do.’
Raven shook her head, and Charles gave her a relieved smile. Then she paused, thinking about it. ‘I wanted to be true to myself, and I thought you were standing in my way.’
She shrugged and smiled. ‘I don’t want to be Magneto’s lackey any more than I want to be yours. I’m sure I didn’t think I was signing up for that, but once I’d made my decision, I couldn’t go back. I trapped myself.’
Charles stood up and pressed his forehead to the cool plaster wall, rubbing his eyes. He realised he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in a couple of days, and the hangover wasn’t helping. Outside it was dawn again, and Erik would be stirring soon.
‘You know, Charles … when Erik murdered Shaw, he didn’t know how to be with you – he’d never had relationships like that before. He needed a new crusade, some way to keep moving forward, to keep feeling powerful and righteous.’ Raven paused and met Charles’s eyes. ‘But he loves you. And he took you into his mind and asked you to fix him.’
Charles thought of that pleading boy. ‘I can’t tamper with him like that. Erik must fix himself.’
‘Well, for him to even begin to do that, we'd need to persuade him not to kill Shaw.’
‘You think I haven't tried?' Charles hoped she didn't mean what she seemed to be implying. 'Unless by “persuasion”, you mean “coercion”.’
‘I don’t mean that! I don’t …’ she trailed off, thinking about it more. ‘I just … why is Erik the only one who can kill Shaw?’
‘Because if we don’t let him kill Shaw, he’ll kill himself and probably take the world down with him.’
‘No, I mean, isn’t there someone else who wants to kill Shaw? Hasn’t he made other enemies? The man is a psychopath – we could get someone else to do it. They could take Shaw out and Erik would never have to know we set up the whole thing.’
Charles stared at her, his head clearing. He didn’t exactly agree with her, but she’d shown him the way forward. For the first time since he’d gone to sleep in that Connecticut inn, he knew precisely what to do.
‘We have to speak to Emma Frost.’
They spoke to Erik first.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Raven asked Charles, as the three of them sat down in the living room.
‘I won’t lie to Erik.’ How many times do we have to go over this?
Stop being so overbearing!
‘Lie to me about what?’ Erik asked, his eyes moving back and forth between the two of them.
It took most of the day. Hank came in at one point, but backed out when Raven widened her eyes at him and made a shooing motion.
Of course, Charles didn’t reveal all the details of his experience in Erik’s mind – that would probably have destroyed it again. And Charles also withheld any hint of love, he and Raven having agreed, for once, on that point.
When they’d been sitting in silence for about half an hour, drained and overwhelmed, Raven turned to Erik and asked, ‘So are you off to grab Shaw’s helmet and go on a quest for world domination?’
He glared at her. ‘No.’
‘What a shame. I really liked your cape.’
Don’t tease him, Charles thought at her. You wouldn’t tease a wild bear.
I would, too.
‘Stop talking behind my back,’ Erik growled. ‘Go ahead and tell me what you want me to do. I know you’ve planned something. Are you going to hypnotise me and send me to a guru in India, or a meditative retreat in the Himalayas? Will I need to visit a psychiatrist?’
Charles smiled and shook his head. ‘Amusing as that would be – no.’
‘We just don’t want you to kill Shaw,’ said Raven.
Very well, Erik thought. Time to leave. He got up and headed for the door. ‘Aren’t you going to stop me, Charles?’ he asked, as he began to open it.
‘You know Shaw’s telepath, Emma Frost?’
‘Shaw had her family killed, while she watched, tied up. Her father, sister and mother, all tortured to death. It was before she had full control of her powers. She could only feel her family’s pain and horror, and their murderers’ glee.’
As he spoke, Charles filled Erik’s mind with Emma’s memories of the attack – images she’d revealed when she’d come to visit him, when she and Magneto had gone their separate ways.
Erik fell to his knees, clutching his head. Charles cut off the flow of images and emotions, and Erik slumped to the floor, gasping. Raven walked over to him, but he waved her off.
‘I’m all right. I’m ...’ he retched, and Charles sent waves of peace to calm his nausea.
I’m sorry I had to show you that.
‘How did Emma come to work for Shaw?’ Erik asked, when he had his breath back and was leaning against the wall.
‘Shaw “rescued” her from the black-market sex trade in Eastern Europe,’ Charles explained. The words left an awful taste in his mouth. ‘He forced her into it at thirteen – he took her out when she was nineteen. Enough time for her hate to mature.’ Charles paused. He wasn’t sure how Erik would react to his next words, but they had to be said. ‘He learned his lesson with you, after you escaped. What he needed was a powerful second-in-command who would remain completely loyal to his cause. He has no respect for women, but Emma was the most powerful mutant he could find, and very useful when it came to recruiting others.’
‘She never read his mind?’
‘Oh, she did. But you have to remember that Shaw is much older than us. He’s dealt with telepaths before. His mind is extraordinarily ordered and compartmentalised.’
‘Then why does he need the helmet?’
‘He doesn’t like loose ends or taking chances. The helmet was in the works long before he came across me. That’s what initially made Emma suspicious. How could it have been built so quickly?’
Erik and Charles stared at each other.
‘I must kill him. It’s been my whole life, Charles.’
‘Kill him, and then what?’ Raven asked. ‘What happens next, Magneto?’
‘You came up with that name, not me.’
‘I worry about what Emma will do, after she kills him,’ Charles mused. ‘Maybe it’s better if we try something else.’
Raven glared at him. Will you ever stop being such a patronising bastard? ‘Why don’t we let Emma decide? You were so keen to give Erik a choice in the matter. And do you really think we can avoid killing Shaw? He’s a human nuclear bomb, and a mass-murdering psychopath who’s already lived way longer than most people. Come on, Charles – you can’t make peace with everyone.’
Charles nodded, and although it almost hurt to admit it, he told her, You’re right. I’m sorry.
‘Emma’s the one who put all the effort into finding out who killed her family. She just found out too late to take revenge.’ Raven looked down at Erik, who was still sitting slumped against the wall. ‘Do you think you deserve it more than she does?’
‘That’s a meaningless question. This is about what happened to my mother, not Emma and her family. There’s no reason for me to care about them.’
‘Well,’ Raven scoffed, ‘what do you think your mother would want you to do?’
Erik got to his feet, towering over her. All the metal in the room began to rattle, and Charles prepared to restrain him.
‘Well?’ she asked again, but she sounded gentle now. ‘Tell me what she would have said about all of this. Including the cape.’
Silent, Erik bowed his head. The room stopped rattling.
‘Come on,’ Raven urged. ‘Tell me.’
Erik looked calm and sad, but his mind was shifting and boiling, heating and cooling, as though tectonic plates were forming new continents there.
‘Don’t ever talk about my mother,’ he said at last. Then he added, under his breath, ‘I’m willing to see what Emma has to say.’ He didn’t look at Charles or Raven as he walked out of the room.
They waited for Azazel in Vegas, in a room at the Flamingo. This time Charles anticipated his mental shields and knocked them out.
Tell Emma you have a security situation at the club and need her mind-reading skills, Charles instructed, because Azazel often asked Emma for assistance in this way.
In a few minutes Azazel appeared with Emma and was knocked unconscious by Charles. Finding herself surrounded by Charles, Erik, Raven and Hank, Emma turned into diamond. They’d come prepared for that, of course.
‘I’m sorry to tie you up,’ said Charles, as Erik looped metal ropes around her body and floated her over to sit on a chair. ‘I know how much you must hate it.’
‘You have no idea,’ she gritted out.
‘Actually, I do. And I’m honestly sorry – we couldn’t think of any other way to do this.’
She rolled her eyes and changed tack. ‘Don’t you understand what we’re planning? What Sebastian and I are doing together? We’re making the future safe for you.’
‘Yes, we’d love to live in a nuclear wasteland,’ said Hank.
‘Ash-mound skiing would be so much fun,’ Raven sighed.
Erik smiled faintly at that, which Charles saw as a positive sign. He wasn’t sure what Erik was thinking. Since their first conversation about Emma, Erik had been making a special effort to conceal his mind, and Charles didn’t want to force his way in.
‘Sarcasm is such a marvellous torture instrument,’ said Emma. ‘Is that why you brought me here? To tie me up and make quips at me?’
Erik glanced at Charles, who raised his eyebrows, cleared his throat and said, ‘Actually we brought you here because we have some information that will interest you.’
‘Oh?’ She batted her false eyelashes at them. ‘Do tell.’
Charles relayed all of the relevant information, trying not to hurt her with her own memories. He focused on his memory of her walking into the school, five years after the beach, every part of her mind telling him that she came in peace. If he hadn’t recognised her mind, he wouldn’t have known her: she was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her hair un-dyed, her face scrubbed of make-up.
At first Charles only wanted to ask her about Erik. He became astounded at his selfishness as she told him her story. It had never occurred to him that Emma had a story, and that it was just as painful as Erik’s.
You told me you couldn’t work with Magneto any longer, Charles said to her now. That you needed time to heal and that you had lived a lie.
Emma sank into herself. Before she’d been rigid, ready for a fight, but now her body would have fallen to the ground if not for Erik’s bindings.
Their exchange was tiring Charles. He was relaying it to the others and they were responding with their own strong emotions. Raven and Hank sat on the bed holding hands, their heads bent together, while Erik paced back and forth near the door.
You told me you wished you had killed Shaw.
Emma raised her eyes to his. How do I know you’re telling the truth?
Well, you can believe Shaw, the man you know has murdered thousands of people, including Erik’s mother. Or you can believe me. I once accidentally killed my pet goldfish by overfeeding it. I felt terribly guilty. Charles’s head was ringing, and he knew he had to stop soon. Besides, I think you’d sense it if I was lying or if you were being coerced.
In the hotel bathroom Erik leant against the sink, his arms folded.
Charles closed the door and stared at him, trying to assess him without reading his mind. ‘Are you going to accompany Emma?’
Erik wouldn’t look at Charles. ‘No. It will be better for her to take him by surprise.’
‘So you’re not going to –’
‘I said “no”, didn’t I?’
Charles realised this was his cue to leave Erik alone. As he opened the door, he said in a quiet voice, ‘You’re becoming extraordinarily good at blocking me out.’
Erik still didn’t look up.
Charles had Azazel deliver them right into the mansion’s sitting room, and then wished he hadn’t when Erik headed for the liquor cabinet.
Selecting a bottle of fine malt whisky, Erik asked, ‘Would anyone else like some?’ They all shook their heads. ‘Very well.’ He filled a crystal tumbler to the brim, walked to an overstuffed chaise lounge and sat down.
After an awkward moment of silence, Hank took Raven’s hand and gave it a gentle tug. ‘Why don’t you show me around?’
She grinned, but paused before following him out of the room. Okay to leave you alone with him, Charles?
Charles sat in an armchair opposite Erik. ‘So, we wait.’ Erik smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, and a choking fear rose in Charles’s throat. ‘You blame me for this. You hate me.’
But Erik shook his head and sipped his drink. ‘Your powers must be waning, my friend. That’s not what I’m thinking.’
‘I tried to give you as much choice as I could.’
Charles ran a hand over his face, through his hair, and didn’t know what else to say. They sat in silence as Charles considered last chances, and how this was his. Erik sipped his drink, while faint impressions of pain and longing, hope and sadness, emanated from his mind.
By the time Emma arrived with Shaw’s body, Erik had finished his drink.
Laid out on the dining-room table, without his helmet and suit, Shaw looked like any cadaver ready to be carved up by med-school students. In death he’d wrinkled and shrunken with his immense age, his teeth yellowing, his grey hair curling out of his nose and ears.
‘He’s so – small,’ said Raven. She poked his arm.
Emma brushed off her hands and put them on her hips. She’d killed him with a kitchen knife in the back – like Brutus killed Caesar, she told Charles, sensing his attention. Such a simple, human way to be murdered. He would have hated it.
‘Would you like to stay here?’ Charles asked her.
‘Yes. For the time being.’ Her mind, like her expression, didn’t give anything else away.
‘Would you still like to start a nuclear war?’ Raven asked.
Erik hadn’t said anything since seeing Shaw’s body. He hung back, overwhelmed. His control had slipped and Charles could hear some of his confused thoughts. I’ll never avenge you, mother. I’ll never make it right. Oh but you would be proud of me now. What has Charles done to me? What have I done to myself?
Raven kissed Charles on the cheek, then took Emma and Hank off to their guest bedrooms. Charles stayed by the body, and Erik remained with his back against the wall, his face in his hands. It was a cloudy night, rain pattering on the tall French windows, and the room was lit by the glow of a few hastily gathered candles. Charles listened to the rain and tried not to intrude on Erik’s thoughts, but he couldn’t help catching the edges of Erik’s struggle to accept Shaw’s death.
‘Your mother has been avenged,’ said Charles, as Erik began to calm. ‘Just not by you.’
He sensed Erik gaining control of himself and moving closer, to Charles and to the body. ‘I spent my life waiting for this – for him to die.’ Erik’s voice broke on that last word. ‘And now –’
As Erik reached his side, Charles turned and put his arms around him. Erik leaned in, clinging to Charles, putting his face against the skin between Charles’s shoulder and neck. It had been years since either of them had held anyone like this, and pleasure flooded through them both, disrupting Erik’s melancholy. He thought, You’re so warm.
Charles let his love sink into Erik’s mind, strand by strand, along with all the years of longing and denial that came with it. I hope you understand.
Erik lifted his head and kissed Charles. Kisses that hurt at first, but gentled when Erik sensed the pain. Erik’s mouth, hot and wet, burned with the taste of whisky. Charles pressed closer, his fingers digging into Erik’s back, then stroking up and cupping Erik’s face. Stay with me.
But Erik let Charles go and took a step away. ‘I can’t do that.’
‘But you –’
‘I do.’ And Charles felt it, the weight and ache of Erik’s love, before Erik gathered it back up. ‘It’s my own kind of peace that I’m looking for. Not yours.’
Charles leant against the table, trying to calm his heartbeat. ‘And when will you return?’
‘I don’t know.’
Erik reached into his pocket and drew out the coin he’d carried since his mother’s death. Using his fingers, not his powers, he laid it over Shaw’s right eye. Then he walked out of the room.
Will you return?
Charles had been accustomed to living without Erik, so it didn’t take long for him to get used to it again. He was happy enough to spend time alone; he could go for jogs through the grounds, cook meals, read books, listen to records and do his work. He couldn’t go a day without thinking of Erik, but that was another thing which hadn’t changed.
It was strange to gather the kids again and have them not know him. They were harder on him – they were never afraid to insult him with their thoughts, or yell at him, or play pranks. He no longer heard those quickly concealed thoughts that he’d been forced to grow used to: poor cripple, so much dignity!, only half a man, what a sad waste, and so on. He’d never felt diminished or less than whole, never felt weakened or undignified, but those prejudices had been a part of his life, a challenge that he’d met over and over again.
Now he was seen in a different light, and his other life began to fade. Sometimes he dreamed of it, and he could access the memories whenever he wanted – he’d always been a careful memory-keeper, with more control over his mind than most people. Even so, it didn’t seem real any longer. Which made sense, he supposed, because it never would be, at least in the universe he now inhabited.
Raven started calling herself Mystique and referring to Charles as Professor X. At first it was tongue-in-cheek, but it caught on, and soon all the old names were being used. Charles didn’t talk about Erik, but Mystique did. She said she couldn’t stand to conceal important things – she’d done that enough for one lifetime. Besides, she said, what will you tell them when Erik comes back? So Erik became a legend at the school, along with the story of his thwarted future as Magneto.
Emma’s story also became a legend, but she surprised Charles by staying. The kids had an enormous respect for her – and many liked her more than Charles. Soon Emma was a kind of mentor to Angel and a few others.
Charles wasn’t sure what had happened to the Hellfire Club. He assumed it still existed, possibly run by Riptide and Azazel, but Emma refused to talk about it. He didn’t know if she was in contact with them, but he sensed them sometimes when he used Cerebro.
He never sensed Erik. At first he feared that Erik had travelled to Russia and retrieved the helmet, but he convinced himself that Erik was just in another country, out of range. And on the anniversary of Erik’s departure, Charles decided to stop looking. He didn’t really want to find out where Erik was, because he knew that the moment he sensed Erik, he would be compelled to seek him out.
Maybe Erik could only find peace without Charles, or maybe Erik’s love had burned out. Charles would need to accept Erik’s choices, whatever they might be.
On a Sunday morning in spring, Charles woke to the sound of alarmed thoughts in the kitchen. It’s Erik, we think it’s Erik, Charles he’s here, wake up, come downstairs, he looks scary, he’s not saying anything, why is he staring at us?
Charles pulled on his dressing gown and hurried downstairs, sending them reassurances. Then he had to lean against the banister, his chest clenching, when he heard Darwin think, He’s wearing the helmet, Charles. There was an image of Erik, standing in the kitchen doorway dressed in his ordinary clothes – leather jacket, sweater and slacks – but with the helmet on.
Steeling himself, Charles ran into the kitchen. A few kids were sitting around the table, staring at their cutlery as it quivered in their hands. When Erik met Charles’s eyes, all the loose metal objects crashed off the tables and benches to the ground, skittering across the tiles.
Before Charles could say anything, Erik took off the helmet and laid it on the ground.
‘I needed it to get past the defences here,’ he explained. ‘And besides, I thought Hank might want to tinker with it.’
Mystique ran into the room, shouting, ‘What the hell is going – Erik?’
Charles was standing with his back flat to the wall. He couldn’t take his eyes off Erik, and it seemed Erik was having the same problem.
Eyeing them, Mystique said to the kids in her best Mary Poppins impersonation, ‘All right, children, your fathers need to be alone for a moment –’
‘No, no, it’s fine,’ Charles managed, in a strangled voice. ‘Really, we’ll, um – right. Erik?’
‘Come with me to the study? We have things to, er – to discuss.’
Erik followed him out of the room and up the stairs. Everything was a blur of emotions and sensations, and Charles felt more than a little unhinged. He walked into the study and Erik shut the door with his powers. Charles heard the click of its lock.
‘I have something to show you,’ said Charles, and Erik smirked. ‘No, really. Follow me.’ Charles walked to a bookshelf and reached over his collection of dusty nineteenth-century medical books. He pressed down on a small metal button, and the bookshelf swung inward like a door.
Erik raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment, and he followed Charles up two flights of narrow spiral stairs, to a spacious attic room with sunlight pouring in through a window in the ceiling. A rumpled mattress lay against the wall.
This is my retreat, Charles explained. Erik was already kissing him – warm, lazy, open-mouthed – and pushing him towards the mattress while pulling off his dressing gown, getting his hands against Charles’s skin. Hank lined it with a thin layer of ... he already discovered what the Russians used in the helmet, so I can’t hear anyone’s thoughts in here, no one can hear ... Erik, keep doing that ...
Because Charles had imagined this for years, he hadn’t expected to be surprised. He hadn’t realised Erik would be soft in so many places – behind his ears and elbows, beneath his navel and chin, behind his knees and at the tops of his thighs.
Charles’s body surprised Erik, too. You’ve been lifting weights, Professor, he thought with bewildered arousal, as he painted slow, caressing kisses over Charles’s biceps.
I’m enjoying my youth again.
What didn’t surprise Charles was his pleasure, doubled by Erik’s. Their bodies and minds were like two flames held together, melded into one flickering, glowing heat. His hand on Erik becoming Erik’s hand on him – his lips becoming Erik’s lips – his skin seeming to shift and transform and be remade. They stopped thinking and speaking in words, and learnt each other by their senses, by their fingers and tongues and skin.
‘I’m thinking of enrolling at a university,’ said Erik later, when they lay submerged in golden afternoon sunlight. He was tracing patterns over Charles’s bare back.
And what would you study? Charles wondered, too exhausted to speak.
‘Engineering, perhaps.’ Erik’s voice was pleasantly hoarse.
And where have you been, all this time?
‘I travelled through Europe. I returned to the village of my childhood.’ Charles expected bitterness, regret, but there was only a warm glow. ‘Everything was different. I knew a few people, but they didn’t recognise me, of course. At first it was hard – it seemed impossible to stay for more than one night – but then, at dawn, somehow it was all right. I remained there for months, helping at a farm. And no –’ Erik said, to the hint of Charles’s next question ‘– I didn’t kill anyone.’
Charles rolled over and gazed up at him. Erik brushed a kiss to his forehead. But you still think you’re better than them. Don’t you? I can sense it. You lived with these people, but you could never bring yourself to fully respect them.
Erik’s eyes sharpened. ‘We are better than them – we are undeniably stronger and more powerful, and more developed in evolutionary terms. And they’ll destroy us wherever they find us. But –’
But you don’t hate them now, or not as much as you did. You pity them more than you hate them – and you want to work with me, to compromise.
‘Yes. We don’t have to agree about everything, Charles –’ Erik’s voice hitched a little ‘– at least, tell me we don’t. Because I never want to leave you again.’
Charles pulled Erik’s head down and kissed him on each cheek, and then on his lips. ‘I’m sure we can work something out.’