It’s blindingly bright. The ground is soft sand, cool and light to his bare feet. There is a dark point on the horizon, perhaps the size of a distant satellite dish, eons and miles away, or a coin, ever too present.
“Where are we?” he asks.
“The edge,” Emma says. “You can’t stay in here with that on.”
She tugs at his helmet and he instinctively slaps her hand away. The diamond grazes his knuckle, and he stares at the pinpricks of blood for a moment. Then slowly, he places two hands on the side of his head – metal cool to the touch – and removes it.
A sudden wave rushes through him – a rippling bullet of air that hurts. It tears his mind apart, it pushes pain through every nerve - he can’t stand, can’t hear - can barely feel himself breathe, much less feel his legs –
Lying there defeated, slowly the world comes back into focus, and Emma is still diamond above him, holding the helmet.
Slowly, he stands. “Take care of it,” he mutters, feeling naked.
“Walk towards the dark spot. I think that’s where the hole is.” She’s glittering in this strange white sunlight, flashing sharply with each movement.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” he says.
She says nothing, and is slowly swallowed up by the light. He begins to walk.
He walks, and he walks. The dark spot is like the dark side of the sun, ink seeping-saturating across the unreadable bright parchment of the sky. The bleached sand gives beneath his feet but he can’t see the ground.
As he walks, he is stripped. The cape is tugged away, melting into the whiteness, the gloves disappearing as a breeze touches him, pushes his hair back. Everything floats away into nothingness until he feels like nothingness himself – he doesn’t breathe, he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t feel. There is only the dark on the horizon.
He walks, and he walks.
When he reaches the edge of the darkness, he can still sense the shimmering white all around his body, behind him. With a last look at the wasteland of light, he steps into the dark.
It’s there again. That pain. Ripping each muscle apart fiber by fiber, needles separating each layer of skin from bone, each part of his eye is being dissected.
And then he can suddenly feel his body again, heavy with breath, unrelentingly trapping. His knees and hands are sinking into plush carpet, he is wearing clothes he hasn’t seen for a while. A black turtleneck, well-pressed slacks. His skin flickers amber with firelight. The walls of the room are covered with portraits, opulent chairs are strewn about. Suits of armor stand guard against doors that are thrown open.
In the middle of the room, on a low table, there is a chessboard.
Sixteen pawns. Four rooks, knights, bishops. Two queens, and two kings. Everything is missing except for a single black pawn. He picks it up, feels the smooth wooden carving – a rich texture from a richer textile; his cloth is poor now – and puts it in his pocket. It sits comfortably. The room is completely silent. Even the fire does not crackle, a silent tangle of burning. Slowly, he approaches the doors, steps out into the hallway.
He’s still barefoot, and his feet make no noise against the cold wooden floors. The walls have more portraits, eyes following him with history as he walks. There are endless winding hallways, doors tightly shut. Everything is covered in a dull flickering light, like the fire is following behind him from the first room. He walks slowly, listening for a noise that will not come.
Then, on his left – there is a strange tugging sensation, and he turns to face the door from which it comes. He is inexplicably drawn to the brass handle. It’s nondescript, no different from all the others, but he must, he must, he must go in. It’s imperative that he enter. He turns the handle.
It’s a simple bedroom. Spare. Clean. Four o’clock sun is shining clearly. The bed is rather lower than the average bed, and there are curved grooves in the floor. There is nothing on the clothes hangers in the open closet, everything’s folded in a small cabinet by the sliding glass doors. A soft wind carries the muslin curtains – the first sound – a fluttering like the hiss of feathers as a bird takes frightened flight. He walks towards the doors. They open onto a balcony lined with potted plants. There is a corner where the vases and planters and bowls are broken, green sadly lying on its side, soil spilled all over. There is a black knight nestled in the dirt, and he picks it up, brushes it off, and it joins the pawn in his pocket.
The jagged pieces of porcelain are like shards of a feeling. He kneels next to them and his hand wavers – the gleam of the sunlight caught on the off-white, suddenly he can almost hear the crash, the slightest pinch of uneasiness in his mind. He stands, brushes the dirt off his trousers, and backs out of the room slowly. Everything is made of iron but nothing sings to him. The door shuts behind him with a soft click, and he continues down the corridor.
When it next happens, he is ready. The compulsion to enter a room hits him a few more doors down. Click. The sweep of the door as it closes behind him, a soft echo, because he’s in a bathroom. All the tiles are dark blue. The light is chartreuse, a vinegared chardonnay, and everything is tinged with illness. If he were to speak, the thick air would swallow every sound.
It’s rather cramped, not only because a toilet is squished in with the narrowest tub he’s ever seen in the further half of the room, but also because the floor is littered with broken glass. The tiles glitter like crystal poppies in a field of dark blue grass, growing towards the sickness.
The mirror over the sink is shattered. His reflection is outlined with the black spaces and edged with the remnants of blood, cool silver streaked with black. Like a Jackson Pollock; it’s art. Like a moment of madness, it’s wild. The delicate cracks are almost fey in their winding, capturing an impulse with every split in the glass.
There’s a cherry-red toothbrush, the translucent, striped bristles glowing garishly in the light. A bishop rests next to it, stark ebony against the veneer of the sink. He takes the bishop, and quietly, he exits this room as well.
Urges continue to hit him. He suspects the walls don’t change, only the doors.
The next room is an assault on the senses – he reels with the smells and the sensations. Heat is rolling over his skin, the air reeks of sweat and sighs, exertion and exhalation. There is no light here except for a sliver of moonlight illuminating a thoroughly unmade bed. Clothes are strewn all over the room – he recognizes an old shirt of his own.
This room is different because he knows which room this is, he knows when this was – he closes his eyes against the imprints of the shadows in the coverlet. He walks around to the side of the bed, and sure enough, there it is – a thin metal rod bent to the most elaborate angles. There’s a rook wrapped in its glinting coils, and he carefully pulls it out, and puts it in his pocket.
He can see the vivid scene that had played out here. Charles’ legs wrapped around his waist. He can almost feel Charles’ breath in his ear, his fingertips on his mouth. The red marks on Charles’ wrists are before his eyes. Charles’ cries are ringing in his ears. He stretches a hand out to feel the dip in Charles’ spine, the smooth curve, but it’s not there.
He still has no idea where he is, or where Charles is meant to be in this entire mess. When Emma had told him the plan – go in, fix the hole in the wall in his mind - she hadn’t mentioned that he’d have to walk for millennia in a godforsaken desert and then walk through the labyrinth of Xavier mansion, looking into odd, lonely rooms where the air hangs in feeble splendor, like broken Christmas ornaments. She hadn’t told him how to fix this wall, or indeed what it would even look like. Would he need mortar? Bricks? Did Charles know he was here? Did he want Charles to know he was here? For all he knew, Charles could be in his mind as he was in his mind, in his mind.
This telepathy stuff was all awfully esoteric.
There is crying in the following room. Quiet, stifled. As he pushes open the door, he sees it immediately – a small boy underneath the covers of an enormous bed. He pulls back the sheets to find that the boy’s body is wracked with sobs; that his soul is nearly shaking with his grief. Instinctively, he places a hand on the pajama-clad shoulder. “Shh,” he says, and is surprised by the rasp of his own voice. “What’s wrong?”
The boy turns to his touch like a freshwater fish delving into the ocean. “I – I – ” He’s taking staggering breaths, obviously attempting to control himself.
“Sometimes it’s better to let it out,” he says, thinking of his own forcedly stolid nights.
Conversely, this seems to calm the boy, and he fully opens his eyes, eyelashes fluttering with tears. Even tear-stained, pale and eight years old, he is unmistakable. “Charles?” he whispers.
The boy nods, leans further towards him. Tears are still falling heavily, and the occasional sob wrenches its way out of his throat. “I’m – I’m sorry, I’m just ” – his body shudders violently – “I can hear everyone, I can hear everything they think, but I – but – ”
“ – I’m still so alone – ”
They sit like that for a while, Charles tucked into his arm, until it fades away, and he’s back in the hallway.
Erik’s body stirs. “Is he awake?” Raven asks.
“No,” Emma replies. “Neither of them yet.”
“The pain is over.” Alex sits next to Charles’ body. “It ended about five minutes after he went in. Maybe that’s…?”
“We are not leaving Magneto in there forever,” Emma says sharply, and he shrugs, but says nothing.
“There has to be a way…” Hank is pacing on the far side of the room, and Raven watches him. “Miss Frost, is there no way you can repair the wall yourself?”
“He instinctively blocks me out. I tried.”
“And why Erik?” Hank asks. “Why not Raven, or anyone else?”
Emma looks at him then. “I think you know why, Beast.”
He lets out a rumble of discontent. “Do you know what’s behind the wall?”
“So you just ripped open a wall in someone’s head with no idea as to the repercussions – ”
“We are at war.” She stands, tight-lipped, diamond sparkling at the edges of her skin. “There can be no mercy.”
Hank sits down next to Alex, feeling suddenly defeated. Both Charles and Erik are softly breathing, skin translucent and slack with the low light of the room, like frozen jellyfish. Both look haggard and drawn – the ages apart, he thinks, or perhaps the ages together. “That’s where all of you were always wrong,” he says. “We are not at war, especially not now, and not with each other. Right now, we’re trying to heal.”
When he reaches this door, he is suddenly filled with trepidation, because he knows this door. It is not indistinguishable from the others – yes, there’s the scar where he’d missed the lock with the key (satellite dish turning, powers shaking erratically with the promise of war), there’s the same click of the door tripping over itself to yield to him. He knows what he will see.
Two portraits flanking either side of the bed, two nightstands covered in various papers and trinkets, two hourglass-shaped lamps. Here too all the cabinets are opened, rifled through, and they’re all empty – there’s only one item left, and its tossed over the neatly made bed – the brown leather jacket he’d missed after leaving (an afterthought-distraction). There’s a queen tucked into the sleeve, and he picks that up too. His briefcase is still standing next to his bed, perhaps forgotten.
The room is still whole although the all the fragments should be flying. So clean yet so saturated with memory, like a cracked dark pomegranate spilling juice over a white sheet, soaking yard by yard until he’s wrapped up in the deep garnet of the past. He has to place two fingers over his pulse to check that he is indeed still alive. His pulse is sluggish and staining. “Oh, Charles,” he murmurs to himself.
“Erik,” a voice answers from behind. “Fancy seeing you here.”
He whirls around to face the person – he already knows that it’s Charles, the inflection, the accent, how could it not – and then there he is. For the first time in a year, leaning casually against the door frame, solid as the chess pieces in his pocket.
Before he knows it, he’s crossed the room, stretched out a hand to Charles shoulder (warm, soft – home) and touched a hand to Charles’ cheek, and leaned in quickly. Their faces are so close – the space between them a fracture in bone. Erik can feel Charles’ trembling breath tickling his lips, an eyelash fluttering against his own cheekbone, the shift of muscles under both hands, jaw working, shoulder tensing, and he tries to brush it away, stroking Charles’ face with his thumb, moving his hand slowly to Charles’ neck. When Charles licks his lips, there is the softest brush of wet against Erik’s mouth.
Then he remembers. Who he is. What they are. He steps back two paces, withdrawing his hands quickly. “Where are we?” he asks, voice rough with disuse and anticipation.
Charles is no longer leaning against the doorframe. He is standing, eyes closed, hands in his pockets. Breathing deeply. There is suddenly a broken teapot at his feet – Erik can see the handle, there was no sound – and with a sweep of his arm he collects it all in a bag and it vanishes. “Where we are,” Charles says pensively. “That’s a difficult question to answer.”
“Emma told me, when we were – ”
“Ah, yes. Emma. Emma Frost.” The sardonic smile has a blade Erik never thought he’d see, and suddenly he sees a needle sticking out of his own chest, thin, silvery in the late light. He frowns and throws it to the ground, but Charles’ voice still retains that steely quality. “I suppose we could say that we are in my mind.”
Erik allows himself a wry half-smile. “It fits that your mind looks like Xavier Mansion.”
“I organized it like this because it was easiest,” Charles says. “And it’s large enough to hold everything.”
“Do other people’s minds look like buildings?” Erik cannot help his curiosity.
“This is going to sound a bit like synesthesia.” Charles is standing, lecturing. In Erik’s room. Hands in pockets, wearing a crisp shirt. The garnet is fresh and wet with the tang of memory. “You know, mixing up the senses – when you smell sounds, for instance, can happen in accidents - but everyone’s mind looks like everything they’ve ever felt, tastes like everything they’ve ever heard – ” A light flush suffuses his cheeks. “Sorry, I…it’s a bit different for everyone.”
He cannot resist, greedy, gorging himself silly already on blue eyes and slight frame but needing to quench his thirst with voice: “And what does mine look like?”
A pause. “I don’t know, Erik. Not anymore.”
“Would you like to play chess?” Charles asks abruptly, gesturing vaguely.
“I – ” How many mistakes can you make in a split second decision; how many have you made already? “Of course.”
“I trust you found the pieces.” Charles sits, and suddenly his favorite chair is beneath him, Erik’s customary seat materializing out of thin air. A low table appears as well, and carefully Erik lays out the pieces from his pocket.
“Do you have the others?” he asks.
Charles waves a hand, and the remaining black pieces put into place. “I always had half your pieces, my friend.” The white pieces also appear, the pawn in the default position moved up in front of the king.
And with a smile – “Your move,” he says.
Surely, Erik thinks, it is illegal to play chess with so many other questions in the air, with so much tension spanning across a table. An entire year since the beach, and Charles wants to play chess.
“Charles,” he says, clearing his throat. “As much as I’m enjoying this social call –”
“Yes, you’re here on business,” Charles answers. “I know. That wall…” He contemplates the board for a moment. “You’re here to fix it.”
“Yes, I am.” Erik fiddles with a pawn. “Would you happen to know how?”
“You’re not wearing the helmet.”
“I am not.” A sudden surge of uneasiness. “Can you still – is my mind open, here?”
“No,” Charles says simply. “You are safe – I cannot read your mind, and Miss Frost is wary enough of the walls that she won’t touch them.”
“Prove it.” It comes out more accusatory than he’d meant, a black knight poking Charles in the chest.
“You’ll have to trust me. It’s virtually impossible to prove...”
“Prove it.” The knight presses.
Charles sighs, and looks at him as though Erik were a particularly petulant child. Which he supposes he is being, at the moment. “All right,” he says slowly, then leans forward. “If I had my way, you would have kissed me, earlier. In the doorway.”
The knight drops. “Touché,” he manages.
Charles sits back again. “I have no better means to prove anything. I have no control over what you feel now. Before, I was a car, steering towards or away from thoughts and feelings. Now, you’re in the car, so to speak, so you can’t be hit by it…your feelings now are all your own.”
“My feelings are all my own,” Erik repeats slowly.
Charles moves his remaining bishop. “Checkmate.”
“I never understood,” Erik says slowly, watching the sway of Charles’ hips as he saunters from the chessboard.
Charles silently offers him a crystal tumbler (the decadence – ). “Understood what?”
“Your penchant for passivity.” The glass is like a live flame in Charles’ hands, like a diamond woman in the sunless desert of the edge.
“Not passivity, Erik,” Charles says. “But peace. And surely, a penchant for peace is understandable for someone who has seen so much of conflict.”
The clink of the glasses in a silent acknowledgement – without a word, they both know they are drinking to the history written in this ritual. “Even here, the liquor is excellent.”
“Don’t you understand?”
The crystal is pressing into his palm, leaving indents in the skin. “I cannot understand. You’ve seen the hive-mind of humanity, you’ve seen all the hatred they bear for all those who are different. Look at how they treat their own kind, enslaving…” The amber liquid begins to boil in the glass.
“I’ve seen the minds of humanity,” Charles corrects gently. “And for every bigot there is a bright corner of tolerance. For every murderer, there is an innocent. It’s not all bad.”
Erik scowls at him. “Still think they’re all like Moira? After she tried to kill me? After the bullet - ?”
“Shaw was a mutant,” he points out. “And so are you.”
At that reminder, the glass shatters, spraying splinters of beauty in all directions.
Glass makes the sound of breaking and metal makes the sounds of war.
“Just take a deep breath and clear it,” Charles murmurs. Erik stares at him, shards of glass embedded in his palm. “Clear your mind of guilt, of anger. Let it go, and the glass will disappear also.”
The blood trickles down his hand, rich and thick.
“Erik, you’ve suffered great pain at the hands of men, human and mutant, but you cannot be ruled by rage – ”
“Enough of your pseudo-wisdom!” The shards fly towards Charles, just short of his quivering eyes, the unmarked line of his throat. “Always, these grandiose proclamations of forgiveness. That rage is all I have left; it’s how I survive. There is no other way – you can’t predict the future, and you can’t bet it against delusional naïveté. You never know what’s going to happen in the next hour, the next minute, the next second!” In the distance, there’s a gunshot bang and the sound of a body hitting the floor.
“Indeed, my friend,” Charles says slowly, and Erik wants to scream. “I know that better than anyone.”
In the distance, there’s a gunshot bang and the sound of a body hitting the floor.
“Would you like to see me as I really am?”