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"Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine.
You think your dreams are the same as mine.
Oh I don't love you but I always will."
-- The Civil Wars, "Poison & Wine"

It was strange, but Charles somehow expected it to sound like rain. The bombs hung in the air, motionless, and then dripped down the sky, and some part of Charles' mind expected the tinny, soft sound of rain to accompany them as they fell. Instead it was a heavy splash of metal into ocean, and somehow, that was all Charles could hear. The flashfire boom of a gunshot, and then a flare of pain and utter, complete silence until the bombs crashed into the water.

For a moment, he thought that he'd died. The flare of pain was quick and deep and then gone, and the world went so quiet. It was what he'd have imagined death sounded like, if he'd spent any time contemplating it. It wasn't until the splash that he realized there were more sounds. Erik's voice, apologizing, his hand heavy on Charles' face and the sharp metallic scent of blood on his fingers were what brought him back to coherence. "I didn't mean to-"

"I know," Charles answered, and the flare of pain came back, stronger and sharper as Erik pulled the bullet from his back. The pain seemed to fade too quickly. He stared up into Erik's face and reached up weakly, pulling the metal helmet from his head. His mind filled up with guilt and remorse as it touched against Erik's, and Charles shut his eyes, blocking out the sight of Erik staring, the flash of Raven hovering, Moira's pale, regretful face shrinking away from him. "It's all right," he tried to say, but he wasn't sure if he meant it. "Get us home, Erik."

Erik hadn't meant to do that, and Charles knew it, but he wasn't a good enough man to not let the guilt be something he used to change Erik's mind, and he felt Erik's head bow, a king conceding the board. "It wasn't your fault," Charles told Moira, but he didn't know if she could hear. He didn't bother to make sure. Erik thought Charles was speaking to him. Charles let him think so.

********

"You want to change the world?" Erik didn't look up as he spoke, fingers hovering over the black rook on the board in front of him. "That's not so different from wanting to rule it, you know. All dictators believe themselves to be revolutionaries who are imposing a new, better order on the world."

He shifted his hand suddenly, sliding a pawn a spare step forward instead. "You think I should just aim for tyranny to begin with, then?" Charles asked, making a show of studying the board and sipping his sherry, hand twisting just enough to swirl the liquid inside it with more ritual than purpose. It was strange how few months they'd known one another, all things considered, and how quickly this had become his routine, the part of the day he grew to anticipate and long for more and more each day. "I could probably make a charming overlord. Outlaw television starring Jackie Gleason, order everyone to wear silly hats, that sort of thing."

Erik smiled his spare, grudging half smile. "Forbid all traffic on Saturdays when you want to leave twenty minutes late and still make the eight o'clock show?" he suggested.

"Well, I'd imagine to be any sort of proper tyrant, I'd have to have my own theater in my fortress. Though that does defeat the purpose of seeing films, so perhaps I should just ensure my army enforces traffic laws." Charles nudged a pawn a space forward, purposely pushing Erik's knight off the center of its square and smiling small and smug when the other man immediately reached to center it again.

"You have the army well started," Erik observed, glancing up toward the ceiling significantly. Above their heads, somewhere, Sean was playing music too loudly, and Charles was half waiting for the inevitable moment when Alex came in to complain about it (more because of a difference in taste than actual objection to the volume, Charles suspected).

He frowned. "That's not what this is about."

"Not for you. That won't keep anyone else from seeing it that way. Put enough loaded guns in your armory, Charles, and people will worry about the day you use them, even if you never meant to pull the trigger."

"They're children, not weapons, Erik." Erik laughed, sudden and soft, and Charles' brows knit. He resisted the urge to slide into the familiar depths of Erik's mind to find out what he was laughing at, asking instead, "That's funny?"

"You calling them children is, yes. You're barely older than they are." Erik flashed that rare, warm grin that always surprised Charles when it appeared, but seemed to shock Erik even more, since he smoothed his face over quickly, as if afraid of it being seen.

"And you're not that much older than me, so your argument is essentially that we're all children," Charles said.

"I haven't been a child in a long time."

No, he wouldn't have been. Charles imagined the last scraps of youth had vanished about the time Erik's mother died, if not well before in the terror being torn from his life and thrust into the camp. It was an old wound, and one that Erik didn't like Charles trying to heal, so he changed the topic, sliding his queen forward and leaning in closer to the board, meeting Erik's eyes. "Hardly an excuse for how badly you're about to lose, old man," he teased instead.

Erik's eyes slid over the board, cursory and quick, but then met Charles' again. "Am I?" He seemed to doubt it, and the truth was Charles wasn't entirely sure either - they were well matched on a board. Erik leaned back, finished his drink and twitched a finger, the metal-edged king falling neatly to his side, giving up the ghost. "I should cut my losses then."

He stood, and Charles did too, feeling as if his body were vibrating in place, and he ached to crash past barriers Erik set and read his thoughts and know his mind almost as badly as he ached for Erik's hands on him. But he waited, letting Erik come to him, curl fingers in the collar of Charles' shirt and tug him forward until he was leaning up against Erik. "You won then, Chuck. What do you want?"

"For you to never, ever call me that again, and take me to my rooms where we won't be able to hear the epic battle about to take place over the music. And then for us not to worry about who lost and who won at all, since we'll be too busy with other pursuits." Charles grinned and leaned up, lips pressing hard against Erik's until the other man drew away. Charles reached for his hand, but Erik evaded it, grip falling to Charles' hip instead, and he settled for that, letting Erik guide them to bed.

********

"I imagine we'll need to expand, in time. Most of that wing isn't really suited to being made into dorm rooms."

"Yes. What we need in this place is more space," Erik said. Charles shot him a look and he ignored it. "Even if we found all of them, do you really imagine there are so many? And of those, that many are willing to uproot their lives and come learn their ABC's from a school full of freaks like them?"

"Mutants," Charles corrected, as he always did, tapping his fingers against the wheel of his chair. The sound made a dull, faint thud that knit Erik's brow together just enough of a fraction for Charles to know it bothered him. He was never sure if it was the sound or the reminder of the chair itself. "If you call them freaks, I'd imagine that would be an unsound recruitment method." Erik half smiled, and Charles went on. "They came with us easily enough last time. We all want to belong, Erik, and where else can they be more themselves than in a place designed for them? There's more out there, more born every day. I can feel it. It's only a matter of finding them."

"With the machine a boy scientist built in a lab."

"It's not enough. We'll build a better one." Charles watched Erik look away, and sighed, reaching for the glass on the table beside him. It sat just out of reach and he reached to wheel himself forward. Erik stepped up, handing it to him, and Charles jerked his hand away as if it burned. "Don't."

Erik stopped, and then set the glass carefully back down, backing away and watching as Charles rolled himself forward and took it himself, more because he felt obligated than because he still wanted the burn of the liquor down his throat and the cool of the ice against his tongue. It felt like cold comfort, most days, but he liked the ritual of pouring and serving and sipping, of turning the glass as he thought. The bar had been lowered, but it wasn't the same, still. He wasn't sure why. "I'm not a scientist, Charles," Erik said stiffly.

"You're the master of metal, isn't that what Alex is saying these days?" Charles argued. "What better way to conduct than with metal, and who else could be precise enough? This is what you can do, Erik. This is what we were meant to do."

"Magneto. That's what he calls me," Erik corrected, and Charles flinched. Erik liked the name too well, and Charles not at all. The names they all used when they thought Charles wasn't listening, they felt like lies to him. Children, playing at alter egos and hiding games. But Erik didn't play games, which made it too real for him. "If you find them, and you bring them here, then you have to teach them to use what they have. Not just enough to control it, but what they're truly capable of."

Charles wanted to argue, but he wasn't entirely sure Erik wasn't right. "We, have to teach them," he said instead.

The quiet hung between them, heavy and pervasive before Erik finally agreed. "We." He watched Charles sip his drink, and then spoke again, voice low and strangely careful. "I would have handed you a glass before the beach, Charles."

Charles swallowed the liquor and shut his eyes. "Before the beach, you wouldn't have noticed that I needed it."

********

The glass fell from Charles' hand and into the ice bucket. He was entirely sure it hadn't been there a moment earlier. It was another moment before he realized the metal bucket was hovering mid-air, and the glass hadn't even shattered upon dropping into it. Charles stared bemusedly at the bucket. "What would you have done if we had a porcelain bucket?"

"Question how you'd managed to go this long without breaking that, too," Erik told him, floating the bucket aside and offering Charles a hand up. Charles refrained from arguing that the glass hadn't broken, as it undoubtedly would have without Erik's intervention. He pulled Charles to his feet, and Charles let him, promptly overbalancing so that he ended up draped against Erik, the other man staggering once and then catching him, arm curved around his waist as he held them both upright. "You are not really this drunk," he accused.

"Don't attempt to tell me how drunk I am. You can't read my mind. But if you could, it would be drunk."

Erik chuckled, and Charles felt it vibrate against him, warm and welcome and unfamiliar because of how rarely he heard it. "Fine. You're drunk. You should go to bed."

"Mmm. I should. So should you." Charles dug his nose into Erik's shoulder and breathed in, breath tickling against the curve of his throat when he turned his head.

"If you're too drunk to stand, you're too drunk to make it worth my trip upstairs."

"I'm feeling remarkably sober all the sudden," Charles decided. He didn't say that the trip would be taking place regardless, if he had his way. Erik kept his own space and his own room and Charles hadn't so much given up the argument as he had never started it to begin with because he knew how it would end. Instead Charles lifted his head to find Erik's mouth, kiss deep and sudden and hungry. Erik's arm tightened around him and his lips parted against Charles'.

The skid of feet and the thud of larger feet behind them followed by a stunned "Whoa!" broke them apart. Charles looked to see Alex gaping, Hank behind him hurriedly snatching some shiny metal gadget from Alex's hand. Both of their cheeks were stained a deep red. Charles was just drunk enough that he had to swallow the laughter that wanted to bubble up in his chest at being caught. He felt like a schoolboy who'd snuck a girl into his dorm after hours. Alex finally remembered what he'd come to complain about and blurted, "Sorry, I just. . . Uh, did you know that clownfoot here is building some kind of death ray?"

"It's not a death ray! It's just. . . I thought if I could adapt the power signature from when you. . . It doesn't matter. It's a prototype. It's fine. And don't call me that," Hank argued, starting to back out of the room.

Erik abruptly seemed to realize where his arm was and let go. A small, impish part of Charles wanted to fall against him again, but he refrained. "It's quite all right, and I'm sure Hank is taking every precaution," he said, somewhat proud of how very dignified he sounded when his lips were still warm from Erik's and his body hummed from the brief contact.

"Sure. Right. Precaution. When we're all blown up, I'll be glad we were precautioned. They'll put it on our tombstones or something," Alex said.

"If ANYONE is going to blow us up-" Hank started to return.

Erik held up a hand, and the metal device floated out of Hank's hand and into his. "Children. Speak to teacher at the end of class and the Professor will give you back your toys. Next time bring enough to share with the class or leave them at home." He pressed the metal into Charles' hand, and stared until both boys ducked out of the room, still sniping.

They never backed down so quickly if Charles glared at them. It really wasn't fair. Charles turned the surprisingly heavy gadget over in his hand. "MUST you call me that?"

"It's what you are, isn't it? The benevolent Professor, teaching the mutants how to behave like proper young men and women."

Yes, but it didn't sound right when Erik said it. Erik looked at the still-open door to the study and then caught Charles' chin, tipping it up and kissing him again, briefer and harder than Charles' had kissed him. "How sober are you now?" He didn't wait for an answer before starting for the door and the stairs beyond it, arm around Charles' waist to guide him though Charles was steady on his own feet. Charles didn't bother to answer, and leaned into Erik, purposely making it difficult to walk and grinning slow and wide when Erik glared.

********

"You cannot wear that," Charles told Erik, exasperation turning his voice sharp and too-precise.

"You said the girl is a telepath, and not in control of her powers, I'd rather one of us at least were immune."

"She's not just a telepath. She's. . . I'm not certain, but it's beyond anything we've seen. Beyond anything we've even theorized apart. Her mind is. . . limitless." Charles gave him a derisive once over. "And you want to waltz in and say hello while wearing a toaster on your head. I'm sure that will go over well with her parents."

"I'm not concerned with what her parents think. You'll be altering it so they think as you need them to so we can take the girl with us, anyway," Erik answered.

Charles hated how matter of fact he was. "It will be safer if she's with us, where we can teach her to control it." He stared through the car windows into the front yard of a small suburban house, its lawn neatly manicured. A girl with bright red hair and a summer dress sat out front, her lips blue with cold and her feet bare in the snow. Her parents couldn't even make her wear her winter clothes, what hope did they have of coping with a power as great as what that child could wield? What hope would any ungifted person have?

"Whatever it takes," Erik answered. "I'm not the one you need convince of that. You're the one who dresses it up as something it isn't."

Charles drummed his fingers against the steering wheel and leaned his head back. Through the house windows he saw a pale-faced woman, her hair as red as her daughter's and her eyes bruised and tired. "We need her to trust us, welcome us. She's a telepath. All the minds in the world, every person she meets, they're all open to her. Like a hall of endless doors, each one open for her to look inside and see what's lurking there. And you want to speak to her, tell her to trust her, while giving her the only locked door she's ever known. The one door she'd most want to see closed against her." He looked at Erik, the metal helm making his profile absurd and ominous. "You've no idea what that's like."

Erik was silent, and Charles damned the helmet and was glad for it, all at once. Every day that passed, the temptation to break his promise and look and see what wasn't being said grew stronger, and harder to let go of. There were times he envied Frost, who went delving where she wished without any concern for right or wrong or the wishes of the people around her. Every secret he left untouched felt like another empty space of distance between him and Erik. "You want us to teach them to use what they're given, but the first thing you show her is that there are things not possible to see."

"The first thing I show her is that there will be things in the way of what she wants, and she needs to decide how far she's willing to go to get them anyway," Erik said.

"And if she's willing to go too far?"

Erik smiled thinly. "Then I'd imagine we'll all get along well, if she doesn't kill us." He looked over at Charles and then blew out a slow breath that sounded more like anger than resignation. But he jerked the helm from his head and tossed it onto the backseat. Charles reached out automatically, not delving into his mind but brushing up against it, the reflex of testing and reminding himself how close Erik was a habit he wasn't sure he'd ever lose, now. Erik felt it and for a second his fingers brushed against Charles' arm. "You never just ask what I think."

"Would you tell me if I did?"

"It depends on when you asked." Erik slammed the car door behind him and walked around, getting the chair and watching as Charles levered himself into it, knowing better than to offer his help anymore. He crossed the street then, crouching down beside the little girl, who looked up at him. "You must be Jean Grey."

She tilted her head. Behind her the small metal wagon she'd loaded her dolls into trembled, and the dolls rose in the air one by one and circled Erik's head. "Who are you?" she demanded.

Erik lifted his hand, and the wagon sailed around her and toward him, twisting into the shape of a bow, and then a dog, its wheels the eyes. Her eyes widened and she laughed, recognition and delight in her expression. "My name is Magneto. And my friend is Charles. And we're here to take you somewhere where no one will tell you not to use your powers again." Charles rolled his chair toward the curb and felt the metal base lift without Erik looking his way, letting him approach the little girl as well.

Jean looked at him, and he felt the reach of her mind as easily and powerfully as he saw the wagon tremble as she wrested control of it from Erik, who started just enough for Charles to see. "My mommy's afraid of me," she said.

"She should be," Erik muttered, and then reached out, achingly gentle, to tuck the red hair back behind a pale ear. "We'll teach you how to use what you can do."

"We'll teach her that she doesn't have to be afraid," Charles promised. He saw Erik's mouth twitch into a cynical smile and he didn't meet the other man's eyes. That wasn't a promise he could keep. You couldn't just teach someone to not fear what they had every right to be afraid of. But Charles could stop the fear, nonetheless. They both knew he would, if that was what it took to bring the girl with them.

********

Erik sat at the window, perched in the narrow seat with a stiffness to his shoulders that said he'd been there for longer than was comfortable. Charles watched, trying to read his thoughts in the distance of his gaze and the set of his mouth, instead of in his mind. "I know you're awake," Erik said.

Charles shrugged, sliding out of bed and into a robe to guard against the chill in the air. Erik was shirtless and goose-pimped, but somehow seemed not to feel it anyway. Charles slid his arms around him from behind, tucking his chin against Erik's shoulder. "You always know. Sometimes I wonder if you aren't the telepath." He looked out the frost-edged window. "What do you see, Erik?"

"Browning grass, a hundred acres of woods that you own," Erik answered. He twisted away from Charles' arms, turning enough to look at him. "What do you see?"

Charles glanced out again. "The same thing, I suppose."

"For now," Erik said. He stood with a faint grunt, rolling his shoulder and Charles reached to rub the joint that always seemed to stiffen. Erik didn't let him, shrugging off the touch. "No matter where you go, or what you see, you'll always be looking out at it through these windows."

Charles frowned. "I don't understand." He stepped in again, but Erik's lifted hand stopped both the movement and the reach of his mind against the other man's. "Let me-"

"Don't." Erik lifted his chin. "The grass is dying, the winter is approaching There are poachers in your woods, and rats in your fields, and you look out through the windows of a palace and you don't see. Everything you see, you see through the lens of a world most of us have never known. But somehow, you think you're seeing the same things we are."

"We. And who is 'we'? For all the differences between us, Erik, we are still the same. We're both different, brothers in our abilities and uniqueness. We both want a better world-"

"You want a better world. You want unity and peace, and because you don't see what I see, you believe it's possible. I don't want a better world, Charles. I want MY world to be better. I want our world to be better. The paths are the same, but they won't always be. And you won't see until it's too late, because you'll be looking out the wrong windows, and seeing the wrong world."

"I think you underestimate me," Charles told him mildly, crossing his arms over his own chest to keep from reaching for Erik again. "But if not - I have you here to show me what I won't see. I have Raven and the others, and they will show me what I might not see alone. That's why I need you."

Erik was still and closed off, and then it just melted away and he gave over, smiling in a sudden flash of teeth and glint of eyes that made Charles ache to peel back the layers of his mind and find out how much of it was real. His arm curled around Charles though, pulling him in close, and Charles settled into that instead. "That's why you keep me around, is it?"

"Well, that and fixing the antenna when the storms knock it awry," Charles told him, and smiled against Erik's mouth as Erik chuckled, sound vibrating between them as they kissed. "The question is what you need me for," he said against Erik's lips.

Erik looked away, back toward the glass. "Sometimes, I like the windows in other men's houses better than my own."

The answer tightened Charles' stomach, and it wasn't what he'd wanted to hear, but somehow, it was what he expected as well.

********

Raven sat, her red head bowed, the blue of her skin stark against the white of the lounge she perched on. Erik leaned against the wall beside her, arms crossed. They looked strangely in sync to Charles, a solidarity that Charles wasn't a part. He couldn't help but wonder when it had become so obvious that there were lines drawn and they weren't standing on the same side. "I don't know what to say."

Raven looked up a flash of yellow eyes. He'd gotten used to seeing her like this, day in and day out, but part of him missed the illusion of blond hair and soft eyes. That girl she used to pretend to be had been his sister. This sleek, ever-quieter stranger was a mystery to him, and only old promises kept him from trying to look inside her head and find where the girl he know had gone, and if she missed him at all. "I just thought you should know."

Charles folded his hands in his lap. "Azazel-"

"He's gone. He knows," Erik cut him off, and Charles flushed. She'd gone to him first with this. That stung more than Charles wanted to show.

"I know doctors, if you want. . ." Charles trailed off and watched the way Raven's shoulders hunched and then straightened. "I'm here to help you, you know that. But mutation is still a new science. With your powers and his, a child-"

"Will be a monster," she finished, voice hard. Charles started to protest, and she cut him off. "I know you mean well, and I know it won't be easy. I'm no one's mother. I don't want to be. Not now, probably not ever. But it happened, and I'm not going to. . ." She drew a shaky breath. "If my parents had known what I would be, and they could have stopped it, I wouldn't be here. I won't do that to someone else. There's places to go, people who won't care if it's like me, or like him. He - she, whatever it is - deserves to live. If I were human-"

"You ARE human," Charles broke in.

"She's not," Erik said, and Raven looked at him. The look they shared was full of understanding that Charles didn't share. "She's not human. I'm not human, and this child, whatever its powers, it won't be human either. It will be something more. We're something MORE, Charles. Isn't it time we stopped trying to lower ourselves to fit into their expectations of what we should be?"

"That's not what I meant. If you want to have this child, then you should. It will be welcome here. We can teach-"

"No." Raven spread her hands and then stood, crouching in front of Charles. His eyes skipped away from the bare blue skin, the slight bulge of her flat stomach that he imagined he could see, even if it wasn't there. "This doesn't work anymore. You want me to be someone I grew out of being. You want us all to be the same, and I'm not. I don't even want to be like anyone else, not anymore. My world doesn't look like yours, and neither does the world I want to live in."

Different windows, Charles thought. "It takes time," Charles said instead, the words heavy on his tongue, overdone and too often used. "You can't expect them to accept us, we have to make the first efforts, until they realize what we are, that we're no different from them, we just have abilities."

"And that's why I don't belong here. And why this child won't belong here. I can pretend, Charles. I can do it better than anyone. But no matter how well I do it, I won't be like them. I'll be like me. Like you. Something else."

"Like Erik," Charles finished, and looked away from her to where Erik still stood, unmoving and tense. "You're leaving," he said.

"You knew it was coming," Erik said, and it sounded as much like an accusation as Charles' declaration had. He had known, or he should have. Charles knew things he shouldn't so often and he never could quite tell what he'd taken away because he watched and paid attention to what went unsaid, and what he knew because sometimes he reached too deep and listened to the unspoken thoughts without meaning to.

"What of the students? They depend on us, they learn from us. What will this teach them? That you can't work together? That everything needs come down to walking away?" Charles used the word deliberately, baiting the flinch he got from Erik, but not from Raven. He'd expected that to be the other way around. Already the school was harder than he'd imagined it could be. Try as he might, there were some students who fled, some who beyond his help. He thought of Jason, already out of reach, of Jean who he'd made less than she could have been to protect her. He wondered if that was where this had begun, this break between him and the people he'd loved. Charles knew that the cracks had begun to show long before this, though. He felt small and petty because the questions he offered weren't the ones he truly wanted to ask. He asked why they could leave the students. He wondered how they could leave him.

"It will teach them that sometimes, you have to make a choice." Raven said.

He stared at her, and felt the edges of her mind, shielded and careful, as he'd taught her, but there. It would be so much simpler if he knew it all. "Don't," she told him.

Erik watched "You could change our minds."

He could. It would be easy. Teaching Jean, using Cerebro - it had taught Charles so much more about who he was, and about what he was capable of. He could make them want to stay. He could make them forget they'd ever wanted to leave. He could convince them his way was how it should be. Some part of him almost felt that it would be the right thing to do. He knew Erik as well as anyone could. He knew where this path would lead. He could stop it with a thought. "I won't," he said. He felt guilty for it, and even guiltier for having considered it. He dropped his head back against the chair and Raven - Mystique, now, he supposed - straightened to stand beside Erik. The new name suited her now, all the softness and openness trained away, leaving the secrets behind. She was beautiful like this, he supposed. He hadn't thought about that enough, he'd thought too much about how he missed his sister, not how he admired what she'd become, no matter how it wasn't what he'd wanted for her. "If you change your mind. . . I'm here. I'll always be here. For you, for the child," he told Raven.

But not for me, Erik asked, and Charles saw it as clearly in his face as if he'd read his thoughts. He wanted to argue, but couldn't bring himself to disagree enough to try and he said nothing. "Say goodbye to the others." And give them a chance to follow, though Charles knew already who would and who wouldn't. It was easy to see, when he made himself look for the lines that had been drawn.

Erik's hand lingered on Raven's neck as she turned away. She dropped a kiss onto Charles' forehead as she left. The space between them felt like miles when she slipped soundlessly from the room, leaving Erik and Charles staring at one another. "If I asked what you were thinking now, would you tell me?" Charles said.

Erik's answered was quiet, and not without some dark edge of humor that Charles appreciated but couldn't share. "If I told you that you could look and see, would you want to?" he countered.

Charles shook his head, and when Erik's fingers brushed over his jaw as he left, he turned his face into it, though in the back of his mind all he saw was the way Erik's hand had lit on Mystique's shoulder.

********

Charles moved to roll over, and his body didn't obey. It still brought him awake, the way he tried to shift his legs and nothing happened. He was learning to ignore it and drift back into dreams, but the bed beside him was empty, and that brought him fully awake. He could hear sounds distantly, students talking, footsteps scurrying in halls that ought to be silent at this hour. He sat up finally, pulling on a robe and belting it before pulling himself awkwardly into the chair.

He left the room, taking the new elevator down and following the smell of something sweet baking. He expected a huddle of students, sneaking into the kitchen. He found a knot of nearly all of them clustered around a familiar tall figure wrapped in an apron and placidly spooning dough onto cookie sheets for Jean to float into the oven. Charles blinked, and blurted, "You bake?"

The children in the room froze, eyes turning toward him with varying degrees of guilt and Charles was struck once again by just how strange it was that he was considered the disciplinarian. Ororo had a slim, small hand firmly in the cookie dough bowl and surreptitiously pulled it free, sucking at her fingers.

Erik turned, metal spoon still stirring, and shrugged placidly. "I wanted cookies. No one could sleep."

"I had no idea you could bake. Or can you? Should I have the fire patrol on alert, just in case?" A strong gust of wind and the sprinkle of a few raindrops drifted over him and Charles bit back a smile. "Yes, I know you could put a fire, Ororo, but I'd rather the professionals handle it," he said.

Erik wiped his hands on the apron and lifted one of the smaller children down from the counter, ignoring when the boy went invisible in the middle. "Jean, Storm, why don't you take the others out to watch television in the living room. I'll bring the cookies when they're finished," he said.

The girls left, a little cloud of mist surrounding Jeffrey who refused, once again, to be visible. Ororo shuffled the shrouded little figure out of the room, Jean following. "Where is-"

"Out. Havok and Mystique took Hank out for his birthday," Erik answered. He shot Charles a look and a smile. "They're being careful," he added, tone a mocking mimicry of Charles, who said the phrase enough that it was likely meaningless.

"Very cute," Charles said, and he pushed himself beside Erik, reaching for the dough to scoop some out. "This is rather good."

"It would be even better if it were cooked," Erik took the bowl out of reach, finishing spooning out the rest of the cookies before giving it back, along with a spoon. Erik had always been fastidious about his hands. Charles used his fingers just to irritate him. All he got in response was a roll of Erik's eyes and a pointed sigh.

Charles smiled and spoke between sucking on his fingers, watching for the exact moment Erik stopped being annoyed at him for using his fingers like a barbarian, and started to be interested in the way Charles was licking at them. It took a moment longer than he would have liked, but it was there. "You're good with them. The children. I wouldn't have expected that."

Erik shrugged. "Children are simple."

"You would have been a good father," Charles said, and stops cold at the way Erik's eyes slide away from him.

Erik read the realization in Charles' face and shrugged again. "I was young, and my life wasn't conducive to children. Their mother took them home." Charles said nothing, and Erik spoke again after a moment. "Twins. A boy and a girl. I never met them. She sent pictures to her grandmother. I stole the mail."

Charles was caught between a laugh and incredulity. "There's so much I know about you, and still so many things I've never seen."

"People aren't meant to know everything about one another," Erik said.

It was a strange statement, coming from Erik, who never wanted to be normal, or average. The sheer act of blending in chafed at him, and Charles felt it every time they left this place to face a world where it was safer to be in hiding. "You're not just people." He pushed the bowl back onto the counter. "I wouldn't judge. If you told me. If you let me see these things. I've seen the worst of it already."

"There are some things that have to be mine to tell, or to give away, Charles. You can see everything, even the things I've forgotten, if you want to. That doesn't mean that it's what I want from you." Erik's voice was low and tired and Charles felt strangely guilty for asking. "Sometimes, I want to forget, and it's easier to do that when I'm the only one who knows what's being forgotten."

"And if you ever want to remember?" Charles said.

Erik slid to his knees beside Charles and cupped the back of his neck, forehead pressing against his. Charles couldn't help but still be caught between craving these moments of contact and hating that Erik had to bend to give them to him. "If I ever do, then I'll ask you to look for me, and help me."

He never would, and Charles knew it as well as Erik did. But it felt like a promise and he let it be a lie that lulled him, instead of pushing him away. He snuck a kiss that tasted of cookie dough, and he smiled. "You've been eating it too. "Hypocrite," he accused. Erik laughed and Charles fisted a hand in his hair and tugged gently once. "I'm buying you a chef's hat for Christmas. One of the tall ones. It will STILL be less ridiculous than your helmet."

"I won't wear it," Erik warned. But Charles knew he would.

********

Erik's room had never held much of him in it, but now it was bare. The furniture stripped down to the antiques his mother had picked out, years and years before. His whole word compacted down into the suitcases on the bed. Charles' chair barely fit through the doorway, one of dozens he hadn't gotten around to having widened yet. He'd never wanted to come in here. Charles had always wanted Erik to come to him, stay with him, be with him. It seemed presumptuous, in retrospect.

He crossed the room, levered himself onto the bed which was just a little too high to make it easy. He could remember every time he'd been here. There weren't many times to remember. He felt Erik's presence before he heard him, and he shut his eyes as Erik's weight settled into the bed beside him, arm dropping over his chest and body stretching out alongside him. Charles felt every point of contact up to the place where feeling stopped, and he could just see the leg alongside his, and not feel it. "I'll miss you," Erik said. Charles wondered if it was true, or just for his benefit.

"Do you wonder what would have happened on the beach? If I hadn't stopped you. If you'd killed those people, where would we be now?" Charles wondered.

"At war," Erik said. His hand moved over Charles' stomach slowly, pressing over the spot where the bullet had ricocheted into his back. The touch seemed to burn through his skin to his back where an old wound had long since healed and never ached, but had changed everything nonetheless. "But we would have been on the same side of it. There wouldn't have been a choice to be made."

"And that would have been better?"

"There will be war anyway, Charles. I would have rather had you by my side throughout it."

"And now you'll have Raven, instead," Charles said, and he hated how petty it sounded. Hated even more when he couldn't keep from adding. "The list of things you've taken from me is growing, isn't it? I wonder if this is where it ends."

Erik's hand stilled, and then slid away, and he sat up. Charles shut his eyes and reached into his mind, speaking silently. ((I'm sorry. I didn't mean it.))

"You did," Erik answered. "You should." He stood and gathered up his bags.

Charles couldn't say it aloud. It wasn't fair, and it was useless. They were at a crossroads, and their paths lay in different directions. But he still said it, silently and more a challenge than a plea. ((Stay.)))

Erik didn't look back. "I'm sorry. Goodbye, old friend."

Friend. The word echoed in Charles head long after Erik left and he started to laugh, mirthless and almost silent. That's what they were now. Friends. He wasn't sure they'd ever even started that way.
~~