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(199)
Charles accepts the blanket that an anxious Moira drapes around his shoulders, but Erik dismisses her with a curt shake of his head. His eyes are sharp as knives as he gazes wordlessly around the boat deck, examining all their curious faces. No one seems to know what to make of this newcomer, this silent weapon.

Charles knows he has much to explain; his CIA friend is hurrying up to him, eyes wide with questions, but Charles finds himself sending them all away with a hand to his temple. For some reason he longs to be alone with him; he is still breathing hard from the swim and his panic, and the enraged lament he'd heard inside Erik still echoes inside his head, but there is a crackling excitement buzzing within him as well. He has never come across another one like him, so powerful and yet so wild; he's sure he'd only seen a fraction of what Erik can do. The thunderbolt of it seems to set him alight, humming and bright and alive.

Charles sinks onto the bench running along the edge of the deck and pulls the blanket tight around him, but Erik just stands, eyes still moving restlessly, apparently unaware that he is shivering. Charles catches his gaze and beckons him with a tilt of his head. "Do you want to--sit for a moment?"

 

(30)
The destruction of the CIA base had been a blow, a sharp stinging jolt of reality in the midst of their excitement, but after a few weeks Charles finds that he is glad to be in the mansion once again. He would never have guessed he'd be glad to be back in that forbidding museum that had rarely felt much like a home, but somehow, it feels like the right place for all of them. The idea he's had for ages now, the secret fire he's been fanning in the back of his mind ever since he started his studies, of opening a school for people like them feels as though it is coming into sharper focus, bright and clear and possible.

The only real loss is Cerebro; oddly, it feels as though a friend has departed. Hank promises he'll rebuild, better than ever, and Charles hopes he does; there was something about it that he had loved, reaching his mind out and finding them, like fireflies blossoming out of the dark. They're too busy now to travel around tracking them down anyway, but he would have liked to find them anyway. Every time he found another one it was like a hand light on their shoulder, a whisper in an ear: no, not alone. There's a place for you after all.

Raven comes to him one day as he sits in his study, poring over a book. She is still dressed in her apron and her eyes are shining. "Charles," she says, her voice soft with excitement. "I think I found another one."

He looks up from Huysmans. "Another—what?"

She rolls her eyes. "What do you think? Another mutant. I’m sure of it. She comes in all the time and we’ve been talking…it's taken forever, but I'm sure now." She sits on the couch beside him, hands wrapped around her knees. “I think she could be pretty powerful. I think she could help us."

"Well, did you tell her about us? What we’re doing here and everything?"

"Kind of. It’s hard to get into it in the middle of the café, but I think she’s interested—you’ve got to come and talk to her."

"Me?"

"Yeah, I think you can convince her." She bites her lip, her face lit with eagerness. "I think she’s scared; I don’t think she’s ever met another one before. But I think you could help her, too. So will you come? She said she'll be in tomorrow."

"Well--of course. Yes, of course, I'll come." She beams. For a moment she is the little girl he found in his kitchen one night, nervous and excited and reaching out.

 

(29)
He goes to the café the next afternoon. Raven grins at him when he enters, hurrying out from behind the counter. "Hi," she says. "Over here. I’m really glad you came."

She sits at a corner table alone, auburn curls falling past her shoulders, her small hands timid against the table. As they approach Charles says "Irene?" and she turns her head towards him. He looks at her face--apprehensive, curious, shy--and realizes, in a moment like a bitten tongue, that she is blind. He glances at Raven, wondering why she didn't say, but Raven's smile isn't for him anymore as she pulls a chair over and sits beside the girl. "I can take a break for a few minutes. Irene, this is my brother Charles."

She half-stands just as Charles says "Please, don't get up." Her hand is weightless when he shakes it. He already knows that Raven was right and she is one of them; he can sense it, that invisible shimmer, that silent hum. But he doesn't look further; he likes for them to tell him themselves. They sit back down and he says "So, Raven's told you about our--school?" Despite everything, the word doesn't come easily just yet, it's still a half-formed dream cloud. And there's still everything else they must do first; he doesn't like to admit that when he says student these days, he also means soldier.

"Yes, and it sounds wonderful, but I'm not sure I can...my parents, you see, they don't quite understand about...everything." Charles hears the soft notes of Europe in her voice and realizes he's smiling; she sounds a bit like Erik. He leans forward.

"Well, can you tell me a bit about your abilities?" She begins to respond, but Raven lays a finger on her wrist, her expression playful.

"Wait, Charles, don't you want to order first?" she says, nodding encouragingly. Across from him, Irene gives a slight frown of concentration. Charles glances over his shoulder at the chalkboard menu on the wall.

"All right, I'll have the--"

"They're out of cherry," Irene interrupts him. "But you'll like the blueberry, although he'll be mad you got the last piece." She points at the door without turning her head and a man enters a few jingling seconds later, hungry eyes already on the pastry case. Charles turns slowly in his seat to look at Irene again, smiling. Beside her, Raven glows with her eyes on the girl's face again, and she leaps up and heads behind the counter again before the other waitress gets there first.

"Did you read my mind?" Charles asks, but then before she can reply, "No, that's not it, because you knew how that other chap was going to feel as well. You're precognitive, aren't you." Her cheeks bloom faint roses and she bites back something like a smile. "That's marvelous. Truly. How does it work for you?"

"I only know things for sure right before they happens. Small things," she says as Raven comes back to her seat, sliding a plate in front of Charles with a wink. "Before that it's...vague, just faint ideas and feelings, really."

"But later? Can you--" He stops before the word, unsure. "--see precisely what's going to happen?" He can't help but think: we can use her. She could save us. She could save everything.

"With little things, yes. As it gets closer then it's pictures and details. But the bigger it is, the less I can see. Usually it only makes sense after the fact. And there's so much of it; most of the time I can't understand. It's..." Her hand drifts to her head, and Charles comprehends; he too knows the overwhelming crush of having that in his head which wasn't his own, floods and floods of unasked-for knowledge, a frenzied babble narrating the invisible parts of the world.

"So it's not only matters pertaining to yourself?" Charles asks. "Or to people close to you?"

"Close..." She repeats the word like she wants to hear all the sounds of it, every chord. She shakes her head with small motions, and she nearly laughs. "It depends what you mean."

"Physically close," he clarifies. He glances around the room. "In here? Are you seeing for everyone in here right now?"

"Just little things, faintly. Like with that man--" she points to him again, although he has moved to a table on the far side of the room "--but only because it was right about to happen. And because it pertained to you. It's..." Her hand drifts to her heart. "The longer I'm near them, the louder and clearer it gets, but it still doesn't make sense. I see people I've never met, places I've never been. I hear languages I don't know. I--" Her fingers close convulsively in her hair. "And some things--I don't know if I should do anything about them or not. Stop them from happening, I mean." Her head jerks up. "Raven, that girl--"

Too late. The glass smashes to the floor several tables away and the young woman's hand leaps to her mouth, failing to hide a blurted oath. Raven just smiles as another waitress hurries over. "It's OK," she tells Irene. "It doesn't matter."

She sighs, and turns her wrists against the table, palms up, as if to say you see? "There's just so much of it," she repeats. "All the time, and it's getting stronger. I just wish I could--slow it down or process it all somehow. I don't know."

"I'd like to help you, if I can," Charles tells her. The fork is in his hand, but he's forgotten that hunger in place of a better one. "I think perhaps if we examine the specifics of your abilities further, we might find a way to make them more manageable." Her eyebrows raise, and he can see rays of hope edging their way onto her face. He pauses, not wanting to ask but knowing he must. "Pardon me, but--may I ask when...you lost your sight?"

She frowns very slightly, as though she'd dropped the memory somewhere behind her and hadn't before realized it was missing. "Oh," she says. "Um...it started when I was thirteen, I suppose. The same time that everything else started, the flashes and everything. It's been gone about a year now."

He thought there might be a connection--he's read his Sophocles, of course, and he's long assumed that those that history calls wizard, seer, perhaps even god were in fact simply their predecessors. But his thoughts slow and tangle in the sound of her voice, the blunt shrug in her words, the lack of weight to her loss. He's seen it before, mutants whose gifts demanded a price; he half-glances at Raven as he thinks it. Perhaps this is why they'd found each other, she and the girl. He can't imagine it, having such a piece of himself cut away. But she barely seems to notice; it's what came in its place that consumes her.

He clears his throat. "And you said your parents..."

She moves a shoulder in a helpless gesture. "They took me to every specialist they could find, all over the world, but none of them could figure it out. They thought it might be seizures, a tumor, something...but they think they're just headaches. I haven't told them about everything else." She pauses, as though worried this sounds foolish. "I don't know how."

"I understand." How well he does. He can hear beyond her words, in the echoes of empty rooms in a big house, the hollow ringing sound of wealth and cold distance between people. He grew up in the same home, in another wing, alone between the wide walls covered with things he wasn't allowed to touch. "Might I perhaps be able to talk to them? If I explained that I--we--have some experience in this area and can certainly help you--"

She's shaking her head again. "No, no, you can't tell them," she says. "They won't understand. Even from you, they'll just think...they won't believe it. They'll just think I'm crazy." There it is, that word that he hears from so many of them, second only to alone. He knows what Erik would say if he were there: That's what they call everything that's too hard for them to comprehend. That way they can pretend it doesn't matter.

Raven leans forward, worry pressing lines into her face. "They don't have to get it," she tells her pleadingly. Charles can tell she's said this to her before. "It wouldn't be for them, it'd be for you. Who cares what they think?" Her fingers are nearly to Irene's wrist on the table before her hands fall into her lap. Charles watches her clouded expression: she talks like a child with parents who have always been just one step out of reach; Raven talks like a child with no parents. He's been both and he understands.

"Could you perhaps just visit?" he presses. "Just for a day, just to see what we do. You wouldn't have to tell them anything, and you could leave whenever you liked. I think it might help you to meet the others."

"I can't." Her words are only air, escaping as though trapped. "I don't..." She can't pull them out. "Even if they didn't find out, I...when I know people, when I'm close to them, then I see for them. That's when it's too much, because it makes more sense...I know too much that way."

She drops her head. Charles puts the two faces of the coin together: she's afraid of being alone, and yet it is the only way she is safe. It's the only way to quieten the storm inside her head; to hide herself away and escape to silent open sea by herself. That's why she comes here, to this small and quiet place where she can sit and just exist, allowed to remain a stranger. Joining them, their team, their home, it would mean taking all of their lives into herself, eight new cacophonies (and then more, someday) blaring in her head. A violent invasion hidden behind a veil of safety. He knows he can't pull her back to shore just now, and Raven's face is telling him that she already knows the same.

A voice summons Raven from across the room, and she glances over, her expression still knotted with concern. She rolls her eyes as the other waitress beckons her over. "Sorry, I have to go help with this," she says. Her hand finds Irene's arm this time, her touch light. "Please just think about it, OK? He can help. We all can." Irene nods at her and tries to force a smile, but Charles sees a gathering, the arrival of a new darkness in her expression.

"Are you all right?" he asks as Raven hurries away. She nods again, faintly, but he can tell she is somewhere else, seeing something she doesn't need to see, drifting away despite clinging on hard. He remembers that feeling, too. He makes one last bid. "I understand why you're afraid, believe me, but I really do think we can help you. I've done quite a lot of research on different kinds of abilities, and--well, I don't know what Raven told you, but I believe that I can also use my abilities to help you unlock a way of controlling your visions, and..." He trails off; there is no need. He lets out a slow breath, disappointment settling on both shoulders. It's too much to ask of her just now. Then, gently, "Will you at least promise to let me know if you change your mind? Whenever you're ready, tell Raven and she'll bring you. You don't have to be scared anymore."

"Yes." She lifts her face, and the look there is so honest that for a moment he forgets and smiles at her. "I promise. Thank you."

He sits for another moment, fingers drumming lightly on the table, and then, because he can think of nothing else, slides his chair back and starts to stand. "I'll just tell Raven that--"

"Charleswait." It comes out in one word, like an unexpected bullet, and both hands jump from her lap as though to hold him there. He doesn't move. "Don't..."

"Irene? What is it?"

She chews her lip hard enough to call forth blood for a moment, and then says, her face burdened with heavy lines, "He's going to hurt you."

Charles doesn't move. A cold hand runs nails across the back of his neck, down his arms, over his chest. "I'm sorry?"

"I've just felt it. He's--" She swallows hard, as though unable to voice her sin, and forces the words out hard and tumbling. "Something's going to happen and he's going to hurt you, like nothing else ever has before."

He has to remind himself to breathe. He forces his voice into a professor's tone. "Who is?"

"The one who matters most." And yet somehow that part is easy, as though he could have no other name. "I don't know anything else. I'm so sorry, but--but I had to tell you. You have to know, it's terrible. It's--" Now she trembles and her hands seem even smaller, and she gives a soft gasp as though feeling it, right now, sharp and twisting through her. "You'll never feel the same after. Everything's going to change."

His chest feels tight, constricted by metal bands tightening on their own. He's glad she can't see his face. "When?"

She shrugs and shakes her head, convulsive, mismatched movements. "Soon," she says. "Not today, not tomorrow, but soon. I can't tell." She puts her forehead in both hands. "It's already coming. It's already in motion. If you're planning something--"

"I don't know what you mean," he says, laying one word on top of the next, a false calm pile. He knows there's no point to the lie, but he cannot allow it. "Are you sure it's for me?"

Misery seems to tear away at her, leaves stripping from a tree in a high wind. "Yes. I'm sorry," she repeats. "I can't...it's too big for me, but maybe you can stop it. Usually it doesn't work that way, I don't think, but--you can try. Is he near to you?" He doesn't even think to wonder how her hand finds him in one movement; she can surely feel the traitorous quaking of his forearm. "Can you stay away from him?"

His heart rises on a tide to his throat. He doesn't understand why the whole cafe, the whole street hasn't gone still and silent, frozen by her words. How can anything still be happening as she says this? He swallows hard. No, never. Never. "Irene, please listen." He pulls thorns from his voice and smooths it out. "Thank you for telling me this, truly, but you're mistaken. I know that you mean well, but you're misreading things this time. Please don't worry."

"They always say that," she murmurs, barely audible over the roaring in his ears. "I don't know any more, but you have to believe me, it's--"

"No." Now he stands, too fast; his arm slides from her grip and his head roils in protest. "You're wrong. You don't understand, he..." Nothing falls into the space. A tear lands on the table. Raven is suddenly at his elbow, looking between their faces with wide eyes.

"What happened? Are you leaving?"

"I--sorry. I'll see you at home, Raven." He moves for the door, then looks back. "Irene, please..." A thousand pleas blow through his mind, but all that comes out is "Don't."

She hangs her head, and he knows that to her, it is the cruelest word there is, because it means nothing. It has no power against what has already been decided.

 

(28 ½)
Erik likes to watch Charles’ face when they’re together in bed. His eyes move hungrily over him, as do his hands, as if he can consume him entirely with both pairs. Tonight he lies on top, their stomachs brushing, their eyes locked. Erik holds himself up on one elbow, his forearm pinning Charles' wrist to the bed, and moves slowly, with deep, deliberate thrusts, their breath hot against each other’s throats. He studies his face and waits until Charles is close, until soft noises fight from within and out past his parted lips, and then he reaches down with his free hand into the heat between them and wraps his fingers around Charles' cock and strokes hard, once, twice, three times. Starlights burst before Charles' eyes and--he's not usually very loud, but tonight everything is racing red-hot and too much, and he cries out, an open, bright white sound. He shudders violently, a bone-deep trembling from his very center; he nearly always does this when he comes, as though he's drowning in ice instead of burning, burning out to nothing.

Erik covers Charles' mouth with his own, laughing a low rumble against his lips. "Easy, Charles," he murmurs. "You'll scare the children--ahh!" Suddenly he is all taut muscle, winding tight and tense as the metal he loves so much as he rears up over Charles with one final thrust. "God." He holds there for a moment and then relaxes, unraveling over Charles, his head coming to rest against his neck, still breathing hard and slow. Charles continues to quiver under his weight, nerves still singing their frantic songs, and when Erik grins his slow honey smile and moves, sliding out of him, Charles winds his arms under his and throws a leg over his calves, holding him there.

"What?" Erik lifts his head and looks at him. Charles kisses him deep and hard, pulling the breath from his mouth down into himself.

"Just stay," he says softly, their lips half an inch apart. "Just for a second." Erik's eyes brush gently over his face again, curiously, but he doesn't ask. It may be one of the things Charles likes most about him; he doesn't ask questions, he just finds answers. He settles back down with his head on Charles' chest, a hand over his heart as though he can calm its many parts with a touch, as he can with so many other ticking things, and Charles can feel his eyelashes against his skin and he thinks, this cannot break. His grip tightens and he takes him in with each sense, the faint sweat of his neck, his slowing breath, his crushing warm weight. She's wrong. We are too much of everything to fall apart, too real.

 

(22)
But he can't forget her words. The more he tries to send them away, the tighter they cling, knitting themselves into the fabric of his mind. He winds and unwinds and rewinds the reel of her message, looking for the way out, the blunted end. At first he cannot accept any part of it, cannot allow the idea that it means him, them, at all. They are still so new, still in the spring of their togetherness, and everything is bright colors and fresh life each day. How could their winter be approaching already?

For a time he allows himself another translation: the one who matters most could mean another, someone who matters to all of them. The shadow of Shaw's plans, if they are allowed to happen, will slither across the world and throw everyone and everything into darkness; perhaps he's being selfish to assume that it's only the light of himself and Erik that is in danger. Like nothing else ever has before--it fits; she saw the destruction of Shaw's new war and saw it through Charles because he too has seen more than he's meant to. But they can stop it, all of them together, and they will, and perhaps she will come to help them after all. For a time he lives inside this idea and pretends to ignore the idea that it is a comfort to him, that in a way he is nearly willing to sacrifice the entire world if it means keeping their flame glowing.

But soon his mind betrays him and turns can't be into could be into must be, and he starts looking ahead for other traps and pits and darkened corners where ruin might be hiding for them. What could break them? What could tear apart that which they've made together? There is no need to search for the worst thing; he already knows what that would be. Losing him would be the heaviest blow, the thing from which he could never get up again. But he can't forget her words: not you're going to lose him or you will be hurt because of him, but he's going to hurt you. He was going to; there was movement in the words, an action, a choice. She made it sound as though it isn't just going to happen to them, but it is something he will create.

He starts seeing cliff edges everywhere. He watches Erik's hands, moving over the chessboard between them in the evenings and sliding between Charles' own legs late at night and wonders where else they might fit, what secrets they might be holding. After another day or two he realizes that he is wondering, which one is it? Which one of them is stealing his gaze and his touch from Charles? It makes him feel ill to think of them so; they're his students, he shouldn't see them with those eyes. But his jealousy tastes like pennies and he can't stop himself from looking too hard and everywhere. He remembers Erik's eyes roving over Angel in the strip club; he sees his wicked grin as he sits beside Hank at dinner; he hears the laughter in his voice when he encourages Sean in the gym. Everything seems different now, everything has new hidden jagged edges that might cut him to pieces.

He can't help himself; he has to find out. "You and Alex seem to be getting on well," he says one night as they sit together in the library, reading the day's newspapers. He'd seen them on the grounds outside of his study earlier, sparring, laughing, talking. A hand on his shoulder, fingers against gray fabric somehow obscene. Almost too late Charles had realized he was tensing to run out and throw himself between them, claiming what is his, his, his.

Erik doesn't hear what's hidden under the words and just says "Hmm, yes. He's getting a lot better" without raising his eyes.

"He's...changing quite a lot overall." He treads lightly, testing the ice. "He seems to trust you a good deal."

Now he glances up, his eyes meeting Charles', his expression light. "I suppose he does. Just needed to be treated like a man, seems like. He's not had an easy time of it."

A thousand different meanings for this seem to fall on Charles like dust blown into his face. "I guess not," he says, forcing a casualness he does not feel. His heart pounds ten times before he asks "So...what did you talk about? Today. You seemed to have a rather long chat. I saw...rather, I noticed..."

Erik's eyes narrow slightly, although his mouth seems moments from a slow grin. He puts both elbows on the table. "Prison," he says matter-of-factly. "That's something we rather have in common, you know. In a sense. And he doesn't really have anyone else to tell, does he."

Charles blinks. "Oh. Right. No, I suppose not." He tries very hard not to think and what have you told him? and adds "Well, good of you to...listen, then."

Erik flicks a page of the newspaper in front of him with idle fingers. "I know how it is to feel like the only one, and he's said he didn't think he'd meet anyone here who'd understand, so I try to make myself useful. I thought you'd approve, Professor." He half raises his head again with a sly look. Charles feels both a swell of affection for him and a puncturing stab of suspicion.

"Certainly, I do. We want them all to feel at home here." The words taste like cotton wool, thick and meaningless. He can't stop himself: "Sounds like someone's got a bit of a crush on teacher, doesn't it."

Erik lounges back in his chair, watching him, and now that grin he knows so well is fully in place and--is he laughing? He pushes on the table with both hands and slides back, standing and moving lazily around to Charles' side. "You sound a bit jealous," he says, his voice a murmuring purr like a hand pressing against Charles' groin. He comes around behind him and leans both arms on the top of the chair, bending down towards him. "Are you worried about me and little Alex? He's a pretty thing, isn't he? Strapping all-American boy with that nice blond hair..."

"Stop it." Erik's breath is on the back of his neck and he thinks it's a joke, he doesn't know that every word is cutting into him with deep strokes, salty and stinging. Erik slides both hands over the back of the chair and down onto Charles' shoulders. He leans closer, his mouth close to Charles' ear now.

"I think I've made it clear that I want you," he murmurs, and the soft growl in his voice makes Charles shiver. "Or shall I prove it to you yet again?" Charles tries to turn to look at him, but his hands are kneading against his chest now and he can't move.

"I didn't mean it like that," he protests, digging around inside himself for a careless laugh. "I'm just trying to...I should know what's going on, shouldn't I, and who's...getting along."

"Is that right?" Now he's chuckling, dragging fingers against Charles' ribs through his shirt. "Well, you're not doing a very good job of it, then, are you."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning that if you were paying any attention at all, Professor, I think you'd see that little Alex only has eyes for our Armando." Now back up, across his collarbone, under the opening of his shirt.

"What? He told you--?"

"He didn't have to. I could tell. He looks at him like I look at you, you haven't noticed?"

Charles' breath quickens and he feels himself hardening, but he can't, not yet, he can't let it go until he knows for sure. "Erik, I--"

Erik's hand slides under his chin and tilts his face up and back, and his mouth is on Charles' again and Charles is giving in and giving over and he can't remember why anything else matters. But after a moment he breaks off, his eyes going to the door of the library, which stands half-open. "Not here," he breathes, still tasting him on his lips. "Someone could walk in."

"So? Let them." Erik sits on the table, the newspapers forgotten, hanging a leg on either side of Charles' seat. "You're far too paranoid, you know." He grins and flicks his hand, and the chair moves in closer to him. Charles' hands are on his thighs before he's decided to put them there. "We've nothing to hide."

"But--" There are reasons, there are logical excuses and hanging questions, but Erik's eyes are blazing with hunger now and Charles is pulled in on his current, dragged closer and he doesn't try to stop it. He likes the rough desiring taste of his second kiss, and Charles lets himself fall, as he always does. He can never resist him, can't stop his reaching fingers, his searching tongue.

"I think I like that you're jealous," Erik says as he unbuttons Charles' shirt.

 

(94)
He never has cared. For all the things he refuses to say and the locked places inside himself, what they have made between them has always been easy for him. The words are always ready inside his mouth; his hands are always bold and sure when he reaches for Charles. Charles knew he wanted him from the first moment, from practically before they even spoke, but it took him longer to track down all the words. For Erik it has always been simple, his desires and his deeds live so closely together. No questions, just answers.

They don't discuss it much, once it starts. They talk about everything else under the sun, it seems, but that which is blooming between them seems to be beyond speech, too complex for a description and yet too simple, too natural to need one. And neither of them bring up the matter of telling the others, but Charles soon realizes that they stand in different lights on this. Erik doesn't outright say it to them--he so rarely says what he is not asked--but he makes no effort to hide it at all. For him, it seems, it is simply another true thing, another fact living with them that requires no comment, because its existence speaks for itself. It wasn't, and now it is.

Charles, however, stays half in shadow; he hangs still somewhere in between teacher and neighbor, friend and authority, and doesn't know where the lines are drawn. And he isn't quite sure what he would tell them--he knows what he could say, the simple clean fact of it, but he doesn't know what else they would hear, what bigger, older truths would trail quietly alongside his words. He still doesn't quite know in which terms he himself wants to dwell. And then, of course, there's Raven, and she is different.

But Erik has never cared. One morning after it had started he strolled into the kitchen wearing only his gray sweatpants and running a hand through his unruly hair. Charles, ever an early riser, was making breakfast alone with the radio on, and he smiled at Erik as he entered, reaching over and handing him a mug of coffee.

"Thanks." As he reached around Charles for the sugar, he rested a hand against his hip and pressed his mouth to the side of his neck, and Charles turned into him and for a minute the room was quiet except for the crackling pan and the soft music: shall I stay? Would it be a sin?

Charles broke away after a few moments. "Erik, not here," he said, though his grin betrayed him. Erik pushed his shirt up an inch or two and traced the exposed skin with a thumb.

"Why not? It's your home, you know."

"Our home now," he corrected, giving his arm a brief squeeze and turning back to the stove. "And it's a school now, or it's going to be. We've got to comport ourselves a bit more professionally, haven't we?"

Erik snorted as he moved towards the table and dropped into a chair. "This is hardly a normal place, Charles. Or do most schools boast fireproof bunkers and occasional flying lessons?"

"Perhaps not, but still. We're their teachers, aren't we? It's hardly appropriate for them to know...our private matters."

"I wasn't suggesting we write it on a cake," he replied dryly. The sugar spoon floated towards him and began stirring itself into the cup. "But I don't see what difference it makes. What would it change?"

"It's not that. Nothing, really. It's just--it isn't their business, that's all." He turned to the refrigerator, and Erik opened the door for him from his seat at the table. Charles couldn't resist a smile.

"I thought this was a democracy. Equality and respect and...all that stuff you're always on about." Erik raised a mischievous eyebrow.

"It is, but that hardly means they ought to walk in on us in the bloody kitchen," he replied, torn between exasperation and amusement. "Equality, yes, but we've got to have a bit of authority, and it's not going to work if we're acting like a couple of--of--"

"Teenagers?" he suggested, and Charles let out a wry chuckle, reaching for the toast.

"Precisely. We've got to have a bit of order around here."

"Maybe so, but I just don't see why you care so much about that bit of it. They're going to find out anyway, eventually." Charles set two plates down and sat beside him.

"Are they?"

"I would say so, yes. Isn't it your intention to fill this place up to bursting with eager little mutant babies?"

Charles nearly choked on a mouthful of eggs as he started to laugh. "That's not what I'm putting on the brochure, but yes, it is."

"Well, really, you don't think someone's bound to catch on? Especially if you find another one as talented as you." He mimicked Charles' trademark movement with his hand with a teasing grin. "I don't think this is much of a place for secrets. Even the really dim ones ought to figure it out after a few decades or so. Two confirmed old bachelors, or whatever the phrase is--they'll only buy that 'married to your work' line for so long."

Charles looked at him for a moment, and something like melted light, like gold turned liquid, seemed to be spreading from his center throughout him, through his veins, chest and arms and legs, lungs and heart, warming him all over. "'After a few decades'?" he repeated, a broad smile slowly brightening his face.

Erik blinked a few times, and the hand holding the fork slowed on its descent to his plate and Charles knew he hadn't quite realized what he'd said. Then he chuckled and said "I suppose so, yes. Unless you're planning on chucking me sometime soon."

"Hmm..." Charles tilted his head, pretending to consider. "Hadn't thought about it, really." Then, "Are you blushing?"

"Oh, shut up, Charles."

"I think you might just be. Well, I can't promise anything; what if I find someone more impressive than a master of magnetism? Perhaps someone who controls...wood, maybe. That would be useful."

"You're hilarious, you are. I hope 'comedy lessons' will be on the syllabus as well."

"Or some sort of master chef. Not that your banquet of cheese sandwiches the other night weren't world-class, but..."

"Says the man who's too busy cracking wise to notice his breakfast is burning." He quirked his wrist and the knob on the stove suddenly turned itself sharply to the right, the flame shooting up. Charles jumped from his chair with a yelp, but the pan leapt away as he reached for it, and behind him Erik began to laugh.

"Damn it, Erik," he tried to protest, but in a moment Erik was up and pouncing from behind, both arms around him, his unshaven cheek brushing Charles'.

"D'you need a hand? It looks like you do." Charles grabbed for the spatula in an attempt to salvage the burning food, but Erik twitched a finger and it skittered just out of reach. "Whoops. My God, but you're clumsy."

"Bastard. Oh, no, don't!" He wriggled against him, pretending to resist for a moment, but both hands were suddenly curved around Erik's forearm across his chest, feeling the warmth of Erik's bare chest against his back, his face aching as laughter overtook him. "You're a menace."

"And you'd be lost without me. Admit it."

"Never." Charles pressed against him, tilting his head back to look into his face. "Not on your life."

A sound made them both look around at the doorway. Sean shuffled into view in his shorts and a t-shirt, blinking placidly at the pair of them and scratching vaguely at his stomach. Charles stood up straight at the sight of him, although Erik didn't release him. After a beat, Charles said, in as dignified a tone as he could manage under the circumstances, "Good morning, Sean. Er, did you want something?"

Sean stood there for a moment, looking semi-conscious and utterly unconcerned, as ever. "I smelled bacon," he mumbled, ambling into the room and reaching for a plate. Erik began to snicker, the sound soft against Charles' ear.

"You were right. What an utter calamity," he murmured, helping himself to a piece of toast as Sean slid into a seat at the table.

 

(15)
And for a few more days, Charles allows himself to believe him. He hovers outside of his fear, wearing the scent of Erik on his skin and forcing his mind onto other things, bigger things; every day brings more dire news still from the outside. They all seem to be aware that something is coming; the very air inside the mansion seems to be quickening, tensing for the sprint. He tries to prepare them, tries to be the leader he has promised to be, and every day pretends that they are all in it together. He tells himself that he is masking his terror for them, always for them, and that he knows no more than they do. He pretends not to know that somewhere there is an hourglass inscribed with his name only, and that it is running out in the shadow of something bigger than themselves.

But after a time, he has to open another door and look down the passage he dreads so much: one morning Erik and Raven enter the kitchen together (together) from outside, flushed and panting from their run (and what else) and Charles watches them and finally lets himself think it. It could be her. Perhaps he misses women, perhaps he wants round curves and soft hands and the ripe pink taste of her. Charles knows there were others before him, though Erik has never told him those stories; he has never asked. Perhaps he likes those yellow eyes on his face, the hushing scrape of scales on skin. The pictures of them together slip into his mind like foul smoke under a door and he can't breathe when he thinks of it. He can see his mouth crushing against hers and her fingers splayed on his back and hates himself for it.

In the evening he walks down the hall and meets her coming out of her room. He looks at her: high boots, short skirt, long hair. "Oh. Hi." She slings her bag over her shoulder. "What's happening?"

"Hi." Was she wearing that at dinner earlier? "Are you going out?"

"Yeah. Just for a bit." She opens her bag, searches inside, finds nothing, looks back at him. She can't seem to keep still. "Just--some friends from work."

"Oh." It takes him a moment to realize that the light scent of violets is coming from her neck. Then, quizzically, "Weren't you just there for the afternoon shift?"

"Well, yeah." She goes to put her hands in her pockets and finds she has none. "I just had to come back and get some stuff. We're just getting a drink or something, I think, so..."

"'We'?" He looks around instinctively for Angel, perhaps, or one of the others, but no one appears.

"You know, work people. I might be late, actually, so don't wait up, OK?" She shifts her weight back and forth and looks at him expectantly, as though she wants him to leave first. There is something furtive in her face, some fragile excitement shimmering around her that he can't quite place at first. It takes another moment for him to notice; as she bites her lip he recognizes the sensation, remembers the feeling of the first time he'd really seen him, when they'd talked on the boat and his eyes were like chips of green glass as he shivered in his black wetsuit...

"Raven, do you have a date?" he asks, somewhat aware that a grin is pulling at his mouth. She flushes and rolls her eyes at him.

"None of your business."

Absurdly, he feels a warm ripple of something like relief settling over him. But they could still... "Oh, go on, tell me, who is it?" He reaches out and tugs at a blond curl, and she swats him away.

"You ask too many questions, Professor. And don't you dare," she exclaims, seeing his hand drifting playfully to the side of his head. "You said you wouldn't."

"And I won't," he assures her. "But come on, you're really not going to tell me anything?" At this, she rolls her eyes again and heads off down the hallway.

"Good night, Charles." She waves a hand over her shoulder, and he watches her go with a lingering smile. The tightness in his chest seems to have eased by a few degrees (it can't be her, it never was) and yet somehow it's also worse, because he thinks: what other secrets are living here? There is more under their roof than even he knows, it seems, and yet for the first time he's afraid to search it out. All his life he's been a seeker, an eager finder of hidden things, and for the first time he wants to shut his eyes and his ears and his mind to all of it and not know a thing.

 

(6)
Soon his mind refuses to stop turning even at night and he can't sleep. He claims that it's their worries and plans about Shaw that are painting shadows under his eyes and dragging down his bones, but it's more than that. He knows the two things are linked, somehow, and fear clangs loud bells inside his head. He feels a breathless desperation that he can't entirely name, unsure if he's chasing or being chased. He lies beside Erik at night and wonders if his mind is refusing to turn off because their time together is running out, and he shouldn't be wasting it on something as meaningless as sleep. He wonders if he has been wrong and it's not any of them, it's not anyone except Erik himself. Perhaps nothing will take him, but he will steal himself away. Perhaps he is counting down in his head too, until the minute his hunger for him runs out and he has nothing more to give or take from Charles. Perhaps he simply won't want him anymore.

Erik sleeps, more deeply tonight than in several weeks, it seems. It's no surprise that he's worn out: he and the kids had spent most of the day in training, and when Charles had spotted him emerging from the gym in the evening, tousled-haired with a dark V of sweat on his clinging t-shirt, he'd felt a consuming surge of desire for him, stronger even than usual. This time it is bitterly flavored with panic; there is a mutter of hurry, hurry, now, quick in his ear at all times now. He'd slipped into the bathroom while Erik showered, shedding clothes onto the tiled floor. Erik peeked around the curtain with a grin. "Well, isn't this a pleasant surprise."

Charles said nothing, but climbed in with him and kissed him hard, biting his lip. He felt the eager answering press of his mouth and the curve of his hand around the back of his neck--he was always ready, always wanted him. It couldn't just vanish so easily, could it? Charles knelt on unforgiving white porcelain and held his hips with reverent hands, and prayed into nothingness with Erik in his mouth. Water hissed down over them both and spiraled steam out into the room, and Erik gripped his hair with a hand and groaned as Charles moved his tongue in slow circles and pleaded, either with Erik or with the future itself, that immovable, uncaring distant moon: please, please. It had come to begging now. Please don't let this break. Let us stay whole.

And after they had tumbled out, dripping and smothering laughter, hurrying out of the bathroom and across the hall to the bedroom, with Erik tossing a wild hand and slamming the door so hard behind them that the wall trembled. They hadn't even made it to the bed; they'd fucked against the low dresser with Charles pinning Erik down over the smooth wood, refusing him that gaze into his face that he liked so much and gripping the back of his neck as the mirror rattled with every thudding impact. He didn't care anymore if the others heard, or if they knew. Somehow begging became commanding: you won't leave me. You won't. I'll show you. Erik gasped out curses and words Charles didn't know, lying stretched out long and muscular with his cheek flat against the dark, cool surface, his wet hands leaving blunt marks on the wood as he clung to the edge with taut knuckles. Charles felt unchained and unlike himself; it was rough and possessive and he frightened himself a bit, and yet he enjoyed it, somehow, this fiery sense of taking what was his.

And Erik, always wanting, always ready, he had liked it too: when it was over and Charles had finished with his face pressed to the back of his neck, they'd slid to the ground in a tangle and Erik had unfurled, sprawled out flat on his back on the thick carpet, spent and panting and dazed. After a few minutes, he began to laugh. "And just what the fuck," he'd asked, reaching over and slapping Charles on the thigh, "has gotten into you?" Charles had just smiled, or something like it, and said nothing. No answers this time. Now Erik lies beside him, the sheet pulled halfway up his bare chest, and Charles tries to make their breath match, in and out, together, so that they sound like one, their lives running together like pieces of a clock.

 

(162-161)
In those first weeks he had the nightmares nearly every night, and several times Charles heard him awaken with a shout from far down the hall. The first night they had shared his bed, Charles had been frightened out of his wits in the early blue dawn as the springs beneath them bucked angrily and the bedside lamp, the alarm clock, and a dozen other things around the room rose into the air, as if sharing his terror and trying to escape. Once he looked over and saw him tossing and sweating, his harsh words caught in clenched teeth, Charles realized what was happening and he had sped into his mind again: Erik, it's all right. It's all right. Calm yourself. You're here.

And his eyes had flown open as he was ripped out of his memories, and everything had crashed back down and he'd looked at Charles with a broken boy's face. He looked around at the disheveled room and seemed to recognize the work of his own mind. "I..." He looked away from him. "Charles, I'm sorry."

"No." Charles shook his head and touched him with both hands. "You never have to apologize to me."

He'd moved to leave, but Charles stopped him, and after a time he lay back down, but he was still awake when Charles drifted off again. And the next day Erik had looked at him with uncertain eyes, but Charles had come to him again that night, undeterred, wanting him no matter what. He already knew what lived in his heart and his mind, and it changed nothing of his desire. Erik had paced the bedroom at first, as if afraid of what the bed and the night held for him, and Charles had moved beside him as he stood looking out the window, slipping an arm around his waist and leaning against his shoulder. "Nice try, but you won't scare me off that easily." Erik turned his head and smiled at him, and he had come to him the next night, and the next, and the next.

It happened less and less as their time together went on, but Charles still awakens sometimes to find him fitful and muttering, and the handles on the dresser drawers across the room rattling like spiteful bones. He eases him when he can, slipping into his dreams with a gentle touch, and always sees the same scene playing out inside there, hears the same words, nein and mama and bitte. After everything he's been through, everything with the war and with Shaw, that is still the heaviest anchor weighing him down, the thing from which he can never drift away. He bears many scars, but none of them are for her death, because it has never healed.

 

(6)
And it is because of this that he knows that there is only one door left, the one he's been avoiding all this time, the very last meaning: perhaps Erik will hurt him by leaving; not him, but everything. Perhaps--it is the obvious simplicity of it that makes it so terrifying--he is going to die. Charles knows he was wrong before: that would be the worst blow, the one that would shatter him beyond repair. To lose what they have between them would be nearly unbearable, but for him to no longer be, if he were stricken from the world entirely, that would be beyond everything. There would be no returning. And it fits: they are going after Shaw, soon, any day now, and it would change everything, as Irene had said. It was too big because it is the very biggest thing. Like nothing else ever has before.

Erik sleeps deeply tonight, and soon Charles can tell that he is dreaming again. He grunts quietly in his sleep and twitches, lying on his back, the arm bearing the inked story of his life thrown up on the pillow beside his head, his eyes moving rapidly under the lids as he stumbles into his past. Charles slides closer in, pressing against him, and lays an arm gently across his chest. And as though it too is a command, as though he can make it so by saying it aloud, whispers very quietly against his shoulder "We're going to survive this, Erik. You're going to live a long time. We're going to be old men together."

Erik sighs and does not wake, his face going still again, as if he's heard and is comforted. Charles holds on, as if fusing them together, bodies and everything else. You'll never feel the same after, she'd said. That must mean there would be an after. He wants to fix a string between them, somehow, bind them together, tying life to life. I live, you live. Nothing else matters.

 

(2)
Around three AM, Charles gives up trying to sleep and returns to the main study where the television, left on out of habit now, displays nothing but snow, mercifully silent of its dire warnings. The kids finally drifted out of the room and upstairs when the last news reel ended, oddly silent and communicating only in long looks, knowing what is coming. They know it is a matter of hours now, though Charles hasn't found the words to tell them yet. If he says it aloud to them, then it will be true for him as well. The truth of it seems to live in the house with them like a ghost now--in fact, he almost thinks he can sense another presence, another restless mind, a ceaselessly turning thing.

He stands in the dark room for a long minute, then switches off the set and heads through the long, quiet halls of the house, the silence pressing in on him. He used to find it soothing, especially before he learned to control the tumult inside his head, but now it feels deceptive, easing him into comfort when the axe is swaying inches above all of their necks now--and his most of all, in a way, because he doesn't know just how harsh the blow will be. He moves without sound through the house and hopes that they are all asleep, and yet hates how empty it feels already, here in this loneliest of hours.

As if in taunting response to these thoughts, a terrified cry rips the silence from somewhere down the hall, sending a jolt of fear through Charles' whole body. He runs without thinking, hurrying towards the sound, and nearly smashes headlong into Raven as she emerges from her room, a storm of panic on her face, tugging a nightshirt down over her stomach--a dark, flat plane. His heart is still rolling like a drum from the bolt of sound and it takes him an extra moment to register that the eyes wide upon his face are yellow; he's hardly seen her in her natural form since the others arrived.

"Charles," she blurts. "I was just coming to find--please, you have to help us."

"What is it? What's wrong?" The words are barely out of his mouth before she whirls and moves back into the room, pushing the door fully open. The room is lit only by a low lamp on the nightstand, and she is sitting up in bed, sheets ripped back, hair tumbling over hunched shoulders and weeping softly into splayed hands. It was not a ghost he'd felt.

"Irene?" Charles breathes, a second wave of shock nearly bowling him over. "What...what are you doing here?"

"It's coming," she sobs, as though she hasn't heard his question. "It's so strong now. It's so close. I felt--when I sleep it's worse, then I can't hold any of it off. God, why won't it stop?"

"Irenie, it's OK," Raven pleads, and Charles realizes there are tears sparkling in her eyes as well as she crosses to the bed and sits beside her. She takes one of Irene's hands in both of hers. "Whatever it is, we'll figure it out. You don't have to do this all by yourself." She brings her hand to her mouth and kisses her fingers, then looks up. "Charles, can't you do anything?"

And finally, finally, he understands. He watches as Irene leans her head against Raven's shoulder and Raven brushes the hair from her face, down which tears are still rolling. He hears the familiar caress in her voice and knows how it tastes in her mouth--it's OK. It's all right. You're here. He's missed another one, failed to see another quietly blossoming togetherness right under his nose. He's been so busy looking for darkened corners and trapdoors that he hasn't noticed the mirrors everywhere. Her private smile, the violets on her neck--now it makes sense. She no longer cares if he sees, either. This is why Irene feels this threat so strongly, why she sees so much for him and did so from the moment they met: because his danger is Raven's danger, and she is linked to her. There are more strings connected to his heart than he knew.

He steps closer. "May I sit?" he asks quietly, and Raven quickly moves to make room. He sinks onto the edge of the bed and faces Irene. He lays two fingers very gently on her knee. "Can you tell me what you saw?"

She shakes her head slowly; whether out of denial or misery he can't quite tell. "I still don't know all of it," she whispers. "But it's very soon now, it's so close." She suddenly grabs his wrist in a tight grip, her other hand still in Raven's. "He's going to hurt you--but we're all in danger, everyone, it's not just you now--"

"Irene, I'm going to tell you something." He holds tight to his voice, again making it professor-smooth and gentle, a clean white page, a polished desk. "You're right. I know you're right. We know about it. Everything that's happening, everything on the news--we know about all of it, and we're going to stop it. We know who's behind it, and we know how to find him."

She nods, but the pain doesn't leave her face. "Yes," she agrees. "You'll find him, the other one, but the fight won't be over then. Not for you." Her pale eyes seem to look right through him; he has to remind himself that the lies on his face are useless. "Not for any of us. It's only just starting. It won't be the war you think, it's the one he wants, but doesn't want. He'll make it happen, but he won't have what he truly needs--" She releases both of them and brings her hands to her head again. "I don't know. I don't know. It doesn't make sense."

"Who do you mean? Who won't have what he wants?"

She takes slow breaths, trying to unspool it all. "The one who matters most. The one you love. He's still going to hurt you, but...he doesn't want to. It's his hand, but it's not his choice. I can't explain it. Everything's opposites. Everything's going to change. And Charles, you'll never feel the same."

Raven's eyes are on Charles' face now, searching, trying to read him like a map in a lost place. He looks back, trying to say months' worth of explanation with his eyes. Then he swallows. He knows what has to be done, although he almost hates himself for it. "May I try to read your mind?" he asks Irene quietly. Raven opens her mouth silently, fear slicing across her face, but he determinedly keeps his gaze on Irene. She too looks frightened at the idea.

"I don't know what will happen. No one's ever...there's so much right now; I don't know what it'll do to you." He hears the tremor in her voice, knowing how it feels to be afraid of yourself, of your own treasonous mind.

"I understand. I'll be very careful. I won't look too deeply. But if I just take a glance, perhaps together we can sort it all out." She hesitates for another moment, and then nods. She takes Raven's hand again. Charles breathes in, slowly, and out, and lifts his hand to his head.

It's too much. Instantly he is assaulted with--images, yes, flashing by in a blur, and a persistent babble of a hundred voices, buzzing indistinctly--but it is the iron punch of thought, of knowledge and emotions that nearly undoes him. He's never felt anything like it; he's sensed others' feelings when inside their heads, surely, but that was only ever one mind at a time, one heart's worth of memories and feelings. When he used Cerebro and swept his mind out to search for them, it was still from a distance, a call across a long room. Now it's like his own mind has spawned more, a many-headed beast roaring in a space made for one, too heavy and too strong and too many.

He fights against it, like walking into a high wind, and tries to pull the relevant parts to the front, extract them from the clamor, and finds--a beach? It seems to be, with a brilliant blue sky, except the trees are lying flat on the bright sand, that can't be right--and there's a deafening creak of metal, and Shaw's face, yes, definitely, and a voice speaking fearfully in what sounds like Russian, and his own voice, and Erik's outstretched hand, and--

Death. Death, undeniably, unmistakably; he doesn't hear sonorous bells or see a rider in black, but he senses it, somehow, he feels the sense of theft, the inexorable crushing finality of it. He can tell nothing more, not who or how, but he knows it is for him and he knows that it is nearly there upon them. And he has barely had time to process this when suddenly there is pain, brutal and swiftly down on him, splitting him in two; first through his head, but then--no, it's cleaving him across the middle, and that terrible scream is the most familiar voice--

He rips himself out, tearing from her mind with a gasp that is half a yell. Everything comes back into focus, and Irene is crying again and Raven's hand is over her mouth as she watches them both and Charles is taking great gulps of air as though he has nearly just drowned (again), both hands hanging on to the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry, Irene," he says, once he finds his voice. "I shouldn't have...I didn't hurt you, did I?"

She shakes her head wordlessly. He should have known better; he can't speak the language of her mind and he understands even less than she does now, but he knows what he felt and foul-tasting dread is rising, rising in his throat like nausea, poisoning his very blood. He has to know. He has to. "Is he the one?" he asks her. "Is he the one who will die?" He forces his name into his mouth. "Erik. The...one who matters most. Please. Do you know?"

She is quiet for another moment, but her forehead creases and Charles knows she is searching through the wreckage of her mind for an answer. "He'll regret it," she finally says, so softly he has to lean in. "He'll always be sorry for what he did to you, for a long time after. So..."

At this, Charles lets out several days of breath and presses the back of his wrist hard to his mouth, unsure if he is holding back a sob or trying not to be ill. The phantom pain he'd felt inside her mind still wracks his head and body, but it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, he'd take it a thousandfold if he had to--Erik was going to live. He would hurt him, but would be there to be sorry. They both would. Sickening relief howls over him and his heart bangs like a broken shutter; faintly, he despises himself for it because someone is going to die, but at the moment he can't remember how to care about that. And hateful words are coming from his mouth before he can swallow them: "Thank God. Thank God."

Raven is still watching him with begging eyes, but Irene looks stricken, horrified. "No," she pleads. "No, you have to understand--you won't die, but--but part of you will." She holds out open hands, though she can offer nothing more. "You won't be able to feel the same, not ever--"

"It's all right," he tells her, and her face registers pure shock at the serenity in his voice. "Please don't worry anymore. I understand now. Everything will be all right."

"What do you mean?" She goes, if possible, paler still. "What are you going to do?"

What else? There is only one thing left, the simplest thing, the most beautiful; gentle Hope fluttering at the bottom of foolish Pandora's box. He realizes it now so clearly that he must wonder if he hasn't known all along. It is the one choice that can defeat anything, the most powerful and peaceful of weapons. "I'm going to forgive him," he says, more to himself than to either of them.

"Wh--" Irene's mouth falls open, but no words come. Raven looks ever more aghast. But Charles knows now that he would--will--forgive him anything, any blow, any destruction. It could have been any one of them, or every single one of them, or something far worse, and he would still want him back at the end. He would be sorry for it, she said--what could he do and then regret that Charles could not bear? What blight could destroy the strength of what they have? Nothing. Never. Not on your life. They would have their lives; that was enough. They can weather anything else. Nothing can part them that they do not allow.

"You said we're going to find him, didn't you? The other one, Shaw. We're going to stop him." Irene nods mutely. "That's all that matters, then, you see? Everything else can be mended. Now that I--now that we know, we can choose differently."

She hides her face again. "But it's already done," she whispers, in a voice weighed down with too many years. "You've already chosen, and so has he. You can't stop it now. It can't be fixed."

He doesn't believe her. He can't. He can't accept that there is any force greater than the belief hammering itself into him now. There can be nothing stronger than their want. He stands. "Please don't worry anymore. And try to rest," he tells her gently. "Shall I bring you some tea? I think we have some herbs that ought to help you sleep."

She just shrugs, helplessly, as though nothing he can say will matter. He turns to leave, and Raven moves. She pulls Irene close and kisses her, very softly, and says "I'll be right back, Irenie." She meets Charles' eyes as she slides off the bed, and when he goes into the hallway, she follows, closing the door behind her. They take only a few paces before she reaches for his arm and explanations are falling from her as though violently shaken loose.

"She didn't want to come, not really; she was afraid to and I didn't want to ask, but they were going to send her away." Her grip on his arm tightens as fear races through her. "With everything going on, everything on the news, she's been getting worse and they've noticed and--her parents, I mean--and she was saying things she shouldn't know and they were getting scared and they were going to send her away, some hospital or something. I couldn't let it happen, Charles, I just couldn't. I had to get her out of there." Her eyes, already bright, seem fractured by tears. "And I thought maybe if no one knew she was here, then it wouldn't be so bad, then she wouldn't feel everything so much for everyone, but it's getting so close and now it's all the time and she can't..."

Her voice breaks and disappears. Charles caresses her face with a hand. "Raven," he says gently. "Why didn't you tell me?"

She raises a heartbroken expression. There is no steel in her voice at all when she says "Why didn't you tell me?"

If Erik were standing beside them, Charles knows, he would have the answer, whether they truly wanted it or not. He always does. But Charles can think of nothing to say to her except "I'm sorry. I wish I'd..." But he doesn't know what. They look at each other for a moment from across a distance they hadn't known was there, until Raven drops her eyes and it breaks.

"She told me something, too," she says after a moment, haltingly, as if every word requires its own decision before it can release itself. "About...what's going to happen, and everything. For me."

"What did she say?" And for a second, terror wraps a spiked tail around his throat as he spots the chasm of possibility inside what Irene had said--what if she is the one who--

"She said that things would change for me as well." She doesn't look back up at him; he thinks she is afraid to see how the words sound out loud. "Actually, she said...she said that I would change, and yet I'd stop changing. That after everything happens, I'll be who I've always been, but someone new at the same time." Charles says nothing, and she chances a look at his face. "I know it doesn't make sense, and I don't know what it means either, but that's all she knows. It's the best she can do." She waits, but he remains still. "What do you think...?"

"I don't know," he admits; he has lived in these unfamiliar words for weeks now. "But Raven, I have to believe we have choices. What she can do--I know it's terrible for her and I know no one could be expected to make sense of even half of it in her position, but...it's still a gift, in a way. We're not just slaves to fate; we have the right to take hold of our own lives, don't we? There are things we can't control, but if we have an idea ahead of time, then..."

The words taste so sweet and hopeful in his mouth, but they sour as he watches her face. Her brow furrows, and she shifts her weight awkwardly. "I don't know if it works like that," she tells him uncomfortably. "I mean...I don't know, and neither does she, really, but it seems like she just sees what's going to happen, doesn't it? Whatever we do between now and then, that's just...always what was going to be. You can't change it because you already have." She barely seems to notice herself as she lifts both hands to her head in frustration, and it makes Charles' breath catch: he does that too; sometimes he notices himself mirroring Erik's gestures. "I don't know all the rules of it."

"I don't think anyone does," he says, and the strength of his belief keeps him anchored and sure. "And I don't know exactly what's going to happen, but I know myself." He takes a breath. "And I know Erik. And I know...what we are. That's it."

He doesn't need to read her mind to know that she is thinking of herself and Irene, of what they are and what they mean, and knowing that they would fight against anything that threatened to tear them asunder. The merest hint of a smile flutters across her face for a moment at some private memory, and when she looks at Charles again he knows that there is a new sameness between them now, another thread strengthening that which holds them together. "I hope you're right," she says. "I really do."

Erik has rolled onto his side by the time Charles reenters the room. He closes the door as silently as he can and tries to slip under his arm without rousing him, but Erik stirs as Charles pulls the sheet over himself. "Where've you been?"

"Just needed a walk." He can't help but smile as Erik nods sleepily, having barely heard him; he feels as though he hasn't seen him properly for weeks now; the veil of his fear and suspicion has hung between them, obscuring his vision, rendering everything foggy and perilous. But his cold uncertainty is gone now and in its place seems to be a warming cloak of understanding; somehow the strength of his decision outweighs the fact of its necessity. "Just go back to sleep." He nestles against his chest and breathes him in, mind set and heart steeled. They will forge their own future together from metal and minds and their want. He wears his love like armor and he has no fear anymore, because they are too much of everything.

 

(0)
He has never known fear before today. He thought that he knew its sting and its acrid taste, but everything before now has only been a prelude to this.

He breathes in sand as he falls, and somehow the sound of Erik's panicked breath is louder than the explosions tearing the sky above them. Somehow the pain in his back seems to flicker when Erik falls beside him and finds him with both hands, but in that moment he knows it is all true and always was. He hears Erik's terrified mutter--"I'm so sorry"--and feels himself ripping from the inside out as Erik tries to undo it with desperate fingers, tearing the crime of it from his body, and he knows. It was never going to be any other way.

Erik likes to watch Charles' face when they're together and, looking up at him printed against the smoky sky, Charles can still see that same expression there, that mingled joy and hunger, that relief and recognition. It's still there, layered under the sorrow and fear, but Charles knows he will never look at him that way again. His words are gentle and his tone pleads and he can feel his regret in the curve of his hand around the back of his neck, but Charles knows that his forgiveness is useless now. It cannot mend what no longer fits together. Shaw's is not the only death on that beach.

"We want the same thing," he urges, his voice soft, but Charles knows that this is true and not true: they want each other, they always have, somehow, and always will, but need has grown quietly bigger and its shadow covers them both.

He feels light and life draining from him onto the hot sand and darkness threatens to steal him, but he fights it, wanting to drift here forever, to remain on this island in the fork of the river that is pulling them apart. He wants it all to stop; he'll give up everything else there is if he can just stay--but the future's gravity pushes down on them and snaps the final bonds, and the end comes anyway.

Neither of them say good-bye. Nearly every other word has passed between them in their time, but under the hot sun the simple phrase refuses to come. Before everything disappears Charles thinks, but it means nothing anyway, doesn't it.

 

(-1)
Raven is there beside him when he begins to emerge from the anesthesia. She wears a starched uniform and an unknown face, but he knows the feeling of her hand in his before he opens his eyes.

"Charles," she whispers. "I'm so, so sorry. About everything. I didn't think it would be like this."

He has volumes to tell her, scores of questions, but his tongue is weighted down with sleep and grief and so he tries to say everything in the pressure of his fingers on hers. I know. I know you tried. There was nothing to be done.

She leans down close and smooths his hair from his forehead."She says there's good ahead for you," she says softly. "With the school and everything. And...you'll see him again soon."

He doesn't want to hear about him. Speaking of him, thinking of him, remembering him will bring him into the room and he doesn't belong there, not there amid scoured white and sharp scents and small blinking red lights. He cannot be where Charles is broken.

He can feel the dreamless haze trying to reclaim him and knows he has little time, so he chooses the most important words he has for her and drags them out of himself: "Love her. Don't let go."

She kisses the back of his hand. When he awakens several hours later, she is gone.

 

(199)
After a moment's indecision, Erik sinks onto the seat beside Charles and stares at his empty hands for several long seconds. Then he says abruptly, "So your trick is getting into people's heads, then?"

"Telepathy, yes." Charles bites his lip. "I should say, I don't make a habit of intruding on others' minds without permission, but I sensed you out there, and I just...jumped." But into what, he adds silently.

Erik takes this in, and for a half-second Charles thinks he nearly smiles. "I suppose it's good you did." He hesitates, and Charles can almost hear the questions humming excitedly within him. "So there are lots of us, then?"

"A fair number," Charles tells him. "I've been studying the matter for some time now and--well, I don't have any definitive numbers yet, but there's evidence of a steady percentage of homo superior within the general population going back centuries. Er, people with gifts."

He looks up sharply. "'Gifts,'" he repeats, as though the word is a new taste. "I never thought of it that way. I always just thought something had...gone wrong in me."

Charles knows. He had felt it, all of his pain, his plans, his cold determination. He has never taken in another person so wholly before, never felt such a strong weight of a life all at once; there is something profoundly intimate about the sense of knowing him so well so suddenly. "No," he says softly. "It's not wrong at all. It's amazing, what you can do. You have tremendous power. It's--" He considers, and then voices the truth. "Beautiful."

Charles is used to being looked at as something new, but it is nearly always woven with apprehension, with distrust and every kind of fear. But Erik's eyes are bright with something else, something unrestrained and almost hungry. For once Charles feels pulled in rather than pushed away. "No one's ever called it that either," Erik says, and now Charles definitely sees the suggestion of a smile.

They hold each other's gaze for another moment, and then Erik shakes himself and looks around him, as if surprised to realize where they are. He peers out across black water. "Where are we going?" he asks.

"Back to Virginia. To CIA headquarters. We've been working on a plan to stop Shaw, actually." Erik raises his eyebrows at this. Charles has to ask: "Where were you going?"

He stares out at the sea, as though he can still see the submarine trailing away from them, and then looks back at his hands. "I don't know," he says. "Nowhere. I haven't anywhere to go, really."

Charles wonders if it is a side effect of Erik's powers that is making his own flesh tingle so; it's as though Charles has slipped inside the field that hums around him, where no one else has been allowed before. When Erik looks up, Charles smiles at him.

"Now you do."

 

- fin -