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A Better Story

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If he could steal another power, it would be hers.

*

One time when Charles was little — so young he needed Driver to give him a boost into the car — his mother took him shopping for Christmas presents. The city was bright with colored lights and every shop window glittered and sparkled. They by-passed the toy store and went to the bookshop, four stories of pristine, new books, and a basement full of shabby books that other people had read and loved and marked in the margins, that had messages in the front in writing that was too difficult for Charles to read and turned down corners on their favorite pages. As they left the store, Charles' eyes still big with the promise of so many books, they'd run into a family. The boy was Charles' age, and he had a floppy rabbit in his arms. The rabbit had long gray ears and the boy was stroking them like he couldn't help touching them. They were the softest rabbit ears Charles had ever seen.

"Mommy," he'd said, "can I have that rabbit?" and Charles never asked for things. His mother had looked at him the same way she did when he interrupted an important dinner party, or when he had a nightmare and wet the bed.

This is the first time since then that he's craved something that isn't his. He finds it hard to look her in the eye, even though he's the only one who can read minds and he knows his guilt isn't written on his forehead. But the tug is there, to reach out and take it from her, to stroke the power like soft rabbit ears.

To make everything right in the world.

*

She found them. It used to be the other way around, Erik and him out looking and persuading, late nights on the road when one for the road turned into two or three or more for the road and they ended up crashed out at the nearest motel, one too-small queen and the two of them laughing helplessly over nothing. But she came to them, stood on the doorstep one misty September morning, brown eyes nervous and blue ink-stained fingers twisting in front of her. Her nails were bitten and her curls tangled, but she was well-fed and her clothes were clean, just a little too big.

"I want to join your school," she said when Charles wheeled himself around the corner, crunching on the new fallen leaves, and saw her. No one had answered the door, and the bell was loud, so she wasn't as confident as the words suggested.

Charles tilted his head to one side. Nudged at her mind just a fraction, and found drawings. Hundreds of drawings, charcoal and ink and even bright bold crayons. Some tear-smudged. There were stories in the drawings, movement and emotion in even the crudest of her sketches.

"You're an artist," Charles said, and waited for her to finish the sentence for him. She didn't. Just nodded and bit her lip.

He pushed further into her mind and learned why she was there. "Welcome, Sittie Mae," he said, and the corner of her lips turned up into a watery approximation of a smile.

*

Alex switches the television off without asking, stomping past Charles. He doesn't say anything this time.

Sean isn't so silent. "Fucking Magneto," he says, narrowing his eyes and saying Magneto like he'd say pile of shit.

The news is never good.

*

Charles gives a lecture every year, at every university that will have him. The first two years he'd given it with pride, but this year it sticks in his throat.

"Compromise is not a dirty word. It is essential, between couples, in families, in our neighborhood, our country, across the world. We must be the better men, the better women, the better humans and the better mutants. And if we are the first to compromise, that is not weakness, not cowardice, not something shameful. We must show the way, be the brave ones and the strong ones. The ones open enough to embrace all of humanity. But we must not, we cannot compromise our morals. We must not become less than the very best people we can be," he says, and he thinks of the rabbit ears, he thinks of a simple sketch. He thinks of right and wrong and how they used to be so black and white when he was a child, and now he feels lost somewhere in the middle of a gray and confusing land.

*

He doesn't ask her. He'll never ask her.

She offers. Freely, one morning, when he's sitting outside making plans for the day, his own mental sketches that may or may not come true. She walks up to him, rests her hand on the arm of his chair, fingers tapping out a pattern on the metal as she works herself up to speaking. The ink on her fingers has faded to nothing, but Charles imagines he can still see traces. "I wouldn't be scared to do it," she says. "Not if you were there, telling me what to draw. You'd make sure I drew the right thing." Her trust, her simple wide-eyed trust makes him want to throw up, the bile rising inside his throat even as she stands there, so very young and innocent.

He refuses. Of course he refuses. "It would be wrong, Sittie Mae," he tells her, "an abuse of power."

He says he won't even consider it, and it's the truth when he says it, but he turns it into a lie. He's making it a lie right now, lying in bed thinking about it. Imagining painting a new future, stroke by stroke.

Use and abuse, such a fine line between the two.

*

He could make the world a better place. Safer. For humans and mutants. Just by painting one man's future. "You're an arrogant bastard, you know that," Raven said to him more than once, back when they were on the same side. "Always so convinced you're right and everyone else is wrong." But he knows he's right, with a conviction that comes from being inside so many minds, intimately knowing the way people work, what will persuade them in one direction or another, what they want, what will make them rise up out of a collective apathy and act. He could change the future and only he and Sittie Mae would ever know. And he could make her forget. Then it would be his burden alone to bear, and he can easily argue the altruism in that.

One man's free will versus the future of man and mutants. A simple equation. No question as to which side is greater.

This is how it is now, the way Charles has to think. Depersonalize situations to make the right choices, the tough choices. Throw a blanket over names and individuals and personalities and count numbers instead. It's the most painful side of being a leader. He's done it already more times than he cares to remember. And it's always been the right thing to do, even though he's spent sleepless night after sleepless night while the names and faces of those he's sacrificed have run through his mind.

This is Erik, though, whose mind and life Charles will be reshaping. And Charles has never been able to be entirely objective about Erik.

*

Charles misses having someone to share decisions with. A peer to talk to freely without holding back, without having to carefully calculate what information to reveal and what is best left unsaid, what might be too upsetting or too hard to bear.

Fuck it, he may as well be honest with himself if no one else. He misses Erik, period. He misses talking to him, listening, debating, arguing. He misses the long walks on the beach that they never had (can never have) but might have, if things had gone differently. He misses the way his heart hiccupped each morning when Erik walked into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and barely functional without his first coffee. That was Charles' doing, getting Erik hooked on his morning caffeine. Something amusing back then, but Charles can't imagine Erik would allow himself such a weakness now.

*

"I have a moral dilemma," he says, when Hank asks him if he's okay.

"You make it sound like a brain tumor," Sean says through a mouth full of potatoes. Hank glares at him; Charles is certain the glare is more for the comment than the remnants of part-chewed potato scattered across the table. They're all used to Sean's table manners.

Charles is tempted to be flippant and say he'd rather have a brain tumor, but that wouldn't set a good example. So he changes the subject. "How are the modifications to the plane's navigation system coming?" he asks Hank, and that's a sufficient distraction.

*

There's only one person he can talk to, and all along he's been rejecting that option as impossible. A non-option.

But it isn't. He can talk to Erik if he wants. They meet every now and then. Quietly and discreetly, just the two of them. A chess match in a park, a shared newspaper at a busy train station, or an early morning coffee in an out-of-the-way café. Occasionally Raven ("That isn't my name any more, Charles. I prefer Mystique." "Old habits and all that." "Don't you think Mystique suits me?" "Oh, yes, my dear. Very much so. It's a beautiful name.") shows up instead, and Charles never asks why Erik isn't there. But that's the exception rather than the rule, and if Charles were to arrange to meet Erik, they could be sitting across from each other in a day or two.

A normal conversation between them these days would tell an outsider nothing. It tells Charles a little more than that, despite the damned helmet that Erik refuses to shed. Charles has never had Mystique's skill at reading every little nuance of a person's body language — why learn when he can slip just far enough inside their mind to learn twice as much? — but Erik has never been any good at dissembling. Even with the helmet and a steely expression, he still talks too much with his hands, with the way he sits, the way he leans forward or back. Charles can tell if Mystique is well or not, if Erik is planning something he knows Charles would argue against. And in the way Erik sits a little closer than he needs to and rises to leave as though the earth's magnetic field is working against him, Charles can always tell that Erik misses him too.

Charles makes the arrangements.

*

There's a brisk breeze, and Charles pulls up his collar. He should have worn a scarf, but he doesn't like to coddle himself. Which is all very well as an abstract, but means that there's a chill draft down Charles' neck and he could have been a lot more comfortable if he weren't so damned proud. He's smiling wryly to himself as Erik arrives, striding down the hill towards the pond.

"A pleasant day for the time of year," Erik says by way of greeting, which Charles thinks is his way of saying that he's noticed Charles shivering slightly and guessed the reason.

A young boy runs past them, eyes on a model boat rather than where he's heading. He's going to... yes, he's fallen over, and there are tears. A man who looks barely old enough to be a father at all, let alone of a boy this age, picks him up. His brother, Charles decides: there's a familial likeness in their curly dark hair, and when the boy's older and lost his chubbiness, he'll have the same square-jawed face.

Charles reaches into the paper bag on his lap and pulls out a rough chunk of stale bread. He breaks pieces off and throws them out onto the water. The ducks arrive first, then a couple of geese, honking loudly and bullying their way through. There are smaller birds skirting the edge, catching crumbs that float far enough from the center of the melee.

"Are you debating using the birds for some complicated metaphor about life?" Erik asks, but he reaches his hand out even as he asks and Charles passes him a piece of bread.

"What would you want to be in the metaphor?" Charles asks.

"I'd be a hawk, definitely," Erik replies, and it hurts to see his smile blocked at the edges by the helmet. To see it in his eyes, but not feel it echoing in Charles' mind.

They use up all the bread, and then Charles wheels himself along the edge of the pond until they come to an empty bench. Erik sits, and they stare out over the water, side-by-side and silent.

Once upon a time, their silence was comfortable. It was never a true silence like this. Charles listens to the birdsong and dogs barking and children racing around, lets their scattered thoughts in so that he can't feel that emptiness beside him where Erik's mind should be.

Maybe he was crazy to think that he could talk to Erik.

"You called me here for a reason, didn't you?" Erik ventures, rusty words after a long silence.

"I like feeding ducks," Charles says, because he's not ready, he'll never be ready to make a decision like this, he's a fucking fool to have contacted Erik.

"Charles," Erik says, and no one says his name like that any more, reproving, like Charles is a rash adolescent, a bright child who's veering off course. No one has ever really treated Charles like a child. It shouldn't be Erik's role, but if Charles keeps spinning in circles, trying to make sense of things, he needs someone, a guiding hand. And there's no one else.

"I have a decision to make," Charles says, gritting his teeth around the words as though he hopes that will make them float away soundless, like he wants the decision to quietly vanish. It won't, though, because now the idea exists even inaction is a decision of sorts.

"You want my advice?" Erik says, and on the surface he sounds assured but Charles can hear an undercurrent of surprise, and maybe hope too. Hope, or no, not so much hope, more a sense of joy that Erik is the one Charles has turned to, as though they don't both know that for a short while, when everything began, it was always just the two of them.

"I think I want you to make the decision," Charles admits, which is incredibly unfair of him, but then there's nothing fair about this situation.

Charles hears shock in the sudden huff of laughter.

"That's a turn up for the books," Erik says, and then drops to a more serious tone, evidently choosing his words carefully as he gauges Charles' reaction to each successive guess. "This is something big. Something that could change the fate of mutants. Change the world," he says. He always could read Charles well. "You want me to decide our fate," he adds, a barely-there flick of his hand between the two of them, and Charles could almost laugh that Erik says it as though that is an even grander proposition than changing the course of humanity and mutants. But then, that's always been the difference between them.

"Yes, my friend, I do. Yours, mine, everyone's."

A swan glides by and a mother pulls her two children back from the edge. "Swans are dangerous," she warns them sternly, not for the first time. The boy tries to argue. He thinks the swan is beautiful. He can't imagine anything beautiful being dangerous. Charles can't remember ever being that naïve.

"The fate of the world. A weighty responsibility." Erik is watching the swan too. Charles wonders which he sees, danger or beauty. Or just a swan.

"It hangs heavy." There's no levity in either of their voices now.

Erik turns his head, his vision blinkered by his helmet, and searches Charles with his eyes. Charles meets his gaze, even though he has to steel himself to hold it. Charles is sure Erik sees the dark smudges under his eyes, the fast receding line of his hair. "That I can see," Erik says softly. "It's not like you to shy away from responsibility." Erik isn't probing, but waiting.

Shame has a bitter taste, and Charles tilts his head back and takes deep gulps of fresh air as though that can get rid of it. "If I were to do nothing, to leave everything to chance, I would count every death that came about as the result of my inaction."

"And if you were to do whatever it is you're pondering?"

"Then I'd never know how many lives I'd saved. And you would never know what I had done," Charles whispers.

"But you would know."

"Oh, yes, I would know."

"And you wonder if you could live with yourself for what you're thinking of doing, and if you can live with yourself if you do nothing."

"You see my dilemma."

"Yes, and no," Erik says, and now, finally, Charles can hear anger in his voice. "I see the dilemma through your eyes, but the world through my eyes is a different one. I see the possibility that you're wrong. That your certainty is not knowledge but arrogance."

"Sometimes it's easy to see why Mystique went with you," Charles admits. "She would say the same."

"Then shouldn't you consider that possibility?" Erik's hands are clenched on his thighs, as though he wants to clench them around Charles' shoulders instead and shake some sense into him.

"Oh, I have. I've spent days and nights considering it." He's had years to consider if his choices have been and are the right ones. He's weary of it, but he has to keep asking, keep checking, keep holding himself to higher standards than he expects of anyone else. "But everyone is fighting to live, human or mutant, and it's their right. Life is a right. And just because people are scared and easily misled, doesn't deny them that right. So I am under a moral obligation to respect that, and make decisions accordingly. To make the choices that save lives."

"You speak of moral obligations, but who defines morality?" Erik interjects. "Is it you, with your privileged existence? Are you setting yourself up as Lord over us all? Even though you've made mistakes before?"

"I've made mistakes, and I will again. I know, and I know the cost of my mistakes. But I also know humans' strengths and their weaknesses, mutants' strengths and weaknesses. I know that while countries go to war, individuals want peace. I know that too many people think war leads to peace, but don't fully comprehend the price we pay for war." Charles can tell he's lost Erik in this argument: it's obvious from the increasing tension in Erik's shoulders, the thinning of his lips, but Charles has to keep trying. He'll always keep trying. "I know that war is to be avoided at all costs, my friend, because the cost of war is always greater than the cost of avoiding it."

"And yet you think so little of humans that you believe you know better than they what they want. And at the same time, have so much faith in them that you think they can rise above their fears and accept us." Erik stands up, shaking his head, the same regret in his eyes that he had that day on the beach when they parted ways. "You know I can't agree with you."

Charles shrugs. "I didn't come here for your blessing," though he regrets the words even as he says them because they're a lie and Erik will know it.

"I think, actually, you did. But you won't leave with it. Whatever it is you're planning, Charles, I will try to stop you."

Charles nods. He has his answer, not in anything that Erik has said, but in the simple certainty that he still has to do it, with or without Erik's blessing. And Erik can't stop him, not without killing him, and they've not reached that stage. He watches Erik stride away back up the hill, then unlocks his brakes and wheels himself slowly in the opposite direction. It starts to drizzle, and he regrets the lack of a scarf even more.

*

He stops by the schoolroom the next day. It's getting too full — they'll need to convert more rooms to classrooms soon, split the children into separate classes. Recruit new teachers. Or maybe his decision will make that unnecessary.

"Sittie Mae," he calls, nodding to Hank as he leaves with her.

He has a pad of paper and a pencil ready in his study. He sits her down at his desk, but doesn't push the paper or pencil towards her.

"I told you that I would never ask this of you," he starts, and wishes that he'd thought of what to say before he called her here.

"You want me to draw something?"

"The news is getting worse." Newscasters and pundits are talking about World War III. Trying to forecast how it might develop when it would be civil war in every country, when humans would be fighting against forces they still don't fully understand. The government is putting on a strong façade, but their fear is palpable. "I'm sorry to ask this of you, but I don't see a choice."

She bites her lip but nods and picks up the pencil. "What should I draw?" she asks, and the faith in him that radiates from her is so strong that it takes him a minute before he can start describing the scene.

When she starts sketching Charles, she pauses. "I can draw you without the wheelchair," she says, questioning. Quiet, as though she's worried she's overstepped her bounds.

It's so tempting. But he doesn't deserve it. "No," he says, too fast and sharp because he has to say it quickly so he doesn't give in to the temptation, and then he has to rest a comforting hand on her shoulder to reassure her that she's done nothing wrong in suggesting that.

*

He keeps her sketch, locked away in a safe. It isn't necessary: once drawn, the picture will come true. Destroying the paper won't make any difference. Sittie Mae told him that the day after she arrived.

"I didn't mean to do it," she'd said, words muffled into her hands. She started crying, but Charles didn't interrupt her. She needed to tell him this. "I was just so angry, a-and upset, and so I d-drew this picture, this awful picture." She hiccupped, loud sobs. "Ellie was my best friend, and I k—" she stumbled over the word, but Charles knew what was coming. "I killed her. I tore the painting up and then I ran outside and burned it, but it didn't make any difference." She'd dropped her hands and looked at him finally, red-eyed and snot on her lip, and he knew it was a memory she needed to keep, a painful reminder of how easy it is to abuse power.

She doesn't need to keep this memory though. "I'm sorry," he says to her afterwards, and she looks puzzled and doesn't understand as he clasps her face and takes away the memory of the sketch she's just drawn. Takes away all responsibility: that's his, and his alone.

His own memory will have to stay.

*

"Professor, you have to come see this," Alex shouts. Everyone's gathered around the television, and they're broadcasting bemusement and surprise and hope so loud that Charles has to block them out.

Erik is being interviewed. He looks the way he used to look, in that brief spell where they worked together and thought they could make a better world together. He looks relaxed and happy and confident, and there is no sign of his helmet. The caption at the bottom of the screen calls him Erik Lehnsherr, not Magneto.

"This is a major turn-around from your previous stance, a complete U-turn in fact. How do you explain such a sudden decision?" The interviewer is leaning in towards him, as though she can barely wait the time it will take for the words to leave his mouth and reach her.

"There is no benefit in staying on the same path when you can see it's not the solution after all. I had thought that it was impossible for humans and mutants to work together, but now I believe that was wrong, and if I want to help others like myself, I have to admit this. I have to change paths."

"But what triggered this change of heart?"

"Do you think he's for real?" Sean asks, looking around to Charles who's still motionless in his chair in the doorway.

Charles nods. He should feel triumph, he should feel justified, but all he feels is incredible guilt.

"Is he going to come back here?" Hank asks, and Charles hears the underlying question too: is Raven coming back?

If he does, Charles will be faced with the results of his meddling every single day. "Would you all be comfortable if they were to return?"

There are nods all around, Hank's the most enthusiastic, Sean's slower. "It's how it was meant to be," Alex says, and the others murmur agreement.

Their acceptance is too fast. Unnaturally so. Charles sees the effects of the sketch in their reactions, and his stomach turns. He knew, of course he did. He'd predicted it, planned it when he'd given Sittie Mae the details for the background of the drawing.

*

Two weeks later, and rooms that had been empty for far too long are occupied, and there are new faces too, mutants Erik and Emma have recruited, Jason and Pietro and Wanda and others whose mutations are fascinating.

It's awkward and uncomfortable at first. Angel and Mystique tiptoe around, keeping out of the way, eating breakfast when no one else is around, not quite meeting anyone's eyes, a heavy aura of shame clouding them. Charles feels almost relieved that Mystique still insists on that name, that she hasn't reverted to Raven, that he hasn't altered that core part of who she is and wants to be. He spends as much time as he can with them, reassuring them, though he thinks Beast's obvious joy whenever he sees Mystique does more to reassure her than anything he can do or say.

Emma acts the complete opposite, walking in on conversations, joining in even when everyone goes steely-silent around her. They're adorable in their disapproval, she tells Charles with a sly smile, genuinely amused. Charles keeps his own distaste for her company hidden: there's still an ugly tang of Shaw lingering over her, pathways in her brain still bearing the taint of his thoughts, and it makes him want to shudder visibly, brush off his shoulder when she rests a hand on it. Instead he smiles and invites her to sit with him and he asks her opinions on expansion and the best ways to teach such a mixed group of students. Shaw never asked her opinion — he catches that stray thought in a rare moment when she's completely relaxed — and Erik didn't value her contributions as much as he should, so Charles listens when she talks. And as he listens and discusses and sometimes acts on her suggestions, that remaining trace of Shaw gradually fades until Charles can look at her and just see her alone.

*

It's several days before he and Erik speak alone without the constant interruptions that come from doubling the size of their fledgling school. It's late, and there's a peace that only comes when everyone else is asleep.

"You have your dream at last," Erik says, sipping the last of his whisky, reaching his socked feet towards the roaring fire. The firelight makes the whisky look like liquid gold, and softens the lines on Erik's face.

Charles has seen this exact scene before. In black and white, and now he's seeing it in moving color.

"Isn't it yours too?" Charles asks, because he has to torture himself like this.

"The two of us running a school for mutants, able to recruit openly, advertise who we are without fear of reprisals? Working side by side with you? I can't imagine anything better," Erik says with obvious sincerity, and there's a stab in Charles gut. A beat, moments of silence while Erik watches Charles. "Though, perhaps, I could imagine something better." Erik reaches across the small side table between them, and the look in his eyes is as telling as if Charles were reading his mind. He wants Charles to reach out to meet him, and Charles wants that so very much. Wants to hold Erik in his arms, sleep with him and wake up with him, touch him without any holding back. He wants it more than almost anything. This is what they nearly had years ago, what they skirted around because the time wasn't right. What Charles has never stopped desiring.

The moment Charles decided that the good of the world was more important than Erik's free will was the moment he destroyed any chance of this.

Charles bites his lip and runs through any number of excuses. Lies. Reasons to give to Erik. And settles on the biggest lie of all. The cruelest. The only one that will ensure that Erik never asks again, that will kill any hope or expectation.

"I'm sorry, my friend, but you're mistaken," he says softly, reaching out mentally at the same time to compel Erik to believe him, to ignore any trace of wavering in Charles voice and the way his hands are shaking and believe that Charles no longer wants him as anything more than a colleague, a friend. It's the hardest lie he's ever told, and he forces himself to face Erik as he says it, to memorize the look on his face, the way the light in Erik's eyes dims and his expression turns from hopeful to utterly blank.

Charles lies in bed that night, seeing the flickering patterns of firelight on Erik's face, the steadiness and certainty in his hand as he reached out and the tremor in it as he pulled back. He hears the clink of the whisky glass on the table and the ragged exhalation of breath as Erik stood up and said goodnight and his firm footsteps, faster than usual.

He can't get warm, and he doesn't sleep.

*

There is peace between mutants and humans. It's still a constant effort, and there are setbacks, but they're gradually being accepted. No one suspects how it came about — why should they? He's the only one who knows now. And there are new problems for governments and journalists and other media to focus on. Bloody Sunday, famines in Burkina Faso and Chad, earthquakes in Turkey, Iran and China, civil war in Guatemala. Charles and Erik send teams of uniquely skilled mutants out to help after each earthquake, and soon they're in demand worldwide.

There are still anti-mutant demonstrations, but each year they're less well supported, scorned by the majority. And protests against the demonstrators are lead by non-mutants, humans who see the benefits of mutants in society.

There are laws put in place, and they are mostly fair, and Charles sets teams of lawyers working to change those that aren't. There are books written and comic strips in newspapers and movies made and children grow up wanting to be mutant superheroes rather than alien superheroes. The world is changing, and it's better, far better than it looked back on that night when Charles lay awake facing his dilemma.

Charles wanted a better story, and he has it. He watches it unfold. And if he's cold at night, and his bed lonely, and if he has regrets in weak moments, and if he has to be best man at Erik's wedding, then he considers that a fair price to pay.