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The Hidden Heart

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Hidden Heart Title pic

 

1967

Most first-time visitors to the Nakatomi Hotel stopped in the lobby to stare upward in awe. The vaulted ceiling rose ten flights and was hung with shimmering mobiles in bronze and silver – sixty feet long, at least. The sea-softened light from the coast streamed through narrow windows, creating shafts of illumination that seemed to bear the room aloft. Everything about the Nakatomi spoke of privilege and pleasure. Nobody could be blamed for taking a moment to exalt in the fact that they were here – for a moment, a part of the splendor.

Erik Lehnsherr paused just long enough to read the events board:

Stanford Conference on Genetics and Mutation – tenth floor ballroom

He did glance at the mobiles as his elevator whisked him skyward, not to admire but to appraise. The bronze and silver were plated thinly over cheap alloys. The aesthetic effect was lost on him; Erik admired purity over appearance, in metal as in most things.

Once again – far too late – he asked himself if this were a good idea. The past five years had been spent painstakingly building the Brotherhood; they still numbered only a handful, because only the best could remain. By coming here, he risked not only his own exposure, but also theirs.

Coward, he called himself. The clenching in his gut had nothing to do with worry for his followers, and he knew it. You’re scared because you know – this is going to hurt.

Let it hurt, then. Erik needed to be here, and this was no time to start flinching from pain.

When he reached the tenth floor and walked to the conference table, it was a solid hour after the keynote speech had begun. Nobody lingered there but one bored-looking girl in a maroon hotel uniform jacket and a half-dozen unclaimed name tags. Erik pretended to look for his, then grabbed one at random as the girl scurried to collect a folder and materials for him.

“My flight was delayed,” he said. “I suppose the keynote speech is over.”

“They got a late start, actually. You’ll still catch the end.”

Of course, he’d wanted to miss this. Had planned on it. Coming to this conference risked a kind of exposure that Erik had dreaded for five years now. But he would attract attention if he lingered here.

And this moment – it was inevitable. Better to get it over with.

So he quietly opened the rear door of the ballroom and stepped inside. Nearly two hundred scientists were murmuring among themselves; one person stood, as if he had just asked the main speaker a question.

The main speaker sat on the dais, in his wheelchair.

“Your question presupposes that human mutation would invariably be harmful.” Charles leaned back so easily that he might be lounging in a leather recliner. He looked more than five years older; his hair, once so unruly, had thinned, his hairline now receding. Erik tried to take a kind of mean-spirited comfort in that, but could not. Charles’ voice was the same. “I do not agree.”

“As we all know,” said the scientist standing in the front. Erik took the first seat in the back row as the man kept speaking: “Your paper suggests mutations right out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Professor Xavier. Breathing underwater! Blue fur! Reading thoughts like a gypsy fortuneteller! Controlling the weather! These so-called ‘possibilities’ sound like hallucinations. I have to confess, for a moment I wondered whether the Nakatomi Hotel had been moved across town to Haight-Ashbury.”

Chuckles rippled throughout the room. This was how hatred so often began: as mockery.

Yet, as ever, Charles remained undaunted. “Mutation has provided the means for many species to breathe underwater, Dr. Collingwood. It has also created fur in many colors. The ability to ‘see’ using sonar waves instead of light. Skin that can change pattern and hue to match any surroundings. Are the talents I’ve described so much more fantastical than those nature has already provided?”

“You’re mistaking imagination for science,” Collingwood insisted.

“I always rather thought science required imagination. Both ask us to stretch our minds to encompass what we have never really understood before.”

Another scientist across the room chimed in: “Cut to the chase, Professor Xavier. Your wild theories are entertaining to hear, but ultimately, science is about facts. Have you ever encountered a real human being with a mutation anything like what you’ve described here? Or are your hypotheticals entirely without evidence?”

The world was not ready for them, and never would be. Erik wondered what polite lie Charles would tell.

Charles said, “I can verify the identity of the telepath – or, as you would have it, the gypsy fortuneteller. That would be me.”

Silence. Erik realized his jaw had dropped.

He had done it. Charles had declared himself a mutant, publicly and irrevocably.

It was surely an act of social and professional suicide. Literal, perhaps: Did he honestly think they might not destroy him for this? Everyone had begun to murmur and shift with the unease that presaged anger; Erik’s muscles tensed, preparing for action.

Collingwood finally managed to speak. “Are you going to try some carnival sideshow tricks now? Tell me I know somebody whose name starts with the letter L?”

“You do, of course. Everyone does. But in your case, Dr. Collingwood, your mind goes first to your oldest daughter, Lorraine. You’re concerned that she’s fallen in with a radical crowd at Yale.” Charles smiled, the reassuring expression at odds with every word he spoke. “Since standing to address me, you’ve also thought of writing to my teachers at Oxford to censure them for encouraging my beliefs, wondered whether Dr. Van Hopper would want to collaborate on your next paper and felt that your left shoe is too tight. “

Everyone in the room except Erik stared at Dr. Collingwood, looking for the confirmation they must have seen in his face.

Erik stared at Charles. No one who didn’t know Charles Xavier very well could have seen the fear underlying the bravado.

Dr. Collingwood broke the silence. “Are you telling us that you’re some kind of freak?”

Unexpectedly, Charles smiled. “I don’t find ‘freak’ very scientific. Then again, ‘marvel’ isn’t scientific either, and that’s the word I personally prefer.”

How could he be so calm? Even Erik, unburdened by telepathy, could feel the hostility and confusion mounting in the room. For Charles, it had to be overwhelming. The low roll of murmuring had an ominous cast, and yet Charles remained steady.

Across the ballroom, the other scientist who had challenged him said, “You’re telling us these other human mutations are real as well? Are you going to identify these … individuals? So their mutations are a matter of public record?”

“I believe that information should not be a matter of public record,” Charles said smoothly. “They are purely private concerns. I have come forward only to prove the veracity of my theories, and perhaps to show that mutants are not so different from everyone else.”

“How is reading minds not so different from anyone else?” called a third voice, clearly angry. “You could be rifling through our thoughts even now!”

This could turn ugly, Erik realized. Almost without deciding to, he rose to his feet. “Professor Xavier?”

Charles turned his head, and they looked each other in the face for the first time since their parting on the beach.

The shock of it was almost physical. Erik sucked in a breath. For Charles’ part, he hesitated – so very slightly – before saying, “I see we have another question from the floor.”

What to ask? It hardly mattered. What he had to do was change the tenor of the conversation for Charles’ sake.

Why was he exposing himself only for Charles’ sake?

Erik didn’t want to ask himself that. He plunged into the first question that came to mind, one that had often tugged at him when he reflected on Charles’ choices. “Your power allows you to know a great deal, including that we would wish for you not to know. And yet you have pursued the sciences, where your talents have no role in discovery. Why?”

You had to wonder. As a lawyer, Charles could have seen the other side’s case and invariably emerged triumphant. As an actor, he could have convinced any audience of anything he wanted them to believe, wrapped them in any emotion he wanted them to feel. He would have been renowned as a psychologist, or a brilliant negotiator in any sort of business career. He might even have made a small if seedy fortune reading palms in a basement storefront in Greenwich Village. So why had he chosen to throw himself against cold, hard fact?

Why did Charles always take the hard, uphill path, and take it alone?

 

a question from the floor

 

Charles considered the question for a long moment before answering. “I suppose I ought to say I did it to level the playing field, but that’s not true. Honestly, I feel as if the sciences chose me. I’ve always been fascinated – particularly by genetics. It’s both ironic and wonderful that my studies have overlapped with the condition I was born with.”

Condition, Erik thought. Sounds too much like a disease. Charles hadn’t meant it that way, but was that what the crowd heard? Impossible to tell.

The room exploded into a hundred conversations at once – frantic, eager and hostile by turns. But the tide of fear that had been rising against Charles had dissipated into so many different directions that there was no chance of him being shouted at, or mocked. Or hurt.

Erik sat down again. Charles turned away and took another question.

**

The rest of the afternoon went more as Erik had expected. He got to hear what human scientists knew and didn’t know about mutants. He dutifully sat through a lecture on an archaeological artifact (some squat Aztec figure sitting like a lump on a lectern) that a researcher thought was the earliest historical representation of a mutated human being. There was a seminar on mutation in fish, during which Erik somehow managed to stay awake. Nobody was fashioning arcane scientific justifications for hatred of mutants yet, largely because most of them didn’t really believe in the wave that was coming … and either thought Charles was one in a million, or a charlatan.

Erik did not see Charles again. At first he assumed Charles would rest after the keynote address. Then he wondered if Charles was avoiding him.

Hardly surprising, if he were. Erik’s own plan for the Stanford conference had been to hide in the safety of numbers. Charles wouldn’t have been looking for him with either eyes or mind; Erik had thought he could control his emotions enough to avoid detection. Yes, the risk remained that Charles would simply turn his head at the wrong moment and see him, but Erik had thought discovering precisely what the scientific establishment knew about them was worth that danger.

Within minutes of seeing Charles again, Erik had blown his cover to defend him.

Five years. The whole world seemed to have changed. So why did the mere sight of Charles still have the power to rip him open?

That night there was a cocktail reception, a polite bore of an event mostly notable for the view of San Francisco Bay and the better-than-average quality of the champagne being served on trays. Erik told himself the excellence of the champagne was the reason he drank two glasses, then told himself the two glasses were the reason he went to a courtesy phone and asked to be connected to Charles Xavier’s room.

He answered on the first ring. “Professor Xavier.”

“It’s me.”

A long pause followed. “I didn’t think you’d call.”

“I didn’t either.”

“Apparently it’s your day to surprise us both.”

No shouting, at least not yet: They were both behaving better than Erik would have expected. So he ventured, “Not coming to the reception to represent mutantkind?”

“I’m exhausted. Jet lag. East Coast time. You know.” A polite brush-off, Erik thought, until Charles added, quietly, “You’re welcome to stop by if you want to talk.”

Erik knew he should say what he had to say over the phone, then hang up. He came to this conference to know his enemy, not to let Charles Xavier scar his heart anew. If there was one thing Erik didn’t need, it was yet more scars.

And yet he couldn’t bear the idea that Charles might think he was afraid to face him. “Which room?”

A ride in one of the glass elevators took Erik above ten-story atrium, to the outside of the Nakatomi Hotel. For a moment he looked out over the glittering lights of San Francisco and felt, very briefly, some of the awe the architects had been aiming for.

Then he thought it was idiotic to build a structure like this on a fault line. Typically human.

Charles’ room was at the very end of the hall, which seemed to stretch beneath Erik’s feet. The walk took forever. He rapped on the door, wishing even as he did so that he hadn’t. Too late – Charles called, “Wait a moment, I – oh. You can let yourself in.”

Erik took care of the chain lock and deadbolt himself, then stepped inside. The suite was elegant enough to make the mansion seem ordinary, but Erik hardly noticed that. His eyes were only for Charles.

Yes, he appeared older. And yet something about the receding hairline suited him, in a perverse way. Instead of looking like an overgrown schoolboy as he had five years ago, Charles now wore his authority with the same assurance and comfort as his tailored suit. His wheelchair might as easily have been a throne. His features were sharper now, like his gaze.

Evenly, Charles said, “It’s good to see you, Erik. You look well.”

“So do you.”

“You must have been very worried, to risk exposure at a conference like this.”

Erik frowned. He preferred for Charles to think of him as unafraid. “Know thy enemy.”

“And you continue to think they’re all the enemy.”

“They nearly turned against you today.”

“They were alarmed, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t have handled.” Charles paused. “Still … I appreciated your stepping in. You defused the tension admirably.”

Outside, the windows showed the same spectacular view of San Francisco Bay. Erik moved to stand in front of them, steadying himself by sensing the metal of the ever-growing skyline. “You’ve exposed yourself as a mutant. You realize what they’ll do to you?”

“I expect I’ll be invited to fewer conferences. That’s probably about it.”

“Always naïve.”

“Always cynical.”

But there was no anger behind the words, from either of them.

 

still naive still cynical

 

Turning his head from the city lights, Erik said, “That was what I wanted to talk to you about. Your decision to speak out today. To identify yourself publicly.”

“I honestly believe I’ve put no one else at risk,” Charles said. He’d clearly thought about this a great deal; his hands wove together in his lap, a sign that he was agitated. Erik hadn’t thought he would remember that sign. “My school isn’t well-known. There’s no reason for an outsider to assume that because I’m a mutant, my students are as well. Given how short-sighted most scientists remain about the prevalence of radical human mutation, I think it’s the last thing they’d suspect. And if they do guess – if they do try to come after us – well. We can defend ourselves.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Erik stared out the window again. “Didn’t you realize that? I couldn’t very well wear the helmet to an event like this.”

“I’m not reading your thoughts. I have to work not to, but – I’m not. Obviously you wouldn’t like it.”

 

wouldn't like it

 

The chill had crept into their conversation. Charles disliked being reminded that Erik wanted to shut him out of his head. Given the things they used to do when they shared thoughts – shared feelings, physical sensations, the depth of love, the thrill of ecstasy – well. No wonder.

It was past time for him to say what he had to say and get out.

“You’re more than capable of protecting your students. And I know you wouldn’t expose the rest of us.” Glancing back from the city scene, Erik continued, “I thought what you did today was –”

“Foolhardy? Dangerous?”

“Yes. That’s why it was also brave.”

How Charles’ face changed then. Erik felt an old, familiar ache at the thought that Charles would no longer believe Erik saw anything in him to admire.

“You’re a courageous man, Charles. Even though we’re fighting different battles, in different ways – I do see that. And I thought you should know.”

“Thank you,” Charles said quietly. They smiled at each other – tight, thin smiles, but the sentiment was real enough. Just as Erik thought he should leave on this note, Charles added, “I know I’ve no right to ask, but I must. How is Raven?”

“Mystique is very well.” Her real name was the only one she answered to any longer. “Captivated by first love.”

Charles sat up slightly straighter in his chair. His voice was formal as he said, “I hope you’re both happy.”

Leave it. Leave it. Say nothing.

And yet Erik answered, “The lucky man is Azazel. The teleporter with the red skin – you must remember him.”

“Oh.” Though Charles was clearly taken aback, Erik had to admit he recovered well. “Does Azazel … he cares for her, too, doesn’t he? He’s kind to her?”

Kind wasn’t really a word that could apply to Azazel. Yet Erik liked that Charles would ask. “He’s passionate about her. They’re much alike, in some ways. I think it’s a good match.”

Slowly Charles nodded. “That’s good to hear. I suppose you’re well? You look better than ever.”

The words were so offhand, so casual. And yet they wrapped themselves around Erik, dulling his caution, making him wonder how he appeared through Charles’ eyes. “I work hard. But I’ve never minded that.”

“No, you never did.”

That wasn’t what Charles had been asking, of course. What he meant was, Are you alone, or do you have friends, companions, a lover who matters to you? Do you still have the nightmares? Do you have a place to call a home?

Erik could only have answered that he would always be alone. That Mystique had been his lover for a time – but that she had realized even before Erik did that nobody would ever take Charles’ place in his heart. He’d had no home since the mansion. And the nightmares would always be a part of him.

“I’m all right,” Erik said. “And you? How are you?”

Charles thought that over for a few minutes. “In some ways, wonderful. It turns out that I love running a school. Who would’ve thought?”

“I would’ve.” Erik couldn’t resist a small smile. Against his better judgment, he sat on the corner of the bed, only a couple feet from Charles. “You get to be surrounded by your books, and you get to talk about your theories, and you’re always in charge.”

“Hmm. When you put it that way.” Charles relaxed further; his smile had changed less than anything else about him. “Let’s see. My research is going well. The students are a delight, at least when they’re not blowing things up. Literally. So all of that is everything I could ask for.”

Their eyes met. Erik understood that he was being given permission not to hear the rest, if he chose not to. He knew that was the wise choice, for both their sakes.

He said, “And the rest?”

Charles looked down – at his chair, Erik realized. “This transition has been difficult,” he said, then laughed, a small hollow sound. “Do you know, that’s the first time I’ve admitted that out loud?”

Erik wanted to apologize, wanted to rehash every moment of that terrible day to either excuse himself or condemn himself, wanted to cry. He said only, “How bad is it?”

“Not as bad as it is for most in my situation. I experience some sensation below the injury – just not that much, and it comes and goes. I can move, but very little.” To demonstrate, Charles shifted his right leg slightly to the side. “That’s unpredictable too. I can care for myself more than most people with spinal cord damage, but it looks as though I’ll never walk again. All my abilities and all my money don’t change that.”

He said it all without blame. How could Charles not blame Erik in the slightest?

Haltingly, Erik said, “You know that if – if I could go back and change everything – ”

“Please. Don’t.” Then Charles sighed. “I don’t mean to be curt. I understand completely, Erik. I’d change things too. But we can’t return to the past.”

“No. We can’t.” Erik rose. “I should go.”

“Yes. You should. But – I’m glad you came. Thank you for calling. For being willing to talk.”

Erik simply nodded. He didn’t trust anything he might say.

“Will you be at the conference tomorrow as well?”

“For a time.” There was a panel discussion on the potential for creating mutations in laboratory experiments that he intended to hear. “And you?”

“Yes. If they’ll have me.”

“They’d better.”

They smiled at each other, and something about that smile was sadder than anything Erik had seen in five years.

He wanted to hold his hand out to Charles before he left. He didn’t. Instead he returned to the reception and drank another glass of champagne, then a couple of martinis, which made his head blurry enough that he thought he might be able to lie in bed and pass out without ever once having to think.

As he drifted off, he drunkenly tried to imagine sealing his heart in the strongest steel, then the blackest iron, then the hardest titanium, layer after layer after layer, until nobody could guess at the shape within.

**

Charles Xavier had always been a sound sleeper, a fact for which he was deeply grateful. Hearing other people’s thoughts all day was sometimes wearying, and he wondered how much worse it would be if he had to deal with other people’s REM visions all night as well.

That night, though, sleep was slow to come.

Why did I say all that to him, about how hard this has been? I try not to speak about it. I try not even to think it; what good does that do? Instead I showed Erik how vulnerable I still am. I have to remember: This man is my enemy now.

No. Erik was not his enemy. Charles had tried to believe that for the past five years and knew Erik well enough to suspect he’d tried too.

Yet Erik had defended him by reframing the discussion in his keynote address, and in so doing eased his transition into becoming the first mutant to acknowledge his powers in public … in other words, the enormous, life-changing announcement Charles knew he really ought to be worrying about all night. Instead he remembered Erik asking after him, worrying about him, sitting on this very mattress. It was as if he could still see the outline of Erik’s body there in the dark, only a couple feet away.

He’s not with Raven, at least not any longer. I always thought they would – but Erik might not be with anyone now –

Stop it.

It hardly mattered who Erik had in his bed, or didn’t. Charles would never be there again.

He looked down at his motionless legs, their thinness cruelly outlined by the moonlight filtering through the cracks of his room’s curtains. Then he glanced at the clock: 2:28 a.m.

Charles sighed heavily and wished for dawn.

Morning brought little comfort, though. The pre-conference breakfast featured soggy eggs, weak coffee and a scientific community torn between shunning him as a monster and regaling him with questions that seemed to get more ridiculous by the moment. As Charles found himself explaining that, no, he could not see the future in any sense, much less specifics about the stock market, he glimpsed Erik across the dining hall.

Erik looked hung over, determined on ignoring Charles no matter what, and somehow, impossibly, even more beautiful than he had been five years before.

It was so tempting to just brush across his mind, not to intrude, only to try to sense whether this reunion was as unexpectedly overwhelming for Erik as it was for him – but doing that would be betraying the trust Erik had showed by coming here without that damned helmet. Whatever else was broken between them, maybe that slender thread of faith could be preserved.

Charles bolted the rest of the vile coffee and wheeled himself to the first lecture a bit early.

This lecture promised to be the day’s most interesting. It asked: Could mutations be created? If so, could they be chosen? Given the prickly reaction to his own mutation, Charles suspected human volunteers for this would be slow to appear … but the ability to create a mutation suggested the ability to shape it. (He focused on this, the better to ignore Erik sitting across the ballroom.) So many mutants had powers that were incredibly difficult to use or to live with. Even well-developed powers often hinted at a greater potential that could not quite be realized. If those mutants could benefit someday from genetic modifications …

Close the lobby on my mark.

The thought rang through Charles’ mind, so forceful that it intruded over the lecture. He jerked his head toward the door, wondering for a moment if he’d actually heard it with his ears; it was loud enough for that, so loud he’d felt as if it were a crash of thunder. But nobody else in the room showed any sign of having heard anything.

Charles glanced at Erik then; perhaps by chance, Erik was looking at him too. As their eyes met, Charles wondered whether Erik had understood that something out of the ordinary was happening – whether his reaction had been enough to tip him off, whether their connection remained so strong they still had that instant understanding –

--and then Erik got up and walked out of the lecture. Not to investigate: merely to get away from Charles’ gaze. Telepathy wasn’t necessary to tell that much; it was painfully obvious.

As the back door of the ballroom clicked open, then shut, Charles tried to put aside his emotions and seek that voice he’d heard in his mind before. Almost immediately, it rang out again:

Phone in the bomb threat now. Then we’ll head to the tenth floor. Too late for them to do anything but clear out the useless.

Bomb threat? Charles sensed that this was a feint – merely a diversion – but a diversion for what? The speaker wasn’t psychic, but his spoken words reverberated with greater than usual force; it was possible that his abilities included the power of suggestion.

Yes, abilities: Charles no longer had any doubt that the person giving these orders was a fellow mutant.

The vision of a flash of lightning flickered in his mind.

What that meant in any literal sense, he didn’t know, but one thing was clear: They were in danger.

“Excuse me,” he called out, interrupting the speaker from MIT. Heads swiveled his way in surprise and irritation. Well, his reputation was shot already. “I think we need to evacuate the tenth floor.”

The professor from MIT, a Dr. Janacek, frowned. “I beg your pardon?”

“Someone’s coming to the tenth floor, which presumably means he’s coming after this conference, and he’s up to no good. More than that – he’s not alone.” Charles could begin to sense the other minds now … three additional mutants, but perhaps some humans too, smaller in the leader’s regard than the rest ….

“Is this meant to be a display of your so-called mutation?” Janacek folded his arms. “If your talents are as prodigious as you claim, Professor Xavier, can’t you tell precisely what this person is up to? No good, you say – but in a hotel, that might as easily mean a tired businessman and a call girl.”

Chuckles echoed around the room. Even those inclined to believe in Charles’ power apparently were eager to see him taken down a peg.

Again, this was irrelevant. “I’m trying to read what I can, but all I know so far is that four mutants are headed this way, and their intentions are not good.”

“Is this some bit of staged street theatre?” Janacek bellowed. “Or another damned sit-in? Is it going to be ‘mutant liberation’ now?”

“We should be so lucky,” Charles said, but his voice was drowned out by the laughter and muttering through the ballroom – and now those mutant presences were coming closer, their intent focusing ever sharper, focusing on the door of this very room –

The wall exploded inward, and the laughter turned into screams.

People dove for the floor; Charles, unwilling to abandon his chair, merely covered his head against the flying debris as best he could. Fortunately the outer wall of the ballroom was fairly thin stuff – no bricks or mortar – but tiny, razor-thin cuts pricked his hands and scalp, and he began coughing violently from the swirling grit in the air.

The explosion had ended, though, and the grit was only becoming thicker …

The words came in a roar: “So, the best minds of the human world want to study mutants? Now you have more to study.”

Charles lifted his head, blinking against the whirlwinds of dust, to see an enormous man – six foot six at least, and more than proportionately wide – with tawny eyes that glittered like bronze dust. His hands were braced on his hips, and his satisfied grin shone through the gritty gloom surrounding them. The other mutants stood on either side of him: a muscular young man with flowing golden hair, who had clad himself in what appeared to be a Greek toga; and two women so alike they had to be identical twins, except that the bedraggled, veiled dresses they wore were different colors – one black, one brown. None of these three made any move to speak; their attention was only for their leader, who took a step forward to admire his handiwork.

“I answer to the name Sandstorm,” he said. “And from now on, all of you answer to me.”

 

the baddies

 

**

The observation deck of the Nakatomi Hotel ringed the 47th floor, providing an unparalleled view of the San Francisco cityscape. Erik stood there, smoking one of his rare cigarettes in an attempt to regain his calm.

What had Charles meant by turning to him that way? There had been something so urgent about it that Erik had nearly risen and crossed the room to his side, willing to hear whatever he had to say, to do whatever Charles thought needed to be done. And this was precisely the kind of thinking Erik could no longer afford.

If it had been really important, he told himself, Charles wouldn’t have stopped at a look. He’d have reached into Erik’s mind and communicated directly. So Charles must have been trying to get his attention for … well, for other reasons.

Erik put one hand to his aching temple, once again regretting those drinks last night. Or maybe the problem was that he hadn’t drunk enough. He should have kept going, drinking himself into oblivion.

Sooner or later, he would do that or something similarly destructive if he remained at this conference. Surely Charles’ resolve wouldn’t hold, either; he’d reach into Erik’s mind and Erik would either hate him for it or remember what it had felt like to love him.

Forget it, he thought. You heard what you came to hear, except the lecture you’re missing right now. Go pack your bags and get out of this hotel. Out of this city. As far away from Charles as possible.

Erik ground out his cigarette in the white sand of the deck’s pillar ashtray, then turned toward the door … when suddenly, the entire building rocked.

As tourists shrieked all around him, Erik remembered his thoughts yesterday about the San Andreas Fault. Even as he reached for the steel frame of the building, hoping to steady it and himself, he realized the tremor was no earthquake – the cars below sped along the streets, and already the motion was stilling.

“Look!” someone cried, and Erik joined the throng at the observation deck railing. Below them, ash and debris spewed out from one arc of the circular building, much farther down.

Around the tenth floor, perhaps.

Erik remembered the expression on Charles’ face, the urgency there, and it all seemed so much clearer now. Why hadn’t he realized that Charles was trying to tell him something?

But no. He had understood. He just … hadn’t wanted to understand.

A maroon-vested hotel employee stepped out onto the deck. “Ladies and gentlemen, a bomb threat has been called in – no doubt just another protest, but – ”

“Threat, nothing!” a heavyset woman shouted. “It already exploded!”

“The elevators are down – everybody – get to the stairwell!” the employee said, his white face giving the lie to his next words: “Don’t panic!”

Screams began to echo across the deck. Erik hardly noticed. He could concentrate on only one fact: The elevators were shut down. Even if Charles weren’t in the thick of that mess below, there was no way for him to get out.

Charles was trapped.

Erik let the crowds of frightened tourists flood past him, shifting backward step by step until he was too far around the curve of the observation deck for anyone else to see him. Then he pushed himself up on the railing, slung his legs over the 47-floor drop, and jumped.

For a moment the world was nothing but cold, rushing air, the nauseating feeling of having nothing underfoot, San Francisco’s streets zooming up toward him, and primal fear that even Erik couldn’t wholly control.

What he could control, however, was his relationship to the metal frame of the Nakatomi Hotel.

He reached out to the steel girders, anchoring himself to them and gradually changing the pace of his descent. Erik fell quickly, then slowly, until he was nearly levitating. Cautiously he lowered himself to the broken windows on the tenth floor – and the eleventh, too, which appeared to be equally damaged. The smell of smoke was absent, nor did anything appear to be on fire. Could this really be the aftermath of a bomb? Surely not.

And yet some incredible force had ripped an enormous hole in the side of the Nakatomi Hotel. Jagged glass and twisted metal jutted out from the opening like the fangs of a monster; Good God, Charles was in the heart of all this. Amid the high winds and swirling sand, Erik braced himself against one side of the building before peering into the building.

Squinting against the sandy grit filling the air, Erik realized that he could hardly see inside – but he could hear very well.

“This conference wishes to scrutinize mutants. To measure us. To control us,” said a deep, booming voice. “Do you see now how puny your efforts at control must be?”

Mutants? Erik dared to lean further into the maw of the wreckage. Standing in what had been the tenth-floor hallway were four people so unshaken by the damage that they had to be responsible for it. The golden boy in the toga, the women in their ragged dresses, and then the speaker, an enormous man whose skin seemed to glitter slightly like the sand that blew around him –

And Charles sat there in his chair, straight and confident, while all the humans cowered on the ground. Erik would have expected no less.

Yet that meant Charles was the one in the greatest danger.

**

“I beg your pardon,” Charles said, “but precisely what do you hope to accomplish? Do you want to demonstrate that mutants are reckless and violent? Because I can’t think what else you believe you’re proving here, Sandstorm.”

The mutant apparently known as Sandstorm laughed, a rich, rippling sound. “Charles Xavier! The papers spoke of you today. Did you see what they called you? A freak. A con artist. A liar.”

Evenly, Charles replied, “News headlines aren’t my main concern. What is yours? What goal do you want to achieve?”

Sandstorm put his hands on his hips, revealing the full broad span of his shoulders. “I wish to demonstrate mutant existence. Mutant power. Mutant superiority.”

That sounded a bit like Erik. Charles remembered the way Erik had stalked off earlier; as much as it had hurt at the time, now he was glad of it. Erik was out of this mess; Erik was safe. That comforted him more than he would’ve wished.

Yet that comfort only went so far. Of all the wretched luck. Some maniac had decided to make this conference into his personal soapbox – and had done so in the most destructive way possible. Charles had often worried about what Erik and the Brotherhood would eventually do, but he’d never thought they would go off half-cocked. Erik might be a zealot, but he would never have done anything as crude and foolish as this.

And yet Sandstorm’s mind – what Charles could sense of it, as he seemed to possess some natural shielding – seemed so unlike Erik’s. His emotions were more base: Pride, cruelty and … greed.

Greed?

Two of the human scientists at the very edge of the room, perhaps sensing that Sandstorm was distracted, scurried for the hallway and possible escape. But Sandstorm shouted, “Widow! Recluse! Invite our guests to remain.”

Both of the women instantly shot something toward the men – spider-silk? Something very like it, anyway: The two scientists were instantly netted to the ground, struggling to move freely, in vain.

He had to put a stop to this. Charles straightened in his chair and projected, as strongly as possible, a sense of caution and remorse. “This is unnecessary,” he said, his voice taking on an eerie calm. “You’ve thought better of it.”

A hush fell over the conference; nobody was even moving now. They saw what he was trying to do. Nobody was laughing at telepathy now.

Except – Charles straightened in alarm as he realized this – except Sandstorm himself.

**

Sandstorm hesitated, and Erik realized instantly what was happening: Charles was using his mental powers to force Sandstorm to give up.

And why should Sandstorm give up? Yes, a hotel had been damaged, but that was nothing, really – a small price to pay to make a statement. Nothing had happened to anyone except that a couple of scientists had become extremely sticky. It was not the way Erik would have taken a stand; he felt some chagrin that Sandstorm had beaten him to it. But when Sandstorm had spoken of mutant rights and mutant superiority, Erik had wanted to cheer every word from his mouth.

Now here was Charles, abusing his powers in just the way Erik had always dreaded. He had half a mind to step in, join forces with Sandstorm and dare Charles to stop him too – if Charles would betray him by warping his mind, and maybe he would –

But then Sandstorm’s entire body rippled as sand whirled around it … no, as sand became a part of it. As the scientists murmured in dismay and Erik watched in fascination, Sandstorm’s flesh turned into glittering beige stone. His broad, stubby hands reached out, and sheets of glistening sand formed between Charles and Widow, Recluse and the third mutant.

“Try your powers against us now, Xavier!” Sandstorm shouted. “Can you project through stone? Through sand whirling so dense and fast that it is denser than any rock?”

Charles’ face remained steady. “It appears I can’t. So I can’t force you to leave. But I will still try to persuade you.”

Sandstorm stepped closer to Charles, his stone feet booming against the floor. “What will persuade me is power for the people. Power for our people. Nothing else. And that, Professor Xavier, is beyond your ability to grant.”

So, this was a political protest. Charles and the other researchers would be mildly inconvenienced at worst. A Japanese luxury hotel would collect handsomely from its insurance company; no more harm would be done. The government would be asked to grant something to Sandstorm in the name of all mutants. They might strike back in force; they might offer no more than a token. In either case, Erik thought, his best bet was to remain close by, invisible to any observers, and be prepared to help the mutants escape when the human authorities arrived.

He carefully levitated himself inside the hotel, working around the bent metal wreckage. The torn steel beams seemed to ache at every shear. Erik went low to the floor, remaining beneath the whirling winds and debris that still surrounded Sandstorm. He crawled behind the wreckage around the ring of the building, until he could barely see the hostage situation that the conference had become – or be seen by anyone there. Only two figures remained entirely clear to Erik: Sandstorm, who was walking to a hotel courtesy phone in the hallway – and Charles, still sitting in his chair, hands steepled and forehead furrowed. Erik was no more than twenty feet away from Charles now.

Charles, are you determined to resist us all? Erik thought. Any mutant who stands up for our own kind? Will humans always be your first priority?

If I fight alongside Sandstorm, will you fight me?

But wait. What was Sandstorm saying?

**

Charles steepled his hands as he listened.

On the courtesy phone, Sandstorm listed his demands to whomever was on the other end of the line: Resolutions from both the United States and Californian state bodies that mutants had equal rights under law. The introduction of a constitutional amendment to guarantee such rights. An international conference at the United Nations, to be proposed, sponsored and supported by the United States.

These were ambitious resolutions. But they were resolutions much like those Charles would have hoped to work for himself – through due process, of course.

They were nothing like the measures Erik might have demanded in a similar situation. Erik, in fact, would laugh at putting such faith in human institutions. Sandstorm should have felt the same way, if not even more cynical. What the hell was going on?

Once again he reached with his mind toward Sandstorm’s. Thunder rolled again inside Charles’ head, and he imagined a far-off crash of lightning. Though he could not influence Sandstorm’s mind, nor even get enough of a hold to try, Charles realized he could sense some of the thoughts there. Distantly, and only those most on the surface … but those were the ones that told the whole outrageous story.

When Sandstorm turned back to the gathering, it was to Charles he spoke: “What do you think now, Xavier? Why throw in your lot with humans? Think of the future. Join us.”

For a moment Charles thought of the beach, Erik’s guarded eyes, fear and terror and pain. The last time he’d stood on his own two feet. We want the same thing.

Charles collected himself. “You were correct. I can’t influence your mind through stone – and you can apparently shield your associates.”

Sandstorm laughed. “Have you been trying all this time? What a waste of effort.”

“I haven’t been trying to influence you,” Charles answered. “I’ve been trying to read you. Your thoughts are loud and clear despite the stone, Sandstorm. They’ve told me how little respect you have for your ‘colleagues’ – more like your hired underlings. They’ve told me that you have a strange obsession with thunder and lightning. And they’ve told me more than you want me to know about your real reason for doing this.”

The man’s smile was fading fast. It felt good to wipe the smugness from his face.

Charles continued, “You cooked up this entire ‘political protest’ to make sure humankind would know that mutants were responsible. You’re proud enough for that, even if it’s not how I’d define pride. But it doesn’t have a single thing to do with why you’re here.”

“What?” One of the scientists was startled enough to speak out of turn. “What are you talking about?”

Sandstorm’s voice, when low, sounded like the grinding of rock on rock. “Be quiet if you know what’s good for you, Xavier.”

But Charles had no intention of being quiet.

“You don’t give a damn about mutant rights.” Charles put his hands on either arm of his wheelchair as if he could rise from it to stand toe to toe with Sandstorm by force of will alone. “That’s only a pretext. The disguise for your real plan. You’ve shut down the hotel for a robbery. For money.”

A weird silence fell. The two spider twins looked at each other, clearly dismayed, and a murmur spread through the scientists. Sandstorm tried to recover. “Money? We’re not after money.”

“Not literally, no. To be specific, you’re after a 200-carat emerald you believe is on the premises but that you’re not quite sure how to find. It hardly matters. The point is, for all your talk about mutantkind, this stunt of yours has nothing to do with us. All you care about is getting rich.”

And God help anyone who gets in your way, Charles began to add, before realizing … he was the only one in the way.

**

A robbery?

Sandstorm had exposed mutants everywhere, and given humanity an excuse to hate and hunt them, for the sake of a robbery?

The rage swept over Erik like a fever, heating his blood and narrowing his eyes, and he sucked in a sharp breath that was dusty with grit. Without thinking, before he could even stop himself, he sent a loose beam jutting from the damaged wall slicing toward Sandstorm, ready to impale the man –

--but the metal bounced off his stony surface and clattered to the floor. Sandstorm hardly seemed to notice it; probably he thought it no more than the aftermath of the wreckage he’d caused.

Charles wasn’t the only one powerless against Sandstorm.

“Our kind tell stories among themselves,” Sandstorm said. One of his burly fists reached out toward Charles and clenched his shirt and jacket between the enormous stone fingers. “They say you are the most powerful of us all. Now that I’ve met you, I wonder why.”

Erik half-rose, ready to throw every fragment of metal in the hotel at Sandstorm this moment if it would make him let Charles go – but he’d be more likely to hurt Charles than to cause a dent in Sandstorm’s rock-hard skin. That was a risk he couldn’t take.

But did that mean he simply had to remain here and watch Charles in danger?

Sandstorm boomed, “Delius! Why don’t you make it clear how powerful we are?”

The young toga-clad man bent one arm backward, much as if he were preparing to throw a javelin or spear. When he thrust it forward, a long slim projectile of flame shot out, firm as any arrow, and embedded itself in one of the scientists. The victim’s screams were only slightly louder than the others in the room; they didn’t last as long.

“No!” Charles cried. “Sandstorm, don’t do this. You’re taking lives needlessly – people who never harmed you, never harmed any of us – “

“Powerful? You?” Sandstorm bodily lifted Charles from his wheelchair, one hand fisted in his tie and collar. Charles gasped for breath as his hands pushed uselessly against Sandstorm’s bulk. “You’re not even the equal of a human. At least humans can walk.”

And Sandstorm threw Charles onto the ground.

Erik’s anger rose to a pitch it had equaled only a few times in his life; until this moment, he had not known anybody but Sebastian Shaw was capable of igniting this kind of white-hot rage in his soul. The heat of it was so intense that it burned away reckless behavior and left behind the terrible calm of hatred.

It burned away five years’ worth of denial, and left Erik with only the truth.

As Charles pushed himself up onto his forearms, Sandstorm said, “You might have the mind-reading power to help me find the emerald, Xavier. That means you might have the power to keep yourself alive.”

“I am not a thief,” Charles shot back. “Nor have I sensed any thoughts about the emerald whatsoever. So you’re out of luck.”

Sandstorm sneered, “That makes you even more useless than I thought.” One of his massive feet shoved Charles in the chest so hard Charles rolled several feet across the floor, choking for breath.

While his fists clenched so hard his bones ached, Erik imagined grinding stone to sand.

“I’ll put you aside.” Sandstorm grabbed Charles by one arm, which had to have been agonizing for Charles, though he didn’t cry out. “The humans should be the ones to die first, of course. And maybe you’ll decide it’s better to be a thief than to fall ten stories to the lobby. I could just kick you over the side, and there’s not a damn thing you could do about it, is there? Unless you think evolution might yet give you the power of flight.”

Voice tight with pain, Charles replied, “Evolution apparently passes some of us by.”

Sandstorm’s eyes narrowed; he’d caught the insult. Either because of it or out of sheer cruelty, he bodily threw Charles into one of the anterooms. The thud echoed even over the fury of the storm still shredding the Nakatomi.

Erik remained motionless until after Sandstorm had locked the door.

There would be time to deal with Sandstorm later. Not much later, either.

Now nothing mattered but getting to Charles.

**

Well, Charles thought, that was horrific.

His ribs ached as he attempted to push himself into a sitting position, and for a moment he thought he might collapse onto the floor again. But he managed to prop himself against something – a cardboard box, filled with God only knew what. This room appeared to be in temporary use as some kind of supply area, but it lacked the only items that would have been of interest to Charles at the moment – a telephone, ice for the bruises no doubt blossoming all over his body, and a stiff gin and tonic.

Charles braced himself as best he could and attempted to assess the damage to the lower half of his body. In his condition, multiple bones could be broken without his ever knowing it – at least, not until sepsis set in. But everything seemed to remain firm beneath his palms.

At least Erik got out of this mess in time, Charles reminded himself. It was his one consolation.

Only one day after he’d come forth as the first mutant to publicly acknowledge his status, the first act of mutant terrorism had been committed … and he didn’t need Erik’s cynicism to know which would garner the most attention. The scientific community Charles had hoped to cultivate into a body of allies – intelligent people at the largest universities and companies in the world, and those most likely to get past their initial kneejerk reactions through sheer reason and evidence – well, right now they were being held hostage and murdered by mutants. Sandstorm was after a gemstone that, apparently, no one in the Nakatomi Hotel had thought about in the past several hours, nor had any idea how to find. And once again, all his abilities were useless. Charles couldn’t tell Sandstorm to stop any of this, even when Sandstorm was humiliating him by kicking him around like a broken doll.

Well, this wasn’t about his pride. Charles forced himself to concentrate. What did he have that he could use? That vision Sandstorm kept having, the one about the lightning – it was significant, he was sure of it, but that remained useless until he put the context together. Maybe his money could actually do some good here. As much as he hated the idea of enriching Sandstorm’s band of thugs, if ransom could keep people alive, then maybe …

One of the square panels in the drop ceiling began to move, and Charles looked up in alarm. Then he saw Erik’s face peering down from the darkness.

“Erik?” Charles whispered. “What are you doing here?”

Erik used his powers to slow his descent to the floor. His dark eyes burned with an almost startling intensity as he kneeled by Charles’ side. “Is it so surprising that I wouldn’t leave you behind?”

“No. I didn’t mean that.” Charles let his hand rest on Erik’s forearm for a moment; Erik’s skin seemed so warm. Their clothing was equally disheveled by now – rumpled slacks and untucked shirts. Charles’ tie still clung to his neck, though loosely. Erik had abandoned his and rolled up his sleeves. “I hoped you were safely out of this. That’s all.”

“Are you injured?” Erik’s hand brushed along his cheek, perhaps checking for bruises, and a scrape or cut Charles hadn’t yet noticed began to burn.

“Only my pride.”

 

only my pride

 

“That, my friend, is indestructible.” They shared a quick smile, and somehow Sandstorm’s humiliations had already lost a bit of their sting. Then, to Charles’ astonishment, Erik’s hand slid around his waist, half as though he were folding Charles in an embrace. “Come on. Sling your arm around my shoulders. I can get us out through the roof and down the side of the building.”

“Wait – Erik, what are you doing?” Charles resisted the urge to put his arm around Erik regardless. “We can’t just leave.”

Erik stared at him. “What are you talking about? I just told you, we can.”

“The scientists inside – ”

“Are human beings. Other humans will rescue them. We can look out for our own.” Just at the moment when Charles thought he could curse Erik for that attitude, Erik continued, “You’re the one he’s singled out. You’re the one in the most danger, Charles. I need – I think you should be safe. Sandstorm can be dealt with later.”

“Consider the ramifications,” Charles said quietly. His hand found Erik’s forearm again, and he dared to rest it there, hoping the touch might remind Erik of a day when he trusted Charles’ judgment, at least a little. “Now the whole world knows me to be a mutant. If I escape an act of mutant violence where humans have died, without being part of the solution? Not only am I likely to end up in prison, but it’s also the death of any potential sympathy or tolerance for our people.”

“Assuming it was alive to begin with,” Erik shot back. But his gaze had turned inward, which Charles recognized as a sign he was reconsidering.

“They’ll start coming after us tomorrow, if I flee today,” Charles insisted. “In force. En masse. We may be strong, but I don’t think we’re ready to take on the entire armed forces not deployed in Vietnam. And I don’t like to think what will happen to the young mutants who manifest when we can’t reach them.”

Erik swore in German. “I can’t just leave you here.”

“You can and you will. But you can move against Sandstorm and his band in ways I can’t – wait. You threw that beam at him, didn’t you?”

“I did. He’s tough, unfortunately. Anything I can do that would take him out would take the scientists with him, and maybe you as well.” Erik brushed something from Charles’ forehead – soot, or perhaps a speck of blood. All Charles knew was that his skin tingled beneath Erik’s touch. “At least let me get you away from Sandstorm. Out of this room. We can work together against him.”

“Me? I’d only slow you down.” Charles pushed aside the bitterness. “It’s impossible, Erik. If I got out of here, he’d know I had help. He’d be on to you, which would only put you in greater danger. You have to leave me behind.”

Erik shook his head. “No.”

“You know you have to!” It took effort, now, for Charles to keep his voice down. “You understand why as well as I do, and I don’t know why you keep arguing when – ”

Charles was silenced by Erik’s mouth crushing against his own.

At first he could hardly recognize this as a kiss – Erik was too forceful, he was too astonished to kiss back, and his brain seemed to be trailing along after events like a sonic boom behind a jet at Mach 2. But when Erik pulled away, Charles found himself bringing his hand to Erik’s face and drawing him close again. This time their mouths were open. Erik took him in his arms. Even after five years Charles remembered the taste of him. The kiss went on and on, drowning out fear and pain, everything else around them.

Why had he ever pretended that he wasn’t still in love with Erik? No, not why – how? Charles felt as if something in him that had been screaming with need for five years had finally fallen silent, so he could again hear the rustle of his clothes beneath Erik’s fingers, the fast rise and fall of their breath, the wet hungry sounds of tongues and lips.

When finally they broke apart, they stared at each other for a long moment. Then Erik said, in a voice so rough it sent chills down Charles’ spine, “I can’t leave you behind. And now you know why.”

“Erik.” Charles raked his hands through Erik’s hair, fighting the urge to pull him back into another kiss – to pretend that they could escape from their past and their present together. That temptation was dangerous now; it could kill them both. “You know much more than my life is at stake here.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m willing to sacrifice you.”

“Then let’s figure a way out of this for everyone. Together, maybe, we stand a chance.”

Although Erik’s expression suggested that he still didn’t fully agree, he finally nodded. Charles let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. He didn’t let go of Erik; they remained in their embrace, as if it were again totally natural for them to talk tactics in each other’s arms.

“All right,” Charles said, taking a deep breath. “I stay here. Maybe I can – I don’t know, come up with some story about the emerald he’s looking for. Claim I know where it is, lead him off the track.”

“That’s good.” Erik’s brow furrowed as he considered options, his quicksilver mind obviously hard at work. “Separate him from the others. Then I can be more effective. The others I could take down with simple projectiles, particularly when he’s not shielding them, but Sandstorm himself – I’ll have to go in hard. I might have to take out whatever part of the building he’s in at the time to do it. So we’ll have to get you away from him eventually.”

“If you can’t, you have to take him out anyway. We have to do it; I accept that.”

Erik’s dark eyes flashed, but he said only, “I can get you away from him, and I will. There’s no need for a Plan B.”

Charles didn’t share Erik’s absolute conviction, but there was no point in arguing now. And if there was a way for him to survive this, he preferred to take it. “Is there some place in particular that you think would work better? For you to trap him, I mean.”

“The lobby would be best, but that’s where we’re most likely to run into trouble with the police. So better the observation deck on the 47th floor.”

“If the police want to arrest him – ”

“Yes, yes, you trust the human authorities. I know. But face facts, Charles. The police force can’t handle anyone like Sandstorm.”

With a sigh and a nod, Charles acknowledged this. “Very well. The 47th floor it is. Then – when we trap him, what do we do?”

“Leave him to me.” Erik cocked his head, obviously surprised that he wasn’t receiving an argument. “Another thing you could do – the best way for you to help me, obviously – ”

“Anything.”

“Share your thoughts with me. Let me know what Sandstorm’s doing, every moment.” He hesitated before adding, “Let me know you’re still all right.”

Charles breathed in sharply. He had not fully shared Erik’s mind since the last time they made love, two nights before that cataclysmic day on the beach. Erik had taken pride in the helmet that divided them – and worn it as a statement that he no longer trusted Charles to behave with even basic decency. The helmet seemed to Charles to be the tangible proof that Erik’s love for him had turned to hatred overnight.

And here was Erik, holding him close, inviting him into his head, only to keep Charles safe.

Slowly, Charles nodded. He put his hands on either side of Erik’s face; the touch wasn’t necessary, but he wanted to give Erik full warning, the opportunity to withdraw his offer if he couldn’t face it. Though Erik’s face tightened like a man anticipating physical pain, he nodded.

The buffer Charles had kept between his mind and Erik’s fell. In flooded –

--anger, so much anger it startled Charles, a thousand thrashing blades, some for the world and some for Charles and some still for the dead Sebastian Shaw, but most of them now directed at Sandstorm for his recklessness with the mutant cause and his cruelty to Charles –

--fear that Charles would be killed or maimed even worse, thrown aside as trash by a brute with no sense of his value –

--frustration at his inability to simply destroy Sandstorm and his mutants, at Charles’ insistence that the human lives inside had to be protected, coupled with the grudging understanding of why it was so –

--and a love even deeper than it had been five years ago, because Erik knew now what it was to be loved, and the solitude he’d borne so willingly all the years of his youth had become shabby to him in the light of what they’d had and lost.

Charles heard a quiet sound, like stifled pain, but it had come from Erik’s throat, not his. He could well imagine what Erik saw in his own mind – his humiliation at being so helpless against Sandstorm, the sense that his dreams for this conference were turning to ash, and above all the helpless, hopeless love for Erik that had never burned out or even dimmed.

Yet he would never have expected Erik to be so moved by that. Never expected his love to still be so deeply returned.

Their eyes met. They were past any pretense now.

From beyond the thin wall of the side room came a crashing sound and a roar of anger. Sandstorm’s impatience reverberated through Charles’ mind as powerfully as the stomping of his feet did through the floor.

“You have to go,” Charles whispered. “Hurry.”

Stubborn as ever, Erik refused to move. “You’ll keep telling me what he’s doing at all times.”

“Yes.”

“Get him to the 47th floor. Do that and I’ll handle the rest.”

“I understand. And keep letting me know that you’re well. Unhurt.”

“Charles.” Erik pulled him close for one more kiss – a moment, no more, but long enough for Charles’ heart to constrict with pain and joy. Then he let go so quickly that Charles slumped back against the box. He went back up through the ceiling and replaced the panel without ever meeting Charles’ eyes again.

That was one thing Erik knew how to do, Charles thought; he never looked back.

 

the smooch