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The third who walks always beside you

Chapter Text

14 November 1980

Later, Charles felt that it should have been more dramatic. The news should have been delivered by a breathless messenger or at least a telephone call, but instead, the bearer of the news was the radio. Had he not been in Oxford that day, it would have taken even longer for him to find out. He was only there for a conference, and it was purely coincidental that they were within earshot when the news came on. Over the eighteen years he had been away from Oxford, much had changed, but his favourite pub still stood, and their beer was as good as it always had been.

His students were chatting excitedly around him, and it was only a stray thought from the publican that alerted him. He turned his head towards the radio, and took in what was being said. Outside the Israeli embassy in London. Masked men. Several casualties.

‘Oh God,’ he murmured. Hank, who sat beside him, hearing the interjection, turned to look at him.

‘What’s the matter, Professor?’

‘I need to get to London.’

‘What - why...?’ Charles raised a finger, indicating the radio. The rest of the group fell silent, and the sound carried through the empty pub. As they listened, their faces went solemn. Amidst the feelings of shock and worry, Charles felt a brief sense of gratitude that they, old students and new, were the ones to be with him now.

‘The police have only issued a brief statement, and advise against speculation on the motive of the attack. They have not given any information about the perpetrators, and it is not known whether they have been apprehended. However, the statement confirms that the ambassador, Gabrielle Haller, and members of her family are among the casualties.’

The vague phrase “members of her family” made Charles feel suddenly sick. David. It had to be - he was all the family she had. Worse than that was the term “casualty”. It could mean anything. Without saying anything, he unlocked the wheels of his chair and started maneuvering the cluttered room.

‘Professor...’ Ororo said timidly, getting to her feet. Charles did not heed her.

‘I need to get there.’ Scott (bless him) jumped to his feet.

‘I’ll drive you,’ he offered. Jean rose too, but by the look on her face, she was as apprehensive as Ororo was.

But Professor, why? Why is this important to you? Charles shielded his mind, and simply answered:

I’ll explain later. He knew that that was probably a lie. There were some things a man could never own up to.

Brief farewells were made, and within ten minutes they were in the car, heading towards London. It was obvious that Scott was itching to ask the same thing as Jean had, but he resisted it. Charles was grateful for that, and for so much else. Scott had always been almost like a son to him. Now the idea presented itself that all along, he had been a surrogate for another son - a son who might be dead, or close to it. And Gaby - Gaby! Surely it could not all end like this for her, after everything. Not as a victim of hate...

During the drive, Charles checked the city maps and found the hospital closest to the Israeli embassy. The driver took under two hours, but Charles wished it could be shorter still. Small delays annoyed him, and at every red light he would drum his fingers. He tried to guess when the attack had happened - if the police had had time to make a statement, it must have happened sometime during the morning. There was no way to say what might have changed since then.

When they stopped in front of the hospital and Scott retrieved the chair, Charles wished for the first time in years that he was not dependent on the thing, and that he could simply get out of the car and run inside to find her.

‘I’ll be alright from here,’ he told Scott once he had transferred into the chair. ‘I’ll make contact when I’m done.’

‘Sure,’ Scott said, trying to find a way to ask without blurting out the question. ‘Good luck,’ he said instead. Charles nodded gratefully, and set off towards the reception. The receptionist looked up at his approach.

‘How may I help you, sir?’

‘Has Gabrielle Haller been admitted here?’ he asked. ‘I’m a friend.’ The girl’s smile grew terse, evidently not believing him. She was just about to say that she could not tell him that or lie and say that she was not there, but a small push at her mind was enough to make the smile grow genuine again, and she turned to her files.

‘Yes, she’s here - I’ll take you.’

The receptionist called to one of her colleagues to take the reception, and showed him into the maze of corridors. As he followed her, he wondered what he would find. If she was badly hurt, he would happily stay at her side until she came around. But if it was only cuts and bruises and shock, should he turn up like this? They had not seen each other for fifteen years, and had not been in touch for well over fourteen. Charles might be the last person she wanted to see (or the first).

He had seen her photograph in the papers many times, so he knew how her face had lined, but now those pictures seemed elusive. It was not even the memory of her that presented herself, but one of the pictures which she had sent him with one of those few letters. He kept it in one of his desk drawers, along with a picture of him and Erik from when they first had met. Both were loves he could not admit to. In it, the Mediterranean, its turquoise turned a light grey in the photo, stretched out behind her where she stood at some look-out. She smiled as she pulled back her hair from her face, which the wind in turn caught and shaped into a black swell in the breeze. He remembered clearly that the sleeves of her dress were only three-quarter length, which she would never have worn in New York. Her large belly looked almost comical in contrast to her thin frame, and the weight of it made her lean back a little. He always wondered if she smiled because of the situation, or because she was already planning to send the photograph to him.

Haifa in the summer seemed a far cry from the sickly pink corridors of a London hospital. It seemed wrong that in one of the rooms here, she was being cared for, because someone had made an attempt on her life. Evidently the police thought someone might still try - they passed several plain-clothes police officers, whose loitering made their profession obvious even to non-telepaths. By the door where they stopped, a bobby stood on guard, probably more as a gesture than for any extra protection. A woman Charles gathered was the head nurse was passing the other direction, and the receptionist stopped her to explain that the gentleman here was a friend of the ambassador. Another telepathic push was all it took to get rid of the initial reluctance. The nurse smiled compassionately at him.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘She’s sedated, but I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.’ She was about to leave when she suddenly remembered something, and stopped. ‘Oh - David’s father is with her, but if you’re a friend of the family, I’m sure he won’t mind.’ Charles opened his mouth to protest - that he was here, in the corridor, not with her...

Then he remembered, and his heart froze. He did not understand how he could have forgotten for even a moment, but above all he wondered, how can he know?

‘Thank you,’ he said hollowly and approached the door. The bobby tipped his helmet at him and opened the door. He entered, as his heart beat alarmingly hard in his chest. The door closed, trapping him there.

Hospital rooms look much the same, regardless of what hospital or what country they are in, so the room was in many ways familiar to him. When the nurse had said that Gaby was sedated, he had been worried, but she was not intubated, and to an untrained eye, she might have seemed simply asleep. Still, there were tell-tale signs of what had happened. Her shoulder was bandaged and her arm was in a sling, and one side of her face bore cuts and scratches, presumably from when she had fallen. Her long hair was carefully combed over her un-bandaged shoulder, and spread over the hospital gown. Her free hand rested not on the mattress, but in the grip of the visitor, seated on the other side of the bed. There was no question of his identity even before Charles saw him, but something about seeing that sharp profile and the white mane of hair acknowledged the truth he was not certain whether to accept or not. He wondered how long he had been here; not long enough to think of taking off his coat, even if he had removed his fedora, which lay on the bedside table. When Charles entered, he did not look up, and did not even seem to have noticed the door open. The way he held Gaby’s hand was at once tender and unaccustomed, as if it were a kind of touch he had almost forgotten how to give.

‘Hello, Erik.’

Magneto looked up sharply, but as soon as he laid eyes on him, the aggression in his face melted into surprise.

‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, not unpleasantly. Charles rolled closer, to the side of the bed.

‘I was in Oxford, to give a paper. I came as soon as I heard.’ They were silent for a moment. ‘You?’

‘I was just passing through,’ Magneto said, and now Charles detected a hint of shock in his voice. ‘It was on the radio...’

‘Yes.’ They did not speak, and avoided looking at each other, concentrating instead on the patient. Charles tried to remember the last time he and Erik met on friendly terms. It was years in the past, but much more recent than the last time he heard from Gaby. After a while, Charles moved closer to the foot of the bed and picked the chart off the frame. He eyed through it, and exhaled with relief.

‘It doesn’t look too bad, under the circumstances,’ he said. ‘A bullet to the shoulder - nasty, but could have gone worse. Quite a few stitches, though.’ He eyed the bag of blood hanging along with the IV, and wondered if it was the wound itself or the surgery that had made her lose the blood. Charles put the chart back and returned to the bedside. ‘Have they told you anything else?’ Magneto shook his head. ‘How many were wounded?’

‘I don’t know much,’ he admitted. ‘Her aide was shot, but not badly. Another two diplomats were killed, as well as another Israeli. They assumed I knew him, as he was a friend of Gaby’s - Daniel Shomron.’

Charles looked at him in shock.

‘I knew him,’ he said. ‘We were at medical school together. I introduced them, when she emigrated.’ For a brief moment, he wondered what Dan had been doing there, when it struck him what the date was. It was David’s birthday, and Dan was his godfather. They must have been going somewhere to celebrate, when it happened.

‘Have you heard anything about who did this?’ Charles finally asked. Magneto sighed.

‘I sent Mystique to collect intel, but it seems like no-one knows anything. Palestinian terrorists, neo-Nazis.... It could be anything, but the motive seems fairly obvious.’

‘Yes,’ Charles agreed. For a moment he wanted to reach out to touch him, but he stopped his hand. Magneto was a difficult man to comfort. ‘So they got away?’ Now, a grim smile spread over his face.

‘There was nothing that could get away.’

‘What you do you mean?’ He turned to look at him. The spark in his eyes was suddenly the kind he had seen before in battle.

‘They were incinerated, Charles,’ he explained. ‘They found the melted guns, and the bones, and scraps of clothing, but the rest was burned away. There was no obvious source of the fire. No-one from the embassy was even scorched.’ Charles bit his lip. When he looked down, he realised his hands were shaking. Sudden unexpected phenomena were something he was used to, and it usually had a natural answer in the form of genetic mutation. This, however, was much more personal than any mutant manifestation he had dealt with in relation to the school.

‘David.’ The boy was fifteen, at just the age where powers started manifesting, and considering the traumatic impact of such an attack, it was not odd that his power would unleash. It still shook him that his first act with his powers was one of violence.

But Magneto’s thoughts were elsewhere, back in the past, as he reached out and touched Gaby’s cheek.

‘He probably saved her life,’ he observed, but there was regret in his voice, brought about by the memory of his own failure. Now he turned to look at Charles. ‘You knew?’ He nodded briefly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘I promised her not to,’ Charles said, regret in his voice. Magneto’s eyes flared.

‘You kept my son from me.’

‘She was well within her rights to ask that of me,’ Charles said sharply, suddenly annoyed. ‘You know why she didn’t want you know. You can’t blame me or her for that.’

‘So I was to learn that I had a son through the radio?’ he hissed. ‘Lie my way to get to see him - learn his name from his hospital chart?’

Charles’ annoyance disappeared, and he swallowed to steady himself.

‘Is he alright?’ he asked. Magneto looked away, not answering. ‘Please, Erik,’ Charles begged. ‘Tell me how he is.’

With a sigh, he said:

‘Alive.’

‘But...?’

‘Not there,’ he continued. ‘He’s unharmed, but he’s retreated into a catatonic state. It might just be shock, it might be... something deeper.’ Charles fought to keep his despair from his face, but failed.

‘Good God,’ he murmured. ‘Why did all this happen?’ Magneto offered no answer. He seemed as shaken as he was angry. ‘Have you seen him?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘He just lay there, and stared. As if there were nothing inside him.’ The look he shot Charles was full of contempt, for what he had kept from him. ‘So the first time I saw my child, he was unreachable, and for all they know, he might stay that way.’

‘It’s not certain that he’s yours,’ Charles said. ‘And before you think that I have somehow taken part in his life, I have never seen him. All I’ve seen is one photo that Gaby sent me, just after he was born, but that was it.’ Erik exhaled and averted his eyes, ashamed at this privilege. Then, quickly, he rose. Charles could not tell if it was his usual restlessness or the emotional shock which was making him unable to sit still.

‘We were fools,’ he said, looking down at the woman in the bed.

‘We were young,’ Charles corrected him, but softly. ‘We didn’t feel it at the time - we thought we were so old - but we weren’t.’

Magneto sighed and crossed to the window. The silence that fell felt distinctly familiar, with Magneto brooding and Charles waiting. Sometimes, it seemed to be the defining acts of their lives.

‘You think we were wrong to do what we did,’ Charles observed after a long time. Once again, Magneto sighed.

‘It was all wrong.’

‘It wasn’t what you felt at the time,’ Charles reminded him.

‘As I said - we were fools.’

‘So you regret it?’ he asked and caught his eye. Magneto looked back, tensing.

‘I wish I did,’ he answered finally. Unwilling to meet his eye, he looked out of the window instead. ‘Do you think it’s all there, still? The places we went to then? The hotel, that fish restaurant, that awful café where we had breakfast once, the park with the lookout...’

‘I should think so,’ Charles said. He remembered them all well, but even if they were in New York, close to Westchester, he had never gone back. He had never had a real reason too, and he did not want to trespass into the past. ‘It’s strange,’ he said suddenly. ‘All meeting again once more.’ Magneto scoffed.

‘Meeting?’ he repeated. ‘We could be in better shape. I’m persona non grata in human society, she’s shot and unconscious, and you’re as naïve as ever.’

‘Not naïve,’ Charles said. ‘Simply hopeful.’

‘There’s a difference?’ Magneto said and snorted. ‘Hope. Hope is just a refuge.’

‘And hate isn’t?’ Something changed in his pale eyes. The animosity was gone. Slowly, he approached and reached out. Charles turned his hand palm-up, and let him intertwine their fingers.

‘Look at us, Charles,’ he said and traced a line down his palm. Charles could not remember the last time they touched. ‘It’s just like then. You and me, arguing, even when we wish we didn’t...’ He glanced down at Gaby. ‘And her, caught up in it all.’ Charles pressed his hand.

‘Do you ever think about it?’

‘Yes,’ he admitted. ‘Sometimes I wish I could forget it all, but yes.’ He caught his eye. ‘Do you?’ Charles nodded, unable to lie. That cold spring of 1965, fifteen years ago, was often on his mind. He had thought he had felt old then, but he had imagined that pain meant age, and he had thought that he had been lonely, but he had not known the meaning of the word. Still now, the pain of that fierce love that had enveloped them all was vivid in his mind.

‘Often,’ he said and, pressing Erik’s hand, smiled at the memory. ‘Do you remember how it all started?’