Actions

Work Header

Despicably Yours

Work Text:



art by majorangecat/jamesorangecat
fic by almostnever/Cesare
A fusion: X-Men: First Class & Despicable Me



Original Art Prompt: Erik and Charles, rival supervillains
Click for full size

=

Erik's phone rang as he turned the corner onto his street. His current ringtone was the fast crashing climax of "In The Hall Of The Mountain King," but that, he thought in satisfaction as he glanced at the caller ID, was soon to change.

He put Barry on speaker. "Let's hear it."

"Hello to you too, Mag-- Mr. Magneto--"

"Just Magneto," Erik said witheringly. "'Mr. Magneto' sounds like a kitchen appliance."

"Well, I mean, just 'Magneto' sounds kind of..."

"Yes?" asked Erik in his silkiest tone. "It sounds kind of...?"

"Uh, totally intimidating!" Barry answered quickly. "Really, just, scary as all get out."

"Thank you," said Erik. "Now stop stalling and play it."

"It's not going to sound good over the phone--"

"It had better sound good anywhere, under any circumstances," Erik told him. "Playing over a public address system at a sports arena. Welling up from underwater in the lake in front of the Bellagio. Echoing in the Grand Canyon. There's no telling where I'm going to strike, and it has to be fit to accompany me wherever I am. Now play the song."

"Uh... right," said Barry, and the personal theme music Erik commissioned came booming through the speaker.

"Stop, stop, stop," said Erik after a few moments. "I don't like the tweedily part. Take that out."

"The... tweedily part?"

"The high part that comes in."

"That's the melody!"

"Get rid of it," Erik said. "I like that very first bit, that's appropriately menacing. Just go with that."

"But that's just a bass line. You can't have a song that's just a bass line."

Erik let that die in the air. Icily, he said, "I could've sworn you just said 'You can't have' something, but that can't possibly be right."

"Of course you can have whatever you want," Barry promised, "that was just, I just misspoke. I'm sorry, Mist-- uhhh, Magneto. Sorry about that, Magneto."

"That's more like it," said Erik. "More of that first part. Big. Grand. Menacing. I want to hear the next version by Friday."

"Friday! But that's-- uhhh, that's great, Magneto, sure. Friday." Barry cleared his throat and added unctously, "I hope the music's cheered you up about today's news. I've always thought that Professor X guy was overrated."

"How very sycophantic of you. But astute," Erik allowed. "You can have a little more time. Friday afternoon. Two o'clock."

"...Thank you," Barry said weakly, and Erik ended the call.

He parked his enormous chromed carship on the street before his fortress, large and dark and antique, standing out among the generic homes in this new development on the outskirts of town. Its only competition was the neighboring white mansion, excessively sleek and modern and gleaming.

Using his magnetic power, Erik glided down from the towering driver's seat to the sidewalk. He eyed a sedan parked in front of the cookie-cutter house next door. The back end jutted at least half a foot past the clear and obvious mark on the curb that represented the division between the lots.

He'd warned Pierce what would happen if his car was parked in front of Erik's lot again. With a wave of his hand, Erik lifted the sedan high into the air.

"Hello, Erik!" an English-accented baritone called out from the neighboring mansion on the other side.

Erik froze, and projected at top mental volume, «FROST!»

Emma's telepathic response felt cool and bored. «You don't have to kick up such a fuss, sugar, I can feel you. You're right outside the front door.»

«I'm just making sure you're ready to do your job.»

«I don't remember the part of my job description where it says I have to shield your thoughts so that your telepathic neighbor doesn't find out about your massive crush on him.»

«I do not have a crush on him,» Erik denied hotly. «He's not just my neighbor, he's the only other supervillain anywhere near my level. He's my arch-rival! Protecting my mind from him is vital, we can't let him know what we're planning next. Now diamond up and shield my thoughts.»

«You don't have a plan for what to do next,» Emma replied. «You've been resting on your laurels since we put three eyes and a Mutant Power flag on all the presidents on Mount Rushmore. And I love how you always say Xavier's escapades don't qualify as villainy whenever you think he's one-upped you, but when you think you're winning, suddenly he's your only competition again.»

Impatiently Erik cut in, «Are you shielding my mind, or not?»

«Fine, yes. Serves you right,» she added nonsensically. «Now hush, America's Next Superhero is on.»

"Good afternoon," said Charles Xavier, coming up behind him.

Erik set his jaw, adjusted his striped scarf, and turned around, drawing himself up to his full six feet and gazing down.

Charles smiled brightly up at him, his blue eyes sparkling. "Did you hear the news?"

News. There was news? "Yes," Erik lied. "It was very... novel."

Looking down, Charles chuckled, still with that naive smile on his face. He had a way of touching his tongue to his teeth when he smiled like that which Erik found deeply irritating. The only thing more devastating... ly annoying was when he smiled while biting his lower lip.

The oversized safety goggles on Charles's head pushed his wavy chestnut hair back from his face; he was wearing his black-framed glasses, too, and that orange shirt again, the one he seemed to favor when he made public appearances, slightly baggy on him with rolled-up sleeves. It clashed with his blue overalls. Not to mention his fingerless black gloves. Those boots didn't look good on him, either. They were too... brown, or something.

A crush. Ludicrous. Erik scowled. He'd show Frost a crush. Pierce's car creaked ominously.

At once, Charles gazed up at the floating car, and frowned with disappointment. "Erik, you promised that if I spoke to the homeowner's association about the Hendersons' dog for you, you wouldn't smash up any more of the neighbors' cars."

"I warned him about parking in front of my place!" Drat, but he had given his word. After a moment's pause, Erik flipped the car over onto its roof and lightly set it back on the asphalt upside-down. "There," he gave a flourish of his hand. "Completely unsmashed."

Charles raised an unimpressed eyebrow at him. "Honestly. Poor Mr. Pierce is a cyborg, you know. His cybernetic eye probably has poor depth perception! I'm sure he didn't park in front of your lot on purpose."

"Still." Erik absolutely refused to feel guilty or change his mind, not even when Charles pursed his lips and his stubborn chin creased with the depth of his frown. Especially not then.

"What if there were an emergency?" Charles pressed. "What if Mr. Pierce needs to get someone to casualty, and he can't because you've left his car in a state?"

"Then he'll learn a valuable lesson," said Erik. "And if someone needs the hospital he ought to call 911, anyway."

"If you absolutely must tamper with his car, couldn't you leave it right-side-up on his lawn? I'm sure he'd get the message, and that wouldn't endanger anyone."

Erik had absolutely no intention of giving in just to see Charles smile again. None whatsoever. He definitely wasn't about to relent when a town car pulled up and disgorged a smirking, handsome Tony Stark onto the curb.

"Tony!" Charles greeted him happily.

"Hey, babe," Stark said, probably because he'd forgotten Charles's name. He hopped up the curb and smacked a kiss onto Charles's cheek. "How's my favorite supervillain?"

"You know I'm not fond of that word," Charles chided. "I like to think of myself as an antagonist. In the pharmacological sense, don't you know. I take up the space that a supervillain could fill, and occupy it without doing any real harm, instead."

"Sure, sure, I was a white-hat hacker myself for a while," Stark shrugged. "Look, you know I'd turn the world upside-down for you--" he looked over and did a double-take at Pierce's inverted car. "Uh, if somebody else hadn't already started in on that..."

"Oh," Charles sighed, "no luck, then?"

"Every time I sourced materials, I found someone already beat me to it and bought up everything first. I'm not going to be able to pull together what I need to make it in time for the speech." Stark glanced at Erik significantly. "Should we be talking about this here...?"

"Don't be silly, Tony. Erik is my friend," said Charles. It was just like him to dismiss Erik that way in front of someone like Tony Stark. The prat.

"This is the guy? I thought his name was Magneto."

"No more than yours is Iron Man or mine's Professor X," Charles laughed. "Let me introduce you; Tony, this is Erik Lehnsherr. Erik, Tony Stark."

The two of them regarded one another with mutual displeasure, neither making a move toward shaking hands. "Enchanted," Stark said finally. "Okay, well, look, Charles, I gotta get moving. I'm sorry I couldn't whip you up an ink-shray ay-ray, but I figured at least I can drop by and tell you this: all those supplies that someone bought up before I had the chance? Those orders all went to Latveria."

Charles smiled. "You don't say. That is helpful, Tony, thank you."

The front door of Charles's mansion exploded outward in a bustle of papers as Charles's lab assistant rushed through, nearly bowling over the robot butler.

"Is he still here? Did I miss him?" Hank McCoy asked through the flurry, stacks of pages towering in front of his face, several rolls of blueprints under his arms.

"I don't know, did you miss me?" Stark asked, and McCoy blushed brightly enough that the pink showed through the tall paper drifts.

"I had a few more plans for you to look through if you have time," said McCoy redundantly, as if someone might mistake all those papers for feather dusters or birthday cake.

"Sure, stack 'em in the trunk," Stark said with a negligent wave that popped it open.

McCoy simpered and hurried to unload everything as instructed.

"While you're here, Tony, and since Hank has a moment," said Charles, "I wonder if you wouldn't mind suiting up and giving that car over there a quick flip to right it again? Hank's getting stronger every day, I'm sure he could help you safely turn it over."

That was really too much. Without bothering to look, Erik lifted the car, spun it right-side-up again and dropped it from several feet in the air onto Pierce's front lawn. The alarm began to shrill, the horn honking over and over again.

"Never mind," said Charles. "Thank you for that, Erik."

"Gentlemen," Erik seethed, and gave them his back, stomping into his fortress.

=

The moment Erik slammed the door behind him, he heard the flutter of wings, the whoosh of a windstorm, and a distinct and slightly stinky bamf as three of his minions fled his wrath. It was irksome, but at the same time, rather gratifying.

Emma Frost looked over at him, and transformed from sparkling diamond back to a flesh and blood woman in a trim white suit. "Thank goodness I blocked Xavier from reading all the villainous ideas that were racing through your mind, like 'I think he might look hotter without those glasses, if that's even possible' and 'Why doesn't anyone make tight overalls?' and--"

"I told you to do your job, I didn't say you could editorialize about it," said Erik. "Xavier asked me if I'd heard the news. What was he talking about?"

She laughed. "Turn on a television, Mags, it's on every channel."

Erik brushed past her and flipped on the TV, turning to 24-hour news.

"--live on location in Paris, reporting on this incredible story. The culprit behind today's heist has released a statement to every major news organization. The same message is now playing on a loop on the LCD screen that was left in place of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre museum this morning between 3 and 4 AM--"

"He didn't," Erik said, but now they were showing the video statement.

It was Charles, of course, the overalls, the orange shirt, the fingerless gloves, his goggles over his face in a token attempt at a disguise. Erik had no idea why he bothered. True, Charles had very distinctive blue eyes, which were obscured by the goggles, but he also had a uniquely identifiable mouth, bow-shaped and perfect and bright blush-red.

"Blush-red? Really? But it's not a crush," said Frost sardonically. That was the downside of keeping her around... she'd guard his mind from everyone else, but in return, she seemed to think she had license to poke around whenever she wanted.

"It's not attractive," Erik snapped. "It's just because he licks his lips all the time. Which is a terrible habit. Very off-putting. Now shush."

"Welcome, friend!" came Charles's voice. "You've come to the Musée du Louvre. And if you're like many visitors to the museum, you've come directly here, walking past hundreds of masterpieces, just to see the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Madonna Lisa del Giocondo created by Leonardo da Vinci at the dawn of the sixteenth century, and quite possibly the most famous painting in the world. It looks like this." In the video, Charles stepped aside, revealing the Mona Lisa behind him.

-



In the video, Charles stepped aside, revealing the Mona Lisa behind him.
Click for full size

-

The crowd at the museum gasped. Erik rolled his eyes. They were looking at the wall, they knew the painting had been stolen and replaced with the LCD screen, so why were they acting surprised that Charles had it?

"Of course, it's an amazing portrait," Charles was going on. "But do you realize that on your way here to see the Mona Lisa, you walked past another magnificent work by Leonardo da Vinci, his painting of John the Baptist?" Charles pointed; since the screen was mounted on the wall in place of the Mona Lisa, presumably he was gesturing toward the artwork in question somewhere behind the viewers at the Louvre. "And yet, so many people pass by John the Baptist without seeing it, because they're following the signs that point to the Mona Lisa.

"I'd like to speak to you a bit today about appreciating some of the other works in the museum. For that matter, the Louvre itself began as a palace and has a fascinating history. It's not just a funny old building with a weird glass pyramid plopped in front.

"But first, I expect you're probably a bit distracted wondering where the Mona Lisa's got to, so let's get that out of the way. I haven't stolen the portrait, I've simply moved it. It's quite safe. It's in another museum, elsewhere in the world. I'd like to encourage everyone, if you're able, to attend your local museum today, because the Mona Lisa might just be there. If the chance to see it in person isn't incentive enough, consider that there will surely be a reward for its return. Oh, but if you do find it, please don't try to sell it off into a private collection. Obviously if I can remove it from the Louvre, I can recover it anywhere, and when I'm cross I'm not nearly as likely to do it nicely.

"Well! That said, let's discuss the rest of the museum a bit, shall we? We'll start--"

Frost turned off the television. "He sure can talk. It goes on like that for at least another twenty minutes. Even CNN only showed the whole thing once. The Mona Lisa's already been found, at a children's museum in Rio de Janeiro. They were saying worldwide museum attendance today increased by something like 800%."

"You knew about all this," Erik accused. "When Xavier asked if I'd heard the news, you knew exactly what he was talking about, and you were guarding my mind, you were perfectly aware I didn't know yet. Why didn't you tell me?"

"You didn't ask."

Erik gritted his teeth. "Fine, fine... I'm asking now. Xavier asked Tony Stark to build him a shrink ray. Why."

"You know I can't read Xavier's mind," said Frost. "I tried Stark, but he doesn't know what Xavier wanted it for, and when I tried to get at the McCoy kid, Xavier shielded him. We're at an impasse."

"I have to know what he's planning next."

Frost sauntered out of the room, tossing over her shoulder, "Maybe you should ask him."

=

Obviously, coming right out and asking Charles about his next plan was impossible. Erik went to his bookshelf and tipped out an edition of Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History.

At once, the bookshelf and part of the floor rotated, putting Erik in a dark and narrow room furnished only with a brass pole and a hole in the floor. Erik, of course, didn't need the pole; that was left over from the previous owner. Erik hadn't bothered to removed it because he rather liked the feel of the antique brass, touching a hand to it as he floated down on magnetic fields to his workshop, deep underground beneath the house.

As he'd anticipated, this was where his other three minions had disappeared to. Angel was buffing her nails. Janos was using his wind powers to fly a paper airplane around the huge staging area where they built their custom vehicles and equipment. Azazel took one look at Erik's expression and disappeared again in a puff of red smoke.

"Don't worry, boss," Angel said. "We're way not impressed by Xavier stealing the Mona Lisa." Janos expressed his agreement with an eyeroll, conjuring a breeze that waggled the wings of his paper airplane like a dismissive shrug.

"I know, right?" said Erik. "Steal the most famous painting on Earth and use it to get people to go to museums? How is that supervillainy? That's a prank, at best. He's not even really competition to us. He's just playing around."

"Totally!" said Angel. "Plus, it's not like it's a challenge for him. A robbery like that would take us months to plan and pull off. With his telepathy and mind control, basically all Xavier has to do is show up."

"...Right." Erik wanted to protest that he could just show up and get into the Louvre himself without much trouble, but in the past few years it had become evident to the world at large that metal wasn't such a safe way to go anymore, and most institutional security systems now primarily ran on fiberoptics.

"I mean, he's pretty much the most powerful mutant in the world, and this is what he uses it for? What a nerd."

"Okay, that's enough, shut up now," said Erik. "I need surveillance on Xavier's mansion."

"I thought you just said he wasn't competition to us."

"He's not. But he's planning something new, and I want to know what it is."

"We couldn't figure out how to do that the last ten times you asked for it," Angel replied. "Do you have some kind of new idea now?"

"I assumed you'd kept working on it. Instead, I come down here and what are you up to? Doing your nails and playing with toys."

Janos gave Erik a jaunty wave and made his paper airplane do a triple loop.

"Boss, he has that mansion rigged up to hell and back," said Angel. "If Azazel teleports in, the motion detectors go off and glue-bomb him. Janos tried hurling every kind of tornado at the place, and nothing. If I fly over, the turret guns shoot bright orange sticky foam at me, and if it gets on my wings, that's it, I'm down. Do you know how embarrassing it is to fall out of the sky and get caught and carried home by Xavier's stupid robot butler?"

"Nowhere near as embarrassing as dealing with useless minions." Erik scowls. "I hate that robot butler. I can't believe McCoy made him that thing entirely out of resin composite and diamond quantum circuits. There's nothing to get a grip on." That was true of the turret guns and the defenses mounted on the stone walls around the mansion, too. "I notice McCoy never seems to tell Xavier that something can't be done."

"Xavier doesn't ask him to do the same impossible thing every single week," Angel said. "And McCoy thinks Xavier hung the moon. Not that you'd know anything about that. Probably because Xavier is nice to him. You really wouldn't know anything about that."

"I want three new ideas by noon tomorrow."

"What about an idea for our next job?" Angel asked. "Are we going to hear that by noon tomorrow?"

In fact, Erik had floated a dozen plans to his financier since his last undertaking. His idea to reshape the Eiffel Tower into an M (for mutant, of course, not Magneto; that was just a happy coincidence) was met with a suggestion to use his magnetism to detach the tower from its base and order Janos to blow the entire thing into the Seine. Erik got out of that one by pointing out that the river was only ten meters deep in Paris, so the tower would barely be dampened.

Next Erik proposed stealing the Statue of Liberty's torch and reshaping her hand into the Mutant Power fist. The response was an exhoration to knock the statue over entirely. Erik successfully argued that copper didn't respond well enough to his magnetism to move that much of it.

It wasn't that Erik objected to destruction on a large scale. His early escapades had involved a lot of that. But he was out to make a statement these days, not just topple things for the sake of showing off his might.

After all, Xavier didn't only steal the Mona Lisa, he made a point with it. Even if it was a ridiculous point, still... mere theft of the Mona Lisa would have been decried and forgotten. People were going to be puzzling over how Xavier managed to smuggle the world's most famous painting from the Louvre to Brazil overnight for years.

Angel looked at him expectantly, but Erik wasn't exactly eager to reveal that his last several notions had been rejected by their patron.

Fortunately, the buzzer sounded, the red light flashing. Saved.

"Can't talk, too busy, someone's at the door," Erik said. "Noon tomorrow! That goes for both of you."

Janos sent his paper airplane whistling into a death spiral toward the floor as Erik left the workshop.

=

The doorbell seemed like such an opportune distraction that Erik forgot why he usually made someone else answer it. It came back to him as he squinted through the peephole: there were people out there.

Not even people. Worse than people. Children.

«Emma!»

«Oh, no, sugar. You're not pawning this one off on me.»

«Then get Angel!»

«She's gone to reconnoiter Xavier's place, since you ordered her to spy on him. Again.»

The bell rang again. "Hello? Cookies for sale!"

Erik looked through the peephole again. Four children. The tallest was probably almost a teenager, a brown-skinned, athletic kid; the next two down were boys as well, fair and freckled, one blond, one a redhead.

The smallest had red hair as well, but her skin flipped from a peaches-and-cream complexion to a beautiful deep blue, and back again. In her arms she carried a teddy bear with fangs, a three-eyed Mutant Pride smiley face button affixed to the bear's furry chest.

"I heard feetsteps," said the littlest one.

"Me too," said the red-haired boy. "Somebody's in there," and he stuck his fingers in his mouth and made an atrocious face at the peephole.

"We're from Miss Nanny's Home for Mutant Orphans," the tallest boy's voice carried through the door. "We're selling cookies. They're really good..."

"How would you know? We've never had any," the blond boy muttered to him.

«Emma!»

«For God's sake, Lehnsherr, you can buy your own cookies!»

«Maybe if it were just the oldest one, but there are four of them! And the smaller ones look... sticky.»

«Oh, they most likely are,» Emma replied. «And germy, too. Children are second only to rats as plague carriers, as far as I'm concerned. If you open the door, try to block the doorway so they don't breathe into the house too much. And have some tissues handy, at least one of them is almost certain to get a runny nose. I'm sure the cookies are fine, though. Enjoy.»

"Hello?" the redheaded boy bellowed, so loud and shrill it left Erik's ears ringing.

"No one's home," said Erik.

"What?" the tallest kid frowned. "We know someone's there, we can hear you!"

"This is a recording," Erik answered. "Leave a message at the tone." He looked around for something to make a sound with, but the only things in reach were the Fabrege eggs and crown jewels in his trophy cabinet. Some of the eggs unfolded into gold-plated diaromas and several had dancing flamingos and ostriches inside, but he was fairly sure none of them made noise.

Giving up, he just said, "Beep."

"Hello recording!" said the littlest one, leaning toward the door. "This is Raven! When you get this, you can come visit us at Miss Nanny's--"

"Raven, it's not a message, it's just some guy being a jerk," said the redhead. "Come on, let's go."

He took Raven's hand, and the tallest kid guided her with a touch to her head as they went down Erik's front steps.

"Come on, Alex," said the oldest.

"Just a second," the blond kid said, and he clenched his hands into fists and did a funny hula-hooping move-- and glowing red energy formed in a ring around him and arced out, blowing apart Erik's mailbox.

"Alex! Tampering with the mail is a felony!"

"Darwin!" Alex imitated the tallest kid's tone back to him. "I didn't mean to mess up the mailbox. I was aiming for the door."

"That's not better-- come on, let's get out of here." Grabbing him by the shoulder, Darwin pulled him along with the others.

"Goodbye recorded message!" Raven called back as they left.

"I thought when we saw the M on the house, we'd have some luck here," the red-haired boy grumbled as they left.

"Guess it stands for something else," Alex kicked Emma's white rosebush border resentfully as the kids left.

Erik watched them cross the street, frowning. «Emma, find me someone to buy these useless jewels and knick-knacks, I'm sick of looking at them.»

«And donate the money to Miss Nanny's Home for Mutant Orphans?»

«I didn't say that. We could use the capital for our next plan.» Most of it. But there ought to be enough left over to give something to the orphanage.

«We don't have a next plan.»

Erik looked out the peephole again. The kids were out of sight. As he watched, though, the robot butler from next door trundled up the walk, a sodden orange Angel in his arms.

The robot let Angel down onto the front steps. "Do you require any further assistance?"

"I require you to go to--"

"Vocal analysis indicates that you are not sincere. I will return to Dr. Xavier's residence. Good evening."

Angel pounded on the door; Erik crossed his arms, annoyed.

"Oh, come on, boss, I know you're there! Let me in!" Angel narrowed her eyes at the peephole, and snorted threateningly, summoning up acidic phlegm.

Erik flung open the door. "Don't track that foam on the rug," he ordered, and returned to the workshop to scheme.

=

Clearly, if Erik wanted something done right, he would have to do it himself.

It was true that McCoy had made Xavier's mansion largely magnetism-proof, but Erik didn't just have magnetism on his side; he was not only arguably the most powerful mutant in the world, he was a brilliant tactician at the peak of physical fitness, and also-- he thought with satisfaction, as he carefully inched over the top of the wall, just under the lasers that triggered the turret guns-- exceptionally narrow, even more so than Charles, who was slight and trim and tightly muscled, with just the tiniest hints of appealing softness at the curve of his chin and his round, squeezable--

«Will you GIVE IT A REST, at least when you're making me patrol your head?!» Emma barked at him mentally.

«No one told you to look! Stop looking!»

«It's the loudest thing you're thinking! If I'm going to shield it from Xavier, I have to know what it is!»

Erik eased over the edge of the wall, using his power to cast more fine metal dust in the air, the refraction revealing the path of the otherwise invisible laser defense grid. He was preparing to drop down onto an uncovered square of space when a damnably familiar tinny voice said, "INTRUDER."

"What?" Charles poked his head out of the nearby garden shed just as Erik's feet hit the lawn. "Oh! Erik! This isn't an intruder, David, it's our neighbor. You know Erik. He's a friend, he's welcome here."

"You named your robot butler?" Erik frowned.

"He's very advanced," said Charles, "and hard at work twenty-two hours a day; the least he deserves is a name."

"What happens the other two hours?"

"That information is classified," said David.

"David, be courteous, please. Erik's just wondering." Charles smiled at Erik. "David recharges at random intervals for a few minutes at a time, a total of about two hours a day."

"Interesting."

"Yes, his engineering is remarkable. I'm very proud of Hank. And of David! Once his artificial intelligence became self-perpetuating, he did some of his own upgrades himself. He's even developing emotions; he added sadness and anger, just last week."

Erik looked askance at the thing. There was something unnerving about him. It. Him. Probably the eyes. They looked like they kept changing color, green, blue, gray, green again. Spooky.

"What brings you over, Erik?" Charles asked.

Right, cover story, cover story. He'd neglected to come up with one of those.

"Nothing in particular," he answered, playing it off with a shrug.

"Well, it's always good to see you," Charles smiled. "Would you like to come in for tea?"

"No. That is, I can't stay. But I thought I should congratulate you on the Mona Lisa heist."

"Thank you, my friend," Charles pushed his glasses up his nose, beaming even more brightly. "I must say, I am terribly pleased with how well it all worked out."

"I imagine after a caper like that, you're ready for a break," Erik suggested.

"I'm afraid not. We're on a deadline for our next project," said Charles. "Are you familiar with Samuel Prack?"

Erik frowned. "Sam Prack... that blowhard who's always turning up on the news claiming there's no such thing as climate change?"

"The same," Charles nodded. "He gives the same basic speech at all his engagements. Next month, one of his appearances is going to be televised."

"Of course," Erik said dryly. "Why waste airtime on facts when you can fill it up with convenient nonsense?"

Charles shrugged in unhappy concession. "At any rate, we're working on a plan to take place during his televised speech. So you see, there's really no time to take a breather. Tony couldn't build me a shrink ray, so I'll have to... liberate one, from Victor Von Doom in Latveria. Really, I think it'll be best for everyone if I take it off his hands."

"You're going to shrink Prack? That's not bad," Erik grudgingly admitted.

"Oh, no, not Prack himself; what would that prove?" Charles bounced on his heels a bit. "No, you see, when Prack reaches the crescendo of his speech, while he's saying that there's no way that human activity could affect something as large and complex as the climate... we're going to steal the moon."

Erik did not, of course, gape openly, but it took more effort than he would've liked. "The moon...?"

Charles nodded enthusiastically. "Yes! Hank's been working on the jet for months to make it space-ready. I intend to shrink the moon down and take it. I haven't quite decided what to do with it while we have it, so if you have any ideas as to what to do with a celestial object that's been shrunk down to the size of a softball, I'm open to suggestions. Anyway, we're going to ransom it in exchange for the US and Canada agreeing to the terms of the Kyoto Protocol. The tides here on Earth will be affected a bit, of course, but we'll have three days before any serious effects start to manifest. I'm sure we'll get our concessions by then."

"What if they don't give in?" Erik asked. "They are very stupid, after all."

"That would be mad," Charles said. "But if it should happen, we have a contingency plan. We've already positioned a team of robots and a supply of material along the lunar orbit. Within four hours they can construct a new satellite that exerts the equivalent gravity to stabilize the tides. Imagine the outrage if people look up at the night sky and see an artificial satellite instead of the moon! But I'm sure it won't come to that. As soon as the nations sign the agreement, we'll put the moon back and restore it to its proper size, of course."

"Of course," said Erik, thinking of his soon-to-be-empty trophy case. Once all those jewels and precious metals cluttering the shelves were sold off, it would be perfect for displaying a stolen moon.

A further thought occurred. "That artifical satellite. Would it need to be perfectly spherical, like the moon?"

"But the moon isn't perfectly spherical, of course," Charles said. "It's a rotationally symmetric ellipsoid--"

"Yes, I understand that," Erik interrupted, "but my question is, would the replacement need to be shaped like the moon."

"Not necessarily," Charles said. "Do the math correctly to ensure it has the same gravitational pull and make certain it's stable in orbit, and I suppose it could be shaped like nearly anything."

Erik imagined people all over the world looking into the sky and seeing a giant Mutant Power fist, or better yet, an enormous M. For mutant, of course. All right, maybe also a little bit for Magneto.

"Look at the time, must be going now. Nice talking to you," Erik said.

"Oh... yes, lovely to see you," said Charles, walking him to the gate. "You really do have to come over sometime for tea, though. I haven't had a good chess game in ages, I'd love to play you again."

When Erik first moved into the neighborhood, they'd played to several draws. Charles finally won a game, purely because Erik had been distracted. By something completely other than how infernally attractive he found Charles, because he didn't, obviously. Not especially. No more than anyone would ordinarily be attracted to a man whose peculiar beauty manifested in remarkable blue eyes and two perfect freckles dotting a perfectly imperfect nose and a vivid mouth that seemed made for almost nothing but producing spectacular smiles. Almost nothing else...

Who stood with one eyebrow raised, looking at Erik with some slight confusion, since he still hadn't gone out the gate.

Erik stepped through. "What were we... oh, chess. Of course. We'll do that sometime. Congratulations again on the success with the museums and all that."

He hoped Charles had savored that victory over Erik, because it was going to be his last.

=

"Get Azazel back here," Erik told Janos once he was back in the workshop. "We have a new plan."

No matter where the devilish teleporter vanished off to, Janos could always seem to summon him back. Erik assumed it had something to do with the wind, but it really didn't bear looking into too closely.

Once they were assembled, Erik announced, "We are going to perform the single greatest theft in history."

"If you want to steal the Mona Lisa again to one-up the Professor, no go," said Azazel. "I tried this already; I just came back from Brazil. What better time to take it than when it is in transit, hm? But Xavier gave the painting a new frame that protects it. It is biometrically keyed to only a few curators and docents of the Louvre, who are taking it back. There is also one of those horrible robots on guard, armed with glue bombs. I barely escaped."

"I appreciate your initiative," Erik said. "But that's fine. The Mona Lisa is child's play compared to our next job. Brothers, sisters, we are going to steal the moon."

Angel, Azazel and Janos all gasped, suitably impressed. Emma rolled her eyes.

"We'll begin with a trip to Latveria," Erik detailed. "We're going to relieve Doctor Doom of his shrink ray to bring the moon down to size."

"Wait a minute," Angel said. "When I was flying over Xavier's place I heard him talking to McCoy about a shrink ray. Are we ripping off his idea? Come on, boss."

"What? We're stealing the moon and we're stealing his idea to steal the moon," Erik said impatiently. "That just makes it twice as villainous."

Azazel and Janos both nodded in agreement. Though really, they looked almost overly bright-eyed and attentive. And Azazel's tail was nowhere in sight. Erik decided not to think about it.

"Okay, I guess I'm into that," said Angel. "We know where to steal the shrink ray, but we're still going to need a rocket to get to the moon."

"I can build the rocket, obviously," Erik said.

"But what about fuel? We don't have a giant Scrooge McDuck vault of money like Professor X," Angel pointed out. "And sure, you're powerful, but even you can't get a rocket off the ground, out of the atmosphere, all the way to the moon and back through re-entry all by yourself."

Erik hated to admit it, but that was true. He looked at Emma; she shook her head. She wouldn't be able to find buyers for all the treasures he'd instructed her to sell by then. "The fuel, we'll have to buy," he conceded. "But that's fine. I'm sure our financier will be only too glad to cover the cost, once he hears my plan."

=

"The moon." Erik's patron considered it, steepling his fingers. "I like it. What happens to the moon after you steal it?"

Erik pictured his trophy case, small spotlights beaming from all directions and reflecting brightly off the surface of the miniature moon. "Well..."

"You'll need to lock it down. A secret vault. Once you have it, every supervillain in the world will be out to loot it from you and collect the ransom." He paused. "You are planning to ransom it?"

"I thought it would send more of a message to leave an artificial satellite in its place," Erik explained. "Something calculated to hold the same orbit and keep the tides stable. I was picturing something in the shape of a giant M."

"And exactly how am I supposed to get a return on my investment, if--"

Truthfully, Erik had been too enraptured with the idea of pulling off the theft and impressing-- that is, outdoing Xavier to consider that aspect. He racked his brain to come up with something. Maybe before he shrunk the moon, he could gather some moon rocks to sell off. Or while he was in space, he could harvest some dead satellites for precious metals and parts.

"No, of course. Of course! Erik-- son, you're a genius." Sebastian Shaw stood behind his desk, planting his hands and leaning forward. "Why settle for ransoming the moon back once? If you take it for good, and leave an artificial satellite in its place, you can threaten the world over and over again. If they don't cooperate with our every demand, we bring down the satellite. The tides will ravage the coasts of every continent, and the satellite itself landing on earth would be an extinction-level event."

Erik blinked and said, "That's... one option..."

"Modesty. That's amusing." Shaw came around and leaned back against the sturdy mahogany desk, landing a strong hand on Erik's shoulder. "This is beyond mere supervillainy, Erik. You've conceived of the greatest act of conquest in the history of the world."

That did sound good.

After all, why shouldn't a mutant have an unignorable voice in world events? With this, mutants would become the equivalent of a nuclear power unto themselves. No more of these endless debates over whether mutants should have to register their powers with government bodies. No more mutant children rejected by their families and left to fend for themselves in underfunded orphanages, sent out to pester people with cookies to pay their way. Mutants could compel the world to give them anything. Equal treatment guaranteed under the law-- better yet, no human law at all. They could demand territory for a nation of their own. Colorado, maybe. Erik had always wanted to learn to ski.

And for that matter... why settle for a nation? Shaw was right. With a threat like that stationed in orbit, the entire world would have to bow to mutantkind.

Shaw thumped Erik's shoulder. "I'm proud of you, son. Get the shrink ray and take it for a test drive. Once everything checks out, I'll sponsor your fuel. I'll finance the rocket, too, so you won't have to make it yourself. We're going to want you fresh and rested when you come back to take over the world."

=

"Boss! Hey!" Angel flew over to Erik and waved a hand in his face. "Head in the game, boss! Twenty minutes ETA."

Erik straightened, snapping himself out of his reverie. It was hard to focus on stealing the shrink ray from Doctor Doom when he had a whole world to fantasize about ruling. What title would suit the ruler of an entire planet? "King" didn't seem half impressive enough. Not even Emperor seemed to cover it. He wouldn't be ruling a mere empire. He'd be ruling the world.

Maybe he should commission someone to invent a new word for that. He was probably going to need more theme music, too. Something with the same basic motif, but in different keys and different moods for various occasions. It should be played at commencements. Mall openings. Weddings. He should have an upbeat variation that people could dance to, and a soft, subdued version for slow dancing. Nothing too waltz-y, just something suitable for that sort of slow dancing that wasn't really dancing at all, so much as an excuse to hold each other close and move together... come to think of it, he was going to need another word, something a little more elevated than "consort"...

"Boss!" Angel yelled.

"What?" he asked irritably. The carship, now in its airship form, was gliding steadily along just fine. He hardly needed to concentrate to keep it on course to Latveria.

"We need you to let go so I can land," Angel said in exasperation. Erik checked the instruments and peered out the window. Sure enough, they were nearing the final approach, the rocky landscape of Latveria spreading out beneath them.

"Take us down," he proclaimed. Angel chuffed an irritated breath at him and piloted the airship while Erik eased off the power he'd been sparing to steer it along. Once it was fully under Angel's control again, she initiated landing procedures, and soon, they were putting down as easily as if Angel were using her own wings to settle them on the ground.

«If Your Majesty permits,» Emma thought to him, «may I suggest "sovereign"? How about "imperator"? But I wouldn't bother trying to come up with an alternative to "consort" if I were you. I think whatever word you choose, it's going to amount to "accomplice," and I imagine Xavier might have a few objections to that.»

Unfortunately, she was probably right. Not that Erik really had much hope of Charles joining him anyway. Power might be intoxicating to some, but Charles could control anyone with a thought, and he chose not to. Unfortunately, it wasn't likely that he'd suddenly find Erik irresistible when Erik assumed absolute rule.

Erik stood, drawing his gloves on. "How do the defenses look?"

Azazel vanished, a twist of smoke marking his departure, and returned seconds later. "Everything's just like we expected."

"That's sloppy of Doom," Erik said. "He should be changing it up if he wants his stronghold held. Then again, if he had any foresight, he also wouldn't wear a metal suit."

"He never had any reason to think he'd be facing you," Angel pointed out. "And he does have a whole country to run."

Erik frowned at that. Doctor Doom used to be a formidable supervillain, before rule of Latveria passed to him. But increasingly he was drawn back to his home country to deal with domestic problems, and these days he just sent the occasional handful of Doombots out for superheroes to punch into pieces. Sad, really.

Ruling the world was rapidly losing its luster. He looked over at Emma to find her smiling.

«I knew you'd come back down to earth before long,» she commented. «Who'd want to rule the whole world? Humans have made a complete mess of it. And you'd have to spend all your time fending off attempts to usurp the position. Besides, you don't even like running the four of us all that much, let alone the entire planet.»

All true. He was glad he hadn't told the other three about the whole ruling-the-world fantasy, it would have been a shame to get their hopes up and then fail to follow through. As for Shaw, he probably just got carried away in the moment, the same way Erik did. He couldn't make Erik take over the world, after all. Once Emma finished selling off the treasures in Erik's trophy case, Erik would be able to pay back the loan for the rocket fuel, and that would be the end of that.

«I did like your idea for our own mutant nation, though,» Emma thought to him. «Colorado is very nice, but have you ever been to Wyoming?»

"Let's put a pin in that," Erik said. "Right now, we have a shrink ray to steal."

=

Doombots made up the bulk of the defenses at Doom's stronghold, and of course, they were no obstacle to Erik, who quickly identified the main circuit controlling their motor function, and simply removed the metal from it in each robot, rendering them motionless. With Angel flying over them to scout ahead and Azazel teleporting to check from different vantage points, it was easy to avoid any other security that might present more of a threat.

"Just as we planned. Now that the robots in this area are deactivated, security forces inside are coming to investigate, leaving less guards in the lab," Emma reported.

The five of them joined hands with each other and Azazel, Angel not bothering to touch down to grab Emma's perfectly manicured fingers. They arrived inside the stronghold with a quintuple bamf, and at once, Emma turned from flesh to diamond.

"Xavier's here," she warned.

"Already?" Erik scowled. Of course, he could scarcely sense the composite-and-diamond jet McCoy made for Xavier, but still, it did have some metal components, and he had been extending his senses in search of it. He clapped his hand to his brow in exasperation. Xavier told him that McCoy was altering the jet to be space-ready; it probably had a different configuration by now that Erik didn't recognize. "Get out of sight!"

The five of them scattered behind various kiosks and pedestals. Erik frowned. "Where exactly are we?"

"It's a showcase for Doom's inventions," Azazel told him. "I think it's meant to inspire scientists in the lab. Don't get excited, most are non-working models."

"No, I don't suppose he'd leave a black hole generator in a glass case on a velvet pillow, even this deep in his stronghold," Erik said dryly, looking at the sleek miniature model of the device. He crept near the large, highly polished window that looked onto Doom's lab and carefully peered out, squinting to focus his gaze beyond his own reflected eye.

Charles and Hank McCoy were in the green and silver expanse of the main lab, Charles touching his fingers to his temple in the gesture that he tended to use when he was actively engaging his telepathy. The humans were all asleep, and the A-15 Doombots-- larger, more threatening robots than the servo-guard models protecting the walls outside-- were encased in giant blocks of ice.

That didn't seem like something Charles would encourage McCoy to create. Erik looked around, and sure enough, one of the cases was hanging open, the velvet pillow empty, the label reading "FREEZE RAY" knocked askew. So some of them were working models.

He wondered what Charles and McCoy had been planning to use if they hadn't made that fortuitous discovery. Knowing Charles and his propensity for mischief and nonviolence, he'd probably been planning to reprogram all the Doombots into mechanical clowns.

Then he saw it. Next to the empty case for the freeze ray, sitting there gleaming, the exotic metal beckoning Erik's senses.

The label read "ANTI-PSIONIC HELMET." Erik had to have it.

To his surprise and annoyance, the metal wasn't ferrous enough to respond directly to his magnetism, and of course the glass case was immune to Erik's power. He was going to have to walk over there and open the case with his hands like a mere human.

«Erik! Could we finish our mission before you go for bonus points?» Emma thought at him.

«You just don't want me to have a helmet that would render you redundant,» Erik shot back.

«I'm not too worried, sugar. I don't think you're going to want to wear that every time you talk to Xavier. You'd have a hard time getting close to those blush-red lips wearing a helmet with such a narrow keyhole opening for your face.»

She had a point-- wait, no, that wasn't relevant at all. Still, it was true that they needed to focus on their main objective first.

Charles and his assistant were consulting the computers in Doom's lab, pointing out different things on the lab floor to one another and conferring. «Well?» Erik asked Frost.

«He's shielding, of course.»

Watching them, Erik deduced it quickly enough. "Xavier was trying to build a shrink ray himself and Doom bought up all the necessary supplies. But Doom hasn't finished it yet." Probably too busy governing, the poor schnuck. "They're pointing to all the different pieces." Even as he was saying it, McCoy and Charles began to gather the components.

Soon they'd assembled it. The shrink ray had a composite handle and a huge lucite barrel containing layers of twisted fiber optics surrounding a gem computer core-- damn it, only a few scratches of copper inside, hardly any metal in the thing for Erik to grab hold of. He'd really had more than enough of his magnetism being thwarted today.

McCoy aimed at an ice-encased Doombot, but Charles put a hand on his shoulder, dissuading him, pointing toward one of the nearby chairs instead.

"Figures," Angel muttered. "Too soft-hearted even to shrink a robot that's programmed to mash him to bits."

Squinting and bracing himself, McCoy pulled the trigger. A massive blue beam erupted from the raygun, and surrounded the chair in a blue halo. For a moment, nothing... and then the halo began to dwindle in size, and when it faded, the chair was doll-sized. Charles went over to it and picked it up between his hands, a little awkward, careful to touch it only with the palms of his fingerless gloves. He strode back to McCoy and thumped him in a congratulatory fashion on the shoulder, his smile proud and beaming.

Maybe... maybe Erik didn't need to abscond with the shrink ray after all. Maybe he could let Charles go up and steal the moon, and then steal it afterward, along with whatever device Charles planned to use to activate the artificial satellite. After all, why not let Charles do all the work? And why wipe that smile off his face now, just when he was looking so gorgeous and happy?

A sudden tornado spun into existence in the middle of Doom's lab, sending every loose object flying or falling; as Charles and McCoy dove for cover, a familiar burst of red appeared and disappeared with a burst of smoke that blew away at once in the whirlwind.

Erik spun, dodging out of sight of the window between the showcase and the lab. Azazel and Janos reappeared nearby, also out of view of the window, and Erik threw a look at Emma. She shook her head; Charles and McCoy were none the wiser who was to blame for all that, then.

Hefting the shrink ray, Azazel said, "And now, back to the ship?"

"I'm surprised you bother to ask," Erik said, "since you took it on yourself to steal the shrink ray before I gave the word."

"I could have sworn you were motioning me to go forth," answered the teleporter, with a faultless poker face.

"I didn't."

"It is my mistake," said Azazel. "Nevertheless, it is done."

"Fine," Erik said. "Good work. But since Azazel took the initiative, we're ahead of schedule, and I want that helmet."

Which was, unfortunately, in full view of the window. And much of the stronghold was made of stone, so Erik couldn't simply float over some metal to open the case and take out the helmet. He always carried metal with him, of course, but the coins on his person and his packets of metal dust wouldn't be enough to break or cut through all that thick shiny shatterproof glass in a hurry.

Still, a modern lab couldn't run with no metal. Erik extended his senses to the lab, feeling for metal behind the walls that he could pull over to himself without alerting Charles or McCoy.

He felt plenty of wiring and support girders he could reshape and bring this way surreptitiously, along with the control panels, various gadgets, and the bulk of the frozen Doombots. Two of which were moving.

Erik bolted up, looking through the window. Janos's whirlwind must have knocked over two of the Doombots with sufficient force to break the ice blocks from the freeze ray, and the freeze ray itself had been blown far out of reach of the two men in the lab. McCoy was fending off one of the Doombots with more physical prowess than Erik would've credited him with, kicking it forcefully back, but Charles's powers were entirely mental, useless on a robot; as Erik watched, Charles picked up a chair and parried the second Doombot as it reached for him with hands made for smashing.

"The whirlwind set off alarms all through the lab," said Emma, "we have human and robot security forces converging on this area."

"We're not leaving them here like this," Erik said, spreading his hand, reaching magnetically into the robots. These were larger and much more complex machines than the sentries outside, it wasn't nearly as simple as just destroying a single circuit to stop them-- Erik disrupted one connection inside the robot after another, but it seemed to have a dozen redundancies to keep it moving despite the damage.

The robot advanced another step; Charles swung the chair to beat the thing back, nearly slipping on debris left by the tornado, and Erik's stomach lurched. He clenched his hand into a fist, willing the Doombot to collapse in on itself.

"Enough of this!" said Azazel, and activated the shrink ray.

"Don't fire--" Erik began.

The beam from the raygun hit the window and reflected back at a slight angle, the now-distorted beam hitting all four of Erik's minions, enveloping them in blue light, the shrink ray itself falling to the ground, just out of range.

"--at the glass," Erik finished.

The blue light faded. Angel, Azazel, Emma, and Janos weren't quite as diminished as the chair had been. But they weren't quite their original proportions, either. All now stood a third of their normal size, but broadened a little, looking overall childlike, a little rounded and wide.

"It's a shrink ray," said Erik, exasperated. "Constituted of visible and invisible wavelengths of light. Which makes it subject to reflection."

"Where is the reverse?" asked Azazel, rushing to the shrink ray. He could scarcely even lift it now. "There must be..."

"They weren't done with it!" said Erik. "They were still testing it! You're lucky it didn't kill you all."

"Security's closing in. We have to go!" Emma said.

"Not until they're safe," Erik insisted, turning back to Doom's lab. He'd succeeded in dropping the robot that had been attacking Charles, but now Charles was trying to engage the other one that had been after McCoy-- worse, as Emma warned, robots and humans alike were streaming into the lab. "Azazel, teleport the others and the shrink ray to the ship, you can come back for me."

With that, Erik straightened his scarf and prepared to emerge into the lab. With any luck, Charles would forget all about the shrink ray and his moon plan, overcome with gratitude at Erik's daring rescue--

"Victor!" said Charles cheerfully, waving. "Could you call off this robot, please? He's given us quite a pleasant workout, but I think Hank might be getting a bit tired."

"Doombot! Desist!" came Victor Von Doom's rolling bass. "Professor X, we meet again."

"Charles, please," Charles said, paying no mind to the soldiers thronged around him with their weapons trained on him. Well, not no mind; he subtly positioned himself mostly in front of McCoy. "I love what you've done with the lab."

Doctor Doom strode forth, gesturing to his forces, who lowered their weapons but didn't unshoulder them, merely pointing them at the ground. "You dare invade my stronghold?"

"I do!" Charles beamed. "I know you miss the sturm und drang of all that supervillain aggro, so I thought I'd just pop in unannounced and stir things up a bit."

Erik had never heard, or even heard of, Victor Von Doom speaking in anything less than a stentorian bellow, usually in the third person and in insufferably vainglorious terms. But to Erik's astonishment, Doom answered in something approaching a normal tone of voice, "You could've called. I thought you English were so polite."

"Ah, that's what we'd like you to think," said Charles. "I did always intend to make it up to you, though. We'll help fix anything we broke on our way in, and I brought you scones. Only, do you mind if we borrow your shrink ray?"

"It's not finished," said Doom, "but it would only be the work of a moment."

"It only was the work of a moment. The design is very ingenious, we were able to snap it all together in no time. And it works beautifully." Charles offered Doom the shrunken chair. It looked even smaller and more fragile balanced on the metal palm of Doom's full body armor.

Naturally Doom's mask betrayed none of his emotions, but his voice veered toward something that sounded suspiciously close to warmth. "What kind of scones?"

"You don't think I could've forgotten, do you?" asked Charles, smiling again. "Orange scones with craisins."

"In that case," Doom motioned to his soldiers and robots, and their weapons all lowered completely, most of them filing out of the lab in neat lines. "Yes, you may borrow the shrink ray. I have no immediate plans for it. I'm just keeping my hand in."

"Well in! I noticed your showcase when we first arrived," Charles said with enthusiasm. "The freeze ray is fantastically effective. I was a little hurt to see that anti-psionic helmet, though. I hope that's only for display."

"Merely an experiment," said Doom. "But let me show you the black hole generator, while you're here--"

Thinking fast, Erik used his power to strip the bolts holding on Doom's mask, and it fell to the floor. Doom and Charles both bent for it at the same time, and knocked heads. Erik snarled to himself as Charles fussed over Doom's sore head, saying, "Honestly, I don't even know why you wear that mask, Victor, you're such a strapping handsome man inside this silly tin of yours."

"Time to go," Erik said, turning back to Azazel, only to find him struggling with the shrink ray.

"I can't move it," Azazel said miserably. "At this size I am now, it is too dense, too much mass."

"They'll be in here any second!" said Erik. "How are we going to get it out if you can't teleport it? Can you still teleport me?"

"I could teleport you at half this size!" Azazel replied, distracted by indignation. "You are a marble and six toothpicks. If a mosquito could teleport it could take you."

With a wave, Erik fused together the few metal bits of the door's lock to buy a little more time, rushed across the showcase and seized the shrink ray. If they couldn't teleport it out, at least it could be useful now; he used it to smash open the case and take the anti-psionic helmet, quickly putting it on.

Reluctantly, he put down the shrink ray and held out his hand to Azazel, who had to stretch to reach. Erik bent at the knees slightly, and then with a grunt of irritation he gave up and just picked Azazel up. "Let's go!"

The room vanished in a puff of red smoke just as the door started to open, and with that, Erik found himself back on his ship. With another quick puff, Azazel vanished from his arms and stood alongside the rest of them, all of them reduced practically to snack size.

"I tried to initiate startup," said Angel unhappily, "but I can't reach anything."

"At least now you all have an excuse to be useless," said Erik.

"Calm down," Frost sighed at him. "We'll just steal the shrink ray from Xavier once he gets it. It'll give you more excuses to go to his place and ogle him. Everybody wins."

"I don't intend to calm down. This hit was an unmitigated disaster." Erik swept such an angry look over the lot of them that even Emma seemed a little affected. "I hope you've learned your lesson about moving forward without orders."

Azazel exchanged an apologetic look with Janos and said, "It is noted."

That was probably the best Erik was going to get out of him. "Move," he told Angel. "I'll drive."

=

Once Erik had time to cool down, he had to concede Emma had the tiniest fraction of a point. Charles and McCoy returned from Latveria not long after Erik and his crew did. Cleverly utilizing the old-fashioned, and therefore unguarded-against, method of spying with binoculars from his attic window, Erik watched them land the modified jet and saw Charles carrying in the shrink ray.

He needed them both out of the mansion so he could sneak in. After a few moment's thought, Erik went to the workshop and fired up MS Word.

Ten minutes later, he was printing out his masterpiece on glaring day-glo orange paper, Charles's favorite shade. It read NEIGHBORHOOD GARAGE SALE over a winsome image of a tabby kitten in a basket, and TO BENEFIT LOCAL KITTENS across the bottom, with the time and date given as 10 AM the next day at the nearby park.

"Here," Erik handed the paper to Angel. "Disguise yourself as someone short and shove this under Xavier's gate." Angel made an outraged noise at him-- the minions weren't adapting to their new dimensions with much grace-- but she took the paper and fluttered off with a flounce, headed next door.

He'd stake his life that Charles would drag McCoy to the supposed event. Charles would probably go early to see if they needed any help setting up.

Sure enough, the following morning at 9:30, Charles chivvied a squinting McCoy out of the mansion and headed toward the park. Erik waited til they were out of sight

He used the same trick of strategic genius and slim physique to get over the wall. This time, when that Peter-O'Toole-inside-a-vacuum-cleaner voice called out "INTRUDER," Erik was ready.

"David," said Erik as the robot hove into sight, "this sentence is false."

To his consternation, David didn't start sputtering and gouting smoke from his ears. He looked thoughtful. "A paradox," he said. "Interesting. Of course, this particular sophism posits that truth and falsity are absolutes, which is rarely the case when humans are involved. For instance, I think the truth in this case may be that you were hoping I would be overwhelmed by the question like Philetus of Cos, so that you could enter the mansion unimpeded."

"I was thinking more along the lines of old Star Trek episodes," Erik sulked.

"This is a difficult situation," said David. "Dr. Xavier would be displeased if I were to risk harming you, or even if I were to cover you in foam or glue like other intruders and expel you. He would be unhappy to learn you've attempted unauthorized entry at all."

That sounded good. "In that case, I'll just go into the mansion now, if you don't mind."

David clamped onto his arm with a vise-like grip and began marching him to the gate, his flip-flops slapping with each step. "I'm afraid if you don't leave the premises under your own power, I will have to escort you out. Dr. Xavier's happiness, while important to me, isn't among my primary directives. Keeping intruders out of the mansion is." He ushered Erik out. "But I will refrain from telling Dr. Xavier that you tried to break in. It would only make him sad. Now that I know what it feels like, I would not like to see him experience it."

"That's a good idea. I'm sure he'd be devastated," said Erik. "Good neighborhood relations are so important to him. You should erase this whole incident from your memory so that he doesn't find out during your next diagnostic."

"I suspect the suggestion is largely self-serving," David answered, "but I will encrypt the data involved in this encounter, so that even I won't recall it unless I decrypt it. Goodbye."

Erik had actually had similar conversations with the robot butler before. McCoy was a genius, but he wasn't exactly socially adept, and Charles was too trusting by half. Any artificial intelligence created by those two was bound to be gullible. Unfortunately, right now that didn't really seem to make him less effective.

Outside the gate, Erik checked the time. Just ten minutes had passed, but it would only take Charles so long to drag his assistant to the park, discover a marked lack of garage sales and tabby kittens, and return to the mansion.

Erik retired to the attic of his fortress and watched, but Charles didn't return, and didn't return. Erik put Janos on watch and returned to the workshop to plot, but hours later, Janos still hadn't alerted him to any changes. Erik stormed up to the attic.

"Did you fall asleep?"

Wide awake, Janos waved demonstratively: he was using his wind powers to juggle several oranges, still merrily flying through the air. Shrinking hadn't affected his accuracy, at least.

"Why aren't Xavier and McCoy back yet?" Erik asked, but he didn't have to wonder much longer; Janos pointed down the street, where Charles and McCoy were turning the corner, laden with various sundries.

Slitting his eyes in annoyance, Erik went down to meet them at the gate of Xavier's mansion.

«Frost!»

«Oh, you still need me? Are you sure you wouldn't rather put on your marvelous new helmet?»

«Are you going to do your job, or not?»

«I'm doing it,» Emma snapped.

Charles briefly took off his glasses to allow the biometric lock on the gate scan his eye; as a general data point, Erik observed that Charles did look very slightly hotter without the glasses. Charles wasn't in his work outfit, the orange shirt and overalls. He had on a much more tame ensemble, a blue dress shirt and a darker blue cardigan, and khakis. With the sweater and his glasses and the useless pile of geegaws in his arms, he really did look every inch a professor.

"Shopping?" Erik asked, strolling casually up.

"We were at the neighborhood garage sale," said Charles. "It's a shame you missed it."

"I wasn't aware that there was one," said Erik, in perfect honesty.

"Well, we went early to help set up, and it did seem as if things weren't quite ready yet. So we knocked on a few doors and asked for a bit of help, and soon the whole thing came together very nicely. We were able to contribute a nice little sum to Mrs. Kaur's cat rescue."

"Someone around here has a cat rescue?"

"I really wish you'd been there, Erik. It would be so nice to see you get a little more involved with the neighborhood. Meet a few people for reasons other than taking issue with their parking habits and their dogs. You'll come out for the next neighborhood event, won't you?"

"Yes, fine," Erik stomped off, shaking his head. Maybe he'd make up a new fake flyer for a shrink ray raffle, so Charles would create that out of nothing through sheer sunny strength of will. Though with Erik's recent luck, Donald Pierce would win the shrink ray, and shrink Erik's carship so Pierce could have all the space he could ever want to mispark his sedan.

=

Erik was still trying to concoct a new plan when Janos signaled him.

Joining him once more in the attic, Erik asked hopefully, "Are they going out again?" But gazing down, he saw the mansion's gate under siege by those same four cookie-shilling children.

Pelting down to the yard, Erik pretended to occupy himself with pruning the overgrown hedges around his fortress, peeking through the branches at the mansion.

"I want to ring the bell," said the little girl, growing taller and reaching.

"You got to do the last one!" complained the red-haired boy, pushing her out of the way. "It's my turn!"

The blond kid-- Alex-- tried to sneak around them both to ring it, only for the other two to shriek and drag him into their squabbling.

"Sh!" the oldest kid finally said in exasperation. "Nobody has to ring anything when you make a racket like that-- somebody's coming."

Sure enough, David came to the gate and greeted the children, "May I help you?"

The little girl took one look up at the robot, gave a startled little peep, and hid behind the tallest boy.

"Uh, hi," said the tallest one; Erik remembered now, the others called him Darwin. "We're from Miss Nanny's Home for Mutant Orphans. We're selling cookies. You know, so we can have a better future... somehow."

"I will inform the master of the house," David told them gravely. "I have informed Dr. Xavier. Dr. Xavier will be with you in a moment."

Charles appeared at the door shortly, smiling with pleasure that looked all too genuine to Erik's disgruntled eye. "Hello!" he said. "How can I help you?"

"Buy some cookies," Alex said bluntly.

"Alex!" Darwin nudged him. "That's rude. Uh, we are selling cookies, though. I mean, we're taking orders for cookies, and we'll deliver them next week."

"And Alex is right," said the redheaded boy, as Darwin sighed in exasperation. "It would help us if you bought some."

"Of course, I'd love to." Charles stepped back from the door. But no sooner did Alex set foot on the front stair when Charles said, "Wait! Surely you aren't going to come into a stranger's house without a grown-up? Isn't someone chaperoning you while you go from door to door?"

Darwin covered Alex's mouth before he could answer. "Sure," he smiled. "She's waiting in the car. Just down the street a little ways. We'll be right back with her, okay?"

"Certainly," said Charles.

The kids ran around the corner from Charles's front gate and Darwin bent to whisper in the little girl's ear. She beamed up at him... and then directly at him, and then down at him, growing rapidly taller. She took the form of a fair-skinned blonde woman, dressed in ridiculously conservative clothes: a skirt, a twin set, Mary Janes and a string of pearls.

The children came back to the gate, all smiles. "Here's our chaperone!"

"Hello," Charles offered his hand. "I'm Charles Xavier."

The disguised girl hesitated. Darwin and Alex shared a brief look of panic.

"How do you do," said the girl, shaking Charles's hand. "My name is... Hilary... Diddily."

"I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Diddily," Charles smiled. "Are you from Miss Nanny's Home for Mutant Orphans?"

"Yes!" the girl replied. "And it's not my idea but the boys have to sell fifty boxes of cookies today."

"That's quite a lot of cookies," Charles said. "Well, you had better come in then. Only, what happened to the beautiful little girl who was with you before?"

"She's in the car," said Darwin.

"Yes," nodded 'Hilary', "I'm in the car!"

"Ravennn," Sean moaned.

Charles laughed. "I have an idea." He stepped out onto the front stair, his robot butler closing the door behind him. "You ought not to come into my house without a grown-up, but we can all go somewhere together to chat a bit about your cookies. Now, where would be a good place close by?"

"Back that way, there's a cool vacant lot with lots of broken stuff and mud!" said Alex.

"The library?" suggested Darwin.

"There's a park," said the redhead.

"But if I stayed out in the sun, I'd need to go back in for sunblock," said Charles. "Too much bother. And I'm afraid I'd better not show my face at the library. I have overdue books."

The kids looked at each other despondently.

"Here's a thought," Charles smiled. "Isn't there an ice cream parlor two blocks that way? Of course to sit there, we'll need to be customers, so I suppose I'll have to buy us all some ice cream."

The little girl reverted back to her small blue form, squealing, "ICE CREAM!"

"Really?" asked Darwin.

"Unless selling all these cookies has you sick of sweets," said Charles.

"No way," Alex said. "We don't ever get to eat them."

"Then you definitely need ice cream," said Charles. Raven was grabbing at the hem of his cardigan, jumping up and down; he took her hand. "Here, now... Raven, is it? It's nice to really meet you this time, Raven. Why don't we head to the ice cream parlor and the rest of you can introduce yourselves to me along the way."

The five of them headed down the street. Erik waited til they were out of sight and approached the front door, hoping maybe Xavier neglected to engage his security.

"May I help you?" asked David, as pleasant as if the break-in a few hours earlier never occurred.

"I'm here to make a delivery," Erik improvised. "It's urgent."

"I'm authorized to accept all deliveries," said David, with a creepy smile. Did he really need to have quite that many teeth?

"I can't give this to a robot, it's much too important."

"Then I'm afraid you will have to wait for Dr. Xavier to return. Please stop attempting to wiggle around me."

"I'm not wiggling!" Erik said hotly. He was sidling. Not wiggling.

-



"I'm not wiggling!" Erik said hotly. He was sidling. Not wiggling.
Click for full size
-

"If you need to get in immediate contact with Dr. Xavier, he's currently headed toward the Baskin-Robbins at 212 East--"

"Yes, fine, shut up, never mind," Erik snapped, and trudged home.

=

The next morning Erik woke up with the perfect plan.

Charles wouldn't let the kids into his house without an adult. Erik could be that adult. He just needed some pretext to chaperone the children. And with the chaos of four ill-behaved little monsters running around, it would be easy for Erik to make off with the shrink ray.

"How do orphanages work?" he asked Emma. "Can you rent the kids? Take them out on a trial run?"

"How on earth would I know?" she asked crossly, examining herself in a hand mirror. She kept sucking in her cheeks. "Did you see what that shrink ray did to me? My cheekbones have vanished."

Erik gave up and consulted the website for Miss Nanny's Home for Mutant Orphans. A banner across the top advertised 10% off all associated fees and charges with the adoption of 3 or more orphans.

"Do we have enough in the bank for that?" Erik asked, showing Emma the screen.

"Just enough," she answered. "And I have buyers lined up for most of your trinkets. We'll have the bank account back in good shape in a couple of weeks."

Erik considered all the angles. The children and their cookies were his passport into the mansion. Still, he'd need to make certain Charles was occupied, in case the children were distracted by shiny objects and neglected to create a big enough distraction.

He radioed Angel. "I need a dozen robots shaped like cookies. Nothing complicated, they just need to be able to move independently and set off security systems. Maybe break some things."

"For what, now?"

With a put-upon sigh, Erik explained his plan while he filled out the adoption application on Miss Nanny's website. "So," he concluded, "I'll need some cookie robots. Get on it."

"Uh, right. Sure," said Angel. "I mean, we're all a third of our normal size with stubby little fingers and nobody can reach anything, but why would that stop us from designing something that none of us know how to make in the first place?"

Erik finished up and submitted the application. It looked like as long as he had a good credit rating, he could pick the kids up this afternoon. "Great," he said absently. "You just have to believe in yourself."

"What?"

"And get to work," Erik added, switching off the radio. Encouragement, and a firm hand... he was going to be a great parent, for the week or so until he dumped the kids back at the orphanage.

=

Miss Nanny was a short, oddly oval-shaped woman who only reluctantly put down her copy of Us Magazine when Erik came in. She peered up at Erik through thick-framed spectacles nowhere near as becoming on her as Charles's were on him. "You're sure you want those four? We have a very nice set of quintuplets. Today only, all five for the price of one."

Tempting, but Charles had already bought cookies from the four who'd been pestering their way through the neighborhood. He'd expect delivery from them. "No, thank you. Definitely those four."

"We're just running the credit check now," said Miss Nanny. "So tell me, Mr. Lehnsherr, what is it that you do?"

"Well, I am... a..." someone who earned a substantial salary and worked with a lot of kids, what, what... "A dentist." Erik offered an enormous, healthy smile.

Miss Nanny looked somewhat taken aback, if not blinded. "I see... and your marital status?"

"Single." No, that probably wasn't as good as: "Widowed. Single because I'm widowed."

"I'm so sorry to hear that. What was your wife's name?"

"Umm, Charlotte," Erik panicked. "Very brilliant. Very beautiful. It's awful to be without-- her. Just terrible." At Miss Nanny's expectant look, he continued, "It's like... my heart is a tooth, and it has a cavity that can only be filled with children."

Ugh, that sounded grotesque. He was in trouble. Time to lay on the charm.

"I admire your work here, Miss Nanny. Do you speak German?"

"No. You're multilingual, Mr. Lehnsherr?"

Would that help? "Yes," he said, "I have a knack for tongues and accents. English obviously, and German, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish, French, Polish, Russian..."

"Really." She looked suspicious now.

It was all true-- he was fluent in all those and more-- and he chafed at being held to a human standard of mediocrity, but he schooled himself. "It's often said we have words in German that can't be expressed properly in English. You have," he made his tone as syrupy as possible, "die Form eines Eies, Miss Nanny."

"Oh?" Miss Nanny fluttered a bit behind her thick glasses. "Goodness. That's very kind of you, Mr. Lehnsherr. You seem like an accomplished and handsome man..."

Well, her vision might need correction, but she had taste. Erik gave her the benefit of his slightly better left three-quarter profile, and a hint of a smile.

"...and more importantly," said Miss Nanny, tapping a few keys on her computer, "your credit is good." She pressed a button on an intercom. "Peter, could you bring Darwin, Alex, Sean and Raven to my office?" She shoved a contract across the desk to Erik. "Sign here."

=

Close-up, the children looked slightly less messy and germ-ridden than they did through the peephole; possibly Erik needed to have one of the minions give that thing a thorough cleaning.

Actually, wasn't that the whole reason people had kids? He'd have the children take care of it, along with whatever other chores needed doing. This plan could be even more advantageous than he thought.

"Kids, this is Erik Lehnsherr," said Miss Nanny. "He's here to adopt you! Won't that be nice? Say thank you!"

"Thank you, Miss Nanny," the kids said in dutiful unison.

The oldest kid stuck out his hand. "My name's Armando, but everyone calls me Darwin. This is Alex, and Sean, and--"

"HI MISTER ERIK HI," the littlest one lunged for him and wrapped herself around his calf with surprising strength. "I got your leg!"

"That's Raven," Darwin sighed. "I can adapt to just about anything. Sean can scream at ultrahuman frequencies, and Alex can shoot energy bolts, but they won't indoors, we promise! And Raven can change how she looks."

"You can do whatever you want indoors," Erik said. "You're mutants, you should be proud of your powers."

Alex perked up. "We are."

"Look!" said Raven, waving her stuffed animal, which she was somehow still clutching along with her death grip on his leg. "My teddy bear even says so! He has a button! It's a smiley face and it has three eyes, like the presidents on Mount Rushmore! He has big pointy teeth too, like you! 'Cause he's a mutant bear."

Darwin added, "We even go to mutant ability classes at the Massachusetts Academy."

"Hm." Erik didn't see how mutant powers could possibly be taught in school, but at least the kids were trying to increase their strength. He looked down at Raven, still clinging very effectively to his calf. "Does she have a secondary mutation for clinging to things?"

"No, she's just stronger than baseline and really stubborn," said Darwin. "Come on, Raven, let go."

"Maybe there's some way to peel her off?" Erik suggested, when Raven continued not to budge. "You, with the shouting power. Can you shake her off? Is there a frequency for that?"

"We're not using our powers against each other!" frowned Sean.

"Ah. No, of course, that was a trick question. Good answer," Erik said uncomfortably. "Well, Miss Nanny, if everything's in order?"

"Take 'em," Miss Nanny said with a wave, already nose-deep in her magazine again.

Erik gave his leg a last kick, but Raven just squealed in delight, "HIGHER!" He gave up and limped out to the car, letting Darwin lead the other kids out with him.

=

"Is this your house? It's spooooky," said Raven.

"Wait a second!" said Alex. "You're the guy who pretended to be a recorded message!"

"No, that was someone else," said Erik. "Come inside."

Erik didn't normally give much thought to the fortress. It had walls and a roof and it adequately contained all his stuff. But when Raven said, "It looks like a haunted house! Look at all the spooky pointed windows!" he had to admit she had a point. The fortress was large and dark with lots of angles and gables and cupolas, all the things people associated with old, scary houses, primarily because it was an old, scary house. Erik's taste just happened to run toward old and scary.

Inside, things were much more modern-looking, since Erik decorated with metal at every conceivable opportunity. Textured metal flooring, ribbed metal walls, metal screens and metal doors... the minions made Erik put down rugs, but mostly the place looked like a foundry. Sure, it was a little cold, and Erik understood it wasn't all that comfortable for people who weren't magnetically attuned to metal, but after all, it was his house.

"What's that?" asked Alex, running over to Erik's iron maiden. "And what are those?" he pointed to the framed Iron Maiden posters surrounding it.

"Those are posters from my favorite band, and that is the first of many things you're not allowed to touch," Erik said.

"How many things?" asked Sean.

"Everything," said Erik. He led the kids to the kitchen. "Almost everything. You can get water and ice from the refrigerator door. Those things are for you," he waved toward the pile of sleeping bags he bought them, as well as the kid food he'd picked up to supply them. "Don't touch anything else, don't make any noise, and don't leave this room."

"Are you serious?" Darwin asked.

"Also," said Erik, "don't ask any questions. See you in a few hours," and he headed back to the workshop, giving the children a pleasant wave goodbye.

=

In the workshop, Erik spent a happy hour on the blueprints for his rocket to the moon. Apart from the occasional distraction from the minions-- Janos and Emma couldn't reach anything without help from Angel and Azazel, and it was apparently causing some friction, along with some lobbed airplanes and oranges and the odd bit of mind control.

Still, since they were all a third of their normal height, most of it was happening at knee-level where Erik could easily ignore it, and he made good progress until suddenly everything went quiet.

"What?" he asked, lifting his head, and he growled peevishly when he saw the children had slipped the leash and somehow made it to the workshop. Possibly he should've invested in actual leashes.

"What is this place?" Darwin asked.

"It's my... dentist's office," Erik tried.

"It looks more like a secret workshop."

"Fine," Erik said, "you have to keep it quiet, but since you're mutants too, I'll tell you. I'm not a dentist, I'm a supervillain called Magneto. I'm the one who gave all the Mount Rushmore presidents three eyes."

"Ooooh, yay!" Raven clapped her hands.

"That's way better than a dentist," said Alex.

"Of course it is." Erik stood; it was kind of fun to be the tallest person in the room by such a large margin. "But this is still no place for children. How did you get down here?"

"I wanted to read Lectures on the Philosophy of History, but when I pulled it out, the bookshelf swung around," said Darwin. "Raven jumped down the pole, so the rest of us had to follow her down."

"I want to go again!" Alex said.

"Nobody's going again," Erik said sternly. "Everyone's going back to the kitchen to stay there as instructed."

"We can't live in your kitchen!" Darwin said. "There isn't even a bathroom!"

"There's a sink."

"What does this do?" Alex asked, poking at the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, which promptly shot a modulating beam at Raven's fanged Mutant Pride bear and reduced it to ash.

"Alex!" Darwin grabbed him away from the modulator.

"My bear!" Raven cried. She tugged Erik's pantleg. "You have to fix it!"

"It's been modulated out of existence," said Erik. "It can't be fixed. This is why children don't belong in the workshop."

"Then who are they?" Sean demanded, pointing at the minions.

"They're not children, they're assistants," said Erik, "they're sort of like Oompa-Loompas," and ignored the minions' outrage. A little bit of insult now and then was good for keeping their egos cut down to size.

Sean asked, "Why do you have Oompa-Loompas?"

"Do you make candy?" Alex jumped up and down. "I want some! Do you have fizzy lifting drinks?" In his enthusiasm, he sent a bolt of energy flying across the workshop, and that was the end of the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.

"Don't explode things," Erik ordered. "Unless I tell you to."

"I can't help it sometimes," said Alex. "Hey, but you know what would probably help? Candy."

"You already had too much candy," said Darwin. "Which by the way, Mr. Lehnsherr, we can't eat nothing but candy! We'll get sick and die!"

"You won't, you'd adapt," Alex pointed out.

"Whatever, that's not the point, Alex."

"Well, you're always telling us not to lie."

"It wasn't a lie! If the rest of you get sick and die from eating candy, I'll get sick and die from being sad!"

"Enough. Being sad doesn't kill you," Erik said with finality, and the kids, miraculously, all went silent, looking at him and each other.

"I want my bear," sniffled Raven.

Erik snapped his fingers. "Azazel, get the little girl something bear-shaped. Not," he quickly added, "an actual live bear."

"Good save," said Azazel, and he vanished.

"But my bear was a mutant bear and he was special and his name was Murphy and the nice lady gave him to me a whole year ago and I had him forever and I want him back," Raven sobbed. The other kids fell in around her, giving her hugs and glaring at Erik.

"Hey, did I pull the trigger? No," said Erik. "I told you not to come down here!"

Azazel returned with a gigantic gummi bear that was almost exactly the size of Raven's stuffed bear, and put it in her hands.

"I want Murphy." Raven hiccuped, bit off the gummi bear's ear, and continued to sob with her mouth full.

For lack of any better ideas, Erik said, "I think it's bedtime."

=

Darwin flatly refused to let the other kids sleep on the kitchen floor in their sleeping bags. "We need at least one room of our own, with a bathroom," he said.

Erik rolled his eyes and grumbled, but he had the space, and it didn't take much to throw together some furniture with his magnetism.

"Are these our beds?" Sean asked doubtfully, thumping the side of a missile shell. Erik had simply divided two large shells in half, creating four half-shells perfectly suitable for holding one sleeping-bag-swaddled child apiece.

"Were these bombs?" asked Alex, eyes round.

"Yes, but I took out all the active components, so they won't explode," said Erik. Alex looked a little disappointed, so he shrugged, "Probably."

"Cool!" Alex jumped in with his sleeping bag and bounced around, rocking his bed.

"Where are you going?" Sean asked as Erik made for the door.

"Back to my workshop."

"But you have to tuck us in," he said, "that's what parents do."

Erik sighed. "What does that involve?"

"I don't know," Sean confessed. "We didn't have parents before. But I know they do it!"

"Fine," said Erik, "we'll call this tucking," and he went around to each bed and patted the side of it, reshaping the metal slightly to make each of the shells a little more stable. Not that he cared if the kids fell out, but this way they'd make less noise if they tossed and turned. "There. All tucked in."

"Will you read us a bedtime story?" Raven asked, holding up a board book with kittens on the cover.

"No."

"But we can't go to sleep without a bedtime story." It looked as if she was changing her face to make her eyes bigger and sadder-looking. She looked like a Precious Moments dog.

"Then it's going to be a long night for you, isn't it," Erik said. You shouldn't coddle children by giving them anything they wanted, he was pretty sure he'd read that somewhere. Anyway, it had worked for him. Tough love, right? The tougher the better. "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite... because there are literally thousands of them. And there's probably something in the closet. Sweet dreams!"

"Darwin," he heard Raven saying as he closed the door, "my new teddy bear is sticky."

=

The next day, Erik escaped the house at lunchtime, desperate for company taller than five feet in height, and ran into Charles on the sidewalk, literally, colliding with him as he rolled his recycling bin out to the curb.

«Frost!»

«I'm guarding your stupid precious privacy! Now shut up! They're selling a diamond Rolex on Pawn Stars, it's hideous.»

"Sorry," Erik muttered, helping Charles up and dusting him off.

"Quite all right. Good afternoon, Erik," Charles resettled his glasses on the freckled bridge of his nose. "The neighborhood's all abuzz. Pierce is saying you have visitors?"

"Doesn't anyone mind their own business around here?"

"I think it's wonderful that you have company," said Charles. "I know your work associates are usually over, but all work and no play, et cetera."

"Most people would probably prefer it if I were a dull boy," Erik said dryly.

"Well, I wouldn't," Charles smiled.

"They're not exactly company," Erik found himself saying, mesmerized by that smile. "I adopted them from Miss Nanny's Home for Mutant Orphans."

Charles lit up, all bright blue eyes and an even more exquisite smile, just like Erik knew he would. It was still a little overwhelming. "Erik! That's brilliant! I'm so happy for you."

"Yes, well." Erik cleared his throat. "It's... challenging."

"I can imagine! But rewarding. I'm sure you'll be a marvelous parent."

"Oh, definitely." Casually, Erik added, "I don't suppose you happen to know what children eat."

Charles paused, arching his eyebrow steeply. "I'm not sure I understand the question."

"Food suitable for children," Erik elaborated. "I gave them Cheerios and M&Ms. After breakfast they jumped all over everything for hours. Now they're just lying around moaning. I don't want to feed them again and set off more jumping, but the moaning is starting to bother the minions."

"Why don't we all go to the supermarket together?" Charles suggested. "Give the kids some more Cheerios, not sweets-- do you have milk in?"

"I doubt it."

"I'll come over. Hang on a tick." Charles vanished into his mansion and shortly reappeared with several boxes, falling in step with Erik companionably as they returned to the fortress.

The children were listlessly poking every single thing Erik had told them not to touch. Somehow Charles herded them all into the kitchen and sat them around the table, and distributed his boxes along with the cereal.

"What's this?" Alex asked, screwing up his face.

"It's almond milk," Charles said.

"Gross! I want regular milk!"

"I'm afraid we don't have any cow's milk in, right now. Almond milk is lovely. It's sweeter than cow's milk." Charles took a seat at the table and poured himself some Cheerios and almond milk.

"Thanks," Darwin told him, and had some too. Sean followed suit. Alex continued to glower and Raven looked confused.

"It's good," said Darwin.

"I don't want stupid nut milk. I want more chocolate," Alex said.

"I thought you said you wanted cow's milk," said Charles.

"I want regular milk. How come you keep calling it cow's milk?"

"Because it comes from cows. You know that. Dairy farmers put cows into stalls and attach machines to the cows' udders and pump the milk out of them."

"Ew!" Raven squealed.

"Oh yeah? How do you milk an almond?" Alex demanded.

"Well, almonds grow on trees," said Charles. "When they're ripe, farmers attach a machine to the trunk of the tree, and it shakes the devil out of it so that all the almonds fall out." Alex was starting to look interested. "Then you crack them out of their shells. Once you have the nuts, you crush them, or pulverize them in a blender, and mix them with water, and let it soak a bit. Then you strain it to take all the solids out of it, and the liquid that's left is almond milk."

"I want to do that," said Alex. "I want to crack open nuts and CRUSH the milk out of them."

"We can try it," Charles offered. "We're all going to the supermarket in a bit. We can get a big bag of almonds and make our own almond milk with the blender. But first everyone needs to finish up lunch."

Alex pushed out his lower lip in pouty annoyance, but he snatched the cereal and almond milk from the table and poured himself a fair amount of both, digging in.

"Tastes like crushing!" he yelled happily.

=

Erik was dubious about taking all four kids to the nearby grocery store, though it did seem like a better place to let them run around wild than, say, his own house. Still, there were only two of him and Charles, and four of the kids. It seemed inevitable that they'd lose one or two, and Charles would probably be sad about it.

"Are you sure we shouldn't leave a couple of them in the car?" Erik asked. "We could crack a window."

"Very funny," said Charles. "All right, everybody, ground rules. No running, no shouting, and everyone stays in the same aisle as me and Erik. We all hold hands crossing the car park. Ready?"

"Wait, wait," said Raven, turning from blue and ginger to pink-skinned and blonde. Charles took her hand, seemingly ready to walk her into the store.

"What are you doing?" Erik frowned.

"Miss Nanny says when I go places with other people around, I hafta look like somebody else," Raven said.

"Not anymore," Erik said. "When you go places with me, you can be yourself." He challenged Charles with a glare, and Charles looked abashed.

Raven was still puzzling over it. "But when I look like this, everybody says I'm pretty."

"When you look like yourself," Erik told her, "you're beautiful."

She looked at him, and then at Charles; he nodded encouragingly. Slowly, Raven's skin flipped from pinkish-beige to blue.

"Perfect. Much better," Erik said, taking her other hand, and they all crossed into the store.

They loaded up the cart with more almond milk, as well as a sack of almonds to make their own. "How come you don't drink cow milk?" Sean asked Charles.

"Animal milk is all right for children, but it's not always good for adults," Charles said. "It can be hard to digest. And I just don't think it's very nice to make cows stand in stalls so machines can pump milk out of them when we can use other things for milk instead."

"I suppose you're also a vegetarian," Erik said.

Charles smiled at him. "Yes."

"I want to be a vegequarium too," Raven said.

"I don't," Alex declared. "I'll drink almond milk but I still want a hamburger for dinner. A great big one that's all bloody and everything!"

Erik was in serious danger of warming to that kid.

=

Shopping with the kids and Charles wasn't the ordeal Erik expected it to be. The kids argued a lot over what they wanted, but they obeyed the basic rules, staying in the same aisle and keeping the noise down to a dull roar. Charles failed to even slightly convince Erik to try vegetarianism, and Erik taught Charles how to pronounce Manischewitz.

"As supervillains go, you make a good babysitter," Erik said.

"I'd be happy to look after them now and then," Charles offered. That sounded promising.

Soon they were standing in the checkout line, the shopping cart groaning with food-- some of it even, at Charles's insistence, healthy.

"Pick me up?" begged Raven, who was starting to droop; Charles hoisted her up into his arms. "Today is nice," she sighed, laying her head on Charles's shoulder, eyes closing. "Nobody said anything mean even one time."

Which, come to think of it, was more than a little strange. They'd been talking openly about their powers off and on throughout the trip, the kids excitedly describing their ability classes at Massachusetts Academy. Raven stayed blue the entire time, and Erik reshaped their shopping cart several times to resemble various animals, to keep the kids entertained.

"Were you using telepathy to stop anyone from harassing us?" Erik hissed.

Charles looked at Raven with concern, but she was dozing. "I didn't control anyone's minds, if that's what you're asking."

"That's not what I'm asking."

Unperturbed, Charles said, "When I sensed anyone preparing to make a comment, I simply refuted them mentally, rather than out loud, and warned them what was likely to happen if they went so far as to voice their remarks."

"That's deceptive," said Erik.

"I assure you, they were all very aware of exactly who I am and what I was doing--"

"Not the humans, I don't care about them! It's deceptive to the kids." Erik looked back at the boys, who were all applying themselves in full to the question of what to buy as their one allotted piece of candy from the checkout display. "Mutants face all kinds of problems in the world. You can't just let them believe everyone's going to be nice to them all the time."

"Erik, they have their whole lives to learn that the world isn't fair," Charles said quietly. "When they're with me, I'm going to hold their hands crossing the street, give them something besides sugar to eat, and protect them from ignorant nonsense. You'd stand up for them your way, if it came to that. This is mine."

"My way, they'd know what they were up against," Erik said.

"Can I have this one?" Sean asked, waving a candy bar, and that was the end of the discussion. They paid and hauled everything out and headed home in the carship, letting the kids do all the chattering.

"Do you need a hand carrying things in?" Charles offered once Erik parked in front of the fortress.

"I have it," Erik said, levitating a sheet of metal like a magic carpet, laden with grocery bags. "Thanks for your help. Most of it."

Charles nodded, his mouth folding down. He composed a happier expression and turned to wave to the kids. "See you soon!"

"Awww!" "Do you have to go?" "I thought you were coming for dinner!" "PROFESSOR CHARLES, YOU SHOULD STAAAAY."

"I'm afraid I can't tonight," he told them. "I have an appointment."

"Like a date?" asked Raven.

"No, just an appointment," Charles smiled.

"Good," she said. "I don't want you to go on dates."

Charles laughed. "All right, I'll try my best to avoid them, then." He looked at Erik and gave a little shrug, his expression so clear: regretful, but not really apologetic. "See you."

Erik waved him off. "Goodbye."

He led the kids into the fortress, floating the groceries ahead of them. He really hoped one of the minions knew how to cook with rhubarb, or how to make almond milk in the blender, or really, how to cook anything that wasn't cereal. If they didn't, someone was going to have to learn in a hurry.

=

"I said I wanted cookie robots!" Erik smacked his palm to his face, standing in the middle of the workroom, failure all around him as far as the eye could see.

"Who the hell did you think was going to make cookie robots?" asked Angel. "None of us knows how to make robots! You're the metal guy! Here." She handed him a box. "We baked some cookies full of sedatives, get Xavier to eat one and you're home free. You're welcome."

In the week since the shopping trip, Erik had let the kids go over to Charles's mansion every day, telling himself he was just trying to get Charles used to having them around so he wouldn't be suspicious the day that Erik came over with them to steal the shrink ray.

It didn't hurt that the kids adored Charles, or that coming over to gather them up and take them back to the fortress gave Erik an excuse to watch Charles playing with them for a while. Erik was still irate about Charles's stunt at the supermarket, and more determined than ever to take that shrink ray, steal the moon, and put Charles back in second place to him in the supervillain rankings.

But that didn't mean he'd lost his appreciation for the sight of Charles rolling up his shirtsleeves and bewildering the children with his attempts to teach them cricket, or explaining how glycerin improved the structural integrity of soap bubbles.

Now, the cookies had finally arrived, boxes stacked for delivery. And instead of cookie robots for backup, Erik had nothing but poisoned cookies.

There was no helping it now. "All right, children," he said, pleased to find them all lined up near the door and ready to go out. One of the minions must have finally made themselves useful. "Time to deliver cookies."

"We can't deliver cookies right now," said Darwin. "We have ability class at the Academy."

"We're going to have to skip ability class today," said Erik. "You can practice on your own, it's probably better anyway. Those other kids would just hold you back."

"We can't skip class today," said Sean, "we have an exhibition coming up."

"Sounds great. But today we need to deliver cookies. Come on, it's going to be easy. We'll start next door with Cha-- Professor Xavier. You like him."

"Professor Charles wouldn't want us to skip our class," said Raven.

"Yes, but I'm sure he also wants his cookies, so we're doing that today instead," Erik declared.

"We can take them over after," said Darwin.

"You can take them over now," said Erik. "What about this: we'll do something special after we deliver them."

Alex jumped up and down. "Can we go to Super Silly Fun Land?"

"Sure," said Erik. "Wait. Which is what, now?"

"It's the funnest place on earth!" said Sean, getting excited too. "It's the best amusement park ever and we've never been and we've always wanted to go and it's really close to here, please please please?" Raven joined in with more pleases.

"Why not," said Erik. "Cookies now, and then amusement park."

"We can't!" Darwin cast stern looks right and left at the others til they calmed down. "We can do that other stuff any time, but our classes only meet twice a week. We really need to practice. We're going to class."

Erik folded his arms. "No, you're not. Because I'm not driving you."

"That's okay," Darwin answered. "We can walk." He crouched down, and Raven shrieked happily and climbed onto him so he could carry her piggyback. "C'mon, everybody."

Alex and Sean fell right into line with him, and they started off, going the opposite direction from Charles's mansion.

"That's fine," Erik called after them. "You're going to be late and miss it anyway. Are you listening to me?" Erik pulled out his phone and started up the latest version of his theme song to strike an additional note of fear into their hearts. "You had better come back here right now! Or..."

The problem, he found, was that he didn't really have an 'or' there. The discipline he'd been subjected to as a boy had been effective, but he couldn't imagine putting these kids through it. That probably meant he was a failure as a parent.

So it was a good thing he wasn't really trying to be a parent. Just a supervillain.

Erik pulled up alongside the chidren in the carship. "Get in. I'm taking you to class, but we're delivering cookies right after."

"Okay!" they chorused, piling inside.

=

Despite himself, Erik almost enjoyed sitting in on the mutant ability class. There weren't really enough teachers to cope with all the different mutant powers, but still, they were giving the kids a chance to use what they could do, and showering them with encouragement where they could. Erik remembered being starved for that when he was young, when his mutation was a terrible secret and not a source of pride.

Raven had changed herself into her blonde disguise for practice, but when she saw Erik's thunderous expression, she began turning into different colorful cartoon characters instead, shifting from blue to green to Charles's favorite shade of blaring orange.

"Watch me! Watch me!" She flipped her skin between shades while somersaulting toward him, and sprung to her feet triumphantly. "Did you see?"

"Very impressive," Erik said.

She glowed, and pointed to a poster on the wall. "You're coming to the exhibition, right?"

MUTANT EXHIBITION, it read, and while the rest of the text was innocuous, a lot of pap about sharing their talents with the community to build self-esteem and greater understanding, the headline made Erik bristle. There were a few mutants still alive who had been exhibited in carnival sideshows for their differences, decades ago; that history wasn't really even one generation behind them yet. The idea of mutants displaying themselves for the pleasure of humans infuriated him. They could at least call it a powers exhibition.

"We did one last year and when I changed back into myself I got applause," said Raven, and she looked so happy about it that Erik kept his mouth shut on his anger for the moment. She looked at him with those increasingly big eyes again. "You'll come see us, won't you?"

"Fine," he said tersely.

"Pinkie promise?" She put out her hand.

Erik sighed, and hooked his little finger around hers. "My pinkie promises."

She shrieked delightedly and cartwheeled back to the rest of the class. Erik glowered at the poster again, this time noticing the date with an irate grunt. That was the night of Sam Prack's speech, and even though Erik was planning to steal the moon for other purposes, it was also the optimum date for a moonshot, the closest the moon would be to the earth for some time. His pinkie was a rotten liar.

Sean accidentally broke a water glass and Alex left a small scorch mark on the floor, but when the teacher followed the kids over to Erik, she gushed, "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it! The kids are doing so well... they have much better control over their abilities than they did at our last class."

"Professor Charles has us practice too," said Sean.

"He does?" Erik asked.

Alex said, "It's the first thing we do!"

The teacher smiled, confused. "Professor...?"

"Our neighbor," said Erik. "Who we're supposed to visit now, actually--"

"If he's qualified to teach, we could use more instructors." The teacher sighed. "Not that we can afford them. We're a private school, and we can't get insurance, so every time there are damages, we have to cover everything. I'm not sure how much longer we can keep the doors open. We're hoping the exhibition raises awareness and brings in some donations..."

"I wouldn't count on it," Erik muttered. In his experience, humans would prefer mutants have less control, to make sure they were less formidable, and to justify casting them out.

"I just wanted to give you your ticket to the exhibition," She handed it over. "And if your neighbor's been working with the kids, here, here's an extra, I'm sure he'll want to come see them too."

"Most likely," Erik said. "Come on, kids, we're going. We have a delivery to make."

=

Erik had been inside Charles's mansion a few times for chess, early in their acquaintance, but he'd never been in it with four enthusiastic children. Once David let them in-- giving Erik a sidelong look that made him worry perhaps all those encrypted past encounters were resurfacing in the robot's brain-- there was no stopping the kids.

"Come and see the fountain!" said Sean.

"The robot man will get stuff off any high shelf you want!" said Raven. "Did you see, he looks like you but he's more square and he's got yellow hair."

"Like me?" Erik boggled.

"There's a machine in the kitchen that makes almond milk ice cream in ten seconds," said Darwin. "Erik would like that, it's steel."

Alex said, "No, he should look at the shark!"

"The shark!" Raven and Sean both yelled-- Sean at penetrating volume-- and they and Alex grabbed his hands and shoved his legs to get him into the main living room, where most of the furniture and a gigantic LCD screen rested on a tall glass platform... not a platform, an aquarium.

Not an aquarium, he realized, as a massive shark swam up into view. It was just one part of an enormous underwater tank that must extend under most of the mansion. He had to admire the ingenuity, actually. It would be impossible to attack the mansion by digging under and coming up from below.

"Isn't he cool?" Alex thumped his hand on the glass, laughing as the shark surged toward him displaying several rows of razor teeth. "Guess what's his name, guess, guess!"

"How would I know?" Erik asked, trying to keep the edge out of his voice. He had Angel's box of sleepytime cookies tucked under his arm, and he felt as if he were carrying a time bomb.

"Hello, everyone," Charles said, and there might have been more, but Erik didn't hear it; the kids screamed the second they heard his low accented voice.

«Frost!»

«Oh my God, I'm starting to wish you would use that horrible helmet! Stop shouting into my head! You're covered! You're always covered! Sometimes I forget it's even possible to stop shielding you! Just get that shrink ray so you can figure out how to reverse the effect, because I'm very, very sick of being small.»

The kids swarmed Charles. "We brought your cookies!" Sean was clamoring.

"Can we have some?" asked Alex.

"Professor Charles, you should come with us to class next time and meet Miss Moira!" Raven said, sealing herself around his leg.

Apparently the secret to prying her off was simply to offer hands and pull her up to hold her; Charles balanced her on his hip as he crossed the room. "Miss Moira? Your teacher?"

"Yuh-huh," said Raven. "I know I said I don't want you to date anybody but you can date her and you can get married and have kids and we can come over and play with them!"

"You can already come over and play," said Charles. "And I'm afraid I won't be dating or marrying Miss Moira, or Miss anybody."

"Why come?" Raven asked.

"Duh, he likes boys," said Alex.

"Don't say 'duh,' Alex, it's impolite," Charles told him.

"We were showing Erik the shark!" Sean said.

"Maybe we could all go out to the garden," said Charles, suddenly seeming just a little bit cagey.

"Noooo," the kids all groaned.

"It's too hot out today," said Sean. "I want to play space racing in here where it's nice."

More talking at once, this time a cacophony of overlapping YEAH!s.

"All right, all right," Charles laughed, leading them up the stairs alongside the glass tank. "You can play the game."

"Professor Charles," said Sean, "how come the shark is 'two' and not 'junior'?"

"It couldn't be Junior," Alex said, "juniors are smaller and the shark is wayyy bigger, look!" Bizarrely, he was gesturing toward Erik.

"Bigger than what?" Erik asked, looking behind him.

The kids started to giggle. "You're funny," said Raven.

Alex towed him up the stairs by the hand. "Bigger than you!"

Charles sighed, and pushed his glasses up his nose. "What they're getting at," he said reluctantly, "is that the shark's name is Erik II."

"You named your shark after me?" Erik blinked at him.

"Not exactly?" Charles hedged. "More... in honor of... well, have you ever seen Little Shop of Horrors?"

"No..."

Sean, who'd long since raced to the top of the stairs, yelled back deafeningly, "There's tea!"

"You got them excited about tea?" Erik was even more dumbfounded by that one.

"Tea goes with cookies!" Alex pointed out.

Erik floated the metal sheet stacked with cookies up to the top of the platform, where a giant flatscreen loomed over a long, long curved orange couch with a white table. Most of the mansion interior seemed to match the outside, sleek and white, with rounded edges and orange accents everywhere.

Under the glass, the shark swam not far below his feet. Next time the minions complained about his all-metal décor, Erik was going to have to tell them about Charles's shark tank living room floor.

"Would you like to play chess?" Charles asked, pouring tea as the kids set up their video game and started it up.

"Why not," Erik answered. He opened the box of poisoned cookies and put it between them on the couch as Charles slid back against the cushions. "I knew the kids would probably get into the rest of them, so I saved these for you."

"That was so thoughtful of you. Thank you," Charles smiled, handing him a cup of tea. Rather than a physical chessboard, he picked up a tablet computer and called up a chess app, balancing the tablet between them on one of his knees and one of Erik's. "All right?"

"...Absolutely." Because nothing was more conducive to concentrating on chess than studying Charles's eyelashes as he bent his head over the tablet. Trying to distract himself, he flailed, "The kids said you've been teaching them."

"I love working on their abilities with them," Charles said. "They're all very gifted. And even more importantly, they want to learn. They're willing to work at it."

"Still," Erik said, thinking of his own years of instruction, "kids can always use a push. Some motivation."

"I try to aim more for inspiration," said Charles. "We're too often taught to think of our abilities as a nuisance or a danger, something adversarial that we have to struggle to control. But they're a part of us. And there's so much potential in our abilities. I've always been fascinated by the possibilities inherent in yours, I must say."

"In metal?"

"In magnetism," Charles said. "Electromagnetism is a fundamental force, stronger than gravity. It's not only metal you can move; you move yourself with magnetic fields. It's only a matter of practice to move anything that way, ferromagnetic or no. If you'd ever like to work on that, I'd be only too glad."

"That might be helpful. Sometime," Erik said.

Between Charles's offer, his nearness, and the stress of trying to figure out how to get a cookie out of the box and into Charles, Erik played such an erratic game that he nearly won simply by confusing Charles, who kept attempting to engage with a strategy that wasn't there. They finally ended in a draw.

"Chess always sharpens my appetite," Erik attempted, subtly nudging the cookie box toward Charles.

"If you're hungry, we could order something in...?"

"Shhhh," Erik dropped his voice. "Don't say order in, the kids will never shut up about pizza. We have tea and food right here."

"Sweets, not really food," said Charles, leaning in a little closer still.

"Cookies are food. They have... flour."

Charles laughed, which really didn't help Erik maintain anything like a coherent train of thought.

Frustrated, Erik decided there was nothing to do but take a cue from the chess game: make a move and hope the lack of strategy was itself tactically effective. He took a cookie out of the box and offered it to Charles. "Here."

Taking it, Charles smiled warmly, "Cheers," and took a bite.

-



He took a cookie out of the box and offered it to Charles. "Here."
Click for full size
-

"What about you?" Charles asked. "Surely you didn't save this whole box for me. Do you want one?"

"No. I don't like chocolate." Erik couldn't meet his eyes. "How do we start another game on this thing?"

This time, Charles had the clear advantage throughout the opening, but the more bites he took, the more his playing suffered. He finished the cookie and yawned. "I'm sorry! I must be more tired than I realized... we've been working nonstop on the jet to get it ready for the moonshot. And the shrink ray needs work as well."

"It's all right," Erik said, the unfamiliar weight of guilt in his stomach, "I understand."

"The kids say you've been busy yourself lately..."

"Yes. I've had my hands full." He'd decided to build the rocket himself after all, so he wouldn't have to borrow as much from Shaw. In their shrunken state, he'd expected the minions to be even less helpful than usual, but actually, there were a lot of small spaces in a rocketship that were much more easily reached by someone two feet high, so things were continuing apace.

But it was a lot of work, and the kids took up a surprising amount of time. What used to be ten minutes to cram down bites of sandwich while working now took well over an hour of putting together dinner and sitting down at the table, and the three younger kids had to be commanded into baths and bed or they'd never take care of themselves. The few hours the kids spent at Charles's mansion were the only times Erik had been able to get much done.

"I can only imagine. All your projects, and raising four kids alone... it impressed me that you decided to take on such a tremendous challenge."

"You like children," Erik realized. He'd always supposed that somebody must, and Charles seemed to like everyone, but Erik hadn't really put it together before. "You never wanted any of your own?"

"I would, very much," said Charles, smothering another yawn behind his hand. "I always thought I should wait til I met someone. It seemed like the sort of decision that ought to be made together. But I admire you for just going for it like that. That uncompromising attitude... I can't always agree with it in every context, but," his lashes dipped, his words coming slower and slower, "no one can say you don't... seize what you want with both hands..." and Erik caught him just in time as he tipped over.

"What happened to Professor Charles?" Raven asked, as Erik carefully took the glasses off Charles's face and arranged him on the couch. Darwin paused the game, and the others all swiveled their heads to look too.

"He's been working hard lately and he's tired," Erik said. "He's going to take a little nap while you play. I'm just going to go find him a pillow and a blanket."

"Oh. Okay!" said Raven, turning back toward the screen. The others looked at each other, Alex and Sean shrugging before starting to play again. Darwin went back to it too, with a little frown.

Erik passed his hand over Charles's hair-- just to make sure he was really out; it took a few strokes to be certain-- and climbed down the stairs along the side of the shark tank, making a fearsome face at his namesake as he went to work.

=

First things first; once he was out of sight of the kids, Erik spread his hands, extending his sense of magnetism throughout the mansion. There wasn't much metal in the shrink ray, just a few traces of copper, but he'd memorized them back at Doom's lab in preparation for this day. He could find it from here.

He also found McCoy's watch-- good, it was quite some distance away from the shrink ray. That only left David to worry about, and as Erik knew from his repeated forays into Charles's lawn, the robot butler nearly always patrolled outside.

Charles's lab wasn't so different from Erik's workshop. Sturdy tables, blueprints, gadgets, and a huge staging area for the jet. Erik paced around it, checking out the modifications. It had a large transparent segmented dome over the sizable cockpit, and no doors that Erik could see; the dome would retract and open, then, to let the pilot in and out. Not bad.

The shrink ray rested on a stand nearby. There were papers ringing it, scrawled with indecipherable calculations, but Erik had seen the thing work in Latveria. So it might shrink the moon to the size of a marble instead of a softball. He'd roll with it.

Finding the remote control for the artificial satellite took longer, until he remembered that Hank was nineteen, and started looking for something that resembled an iPhone. He found it on a nearby table and fired it up: sure enough, it had an app to activate and control every aspect of the artificial satellite, plus Words With Friends and Angry Birds.

Erik pocketed the iThing, and hoisted the shrink ray. Unless David came in to recharge at an inconvenient moment, everything was all clear.

So of course, he heard flip-flopping footsteps outside in the hall.

Why, why, why did he have to think 'unless'? He should've known. Of course David was coming in to recharge at, not just an inconvenient moment, but the most inconvenient moment. Of course he plugged into a charging station just outside Charles's lab, where Erik stood, the shrink ray in his hands.

If he were spotted, he couldn't pretend he'd only gotten lost. Erik had talked the robot into burying a few incriminating things in his memory banks, but this was much too big for that. There was no way out.

Except. What Raven said. That David looked a little like Erik...

Erik squared his shoulders into his very best posture and strolled out of the lab.

"INTRUDER," David said, bolting to his feet.

"Not at all," said Erik, in exactly the same mellifluous accent. "I'm the new model."

David frowned at him. "You are Erik Lehnsherr, the mutant from next door. All your biometrics match."

"I was designed to fool biometrics," said Erik. "And to more closely resemble an existing person so as to pass unnoticed more effectively outside."

The robot scanned him for some moments. "You are David 9?"

"That's the next model number, is it not?" Erik bluffed.

David shook his head. "Why didn't Dr. Xavier tell me that you were complete?"

"He probably didn't want to hurt your feelings, since you haven't had them long," said Erik. "He doesn't wish you to feel obsolete. But I'm not really a more advanced model than you. We were simply designed for different purposes."

"Why do you have the shrink ray?"

"Dr. Xavier wants me to try to debug it as a test of my capabilities," Erik said.

David mulled this over. "All the data is congruent with known facts," he said. "Proceed, David."

"Thank you, David," said Erik, and calmly walked out.

=

Now it was just a matter of getting the shrink ray out of the mansion and over to his fortress without alerting the kids. He knew their attention was riveted to the screen once they started playing their game, but still, he had to assume that any ruckus would draw them. Children were trouble magnets, and no one knew magnetism like Erik. A magnetic force always exerted attraction both ways.

So he found the blanket he'd claimed to be getting for Charles and hid the shrink ray in a pillowcase, and then two pillowcases since it was rather large... well, he'd pass it off as a body pillow. A large, rigid, tubular body pillow.

Tiptoeing across the living room, Erik jolted and nearly dropped the blanket and shrink ray when the shark-- he refused to think of it as Erik II-- lunged into his peripheral vision, its nose bonking into the glass right next to him. Throwing a wary look up toward the platform, Erik didn't see any little faces peeking over the side; he hustled across the floor, the shark angrily swishing alongside him as far as it could go.

In the kitchen, Erik stashed the pillowcased shrink ray in the recycling bin. He was just going to be neighborly and take Charles's recycling to the curb for him. Nothing too strange about that, was there? Of course not. That wasn't suspicious at all. His hackles spiked to full alert as he passed through the living room once more, past the fountain, through the hallway, out the front door and the gate.

He wheeled the recycling bin to the sidewalk and then kept wheeling it, whistling innocently as he rolled it over to his carship and emptied the whole thing-- the shrink ray and a lot of papers along with a surprising number of pizza roll boxes-- into his trunk, and left the bin by the curb.

Dusting off his hands, Erik went back in, retrieved his alibi blanket from the kitchen and climbed the living room stairs. "Okay, kids, it's time for us to--"

-



The game was off, the children all curled up and cuddled around Charles on the cushions, every single one of them snoozing away.
Click for full size
-

The game was off, the children all curled up and cuddled around Charles on the cushions, every single one of them snoozing away.

Erik threw up his hands and went over, shaking the kids awake. "Come on, everybody. Time to go home. Let the Professor get his rest."

Yawning and whining, the kids slowly gathered up their shoes; Erik had to go around to the back of the couch to find Alex's, since of course, he'd kicked them off as far as he possibly could. Passing the shoes over, he said, "Go on down and wait at the door."

He covered Charles with the blanket. When he leaned down over the back of the couch, he only meant to straighten the blanket around him... but Charles looked flushed and sweet, his lips more blush-red than ever, and it wasn't as if Erik would ever have a chance to do this any other time, and it was only a little thing, to steal a kiss--

"You're slow!" Alex hollered, his head appearing at the top of the stairs, and Erik jumped back quickly, and walked away.

"The professor didn't wake up to say goodbye?" Darwin asked, as Erik took them home.

"He was very tired," said Erik, not looking him in the eye, and he shuffled the kids off to bed as quickly as he could and went to the workshop, trying to think of anything else.

=

Obviously, he couldn't dump the kids on Charles the next day, so he was going to have to figure something else out. He tried putting Janos in charge of them for a while, but when he came back to the living room to check on them, it looked like a tornado had hit.

The kids had an incredible knack for throwing around everything Erik didn't want touched and jumping up and down on it. Raven was arranging his Iron Maiden action figures in neat rows on the floor while Alex rolled the anti-psionic helmet at them, trying to knock them over.

A quick check of some parenting websites told Erik that sitting the kids down in front of the television would turn them into sluggardly zombies.

He wished he'd known that days ago. "Hey, kids!" Erik said. "TV!"

"Teeveeee!" Sean and Raven sang out, and as soon as they found something with dancing animals, they were riveted.

"What about Super Silly Fun Land?" Alex demanded. "Is that today? You promised."

"When?" Erik frowned.

"Yesterday! You said after we delivered cookies we could go to Super Silly Fun Land, you said."

"That was if you went right then," Erik told him. "We went to your class instead, so no amusement park."

"But you said!"

"No," Erik told him. "Watch TV."

"Are we going over to the Professor's today?" Darwin asked.

"No."

"But I want to check on him," said Darwin. "It's weird that he didn't wake up yesterday when we left. He told me one time that he sleeps light because he senses thoughts. When we woke up, that should've woke him up too."

"He must have been very tired. Which is exactly why today we're not going to bother him."

"Can we call him? I want to call him."

"No, you can't call him."

"He taught me how to think loud enough for him to sense it," Darwin reflected. "I guess I could try that."

Erik clapped his hands. "Everybody get your shoes on and get ready! We're going to Silly Something Fun Whatever."

Even Darwin, usually so level-headed, lost it at the prospect of an amusement park, and the others didn't have a chance. There was screaming, and running, so much screaming and running, but eventually, the kids were ready, and Erik led them out to the carship, satisfied with his superior problem-solving skills.

"Let's invite Professor Charles!" said Sean.

"He's busy," Erik said, but Sean was already bellowing "PROFESSOR CHARLES," and the kids raced over to the mansion gate, waiting as Charles came out to meet them.

"We're going to Super Silly Fun Land it's the best you have to come PLEASE," Alex rattled out.

"Oh, am I invited?" Charles asked, and the look he gave Erik was seriously questioning.

"Kids, we shouldn't bother the professor, he's tired," Erik said.

"Actually, after all the sleep I got yesterday, I'm quite energetic today."

"But you're busy."

Charles looked down, and nodded, summoning up a smile for the kids. "Maybe next time," he said, leaning to hug them. "Have a good day!"

Just then, Hank came pelting out the front door calling, "Professor! The shrink ray is missing!"

Erik stood as if turned to stone, but, "Don't worry, Hank," Charles smiled, patting his arm as Hank came up next to him, panting. "I asked Tony to have a look at it, since you and I were having trouble working the kinks out. And you know how Tony likes a challenge. I'm sure he just broke into the house for fun again and took it to his workshop."

Erik's relief only lasted til he realized exactly what Charles just said. Tony was breaking into Charles's mansion? Erik knew why he was breaking in-- wait, though it absolutely wasn't because of a crush, but--

"I'll just give him a call in a bit, and check in," Charles said.

Thinking fast, Erik said, "If Stark's helping you out, you won't be so busy. You could come with us after all."

The kids cheered, and Charles brightened. "I'd love to."

=

Super Silly Fun Land was a wide-awake nightmare. Every single thing about it seemed to be calculated to offend Erik's sensibilities: shrieking people, overpriced trinkets, bubblegum pop music gushing from every loudspeaker. The only good thing about it was that it was on the edge of town too, less than a mile from the fortress, so Frost could easily shield Erik's mind. She was so amused by his instant loathing toward the place that she didn't even complain.

Naturally, Charles and the kids adored it. They played skee-ball and collected worthless baubles and drove bumper cars and hauled Erik through a log flume and a haunted house.

Then they dragged him onto a roller coaster, and the vertiginous rattle of the metal rails straining underneath their cars nauseated him so much that Charles spent the next half-hour apologizing. They stopped harassing Erik to join them on rides after that.

When Erik recovered enough to have an appetite, Charles somehow managed to find, among a whole park full of deep fryers and syrup-drenched shaved ice, a little restaurant area that served vegetables stuffed in pita bread, and falafel and spanakopita.

"What's in that?" Alex asked.

"Spinach," Charles answered.

"Ew!" All four kids made faces.

"That's gross," said Sean, and Alex agreed, "I'd never eat that."

"It's for grown-ups," Charles said.

"Why?"

"You'll understand when you're older."

Sean and Alex looked at each other, and raced to say, "I want some!"

"You'd make a good parent," Erik said, as they stood by watching the kids ride the carousel.

"I'd like to think so," said Charles. "I had a good example in my father. Til he passed, and my mother remarried, and my stepfather packed me off to boarding school. I think that gave me all the more appreciation for my father's support."

Erik nodded. Then realized, "Wait, is this one of those conversations where you tell me something personal because you want to hear something personal back?"

"Yes," Charles laughed gently, "it's one of those."

He wasn't good at personal, but Erik tried. "I had good examples too. And lost them. And then some very bad examples, who tried to make me less than what I was. So I ran away from them and found a mentor who wanted to make more of me. Maybe not always in the best ways. But everything he did made me stronger."

Sean waved at them as the carousel came around again. "Look! No hands! Look, Erik, look!"

"That's amazing," Erik called back to him. "I don't think anyone's ever done that before."

Charles looked at him over his glasses. "What are you going to do when they're old enough to pick up on sarcasm?"

He'd been planning to dump the kids back at the orphanage long before then. "I don't know," he deflected, "what are you going to do, now that I've picked up on yours?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Erik II?" he inquired. "And I didn't see it before, but Raven pointed out that your robot butler looks strangely familiar."

"Erik... I wasn't making fun of you," Charles said earnestly. "Nothing of the sort. I suppose naming the shark Erik II is awfully silly, but it made him seem more friendly to call him something nice. And I honestly didn't mean to make David look like you. I didn't realize til Hank asked me about it, and by then we'd already done the fabrication. It wasn't conscious, it's just that when I was designing him, I was trying to make him look--" he stopped himself and bit his lip, his mouth drawing up.

"Generic?" suggested Erik.

"Perfect," said Charles, as the carousel stopped, and the kids spilled off and surrounded them, bustling them along to the next ride.

=

The past several days had been a crash course in how much energy children had, but still, their boundless zest at the amusement park left Erik stunned. After hours of rides and games and walking and snacking and riding and playing some more, they were still bouncy and bright-eyed, and Raven sounded more excited than ever when she stopped dead in her tracks and shouted, "Look at that fluffy koala! He's so fluffy I'm gonna die!"

"Koala?" Erik asked as she dragged them to a stand along the midway.

"It's a mutant bear!" Raven said, pointing at a stuffed animal, a koala inexplicably dressed in a bee suit, hanging along with a lot of ordinary teddy bears in a rainbow of shades. "He has antennas! He's a beeoala! No. A koalabee! Can I have him please please please please--"

She'd long since gnawed her gummi bear replacement to pieces. Erik turned to the guy running the stand. "How much?"

"It's not for sale, it's a prize," the guy said. "You have to play for it." He nodded at the row of ping-pong guns and a profusion of targets shaped like alien monsters. "Thirty seconds of shooting for a dollar, and all you have to do is knock down that little tin spaceship in the middle. It's easy."

"Can we try, can we play," all four kids begged.

"Four plays," Erik said, putting down the money.

"Sure," the guy said, and hit a button. Suddenly the targets moved around jerkily and flared with colored lights, loud tinny music played, and an LED sign flashed "READY... SET... GO!" before the kids even got to the guns.

All four of them fired ping-pongs joyfully into the fray, and soon Darwin's adaptive ability and Raven's superior muscle control had them aiming more and more accurately, until plink! plink! Two ping-pong balls hit the spaceship.

The game stopped, but the LED sign spelled out, "YOU LOSE!"

"What was that?" Erik demanded. "They hit it twice!"

"See that little tin spaceship?" the guy pointed. "See how it's not knocked over? That means you don't get a prize. Better luck next time."

"How can we have better luck than hitting it twice?" Darwin asked.

"We hit it and I thought we won," said Raven, clinging to Charles's leg, her eyes going liquid. "I already named him."

"You can always try again," the guy shrugged.

"Fine." Erik shoved a dollar at him. "My turn."

He didn't bother to aim the gun; he fired at random, using his magnetism to knock down the tin spaceship over and over, the LED screen flashing "WINNER! WINNER! WINNER!" each time. The counter guy looked more and more peeved and finally said, "Look, I don't have to honor wins from cheaters--"

Erik broke the tin spaceship off the game entirely and flew it over to give the guy a none-too-gentle tap on the head with it. "Your whole game is a cheat," he said, disconnecting every metal strut and connector holding the little targets, the entire thing coming apart, the back of the stand falling away. "How many wins was that, kids? Were you counting?"

"Fourteen!" said Sean.

The counter guy looked like he might have plenty more to say, but Erik looked at his cash register, vibrating the metal inside, and the guy held up his hands, backing away.

"HE'S SO FLUFFY!" Raven yelled as Erik handed her the koala bear.

The boys chose bears too. "I mean, if they're free," Alex said, surreptitiously cuddling his, and Darwin and Sean gave ten more bears to other kids Charles pointed out to them.

"What are you going to name yours?" Charles asked, taking Raven's hand.

"Charles II!" said Raven. "Because he's a mutant like you and he has a nose like yours!"

Charles touched his nose self-consciously, brows rising high.

"Let's go destroy another game!" Alex yelled, leading them further down the stretch, but the other kids voted for more skee-ball. Erik and Charles wound up holding all the bears plus long skeins of tickets.

"What are all these going to add up to?" Erik asked as Darwin added another string of thirty or so tickets to the collection and ran back to play again. "Maybe a pencil topper with googly eyes?"

"Or a Justin Bieber hackysack. Fortunately this game is more about the fun of playing than the prizes," said Charles.

When they turned in their tickets, along with the pencil toppers, Raven got a smiley-face button and handed it to Erik.

"Third eye!" she commanded, and he drew it on for her, writing MUTANT AND PROUD along the bottom. She pinned it proudly to Charles II's bee costume, and gave Erik an enormous hug.

=

"Are they ever going to get tired?" Erik groaned as the kids drove bumper cars again.

"I tried to warn you that ice cream and soda both would be a bit much..."

"Sugar alone doesn't explain this," said Erik. "They're just doing it to spite me, now." The sun was low in the sky, it was even getting a little chilly, and the kids still ran around the park as if they were starting out fresh.

"I think you're just having trouble admitting you had some tiny smidgen of fun today."

Eventually Erik conceded, "Maybe half a smidgen."

Charles smiled, watching the kids slam their cars into each other. "Thank you for inviting me today. Or, well, letting the kids invite me. Letting me tag along."

"There probably would've been a mutiny if I hadn't. They're crazy about you."

"I'm sorry if it's a problem."

"Why would it be?" Erik asked, on alert. He'd managed to forget for whole long stretches that he'd sort of drugged and lied to and stolen from Charles the day before. It was hard to justify it all as rival supervillain shenanigans when the rival supervillain was right there being handsome and kind-hearted and charming with small children all day.

"It's obvious enough how you feel about me," said Charles.

Erik froze. "Is it."

"Yes," Charles sighed. "I don't mean to annoy you so much, I truly don't."

"I-- annoy?" Erik croaked.

"I'm trying. I know I tend to go on a bit, and we don't always see eye-to-eye on things, but I'd like to think we're friends, all the same."

"Of course we are," Erik said, feeling about as small as his shrunken minions. Smaller.

Charles offered him another smile, folding his arms, huddling into his cardigan a little. Erik pulled off his scarf, and wound it around Charles's neck.

"Thank you," Charles said, looking at him more closely, surprised and hopeful.

It might have been the moment to say something, or even to kiss him, but Erik had squandered it before it ever arrived, and he didn't know how to go back now.

He said, "No bother."

=

It took so long to get the kids to settle down after their exciting day that Erik finally broke on the bedtime story front.

"Pleeeease read us a story please please?" Raven begged. "Professor Charles even made our book better," and she morphed herself taller to put it in front of his face.

The title had been carefully painted over. "Four Mutant Kittens," Erik read. He opened it up and looked at the puppets. The smallest puppet was now blue with a red patch sweeping back from between its pointed felt ears. The tallest puppet now had a black thatch of fur on his head and a big smile like Darwin's, and the ring and index finger puppets were blond and ginger, with a devilish grin for the blond ring-finger puppet and a freckly smile for the ginger index finger puppet.

"Fine, let's get this over with," said Erik, fitting his fingers into the puppets.

"Four mutant kittens love to play
They had fun in the sun all day
Then their father flew out and said,
'Time for kittens to go to bed,'" Erik recited. His lip curled. "You actually like this? Aren't you bored, wouldn't you rather watch TV? I thought kids didn't care about books anymore."

"Keep reading!" said Alex.

"You want to hear it too?" Erik asked, looking around. Even Darwin was paying attention and Erik was reasonably sure he was much too old for kitten puppets.

"Come on, come on," said Raven.

"Four mutant kittens started to bawl,
'Daddy, we're not tired at all.'
Their father smiled and said with a purr,
'Fine, but at least you should brush your fur.'" Erik looked dubiously at the brush attached to the page. "This isn't a book, it's some sort of compulsory puppet maintenance routine."

"Now you brush the fur," Raven insisted.

"Why don't you do that part?" Erik suggested, giving her the brush.

"Okay!" said Raven, and she somehow managed to jam the bristles of the brush under each and every one of his fingernails while she brushed the puppets' fur.

"Fine, good, enough, put it back," Erik said through gritted teeth. "Let's get this over with."

"There's lots more," said Raven happily.

"Four mutant kittens with fur all brushed,
They wouldn't sleep, they wouldn't hush," Erik read. "Finally, some truth in this thing. Now does the book say what to do about it? Are there little sleeping pills to feed to the kitten puppets?"

"You're messing it up!" Alex bounced in his bed. "Read it right!"

"Four mutant kittens with fur all brushed,
They wouldn't sleep, they wouldn't hush,
Their father said in a voice like silk,
'Kittens, at least you should drink your milk,'" Erik recited.

"Now make them drink the milk," said Raven.

Erik dipped the puppets toward the saucer of milk drawn on the page. "This is going on forever."

"There's only two more pages," Darwin encouraged.

"Four mutant kittens with milk all gone
Rubbed their eyes and started to yawn,
'We can't sleep, we can't even try.'
Then their father sang them a lullaby." Erik turned the page and frowned.

In the earlier pages, the father cat was only a feline head in silhouette underneath the words, but on the last page, he was shown curled up around the four kittens. Tilting the page, Erik was fairly sure that the black turtleneck on the father cat had been painted on after the fact.

"Finish it pleeeease," Raven whined softly, and Erik sighed.

"Goodnight, kittens, close your eyes,
Sleep in peace until you rise.
Though while you sleep, we are apart,
Your father loves you with all his heart," Erik finished. "The end. Here's your book. Go to bed."

"What about goodnight kisses?" Raven asked.

"You can kiss each other goodnight," he said over his shoulder, already half out the door. "You can take turns."

"How's that supposed to work?" said Sean.

"I don't know. Maybe you should ask Professor Ch-- Xavier, I'm sure he could tell you. Now go to sleep."

Erik shut the door firmly behind him and rubbed his eyes. He was going to shoot Charles with the shrink ray til the man was kitten-sized himself and stick him in a shoebox. And then he was going to drive the kids back to the amusement park and give the shoebox to them to take on the roller coaster as many times as they wanted to ride it. He'd give it to them upside-down.

He didn't feel the least bit guilty about drugging Charles to take the shrink ray, not even slightly. He definitely didn't wish Charles were here to help with the kids. Goodnight kisses-- no.

Collecting himself, Erik tugged at the hem of his turtleneck, and scowled down at it. Time to hit the workshop, but first, a change of clothes.

=

The next day, Erik let the kids run over to Charles's mansion, watching through the window. Charles couldn't know about the shrink ray yet; he looked too happy, and he still had Erik's scarf looped loosely around his neck.

A knock sounded on the door, and Erik answered to find Sebastian Shaw on his doorstep.

"Is that Professor X next door?" Shaw asked. "Small world. Speaking of which, ha ha. Let's see that shrink ray."

"Please, come in, right away," said Erik. He looked next door as he hustled Shaw in. Charles was working with the kids, he didn't seem to be paying attention to Erik or Shaw.

Shaw brushed past Erik into the living room, taking a seat in Erik's armchair. Erik opened up the secret entrance to the workshop, giving a tight apologetic smile-- the alcove was now decorated all over with chalk drawings by the kids. Extending his magnetism down to the workshop, Erik floated up the shrink ray on a metal sheet.

Discreetly kicking a few stray toys underneath the furniture, Erik brought it over to the couch.

"Huh," Shaw said, scooping the anti-psionic helmet up off the floor. "Isn't this one of Doom's inventions?"

"Is it?"

"Definitely. I remember this design around the front," said Shaw. "He can't stop bragging, you know. Now that he's stuck in Latveria and he doesn't get to do as much supervillainy, he posts about everything he makes to his Twitter." Putting the helmet aside, Shaw turned to Erik. "All right, let's see some shrinking."

Taking aim at the coat tree, Erik pulled the trigger. The ray's blue glow haloed it, and the coat tree contracted until it was tiny, too small even to hold the coat of the doll lying on the floor nearby.

"Excellent," said Shaw.

Erik floated the coat tree over to Shaw. "Have it. A souvenir." Shaw actually looked pleased.

There probably wouldn't be a better time to spring it on him, so Erik took a breath and said, "We scaled down the plan a little."

"Scaled down. That's very funny," said Shaw.

"Right..." Erik cleared his throat. "We're going to take the moon and demand our own mutant nation in return for stabilizing the tides in its absence. But we stop there. The rest of the world can deal with their own problems themselves."

"They're not going to have to, because we're going to eliminate them," said Shaw. "While you were scaling down the plan, I've been scaling it up. You're going to take the moon, and activate the artificial satellite. And then you're going to bring the satellite crashing down to earth, and put an end to humanity for good."

"...I'm not sure I heard that right," said Erik.

"Think of it," Shaw coaxed, a mad light in his eyes. "A world in chaos. The climate altered forever, the tides gone, the Earth's orbit itself changing without the pull of the moon. Homo sapiens will die off, and only we, Homo superior, will survive."

"Mm-hm," said Erik. "...How?"

"Our mutations!"

Erik said, slowly and clearly, "My mutation enables me to manipulate metal, not survive total catastrophic climate change."

"I don't think you understand the purity of my vision," Shaw said. "We could have the whole world, Erik, you and me."

"What was left of the world wouldn't be worth having," Erik said.

"I'm disappointed, son," Shaw told him heavily. "I thought I taught you better than that, when you were a boy. But fine. Give me the shrink ray, and I'll take care of this myself."

He really had lost it. Erik said, "No. And I'll thank you to leave my house now," and he aimed the shrink ray at Shaw.

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child," said Shaw dramatically, but even he wasn't crazy enough to keep staring down the barrel of a shrink ray. He didn't make Erik usher him out; he left, with one last more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sort of look.

At least the kids hadn't been there. They were safe, with Charles; besides all that security around the mansion, Charles's telepathy could surely protect them. Not that Erik cared, of course, but it would probably make him feel a tiny little bit sorry if anything happened to the kids, maybe.

Erik rubbed a hand over his mouth, and went over to Charles's to check on them, just in case.

"Why the long face?" he asked Charles. The kids were all subdued, too.

"I talked to Tony," said Charles, and Erik froze, thawing only when Charles continued, "He didn't take the shrink ray. So it's been stolen, and we have no idea who by. All that work, wasted."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Erik said. It was true, he was sorry to hear it. He'd really rather be somewhere else right now, not hearing it.

"It could've happened any time, really," Charles said sadly. "David's been a bit off-color lately. He has some funny blank patches in his memory, and he keeps sneaking off to watch Lawrence of Arabia and randomly quoting the lines. I've finally had to take him offline til we can isolate the problem. And Hank was having a devil of a time working out the bugs in the shrink ray, so I told him to work on something else for a while, come at it fresh after a break. It's my own fault for being complacent. I took it for granted that our security would hold."

"That's a shame," Erik said. "Look, I hate to ask, but I have a big job coming up, and since you're suddenly free, maybe you'd like to look after the kids on a more... always kind of basis?"

Charles gave him a curious look, but he said, "I do love to have them here, and to be honest, I could use the distraction. Certainly, they can stay with me while you're occupied."

"Thank you. And you never know. Maybe the shrink ray will turn up," Erik offered inanely.

"I just hope it doesn't turn up in the wrong hands," said Charles.

Erik awkwardly patted his arm. He'd deluded himself that winning their competition might earn him Charles's admiration, but like this? Erik had a feeling that when he stole Charles's heist and claimed the credit, Charles was going to consider his hands very much in the wrong.

=

Without Shaw's financial backing, obtaining rocket fuel became a much bigger problem, but Erik realized he'd been misusing his minions' talents all along. He kept thinking of their powers in terms of spying on Charles and breaking into his mansion, in terms of how they could best back up Erik on missions he led. They could do more than that.

"Emma, find out where we can get money without anyone missing it for as long as it's going to take to sell off my trophies," he said. "Azazel, take her wherever she needs to go to read minds for it, and then take Janos to help you haul it."

"I am only so high," said Azazel.

"Which is your own fault," Erik reminded him. "You're just going to have to make a lot of trips."

"I've sold off half your treasures," Emma said.

"Then use that to buy half the fuel, but we can't wait for the rest, we're going to have to borrow it and return it later. We're not missing that speech." If he was going to steal Charles's idea, he was at least going to do it justice.

=

With everything else going on, Erik had nearly forgotten until the day of liftoff: the kids had their powers exhibition that day, too. It had been hard, these past days, seeing them over at Charles's-- practicing, happy, playing. Sometimes they'd stop in the middle of what they were doing and look over at the fortress as if they were hoping Erik was going to come out, and that was when he always had to stop watching and get back to work.

As he prepared to get into the rocket, Angel fluttered over to him and handed him the two tickets to the exhibition.

"I won't be back in time," said Erik, "and I definitely won't be able to take Charles."

"Then carry them for luck," she told him, putting them in a zippered pocket on his spacesuit.

And then it was time. All that preparation, everything he'd done to get to this point, and Erik hadn't considered what it would feel like to strap himself into the pilot's seat of the rocket. He'd vaguely thought of it as just like a trip in the airship, a quick mission up and down to shrink the moon and bring it back.

Instead, he found himself sitting with a mountain of metal behind him, every bolt, every panel, every scrap of which he'd sculpted himself. When the engines fired, the entire rocket vibrated with power, and liftoff was more exhilarating than anything Erik had ever experienced before: his sense of magnetism was filled with fire, his body in tune with the rocket at such a profound level that it didn't feel as if he were piloting it at all, just willing it to fly. It slipped out of the atmosphere and into space like a perfect dive into deep water.

And then he was in outer space, floating among the darkest black and the brightest stars, in his rocket, looking down on the moon. He'd really done it. He'd made it. He'd never been more proud of anything in his life.

He wanted to tell the kids. He wanted to tell Charles. He wanted to see them achieve things that made them feel this proud.

And that wasn't going to happen, now.

Erik swallowed a lump in his throat, checked the time, and raised the shrink ray. He'd take the moon. Before its absence could affect too much, he'd trigger the artificial satellite to take its place.

Then, Erik would demand a mutant nation of their own...

No. He'd demand that the U.S. and Canada sign the environmental treaty, the way Charles planned it, and return the moon to the sky once they did. He owed Charles that. If Erik was going to create a space of their own for mutants, he'd do it his way, with his own plan and his own hands. After all, he'd built a rocket to the moon. He could do anything he set himself to do.

He pulled the trigger.

The blue glow from the shrink ray enveloped the moon, the surface rapidly receding. Faster than Erik ever could have imagined, the entire moon floated in front of his face, a silvery grey ball, small enough to fit in his hand.

It was also, to his delight, extremely iron-rich. He didn't need to fit it in his hand. He brought it close with his power with incredible ease, and sent it orbiting around his own head.

As the moon circled in front of his face, Erik laughed and laughed. It was the moon, and it was small enough for him to fling around with the force of his magnetism. He could put it in his pocket--

He had the tickets to the exhibition in his pocket. And shrinking the moon had taken no time at all. Erik checked his watch.

He still had time.

=

Erik landed the rocket with his magnetism, minimizing its footprint and putting it down delicately balanced in a single space in the parking lot. He'd never felt quite this much power and precision before; he stripped out of his spacesuit and floated down from the cockpit easily, straightening his turtleneck and dusting off his slacks. The moon circled around him like an obedient puppy, and Erik had to smile.

-



The moon circled around him like an obedient puppy, and Erik had to smile.
Click for full size
-

It was still five minutes before the exhibition even started. Erik had done it. He'd done everything.

All right, he hadn't done everything right, and he wasn't going to get everything he wanted. But it was enough.

It was enough, until he walked into the exhibition hall and found it empty, chairs overturned, the stage a wreck.

And a note.

YOUR PLACE. BRING THE MOON.

=

There was no time to waste on a vehicle. Erik just flew, using magnetic fields to levitate and propel himself with strength and speed he hadn't known he was capable of. His blood had gone to ice. How could Shaw have the kids? How could anyone get past Charles? Not unless they had a telepath of their own on their side, and Shaw had never trusted anyone, not even Erik back when Erik was almost entirely Shaw's creature.

Erik arrived at the fortress to find the answer waiting in Charles's spaceready jet, the dome retracted open. Shaw stood at the controls; the kids and Charles were just behind him, tied with layers and layers of hemp rope-- Alex kicking futilely, trying to get up enough momentum to throw an energy bolt; Darwin watching Shaw like a hawk for a moment of opportunity; a cloth gag muffling Sean; Raven fighting tears.

And Shaw wore the anti-psionic helmet Erik took from Doom's lab. The helmet Erik had taken to protect his thoughts from the one person on earth he'd wanted to be closer to. It was hard to understand now why he'd tried so hard to guard his heart. Now, when there were five people right there who Erik would do anything to protect.

Erik looked past Shaw to meet Charles's eyes. Charles had to know everything now-- that Erik had been shadowing him and stealing his plans, this whole time. His face was grave and angry, but looking at Erik, some of the anger eased just a little in his eyes.

"Let them go," Erik said.

"Give me the moon," Shaw countered. "It's what you really want to do, Erik. You can't imagine you'd be satisfied leading a nation of mutants, knowing you could have had the world at your feet."

"If I give you the moon you're not going to rule the world, you're going to destroy it."

"And everyone you care about, they're all mutants," said Shaw. "When that satellite crashes down and kills all the humans, we mutants will survive."

"No we won't," said Charles. "That is, Darwin will, because his mutation will allow him to adapt, and it's possible that Raven might be able to change herself enough to adjust to the new environment. But the rest of us will die, including you. Our X-gene mutations give us just a few differences from other people. In every other way we're like baseline humans, and we'll all die with them."

"Did you say something?" Shaw turned his head. "This thing's pretty thick, and it covers my ears."

Taking advantage of the distraction, Erik said, "You want the moon? Here," and sent it flying straight at Sebastian's head. It collided with the helmet with a low clang, and with enough force to lay out any baseline human and most mutants-- but Shaw simply grabbed the moon out of the air, crushing it in his hand.

In all their years of association, in all his years of preaching mutant superiority, Shaw had never let Erik know exactly what his mutation was. Erik always knew it would have to be powerful, but watching Shaw absorb the blow to his head as if it was nothing, seeing his hands vibrate and glow with power, all that energy now a part of him... Erik had no idea how he could fight that.

But with Erik distracting Shaw, Charles was murmuring to the kids. Raven changed her shape, wriggling out of her ropes; Darwin adapted, sharp knife-like spikes rising up from his skin and slicing at the fibers.

And with three quick miniature puffs of smoke, Erik's minions joined the fight, lining up around him. At the sight of them, each a squat two feet tall, Shaw began to laugh.

"Guess you tested out the shrink ray on your minions. That's one way to keep them under your boot! Maybe you're not so hopeless after all, Erik," said Shaw. "This has just been a temporary blip. A moment of weakness. You can shrug it off and come back stronger! I have the moon. I have your friends. Join me, son. This world can be ours."

"Azazel," Erik said sharply. He couldn't fathom why Azazel hadn't already teleported the helmet off Shaw's head.

Til he looked to his side. Azazel was surrounded by a blue glow that was slowly expanding, and he was locked in place, unable to move while the blue energy seethed around him.

Expanding. The shrink ray.

"We never had a chance to fix it," Charles called to Erik. "It's only temporary! And the larger something is, the faster it goes back to its proper size!"

Shaw turned in response to Charles's voice just as Darwin and Raven freed themselves, and spotting them, Shaw quickly activated the jet's engines, the vertical takeoff engaging, the jet slowly rising. Raven modified her feet larger and flatter to stay upright, and Darwin adapted to keep his balance. The two of them rushed Shaw, trying to get the helmet off him-- Shaw fell against the controls, holding the helmet onto his head, and the jet tilted in the air and rose faster.

In Shaw's other hand, the moon began to crackle with blue light.

"Come on," Emma called to Erik from the carship, "we don't have much time!" Janos was using a whirlwind to lift Azazel's glowing form into the ship; Angel had already converted it to airship form, and Erik leapt in. He could fly up on his own, but he needed to save his strength-- the jet was all ceramic and diamond, nothing Erik could get a grip on. Anything he did to it, he'd have to manage by manipulating magnetic fields.

The airship flew up level with the jet, and Erik could see the turmoil inside: they were all free now, bolts of Alex's energy and Sean's hypersonic screams loosed in all directions, Darwin and Raven changing their bodies again and again to try different attacks on Shaw, nothing landing, nothing working, while Charles frantically tried to get the jet under control. Behind him, the moon rolled around, almost knee-high now and slowly but inexorably growing. Every time it collided with Shaw, the impact made him stronger.

"Ready!" said Azazel, springing into the cockpit.

"Get the helmet off Shaw," Erik ordered, and Azazel vanished, reappearing in the jet, both hands on Shaw-- only to be stunned by Darwin's latest volley. The teleporter hit the floor.

"Xavier's trying to program the jet's autopilot with the coordinates to return the moon to orbit," Emma reported.

"I'm not sure there's going to be time," Erik said grimly. "I need someone to take the wheel--"

A tap on his shoulder, and Erik glanced to see Janos, now back to normal size. He nodded, and Erik sprang from the pilot's seat, opening up the skylight and climbing onto the roof.

«Pull us alongside, close as we can get,» Erik let Emma relay him to the others, and he balanced his way along the wing.

Charles spotted him and understood at once. Darwin and Sean were both hammering Shaw now, Sean using his piercing shrieks to buffet and disorient him while Darwin tried still more adaptations against him. Charles swept up Raven before she could rejoin the fight and took her to the lip of the open dome, speaking to her urgently and touching his temple. Raven spread her arms, and skin extended between her limbs and her body, the scales studding her blue skin growing more pronounced and almost feathery.

Erik put out his hands, sensed the magnetic fields of the earth and air and imagined wrapping Raven in them, bringing her over to him.

She jumped, gliding through the air, guided by his magnetism, and he caught her in his arms.

While Erik got Raven into the airship, Charles motioned Alex to him, and after a few words, Alex turned and shot an energy bolt from his chest that propelled him over, nearly past-- but after an agonizing off-balance moment, Erik caught hold of him and reeled him into an embrace, squeezing him and helping him into the ship.

Sean gave one last piercing scream at Shaw, and reluctantly let Charles wrestle him to the edge of the dome. Sean tried to propel himself with his voice the way Alex had with his energy, but with less success, plummeting, and Erik's heart nearly stopped-- but the airship dipped, suddenly, scooping under Sean again, and Erik plucked him out of the air. As he passed Sean into the ship, he could see Emma and Angel now back to normal size again too, with Angel in the pilot's seat, where she belonged.

They were running out of time, the moon growing inch by inch with every passing moment. Charles darted in and grabbed Darwin around the waist, rushing him to the edge and only speaking a few words as he pushed him out-- Darwin's body instantly adapted to the fall, his arms transforming into enormous wings for the few flaps it took to land him on the roof of the airship, the others kids helping to pull him inside.

"Jump!" Erik called to Charles, and he saw Charles hesitate, the anger and betrayal returning, flinty in his eyes. Erik stretched out his arms, willing Charles to come to him. "I was wrong! I swear, I will never let you down again."

Charles nodded shortly, and gathered himself, taking that leap of faith--

Shaw's hand shot out and snagged Charles by the collar, yanking him back into the jet. "We're not finished yet!" he shouted, slamming his fist into the control panel again and again-- Erik could see the horror in Charles's face when the autopilot was completely destroyed.

"Now--!" Shaw put his shoulder to the moon-- nearly as tall as him now, still growing-- and shoved it toward the open air, toward the earth, the last step to end everything. It grew larger still, wedging in the open dome, expanding and cracking open the jet.

Azazel rose from the floor, shaking himself, and instantly Charles's hand went to his temple, as he shouted, "The coordinates! Take it now! You have to take it now!"

With a brusque nod, Azazel slammed both hands on the surface of the swelling moon and vanished, Shaw-- still trying to roll it out-- disappearing with him.

The airship juddered as Azazel reappeared with a thump inside it. "It's done!" he called, and collapsed.

"Charles!" Erik shouted, but the damage done by the moon had half the dome caving in, buckling in on itself where Charles had been.

He felt the wind shift, suddenly at his back, and he stole a look back to see Janos bringing up a whirlwind, offering it to him. Erik jumped, letting the tornado propel him, guiding himself with his power into the damaged jet, rushing to the back, where he found Charles laid out flat on the floor, blood on his lips. The dome crumpled in completely, blocking their only way out.

The jet plummeted, and Erik could feel Janos trying to slow the fall, ease the crash, but there was only so much his whirlwinds could do-- Erik covered Charles with his body, imagined his power surrounding them both, an electromagnetic field, stronger than gravity, stronger than this, as the jet slammed into the ground.

=

He could hear Charles breathing, and for a few moments, nothing else mattered.

Erik lifted his head, looking around him. Above, the resin composite was shattered, fragments of it slowly falling in around them. The mangled dome closed around them like a glass fist.

With an ominous creak, the roof slowly began to collapse.

A bolt of energy blasted the roof up; an echoing scream blew all the pieces away before they could fall back into the jet. Darwin, armored, and Raven, her scales grown thick and protective, climbed into the jet and shoved away the remaining debris that threatened to fall.

"I can't--" Charles gasped, and touched his temple.

For a terrifying moment there was nothing, and Erik suddenly realized, «Emma! Let him through!»

«I can't feel my legs,» Charles sent him, the thought carried on a fading wave of fear. No, not the fear-- the thoughts themselves were fading. «Felt something crack when I hit the console, and I can't feel my legs. I'm so tired.»

Erik grabbed Charles's hand and brought it to his own temple. "Charles, I love you. Feel this. I'm in love with you. The kids love you. You have to hold on. We need you."

Charles smiled through tears. «I've wanted to hear you this way for so long.»

«You can hear it as much as you want, from now on. Just stay with me.»

The kids and Erik's minions-- Erik's friends-- cleared more of the wreck from around them. On the ground, the pulverized composite and broken glass glittered like white sand. In the distance, Erik could see Angel in flight, leading an ambulance to them.

Up in the sky, faint, but perceptible, the moon was beginning to shine, back in place.

Janos shifted another segment of the jet, and a strange noise rang out, almost like Sean's screams, but strobing, trumpeting, somehow even more annoying. Charles glanced over and hoarsely, helplessly, laughed. It was Pierce's car alarm.

«You promised you wouldn't smash any more of the neighbors' cars.»

«Last one,» Erik told him. «I promise.»

=

They brought Charles home from the hospital in the carship, dropping the ramp so that he could wheel out for the first time himself.

He paused on the pavement, tilting his head up at Erik. "Things look different...?"

"Stark and I worked with Hank to fix the shrink ray--"

"We helped," said Alex.

"Kind of. We helped by making dinner when they were working on it," Darwin said.

"Still helping!"

"I handed them things sometimes," said Sean.

Raven bounced on her heels. "I got to pick the color!"

Charles leaned and reached to pet each of the kids in turn. "Then thank you, all of you."

"It's more of a shrink-and-expand ray, now. It makes things bigger, too." Erik caressed Charles's shoulder. "So we used it to make the houses a little bigger. Ours, and yours. The doorways are all wide enough for the wheelchair, now."

"Oh," Charles stared from the fortress to the mansion, both a bit larger and looking now as if they were joined at the architectural hip.

"With the size of the lots, once we made the houses bigger, they ended up butting against each other in the middle," Erik told him. "They're so close now that they can be connected. Hank and I could open up the walls in a day. If that's all right."

Charles squeezed his hand. "That's perfect."

=

"What if I suck?" Alex asked.

"You're not going to suck," Charles reassured him. "But if something goes wrong, we'll be right here to help, and everyone will understand."

"How do I look, Papa?" Raven twirled, her real dress flaring out and falling over her real blue skin.

"Beautiful," said Erik.

Sean dodged Charles's attempt to smooth back his hair. "What if my voice starts to break?"

"You have a few years yet before you need to worry about that," Erik told him dryly.

"Everything's going to be fine," Darwin said, rolling tension out of his shoulders and squaring his stance.

"It is. You've worked so hard," Charles said. "We're both very proud of all of you. Come on, then. Kisses for luck."

They all crowded around and bent to get kisses from Charles, and Erik dropped kisses of his own on the tops of their heads. "Love you," he said gruffly, and got squeezed half to death four times over for his trouble.

"Daddy, hold Charles II, okay?" Raven said, giving her bear to Charles.

"All right, sweetheart."

"Go on, now," Erik finally urged. "Good luck," and the kids made their way backstage, waving before they disappeared behind the curtain. The spotlight fell on the ABILITY EXHIBITION banner, large black letters that Erik outlined in gilt himself. He gave them his theme song, too, now improved with a dangerously catchy melody to complement the looming bass.

Charles rolled into place and locked his brakes as Erik took the seat next to him, reaching out for his hand. The opening slideshow began, sharing images of the mutant civil rights movement.

"I still think about it, you know," Erik said. "Our own nation. A place of our own."

"A nation might be a bit ambitious to start with," said Charles. "But we do need spaces of our own. And the Academy could use new management. What do you think about taking on a school?"

"I could see that," Erik said, holding Charles's hand in both of his, lining up their wedding rings. "I suppose we'd have to give up supervillainy."

"Yes," said Charles. He looked at their twined fingers, sweeping his thumb across Erik's. "Though... perhaps not entirely. I've always wanted to work on a heist with you. Maybe we could still do the odd job now and then."

"Imagine what we could accomplish," Erik said dreamily. "You and me, working together with the full resources of my team, your lab assistant, and four gifted kids..."

"Erik!" Charles squeezed his hand. "Darling, the children can't be involved in our escapades."

Erik sighed. "Yes, dear."

Charles smiled sidelong at him. "Well. Not til they're eighteen."

Erik grinned and kissed him as the music began, murmuring, "Listen. They're playing our song."