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It Might Have Been

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Charles died in the shower at the age of seventy-three.

When he came to, he was in bed rather than sprawled on the bathroom tile. More to the point, nothing hurt—not his head, not his shoulder where he'd wrenched it on the way down. He wasn't groggy, didn't feel especially drugged, but even before he'd gotten that far in his assessment, he knew he wasn't in any hospital. He'd spent enough time in hospitals to be certain of that much. Even on the occasions he'd been so doped up that everyone around him seemed like blow-up dolls for all he could sense of their minds, there had always been a silence underneath everything else that gave it away.

Upon opening his eyes, he noticed several things at once: he was in a passingly familiar bedroom, and he had one hell of an erection. He hadn't had an erection like that in decades. Not with the Viagra. Not even with the injections. He would remember if he had. He'd have taken a picture.

He reached out to touch it, and even through the sheet and whatever he was wearing underneath it, the contact sent a jolt of pleasure through his groin. It was something he hadn't felt in so long—not like this, not as anything more than the faintest sensation; even Hank's serum years ago had gone no farther than to restore function—that it took him a moment to identify it as what it was. It took a moment longer than that for him to realize what else he could feel, the shifting of the top sheet against his legs and the blanket wrapped around his left calf where he must have kicked it down in his sleep.

He pushed himself up with his arms, as he had done for so many years that it had long since become second nature. This time, however, his legs moved on their own without waiting to be moved. Within the space of a second, he had gone from lying on his back to sitting off the side of the bed, the carpet tickling the bottoms of his feet.

Charles wasn't certain he remembered how to stand until he had already done it. It was a heady, almost dizzy feeling to realize how high up he was. He took one step and then another, half-expecting to fall to the floor again, only harder this time.

By the time he made it to the dresser against the wall, his headiness had been replaced by a sick twisting in his stomach. This had to be a dream. Either that or an illusion. It couldn't be real, no matter how real it felt.

Charles had had dreams like this before, mundane dreams where he'd walked across a sun-warmed lawn or wandered through the halls in old and well-worn slippers, but they hadn't been lucid dreams. He had always, in the moment of dreaming, believed wholly in his own joy. He'd never questioned, and always been the worse for it upon waking.

But he'd never been able to see through an illusion, either. Never in the moment, even enough to form so much as a hint of suspicion. Realization had always come later, after it had ended.

Whatever this was, it was real.

Well, what else was different, beside that everything below the waist was in apparent working order? Charles looked down at his hands and found them smooth, unblemished. His arms were much too skinny, and when he reached up, he found that he had a head full of hair, more than enough to run his fingers through, and not a thin spot to be found.

Charles had sometimes, over the course of his life, wondered—idly and without intent, an exercise in contemplating the limits of his abilities in ways that he would never willingly use them—if it would be possible for him to not only control another person's body, but transfer his consciousness over and take it as his own. Could it be that, when he died, he had forced someone out of their own mind so that he himself might live?

At this thought, it was only grabbing the top of the dresser that kept Charles upright on legs which now threatened to give way beneath him. He barely noticed his erection wilting as he tried to think of some explanation, any explanation other than that one.

He was too busy panicking to feel anyone approaching until the bedroom door opened and a young girl's voice said, "When are you getting up? I'm bored."

Charles may not have recognized the room or the body he was in, but he knew her at once, the moment he turned around. He would have known Mystique in any form if given more than two seconds to scan the minds of anyone present—but he would have known Raven in this one anywhere, even if he'd only glimpsed her out of the corner of his eye.

"You're always bored," he managed after a moment, out of instinct more than anything else, too surprised to check first to make sure it was the kind of thing he would have said to her when they had been children together.

"Come on, Charles," she said, one part pleading to two parts exasperation. "Let's do something." A glint of calculation in her eyes, and then: "I'll even let you read to me if you want to."

"You'll let me read to you, hmm? You really must be desperate. Ha." Charles could only hope the thread of panic in his voice came off as the sort of teasing note she seemed to expect from him. He couldn't remember exactly how they had been together before Erik and that beach, before Trask Industries and everything that had followed, but as he scrambled to remember the way things had been, he thought it felt right. "Look, I need a little more time to finish waking up. I feel—strange this morning. But if you'll give me half an hour alone, we can do whatever you want to do for the rest of the day. Promise."

Raven tilted her head ever so slightly to the left as he spoke. "Okay." Her eyes flashed yellow, the way they always had erratically when she was young, tired, or not focusing well enough. "Hey, what happened to your voice? It's different."

"—What?"

"Your accent. It changed. How come?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Actually, he had a good guess. Speaking patterns did change over a lifetime, often too slowly and subtly to notice until you happened to run into someone you used to know. This Raven had presumably seen him just yesterday, what had to have been well over fifty years ago.

"It did."

Well, it wasn't as if Charles could offer any explanation that wouldn't make her think he'd completely lost his mind. Better not to try to explain it at all. "Let's talk about it later, shall we? Shoo now. We agreed on half an hour, and the timer doesn't start until you're out of here."

Raven gave him a dirty look—brotherly teasing was one thing, being shooed evidently quite another—and flounced out. As soon as the door had closed behind her, Charles rushed over to the desk by the window, digging through the mess there for any scrap of paper with a date on it. After a few minutes, he'd come up with several newspapers and his acceptance letter from Columbia. The latest date on any of them was June twentieth, and while that could have been weeks ago for all he knew, there was no denying the year.

Neither was there any denying what he saw when he looked in the bedroom mirror to find himself skinny, dark-haired, and freckled, exactly as he had been fifty-eight years ago.

The year was 1948, and he was fifteen again.

*****

Charles had come back on a Monday. The following afternoon, he sensed someone coming up the drive and opened the front door to find a messenger from Western Union standing there with a telegram.

"Who's it for?" he asked, though he assumed it was either for Mother or from her. She had always preferred telegrams over telephones, likely because they made it more difficult for people to argue with her pronouncements. She was out of town at the moment, from what Charles had been able to suss out from Raven, and though Charles' fifteen-year-old self had surely known where she had gone and when she expected to return, it was not information he'd retained.

Bored and slightly annoyed, the messenger read off the address label as quickly as he could: "Raven Darkholme, care of Charles Xavier, 1407 Graymalkin Lane, Salem Center, Westchester County, New York."

"I can take it," Charles said, running a mental check to make sure Raven was still occupied elsewhere and wasn't about to demand to see her message. There wasn't anyone in 1948 who ought to have been contacting her to begin with. She had scarcely known anyone besides Charles at this age, too wary of other people to approach them even on the few occasions they'd gone out. She'd spent so many of her earliest years on the run and hiding, terrified of the consequences if she were ever caught...

Charles opened the envelope and scanned the contents; disbelieving, scanned them again.

ARE YOU THERE QUERY RESPOND AT ONCE

MICHAEL XAVIER

Several long seconds went by, Charles frozen in place, unable to do anything but stare. Finally, he managed to say, "Can you wait a minute? This needs an answer."

It turned out his answer had been prepaid, but once Charles was standing by the table in the hallway, a pen poised above the reply form, he couldn't think of what he should say. What he wanted to say. Anything. Something sour twisted in his stomach; though it was the last week of June, his hands were cold. He had ten minutes to write twenty words or less, but all he could think was that this much, at least, should have been over. He hadn't processed everything about this situation yet—he had barely processed anything about it, had been clinging to the knowledge that if his school and all his work for the last thirty years was gone, then at least his sister had been returned to him—but if he'd had the time to get this far, he would have thought that he was done getting phone calls from a number which changed on average twice a week. He would have thought he was done hanging up or refusing to answer the phone if he'd already received a call from that number and previously logged it in his contacts as 'No.' He would have thought he was done seething, every time.

But now he knew that he wasn't done. He couldn't be done with any of that, because Erik was here. His Erik. Magneto. He was here. He had to be. It was the only possible explanation, for Michael Xavier didn't exist, and never had. That was nothing more than the alias Erik had always used to gain access to Charles' hospital room whenever he'd been admitted.

If this had all happened even six months ago, Charles would have known what to say. It would have been easy. 'Come home,' he'd have replied. 'We have all the time in the world to make things right.' He barely remembered being that person, the one who had seen Erik as the man he hoped he could be rather than the one he feared he would become. Being used and left for dead did wonders to clarify one's perception, it seemed. All Charles wanted now, and all he would ever want from Erik, was to be left alone.

Well, there was no chance of that, but still, Charles had to try.

NO BUT I AM STOP DO NOT COME HERE

PROF X

When Charles made it back to Raven, he told her it had been a salesman at the door. Later that night, when he was alone in his room, he took the telegram back out of his pocket and burned it.

*****

It did no good, of course. Several days later, Charles was unsurprised to wake up in the middle of the night with the knowledge that Erik was in the kitchen.

Really, the only surprising thing about it was that Erik hadn't climbed in through his bedroom window. Maybe he'd learned something after all. The last time he'd shown up in Charles' bedroom unannounced had been three months ago, roughly a month after Alkali Lake. He'd evidently assumed a few weeks was long enough for Charles to get over it, and spouted off accordingly as if he were the one who'd been wronged. Charles had let him talk right up until the helmet came off, at which point he confiscated it and compelled Erik to leave. (He'd considered compelling Erik to turn himself in, but decided against it on the grounds that there were still a handful of Charles' secrets he hadn't told yet.)

When Charles made it down to the kitchen, there was a suitcase on the floor by the table, a jacket hanging over one of the small wooden chairs. Erik himself was at the stove, making pancakes with his sleeves rolled up.

"Erik," Charles said, more a sigh than anything that could possibly have been interpreted as a greeting.

"Charles," Erik said, in that same old ironic tone of his, as if he were laughing at Charles, or they were sharing a joke together. He glanced at Charles quickly, then turned away, not nearly as confident as he meant to put on; Charles wasn't even trying to read Erik's mind, but he couldn't have missed Erik's nerves from upstate.

He looked like shit. They may both have been nearly sixty years younger than they had been the last time they'd seen each other, but Erik looked by far the worse for it, his hair lackluster and coarse, skin dull, dark purple hollows under his eyes. He'd always been lean, wiry, but although he was still a teenager, he was also far skinnier than any growth spurt could have accounted for, his cheekbones standing out in sharp relief and casting shadows onto his face.

Erik had shown up here pathetic and bleeding on any number of occasions, but Charles had never imagined seeing him like this. If a child had shown up on Charles' doorstep in such a condition, he'd have called the police. Had, on no few occasions.

As Charles studied Erik, Erik eyed him in turn. Charles hoped he was too fascinated at the sight of Charles standing to notice that he was also very, very short. Even from across the room, Charles could tell that the top of his head barely reached Erik's shoulders. He must have been missing a growth spurt or three; he was certain that Erik had never been that much taller than him. A few inches, yes, but Erik wasn't a giant, and Charles wasn't a dwarf.

"Mystique isn't here, if that's what you're after." Charles meant it to come out harsh, a dismissal of the type Erik was himself so fond of. It came out quietly, instead. It had always been too easy to speak quietly as half-past three in the morning, when it was just the two of them.

"So you've said." Erik looked at Charles head-on with a flat expression he couldn't interpret. He'd never been much good with facial expressions, and though he was better with Erik's than most people's out of the necessity created by that helmet of his, Erik controlled every part of his body well enough not to show Charles anything he didn't actively wish to, meaning Charles had no idea what Erik was getting at when he said, "I tracked Emma down while I was in Boston. She didn't know me."

"I wondered what you were doing there." In truth, Charles had filed away the return address on that telegram for future reference, but otherwise refused to speculate. It had been his default for a number of years, refusing to worry about where Erik was or what he was doing until it actually became relevant to something. Charles would never have had a moment's rest otherwise.

"I assume we're the only ones here, then?"

"I don't think we have nearly enough information to determine that one way or the other," Charles said, though this was another thing he hadn't really thought about. Now that he did, he could think of very few people he'd known in 2006 who had been born by 1948, and of the ones he'd known well, the only others he could think of were Logan, Hank, and Alex Summers. Logan would still be Jim at this point, while Hank and Alex would be very young children.

Erik set the last of the pancakes on top of the impressive stack on his plate, and took it over to sit at the kitchen table. After pouring what had to be half a bottle of syrup over it, he began eating, scarcely taking the time to chew his food as he put it away as quickly and mechanically as always.

There was no point in trying to continue a discussion with Erik while he was eating, so Charles sat down across from him and waited, somewhat irritated at the interruption, but more than a little relieved as well for the opportunity to collect his thoughts.

"How did it happen for you? I mean, what were you doing before you woke up here?" he asked when Erik had just about finished.

"Don't act like you don't know," Erik said, mopping up the rest of the syrup with his last bite of pancake and stuffing the entire dripping mess into his mouth before jabbing toward Charles with his fork. "Don't pretend you're not responsible for this. It reeks of one of your little schemes." He swallowed, then continued with his mouth empty. It wasn't much of an improvement. "There's a lesson here, right? You're trying to prove some sort of point."

"—Excuse me?"

The Master of Paranoia continued: "Well, it's not going to work. You may as well send me back now."

"What? Do you think I've been hiding a time travel device in the basement?"

"I don't know what you have down there," said Erik, with the same general snippiness as every other time he'd commented on the transition to synthetics Hank had hassled Charles into giving the go-ahead for sometime in the late eighties.

"Well, I wasn't. Believe me, if I'd had one, I'd have used it a long time ago. And I'd never have brought you along." For the first time since his arrival here, Charles considered how easy, how simple it would have been to manipulate a younger Erik some fourteen years down the road. "All I know is that I died—an aneurysm, I think—" stroke, stroke, I'm having a stroke, that was what he'd thought at the time, panicked and confused when the worst headache he'd ever experienced had exploded into being behind his right eye, "—and the next thing I knew, I was waking up here, in my childhood bedroom." Erik didn't need to know that Charles had been in the shower at the time. That he'd known he ought to call for help but had been unwilling to be found like that, naked and wet and stranded, and had for that reason attempted to transfer back into his chair first. That he hadn't made it that far. Erik didn't need to know any of that, any more than he needed to know that Charles' last thought had been his name. "That's it, and that's all. I have no idea how we ended up here. I don't know what's going on. If there's a conspiracy against you, I'm not a party to it."
Erik gave him a hard look. Charles gave it right back. After a moment, Erik said, "It happened the same way for me. I died, and when I woke up, I was here."

Charles fervently hoped Erik had died in some sort of humiliating circumstance as well, preferably on live television—though if Magneto had been posturing in front of cameras somewhere the other day, Charles would likely have been aware of that at the time.

"So, here we are. Both of us." Charles felt so weary. He'd spent the last few months raging at Erik inside his head, planning the things he'd say to him if and when they met again face to face. Things he couldn't have gotten across over the phone even if he'd been willing to take Erik's calls. Yet now that they were sitting across from each other, it seemed like too much effort. He was so tired. As always, it was worlds easier to hate Erik when Erik wasn't in evidence. "I'd imagine we're stuck here, unless you have some idea how to get us back. One that doesn't involve accusing me of being responsible, which I can assure you won't get us anywhere."

Erik sniffed, but failed to come out with anything immediately, which was disappointing. They'd been here three days, after all; it usually took Erik about three minutes to come up with a completely unacceptable course of action, which he always put into motion immediately.

"I don't know what your plans are, if you have any," Charles continued, feeling it out as he spoke. "Either way, I have no desire to spend the next sixty years fighting with you."

"I don't want that, either," Erik said.

It was nothing he hadn't said before, generally in the context of, 'I wouldn't have to keep stabbing you in the back if you would stop getting in my way whenever I'm trying to blow up national monuments, kidnap and murder your students, and/or commit genocide on the entire human race minus those members of the human race who happen to have an X gene.'

"I want to make sure you understand what I'm getting at," and Charles was only just starting to catch on to the direction he was going himself, "because we have such an opportunity here. This can be our second chance, if we let it be. We know everything that's going to happen for the next fifty-eight years. We can change it all, for mutantkind and for ourselves. We can change everything."

"You're trying to seduce me," Erik said, and that, too, was a sentiment he'd expressed before—except no. Whenever he'd said that in the past, (in the future, so many times), he'd always said, 'Stop trying to seduce me.'

Charles had never actually tried to talk Erik into coming back. Not seriously. Oh, he'd hinted over the years. He'd fished in an obvious (and, evidently, annoying) fashion, yes—but he'd never committed himself. He'd never said, 'Please come home.' He'd always known what Erik's answer would have been. He hadn't been willing to set himself up to face Erik's refusal. It had hurt badly enough the first time Erik had turned away from him.

Now, Erik leaned forward, tense and waiting, forearms braced against the table. When Charles gave in and peeked into Erik's mind for any sort of direction, he found only silence, expectant and total and knew then what Erik's answer would be if he asked now.

He knew too that he shouldn't. If he said anything significant, anything true to Erik, it should be, 'You found me when I was vulnerable and exposed, and instead of seeing me, your lover and your friend, you saw a weapon, armed and ready. Instead of waking me up and taking me home, you aimed me at the target of your choosing and left me to die. You left all of us there to die, and it's no thanks to you that most of us got out. No, that thanks belongs to Jean for her sacrifice. You deserve nothing from me, and that's what you'll get.'

Even now, Charles didn't know if Erik felt any remorse for what had happened at Alkali Lake. He didn't know how much he'd regret if if he asked, how much more than that he'd regret it if he looked.
But although he remembered that betrayal, although it would stay with him as long or longer than that first ever betrayal on a beach in Cuba so long ago, it hadn't happened yet. None of it had. It had all been erased. The future now could be whatever they wanted to be, what Charles had always until recently wished it were: he and Erik, building their future side by side, together.

If their future was written in water, their past now was written in sand. All they had to do was wash it clean and write something new.

Charles hadn't realized until this moment that he'd been holding a trump card close to the vest, all these years. Words he would never have said, never even thought of using unless he had a chance like this, the only chance he would ever have.

He couldn't believe he was doing this, when three minutes ago he had only wanted Erik to leave. He couldn't believe he'd ever thought he would do anything else. This had always been where they were headed, from the moment he'd realized Erik had come back too.

"We're brothers, you and I," Charles said, though they had done such terrible things to each other over the years. "We want the same things," though they never really had. "I want you by my side," and he wasn't at all sure he was capable of meaning that any longer, until he'd said it and realized it was as true as ever it had been, even as it was more foolish than it had ever been before.

Erik looked at him without speaking, long enough for Charles to wonder if he had misjudged, even though he knew he couldn't have.

Then he said, simply, "Yes."