Erik wakes to silence; absolute, smothering, like nothing he’s felt since he was a teenager and first heard the earth call his name. He’s been on edge for days anyway, holed up in this abandoned farmhouse, far from the ringing steel of city streets. For all that he’s trained himself to survive anywhere, he’s an urbanite at heart; he misses the metropolitan embrace desperately, the whir of engines, the low hum of joists and girders, the vibration of the pipes beneath his feet. Even so, even here, so far from civilisation, he should be able to feel the iron in the earth, or, failing that, the siren song of the poles, an inexorable northward pull he discovered on what should have been the happiest day of his life, that has instead served as a bitter reminder of his failures ever since.
Clamping down on the instinctive panic, he breathes deep and tries to focus, reaching out in every direction. Serenity.
No. There’s something. A faint scratching in his mind like someone whispering. It’s unclear, indistinct, nothing like Frost’s crystal daggers or the remembered warmth of Charles’ gentle touch. Someone else then. Another telepath.
He sits up quietly, one hand sliding under the folded blanket he’d been using as a pillow for his gun, the other reaching for the helmet he’d foolishly taken to removing at night, lulled into complacency by months with seeming no attempt by Charles and the others to track him down. The gun is a lump of cold metal in his hand, just a tool like any other, no life to it. The helmet doesn’t move at all.
As his eyes acclimate to the faint light cast by the moon through the tattered curtains, he can make out that the rotting, half-hung door is still propped closed, and he’s alone in the room he’d taken as his own. He springs carefully to his feet and crosses the room, snatching up the helmet. It’s a violation of the worst sort, to suppress his power like this, to take away what makes him him, Magneto. Whoever the telepath is, whatever they want, they’ll pay a heavy price for that. If they’ve come for help, to join the nascent brotherhood, they’ve gone about it the wrong way. If they’ve brought humans here, sided with them against their own kind, then so much the worse.
The helmet, never comfortable at the best of times, hangs on his head like a dead weight. The whispering stops, but when he reaches out, with both hands and all his strength, he still can’t feel anything. Not the nails in the floorboards, or the rusted hinges in the door, or the crumpled bullet in his hip pocket that took the place of a Reichsmark coin as symbol of all the things he can’t forgive and can’t forget.
He fumbles in the duffel he’d retrieved from a train station locker when they got back to the States – a change of clothes and a passport in a false name and banknotes in several European currencies as well as dollars – all he owns in the world and identical to several caches he’s left scattered behind him, always moving forward, never looking back. His watch and his favourite leather jacket and the few other items he’d let himself grow attached to are likewise where he left them, in a bedroom he’ll never set foot in again, in a house in Westchester, New York.
There’s no time now for such maudlin sentimentality, and he bites his lip, the sharp tang of iron in his blood a comfort, even if he can only taste it, not feel it, as his hand wraps around the handle of a hunting knife, sharp and wickedly curved. He’d slit its owner’s throat with it in a lodge in Bavaria, an obersturmführer who’d slipped the Allied net thanks to his lack of the SS blood group tattoo. It serves to remind him now that even without his power he’s not a weak, frightened boy, and never will be again.
Weapon in each hand, he shoves the sagging door open with his hip. It scrapes across the floor, raucous in the still night. There’s no one in the hall to react though. The door to the girls’ room opposite is ajar, and when he edges carefully around it, Mystique and Angel are both asleep in the house’s lone bed. He’s about to wake them when there’s a distinctive poof behind him.
“What is wrong?” Azazel asks, his accent thick but his voice calm.
“There’s someone here,” Erik says, turning. “Nearby, if not in the house.”
“Are you sure?” Azazel asks. “We’ve been patrolling.” He turns to Riptide, his perpetual shadow, and grins, his teeth brilliant white in his red face. “The old fashioned way,” he adds. “On foot.”
“I’m sure,” Erik says. “It’s a telepath, get Frost.”
Azazel vanishes, and Riptide raises both his hands to waist height, a tiny funnel forming in each palm. So. They both have their powers still. Whoever it is has clearly come for him.
Azazel reappears a heartbeat later, Emma Frost in diamond form on his arm. “What is it?” she asks.
“There’s another telepath here,” Erik says. “Find them.”
She tilts her head, the quizzical look on her face clear even in her current state. “I’ll have to drop my shields,” she says at last. “Be ready.”
“Oh, I’m ready,” he agrees grimly.
Flesh and blood once more, she looks as immaculate as ever despite the week they’ve spent in this godforsaken dump. Her eyes go distant, a tell as obvious, in its own way, as Charles’ raised fingers. She shakes her head after a few moments, blonde curls bouncing. “There’s no one here.”
“Look again,” he insists.
“Sugar, there’s only the six of us for miles.” She smiles at him, looking up through her downcast lashes. “Did big, bad Magneto have a bad dream?”
“I heard them,” he says, keeping a tight rein on his temper. “In my head.”
“There is no one in the house, or the surrounding area,” Azazel confirms, reappearing as silently as he’d vanished.
Emma softens slightly, laying careful fingers on Erik’s knife hand. He hadn’t even noticed it was shaking. Where once the metal of the blade would have protested, it is firmly silent. “If you take off the helmet I can look,” she says.
He shakes her off roughly. “Don’t even think about it.”
There may be no immediate threat, they may not be under attack, but something is terribly, awfully wrong. Someone, or something, did this to him, and he needs to find out what it was. Until then, he’s vulnerable. Behind him he can hear Mystique and Angel stirring. Of all of them, Mystique is the only one he truly trusts, and even then he has wondered, in low moments, whether a woman who abandoned her own brother bleeding on a beach will have any compunction, when the time comes, in betraying him. She admires his strength, and she appreciates the fact he knew and accepted her true form the moment he saw it. More than that, she’s a young girl with feelings he can’t return, and that’s always dangerous.
Angel has already proved she’s untrustworthy, survival instinct winning out over loyalty. Frost is grateful he broke her out of CIA custody, but that will only go so far. Riptide will follow Azazel, and Azazel… Azazel has been a reliable and efficient adjutant in the months following their flight from Cuba, and a blackly humorous late-night drinking companion, but Erik’s under little illusion that his loyalty, such as it is, is to Magneto the leader, and his vision for mutantkind, rather than Erik himself.
They’re kept in line, at least in part, by the knowledge that he is stronger than any of them, and the possibility of them finding out his temporary weakness – he won’t countenance the possibility it could be otherwise – is a risk he can’t take. The very best he could hope for is to be thrust aside as leader, the worst… Would they even accept him as one of them? Is he one of them? He hasn’t changed, not at all where it counts, in his heart; he’s still a mutant, still proud, he still loves all of them, and Charles and the boys too, and all their scattered brothers and sisters around the globe. He’d still die for any one of them, and he’d still kill to protect them.
But would they feel the same? His lack of a physical mutation and his classic German good looks, bereft of any obvious ethnic markers, have enabled him to blend in wherever he goes. He’s never seen it as more than useful in his quest, certainly would never advocate passing to anyone like Mystique who has the choice, but he can see a day where it might become a liability instead. If he’s like them in neither form nor abilities, how can he truly claim to be one of them? One drop of Jewish blood was enough for Heydrich and Eichmann, and he feels no less Jewish for the fact he hasn’t set foot in a synagogue since Kristallnacht, but what is the measure of a mutant?
And what if the shoe was on the other foot? If Mystique stood before him, no longer blue, locked instead in her peach and blonde form, how would he react? He doesn’t know, and he doesn’t want to risk finding out. So much of his own identity is wrapped up in what he can do, no less when he thought he was entirely alone in the world than once he discovered the truth, that without it he doesn’t know who he is, who he could be. What if it isn’t temporary? What if his power doesn’t come back? For the first time in his adult life he’s afraid.
They’re all staring at him now, differing looks of concern, curiosity, suspicion on their faces.
“Go back to bed,” he snaps. “I’ll take the next watch.”
There’s only one place he can go to find the answers he so desperately needs, one person he can trust enough to confide the truth and ask for help. The sense of shame he feels is palpable; Mystique wasn’t the only one who left Charles behind. He behaved abominably in Cuba and he knows it, has known it from the moment he calmed down enough to start thinking clearly, the shock and pain and, yes, rage, thrown up by hearing Charles utter those words so easily finally dissipating. He’d made Azazel take him back at once, but, however they got off the island – Moira’s contacts presumably – Charles was long gone. The grief had set in then, and anger once more, but a softer, more muted form of it this time, that he’d offered his heart to Charles on a plate, “We want the same thing,” only to have Charles throw it back at his feet, “Oh, my friend, we do not.”
No matter. Even if Charles never felt for Erik half of what Erik had felt for him, he won’t turn him away. He promised, that first night they met, that Erik would never be alone, and Erik, who had never trusted a soul after the camps, had known immediately that he would keep his word.
It’s easier than he thought it would be to persuade Mystique not to go back with him. She’s still smarting at Charles’ lack of understanding, and Hank’s perhaps more so on top of that. That, coupled with her own buried shame, makes her quick to accept his insistence that he needs her to keep an eye on the others. It’s true anyway. Frost may not be able to read him with the helmet on, but she’d looked all too knowing when he mumbled a hasty explanation that perhaps it had felt like Xavier trying to contact him after all. Azazel, too, had said nothing when dropping him off, but the pitying smile on his face had said it all. If Charles can’t fix him, if he can’t get his power back, there’s no way he’ll be able to return to them.
He keeps the helmet on as he strides up the long, winding lane towards the house. Charles will be able to sense his approach the moment he takes it off, and it’s not that he wants to surprise him, so much as he doesn’t want him to have time to put on that mask he wears so well, a calm that goes beyond serenity to a complacency verging on smugness. If he’s going to throw himself on Charles’ mercy, to reveal the awful truth and beg – for forgiveness? – for help, then he wants, just for a moment, to see Charles’ true face.
He stands in the trees across the courtyard from the tradesmen’s entrance for long minutes, steeling himself to enter. He feels foolish, now, for having come in uniform, cape and all, so out of place here, the crimson clashing horribly with the soft russets and browns of the autumn foliage, but even in the short months he’s been wearing it it’s become a sort of armour, protecting what’s left of Erik Lehnsherr beneath the hard shell of Magneto.
He’s always taken care to cover up, ever since the camps, long sleeves and fine, expensive, formal clothes as a barrier between him and the world. When he does deliberately show skin – a white t-shirt in Villa Gesell, swim trunks on a beach in Beirut when he was tracking a target who’d shown a marked preference for boys as lagerkommandant – it’s to eyes that will soon be permanently closed. Once, just once, he’d given in to Charles’ cajoling – It’s such a beautiful day, aren’t you sweltering buttoned up like that? – and stripped down to a borrowed tennis shirt. The way Charles had looked at him, all that afternoon, had alternately thrilled and terrified him, and as he takes off the cape and jacket, folding them neatly and leaving them tucked into the stone border of the path, he’s not sure if it’s a peace offering or a deliberate attempt to wound.
The door is unlocked, as he knew it would be. Security here is woefully lax; it had been one of the first things he planned to do after Shaw, once he’d allowed himself to start to think there might be life after Shaw, to remedy the shortfall, to keep Charles and the children safe. It’s still instinct to take Charles to task for his naivety, to question his ability and willingness to do what is necessary, but he gave up that right when he left.
He can hear voices from the kitchen as he lets himself in. Sean’s high-pitched laugh is unmistakeable, Alex and Hank good naturedly arguing beneath it. And above it all, Charles’ much-missed voice, telling them to eat before the food gets cold. He takes a deep breath, and steps in through the scullery door. Alex sees him first, positioned as he is in Erik’s old seat at the far end of the table, facing the door. He shoves back his chair with a violent scrape across the tiles, moving into a ready stance.
“Get out,” he hisses. “Right now.”
The others turn as one, Hank – or Beast, rather, his blue form truly his own now – springing lightly to his feet, even Sean reacting with admirable speed. Erik has eyes only for Charles. Charles who remains seated at the head of the table. For a moment Erik can’t process what he’s seeing, the arm rests, the wheels.
“I mean it,” Alex says, his hands flexing at his sides.
“It’s all right, Alex,” Charles says calmly.
“No, Charles,” the boy insists. “It’s not all right. He needs to go.”
“This is still my house,” Charles says calmly. “Sit down, all of you. Erik, you’re welcome to join us. But take the helmet off.”
“Charles, what-?” Erik breaks off. Alex isn’t backing down, and part of Erik feels proud of him for that, for the fact that he was so obviously on guard, but he won’t be threatened by children, and he needs to know, he needs to know now what-
“Take it off, now.”
“Charles,” Erik tries again, his own voice wavering. “Charles, please.”
“I said, take it off!” Charles shouts, slamming his hand down on the table in front of him. Every piece of metal in the room that isn’t bolted down, the cutlery on the table, the pots and pans on the stove, the keys and coins and assorted detritus scattered on the countertop, hurtles across the room with a tortured howl to embed itself in the opposite wall.
The second the helmet’s off it hits Erik like a wave; shock, anger, fear, confusion, it’s enough to send him crashing to his knees, hands clutched to his head. The voices roll over him as one –
How dare he come here? Are the others here? We need to be ready. Would he hurt us? Would he let them hurt us? Where’s Raven? Did Charles just-? It’s so good to see you, my friend.
It’s the last that gives him the strength to look up. Charles is staring at him, a horrified look on his face. The boys all start talking at once, demanding to know what’s going on, what just happened, did Charles really-?
“I think, if you don’t mind,” Charles says, and his voice is outwardly calm, even, but his mind – oh, God, his mind, which Erik can hear just as clearly – is shrieking with panicked confusion. “I think you boys had better leave us. We have a lot to talk about.”
Alex still looks defiant, but Hank ushers both him and Sean out of the kitchen. The furious whispering of their thoughts is like the rush of suddenly disturbed insects, skittering to get back under their log. Erik grits his teeth and tries to ignore it, focusing with all his remaining strength on Charles. Charles, who is looking at him with a dawning sense of wonder.
Oh, Erik, he hears, plain as day. I have missed you.
Are we…? He breathes deep. You’re in my head.
Oh, no, my friend. Charles smiles. You’re in mine.
They adjourn to the downstairs drawing room, the study out of the question for painfully obvious reasons. Erik’s first impulse is to help, to push the chair, but Charles waves him off and makes his own way.
“If you could stop thinking quite so loudly,” he says, wincing as he manoeuvres himself onto the couch.
Erik slams down as hard as he can on the flood of emotions rushing through his head. “I’m sorry, Charles,” he says helplessly, looking away as Charles arranges his legs in front of him. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“Yes, I can tell.” Charles sighs. “You need to stop projecting, or half of Westchester will slit their wrists in the tub tonight.”
“That’s not funny!” Erik snaps, shocked into meeting Charles’ eyes.
“I know.” Charles looks at him closely. “I knew you were angry,” he says at last, “but I had no idea you were so unhappy.”
“Don’t,” Erik says. “That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair,” Charles answers. “I think we both learned that the hard way.”
Erik crosses to the sideboard, and pours them both a neat scotch from the crystal decanter. It’s identical to the one in the study, and he idly wonders how many more there are in the house.
“Dozens, I should think,” Charles says. “My mother liked to be able to fix her own drinks, wherever she might be.”
Erik swallows the contents of his glass, refills it. “Why can’t I hear you, but you can still hear me?” he asks without turning around.
“It’s my mutation, Erik,” Charles says, and this time Erik does feel a faint emotional echo to match the spoken words. Frustration and… sadness? No. Loss. “I still know how to shield, and you’re still projecting.”
“Oh.” The thought of everyone in the house being able to hear Erik’s innermost thoughts is almost more than he can bear. The maelstrom in his mind swings from guilt to anger and back to a heavy, dragging misery and shame.
Charles sighs audibly. “Take the very worst things,” he says, “the things you really don’t want me, or anyone else, to see, and put them in a box. Can you do that?”
Erik imagines a cast iron strongbox, heavy and old, the sort of thing he would have found beautiful, before, every inch of it singing under his hands. It’s not hard to know what to put in it – just everything he doesn’t want to see, and never looks at, himself.
“That’s good,” Charles says. “Now imagine the room that it’s in. It’s a big room, and the box is a tiny part of it, over in the corner, gathering dust. Leave it there. Walk out of the room, and close the door behind you. Don’t lock it; that way you can open it whenever you want. But the rest will stay hidden.”
“Is this how you do it?” Erik asks. It seems a flimsy protection at best.
“Not exactly,” Charles says, “and it won’t stand up against someone who knows what they’re doing. But it’s the easiest way I can think of to describe it, and it’ll do for now.”
Erik nods to himself, and gently pulls the heavy door shut, pretending not to notice that for all the box was dredged from the depths of his subconscious, the room looks very like the spare room upstairs, the one that was so briefly his.
He returns to the sitting area, passes Charles his glass. Charles takes it and downs the contents.
“I really am sorry,” Erik says. “I didn’t know, or I would have-”
“Would have what?” Charles asks, looking up sharply.
“Never mind. It’s not important right now.”
Of course it’s important, it’s perhaps the most important thing there is. But Charles is right, life has never been fair. They’re probably both – all of them – in a great deal of danger, and they need to figure out from whom.
He pulls a wingback armchair close, and sits down. “I woke up without my power yesterday morning,” he says quickly. Even with today’s revelations it’s hard to admit. “Early. Before dawn.”
“I didn’t notice till midday,” Charles responds. “But I’ve been shielding hard. I don’t like… Well. The boys have been wonderful since I got out of hospital, but they worry. It’s worst late at night, and first thing in the morning.”
“I actually noticed…” Charles shifts embarrassedly, rubbing his hands in his lap. “I noticed the other first. Yours. The metal. I was reaching for the chair; it’s not always easy, you know, getting out of bed…” He clears his throat brusquely. “Anyway. It moved towards me. I thought I’d imagined it at first, but it was hard to ignore how much easier than usual it was to get into it, or to get through the door and down the hall.”
Is it so very difficult? Erik wants to ask, but doesn’t dare.
“And there was no denying it once the spoons started rattling in the drawer while I was making coffee.”
“I suppose not.” Erik stares resolutely at his own hands. “I had the helmet on the whole time.” Except for that first, confused whisper that he knows now must have been Azazel and Janos, awake and patrolling as the others slept. “I didn’t realise until I was standing in the kitchen and you-”
“Yes,” Charles says. “I did rather lose control. But you’ll forgive me for not being pleased to see that dreadful thing.”
“Yes,” Erik echoes. He tamps down on the urge to apologise again. The silence stretches.
“Why did you come here, then?” Charles asks suddenly. “If you didn’t know we’d swapped powers?”
“Where else would I go?” Erik asks helplessly.
“And you thought I’d just welcome you with open arms?”
“Not with open arms.” Erik looks up, and sure enough, Charles’ mask is firmly in place. If it wasn’t for those first few moments when his feelings were an open book, Erik would despair. “But I knew you wouldn’t turn me away.”
“How nice for you,” Charles goes on. “To be so certain of my loyalty.”
“I don’t want to argue with you,” Erik says, and he doesn’t. The days when they could argue about politics, about philosophy, about anything and everything under the sun, are gone. They won’t come again. “And I don’t expect you to forgive me. I know you can’t.”
Charles sighs. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was unkind.”
“But not undeserved,” Erik shrugs.
“No one deserves deliberate cruelty,” Charles says. “Especially not a friend.”
“Am I still your friend?”
“My dearest friend,” Charles says firmly. “You were right to come. I’m glad you did.”
“I wanted you to come with me,” Erik whispers, unable to hold back the truth in the face of Charles’ generosity.
“And I wanted you to stay with me,” Charles says. “But I told you that first day at CIA headquarters I’d never make you.”
“I could make you,” Erik says wildly, giddy with the realisation of his new power. “I could make you come with me this time.”
“You could try,” Charles says. “But I truly don’t think that’s what you want.”
No. It isn’t. Even as he imagines it, the vision flickers and fades. He understands now, in ways he couldn’t, before, just how empty such a thing would be, a Charles without any of the animation and fire that makes him who he is, no better than a puppet. He’d struggled to trust Charles, to believe he was telling the truth, when he said he’d never force Erik to do anything he didn’t want, but now he can feel first-hand the impossibility, the revulsion, Charles must have felt at the very thought.
“If I hadn’t put the helmet on, if I’d trusted you,” he asks, throat full, “what would you have done?”
“When you were in there with Shaw?” Charles asks, no hesitation. “Just what I did. I know you think me soft, unable to take action when I must, but it isn’t true. He’d have killed you if I let go, and there’s no way I would have let that happen. His life was meaningless to me compared to yours. I had no sympathy for him. I was in his head, remember? If I could have, even for a moment, forgotten his plans for the world, I couldn’t, I promise you, have forgiven the things he did to you. It was only ever for your sake I tried to hold you back.”
“I would have stopped you.” Charles says it so calmly, with such certainty. “I would have done it openly, and honestly, not tried to trick you, but I would have stopped you.”
“I don’t think I could have forgiven you if you had.”
Charles smiles. “You’d be surprised, my friend, what you can forgive.”
Erik’s heart clenches.
“I do forgive you, by the way,” Charles goes on, “and not because I’m some sort of saint, so don’t carry on flagellating yourself at my feet. I forgive you because I know you never meant to hurt me. What happened was dreadful, and I’m still struggling with it every day, I won’t lie about that to spare your feelings, but it was an accident.”
“That’s not what you said at the time,” Erik says. He can’t help it.
“I couldn’t let you hurt Moira,” Charles says. “She was my friend too. And it wasn’t her fault any more than it was yours. Any more than it was mine for standing up. We were all three of us to blame, Erik. And none of us.”
Erik has never forgiven anyone. For anything. The experience of his life has been such that he feels justified in it; some things can never be pardoned or atoned for. But if Charles can give him such a gift…
“I was afraid,” he confides. “That’s why I came here. I’ve been alone my whole life, but I’ve always had my power to make me strong. I don’t know who I am without it. And I know it’s selfish, and I know it’s unfair, but if I didn’t have that… You’re the only person who’s ever made me believe that I could be safe.”
“Oh, Erik.” Charles’ blue eyes are welling up, a single tear escaping to fall as it did that day on the terrace.
“And all I wanted was to keep you safe in return. To keep us all safe.”
“I know that,” Charles says. “I rejected your avowed separatism, and your willingness to use violence to get your way. I never rejected you.”
“And when they come,” Erik says, swiping angrily at his own face, “the CIA and their pet telepaths, or whoever it is that’s done this, what would you have me do then?”
“What makes you so certain it was a hostile act?” Charles asks.
“What else can it be?”
“I don’t know,” Charles says. “A mutant for sure, but not a telepath, I don’t think. I could possibly have suppressed your power” – Erik shudders – “or forced you to use it in ways you didn’t want to, but I couldn’t have stolen it. I certainly couldn’t have given it to someone else.”
“Then what?” Erik asks, at a loss for an alternative.
“I don’t know,” Charles says. He’s silent for a moment, thinking, then he leans forward in his seat, suddenly excited. “Do you remember that girl in Phoenix, the one who could trade people’s physical bodies?”
“Yes, but that only lasted moments,” Erik says. “And we don’t even know if it was real, or if it was some kind of illusion.” It had been disconcerting, certainly, to find himself suddenly looking up into his own face, but it had been like catching a sudden glimpse of his reflection, unexpected, in a window. There was no time to feel the physicality of it, the way his new body, with its new contours and curves, might have moved. Before it had really registered he’d once again been looking down at Charles.
“I’m fairly certain I’d have been able to tell if it was a mental illusion,” Charles says. “In any case, she was very young. And untrained. I’m sure with practice she’d have been able to hold the effect for longer.”
The girl had been quietly pretty, plump and cheerful. She’d politely but firmly declined their offer, insisting that her dream of being a nurse when she finished school was more than enough.
“It’s not unreasonable to suppose that someone else could do the same, or similar, with powers,” Charles goes on.
“But at random?” Erik demands. “Casting a net across the state and blindly hoping to hit two compatible mutants? Or would it have to be someone we’d met? We weren’t in close proximity, it has to be deliberate.”
“I agree,” Charles says, steepling his fingers and looking more intrigued than bothered. “But I won’t assume it’s an act of war.”
“We can’t take the chance,” Erik says firmly. “And there’s no time for you to treat this as a fascinating case study in genetics. The children are in danger too,” he adds, knowing that that will stir Charles even where nothing else will.
“I don’t see how,” Charles says. “Leaving aside this mutant, who clearly has a very impressive range, wherever they are, to reach us both” – Erik looks up suspiciously, wondering how Charles could possibly have known where he was, but as always, he’s giving nothing away – “we never met anyone, on any of our travels, who rivalled either of us in power. Shaw’s the only one who came close. Taking away our powers altogether, yes, that I could see as a threat, but this? The best a theoretical hostile party could hope for is that our ability levels might drop temporarily as we strive to master our new skill-sets. Our raw power levels haven’t been affected at all. We’re as strong as we ever were, especially together.”
“Together?” Erik asks.
“Yes, together. Just because I’m not convinced this is the opening salvo in an oncoming war, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer everything to get back to normal. We’ll have to work together to make that happen.”
“Yes.” Erik hesitates. “Charles,” he says carefully. “If you don’t mind my asking… You don’t seem very upset.”
Charles grins. “Oh, I’m not quite as calm as I appear. That’s the English way, you know, have a cup of tea and keep a stiff upper lip. But in the scheme of things… If you’d asked me six months ago, what it would be like to lose my telepathy, I think I’d have said something tasteless about losing a limb.” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “Except now I know first-hand what that’s like, and I have to say that this is considerably easier. Or perhaps I’ve just met my quota for traumatic losses after so many, and don’t have any reaction left.”
“So many?” What else could possibly have happened?
“Oh, you are a twit sometimes.” Charles sighs. “Losing you and Raven was the worst.”
Charles looks at him very carefully, then takes a deep breath. “Is there a reason you didn’t bring Raven with you?”
“She wanted to come,” Erik lies. Or perhaps it’s not a lie. He hadn’t truly given her the choice, too caught up in his own fears. “She misses you. It’s my fault.” That much, at least, is true. “I didn’t want her to know about me losing my power.”
Charles nods. “I would have liked to see her. Is she well at least?”
“Very well.” Erik allows a touch of pride to colour his voice. He can give Charles this if nothing else. “She’s developed into an amazing fighter. I know that’s not what you wanted for her, but she’ll be able to protect herself, and more than that, she’s happy and confident.”
“I’m glad.” Charles smiles, then stifles a yawn. They’ve been talking for hours, and if he hadn’t trained himself out of such obvious tells, Erik would be yawning too. “Let’s pick this up in the morning. A good night’s sleep always does wonders.”
Charles’ things have all been moved downstairs to what was once the formal dining room. It looks comfortable enough, and it’s certainly spacious, but it must surely rankle, being unable to climb the stairs to his own accustomed rooms. Erik returns his mumbled goodnight, and retreats up the stairs to his old room, across the hall from Charles’ abandoned one. It’s exactly as he left it, even down to the rumpled bedclothes and the tracksuit he’d worn that last afternoon still thrown on the floor where he’d dropped it, crawling exhausted into bed. He never would have left such a mess, but they’d had bigger things to worry about, that morning. His watch is on the dresser, along with the passport he entered the States on – it’s a fake like all the rest of them, but it’s in his real name – and his clean clothes are neatly hanging in the wardrobe and folded in the drawers. There’s a thin layer of dust over everything, and a faint smell of stale sweat and must. No one’s been in here since he left.
He opens both the windows and stares out into the cloudless night sky. For all that he hates the situation, a part of him’s glad to be back.
The boys aren’t much more welcoming at breakfast, but from the way Hank and Sean look at him with pity rather than loathing, it’s clear that whatever they saw last night was enough to convince them of his sincerity, at least. Alex still looks mutinous. Charles is his usual tactless self, delving straight to the heart of the matter.
“Erik and I appear to have traded powers,” he says baldly, even as he’s passing Alex the eggs.
“What?” Alex demands, letting the heavy pan drop to the table with a thud. “Does that mean he’s reading our minds?”
“No, he isn’t,” Erik says coldly. “He has no interest in your tiny minds.”
I would love to punch you right in your smug face, Alex fairly hurls at him.
Erik recoils, can’t help it, just a little but enough.
Alex smirks. “He damn well is.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Charles says.
You’re a liar and a cheat and you betrayed the professor and you betrayed us all, Alex shouts.
“That isn’t true,” Erik insists, stung.
“Told you,” Alex says, sitting back in his chair.
Erik! Charles looks scandalised.
“He’s shouting directly at me!” Erik’s gaining a whole new understanding of Charles, and how what he sees and hears isn’t always dependent on his control.
“This is fascinating,” says Hank. “You should both come down to the lab, and we can run some tests.”
“Forget it,” Erik snaps. The whole thing is putting him on edge, the thought of these clueless children knowing things they have no right to, the mere idea of going willingly down to the lab to let Hank do whatever pseudo-scientific tests cross his mind…
“Actually, I would like to do some testing,” Charles says, smiling winningly. “Nothing invasive, and we certainly don’t need to go down to the lab for it. But given we don’t know how long this is all going to last, I think we should at least try out our new powers.”
“Now this I have to see,” Alex says, grinning, good nature seemingly restored. “The teachers become the students? I volunteer to run target practice. See how you like it.”
“If anyone needs to be pushed out a window, I’m there,” adds Sean. “See how you like it,” he flings Erik’s way.
“That won’t be necessary,” Charles demurs.
“This isn’t a game!” Erik complains. “And it’s not some science experiment either. It’s serious.”
“Yes, it is,” Charles agrees. “And if you’re right, and I’m wrong, and our mystery mutant shows up tomorrow bent on carting us all off to who knows where, then we should probably be ready for them, don’t you think?”
He’s right, of course, and Erik knows it. He’s about to concede the point when Alex reaches into the pocket of his jeans.
“Here,” he says, slapping his hand down on the table in front of Charles. “Move this.”
“Alex, no,” Charles says urgently, even as the boy lifts his hand, and sure enough, inevitably, it’s a quarter dollar piece.
Erik! Charles’ voice is desperate, ringing crystal clear in his head; so much for control. Erik, it’s all right. And it is all right, of course it is, he’s a grown man, not a child, it’s perfectly fine, and then Alex laughs, and says –
“Come on, a little coin’s nothing compared to a great big submarine.”
– and Erik is flying across the table, his hands wrapping tight around Alex’s throat.
Dimly, through the red haze, he can hear Charles shouting, though whether it’s in his head or out loud he can’t tell. There are hands grabbing at him, clutching at his shoulders and his waist as other hands have before, and he swings out wildly, catches something soft with his elbow, hears a broken off cry, and he may not have the power to move the coin now – again – but he’s not small, not weak, not half-starved and beaten and so desperately afraid, and Shaw is –
Shaw is dead.
The realisation throws him for just long enough, and when he looks down he can see Alex, who’d always been his favourite of all the boys, and he’s not fighting, not even trying to defend himself, and then he hears it –
I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know, I promise you I didn’t know, I’m so, so sorry.
His hands unclench and he stumbles to his feet, almost falling as he escapes the room, the wave of incomprehension and pity threatening to swamp him, not meeting anyone’s eyes, Charles calling after him with voice and mind alike.
He makes it out onto the gravel path outside before he’s doubled over retching, nothing but bile and two bites of toast to bring up, but the stink and grit of ash and human fat all over him, and the anger that would usually help to burn it off doused by the flood of shame that he was the one to raise a hand to a boy, a mere child, forced to grow up too fast, acting the part of a man because yet another man who should have been a father to him let him down. He can’t stop hearing Shaw’s – no, Schmidt’s – voice, the way he first heard it, so long ago, his German cultured and urbane, scoffing at the petty concerns of Nazi scientists, including Erik in the joke, a little coin is nothing compared to a big gate.
A cool hand presses lightly on his neck. He can’t bear to look up, but he doesn’t have to, Charles’ strong arms wrapping around him, pulling him into his embrace –
– echoing through his head.
“It’s all right,” Charles says, “just breathe.”
Erik does, shallow breaths gradually slowing, becoming deeper, until it doesn’t feel like he’s choking on every one. The smell is fading too, replaced by Charles’ cologne where he’s pressing Erik’s face hard into the join where his neck meets his shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles at last. He’s apologised more in the past twenty-four hours than in his adult life till now. “I don’t know what happened.”
“I think I do,” Charles says quietly. “I’ve read about it. Men who served in the war, men who saw terrible things, and they’ve been home, safe, for years, but little things still set them off, remind them. Innocuous things that wouldn’t bother anyone else.”
“It’s never happened before,” Erik says, though why he’s fighting he doesn’t even know.
“The last few days have been deeply unsettling for you,” Charles says. “And you said yourself you’ve been afraid. It must have reminded you very strongly of being a child, being helpless. And then when Alex… He didn’t mean anything by it, Erik, he truly didn’t know.”
“I know that.”
“I think the upheaval in your mind probably exacerbated the effect as well. You’re thinking, feeling, remembering in ways you don’t normally let yourself. Will you let me help you?”
“How can you help me?” Erik demands. “You don’t have the power anymore.”
“No,” Charles says calmly. “But I can show you how to use it. If you trust me.”
“I do trust you.” God help him, but he does.
“All right then. Relax, and come with me.”
They sit there for a few moments, breathing quietly in unison, arms still wrapped around each other. Erik doesn’t want to let go and he doesn’t want to look.
“It’s all right,” Charles repeats. “I’m here waiting. You need to come in. The doors are open. They’ll always be open. If you want to come in.”
Sure enough, when Erik emerges from the shadows it’s into the upstairs corridor, brilliantly lit as always, Charles so profligate with electric light. He can hear Charles’ soft chuckle at the thought, and follows it to the open study door. The fire is blazing, well-stoked, and it’s only then that Erik realises how cold he is, how cold he always is. He walks into the room and towards the fire. Charles is sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of it, glass of scotch in his hand and a smile on his face.
“Come in,” he repeats.
Erik crosses the room towards him, getting a better look at it as he does. The table on which they used to play chess has been shoved to one side, the pieces toppled, a few fallen to the floor where they lie abandoned. The box, his box, is lying on its side at the end of the couch, cracked open, all manner of items spilling out.
“I didn’t leave this in here,” he says.
“No,” Charles agrees. “You carry it with you, wherever you go.”
Erik goes to his knees, trying to shove everything back into the box. There’s so much it will barely fit. He tries to force the lid down, but Charles reaches out, rests gentle hands on his.
“Erik,” he says, so very sadly. “Don’t put that in there.”
Tucked between his kennkarte and the displaced persons papers that got him into Israel is a faded and torn photograph of a small boy. He stares at it for a moment, wondering who on earth he is, this round-faced, smiling child. Charles strokes a finger across the boy’s cheek.
“You were a beautiful baby.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says, but Charles is already reaching past him, pulling a bundle of papers back out of the box.
“Here,” he says, passing Erik another picture.
It’s the same boy, a little older perhaps, beaming as he walks hand in hand with two adults. The man is a stranger, but the woman Erik recognises. He doesn’t want to look at her, young and happy, so he puts the picture down, face to the carpet.
Charles sighs, and climbs to his feet, pressing lightly on Erik’s shoulder as he does. He crosses back to the coffee table, and picks up the box the chess pieces usually live in, brings it back to the hearth and passes it to Erik. It’s beautiful, intricately carved ivory. He sits down again, and starts flicking through the box, too quickly for Erik to see.
“It’s all right,” he says. “You don’t have to look till you’re ready.”
With a small pile neatly sorted into the ivory box, the rest fits properly into the iron one. Charles looks at it for a long moment, then looks at the leaping fire.
“You know,” he says carefully, “you don’t have to keep these.”
Erik looks at the bright yellow flames, takes in the sweet, clean smell of burning wood and the crackle of pine cones.
“I can show you how to be rid of them,” Charles says.
“No,” Erik says firmly. “No. I need to remember. These things shouldn’t be forgotten. There’s so few of us left, and if we don’t remember, who will?”
“History won’t forget,” Charles insists.
“Are you sure?” Erik asks. “You did. Just following orders? You were the last person I ever thought would say that to me.”
Charles nods. “To be fair you had just put a coin through my head. I wasn’t at my best. Can you forgive me?”
“I can,” Erik says, and in this moment he knows that it’s true. He can forgive. But he can’t forget. Not this. “But a day will come when people argue that it didn’t happen. And I need to be there.”
Charles smiles sadly. “Yes. I understand.”
Together they close the heavy lid of the box, and lock it. Together they push it back under the couch. Out of sight, but never actually out of mind.
The lid of the other box, Charles leaves deliberately ajar. Erik still doesn’t want to look at it, so Charles gets up again and puts it on the mantelpiece over the fire, next to a framed photograph of himself and Raven as children.
“You don’t ever have to look into it, Erik,” he says, “but if you want to, you should. And if you’d like my company when you do, I’d be very happy, and very proud, to look at them with you."
They walk out of the study and into the hallway hand in hand.
The world rushes in like a biting northerly gale, or a shock of sleet to the face. Reluctantly Erik pushes Charles away, just far enough to look at him. They’re both sprawled on the gravel courtyard behind the house. His knuckles and the palms of his hands are torn and bleeding; Charles, thankfully, appears to have fallen more gracefully, though his legs are curled wildly to the side and the wheelchair is abandoned several feet away.
“How did you even get out here?” Erik asks, looking back at the stone steps and the uneven path.
Charles laughs, and the sheer warmth of it chases away the last of the ghosts.
“You won’t believe it,” he says, “but I think I flew. Well. Not flew like you can fly, I’m not strong enough for that yet. How do you do that, by the way? Are you repelling yourself off the minerals in the earth, or floating on some sort of magnetic waves in the atmosphere? Sorry, that’s not really important right now, is it?”
“No, it’s fine,” Erik says, throat hoarse, Charles’ unfailing dedication to science a welcome antidote and as delightful as ever. “Don’t ever change.”
“Well.” Charles blushes, suggesting he heard all that too. “I had to get out here, there wasn’t much choice in the matter. I suppose you were right when you said the situation gets the job done. It wasn’t anger though, before you panic again, not at all. I was worried about you.”
“Is Alex all right?”
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
“Don’t you want to go back in and check?”
“Hank and Sean will take care of him.”
“I don’t need-” Erik breaks off. He climbs to his feet, then looks at Charles awkwardly. “Can I-? May I?”
Charles smiles. “Yes, that would be good, thank you.”
Erik rights the wheelchair and carefully drags it closer. He helps Charles up, hands as gentle as he knows how to make them. He suspects Charles doesn’t really need his help, but it’s another step back towards normalcy.
“Let’s not go back inside,” Charles says cheerfully. “It’s going to be a beautiful day, let’s go for a walk.”
Erik looks dubiously at the chair wheels, and the manicured lawns, the sprawling paths.
“If I can prevail upon you to push me?” Charles says, still smiling. “It is rather heavy going across the gravel. I should get the paths paved at some point, I suppose.”
“All right,” Erik says quietly.
They wind up on the parapet, overlooking the valley and the satellite dish. Erik sits on the low stone wall, his back resolutely turned to the view.
“It’s not that I don’t want to remember them,” he says at last. “My parents.”
“What is it then?” Charles asks.
“I just… Whenever I think of them, I… Well. When I think of my mother, I think of the last time I saw her. In Schmidt’s office.”
“And your father? I’ve never heard you speak of him at all.”
“The last time I saw him was the day we arrived at the camp. We’d all been together on the train, but they separated us at the gates. Adults one way, children another. I wanted to go with them; I thought whatever happened it would be all right, if we could only stay together. I reached out for them, and that’s when I moved the gate. That’s when I caught Schmidt’s eye.”
Charles nods. “You look a lot like him, you know.”
“You have your mother’s cheekbones and chin, but the rest is all your father. He was a very handsome man.”
Erik chokes. “You shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Why ever not?” Charles demands. “Your feelings for me are like a clarion call. You must know I feel the same way.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Erik says, crushing down on the fragile, fluttering thing beating in his chest.
“Because we don’t want the same things.”
“We want each other,” Charles insists. “Isn’t that enough?”
“It wasn’t before.”
“And won’t you even try?” Charles looks so very young, and heart-broken, sitting there in the unforgiving sunlight.
Erik looks him right in the eye. “How much do I have to change?”
“How much do I have to change?” Erik repeats. “Before you can accept me?”
“I don’t want you to change!” Charles shouts. “I want you to be happy.”
Erik laughs bitterly.
“And I want to be safe,” he says. “I want all of us to be safe. You, and me, and the boys, and Raven, and Emma bloody Frost, and Angel – she’s just a stupid young girl, that’s all, she never wanted to hurt anyone; she was just afraid, she’d been abused and exploited all her life and we should have known that when we found her, but we were both too busy congratulating ourselves on our cleverness. And even Azazel and Riptide, as cruel as they can be, as many people as they’ve killed. They chased Azazel out of his village when he was just a child; they wanted to burn him as a devil. And Janos’ people weren’t any better; they cut out his tongue.”
“They’re all welcome here,” Charles says firmly, though there’s a tremor in his voice. “I can’t imagine the men would want to stay, but if they did the door would be open.”
“No murder,” Charles corrects. “If we have to defend ourselves, we will.”
“You’ll trust me to act as I see fit?”
“As we see fit. We’ll talk about it, and we’ll agree; we won’t act rashly.”
“Then show me,” Erik says.
Charles falters. “Show you?”
“Yes,” Erik says, holding Charles’ gaze. “Turn it back around.”
Charles looks over his shoulder at the satellite dish. “You can’t be serious.”
“You’re asking me to trust you,” Erik says. “Show me that you’ll do what’s necessary.”
It’s strange to watch Charles try to intentionally summon Erik’s power. He raises his hands in the way he must have seen Erik do a hundred times, but he looks uncomfortable, self-conscious. His face screws up with the strain of trying, and failing, exactly the way that Erik did at first. He breaks off, breathing heavily, hands clenching in his lap.
“I’m sorry,” he gasps. “I can’t.”
“You can,” Erik says. “Try again.”
He does, without demur. The dish remains unmoved, and Charles breaks into a fit of coughing.
“Again,” Erik says. “Once more.”
Charles looks miserable now, tears springing to his eyes again, but he tries. As soon as he’s sufficiently distracted Erik follows the now familiar path and slips into his mind. It’s calm, and quiet, like always, though there’s a faint sense of strain around the edges. Charles is concentrating hard, trying to treat the problem the way he would a difficult experiment, the answer just out of reach. There’s a shadow over his shoulder though, the fear that he won’t be able to do it, that Erik will leave once more and Charles will never see him again. He’s ignoring it, insisting, calm your mind…
Charles, Erik thinks, as gently as he possibly can. Charles, can you hear me?
Of course, Charles answers, surprise clear in his voice. What are you-?
Between rage and serenity. Between.
I don’t understand.
Erik smiles, and reaches out to take Charles’ outstretched hand. You’re so calm all the time, he thinks. But I know you’re angry. You must be. Let yourself feel it for once.
Charles tries to pull his hand out of Erik’s grasp. I told you, I’m not.
Then prove it. Let go of your shields, let go of your calm, and just feel.
It’s like a dam collapsing when Charles finally lets go, the unleashed torrent enough to sweep all before it. There’s sun and sweat and sand, the beach in Cuba, the red-hot pain of a bullet in the back, and worse, far worse than that, the way Erik just left Charles there without a backward glance. There’s the unending white of a hospital ceiling, the fear and sadness of the children and having to put on a brave face for them as the doctors say he’ll likely never walk again, when all he wants to do is scream with the injustice of it all – they saved the world, does that count for nothing? – but no, even that is not allowed. There’s wiping Moira’s memories and hating himself for it, but hating the world more, for forcing him to do it.
There’s anger, yes, but there’s also regret; that he could love Raven so much, and still not understand the things she needed to hear, the way Erik so instinctively seemed to. There’s the pain of physiotherapy, and the slow crashing realisation of all the things he’s never done, will never do. There’s the way he almost reached out to touch Erik in a tiny, cramped hotel room in Saginaw, and again the night before they went to Cuba. There’s his stupid faith that they had time to have it all, so why hurry, why not wait for the perfect moment? There’s all the moments that never came.
There’s Erik, walking into the kitchen, that hated helmet on his head.
There’s Erik, willing to try.
He stumbles off the wall and goes to his knees at Charles’ feet, leaning forward to place his head in Charles’ lap. Charles strokes his hair with a gentle hand. “Don’t do that again,” he says shakily, “not without asking first.”
“I won’t,” Erik swears, as he shifts his own hands to Charles’ hips, and then to his waist where he’s sure Charles can feel them. “I promise.” Charles’ mind is still open to him, his habitual calm returning, lapped by a warmth and tenderness that spreads and grows as Erik’s thumbs shift on his hipbones.
Long moments later they shift and turn to look at the satellite. It hasn’t just swung to face them; it’s collapsed into a ball of twisted metal, a fraction of its former size.
Erik bursts out laughing. Charles looks at him quizzically.
“A power no one can match,” Erik says solemnly, then laughs again. “Not even me. Oh, Charles, you do have to get the last word, every time.”
Charles laughs too then, a delighted, joyful sound. “I pity whatever poor bastard turns up for work tomorrow and has to deal with that,” he says at last, then starts laughing all over again. “Actually, I don’t,” he wheezes, “it’s an eyesore and I’ve resented it ever since they put it up.”
That sets Erik off again too. “I knew you were accustomed to getting your way, Charles,” he gets out, even as he clutches at his aching ribs. “But using your power for evil? I’m shocked.”
Charles pokes his tongue out at him like they’re children in the school playground. “Technically, I used your power for evil, my friend.”
Erik shifts the hand that’s still on one of the arm rests, meaning to punch Charles in the shoulder with it. Instead, his fingers, seemingly of their own volition, drag their way up Charles’ neck to cup the side of his face. Charles leans into it unhesitatingly, his eyelids fluttering closed. Erik breathes in deep and leans in too, resting his forehead against Charles’ and letting his own eyes close.
There’s no voice in his head. There’s no need of one. All there is is Charles. Every bit of him open and unreserved; trusting and yearning to be trusted, loving and deserving to be loved.
They both move at the same time, closing the miniscule distance between them, lips meeting in the chastest of kisses. Charles’ strong hands shift to Erik’s jaw, fingertips pressing firmly on the nape of his neck, thumbs stroking his temples. There’s another moment of gentleness, then Charles is pulling, hard, tilting Erik’s head one way as he leans the other so that their mouths drag across each other and fit together again. Erik’s opens, helpless under the onslaught, and Charles follows, his tongue dragging hot and wet over Erik’s lips before slipping inside.
Erik can’t remember the last time he kissed anyone with passion. The kiss he’d given Raven was born of friendship, nothing more; those he’s given various marks over the years offered in bitter detachment; and some few, to strangers passing in the night, out of a superficial attraction and a need for release. He tries to close down that line of thought before Charles can pick up on it, but Charles just laughs, soundlessly, and Erik gets a sense of drunken foolishness, fun, pleasant interludes that were as soon forgotten as completed. Unspoken, but clear as day to both of them, is the thought, this is different.
“Please,” Charles gasps aloud as they break apart for breath, “please, Erik, can we go inside?”
Erik pulls back with effort, straightens up, but before he can reach for the handles of the wheelchair Charles grins at him and flexes his fingers. The chair lifts a good six inches off the ground, wavering slightly before it turns and positions itself at Erik’s side.
They cross the grounds at an undignified pace, but there’s no way for Erik to feel self-conscious, embarrassed, when Charles is every bit as flustered beside him, mind singing with elation, body tingling with arousal. Erik tears himself away to scan the house, but the boys are down in the fall-out shelter, far from sight. A quick brush of their thoughts confirms they’re occupied with their own business and unlikely to emerge.
Erik pauses when they reach the foyer, letting Charles lead the way, and sure enough Charles bypasses his makeshift room, heading up the stairs, and the sheer unmitigated joy of that, the sense of freedom restored, is enough to smother any residual envy Erik might have felt at seeing him wield his own lost power so casually.
Charles’ bedroom is dusty too, but immaculate, and Erik locks the heavy door as Charles flicks his wrist and sends the damask curtains flying closed on their brass rings. They meet beside the bed, a momentary awkwardness returning. It was one thing helping Charles outside, but Erik has a strong feeling that lifting him here would be beyond the pale. Instead, he waits for Charles’ cue.
Charles smiles hesitantly. “I haven’t been completely honest with you,” he starts carefully. “Erik-”
Erik’s heart plummets.
“No, no,” Charles says quickly. “Nothing like that.” He breathes in deeply, then braces his hands on the arm rests. Excruciatingly slowly, and with a visible struggle, he rises to his feet in front of the chair.
A thousand thoughts crash through Erik’s head, foremost among them, were you punishing me? but then Charles is sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed, his whole body shaking.
“I can only do it for a moment,” Charles says quickly, “and it hurts like bloody hell.”
“Hank’s suit,” Charles says. “It stopped enough of the force of the bullet, which was a ricochet anyway, if you recall, that my spinal cord wasn’t crushed, just very badly bruised. Most of the damage was caused by the subsequent swelling, but I was also very lucky in that it hit so low. I have complete motion and feeling above the pelvis, and a fair amount below. I probably won’t ever be able to walk very far, but it’s so much better than it could have been.”
He carefully doesn’t say, but Erik feels it all the same, that he might have recovered completely if Erik, and then Moira too, hadn’t been so quick to manhandle him.
“Don’t,” Charles says, cutting off that line of thought. “It doesn’t matter now.” He moves up the bed to sit against the ornately carved wooden headboard. “Come here.”
Erik kicks off his shoes and climbs onto the bed, moving carefully to straddle Charles’ legs. He hesitates before letting Charles take his weight. “Can you-?”
“Yes, of course,” Charles laughs. “Just as much as I could have before.”
Erik settles in Charles’ lap and leans in to kiss him again. Charles’ arms come up immediately to wrap around him, holding him tight. They kiss heatedly, arousal rising again, Erik getting hard with a speed that shocks him. Beneath him, he can feel Charles stiffening too, though more slowly.
I’ll get there.
It’s easier, somehow, to be frank inside their heads where they’re already one.
I can’t tell you how glad I was to realise I could still get a psychogenic erection, Charles thinks, then chuckles silently at Erik’s palpable confusion. A response to signals from the brain, rather than manual stimulation, he explains. Not that I haven’t experimented with that too. Erik feels him smile against his own lips. It might not be hard enough for penetration. I mean… Not that… I don’t even know if you’d-
Erik tears himself away from Charles’ mouth and opens his eyes. Charles is flushing scarlet, and starting to look upset.
“I would,” he says out loud, so there’s no mistake. “I don’t usually. But I would.” He presses himself down more firmly on Charles’ groin, pleased at the moan that Charles can’t stop from escaping. A thought occurs to him suddenly. “Is it a matter of blood flow?” he asks bluntly.
“Partly?” Charles says, a look of confusion crossing his face. “Mostly it’s interrupted nerve signals. Why-?”
“Because you can control that,” Erik says. “If you want to. Iron in your blood.”
“What?” Charles sounds scandalised, but there’s an unmistakeable gleam in his eye, scientific curiosity meeting sexual interest in the best possible way. “How did you figure that out?”
“I was stabbed with a broken bottle in Asuncion,” Erik says primly. “I had to keep myself from bleeding to death before I could get the glass shards out and stitch myself up.”
Charles’ jaw drops in horror.
“Not that I haven’t experimented with that too,” he adds, grinning in a way he knows shows all his teeth. “May I?”
“Yes,” Charles grits out through his own clenched teeth, and then Erik’s in his head, guiding his thoughts, showing him the right paths to follow with his power. The results are immediate, and pleasing.
Casting shame to the winds, Erik rises to his knees and climbs off the bed, stripping down quickly and efficiently. The scar from that near miss in Paraguay is livid and ugly across his stomach, just one of many, but for once he doesn’t care at all. Charles doesn’t seem to care either, sucking in a strangled breath and fumbling with his own clothes. Erik stands there, selfishly, and watches as each inch of skin is revealed. Charles’ torso and arms are gloriously muscled, his legs thinner than before but still toned. He looks momentarily self-conscious, then Erik climbs back on top of him and kisses him till they’re both dizzy with it.
Are you sure? Charles asks carefully. I don’t mind if-
I want you. I wanted it in Saginaw, and in Boston, and at CIA HQ, and every night we were here. I want it now.
Then get up. Charles’ hands take a firm hold of Erik’s hips, pull him up onto his knees, and then he’s pressing a kiss to the jagged scar on Erik’s stomach. He ducks his head, settling back into the pillows, and takes Erik’s aching cock into his mouth. It’s a struggle for Erik not to thrust too wildly as he clutches at the headboard with both hands, gasping to get his breath back under control. Charles’ mouth is hot, and wet, and so much better than he’d ever dared to imagine.
Charles looks straight up at him, eyes locking on his, not letting him look away. He wouldn’t want to. His cock sliding back and forth between Charles’ red lips is something he never thought to see, not all those long, lonely nights on the run as he looked for a place to call home, knowing all the while he’d left behind the one person who could have given him one. Charles frowns at him without once ceasing in his task, then one of his hands leaves Erik’s hip, and there’s the sound of a drawer in the bedside table opening.
Charles’ broad fingers slide into him, two at once, and Erik spreads his legs wider to let him work. Charles sucks him harder as his fingers move, seeking, and when he finds the right place he strokes it firmly, making Erik buck and curve around him, his hands dropping to fist in Charles’ messy hair.
Patience, my love.
That’s almost enough to make Erik come then and there, but he bites his tongue and holds his breath and rides it out. Perfectly attuned, Charles stops sucking, just holds him in his mouth. When he’s got himself back under control he pulls out slowly, reaches out for the jar of stuff Charles used on him, finds it sticky in the rumpled bedclothes. He smears his fingers, then wraps them around Charles’ flushed cock. He’s careful as he moves his hand, but Charles’ moan is clearly one of pleasure so he tightens his fingers slightly. A couple more strokes, then Charles is taking him by the hips once again, and hoisting him up into position.
Erik lowers himself slowly, sinking inch by inch onto Charles’ cock. It burns slightly, despite Charles’ efforts, and there’s a flicker of regret in his mind for that, but Erik soothes it and pushes himself down the rest of the way. Charles gasps and digs his nails into Erik’s hips, and Erik folds himself in half so he can lean down and kiss Charles again. His own taste is strong in Charles’ mouth, and it makes him moan in shocked delight and clench his whole body, which in turn makes Charles bite his lip and pull him down even harder.
Charles is a hot, hard, constant pressure inside him, a thick and gritty slide as Erik rises to his knees again, then sinks back down. He wraps his arms around Charles’ shoulders, lets him take his whole weight, trusts that he’s strong enough. Charles seizes control of their movements, rocking Erik’s pelvis at the same time as he guides him up and down, so that he rakes over the perfect spot with every thrust. Erik’s gasping into Charles’ neck now, unable to look any more, hiding his face against Charles’ shoulder as he begins to shake apart.
He can’t hold out any longer, wave after wave of sensation crashing over him, and through it all, perhaps the best part, the knowledge he’s as firmly held in Charles’ mind as Charles is in his body. Charles thrusts up one last time, then tenses beneath him, whispers, “Erik,” in his ear as well as in his head, and pulses warm and wet inside him. Erik lets go too, coming untouched, all over Charles’ chest and his own.
“I love you,” he whispers, voice hoarse; repeats in their slowly separating minds, I love you, Charles.
“I love you too,” Charles says. Thank you for coming back to me.
Weeks pass with no sign of their mystery mutant. Charles is insufferable, insisting that he’s been proven right, and his faith in the inherent goodness of the world vindicated. Erik maintains a wary vigilance; there’s no one more familiar than him with the long game, but it’s increasingly difficult, in the face of all the evidence, to imagine what anyone wishing them harm is waiting for. The more time that passes, the more familiar they become with their borrowed powers, the stronger they get. Any strategic advantage that might have been gained has long since been squandered.
It’s simple common sense to secure the mansion and grounds, all the same, and when Erik announces his intentions Charles defers to his expertise without hesitation. He spends his days surveying the estate, mapping every access point and every blind spot, every defensible area and every potential escape route. He spends his nights in Charles’ bed. Their growing familiarity with each other’s bodies breeds no complacency; on the contrary, every time they make love is a revelation. The mental connection between them is permanently open now; when they’re together it serves to amplify and elevate every emotion, when they’re apart it acts as an anchor and a surety.
Charles’ mastery of magnetism – metallokinesis he corrects with a smirk and a lecture about non-ferrous metals – grows each day. It’s a new experience for Erik, to be a teacher and a fellow student rather than a drill instructor, and he finds he quite enjoys it. They sneak down to the remains of the satellite dish one night – it’s been cordoned off, a clear safety hazard, structurally unsound – Erik exercising his mental powers to get them past the night watchman, Charles dutifully hurling chunks of steel around for hours till even Erik is satisfied he could hold off an attacking force.
He’s far more interested in fine control, however, and the peaceful applications of his power, and he spends a day holed up in the study while Erik heads out with a toolbox and a bale of wire to repair the perimeter fence the old fashioned way. When he returns it’s to find Charles has sculpted a new set of chess pieces out of the family silver. They’re simple but beautiful, and when he looks at them closely he sees there’s an L entwined with the original monogrammed X. Charles presents the set to him as a gift, and he’s so overwhelmed he finds himself checkmated mortifyingly quickly. Mortification gives way to arousal, however, when Charles uses his belt buckle to pull him close and kiss him senseless.
The boys are diffident at first, rightly cautious around him. Sean is the first to relax, his natural ebullience carrying him along until one morning, as they’re bustling round each other making breakfast, he includes Erik in a joke, almost by accident. He frowns as he realises, but Erik laughs – it really wasn’t bad – and Sean shrugs and carries on frying the sausages. Of all the young people he’s the one Erik had spent least time with; they’ve never exchanged more than a few words that weren’t training related, so it’s a shock to feel the wave of happiness coming off him, how glad he is that their little family is starting to put itself back together. Charles smiles knowingly at Erik as he hands him his coffee, more fodder for later teasing, but Erik can’t bring himself to mind.
Hank’s matured in the half year since Erik last saw him; he still has his passion for all things scientific, but tempered now with the knowledge of what reckless application can do. He’s accepted his position as the eldest of the boys, and Charles’ right hand in Erik’s absence, and for that alone Erik would respect and admire him, but he’s also grown to accept himself, embracing his new form for the wonder it is, and that makes Erik proud. It’s a strange feeling, different somehow from the satisfaction he’d felt watching the children’s progress before Cuba. There’s no sense of desperation to it, no deadline or goal to be met, just the pleasure of watching young people he cares about become who they were meant be.
Alex holds out the longest. Erik doesn’t blame him; he refrains from looking too deeply, granting him the privacy and respect he’d demand himself, but the boy’s anger and alienation have always been painfully familiar. They stare at each other awkwardly the first time they all come down to dinner at the same time, a Sunday roast Charles had announced with great excitement and Hank had sworn that he could prepare, how different can a recipe be from a formula? Hank and Sean stand there nervously shuffling their feet; Charles studiously ignores them both and feigns great interest in a dish of Brussels sprouts.
Erik counts the chairs around the table – several have been put away, unsurprisingly, both to make more room for Charles’s wheelchair and to blunt the pain of staring at empty ones. There’s an extra place set tonight, but it’s under the window, and it goes against every instinct Erik has to sit in it, even if he can probably sense anyone coming up behind him now from even further away than before. Once, a simple look would have intimidated Sean or Hank into moving from their positions at Charles’ elbows. Once, it wouldn’t have been necessary, the seat at the foot of the table his by right. He grits his teeth and moves towards the empty place.
Alex snorts and shoves past him, taking it instead. “Glare at Charles,” he says, “he’s immune to you. The others don’t deserve it.”
Erik looks up the table to where Charles is grinning into the now over-seasoned sprouts.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
“Whatever,” Alex says, “let’s eat.”
The beef somehow manages to be both over-cooked and underdone at the same time. The sprouts are salty, the potatoes soggy, and the Yorkshire pudding flat as a pancake, but drowned in enough horseradish and gravy it’s edible all the same. Charles and Erik split an excellent Bordeaux between them, and after the obligatory argument about whether Hank is a bad cook or English cuisine just isn’t very good – in Erik’s opinion both sides are correct – the conversation flows freely. If it wasn’t for the space where Raven should be, it would be a perfect evening.
A few days after that, Alex hikes out to join him in the woods where he’s laying caltrops a cogent argument coupled with a particularly enthusiastic round of fellatio had convinced Charles to make for him.
“Too bad if anyone wants to walk through here,” he says by way of greeting.
“Keep to the paths,” Erik grunts in reply.
Alex fidgets for a few minutes, then takes a deep breath and blurts out, “It’s my brother’s birthday.”
That’s the very last thing Erik was expecting him to say.
“His name is Scott,” Alex goes on. “I haven’t seen him since he was seven; he’ll be thirteen today.”
“I didn’t know you even had a brother,” Erik says, promptly feeling foolish. He hadn’t ever asked; he hadn’t cared, blinded by the mission.
“I know,” Alex says. “I didn’t tell anyone, not even the professor. They split us up when Mom died. Dad was long gone by then, he took off after Scotty was born. They said he was a good kid, didn’t have my attitude problems, that they could find him a decent home.”
Sympathy’s pointless, and Erik offers none. “Why are you telling me now?”
“I saw some of what you’ve done.” Erik stills, but Alex carries on. “It doesn’t matter. They deserved it. I saw what they did to you too. But you’re good at finding people.”
“I may have had a bad attitude,” Alex says, “but I was perfectly normal until I turned thirteen. And then I burned down my high school gym. If something like that is going to happen to him he’s going to need our help.”
“We haven’t met anyone yet where mutation ran in the family,” Erik says carefully.
“I know. But Charles and Hank both think it might.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” Erik asks. “What if he’s ‘perfectly normal’ as you put it?”
Alex shrugs. “He’s still my brother. If he’s well and he’s happy that’s great, but if he’s not…” He breaks off, and the cautious hope on his face is the same as when Charles and Erik first said they could get him out of prison. “He could come here, couldn’t he? Even if he’s not one of us?”
“If he’s your brother,” Erik says, looking him right in the eye, “then he is one of us. I’ll talk to Charles.”
When he gets back to the house, Charles isn’t in the study. A moment’s concentration reveals him to be down in the lab with Hank, the thrill of complicated mathematical equations dancing through his head. Erik takes his time in the bath, soaking away the pleasant aches of a satisfying day’s work, then changes into clean trousers and a new cashmere jersey that seems to have mysteriously appeared on the end of his neatly made and seldom used bed. There’s a notecard tucked inside it, I saw this in town and thought of you. It’s the same burgundy he’d picked for his uniform, but otherwise the style is nothing he would ever have chosen himself. The neck is cut wide, open almost to the points of his shoulders, and the scoop dips well below his collarbones.
Charles’ fondness for Erik’s collarbones has been well telegraphed by this point; Erik stops to check in the mirror that there are no incriminating marks on them before heading down to the lab. Hank’s too deeply immersed in his calculations to look up as he slips in, but Charles’ eyes are drawn his way immediately, and the audible intake of breath and the rush of lust he can’t control pronounce his approval loud and clear.
“I’ve finished securing everything but the south bridle path,” Erik says out loud, even as he sends a detailed image of just how Charles can thank him later. “A couple more hours tomorrow, and the Xavier Home for Wayward Boys will be ready to open its doors.”
“It’s funny you should say that, my friend,” Charles says, reaching out a careful hand to tangle with Erik’s under cover of the lab bench. “Look what we’ve been working on.”
He shoves a pile of books to the side, and together they unroll a sheaf of blueprints. It doesn’t take a genius to see they’re plans for a new and improved version of Cerebro, vastly bigger and more powerful than the original. The spherical chamber and the cross sections of the gently curving steel reflector plates make his fingers itch with longing. His lost power isn’t a gaping, bleeding wound anymore; sometimes, if he’s busy enough, or distracted enough, he can even forget about it entirely. But the moments after that, when he moves without thinking, expecting whatever he’s reaching for to follow, are the worst.
He could build this thing so easily, shaping and polishing the raw steel, moving the panels into position. He lets himself imagine what it would be like to float in the centre of the sphere, a million lines of axial symmetry meeting at the very heart of the chamber, the heart of him. It would sing like a perfectly struck bell, and he would feel it in every cell of his body.
Charles squeezes his fingers, and sends a wave of sympathy and love his way.
I’m sorry you miss it so much, my darling.
I don’t. Not really. It’s true. Even as he runs a finger along the camber of the operating platform, he thinks of Charles who could make his own way here today down three flights of stairs, Charles who can once again go anywhere he wants in his own home, Charles who will be able to go with him to check up on Alex’s brother and to fetch Raven and the others home, Charles who might even, if the idea he’s been mulling about adding titanium strips to the seams of the battle suits comes to fruition, be able to walk and fight alongside him. All I ever did with it was destroy, he thinks. You can use it to build. To heal. Even if we found whoever did this to us, I don’t think I’d ask them to change us back.
Oh, my love, Charles thinks. I got the easier part of it, didn’t I? I still get to use the best of my gift through you. It won’t be the same, but you’ll enjoy this, I promise.
Charles’ excitement floods Erik’s mind, his memory of how it felt to use Cerebro, to touch so many people at once, the thrill of exploring each and every mutation, the sheer range and diversity of it all, the sense of wonder at being so intimately connected to a world beyond himself, each of them so different, and yet all of them the same. Some are happy and some are sad, some have families and some are alone, some dream of changing the world and others just want to live their lives in peace. It’s dizzying, and it’s poignant, and above all, it’s hopeful.
This place could really be a haven, Charles, like we talked about.
Actually, I was thinking, it could be a school. There’s so much we still have to learn, and so much that we could teach others. We can have the best of both worlds, Erik, protect each other and make the world a better place too.
“And you trust me to use it?” Erik asks out loud.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Let’s not play games, Charles. We both know I could use it as a weapon.”
Charles shrugs. “And I could crush the installation to the size of a golf ball with both of us inside it. Just one more reason for us to stay together.”
“I’m serious, Charles.”
“And so am I.” Charles takes both his hands and pulls him close by them, heedless of Hank at the far end of the lab. “You just expressed regret that you’ve used your power to destroy. It’s up to you what you choose to use mine for.”
Erik leans in to close the distance, kissing Charles with all the warmth and trust and love he has in him. I’d like to use it to make you happy.
You already have, my love. You already have.