Hold your hand among the flames

Summary:The memories make you nostalgic; thinking of those days before this war started in earnest, when you were all just playing at being mutant the way young children play at being adults.

Author's note: Rated/warning for references to suicide. Songs are Alanis Morissette's Your House and Iko's Heart of Stone. Also warning for a little bit of Angst that spun wildly out of control, but the ending is hopeful. Promise.

After all has been said and done the grimy diner you sit in, despondent, is blessedly almost empty. The staff and the one patron stare at you in your helmet, but you pay them no attention; ignorant humans, all of them.

The television broadcast had been worldwide and nothing screams dangerous like uprooting an entire stadium and using it to threaten the president, yet these people don't look at you with fear, just apprehension and mild amusement. You conclude that none of them are invested enough in current affairs to have witnessed your little stunt, and that all of them missed the programming. All but one that is. She stares at you with deep, wide fear in those eyes. Her every movement is wary and she doesn't remove her gaze once, even when she's at risk of pouring scalding coffee over herself.

It takes a while for the cup of coffee you don't remember ordering to arrive, and when it does you realise that it's the wary waitress who brings it. It isn't her hands that hold the chipped mug though. Instead an invisible force in the air holds the coffee steady as it levitates towards you. Her eyes are dark and focused as she sets it down with a gentle thump in front of you. The motion smooth and slow and you stare at it for a long time mesmerised by the kitschy pattern and the wasted talent of this mutant. A jolt brings you back to reality: the menus on the table jump, quickly and with hostility, into her hand and the one that was resting under your hand slices upwards with the others. The sharp edge of the card creates a welt at the base of your thumb, but you ignore the pain.

The smile you give her is tight; there is encouragement there but also a warning - don't do anything you might regret, it says. (Your smile almost, almost, widens sadistically, as your mind provides a succinct clip-show all the things that you regret.) She averts her eyes and scurries away and you are left wondering whether the display was a show of mutant solidarity or a demonstration that she is not as vulnerable as she seems. She is cleverer, you conclude, than most of the diner put together. She's seen how you treat humans and is staking her claim: these are her humans and she will protect them.

The thought leaves a bitter, ashen taste in your mouth. Especially as you recall how fiercely Charles always protected his humans.

You leave the coffee and the diner. Making your way you can feel the heavy gaze of the staff on you. It fixes on the helmet you wear, the once comforting metal is quickly becoming stifling as it presses with a hot and heavy weight against your temples. The thrumming, painful fingers of a headache begin to reach behind your eyes but you ignore the pain in favour of reaching the cool night air as soon as possible. The bell rings as you leave but you feel the metal rather than you hear it. You can still feel every minutiae of vibration two miles away. It's easier, you reflect, to focus on that tiny point of movement than to try to understand where you are or why you are there.

The houses you pass are dark, it much later than you thought. Hours since you almost crushed Charles with stadium lights and threatened to kill the president. As you walk the empty streets you begin to realise the anonymity of the place you landed, it's comforting and disconcerting in equal measures, like a rabid wolf that looks like your childhood pet. For a moment you revel in the relief that you don't have to deal with the backlash of today's events just yet, because you are not, like Charles mistakenly thinks, naive enough to believe that there won't be a backlash.

You wonder about Raven and where she might be. Presumably she hasn't sought sanctuary in a grim diner like you have. In a way, she doesn't have to hide like you do, if she so wished she could walk around seawater skin and flame hair and she wouldn't have to worry about being persecuted for threatening the president, but with blue skin and red hair it's unlikely that she would be left in peace.

The corners that you turn all blur into one, the streets melding into one seamless and insanity inducing maze of suburbia. The further out you get the easier it is to breathe, and you notice the houses thinning as surely as you notice the passage of time.

You wander onto a bridge with dark water rushing below. You're still not sure where you are, all you know is that it's as far away from Washington as it needed it be right now. The bridge is iron and you climb up, manually, so that you stand on the railing. Your feet stick solidly in place ensuring that you don't take a premature dive into the darkness below, but allowing you the freedom to relax into the gentle winds that push and pull at your body.

You cast a glance around but there is no one about, of course there isn't; it's nearing two in the morning, so you reach up with trembling hands to remove the helmet. You let it fall to your side, dangling loosely between your fingers, the metal hot from your body heat.

Your head and hair is sweaty where it's been trapped under the metal for hours. You enjoy, for a moment, the thunderous sound of the water, a sharp, loud sound uninhibited by the helmet. The sound bounces and chases some of the vestiges of the headache behind your eyes. You close your eyes to better immerse yourself in the tranquillity the roar brings, blocking out all other thoughts and all other sound. You almost miss the sound of shouting it masks.

Almost but not quite: A young man runs towards you his mouth is open and he's shouting. You stretch your hand out towards him, ready to turn and just shove every piece of metal on him inwards, but then his shouts come into focus.

"Don't" he shouts.

It confuses you for a long and interminable moment, mainly because you are unsure what he is telling you not to do, but also because you can't understand what makes this man so desperate for you receive his message.

He stops, deterred by your outstretched hand which confuses you even more. He doesn't stop talking but his voice is lower now, 'Don't' he says, 'Don't do it.' And 'it's not the only way.'

You tilt your head to the side comprehension finally dawning. You think you understand now what he's trying to stop you from doing. You find yourself asking 'why?' Even though you know you won't, a part of you still wants to know why he says 'don't.'

Also, it's amusing to watch the man edge forward, you think, as he tries to subtly inch towards your place on the rails. He's careful not to spook you as his mouth opens again, you think he's going to spout something religious, but he simply says "Don't" again and again. He reaches out a hand, presumably for you to take so he can help you down. Up close you can see a shuttered darkness in these eyes; this is not the first time he's had to do this, you think, but he wants to be successful now where he wasn't last time.

You don't know what pushes you to do it. But you say it anyway- you say 'I won't.' The man visibly relaxes and you smile, a toothsome, menacing grin, and then step off the side. You hear a wail of anguish as you drop for a fraction of a second before you push outwards and you can feel your very soul wrapping around the iron of the bridge. You slow to a stop, and then you are drifting upwards past the bridge and the man, you smile at him again, but his face is stony even as he glares at you.

You laugh loudly as you rise up, up, up into the velvet sky, using the bridge, and then telephone poles, the train line to disappear from this anonymous town.

You don't even realise that the helmet slipped from your fingers on the bridge as you stood over the river.

Will you hold your hand among the flames?

Honey, you're a shipwreck,

With your heart of stone

You wander aimlessly through the sky for a long time, marvelling at the beauty of the night sky this far from the cities and the light. Eventually you land on soft earth and, unlike before, you know exactly where you are. And you know exactly why; there is no point denying it now.

You are a couple of miles off target so you walk the rest of the way. There isn't enough metal in the fields you pass to make flight easy and the metal ore deep in the ground requires a level of concentration that you don't feel capable of at the moment. The day has sapped your physical strength, the evening is now draining your emotional strength.

Only when you stand at the foot of the mansions dark steps do you realise that the metal you can feel throughout the house is not attached to anything moving or living: there is no one home. (The word home tastes odd in your mind, but you can't think of another name for this place that holds so much of your past.)

The place is empty, but still you feel an anxious apprehension creep into your mind as the lock bends and then clicks under the weight of your thoughts. You make sure to nudge the lock back into place behind you.

The ease with which you find your way, even in the dark, hurts a dull ache you didn't expect and the nostalgia rises and washes over you like the river your helmet now lies in. It's as dark and unforgiving as that river too.

You steps quicken when you near the library. You try to pass by quickly to reach the stairs, try to stop yourself from looking, but your gaze wanders and you catch yourself staring. Surprise is quickly washed away with melancholy when you find what you are looking for.

For a second you wonder if Charles plays often but even from a distance you can see the dust that covers the set, it's thick and turns both the black and white pieces a chalky grey. You daren't draw closer but you don't need to for even from this distance you can see that the pieces rest in the same place they did the night before Cuba, with Charles' white king on its side.

Your chair is equally as dusty as the set, but the seat that Charles used to occupy is clean and well worn. A glass sits next to the board, the bottle that keeps it company is mostly empty. You wonder how long Charles has spent looking at the game and wondering what went wrong.

You'd thought that seeing the chess set unmoved and unchanged would make the years shrink in your mind's eye, that you'd be able to pretend you'd never left and the past 10 years had been just a small blip of a mistaken existence. Instead it makes them expand and swell. The engorged decade leaves no space for you in that room.

(You are tempted for a moment to sit in your chair and set the board up for a new game, but the thought alone seems wrong and invasive so you leave the room instead. )

You tread lightly as you make your way up the stairs, avoiding the floorboards that creak and groan. Even though you know there is no one in the house to disturb the habit prevails. You even avoid the worst step, the one that yowled rather than creaked, the one that you fixed the sunny afternoon before Cuba, whilst Charles watched on bemused and worried as you floated nails and a hammer around without even looking.

Opening the door to your old room leads only to a rising disappointment which you stamp down quickly. The room is still furnished and free from dust but it's also free of your presence, completely stripped bare of any belongings or clothes you might have left behind. It's hollow like the countless other guest rooms in the mansion so you retreat quickly rather than linger.

Charles' room is considerably more lived in than your own, and it takes a moment before you realise that 'your' room hasn't been yours for upwards of a decade: Ten years is a long time.

The picture of Mystique, Raven, blonde hair and Cherubic face still sits where you remember it on Charles' bedside table, but it's turned outwards, facing away from the bed, as if Charles has turned it away from his gaze in guilt or remorse or some other sorrowful emotion.

You pick it up and stare at it, remembering when you had found her, with that face, in your bed. How she skulked from your room after you rejected her. Even this most awkward of memories makes you nostalgic, thinking of those days before this war started in earnest, when you were all just playing at being mutant the way young children play at being adults.

The picture is still clasped in your hands, the cold metal and glass of the frame warming quickly, as you approach Charles' desk. It's cluttered with sheets of rumpled paper and scattered pens. The scrunched papers are covered in scribbled words, handwritten rather than typed. There is only one piece of paper that lies flat on the desk surface.

The page is empty save for your name written at the top. A pen still rests, lid uncapped, on the piece and some of the ink has leaked onto the paper, shattering the clean calm of the blank white. You reach towards the sheet, about to remove the pen so that you can pick up the paper, but something else catches your eye: The bottom draw of the desk, the deep one, is open an inch or two, just enough to spy the sealed envelopes that fill it. You ignore the paper with your name and instead you pull the drawer the rest of the way, the breath catches in your throat.

Reaching for the top one you check yourself, and instead reach further, deeper, hand ghosting through the smooth stationary. You pull one from the bottom at the back. There's a date on the back, a week after Cuba, and, like the other 50 or so envelopes in the drawer, it is addressed to you.

The penmanship is beautiful, a dark blue ink that loops and curls into a cursive of your name.

The weight of the envelope is wrong for just pieces of paper though, no matter how heavy the words written within are. You turn the envelope over and over: You can feel the metal inside.

The longer you hold it the less you want to open it, even your powers don't reach out to embrace the metal like they love to do. For once in your life you find that you're afraid of Charles and not because of his powers; You're afraid of what Charles wanted to send you when he was alone, angry and in pain. You are worried about the possibility of a twisted bullet bent by the force with which you deflected it.

But the longer you hold the envelope the hotter it seems to grow in your hand until it's near unbearable. You're unsure whether the heat is just your imagination or whether your emotions are heating the metal. Or perhaps it's just the heat from your palm.

The tear you make in the envelope is hardly big enough for the object to fall through even as you shake it with trembling fingers, your breathes come in small puffs as the anxiety rises, but what falls into your palm is not a twisted bullet. The relief that overcomes you is tangible until a sick guilt twists even deeper.

The coin, which you know the weight and size of well (almost better than you know the back of your hand,) is still smeared with dried blood. It flakes when you move it from hand to hand but time has tarnished the metal and made it hard to know whether the tiny orange-brown snowfall is blood or rust.

The coin slips from your grasp and you let it fall, not using your powers to reach out and slow it. It lands with a thunk on the solitary piece of paper that lies flat on his desk, flaked blood and rust leave a halo of copper around it just under your name scrawled there.

The 'Erik' at the head of this page is written messily, nothing like the elegant cursive on the envelopes. You take an irrational moment to mourn the loss of this part of Charles, the optimism and creativity that carried through in even his writing is long gone, not even an echo left in the dark hallways of the past.

You sit down heavily on the floor, head leaning against the side of the desk, the drawer still open beside you. The letters there, addressed to you, tempt you so but it takes long shuddering moments before you feel capable of anything. Eventually you start to move.

First you strip yourself of the body armour you've been wearing all day. You discard it carelessly on the floor until you are left in just a pair of black slacks. Barefoot you pad to where you know the bathroom is and splash water on your face. The icy cold works some way towards rectifying the burning heat of the armour. There's a thick bathrobe hanging on the door and you commandeer that now, it's old and worn but you relish the comfortable warmth.

With the icy water, cosy robe and the familiar setting you start to feel yourself again, just a little. You realise that you haven't felt yourself a long while now. If you were pressed you would say that you haven't felt yourself ever since you pushed a coin through Shaw's head and it didn't bring the sense of peace and satisfaction you expected, the satisfaction you believe that you deserved.

You take the entire draw from the desk and empty its contents on to the rumpled and unmade bed. You start searching through the scattered letters for the one that is dated after the first one, you search and order and organise and eventually conclude that the next one must be the one dated 6 months later.

You're right.

You sit down. You start reading.

I noticed a letter that sat on your desk,

It said 'Hello love,

I love you so love,'

You're floating somewhere between consciousness and slumber when the vehicle arrives. It's not the sound that alerts you but rather the purr of metal in the engine. Instinct has you grasping with your powers but you steady yourself in this wake-sleep state and instead you embrace the metal delicately, like you would an insect in the palm of your hand. You turn the feeling over in your mind. Your control has never been like this before: still and completely peaceful.

You let go of the car completely and instead wrap yourself around the wheelchair when it edges into the corners of your awareness, caressing the spokes and handles with the same calm as before: It feels like Charles. Every part seems warm and comforting, better and more fulfilling than any bathrobe of his could be. You keep this ethereal grip on his wheelchair, falling further to the lure of slumber as you feel it moving smoothly through the house. The spell is almost shattered when the tension of another person gripping the wheelchair leaks through, but they let go when they reach the top of the stairs. Charles' comforting presence is elsewhere, removed from the cool machine (being helped up the stairs, you think, by Hank.) Eventually Charles is reunited with the chair and it's easier still to focus the rest of your consciousness on that point of light and warmth that rolls down the hallway towards you. The closer it gets the further you fall into slumber from this halfway place you've been lingering.

You feel it when the chair stops for a moment in the doorway, but movement starts again soon after. It grows closer and warmer still, and you shift minutely in the almost unbearable warmth. The echoes of sound reach you as if from down a dark hallway; paper being shuffled and moved.

The sound stops and the chair moves away from you, your heart stops. The bed dips and your heart starts again, slower now: peaceful.

The fingers that card through your hair are delicate. Once soft, they have traced stories across your skin and waged wars in chess pieces. They are calloused now, worn by the use of the wheelchair, but they rest cool against your skin, soothing the ache and burn.

They thread and tangle for a long time, pressing firmly against your scalp. Fingers you have loved and kissed and held alleviate the headache of the last 10 years. Eventually they slow and then stop completely, drawing away.

Empty loss fills you suddenly, it's uncomfortable bordering on painful. The slumber you hover in no longer seems safe but hollow and sharp edges. The feeling lodges deep within you and settles down as if to make a nest for itself.

Cool dry lips, chapped and red you imagine, brush against your temple. These lips are ones that you've dreamt of for the past decade, replaying the times that you've bitten them, licked them, times they've trailed across your skin. The hollow feeling takes flight and disappears into the distance, Peace settles itself warm and comfortable in the abandoned nest; preening it's white feathers. Your lips curl upwards.

It doesn't feel like forgiveness, not yet. There is a long way to go before you get to that point, but it feels like releasing a breath that you've been holding for too long: it's relief from a strain you didn't know your soul was under.

You hope he doesn't see the tears on your face.