It's too late by the time they get there. Everything is smoke and ash and it's as though someone has gently picked Erik out of himself and he's staring down at the little group as they walk across lawns ripped to pieces by the tanks and armoured cars. His head is full of buzzing and there's nothing to feel but the mansion's half-melted girders because they're too late. There isn't even anyone left because they're too late and the army's been and gone and they're all dead. There are not even any bodies left because they were taken too, and it's left to Emma to walk through the smouldering wreckage, the embers magnified over and over in a thousand facets through her, and report that this was where Hank died, and Banshee, and Alex, and some new girl Emma doesn't know, but she was a telepath too.

Erik stops listening around the time the buzzing fills his head up completely and he walks like a ghost to the walkway around the mansion. It's smashed and broken and he can see scratches of paintwork where the tanks just went straight through it. There's a fragment left facing the distant dish and Erik wonders through the fog if he did something to to the stone while he lived here (why did you leave monstermonstermonster why did you leave what did you expect) which kept it standing. He takes his helmet off and leans on the wall, his back to the mansion and maybe if he just looks hard enough at the dish and blots everything out he can go back in time ten months -

He shudders when Mystique touches his shoulder. Her eyes are gleaming but her blue skin hides any tears. "We need to go."

Erik looks back at the dish. At some point he's crumpled it up like a withered rose, and it seems a fitting offering for such a grave. His face is damp and every breath is coming in shudders. And he thinks he feels something on the edges of his mind, like a caress. "Charles?" It's not really spoken. His lips move and the breath leaves his lungs, but he can't hear anything.

It's gone. If it ever was. He turns around to face the little group and they're all pale and sick he envies Emma's ability to become stone.

Deep breath. "We go." his voice is a rasp from the smoke. "They will pay for this." He clenches his fist, tortured iron screams. "They will pay."

Nods, and they turn to leave. There should be something they could do, but there isn't. They are in the plane and Erik is trying to keep calm enough to let Azazel fly in peace. He can't even cry. He would give a great deal to be able to cry but it's as though someone tied a knot in his throat and all he can do is choke. He only now realises he must have left the helmet in the ruins. He digs his nails into his palms and tries to keep breathing.

Emma slides in beside him, and finally drops he diamond form. She's flawless and emotionless as ever. "I didn't feel him."

"What?" Even that one word snatches in Erik's throat.

"Your telepath friend. I'd recognise his mind anywhere. I couldn't feel him."

There's a hand around Erik's throat, like a ghost strangling him. "He isn't dead?"

Emma shrugs and gets up, it's not her problem "If he is I couldn't sense it."

Erik stares after her as she strolls over to the cockpit, unable to decide if it's hope or despair that hurts the most.

Hope. Erik had forgotten how it felt. He had forgotten how much it hurt. Like being shot through the heart, the wound dragged on every time something touches it.

He'd dismissed Emma's words. He knew better than to touch the edges of hope again, it was always wrenched away leaving red gashes behind. Better to grieve and forget (or just grieve, it's an empty pit inside him and Erik's given up finding anything else to put there. Once he through Charles might be able to do it, but now it's just huge and hollow and cold), and there is so much to do.

And it's there that hope is lurking now, in their fight. The mansion wasn't the only one attacked. There were strikes against the New York mutant ghetto, and the one in Washington. Both of these are reeking horrors by the time the Brotherhood arrives (if feels good to call themselves that, as though they not simply a dozen terrified people bound together by more than just their determination to face their deaths fighting) with only a handful of survivors (the white haired girl who latched onto Mystique and refused to let go, lightning striking the buildings with every scream. The hairy runt of a man who turned him and Charles down last year, now shaking with hair scorched off, asking if he was still interested yeah? because he wasn't taking this lyin' down, no thanks, do you have anythin' to drink on this thing-).

Chicago however is still fighting when they get there. The mutant quarter has had warning and fortified themselves street by street. Night has fallen when Azazel takes them all down and Erik yells at Mystique to stay hereand keep the plane steady (she's the last thing he has left of Charles, he's not going to lose her too).

Everything is screaming around them and Emma is shouting into everyone's mind, trying to organise them into something approaching a fighting force. Azazel is teleporting people into the plane, and everyone else is trying to hold the army off. Erik is ripping tanks apart as they plough down the main streets, treads scarlet and his hands are shaking because he doesn't know if this is Chicago or Warsaw any more, and everyone is screaming -

And then it stops. And maybe screams are what the world is made of because there isn't anything after that. Everything just goes white and warm and safe for the first time since he turned away from Charles on that beach, and when Erik wakes up, the world is grey with smoke and dawn light, and his lips are damp and sting. Everyone is lying where they fell, but only the mutants getting up. Erik stands, and every breath is sharp, knives in his chest. The buildings are the same ruins they were becoming last night. The tank are the same twisted mass of metal and bodies they had been. But the soldiers are lying eyes open blind on the tarmac, unharmed and untouched and none breathing.

Erik touches his lips again, he can almost feel the kiss that never happened. "Charles?"

It's not the first time. It's not the last. The Canadian army falls asleep in the snow and never wakes when they come to secure the border against the influx of mutant refugees fleeing their maddened country. A New Mexico town becomes home to nothing but ghosts when its inhabitants decides to set up a mutant hunting squad. And when Mystique, Erik and Emma come to find the man responsible for these horrors, there's no one there. The secretary doesn't know his name. He has been stricken from all records and by the time they leave, Erik realises he has forgotten the man's name too.

And every morning, Erik wakes to a ghost kiss.

There's no one there. There's never anyone there. But the lack of presence is so clear, so obvious, that Charles might as well be there.

He wonders what happened to his helmet. He goes back to Westchester - to honour the dead, only that - but the helmet's gone. The dish is still there, a dead rose. The ruins are still there, as are those in New York and Chicago. There's no time to rebuild in the middle of this genocide turned war.

They're winning, for what winning means these days. Their hideouts are full of refugees - all children, on Erik's orders - they are armed with anything they can find. Those without offensive powers steal guns and baseball bats and even stones if necessary (Erik sees them and thinks of Charles' thesis, he wonders if his friend can see this, wherever he is). They fight like madmen, raid stores and storehouses for food (and there's less and less of that now, with the fields lying bare and burnt, what little the country is bankrupting itself to buy in is strictly rationed).

That night Erik loses eight hours and wakes to find his body covered in scratches and bite marks, languid and exhausted as though he hadn't slept at all. That is the first time the hope becomes something else.

Fear is every bit as suffocating.

Emma is nearly always as diamond now. They don't speak of it. Erik tries to make another helmet, but he's forgotten how the old one felt like, what it looked like. Everything.

And when they finally take the White House, after weeks of bitter street fighting. Starving mutants with their powers against starving humans with their guns (and maybe it would have been better if Erik had held in his powers all those years ago and quietly gone to his death in the gas chambers, his life's been a train of horrors and nothing's worth seeing this). And when he and Emma and Mystique finally climb the stairs to the pocked and filthy facade (Azazel died three months ago from an assassin's silent bullet, Riptide when they took the east Side and the humans blew up the buildings rather than let them fall into their hands, Angel in the first days of fighting around Washington, her wings ablaze, a screaming comet).

And when they finally smash down the door to the vile creature calling himself the president, the man's dead. There isn't a mark on him. Erik can hear Emma trembling, a sound like tiny bells, and Mystique is making small frightened noises.

Erik walks numbly over to the windows and opens them to the crowd below. He opens his mouth to speak, and the cold fingers he's felt a thousand times now grasp his mind, and the world goes white.