Sorry this is so late! Life sorta pounced on me early in the semester and I only got to writing this fairly recently. You can trust that I'll definitely see this through, though - this chapter marks the beginning of the end!

That said, I hope you like it. :)

Beta'd by Tahariel, patron saint of stealing icing from cakes, and by KaeKae, the mischievous imp who makes cowlicks reverse themselves in the night.


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xcix.

Charles read over Hannah's notes on how to mix an isoelectric focusing gel and frowned. He understood it immediately, but he'd always trusted his memory to simply absorb whatever he needed to know. This was something he'd learned once, and it seemed to have slipped right through.

Of course, he didn't expect to remember the precise amounts of agar, SDS, and immobilines—not right away, at least; not before it became habit—but forgetting the process entirely, almost forgetting that he'd done it… he supposed that he must have been more distracted than he'd realized.

It occurred to him that it could have been erased from his memory—not to sabotage his research, of course, but as collateral in the erasure of something else. He didn't think that Frost could have done that while he was conscious, but he felt around inside the contours his skull just to be sure.

He found nothing; it seemed he could not blame someone else after all.

Charles turned away from the bench and gestured at Dorian, using the same little two-fingered flick the boy was fond of. Immediately, he straightened up out of his bored slouch and slid off of from his stool to lean down at Charles' side.

"I'm going to show you how to make an electrophoresis gel," Charles told him. He prodded his finger at the page. "Could you help me get the ingredients? The agar's right there but these others are in smaller containers, if I recall correctly."

Charles backed out to peruse the shelves alongside Dorian. "We use this technique to separate different proteins from each other. Or at least, that's the goal. Experiments tend not to work in science…"

Dorian glanced over to him, still silent but wearing a steady, watchful gaze. The shroud around Charles' mind left him unable to know whether it bothered Dorian to have Charles speak to him when he, himself, chose not to respond—but he continued on regardless. The words buzzed eagerly against his teeth.

Charles reached up for a bottle, keeping his eye's from Dorian's. "We've been trying to determine if there's a difference between human and mutant electron transport proteins, which is all very new and hypothetical itself. All we know is that there are proteins in the mitochondrial membrane that somehow… ah, sorry. That's a bit of a tangent, I'm afraid; I'll explain it properly to you another time. Essentially, we think that these proteins might reflect the greater energy needs of mutants, and we can try to separate them by their relative electric charges, if they are in fact different."

Last time the electrophoresis hadn't produced any encouraging results, but that was just the way science went, and a scientist who could be discouraged by a negative test did not remain a scientist for long. It was a good strategy not to expect much to start with, to enjoy the process and be pleasantly surprised if something worked.

Charles had yet to master that technique, however, and it was with unavoidable reverence that he weighed out the ingredients and set the little flask of sugars, immobilines, and water onto the heating plate. There had been so many advances, and so quickly, to the point where it seemed almost like magic—guaranteed to work if the correct sacrifices were made and the right words were spoken. Really, there was more superstition involved in science than most scientists were willing to admit.

"We have to wait until that boils," Charles said, in part to remind himself. "In the meantime, let's get the electrophoresis device set up, shall we?"

Charles attempted to teach Dorian the trick of calculating between concentrations and volume, but this proved to be a greater task than simply writing a formula when it became apparent that his young protégée didn't know how to multiply. From the desperate crease of his brow, Charles suspected that Dorian might not even know how to add.

Dorian was too old, of course, for Charles to blame the Brotherhood, but it was negligence nonetheless; perhaps due to his green skin, if he'd been born with it. It was a shame, if true, even if it had been to protect him.

Charles smiled reassuringly. "No matter. There'll be plenty of time for that, if you want to learn." The noise Dorian made was noncommittal, but he looked speculative, as if he were estimating just how much time they might have to work together. Or so Charles hoped. It was also possible that Dorian had long since tired of his unsolicited professoring.

Then again, Dorian wasn't really his assistant, was he? So it wouldn't be that much of a loss, surely, if they came to dislike each other…

Charles decided to stop with his lessons for the rest of the day to avoid overwhelming Dorian with new information. There was no quicker way to frustrate a new student into giving up, after all.

The proteins had been stored in the freezer before his absence and they were there still, politely overlooked by the biologists crowding the sample boxes to either side. They'd been torn from their cells and mixed with indigo dye, and when he held the pipette tip steady just beneath the buffer surface they fell in a narrow stream down into the gel.

Charles plugged in the electrodes—red for positive, black for negative—switched on the device, and went back to reading as little bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen began to stream up the sides of the glass.

The more he learned about restriction enzymes, the more he thought that he might be able to adjust the process a little, and the outline of a new experiment began to take shape in his mind. If he could figure out a way to sequence the area before and after the gene, instead of clipping into the gene itself… The medical benefit seemed obvious, and while it wasn't strictly his field, it was right there

He emerged from his readings an hour later and was astonished to see that the loading dye was in danger of running off the gel entirely, so he fumbled to switch off the voltmeter. He dipped the tips of his gloved fingers into the buffer and gently tapped the gel off its platform and onto his opposite hand.

Charles let it stream dry before laying it on a tin tray and adding Coomassie dye. The gel was a paler square in the midst of deeper blue as it soaked by the sink, and he turned away to write some notes of his own.

The real problem was that they so far lacked the ability to sequence and identify genes in DNA—more; it appeared that there was some additional step between transcription and translation yet undetectable with their current observation techniques. But perhaps if they could make pieces of the whole thing, and cut the strands into more manageable chunks—they might yet be able to sequence the smaller pieces and match them up in order by their overlapping sequences. Not unlike the process for protein sequencing…

After some time dividing his attention between notes and preparing his gel for visualization, he looked up and realized that everything was ready to go. The gel was beautifully stained, banded with blue, and when he transferred it to a white sheet of plastic…

Charles squeezed shut his eyes and told himself why it had to be a false positive. He wasn't an undergraduate jumping at the slightest possibility of success; not anymore, at least. There wasn't a problem with the gel; no, the bands were consistently different. It would have to be a problem with the proteins themselves; the replicates had each come from the same tube, after all.

One of the tubes might have been contaminated, or degraded. Perhaps one of the samples had been partially digested and one protein was simply bigger and slower than the other. Worse, contaminating bacteria could have somehow picked up the plasmid DNA and mutated it further, or it might have mutated on the culture plate.

He could mix the agar to be less dense and run the test again with the same sample to control for length, and double-check the concentration of SDS. Better, he could get a newer protein sample and run that, perhaps against the old samples, if he had the empty lanes to spare.

And if, after all that, the bands still moved to different points on the gel… then he might consider the possibility that humans and mutants had diverged from each other somewhere along the length of a nondescript electron transport protein. It wouldn't be the only difference, certainly, but if it was true

Well, it would be a start.

Charles resolved not to get his hopes up, but it couldn't hurt to be prepared, regardless. The next part of the test was easy enough, but he would have to be ready to go ahead with an Edman degradation or risk losing valuable time while he waited to get a hold of those chemicals.

As he pushed back from the bench, Charles considered calling Dorian over to look. The boy was staring blankly into a rack of test tubes and might have appreciated the interruption. Data, however, were fickle, and that could be a hard truth to learn. Charles was therefore silent as he filled out a requisition form he hoped was up to date.

He'd assumed that the folder stapled to Beast's door would be overflowing with such requests, but it wasn't. There weren't any biologists fighting each other bare-handed for supplies, either, so there had to be someone filling requisitions; hopefully with care, or Beast would have their head. If not… Well, Charles predicted the start of a thriving biochemical black market.

He went to the cell culture room, where he fished a wire rack out from the cupboards under the counter, halted the shaker with a press of a button, and began to sort through the tubes he'd prepared the day prior. Before Charles left with them, however, he paused. His old tubes were laid next to Hannah's, still: taped into an angle to maximize the broth's surface area and oxygen exchange.

To no effect, because these cultures had long since exhausted their nutrients. The bacteria were dying, and they occupied valuable space. There was no reason whatsoever to keep them.

Still, he hesitated a long moment before setting his test tube rack down on the counter beside him. He leaned down to peel the strips of tape from the old culture tubes, reaching past their loose caps to pluck them up carefully by the glass.

That was when he saw it—what appeared to be a small, sealed, two-milliliter vial, submerged in the luria broth of one of his cultures and making a darker shape within the cloud of bacteria.

Charles set aside the rest of his tubes before carrying this last to the sink. He slid the metal sleeve from the top and tipped the broth out. It pooled amidst the stubborn crusts of dirt, stinking of rot, and he tilted the tube further until the vial toppled out onto the palm of his hand.

The odor was pungent, but Charles hardly breathed anyway as he lifted the vial up to his eyes. There were two objects sealed within its narrow glass walls: a folded scrap of paper and something that seemed to be—a snake fang? No, it was a thorn; long and sharp and very slightly curved.

Charles looked around the culture room quickly—he was alone—then sterilized the exterior of the vial with bleach and water. He set it down on the counter just long enough to strip off and discard his gloves. Then he snatched it up again, rolled his hips up on their side, and stuffed both hand and vial through the slit in his lab coat and deep into his trouser pocket.

Then he sat down again, smoothed out his coat, and stretched a fresh pair of gloves on over the stubborn damp of his skin. Charles waved his fingers aimlessly for a moment, eyes roving over the counter until he seized upon the emptied tube and washed that as well. He cleaned the rest after that, leaving the water running to wash away the smell, and hung the tubes on pegs to dry.

Charles picked up his wire rack again, wedging it between the curves of his thighs as he went back to his workroom. When he arrived, Dorian was leaning against the counter. The boy looked up as he came in, then ducked his head again, smiling to himself; Charles saw that he had put together a mixture for the next gel and that it was steaming gently on the hot plate.

"Good," Charles told him, after a moment's pause to steady his voice. "If you keep this up, I might hire you full time."

Dorian's smile went ruefully lopsided, and he turned aside a little. Charles nodded, and set the test tube rack down by the centrifuge. He took a fresh, sterile Pasteur pipette from the drawer and worked a rubber bulb over the top of it, then went about transferring his bacteria into smaller tubes, one after the other.

He had the suspicion that his life was about to become much more complicated.

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c.

Dorian stopped before entering Charles' rooms and stood outside to wave farewell. When Charles held up a hand in return, Dorian tipped his fingers in acknowledgement and pulled the door shut with his opposite hand.

As soon as Charles heard the latch fall home, he wheeled himself to the bathroom and searched the drawers until he found a pair of gleaming tweezers. He took these with him when he went into his study, and pushed the door mostly shut behind him. He sat in gloom, evaluating the sliver of daylight sneaking through door and frame until he judged that he would be able to hear and sense the thoughts of anyone who entered his quarters well in time to hide any evidence.

He moved his chair to the desk, switched on the little green lamp, then dug his hand into his pocket and found... nothing.

Charles sent his memory racing back along his path, stomach lurching with horror as he tried to think where the vial could have slipped out—if there was some way he could still retrieve it—but before he went back out to try searching the sitting room floor, he patted his trouser leg. His pocket was simply twisted over, the shape of the vial obvious from outside.

Charles took a deep breath and reached into his pocket again, more cautiously. This time his fingertips found glass.

He laid the vial under the warm glow of the lamp and leaned back, staring at its glittering curves without touching it, relishing—just for that moment—how new it was, and how unexpected.

Charles couldn't bear it any longer, so he unscrewed the cap. The paper was wedged in, but he tipped the thorn out onto the desk, where it immediately began to roll for the edge. He stopped it with a slap of his hand, then picked it up, pinching it between his thumb and fingers. The sharp tip dimpled his skin, dragging the ridges of his fingerprints into valleys.

The thorn had been clipped off at its base rather than broken, and it was lightly colored, shading darker at its tip. He couldn't guess what it had come from. An acacia tree, perhaps? He knew almost nothing of botany.

There was a knock at the steel door outside and Charles jumped; the thorn jabbed at his skin but didn't pierce it. He felt with his mind and calmed, settling back down into his chair. It was only Beth, come to bring him lunch.

He pushed the thorn behind the base of the lamp and closed his fingers around the vial. He could hide them from her more… directly, of course, but he still wasn't entirely convinced that Frost wasn't watching Beth's mind for just that sort of thing. Anyway, it just wasn't very polite.

He heard her pace around a little, searching for him, until finally she walked to his study door and Charles had a narrow glimpse of her as she rapped on the wood. He folded his hands together—covering the vial twice—and called, "Come in, please."

Beth nudged the door open with her shoulder and brought in a tray loaded with plates and all the paraphernalia of tea. Charles couldn't help but perk up with interest; it'd been a long time since breakfast.

"Not at the window today, Professor?" she asked, lowering the tray carefully to his desk. Aside from the tea, she had also brought him a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich—the rich grease of the hot cheese, he knew, disguised anything that might be lacking with the tomatoes—and a steaming bowl of cream-of-potato soup.

"Not today." Charles pulled the tray toward himself without unwrapping his fingers from the vial. "I thought perhaps I would familiarize myself with my study; I anticipate that I'll likely be spending more time here in the future."

"Is that so," Beth replied, with a polite and insincere interest. "I won't go looking around for you next time, then. Enjoy your lunch."

Charles thanked her, and she left without closing the study door behind her. He waited, fingertips tapping in a line down the handle of his teacup, until he heard her leaving his quarters. Then he went around his desk to the door and pushed it mostly shut again.

He returned to his desk, picked up the tweezers, and deftly inserted them into the tiny mouth of the vial; with a pinch and twist of his fingers, the paper was free. Charles peeled apart the ripped edges of what he suspected had been one of the translucent flyleaves of a medical dictionary, now crossed and darkened by dimples of cramped letters.

It was a note. When Charles smoothed it down over his desk, he read:

"Don't know if you are ok. Hope you find this. Barely got away, too risky to stay, but can do this at least. Enclosed sample from mutant patient who grows spines from skin. Highly toxic, v. soluble in H2O. Almost instant coma if punctured, death if prolonged exposure. Will dissolve on skin, wash hands after touching or will diffuse through mucus membranes to strong narcotic effect. Dispose in drain."

Below the main body of the note, squeezed above the bottom edge of the paper, the word "Good" had been scratched out, only to be repeated in "Good luck." The letter H had smeared into the corner.

Charles slowly re-folded the note, brushing his finger over the soft, cool paper. He looked over to where the thorn rested in the angle between lamp and desk, and felt suddenly cold. He shivered; he could easily have slipped and pierced his skin while he was handling it. He didn't doubt Hannah's warnings; it would be best, he decided, to keep it stored in the vial.

Once the cap was screwed down tightly again, he remembered the scrap of paper still wedged between his fingers. He considered storing it back in the vial, and nearly re-opened it—but the paper, he decided, would only get in the way if he needed to tip out the thorn quickly. It was redundant, now; incriminating; but… The thought of throwing it away didn't sit well with him. So Charles looked through the desk's drawers—largely empty—until he found one where the lining had peeled up, and tucked the note under that.

Charles picked the vial up and stared into it for a moment, forcing himself to remember what he was meant to use it for. He wondered how painful it would be, and frowned. Logically, he knew that someone in the Brotherhood could have planted it, but… He didn't believe that to be true.

He curled his fingers around the vial and replaced it into his trouser pocket. Then he slouched, reached up to rub tiredly at his eyes—and stopped, his fingertips looming large in his vision. It would have been that easy, to poison himself; rubbing his eyes, digging his fingers into that sandwich and the moisture of the bread… Far too easy.

Charles went back to his bathroom, holding his elbows out from his body gingerly as if his hands weren't already occupied, and once he got there he tugged his sleeves back and scoured his skin with rough soap. He rinsed off the suds, turned off the flow of the water—then picked up the soap and ground it into his hands once again. Just to be sure.

Finally, Charles dried his hands off on a towel and returned to the meal in his study, telling himself that it didn't matter if he touched the hand rims with clean fingers, still wishing that he'd thought to turn the wheels directly to avoid the chance.

He tried to eat his sandwich cautiously and wait for symptoms, but it vanished from between his fingers more quickly than he'd planned, along with most of his meal. It was only after he'd eaten, with the rim of his teacup touching his bottom lip, that Charles began to shake.

He had the means. He could end Erik's life. His own little deus ex machina; death, lowered onto the stage from above. Success, when he had already failed. It should have been impossible, and wasn't.

So why wasn't he happy?

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ci.

Eventually Charles closed his eyes, exhaled slowly through his nose, and gathered the tattered remnants of his calm around himself. It was nearly time that he went to physical therapy, and the rest of the day still loomed. He would leave the introspection for later. He would… decide what to do. Later.

Soon enough, Dorian returned to escort him.

The clinic doors were closed as usual, but Charles paused outside them. Something, he knew, was different—something that he did not sense but nonetheless knew.

Dorian opened one of the doors and Charles went through cautiously, leaving the boy behind him without a word. He saw Badger and understood immediately: she was wearing her uniform again, sitting with her legs dangling off one of the therapy tables. She was no longer wearing her helmet, though Charles still couldn't read her with Dorian blocking his telepathy.

She slid down to the floor as he drew near, and tugged her tunic back down behind her with an annoyed frown. "Thanks to you my life has gotten a whole lot more interesting. I guess you figured out a way to be free of me, eh?"

"…I'm sorry?" Charles asked, furrowing his eyebrows.

The corner of Badger's mouth pulled up in a wry smile. "I won't have time to help you anymore, now. I'll still hound you about those crutches, of course, but you're your own best help now, Chuck."

Charles went still in his chair, trying to remember if he'd considered this possibility. He'd been trying to help, after all; he hadn't thought it might not be welcome.

He drew breath to apologize, but Badger interrupted him with a flick of her hand. "Now, don't start moping. You did what you thought was right, and hell, it might have been. Now, to the matter at hand: I have a proposal for you. We can suffer through one more round of therapy, or I can offer you a beer."

The thought of being bossed around by Badger while she was wearing that outfit was somewhat daunting, but… "It's just past lunch."

Badger arched her eyebrow as if to say: yeah, and?

Charles shrugged to himself, giving in. It wasn't as if the world hadn't already ended, after all, and a mid-day beer wouldn't hurt anyone. Besides, was he getting… old? He tugged his lip between his teeth and decided that he must be.

Dorian waited outside the door again, but Badger dismissed him with a snapped promise to take over responsibility for Charles. The boy nodded and walked away in the opposite direction, and as Charles followed Badger he felt the fog lift from his mind. He sighed, and held his eyes closed in a long blink; Dorian seemed like a good kid, but it was so much better to be able to feel again.

They reached Badger's office and Charles caught his breath at the stink of cigars. Dazed, he peered around the room at the mess of stacked paperwork and boxes surrounding the desk, which was smaller than his own and pocked here and there with scorch marks.

His eyes came to rest on a hanging calendar decorated with a lithograph of a woman whose most worrying anatomical concerns did not even involve her chest, and he raised his eyebrow.

Badger caught his stare and grimaced. She knocked at the calendar with the side of her fist and it fell from the wall into a box on the floor below. "This used to be Zeus' office."

"Up-to-date calendars must be hard to come by," Charles pointed out. "Are you sure you want to get rid of that?"

The look Badger gave him was venomous. "I can withhold beer, you know."

Charles held up his hands in surrender. "Fair enough. Your office, your beer."

"Damn straight," Badger muttered, bending down over a small wooden crate. She lifted the lid to reveal a spongy layer of dark moss, which she brushed aside. There was snow beneath the moss, interrupted by gleaming caps on stalks of brown glass.

She extracted two of the bottles and tore the cap off one with her stout fingernail before handing it to him. The other she kept in her hand as she navigated around the boxes, watching her feet intently.

Badger eased herself down through the narrow margin between her desk and chair, and popped off the cap of her own bottle. She tipped it into her lips and frowned pensively around its circumference. "At least the booze industry hasn't been hurt much. If that goes, I'm just going to dig a hole in the ground and pull the dirt over myself. When we don't even have enough sugar to rub two yeast cells together—that's when we'll really be in trouble."

Charles hummed noncommittally, and sipped at the beer he'd been given. It tasted strongly of corn, but not terribly. "From the look of this office, it's fortunate that your icebox is well-stocked."

Badger sighed. "Yeah. The lout wasn't half bad at filling out paperwork, but his filing leaves something to be desired."

There had been worse deficiencies in Zeus' character, of course, but Charles was loath to discuss the dead man, especially while surrounded by his possessions. "I'm sorry for putting you through this."

Badger waved her hand dismissively, growling low in her throat while her mouth was otherwise occupied. Then she sat tapping her fingers along the neck of the bottle for a little while. "It's probably a good thing, really. I never thought they'd even consider... Well, it seems like a sign of change for the better. If someone like Marburg had taken the position... God. What a train wreck."

Charles nodded. His brow creased with thought, and his free hand strayed over his leg to trace the shape in his pocket. "Why did you stay?"

"Hmm?" Badger's eyes followed the movement of his hand, too keen, and he stilled his fidgeting quickly.

"I mean, all this time the Brotherhood's kept you around as an example; as a spare in case they get desperate. You're not committed to their ideals enough to remain out of dedication, and you knew they would never reverse your punishment without some extraordinary need. So why stay?" Charles paused, and then asked, "Did you think they might kill you if you left?"

Badger snorted. "Of course they would. That's not the reason, though. Have you even met me, Charles? No, I'm just too stubborn to give in. I'm like my namesake: I just dig in and wait until everyone else gives up. Or at least, I like to think badgers do that. I've never really seen one."

"Is that why they call you Badger?" Charles asked, arching his eyebrow.

"Aside from the fact that I'm short, pissed off, and covered in black and white fur? Probably, yeah." She smiled to herself, twirling her bottle around in a circle. "They called me that before the hair though, too."

Charles leaned forward. "You didn't always look like this? When did your mutation reveal itself, then?"

Badger hid her grin. "Okay then, Professor. I'll admit, I was older than most. I can't tell you if it was all genetics or if something triggered it, though. I've seen that happen sometimes, when latent mutants are put under stress or exposed to things. There was definitely plenty of that going on back when we Americans weren't in Korea."

"Ah, yes. That war you didn't have."

Badger mimed toasting him. "Yeah, I knew something was up when I grew the beard," she continued, gesturing over her face. The arch of Charles' brow steepened, and she lowered the same hand to cross over her heart. "I swear I'm telling the truth. Read my mind if you don't believe me! Beard, mustache, and great bushy eyebrows. And thank god, because if they hadn't sprung up—and if I hadn't been acquainted with some especially discreet and terrified men—I'd be stuck in a clinic changing bandages right now."

"And that's not preferable to being paraded around as the Brotherhood's pet sympathizer, given degrading jobs?"

"You are pretty intolerable, but at the end of the day I'd still rather be somewhere I had a chance of making a difference, even if that chance was small. Anyone can change a bandage, but who else could do what we do?"

Charles grinned reluctantly, tipping his head to one side. "You, certainly; but what use am I? I never trained for politics. I'm a geneticist. I know a lot about Neanderthals and DNA, and that's about it."

Badger rolled her eyes. "Yeah, and I thought the best I'd ever be was a nurse. We are what we are, and our intentions can't change that, no matter how crazy it might seem."

He frowned, and pursed his lips. "That might be the case, but what I am is a political prisoner, for all that we pretend otherwise."

She nodded once, slowly. "True, but it could be much worse. You could be in the tender care of Frost, for instance. At least here, you're treated well."

Charles drew a slow breath, looking down at his knees to where he balanced the edge of the bottle. "You don't know that."

He raised his eyes cautiously to meet Badger's stern, unsmiling regard. "I don't. But it's still better. Better to have some free will than none at all. Better to have the semblance of happiness than none at all. Better to wait until conditions improve."

"No," Charles spoke into the mouth of the bottle. "I'm a coward. I had the chance to take the nobler option and I chose the easier route."

Badger scoffed. "Being noble is overrated."

He turned to look at her, incredulously. "Weren't you just advocating the virtues of stubbornness a few moments ago?"

"Sure," Badger said, shrugging. "There's a time and a place, though, and sometimes... I'm being purely practical now, but sometimes being stubborn is something you do in your head, because if it gets out it might get you killed. Or worse, it might get other people killed."

Charles nodded, but without enthusiasm. Badger sighed. "I'm sorry about whatever hardship you're going though. I must sound like a monster, but… We need you, and we need your crazy ideas. I don't know if the world can handle whatever patience you're keeping locked up in that head of yours, if it got free."

"I can't say I like that advice."

Badger stretched her arms and set her empty bottle on the desk, hiding a scorch mark. "I don't blame you. Hell, I don't know that I'd be any more appreciative, in your place. The world is pretty damn bleak, though, and I think you have a chance here to make it a little less so. That has to mean something."

"I'll keep it in mind," Charles said, and lifted up his own emptied bottle. "Where do you want this?"

"Here." Badger beckoned for it with an outstretched hand. "They give me a discount for returned bottles."

They sat in relative silence for a moment, Charles staring at the little hairs on the back of his hand while Badger bounced the necks of the bottles together.

Eventually the clinking stopped, and Charles spoke in their place. "Thank you for sharing your stock with me, Badger."

She waved her hand irritably. "Any time, any time. Look, just... if you do snap, just give me some warning so I can be well clear of it all, okay?"

Charles smiled brightly, wrinkling the skin around his eyes. "You'll be the first to know."

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cii.

Charles' mood was far from bright, however, and if Badger kept sending him worried glances as she walked with him, then it was with the understanding that he wouldn't explain further. And if she didn't know exactly how close he really was to making a decision… It was for the best. He trusted her; he did not trust Frost.

Badger left him in his quarters and with an ironic twist her of brow told him that she would see him again soon. Indeed, he had hardly forgotten the sound of the door before it clicked open again and Erik stepped through, freshly shaven and helmet shining in preparation for their daily Brotherhood meeting.

He greeted Charles with a little curl of a smile, which Charles answered with a curt nod before pushing past him and out into the hallway. A hand drifted over his shoulder, and Charles tried to ignore the jump of his heart at even that fleeting contact. He felt Erik's eyes as they traveled through the corridors, but didn't turn to meet his gaze.

In the meeting room Charles took his place at Erik's side, well away from the rest of the Brotherhood cabinet, and he resigned himself to it. Badger was there already and she looked pointedly between him and Erik; they traded raised eyebrows until she shrugged, conceding that it had stopped being her business once the bottles were empty.

The meeting did not go badly. Little had changed overnight, but the Minister of Scientific Research had returned with a proposal to line retention ponds with bricks of limestone to leach the acid from the water; a temporary solution to a larger problem, but still an improvement.

Colossus hadn't been deterred from attending, and argued fiercely for implementing incentives for mutants to pursue lines of work suited to their abilities, as well as for regulations requiring worker sleeping arrangements to be both individual and raised off the ground. He received little argument, especially after he interrupted one naysayer to explain with brutally rehearsed efficiency that disease cost more than sanitation.

Badger had pieced together some information from Zeus' scattered paperwork and collaborated with the geologists, combining the seismic data from several monitoring locations into a rough map suggesting that the mutant responsible for raising the volcanism in the Atlantic might be hiding somewhere in Iowa.

Beside him, Erik lifted his chin up over his laced fingers; a subtle gesture, but an important one. "Where is this?" he asked, voice smooth with an artificial calm. "She must be killed before she can do any more damage."

Unspoken went the fact that most of North America's food came from the Midwest, which was still largely unspoiled by radiation, fire, and plague; in part due to its remoteness and low population density, but also largely because of Brotherhood strategy. Razing the fields was an excellent way to cripple an enemy, but not in a region one meant to occupy.

Badger held up a hand-inked page, whose details were barely visible from their seats. "Our geologists have narrowed her location down to a fifty-mile radius, confirmed by several eye-witness accounts. But before we do anything aggressive, I'm drafting aid teams to the region with instructions to learn the area and gather information. We can't afford to surprise each other like last time."

Erik's eyes narrowed in consideration. "Very well. Do that, but inform me the moment they return with any relevant information. The very moment."

"Yes, sir," Badger agreed, relaxing back into her chair and crossing one knee over the other.

All in all, no one got stabbed or even really threatened and there were some tentative improvements by the end of the meeting, so Charles was in a fairly pleasant mood on the way back through the corridors, all things considered. Beside him, Erik almost hummed with pleasure.

Erik shut them into Charles' rooms. When he turned around, a closed-lipped smile had carved deep into his cheeks. "That went well. You're a good influence on my people."

Charles watched Erik closely, studying the way his face moved as he spoke. There was a light there, an energy; dangerous but alive, almost more than Charles had ever seen in Erik since before his isolation in Canada. "Perhaps your people only needed less influence." His delicate emphasis of that last word implied just what sort of influence he meant.

Erik's eyes shone within their creases as he ignored the accusation. "That said, I'd rather hoped that you might join me at the podium during my speech tomorrow. The two of us together would present a more unified front."

He didn't need to mention that Charles' mere residence with the Brotherhood, let alone his involvement, was still a matter of state secrecy. The resistance, Charles knew, believed him to be a martyr; emerging as a political ally to Magneto, even for something he did in truth champion… it wasn't the sort of decision to be made lightly.

Then again, what did he have to lose? Erik was right; it would send a powerful message, one way or another. He would not oppose peace, but neither would he necessarily discourage a revolt, if it happened quickly and neatly enough.

"All right," Charles said, and Erik relaxed, easing into a prowl as he circled around behind the chair. His arms draped over Charles' shoulders and his weight settled there.

"I don't know about you," Erik murmured, nuzzling into Charles' hair, "but I'm enjoying this new, cooperative Charles."

Charles had inclined his head to give Erik's nose more room to peruse his scalp, but now he froze. Erik lowered his mouth to Charles' neck to soothe him with soft kisses and low, wordless hums of encouragement. His hand slid up Charles' front, pulling his suit jacket into bunches along the way, and his lips curved to the bumps of Charles' spine.

Charles closed his eyes as teeth scraped over his vertebrae. The gloved hand on his chest reached his throat and pushed up at his chin until his eyelids shone red with light. Only weeks ago Erik had scolded him for shuttering himself away, but now he said nothing, seeming to accept that Charles was his whether or not he kept his eyes open.

It was freeing, in a way, to be so owned. Charles drifted, far from the shape in his pocket and far from the hands and mouth that roamed his body. It was a nice place, in the red behind his eyelids; it was nice to give up responsibility for feeling.

It was an illusion, of course, and it came to an end when Erik's hand on his cheek turned his head, pressing the back of his ear to Erik's lips. "I have a gift for you."

Charles thought of the subtle weight around his neck. The collar, he realized, was thrumming gently against his chest; some low frequency of desire, subtle and nearly indistinguishable from the buzz of his own skin. He turned to look at Erik, whose eyes were dark and uncomplicated; he looked as if he might start purring himself, if he could, but he lacked that spark of amusement that would have told Charles he was doing it intentionally.

Charles reminded himself that the necklace had never been a gift; that it had always been a shackle. In fact, he could not remember a single time that Erik had given him anything, and he was torn between curiosity and apprehension.

"What is it?" Charles asked, striving for the former.

Erik didn't break eye contact as he reached down into his jacket pocket, and Charles was gripped by a sudden and striking conviction that Erik held a twin to his vial; or worse, that he might have somehow taken the vial from Charles' pocket—that he was about to present it as evidence and then laugh in his face over the joke.

Charles held his breath, and couldn't help but cringe when Erik lifted his hand—but it was only a wrinkled tin tube, capped with white plastic and scoured of all identifying color. In Erik's palm it looked almost unreal, like a sculpture, and Charles furrowed his brow as if solving a riddle.

"It's surgical gel," Erik told him, his eyes fixed to the tin. "It's sterile, and won't promote bacterial growth." Charles' brows creased further as several unpleasant applications flashed through his imagination, and Erik added, "I thought it might be a more comfortable alternative to saliva or lotion."

Charles couldn't help it; he laughed, quietly but no less helplessly, until Erik's eyebrows had tipped up in the center, concerned despite the tentative curve of his mouth. And really, Charles had no idea whether he should in fact be grateful. The gel would be better, he was sure, but… well, he'd kind of hoped that maybe Erik wouldn't notice that they were having sex, but it seemed that he had.

He reached out and took the tube from Erik, turning it over in his hand. It was warm from being in Erik's jacket.

"Thank you." Charles' mouth felt dry. The humor in the situation was fading rapidly, and the air around them felt very close and hot. One of Erik's arms was wrapped around Charles, almost pinning him down into the chair, and Charles struggled to breathe.

"Actually, could you put this in the end table drawer?" Charles asked. "I think I'd really like to go for a walk outside, if you don't mind." He offered the gel back to Erik.

Erik didn't move, didn't even blink, and Charles' heart hammered in his chest—you promised to give him everything—but then Erik swayed just the smallest bit, glanced down at Charles' open hand, and touched his fingertips to Charles' palm. He took the gel and stood with it.

"Of course." Erik followed the tilt of his hips toward the end table. He twisted to look over his shoulder at Charles as he opened the drawer. "Shall we go into the courtyard?"

Charles exhaled slowly. "I'd rather hoped I could see the forest again."

Erik's face relaxed into a greater stillness; something like relief. "You should have warmer clothing this time"

It had not escaped Charles' attention that, despite the rows of pristine outfits hanging in his closet, he didn't have a single winter coat. The implication had been clear. "You'll need to find me something."

Erik inclined his head, accepting the point. "You can borrow one of mine," he offered, pushing the drawer closed with his knuckles. "We'll stop by my quarters on the way."

Charles' curiosity got the best of him, and he sat a little straighter. Of course, he knew that Erik slept somewhere, but he couldn't help but imagine Erik as being like a cat, prowling around his mansion until he found a warm spot to watch everyone from. The idea of him having some private place to call his own was mystifying in its obviousness.

"Just so long as it's not red," Charles said. "It doesn't go well with my skin tone, I'm afraid."

The corners of Erik's mouth curled, and he turned around fully to roam his eyes over Charles' body. "No, I think not. Although I rather like the thought of you in blue…"

Charles coughed into his hand and looked away before glancing back, cheeks warm. Erik was still smiling, and somewhat wickedly at that, so Charles composed himself quickly and gestured an invitation toward the door. "Well. Shall we, then?"

Erik's eyes glittered with fond mockery as he walked past Charles. He made no gesture to open the door, but it swung forward nonetheless.

Much to Charles' surprise, Erik turned down the hall in a direction he had never seen anyone turn before, down to the shorter end of the corridor. His confusion grew as he pushed at the hand rims of his chair, following Erik past the few doors along the way to the end, until that confusion popped into an understanding: Erik was his neighbor.

They reached the door at the end of the hall and Charles twisted in his seat. He could see the guard outside his own quarters, close enough that they could have caught each other's eye, had that other man been looking.

He turned back as Erik waved open his door, wondering why he was surprised. After all, someone had to be living behind the other doors, and he'd heard signs of their occupancy despite the truly remarkable soundproofing. It made a sort of sense that Erik would want him nearby, given his general… possessiveness.

Then he caught a glimpse of Erik's quarters and Charles stopped wondering whether he could blame his terrible collection of books on a previous tenant. His eyes widened to catalogue every detail while Erik was distracted with the coat rack, only…

There was nothing. Well, there were a few chairs, and the aforementioned coat rack. There was a plain, slightly threadbare rug spread over the floor, and a little table pushed against the wall in a way that was uncomfortably off-center. Erik's sitting room wasn't empty, by any means; it was just barren. Charles had expected to see at least one grandiose oil painting of Erik in his cape and helmet, but the room was only a room, and it was hard to imagine that anyone lived there, let alone any particular person.

Erik's hips chose that moment to sway into the path of Charles' stare, and his eyes widened. For a long, uncomfortable second, he found himself trapped in contemplation of Erik's trouser placket. There was something interesting about the way the dark fabric wrinkled between Erik's legs, and the longer he stared, the more Charles became certain that it really had very little to do with his legs at all—

Charles jerked his chin aside, glanced up to where the walls met the ceiling, and didn't quite cross his legs as he cursed the hormones that streamed through his brain. Then he included the rest of chemistry for good measure, and didn't look down again until he heard the rustle of Erik offering his coat.

He was pleased to see that it really wasn't red. Instead it was gray, smooth and stuffed with something soft, and Charles snatched it from Erik's grasp to have something to do with his hands aside folding them over his lap.

When Charles pulled it around his shoulders, however, it engulfed him in the duel scents of musk and sweat. He paused, half a sleeve dangling off his arm, blinking dazedly as his brain halted all thought in favor of basking in an odor that ought to have been and utterly failed to be disgusting.

Charles swallowed thickly and flipped the coat's edges up over his shoulders, reasoning that once he stopped moving it around, it would stop wafting quite so many stray molecules into the air. The sleeves fell below his wrists, creeping back down despite his best efforts to push them up, and he shoved his lingering awareness of Erik's scent into the back of his mind by force of will.

He looked up at Erik, who replied with a gentle twist of his lips and then began to walk.

He led the way in silence, striding with a smooth and confident swagger, but as they turned through the corridors his shoulders became carelessly stooped and his head tipped forward to shift his gaze to the floor. Charles watched with fascination as Erik slipped into the posture of habit, and knew without being told that Erik had walked this path many times before, guiding himself by granite tiles.

After navigating a small stairwell they reached a narrow door, which Erik pushed open. A small square of concrete lay illuminated on the ground outside, and Erik squeezed out of the way as Charles passed him, easing his chair down from the mansion's floor to the ground.

Cold condensed in Charles' throat and his lungs hitched in protest. Blindly, he groped for the zipper of Erik's borrowed coat and pulled at it, peering into the dark around him. The air was filled with a strangely shining haze, and he found himself in a sphere of gold cast by the solitary electric lamp on the wall behind him. Beyond, all was ink and darkness.

He exhaled to watch his breath escape, and leaned over to look down at the ground. Frost clung to the rough edges of the concrete, and on those few ghostly blades of grass included in the light. The fog, evaporated unseen from the snow during the day, had frozen in the sudden cold of night. Miniscule particles of ice drifted through the air, alighting gratefully on the warmth of his cheek.

Charles shivered, and tugged his hands back up into his sleeves.

He heard the soft sound of a door easing shut and saw that Erik had stepped out to join him. Unlike Charles, Erik did not seem to feel the cold, but only watched him from within the shadow of the helmet.

"Are you warm enough?" Erik asked, his voice a caress through the fog.

Charles bundled the loose folds of the coat more tightly around himself and nodded. The cold kept the scent at bay, but it crept in at the edges. In the light and heat of the hallway it had been stifling, but now Charles found it almost… soothing. It was a memory of warmth, in its way.

"Let's go," Charles said, mostly to himself, and lowered his arms down to the rims of his wheels. The bundles of his coat fell loose, letting in a draft. He slipped his fingers free of their sleeves to get a better grip on the chair, and he wished that he had asked for gloves. He wondered, briefly, whether he could stand to ask for Erik's, but he decided that he wasn't quite that desperate yet.

He left the little bubble of light around the door and found himself in blackness. Charles slowed, easing his fingers along until dim shapes emerged from the shadows. Unlike the last time they had gone through the woods the path was not lit and the moon was a mere crescent in the sky, but he could guess at a paler snake of gravel, and he trusted that Erik would stop him if he were in any real danger. It helped his trust that this time he wasn't calculating the likelihood of Erik murdering him.

The world came into slow focus around him. He smelled the pine trees before he saw them, but most of the trunks crowding close were deciduous. Leaves rustled under his wheels where they had blown over the gravel path, which was otherwise surprisingly well maintained. Snow hid in patches beneath the trees like gaps where the world had been forgotten, and though there was little moonlight and less starlight, the frozen mist spread about an eerie glow. A faint rustle of wool was the only hint Charles had of the shadow following him, and though he knew they weren't alone in the forest, it seemed to his senses as if they were.

The low branch of a spruce hung near the path, its needles limned with white, and Charles stopped. He lifted his hand and brushed his fingertips over the ice, breaking the filaments onto his skin. He held them in his hand to watch them melt, shivering stubbornly.

Behind him, Erik reached forward to touch his fingers to Charles', crushing the delicate ice beneath an incautious fingertip. He drew back, tracing the melting ice where it had stuck to his glove—gentle too late.

Charles looked back at the branch and its ice, now felt and known, its emergent mystery shattered irrevocably. He broke more crystals from it, letting them flake to the ground, and he heard Erik brushing his hand off on his thigh. A moment later that hand found Charles' shoulder, fingertips nestling in the hollow of his clavicle through the coat.

Charles thought of the vial in his pocket, too small to even really feel, especially not when his thighs were already going numb. "Why me?" The words were no more than a rasp of his throat.

"Hm?" Erik rubbed his thumb into the back of his neck, and Charles leaned forward to expose more of his back in invitation. Not because he was tense, but rather because Charles hoped to set Erik at ease: Erik seemed to resort to threats of violence when he felt pressured to explain himself, but perhaps if he felt in control then Charles might have some hope of getting answers out of him peacefully. Answers were important, now.

"I've been in your mind," Charles said, as Erik's other hand joined the other in kneading slowly between his shoulders. "Despite what I said, I didn't actually know everything about you—"

"You lied?" Erik sounded amused.

Charles twitched his shoulderblades under Erik's fingers. "…I exaggerated in the interest of the greater good. As I was saying: I didn't know everything, but I never got the sense that you were, well…"

"Homosexual?" Erik said it lightly, without offense, and Charles freed the air held hostage in his lungs.

"Yes." Charles tucked his hands into the coat as stillness stole his heat. "So I was very surprised, back then, when you kissed me. It's very hard to surprise a telepath, you know."

"I hadn't realized I'd hid it so well." Erik's hands slowed to a stop, fingertips resting along the ridge of Charles' scapula, and there was no wind to rattle the barren branches above.

Finally, Erik said, "I had thought you were being generous. By not saying anything."

"I didn't know."

Charles heard the soft huff of Erik's laugh. "I'm not, you know. Homosexual. I never really… not for men or women. I've had sex, of course, but it was only an action. There was no desire." His hands lifted away and he touched his fingertips to Charles' temples. Gently, lightly, he smoothed them down through the hair in front of Charles' ears, and then down over his sideburns until his fingers fell from Charles' jaw and alighted again on his shoulders.

"I'd never noticed anyone," Erik continued. "Not until you. In some ways, you were the first person I saw in years. It didn't matter that you were a man, because in my mind you were beautiful."

Charles said nothing for a while, sitting still with Erik's hands framing his neck, the man himself out of sight behind him. He looked down the path, now clearly visible to his eyes, to where the fog clung thickest. "…I see."

"I didn't expect you to feel the same," Erik said, so quietly that Charles strained to hear him. But Charles didn't have an answer for him, so Erik's hands slipped from his shoulders and he stepped in a smooth arc around the chair. His cape drifted around his ankles as he walked down the path, and Charles followed.

The fog around them grew denser as they went, and Charles realized with some trepidation that they were going down an incline. He didn't relish the thought of climbing up it again; his arms were stronger from compensating for the crutches, when he remembered to use them, but they were stronger in different places. Mansion life did not encourage muscle.

Without turning, Erik spoke. "I walk this path to clear my heads some nights. More since you came along; so you see, it's only fitting that you're here now." He glanced back and Charles saw his nose in profile, and the glitter of the fog in his eyes. "For the record, I do think that your plan could be successful." He faced ahead once more and added, "I haven't looked forward to the future in a long time, but now I want to know what happens tomorrow."

"Hopefully it's not me doing something embarrassing on camera," Charles said, and he caught sight of Erik's face again as he flashed a smirk at Charles.

"No," Erik assured him, and kept walking.

Soon they reached a place where the path broadened out and the trees drew back around them, and they stopped because there was nowhere farther to walk. Charles drew a sharp breath, eyes wide with attention as he stared around the valley.

A meadow of fallen grasses spread out below them, crisp and sparkling with frost. A layer of drifting ice hung low above it, heavy in the air but too light to fall, shining in the thin light of the moon behind its shadow. The trees opposite stood tall and dark, pierced here and there by the sharp crown of a conifer, and the rounded crests of mountains framed the sky.

Charles touched his hand to his mouth and felt where his lips had curved into a breathless smile. He lowered his arm and self-consciously pressed his lips down over his teeth, but could not rid himself of the expression entirely.

Erik's fingers slipped between his where they lay on the armrest, and Charles felt the rough callus of his skin, still warm from the glove he'd stripped off. He didn't look down, but let his own fingers wrap around Erik's. Inside he felt fragile, like the frost on the branch, and he was afraid to move lest something shatter.

Beside him Erik glowed with soft amusement, and squeezed his palm. "This weather is weeks too early."

"Yes," Charles agreed, voice too loud in his ears. "But it is very lovely all the same."

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tbc