Title: Not Half As Blinding

Rating: 14

Genre: drama, fix-it fic

Pairings: Erik/Charles

Wordcount: 30k

Warnings: I choose not to warn

Summary: Cuban beach AU. Charles discovers that death does, in fact, solve everything.

Author's Note: X-men canon, it has been said, resembles a plateful of spaghetti in terms of continuity and coherence. Most of my knowledge comes from the movies. Also? American spelling is hard! ):

Betaed by yami_tai and twelve_pastels.


The sun blinds him. There's a salty smell on the wind and the sand is glaringly white, though not half as white as the flash from the muzzle of Moira's gun. Erik faces her and Charles picks himself from the sand, hearing the whizz of bullets as they are deflected by an invisible shield.

The sun is in his eyes again, all of sudden, and the sky that surrounds it is white, and he wonders how that happened, he was turning away from it, he shouldn't be staring in its glorious visage.

Then Erik's face is there, shadowed by the infernal contraption that is no better than a coffin, for all the good it does, obscuring the glare.

"Charles!"

He tries to speak, but finds he can't. The only thing escaping his throat is a gurgle, and a weak whimper. Somewhere to the right Raven sobs, her distress pooling in Charles' chest. Or is it Moira's? Someone is distressed, they are probably female, and they are distressed around the empty spot that contains Erik's likeness.

Darkness eats away at the corners of Charles' vision.

This is familiar, he thinks, and feels himself panic. Not again, no! Hasn't he died once already, ten minutes ago? Hasn't he walked through the valley, once is enough, please, no! Whose mind is it, he wonders dimly, that latches onto his? Who is dying and pulling him under as well?

It feels like Moira. She chokes and Charles finds he cannot breathe either.

The sun is high in the sky and Erik's face is staring down at him, yelling words that Charles cannot hear, but Erik cannot be there, because Charles can't feel the steadying presence of his mind.

The mind is the one thing that is always real. Dreams can confuse his eyes, but dreams are loud, tangible and abstract, even when they take on the form of men who lack the substance that fills the living creatures, so Charles knows they aren't real. Erik, this Erik, must be a dream, then.

The face above him is uniformly dark against the glare of the sky, a shape, a word of no meaning, then something separates from it, and suddenly Erik is there again.

"Charles!" he screams and wipes his face, leaving a bloody smear across his cheek and nose.

iYou look ridiculous/i, Charles thinks. iHow's Moira?/i

Erik's eyes flicker and some of the pressure around Charles' neck is alleviated. When he draws a breath, however, no air fills his lungs and words which he was sure would spill out of his mouth get stuck in his throat, bumbling there like New Year's champagne, cold from the snow, glittering like fireworks.

The darkness is relentless. The edges crawl up the sides, obscuring nearly a third of the sky, licking up the bright dome from its base. Erik is still yelling and there is terror wafting from him, and panic, multiplied by Raven, oh, dear Raven. Her terror is blue and smells like chocolate waffles.

Alex is dust and embers.

Sean is wind and brick.

Hank is white and crackles like electricity.

Moira coughs. She tastes like fountain water.

The sole bright spot haloes Erik's head and Charles smiles. iSee, you are wrong. There's so much light around you, my dear friend/i.

But the darkness keeps spreading and soon it touches Erik, muddling up his face, twisted in anguished horror, and Charles would very much like to tell him to remember candles and serenity, but these are just words and the memory is out of his reach. Only the image of Erik's mother comes through, hallowed by the candlelight, warm and glowing, reaching out toward him and Charles cannot do anything but smile.

xxxxx

Waking up is the hardest thing he had ever done. His mind is blanketed. Usually when he wakes his mind is already up, feeling the movements of people in the immediate vicinity, brushing against theirs as they go about their business. Now, all he knows is that he desperately needs water as his mouth is parched and rough.

"Matthew?" someone says. Her mind is a fluffy cloud of concern, beaming at him with the occasional flash of trepidation.

Charles twitches. The light hurts his eyes, but he stubbornly blinks them open.

There is a ceiling overhead. He cannot place this ceiling. He should, he feels like he should, but he draws a blank. It is familiar, somehow, but it has no place in his memory.

"Matthew?" the warm cloud of concern at his side becomes alight with wonder. "Praised be the Lord, it's a miracle! Can you hear me, Matthew?"

"Who are you?" Charles wants to ask, but his throat is dry and his tongue feels several sizes too large.

"Here, let me help you," the cloud says and slowly Charles begins to see her face, up to this point obscured by the edges of her simple mind. She wears a wimple, a nurse's wimple. It is a hospital, then.

There is water on his lips and Charles drinks greedily.

"Careful now, we wouldn't want you to choke."

He wants to assure her he will do no such thing, that he had mastered drinking at the tender age of two, and that skill has served him well throughout his adult years. He doesn't manage to say anything, which is just as well, as he coughs and suddenly he can't breathe and the liquid is everywhere, filling his nose, his mouth, his mind.

"It's alright, it's alright," the woman says. Her hand is rubbing circles on his chest until his breathing slows and he is no longer choking. "It is perfectly fine. Relax, just relax. You are safe here."

Charles wonders where is here. He wonders what precisely happened that landed him in this sterile place, which feels like a hospital, but cannot be one, because there are colors on the walls and plants on the far end of the room. The air smells clean and pure, and the smell of disinfectant is much more subdued and not quite so overpowering as it would be in a hospital.

What happened? he asks himself.

He looks at the white ceiling, at the yellow walls and the cut-up windows, beyond which there are trees and the sky. His gaze falls on a spot of sunlight, which presently sets a square section of the wall alight, and an image flows to the forefront of his memory. A beach in Cuba, he thinks. Blinding white sky and sand.

Erik.

Dear Lord, Erik!

Charles tries to sit up, but he is too weak. Something happened on that beach. He remembers the sand, the sky - why is he looking at the sky? - and he remembers Erik's face, inhuman in anguish and anger.

"What happened?" he manages to force out of his throat at last. He is shocked to discover the actual words sound nothing like he intended, but become a slur of vowels, with a lone ith/i standing out in the middle.

The cloud of maternal concern envelops him one more and his eyes close, involuntarily. He must rest, he thinks, and doesn't know if it's her thought, or his.

xxxxx

The second time he wakes the world seems a little less bright, a little more real. He is alone in the room and though he hears footsteps in the corridor, he can't feel anything from them. He panics, but then someone comes closer, the same nurse as before, and her mind is once again open and awed, so Charles relaxes. This time he can see the thoughts that flicker on the surface. He is somewhat grateful that this is not a quick-witted woman. Her thoughts are slow, fully formed and yet simple, moving across her mind at a leisurely pace.

She prays, constantly. The Lord's prayer is a constant hum in the background and among the prayers Charles sees her joy, that the Lord has graced them all with a miracle, her relief that there is no war, her gentle annoyance at the doctor, who dismissed her reports, her faith.

"It's alright, Matthew," she says when she sees his half-open eyes. "The doctor will be here in a few minutes. He didn't believe me, but you are really here, aren't you?"

Charles closes his eyes, which is meant to convey a nod, and feels her beaming smile. Something is not quite right. He is so tired, but he must stay awake, if for no other reason, than to know what happened.

His patient struggle to remain conscious is rewarded when he hears a gruff male voice at the door and a consciousness enters his field of cognition. The doctor is prickly and tired, but he is genuine and he approaches the bed with a pastel-colored air of fondness.

"How are we doing today, Matthew?" the doctor asks, and Charles opens his eyes.

It is almost gratifying to see the man drop his chart and leap to his side to peer into his eyes and check his pulse.

"Bless the Lord," the nurse says happily.

"This is remarkable," the doctor says. "Can you hear me, Matthew?"

Charles frowns and opens his mouth. "Yea," he manages. He feels parched.

"Remarkable! Now, stay put," the doctor says. "It is far too early to try getting up."

Charles winces, but the doctor is right - his body will not obey him. He casts a questioning look at the two above them and some of it filters through, because the doctor leans over him with a paternal smile on his face.

"Now, lad. I know it won't be easy for you. You have been asleep for almost thirty years."

Charles stares, forgetting the ache (how can his eyelids ache?) and silently begs the doctor to repeat himself.

"You have been asleep for almost thirty years," the doctor says again, and frowns. "Dear boy, this is nothing short of a miracle. Your brother will be delighted."

"Sir, Mr Xavier is presently in Europe. At least that's the last fixed address of his we had."

"That is a problem. Well, good news can wait, I'm sure he will be happy all the same. Let's run some tests, shall we? We wouldn't want to get Charles excited before we know for sure."

Charles laps at the water the nurse spills into his mouth greedily and, though he is relatively sure he would be able to talk, says nothing. His head is spinning and the vision becomes tangled with his sense of the human mind, resulting in an image that is too bright and confusing for him to handle.

He remembers something. They keep calling him Matthew, but how can that be, Matthew died, didn't he? That's what mother said. Charles has only been taken to see him once, he was so little, and the sight of the slight body among the white sheets meant nothing to him. His brother, mother said without an ounce of feeling. He's called Matthew. He's asleep and he won't ever wake up.

Charles holds the memory, disjointed and foggy as it is, and examines it in minute detail. She said, "He's called Matthew." She said, "He's asleep."

"He won't ever wake up," was something Charles heard, but her lips did not move then. "Well, at least one of them won't be a hassle."

He remembers crying then, for no apparent reason. He remembers being soothed by the nanny. He doesn't remember anything about his brother. He looked at the hospital bed, saw the body there, didn't make a note of the resemblance, because he was too young to have a fully formed image of himself, and moved on, because he felt nothing there. He saw a doll swaddled in white sheets, a doll that breathed, but a doll nonetheless.

He suspects at this point it is irrelevant to wonder how has this happened.

Not when he still doesn't know what exactly happened.

The nurse smiles at him and pets his hair. "Roberts will be here soon for your therapy. Don't be scared of him, he's a dear. He helps you stay fit."

Charles watches her carefully, with his eyes and his mind, and something inside him drops when he realizes she thinks of him as a child. It drops further when the reasons for it filter through - Matthew was brought here at the age of two. He hasn't woken up since.

She disappears through the door and Charles thinks sleep sounds like a wonderful idea right about now, but of course just as he thinks he might finally drift off Roberts arrives.

"Good morning, Matthew," he says. "I hear you have woken?"

Charles' mouth twitches in a smile. Roberts is over six feet tall. He is powerfully built and his voice is booming in the small, sunny room, which is a lot brighter now that he is in it. His mind is bright and open, no less maternal than that of the nurse and Charles is happy to bask in its glow.

"Careful now, Roberts," the kind nurse says and a grayish tinge of worry flickers through the fleecy cloud of her thoughts, "Matthew is only two years old."

"No worries, ma'am," he says, and Charles feels a twinge of regret when a flash of well-worn hurt covers up the man's sunny thoughts. He wishes he could say the nurse means nothing by it, and it's true - she doesn't. She likes Roberts, but she is not terribly progressive and in her mind a giant black man is a scary thing to a child.

Charles smiles, instead, and holds the smile in place even when Roberts' gentle hands take hold of his arm and Charles catches a sight of his palm.

He looks skeletal. He fights not to recoil in horror when he sees, out of the corner of his eyes, the thinness of his arms and legs, and, when Roberts helps him sit up, the pronounced ribs. Thirty years, he thinks in horror. I have been here, in this sunny little room for almost thirty years!

And yet he hasn't, he knows this as he knows his name is Charles. He went to school. He lived in a mansion, then he went to college. He got his degrees. He has a sister called Raven, who is often blue.

He has a friend called Erik, who is no longer his friend, who can bend metal. They met in the icy waters of the sea, when Erik was trying to stop a submarine with the power of will alone, and Charles jumped in after him.

"There you go," Roberts says, nestling Charles' left leg among the covers. Charles keeps the silly smile plastered to his face even as he screams inside.

Roberts winces and his sunny disposition is shaken for a moment. He's not sure why, and it scares him a little, so Charles focuses on the smile, until it reaches down into the core of him and is therefore almost real. "Thank you," he musters and Roberts smiles.

His name is Abraham, Charles picks up. He's been an orderly here for ten years now. He likes his job, it's quiet and the staff don't harbor much in the way of racial prejudice. They know he is good at what he does and no one hardly ever feels the need to monitor him any more. The patients like him, because he is kind to them. He likes his wife's meatloaf most of all foods. At home he has a collection of books by Jane Austen, because his wife, Wendy, read one and enjoyed it, so he bought her the whole series, read them, and now reads them over and over, whenever he has the chance. He does it when she isn't home.

"Good afternoon, Matthew," he says when he leaves the room.

Charles stares at the ceiling, blinking away the moisture that gathers at the corners of his eyes. Abraham is a good person, a thoroughly good person, and yet he was beaten up at school, his co-workers periodically make sure he did everything correctly, even though he is by rights every bit as qualified as they are.

It's not fair, he thinks.

He falls asleep and dreams of sand and the sky and terror. It is new - usually he dreams of sunshine and a childhood room that's yellow and has plants in the corner.

Oh, he thinks when he wakes up to a sunny yellow room with a ficus in the corner. iOh/i.

Charles tries to curl in on himself, hide from the world, go to sleep and never wake again, but his limbs are heavy and he can't force them to move.

Instead, he closes his eyes and remembers the sand. He remembers a sky that's too bright to be real and Erik, frightful, terrified Erik. He remembers darkness licking up the edges of his vision and the sand that sticks to everything. He remembers the stripe of blood smeared across Erik's face and the shadows cast by the helmet, looming over them both like a mausoleum of everything they ever were and everything they never would be again.

He remembers dying. The brain tissue lacks the capacity to feel physical sensation, so he only felt the coin break the skin and the bone underneath, then it should have been painless, it should have been… It shouldn't have been a roaring storm of panic, of pain magnified by terror, brought upon by the realization of one's own mortality, of the power coiling in his gut, of own his flesh burning as he held it back, squashed it back down, and god, his whole body burned with the effort of feeling the waves of fire engulfing him and he had nothing but his own hands to hold them down.

Then the pain blossomed in the back of his skull and the flames poured into a dark abyss and he teetered on its edge, but there was no more fire to contain, no more fear, he was free.

He walked out of the plane feeling light-headed. Then the world moved, spun and he was lying down, cradled in Erik's arms, watching the sky grow brighter and brighter and the abyss open before him. Except this time there had been a light there, a speck of brightness at its centre, weak and fluttering, but guiding him. Charles was falling, but it wove itself around his hand and pulled him through to the other side.

Charles opens his eyes in the present and stares at the bright ceiling.

He hasn't expected that, he thinks before the memories start pouring in through the fog, filling him and overflowing, until his spine arches and he lets out a gargled scream.

He remembers the helmet descending and sealing Erik away, forever. He remembers missiles and ships and his own words - oh god, what had he said? - and the world exploding in a cascade of pain, fire and, inexplicably, the smell of coconut.

Outside the room he hears a crash and a whimper, and hurriedly he pulls his mind back, gathers it close, gritting his teeth because the ragged folds drip with anger and pain, and they are sharp as knives, but he curls himself around it, even though they hurt, so that nothing leaks out, not even a drop.

There is precious little he can do to shield himself from the memories that keep coming, arranging themselves into a neat little collage of horror and failure. Charles would weep, but he can't gather the strength to do so. All the men, Russians, Americans; the cultural differences don't matter so much, because terror is a universal language.

He doesn't unfold for the following week, dutifully going through the motions of being mentally two years old and unaware of anything that has gone on in the world in the intervening twenty-eight years, or the past few days. That is a knowledge best left for when is capable of facing the world on his own terms. The only time he ventures out of his shell is when the doctor becomes too excited over his progress and declares it is time to contact iCharles/i, to let him know his brother is awake. It doesn't take much to gently hint to the man that contacting Charles Xavier could do more harm than good and that Matthew Xavier is best kept secret for the time being. The Xaviers are very odd people, after all, and they lave been very lax with visiting, even though the generous cheques kept coming, like clockwork, every month, to keep Matthew in luxury. Foisting upon them a two year old in the body of a wasted thirty year old would be a nuisance for a gregarious man of Charles' age. There's no harm in keeping the cheques coming for a little while longer, and the boy is well-cared for here…

Charles falls back onto the bed in exhaustion, but the doctor stops thinking about calling the Xaviers, except when his scrupulous honesty reminds him that this is a breakthrough and family should be notified. He reasons the honesty away; surely the Xaviers would leave him where he is, anyway, they are such busy people, it would surely be best if they were only notified when Matthew is capable of walking on his own.

xxxxx

The days float by lazily. Every day war fails to break out. Every day nurse Patricia O'Maley enters Charles' room pleasant and bright, and every day Abraham Roberts comes to help Charles' skeletal limbs along a regime of simple exercises that should, in time, give him the strength to move on his own.

It is a month before he can sit up. It is another week before he can swing his legs over the edge of the bed and stand.

It is another week before he can do so without falling to the floor.

By the end of the third month he successfully manages to walk around the room unassisted without falling down once. This is when he decides enough is enough, and signs the release forms.

A car is made available to him, partly because he is, presently, Charles Xavier taking his little, wasted, twin brother Matthew home, partly because he can no longer stand the sunny dispositions of people surrounding him and his aggravation threatens to overwhelm his surroundings, and this is a place where an angry rich man gets his will done.

Inside the vehicle, he collapses onto the leather seat as the driver puts the wheelchair - just in case, the nurse says - in the back.

"Where to, Mister Xavier?" the driver asks.

"Westchester," Charles says before the exhaustion of having walked ten yards unassisted takes its toll. His head hurts with the effort of projecting the illusion into the mind of the receptionist. She is a diligent woman, unburdened with too much education or a suspicious mind, and it still takes an honest effort to convince her that the man before her is not a patient, but his twin brother.

New brain, Charles thinks sleepily. It doesn't make much sense until he lets the thought ripple and bloom into something more concrete. The powers are genetic, so whatever talent he had Matthew likely has as well, but the difference is that his mind has been trained for thirty years. It takes a psyche to absorb or to project, and Matthew, it would seem, had none.

Charles sleeps the whole way.

Someone shakes him by the shoulder and Charles startles himself awake. His childhood home looms in the distance, imposing as ever, possibly more so, when the air is biting and the surrounding trees are naked and black against the pale clouds. Charles sighs and picks himself from the back seat of the car, even as the driver opens the trunk and pulls out the wheelchair.

There is a tense moment when the man gets ready to leave and Charles can't let go of the roof, for fear of falling over, but a compromise is reached when he staggers away and signals he is fine and the car pulls away.

Then someone screeches and Charles looks up so quick his vision fails him, his head spins and he falls into the gravel, cutting his palm as he lands.

"Charles! Oh my god, Charles!"

It takes a moment, but eventually Charles' eyes focus on Moira's frantic and tearful face. "Moira," he says pleasantly. "Nice to see you." There are marks on her neck, scars left by a thin chain, and over them a thin metal band, of very strange design. He finds it hard to focus.

There are more voices around them as she envelops him in a hug, and Charles feels touched by the display, even though he is kneeling in the snow and the gravel beneath is digging into his knees.

Alex slaps his shoulder, nearly sending him sprawling. "Way to come back from the dead, Professor!" he says and laughs, and Sean yodels, which is terribly grating on the ears. Only Hank has the good grace to remain silent and help him up.

Altogether Charles has half a mind to scold them, for immediately assuming he is alive and that this is not a trick by some other mutant. Or Raven. Or another telepath out to hurt them all. How can they not be suspicious at his appearance, he wonders, but he is touched by their joy, all the same, so he allows himself finally to open up a little and brush their minds, finding there pure relief and happiness, with a faint aftertaste of terror.

"What happened?" he asks, but then something miraculous happens, something wonderful, because Raven is there, and her gasp carries all the way through the courtyard and into his mind. Charles blinks away tears and then Raven is in his arms, her skin alternatively smooth and scaly under his fingertips, her mind an ever-changing landscape of love, blue, waffles and hope. He should try to resist, he knows, but this is Raven, and he cannot help but sink into her welcome, to let her relief and wonder fill him as well, banishing the fear and worry.

"Charles," she says and there are tears in her eyes as she kisses his cheek and holds him. He sees the question in her mind before she shakes it away and grabs his hand. "Come, quickly."

He forgets briefly about the tiredness and the fact that he is about to faint when she strides barefoot over snow and gravel - the cold slides off her body like water would, he glimpses, and she walks in the snow as comfortable as she would be on a sunny beach - and pulls him behind her, to the back of the house. There is a clearing among the trees, which he recalls as being one of his favorite spots when he was young, because one needed to leap over a hedge which his mother would never do and therefore she didn't know it was there.

Now the path has been cleared and in the clearing there is a headstone. It's metallic, which is the most Charles can tell from this distance.

It is also not alone. There is a desk, and something much like a play pen, in which there is a child of about four, poking tiny snowmen with brightly colored blobs of light emanating from its fingers.

There are words on the headstone. His name, Charles realizes, and dates.

He wishes that this was a shock.

"I'm touched," he says tiredly. "But why the desk and the child?"

His vision must be swimming, because at this point the desk unravels into something very pointy and fast, and there is much screaming over his head, and the sounds somehow manage to be sharp and pointy as well, and most of it hits the inside of his skull.

"Erik!" Raven screams, "Stop it, it's really Charles!"

The world stops. Oh, the shards of metal remain in the air and somewhere the child is crying, but as far as Charles is concerned everything ceases.

"Erik?" he whispers tentatively and Erik is really there, furious, what a surprise, but there, free of the coffin-helmet. The fury and pain radiates off him, and its not even a pulse, like it usually is, but a steady stream of concentrated hatred, directed at him, because ihow dare he, how dare anyone, pretend to be Charles? When Charles is dead, when he buried Charles himself, when he lies rotting underneath the headstone./i

"Calm down," Charles half-says half-thinks, and without meaning to brings the image of the menorah and flickering flames to the forefront of his mind and projects it at Erik.

Everything stops. Everything except the child, who is still crying.

"Who is this?" Charles asks quietly.

"Her name is Jubiliation Lee," Moira says, because Erik is still staring and he doesn't seem to be capable of speech. "Erik found her in an orphanage in California."

"Oh," Charles says, and closes his eyes. He must be more tired than he thinks he is, because something is very wrong with his balance and he is on the ground, with a circle of concerned faces blocking the view of the clearing between the naked, spidery branches of the black trees. A raven looks down on him from the crown of the tree and opens its beak.

"Nevermore," Charles whispers. "I think I need to lie down," he adds, and really, there's no need for the panic, he says in his head, he is quite comfortable here, on the snow.

He blinks and he is in his own bed. Hank is leaning over him, but his head is turned towards the others, who remain by the door, as he speaks. "Professor is exhausted and dangerously underweight. He needs rest and food."

"I'm fine," Charles says and tries to get up, which is when a candelabra lifts itself from the table in the corner, twists, and pins him to the bed by the shoulders. It's a snug fit, though not uncomfortable. Charles could almost be proud.

"Thank you, Erik," he says instead, shocked at the venomous sarcasm spilling from his mouth. "But could you make it a little tighter, I think I can still breathe and I'm reasonably sure there are more spare bodies I could use in the event of sudden death."

He expects a comeback, fury, a rain of missiles or a lifelong grudge, something. Instead, Erik turns on his heel and marches out of the room, surrounded by a cloud of dark feelings Charles doesn't care to decipher, as the candelabra falls to the side of the bed in a useless, tangled heap.

"Charles," Raven says in the hush that follows, voicing the question that has been growing on everybody's minds. "What happened? How is this even possible?"

"Does anyone care?" Alex asks. "He's back, score for us, finally we won't have to skulk about the place in terror!" Sean nods vehemently. Charles can just make out the remnants of glue on his cheeks, in the shape of a piece of tape, and he knows that Erik put it there.

"The grave was undisturbed," Hank says. "And you smell different."

"I had a twin brother," Charles says tiredly, filing away Hank's comment for future investigation, because olfactory identification would be a fascinating power to have. "He was in a coma from the age of two, no higher brain functions, apparently. As it turns out, he wasn't really my brother, he was me." His eyes close. He remembers, now, talk of his early childhood, sparse though it had been. Only as nonverbal infants they were ever awake at the same time, then they would alternate and then, around their second birthday, a choice was made, and Matthew simply fell to sleep, never to wake, never to be. "All my life I've had dreams of a yellow room. Then it turned out they weren't dreams, I was waking up there, briefly seeing through Matthew's eyes."

"Is this a part of your mutation?" Moira asked, but Hank, blessed, brilliant Hank, was already ushering people out the door.

"He needs rest. If he's been in a coma for thirty years, he needs sleep, food and exercise."

Charles feels the storm cloud at the edge of his consciousness and it is raining heavily, but he's too tired and how he hates his body right now.

Then comes the realization that his body is presently six feet under a playpen, and he is so confused sleep sneaks in, unbidden.

xxxxx

There is a devil and an angel standing over him. The window admits just enough light to paint them orange. How thoughtful, Charles thinks, if a little late.

"Hello," he says cautiously. He feels the weight of their minds, the solemnity of the moment in the shapes of them. The devil is surprisingly cool to the touch, metaphorically speaking. No overt passions, just a cause to which he is currently attached. He shifts and there is another figure behind him, one much slighter than he. "Angel, pleasure to see you, as always."

"Professor," she says, inclining her head nervously. Her wings flutter against her back. The man standing on the other side of the devil - he is called Azazel, Charles remembers now - nods and his mind is a veritable hurricane of emotions and lusts, currently presided over by amusement.

They seem cautiously friendly. It is a surprise.

"Erik told us to introduce ourselves," Azazel says and grins. "Since we are now housemates."

"I'm touched. Charles Xavier," he says before he can process. "You are Azazel, Riptide, and Angel I already know."

"Yes."

"Housemates?" he inquires cautiously, when the conversation catches up with his tired mind.

"Erik invited us to stay. Congratulations on your resurrection." Azazel smirks at him and his tail lashes out behind him like that of a prowling tiger, cutting through the sunlight like a knife.

Charles is a little too thrown by the surrealism of this conversation to manage more than a weak "thank you".

There seems to be nothing left to say and they turn to leave. Angel lingers in the door and looks at him. "I'm sorry," she says.

"It's quite alright."

He falls asleep again. It seems like the best thing to do.

xxxxx

Charles is woken by a loud bang. Erik stands at the door, and before him a metal tray hovers in the air.

Charles nearly drowns in the pride that sweeps him, because the water in the glass doesn't even ripple when the tray floats his way.

"Hank says you need to eat," Erik says. The storm cloud around him is controlled now, netted in with iron ropes, which blanket the raging inferno beneath. Charles feels a pang of shame for his earlier outburst. He wants to forgive Erik, he thinks he may already have forgiven him, but he cannot let it happen just yet, even if Erik has taken the children home and made it safe for them.

"Thank you," he whispers as the tray settles on the bedside table and he struggles to sit up. There is something nagging at him, clawing at his skin from the inside and roaring to get to Erik, and this, precisely, is why he won't offer forgiveness just yet. He needs to deal with this creature, needs to eradicate it before it wrecks a tender understanding, which it will, if Charles lets himself forgive and forget too easily.

"Hank is researching physical therapy," Erik informs him. "When he is not redesigning Cerebro." He stares at the wall opposite.

Charles smiles tightly and lifts the spoon to his mouth. He spends the next five minutes coughing pathetically into a napkin. His mouth is on fire and he has a feeling he will never be capable of smelling anything, ever, because the inside of his nose has been cauterized forever.

Erik's hand is scalding on his shoulder and it might be the only thing preventing him from landing in the soup face-first.

Charles turns to him with tear-filled eyes and what a picture he must make, with his mouth half-open in an effort to quench the fire he is sure is burning him. "Hot," he manages.

"It's not. It's lukewarm."

"Too spicy."

"It's chicken soup, Charles," Erik says stiffly.

Too late does Charles remember how bland the last meal he had in the hospital was, and what it implied for the entirety of his life to date. Not his life, Matthew's.

"I got a visit from Azazel, Riptide and Angel," he says when the tray floats back and he gives the soup one more chance. This time he is ready for the flavor and manages to swallow the spoonful, even if he needs to chase it down with water. "They said you invited them to stay."

Erik studies the wall, as though it contains the secret answer to the mysteries of the universe. "It seemed only polite."

"And the little girl?"

"She was next on the list."

The third spoonful has him nearly in tears and he shoves the bowl away.

"Keep eating," Erik says and folds his hands across his chest.

"You eat it, if you're so keen." Charles says. "I'm done."

"You will eat it, or I will force-feed it to you."

"Try and I will make you sing 'twinkle, twinkle little star' to every person in this household, starting with Azazel."

Erik glares at him and opens his mouth. "Twinkle, twinkle little star," he sings, "How I wonder what you are."

He gets to the second verse before Charles starts giggling into his sleeve.

"Eat the soup," Erik says and the storm raging inside him looses some of its intensity.

Charles complies, which proves, in the long run, to be a terrible mistake on his part. It seemed innocuous at the time. Chicken soup in bed is a pleasant surprise, even if it kills him to finish the bowl - his taste buds are unused and easily excitable - so Charles lies down exhausted by the action of lifting the spoon to his mouth.

Erik stares at him as he pulls the duvet up and keeps staring, even as the tray lifts gracefully into the air and away.

"You should blink," Charles says sleepily. "It's not healthy to not blink."

Erik says nothing, but despite the raging storm within, his presence proves soothing. Charles is asleep in minutes.

xxxxx

Charles is woken around midnight by the urgent need to go to the toilet. His private bathroom is only yards from his bed, so there should be no trouble managing to get there without alerting a sympathetic crowd of onlookers. His mind drifts off briefly to the hypothetical scenario, and he wants to die a little inside when he hears the cheers and clapping when he manages to hit the bowl without drenching the bathroom in the process.

He shoves the covers off and lies still for a moment, to rest. This will not be reality, because physically he might have been a two year old in a coma for thirty years, but mentally he is a grown man who hasn't been in a coma for thirty years, and he is perfectly capable of going to the bathroom by himself.

He's starting to be able to reconcile the two versions of himself in his mind. It's easier, he supposes, when one consists of an empty, sunlit room.

The window opposite the bed is open, when it wasn't before, and Charles sighs in bliss. Someone must have opened very recently, because it is snowing and there is only the finest white dust on the floor, and only a few drops of water, when the windowsill is covered with the stuff. The smell of a winter night is sharp, biting and divine. Intellectually he knows that this is far from the first time he's smelled it, but his nostrils flare and his brain elevates the odor to entirely new levels of sublimity.

At least it seems that way, until he opens his eyes and sees a little bird skewered by his favorite pen and pinned to the tree branch.

He screams bloody murder. He blames it on the shock. He's not used to finding little dead birds outside his window.

Of course nothing is quite so simple anymore. He screams and the shock takes him a step back, which his inner ear, lazy from a lifetime of not having a job to do, doesn't handle too well, and he topples to the floor, at about the same time as the door flies off its hinges and Erik strides into the room, with murder and panic in his eyes and a four-year-old on his arm.

He is followed by everyone, except Azazel, who is suddenly standing in the corner of the bedroom. The instant he takes stock of the situation he looks amused.

"What is that?" Charles asks, and he is proud to sound only a little hysterical.

Erik glares at the window, searching for the cause of the disruption, and finds none. Charles, without thinking about it, shoves the image of the skewered bird into his mind, highlighting it with extra colors, for poignancy, not that it needs more, what with the ruffled feathers and bright blood against white snow and black tree bark.

"It's a lark," Erik says.

"Oh my god," Raven gasps. "You killed a bird! With a pen!"

"It was being loud."

A tense moment follows, during which everyone checks for the nearest metal implement and tries to move away from both it and Sean, who slaps his hands over his mouth and tries not to breathe, while keeping absolutely silent, even as their minds focus on the vehement need to be wherever Erik's not. Charles won't allow himself to sift through the memories that made it so, but he latches onto the hints that this is not news, that this is routine, that this is how things are.

He doesn't spare it much thought. He keeps glaring, instead, because there is a dead bird pinned to a tree branch outside his window and no one seems to have a problem with this, he is sitting on the floor, and his coccyx feels like it's trying to scratch the wooden floorboards through his skin and feeling deeply unhappy about not being able to.

Jubilee sticks her fingers in her mouth and Charles feels an overwhelming need to take her away from Erik and hide her under the bed, even though she seems to be perfectly content where she is.

Instead, he presses the heels of his hands into his eye-sockets and sighs.

"Could someone help me up, please?" Charles can get up. It's not hard, with the proper application of leverage. He'd need to turn a little, so that both his hands would be on the floor and then pull his legs underneath him and then scramble for something steady to hold on to, while he waited for his vertigo to relinquish its hold.

It takes a moment, during which everyone watches Erik with varying degrees of trepidation, but eventually Alex inches around the group and - all the while holding his hands awkwardly in front of him, well within Erik's field of vision, Charles can't help but notice - helps him stand up.

Charles holds on to his elbow, just in case.

The tension breaks just as soon as Erik leaves the room and everyone breathes a little more freely. It's suffocating to even be on the same planet as this man, Charles hears, it's so much worse when he's in the room.

Charles takes a cautious step back and lets go of Alex when his head asserts his position and holds on to it, without an overt balancing act.

"You okay?" Alex asks.

"Yes, thank you, I was just startled. I'm perfectly fine."

"You look tired." Raven crosses the room to peer into his eyes. Charles manages the facial expression that is the equivalent of shaking one's head, which he prefers not to try given his recent bout of falling to the floor at the slightest provocation.

"I really need to go to the bathroom," he says. "Then I think I will go back to sleep. Could one of you close the window for me?"

There are some embarrassed grins, especially from the boys, but he is left in peace.

It will be fine, Charles tells himself, leaning his forehead against the cool tiles of the bathroom. The face in the mirror is wasted, the bones seem to be only edges and hollows, stretching his skin in a grotesque mask. His eyes seem huge, in comparison to those in his memory, shining with fevered blue from the shadowed eye sockets. Charles touches the mirror, drags the pad of his finger left to right as his mirror double does the same right to left.

His hair is short. There is the hint of stubble on his face, he would need to master standing still long enough to shave, he thinks. Not tonight, he's too exhausted to bother, but soon.

Charles returns to bed and the effort it takes to pull the covers up to his chin is unbelievable. Oh well, he thinks and his eyelids drift downwards. He has time.

xxxxx

Erik wakes him. Charles knows it's morning, because the sunshine coming through the window is bright and fresh, unpolluted by the day.

"Eat," Erik says as he sits down and folds his arms.

There is a tray on Charles' knees, with toast, orange juice, eggs and jam.

"Thank you."

Erik watches him eat. Charles watches the clouds move across the rectangle of his window and tries not to notice the much darker and turbulent clouds that whirl around the bedroom ceiling, threatening unspeakable destruction should the rain be allowed to fall.

The tray lifts itself from his lap the moment he's done and Erik with it. Instead of leaving, however, the man grasps Charles' arm and pulls, until they are standing side by side.

"I was planning to get up, thank you," Charles says, but Erik is not listening.

"It's time for your therapy," he hears by way of explanation, as Erik hauls him out of his bedroom and into the adjoining sitting room, which has been stripped of the very comfortable couch and chairs, and has instead become an intellectual's gym.

"Therapy?" Charles manages, because he feels as though a strong gust of wind would topple him, never mind walking, and Erik shoves him in the direction of the bench, which has weights attached to its side.

Charles very nearly faints ten minutes into the workout (which is pathetic in of itself, he isn't even lifting anything but his own stubbornly unwieldy torso off the bench, to the tune of Erik's toneless counting). Given the way his week has been going, this should beget earnest panic, but instead Erik fetches himself a seat, gives him water, waits until the dizziness passes and then continues his chant.

Charles doesn't remember getting back into the bed, but when he wakes, some hours later, he is treated to a glass of orange juice, an aspirin, and another hour in the gym library.

Mercy is a foreign word to Erik, in any of the fifty-seven languages he speaks.

The days pass. Sometimes Erik brings the girl, Jubilee, along. She turns the pages in a cardboard book and points at various animals as Erik either nods or corrects, while Charles does his utmost not to fall over and die of exhaustion.

He learns very little during those sessions, other than Jubilee is very happy where she is, Erik is nice, the orphanage was a very drab place, and she likes this colorful house, where no one recoils in fear when lovely sparkles shoot out of her fingertips. Her little mind is a bundle of color, happiness and security and Charles shamefully picks at its edges, clinging to the comfort it offers.

The other kids are no more forthcoming with information, whether through complaints or casual conversation. Charles doesn't pry, but the sheer terror that wafts throughout the house when Erik walks the corridors is palpable. He understands that - Erik on the warpath is no less comforting than a charging nuclear tank manned by kamikazes - but he feels there are some things he should be informed of, some things should be stopped, some things should have no place in a home.

And yet, somehow, the kids choose to remain. Charles is not quite so blind to think the children are helpless, he knows they can easily find their way in the world, they had before they met him. He watches them, whenever he feels he can spare a neuron not devoted to keeping himself breathing.

He sees Erik terrorize the living daylights out of Sean; he sees the way the boy hides in any room that's open when Erik crosses the hall. He sees Erik pause by the closed door and deliver a minute-long speech on the finer points of hiding in plain sight and, incidentally, if he stopped worrying about hitting the ground, he would fly better, because a controlled fall is every bit as important as the flight itself.

He sees Alex get his plasma bolts deflected into the walls of the shelter by metal discs, he sees him on the verge of exhaustion and getting pummeled into the ground, he sees Erik hold out a hand to help him up. He sees Alex come back the next day for more.

He sees Raven, running naked through the grounds, keeping pace with Hank, even if she is exhausted by the time they round the mansion. He sees Erik look at her with pride in his eyes, he sees how she straightens when she, too, sees.

He sees Riptide and Azazel memorizing the plan of the grounds; he sees them discuss and then help Erik install metal fixtures at crucial points of what he recognizes as defenses. The metal fixtures, he realizes soon, are to Erik what a canon is to an artillerist.

He sees and he isn't sure what he thinks. Fortunately, he rarely has time to find out more, because by then Erik usually finds him and therapy commences until Charles cannot see straight.

xxxxx

"You look better by the day," Moira tells him. She fiddles with her cup of coffee, but when he goes to fix himself one, she stands and guides him back to the chair.

"I am sick of orange juice," he says petulantly, glaring at the glass she puts before him.

"Hank says you are not to have any coffee. Erik says we must listen to what Hank says, or else." Moira's hair falls over her shoulders to obscure her face. There is the line of scars on her neck again, hundreds of tiny circles in a row, and right below the smooth metal band, free of clasps or other fastenings.

"Moira," he starts and she shakes her head.

"It's fine. We all understand it's a necessity."

"How is it necessary?"

Her reflexes are better than his, and she snatches the glass from the table before he can knock it over.

"You must calm down."

"Moira!"

"He doesn't trust me to stay. Why is this such a shock to you? I'm grateful to be alive, at this point."

"He cannot, he has no right!"

"I work for the CIA, Charles. For the United States. Not for you, not for your cause. Even if I am sympathetic, I am an outsider here." She straightens up and smiles. "In any case, it is not worth bothering over."

"I'll talk to him," Charles says, desperately. "We can trust you. There's no need for that."

"But you cannot trust me, Charles." She flicks her hair over her shoulder and stares him down. "I am an agent of the CIA, which I wouldn't be, if I didn't believe in what they do. I took the oath, and my alliance to you was part of my assignment. For the good of this country, I will do what I must. The moment I'm free to leave I will report back, because I am a good agent, because I believe that what the agency does is necessary."

"Your agency tried to kill you," Charles can't help but say, but she merely shakes her head.

"My agency reacted to an unknown threat on foreign waters. Overreacted, perhaps, but I can understand that. I did that, too, when I shot you."

"But Erik…"

"We killed you, Charles." Moira returns the glass of juice to him and stares pointedly until he starts sipping. "He and I. He won't forgive himself for curving the bullet as he did, I won't forgive myself for shooting. There is nothing you can say that will make it better for either of us."

"Does it count for nothing that I am alive?"

"Through a miracle only, and not the usual medical kind. That is no excuse."

"I can't… You can't ask me to stand by and do nothing when you wear a collar about your neck, in my house. It's wrong."

Moira looks down. She is bracing herself to speak, he can tell. "You are my friend, Charles, so I need you to understand this. They will ask about you," she says. "You spooked them, when you read their minds the first time you were there. If I go back, they will ask about the telepath they can use in Cerebro to spy on people, about the device that pulled the submarine out of the water. They will ask where you are, who you are, and there would only be so much I can hold back without betraying my country's interest. So yes, there is a need for this. Until an alternative presents itself."

Charles shudders. "Moira…"

"I won't lie to you and say I don't mind," she says and smiles. "It would be pointless. However, I need you to understand that after everything that happened, this was my choice, not Erik's."

She leaves him alone in the dining room, staring off into space.

xxxxx

It is late in the evening when he runs into a girl of about fifteen in the corridor. Charles pauses, only partly because he needs to catch his breath.

"Hello," he says kindly. "I don't believe we have met."

"I'm Naiad," she says. Her palms are scarred, probably by fire, which failed to remove the fine webbing between her fingers, and there are twin lines on either side of her throat. Charles would think these were scars, too, were it not for the fact that as he looks the skin flaps, as though moved by breathing.

"Remarkable," he says. "Are those gills?"

"Yes, they are."

"It's astounding! You can breathe underwater, then?"

She nods, enthusiastically, and Charles feels the mental tally he has of all the different mutations, and possible future ones to consider, expand. It is remarkable and it is heady, the knowledge of all the things he has yet to discover, of the people he has yet to meet, the wondrous potential the human race holds.

"How did you get here, if you don't mind me asking?" he asks, because soon he will have to retire and this is one other thing he desperately needs to know before he does.

"I was working with my brother in a water park," she says. "With the dolphins. He's a mutant too, only he can't breathe underwater. Mr Erik found us. Said we'd be safe here, until we could be safe everywhere."

Charles hears the speech Erik made as loudly as though he was present for it. It's considerably tamer than what he expected, but the undertone makes his hackles rise. This girl is at peace, though, so he fixes the smile on his face as she asks about his mutation and, when she politely excuses herself (her brother is paranoid, she says, but then they were living in fear of people noticing that they were different), he turns on his heel and makes a beeline for the kitchen.

The beeline, of course, feels like a marathon and requires pit stops, during which Charles leans against a wall and wheezes. Finally he collapses on a kitchen chair and rests there, until his legs stop shaking and he chances a search of the room.

Someone has taken all the alcohol, he discovers after the arduous trek. The fridge usually had at least a few beers, there ought to be vodka in the freezer and a couple of bottles of cheap whiskey in the cupboards, a legacy of Mrs Cook, the cook, who imbibed whenever the occasion presented itself and often when it didn't. There was nothing of the sort here now.

"Goddamn it!"

In retrospect, Charles thinks as he slides onto the floor, with the fridge as his sole support, kicking the offending piece of furniture has been a mistake.

"Professor?"

Something large is blocking the light. Charles squints and makes out the shape of Hank.

"Are you alright?" Hank asks and crouches before him.

"Hank," Charles says and sighs. He doesn't want to know. He doesn't. He wishes he could erase the day from his memory. "I just met a girl called Naiad. She lives here, apparently, because Erik invited her and her brother."

Hank doesn't move. "She does. Her brother's name is Will. I'm not sure if it's his actual name, or a pseudonym. They mostly keep to themselves, they are very young."

"How many other surprises await me?"

Hank scratches his head. "There are no more new mutants living here, if that's what you wish to know. Just the three. There have been a few other children, but Erik left them with their parents. One was very old and didn't want to leave his home."

Charles closes his eyes. "Erik went recruiting mutants."

He senses a nod. It is a little different from seeing the nod.

"Why?"

Hank hesitates and Charles looks at him. Glares, even.

"He held you after you were shot," he says quietly, struggling to form a coherent reply, because - Charles sees this quite clearly - he doesn't understand it himself. "After you died, he just… Asked. Politely. Azazel took us all home. There was a funeral. He still plans, I think. This is why Moira isn't allowed to leave."

"I need a drink."

"I don't think it's a good idea, Professor," Hank starts, "You are considerably thinner than you used to be, and…"

Charles glares. "Hank, I am fully conscious of the fact that when I invited you to stay I have invited you to make this house your own. I want it to be your home, all of you. But so help me, this is my home too, and tonight I really need a drink."

There is a little too much irritation in his voice, but it seems to work, as Hank stands (gracefully - he became so graceful when his formula enhanced his mutation) and goes into the pantry. He returns moments later with a couple of bottles of chilled beer, which he pours into glasses.

The fizz confuses Charles for a few moments, before he remembers the trick to letting the bubbles burst on the back of his tongue. It flows considerably smoother after that. He drains half the beer in what he wishes was one gulp, but it seems his talents in that department need practice, too.

When he finishes the glass he skewers Hank with a look that usually sends students fleeing.

"What happened?" He keeps his voice low and urgent. He hasn't been a great example thus far, fleeing from the answers, fleeing from the truth, but no more. He needs to know.

The beach flickers through Hank's mind, even as he tries to push it down and drown the memory in beer.

"You bled out," he says in the end. "We're not sure how it happened, exactly, it was so fast, but Moira started shooting at Erik and he kind of swatted at the air and a bullet went through your neck. You- you were in shock, I think. Erik held you and I don't know, I think you said something, but no one heard."

Charles waits. He thought he didn't want to know, but now he can't draw a breath, can't make himself move, cannot think, as he waits for the answer to the question that's been plaguing his mind.

"The missiles fell into the ocean," Hank says, quite possibly saving Charles' life with only a handful of words. "And Erik hasn't been right since. He tried, I think, but he's been not fully there. Not whole."

"What do you mean, not whole?"

"He is going to kill me for this," Hank says, resigned.

"Has he actually killed anyone for talking?" Charles tries to be helpful and teasing, he does, but Hank winces.

"Not kill as such, no, but there have been incidents." Hank said incidents like he said there has been a situation in the laboratory, like something caught fire and the fire had since turned into a bigger fire, which gained sapience and periodically exploded. Which never happened, not as such, but it remained a possibility.

"Erik hurt someone?" Charles says slowly, and his heart hitches up and lodges in his throat, messing with the way he inhales, messing with his thoughts.

"Riptide made a comment about you. We, uh. It took us an hour to cut him out of the debris. Which is also why your Bentley is no longer in the garage."

Charles is sure the room is spinning around him, even as he bullies poor Hank into a refill. He liked the Bentley. "Erik wrapped a car around someone, for making a comment?"

"I'm not quite sure what it was he said, to be honest. But he wasn't hurt too badly. And not permanently. He screamed, and Erik stopped."

"That's all?"

Hank stares at the foam in his glass. "We were a little afraid to try anything more. We hoped that you would, you know."

"That I would what?"

"Calm him down." Hank ducks his head and Charles feels the need to put his hand on his neck and pet him. He wonders how the fur would feel on his fingers.

"Oh, that's just wonderful," Charles says, even as the bubbles return with a vengeance and he burps. "So it's not enough to die uncomfortably and somehow come back to life, no, I have to nurse Erik to health, too. Because he is emotionally fragile. Well, Hank, my boy, let me tell you, this is not fair."

"Professor…"

"No, it really isn't. Contrary to popular belief dying is not easy, nor is it fun. It hurts. It's dark and it's cold and I really would like some comforting from the lot of you, or at least shock. I was in shock when I woke up, and I was there. Is a moderate amount of surprise too much to ask for? Oh, I understand that this is America's prime spot for the unusual these days, that Azazel alone makes it supernatural central, but it is not everyday people come back to life, or to be more precise, turn out to have had two bodies all along. Which is only a little strange, as far as strange happening go. Is it strange to you? I mean, obviously, you are not exactly pedestrian yourself, what with that remarkable brain of yours, honestly, the things you get up to in that lab! It's truly astounding. Did you make any discoveries while I was in the process of being less dead then anticipated?" Charles blinks at Hank, finding him very confused. "Speaking of death, why is there a desk on my grave? Not that I mind, mind, it's a very nice grave, you chose my favorite spot, I certainly don't mind being dead there, but why the desk? Why the playpen?"

"Ah," Hank says and tries (unsuccessfully) to wrestle the glass from Charles' hand. "The desk is there because Erik likes working there. He usually takes Jubilee along, hence the playpen, as she likes him best out of all of us."

What he doesn't say is that he is a close second, as Jubilee finds him fluffy and warm and alive, therefore superior to her stuffed bear. Charles picks up the thought before he can catch himself and it is amazing how warm it is.

"That's good!"

"Professor, I think-"

"I always wanted my grave to be useful for something," Charles confesses. "I understand it is very hubristic of me, don't get me wrong. I was rather hoping for a Nobel prize, or Xavier prize, as it were, but I guess a playpen is just as good. At least someone is happy there."

Hank coughs.

Charles looks to the ceiling, then back at the frowning feline face. "Erik works on my grave?"

"Ah. Yes. We tried to persuade him to move indoors, but it was difficult enough just to get him to bury you." Behind his eyes Hank reviews the memory, of Erik, keeping everyone else at bay, watching the unnervingly familiar corpse laid out in the little clearing. He remembers, or Hank remembers, the bits and pieces of metal floating around him, around them, stopping everyone from approaching as Erik sat unmoving, barely even noticing when day turned into night.

In the end Raven morphed into Charles, and the likeness in Hank's memory was fascinatingly accurate, Charles had to admit, though it very nearly cost her her head, when Erik woke enough to see what was in front of him and lashed out.

"That's worrying," Charles says and watches the lights overhead. He never noticed how poorly lit the kitchen was. The few light bulbs hovering overhead were a standing testimony to his mother's belief that kitchens were for servants and decor was a thing wasted on them. He would need to do something about this, do something soon. "Inability to let go can be a sign of underlying mental problems. Unresolved issues."

"A little worrying, yes." Hank's head is hanging beneath the line of his shoulders and Charles watches the fine fluff on his nape. It's blue and looks downy.

It is feathery soft, he discovers. "It's so fluffy!" he says, fascinated at the way the hair slips between his fingers, even though Hank goes stiff from shock and is watching him with an expression of utmost disbelief on his face.

The door of the kitchen swings open of its own volition just as Charles' fingers trail lightly to Hank's ear and back to the nape of his neck. "So. Fluffy!" he says, delighted at the turn of events. "Erik! Look how fluffy Hank is! Isn't fluffy a groovy word? We should absolutely use it more often. Fluffy! Beer is fluffy, too. Hank is fluffy! Which is also adorable."

"What?" Erik grinds out, glaring at Hank. Charles hears a rumble and the whole of the kitchen shakes, the metal thrums, the parts that aren't metal stand close to something that is and the entire room is vibrating.

"No, you don't," Hank says, unexpectedly, and his mind reforms from the usual racetrack of little wooly sheep, powered by nuclear cores, into a clock of metal and diamond and hard edges and crackling electricity. He gets up and somehow Charles is on his feet as well, and then he is leaning against Erik, who is a very bad pillar of support, considering, with the smell of cologne and washing powder and a light sheen of sweat. Charles wants to bury himself in the smell, even as a part of him screeches in panic. "Take him to bed, and for god's sake, talk it out already! You think it's fun for us, walking on eggshells, while you stalk about like you are about to kill anyone who looks at you wrong? It's not! You ruin the electrical installation while you walk! I've had to rewire the salon twice already and I am out of copper wires at the moment. So, no, you don't get to skewer me right now, you get to take the Professor upstairs, talk and get over yourself!"

Erik watches him with, what Charles knows, by looking at his mind, is a metaphorical open mouth. He can't help the giggle. Hank has come a long way.

"What did you give him?" Raven asks as her fingers dance before Charles' eyes.

Hank grimaces. "He really wanted a beer."

"You gave him alcohol?" Moira looks shocked. She is funny when she is shocked. Her mind turns pink and hedgehog-y. "You said he shouldn't even have coffee!"

"Bad idea, I know it now. But it was only a beer, and I watered it down."

"He got this drunk on a single beer?"

"He weighs what, a hundred and twenty pounds? At most? And he's never had alcohol before, if you think about it," Hank shrugs and his guilt smells like ginger to Charles. "Now, excuse me, I think I need to leave before I get a fridge wrapped around me. Seeing as I'm the only one who even knows what a plasma cutter is, I don't think we should risk it." He turns on his heel and runs, before Erik can change his mind about the fridge and it is a very close thing. Charles watches, enthralled, as the fridge inches from its place, how its movement corresponds to the bursts of raw emotion, so tangled he cannot even decipher what it is, which Erik's mind lets out.

"Raven!" Charles beams at his sister meanwhile and pokes her scaly face. "Did you know your scales are positioned similarly to the patterns on the exotic fish we used to have in the garden? I think I should remember the name. It was in Latin. They were very colorful. Swimming up and down the pond. Also, did you know the blue looks really good on you? You should wear blue more often. It's pretty!"

"Charles, did you perhaps entertain the possibility that you may be a little drunk?" Raven asks gently and Charles scoffs.

"Ridiculous. I only had a couple of beers. That's hardly enough to get me drunk. Besides, I am not slurring my words, am I?" His traitorous feet choose that moment to fail him and he staggers into the nearest person, who turns out to be tall and red. Charles gives in to momentary incomprehension but then he remembers Bugs the Bunny. "Did you know you look like a cartoon devil?" he says. "You even have a tail. It's so groovy. Tails are super groovy. It's got to be really useful. It is, isn't it? I saw you fight, or I saw someone who saw you fight, I can't remember." Charles watches the tip of the tail swing as he tries to untangle the memory and find the culprit. "It's prehensile, too."

Azazel is giving someone a look over Charles' shoulder and he is smirking, which Charles finds fascinating, because bone structure! Red, actually red, skin! The mutation possibilities are endless! The tail, swishing back and forth and someone grabs Charles' elbow.

"You are going to bed," Erik says in that tightly controlled way of his.

Charles doesn't argue. He doesn't want cars wrapped around him, even if it does sound like a fun way to spend an afternoon. He might possibly be a little drunk. Maybe. He doesn't fully comprehend why, but it seems like a plausible explanation for the fact that the floor is uneven and is swaying gently as he walks.

"Did you install a sea floor by any chance?" he asks when the hardwood persists to meet his feet in unexpected places. "It seems odd to me. It's moving."

"You are drunk," Erik says.

"Maybe a little." Charles focuses but the gale raging through Erik and consequently through the house upsets his balance.

It is a bad idea, a part of him says as they reach his bedroom and the storm shows no signs of stopping, but Charles shoves that part underwater and lays his palm on the side of Erik's face. "You need to calm down," he says out loud and in his mind, sending the words spiraling on a gentle wind into the eye of the storm. It is gratifying to see the dark clouds shift minutely and open up.

The success instantly becomes a disaster, when Charles glimpses what lies beyond, because what he finds is an abyss.

Alright, so he is drunk. He is prone to overreaction. He still doesn't think he should be drunk, he didn't drink a whole lot, but as far as excuses go, finding the abyss of death in his friend's mind is one of the best.

He pulls Erik's head to touch their foreheads together and ipushes/i until the torrent of his mind blankets the protests of Erik's. He casts himself into the abyss, grasping at its edges, because it is death and annihilation, but it cannot harm him while he's on solid ground, it cannot touch him and he is stronger than it, he is alive and he has nothing to fear. He feels the wood underneath his feet and the warm skin beneath his hands, he feels Erik's breath on his face and though his head is swimming his mind is careful, precise.

He can't close it fully. He can't make it disappear. But Erik stops resisting, at least, and when he does Charles shows him how to have it fold in on itself, until it is no longer occupying the forefront of his thoughts. He can direct the storm to its fringes, so that it no longer fills the emptiness with rage, because it doesn't need to.

There is a sound, something much like a sob, but it can't be a sob because that requires for a throat to hitch and Charles is certain that neither of them does anything but breathe calmly.

"Charles," Erik says, and Charles sways on his feet.

"I swear it was an accident," he says when he finds himself in Erik's embrace. "I'm prone to accidents. I don't think it means I'm turning into a Victorian-era heroine, despite the swooning."

"You're drunk," Erik simply says - god, this is embarrassing - picks him up and deposits him on the bed.

Charles discovers, with no surprise whatsoever, that his hand is tangled in Erik's turtleneck and that it would take the breaking of bones to untangle it. He is fine with that. He is very fine with the fact that Erik sighs and doesn't resist, but carefully lies down beside him, and he shouldn't feel this comfortable next to a man who was the cause of him living through death twice, but he does.

He shouldn't feel this comfortable lying next to a iman/i, period.

"You know dying is not a pleasant affair," he says and it is a brilliant bedtime conversation starter. "But it isn't horrible, either. There's the point when you teeter on the edge and then another when you just fall and it's all there is to it. No horror, just free-fall."

"It is horror, when I stand on the edge and watch you fall."

Erik stares at the ceiling and very pointedly does not look at Charles, who cannot, for the life of him, tear his eyes away.

"What happened?" he asks quietly. The alcohol he exiles to the edges of his mind, until he is alone and sober in the middle. "Erik, what happened?"

"You held on, is what happened. To me. In my head. You died in my mind, you made me watch your death from the inside."

Charles takes the words in. He writes them across the canvas in his head, to see them in print, in person. The printed word has a physicality to it, makes the words more real. Makes the concept behind it more real.

"Oh, my friend," he whispers, and it is instinct that makes him press his body against Erik's. "I am so sorry."

He remembers very little and what he does remember is half real, half what his fevered mind concocted to help him deal with the reality of death. He remembers Erik, anguished above him and he remembers the helmet, which was like death in itself. He remembers the helmet disappearing and Erik's mind latching onto his and then the darkness encroaching on them both.

He feels shame pouring into him, thick, hot, viscous. He should have been better than that.

"I'm so sorry," he says again. "I shouldn't have put you through that."

Erik says nothing for the longest time, long enough for Charles to remember more of the day. "Oh dear lord. The others - please tell me I didn't also do it to the others."

"You didn't. It was just me."

No reaction would be the right one, so Charles says nothing. He closes his eyes and turns his face into Erik's shoulder. The steady flow of his thoughts washes over him, fragments of memories he could piece into something bigger but doesn't have the energy to. He's content to have them floating past, kissing at his skin.

"Don't leave," he begs when he feels the sleep beginning to take hold, even though Erik makes no move to vacate the bed. "Please don't leave me."

He gets no reply.

xxxxx

To say the hangover takes him by surprise would be like saying Erik had an unpleasant childhood. It waits patiently in the corner of the room, biding its time, until Charles opens his eyes, naive and trusting, ready to start the new day, at which time it pounces, biting into his throat with the savage brutality of a vampiric rhinoceros.

Fortunately, there is a glass of orange juice and aspirin by the bed.

Unfortunately, the aspirin is encased in unbreakable metal foil and the glass may well weigh a ton. Charles is not looking forward to sucking the juice out of his pillow so he lies back down and tries to think about light things, like ice-cream and bunnies, until the hangover gives up and goes away.

Then someone parks a tank outside his door and shoots three grenades into it.

"Charles?" Raven calls. "I brought you breakfast."

"Can't move," he whimpers. "My head hurts."

"Did you take the aspirin?" She settles on the edge of the bed balancing the tray on one hand.

"Too heavy."

"Stop being such a baby." The foil creases and breaks in her deft hands. Charles swallows the pills and gratefully downs the orange juice, with her help.

"You're a lifesaver," he says, even if the actual saving has yet to happen through the magic of chemistry, when she patiently feeds him pieces of toast. "You're the best sister ever."

"It's not the first time I've nursed your hangover."

"Not so loud." Charles shields his eyes, just enough to block out most of the glaring light, but he watches her through his fingers. "You look happier. You look… wonderful." She really, truly does look wonderful nude, even if the nudity makes him fix his gaze on her face and not stray, because blood or no blood, this is his sister. She smiles easily, her eyes are bright and her mind is sprawling, for a lack of a better world, no longer guarded, no longer hidden or unsure.

"I'm me," she says.

Charles feels a pang of grief.

"Is Erik alright?" he asks as he chews on the last piece of toast and Raven sets the tray aside.

"He is calmer, I think. He's in the drawing room with Jubilee." She means to ask more and Charles waits for it, patiently. "Did you speak? What happened?"

"I nearly killed him," he says. It's all he can manage at the moment.

Raven looks at him fearfully, but doesn't ask. She helps him stand, or to be more precise she lifts him out of the bed by his elbows, like he was a child. She is so much stronger than he ever was, Charles realizes, and wonders, for the first time, whether she has ever needed him.

It's painful to realize that she hasn't.

Raven doesn't say a word as she deposits him in front of the closed door to the drawing room, and leaves him there alone, to catch his breath and wince, as the headache clings to his shoulders and swats at his head every time he tried to turn it.

He doesn't knock. He figures the amount of time it takes him to turn the knob is warning enough.

Erik is reading a book. At his feet Jubilee is marching a doll up a house of blocks. She mumbles to herself, a string of words that aren't quite words, but which color the story happening here and Charles smiles as she looks up and her round face lights up and a fleet of sparkles emerge from her fingertips in a miniature fireworks display.

"She helps, doesn't she?" he says quietly. "Children are so easy to be around."

Erik shrugs and turns a page.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am," Charles says. "I never meant to hurt you. I never… Erik."

"One would imagine the score is settled now. I killed you, you dragged your death into my head in retaliation. Seems fair."

"It's not." Charles seats himself on the sofa leaning against Erik and the backrest in equal measure. He pretends not to notice the flinch. "I had no right." Then, as an afterthought, "You didn't kill me. It was an accident."

"I thought you infected me with your telepathy, for a time." Erik folds the book on his lap and stares ahead. "I could barely stand to look at them all, because I could see their pity and their fear. They looked at me and frankly the abyss was better than them.

"And I couldn't even leave." He hesitates, but doesn't turn. Charles glances at the wall, but it remains devoid of the great mysteries of life. Maybe there's a particularly curious cable arrangement within, you never knew in those old houses. "I couldn't leave. You were gone and I couldn't leave."

Charles closes his eyes.

"It wasn't for lack of trying. I tried leaving once, when I thought they would suffocate me, but it was worse when I wasn't here. I was alone all of my life, and I couldn't be away from here for more than a few hours, before it started to swallow me up." Erik starts shaking. The book creases in his hands and Charles removes it. "Why? I'm not afraid of death. I have been to hell, Charles, I have seen the bowels of hell, why should death scare me?"

He has no answer.

Erik glares at the floor, then at Charles, as though a new idea occurred to him. "Why didn't it affect you? How can you hold a man through his death and walk away unscathed? You're the telepath, you should be the one writhing in existential pain, not me, and yet you walked out after Shaw like it was nothing."

"It wasn't mine. I was there, but I was on the plane, too, with Raven and the others. It couldn't touch me." It is only a small lie. He wasn't untouched by Shaw's death, but then he had been expecting it, and when it came it was a breathless relief, when holding the man still was agony. "Erik…"

"I hate you," Erik says. "Like I never hated him. He took from me everything I had, he made me into what I am, but you took away everything I chose to hold on to and you broke me. How can I not hate you?"

"Hate me," Charles says lightly. His head feels strange. The bubbles are only now rising to the surface and he is floating on the foam in the glass. The room seems oddly bright all of sudden and it hurts his eyes, even as Erik leans forward, just an inch, and his face shields Charles from most of the light.

His scent invades Charles' nostrils, worming underneath his skin, until it is everywhere and there is no way to remove it, but it doesn't rest, it invades his mind, too, until he wishes it would never go, until it is a part of him.

It is most inappropriate, Charles thinks.

Erik's mind is shaped like a giant, wordless "Shut up, Charles," which is a very odd shape to consider in the real world, but when it is only them within their own heads, it makes perfect sense.

He is a little dizzy, in a way that has nothing to do with alcohol.

He is also ravenously hungry. The thought of food makes him queasy. He wants to run, he wants to jump, he wants it to rain, just so he can stand outside with his mouth open and feel the water on his body. He wants the sun and the snow and everything in between.

He stays still throughout it all. He's not sure which want is his and that makes it impossible to move, because if he can't tell what's his, then he can't tell what's real, and what is he, then?

"Charles," Erik says and his so close that when he speaks it is as though the words are flung against Charles' mouth.

He draws away, as much as he can. His cheeks are burning and somewhere inside he hopes that Erik would do it, that he would lean in and kiss him and he hates himself for thinking that. "I'm sorry," he says. "I shouldn't be this confused."

"You shouldn't be a lot of things."

Something tugs at him, calls to him outside. Jubilee is staring at him curiously, her chubby fingers slippery all the way to her palm, where she stuffed them into her tiny red mouth.

"What is it?" Charles asks quietly. Erik's hand on the back of his neck burns like hot coal.

"Can I paint?" she asks.

Charles is inclined to say yes, but he isn't sure he can move. He isn't sure if he wants to move, even though he wants to, because it isn't right, to be so tangled in Erik, to be so close they would kiss if either of them moved an inch. "There should be paper in the drawers of the desk," he says. "Maybe a pencil, too."

Jubilee nods and waddles across the room. It takes her a few minutes to work the first drawer open until she comes up with a pad of lined paper and a pencil. Charles resolves to buy some crayons the moment he is capable of moving again. With any luck he will get some before Jubilee starts high school.

xxxxx

Erik doesn't forget about the therapy that day. Charles sleeps for twelve hours afterwards, and would gladly sleep for twelve more, because when he wakes Erik is beside him, asleep. He is fully dressed and he is lying on top of the covers, but he is there, and Charles doesn't know if he should cheer or panic and cry foul.

He doesn't think he imagines the toasting going on in the kitchen.

xxxxx

Somehow, Erik gets more paranoid as the time goes on. This takes everybody by surprise, as they had all imagined wrapping cars around people is as far as paranoia goes. Charles says nothing when he finds out about the midnight drills (to which he is never invited), the mandatory marathon sessions around the property (which, again, he is not invited to, and only knows about because Jubilee needs watching), the regime of honing abilities, which leaves smoking holes in the grounds (courtesy of Alex), frightens the squirrels away (Sean), calls the squirrels right back (Will), alternatively arouses the population and makes them gag (Raven, dear lord, Raven). Erik for his part makes an honest effort to learn about the electrical installations and thus spends a lot of time with Hank, so that the wires now strain towards him when he walks past, instead of tangling, which is only a nominal improvement.

"Well, at least they are not breaking," Hank says. Jubilee squeals from her perch on his shoulders. "Which hopefully ensures no blackouts."

There's a sheet of paper spread before him, taking up the entire desk, and Hank studies it carefully. "It shouldn't take more than a month," he says.

"Only that? How long did it take to build it in the first place?" Charles folds his arms across his chest. His ribs get in the way, even through the shirt and the sweater. He winces and puts them on the edge of the desk, instead. He hates the feel of his wasted chest, hates the inability to run, or even walk at a brisk pace.

"A year, at least until we discovered it takes advanced mental capabilities none of us had, none of us imagined anyone had. Then it was another before you came along."

Charles nods, already lost in thoughts. Cerebro will prove useful. If Naiad and Will were any indication, there were kids out there who needed a safe home, or even just the knowledge that such a place existed. He remembers the hundred of minds he seen in the first Cerebro and he aches to feel them again, to know that they are not alone. "Do we have everything we need?"

"Not by a long shot, no. But Azazel and I got the parts that would be hardest to come by from the old Cerebro, the rest we will pick up somehow. It shouldn't be too hard. I estimate it would take about five weeks to have it operational."

"There's no need to rush," Charles says genially. Hank is fascinating to watch as he bends over the schematics, the little girl squealing on his shoulders, and just talks freely about the connections, boosters, cables, about the software he needs to wrestle into submission, the lasers and the electromagnetic fields.

Charles only understands about half of what he is saying, and even then it is only the words, not the technology they signify, but that doesn't matter.

"You know, it has been good for you," he says when Hank pauses.

"What has been good for me?"

"The transformation. You are more certain now. You have no doubts about who you are."

"Because there can no longer be doubts." There is a note of bitterness in Hank's voice and his hands curl against his sides.

"No," Charles says and puts his hand on Hank's shoulder. "You are a scientist, Hank. You are brilliant at what you do, you love what you do, you are proud of it. And now, finally, you let it show, without apologizing. It is most heartening to see."

Hank looks at him. Words crowd at the forefront of his mind, angry words, frustrated exclamations, everything. Charles waits. "Erik did say that," he says in the end. "I'm not so sure." But somewhere, beyond the cogwheels and the springs, there is the seed of acceptance, even though it feels a little like resignation. Charles smiles. It is only a matter of time before it sprouts and then Hank will be unbeatable.

"Erik does make a good point, every once in a while." Charles sighs. "Then of course he tries to kill people by the boatload, which rather negates most of his opinions."

"To be fair those boatloads were trying to kill us at the time."

Jubilee lets out a happy yip and tugs on Hank's fur.

"Not you too," Charles says. "I take it I'm alone in thinking we shouldn't try to kill everyone who isn't lucky enough to be a mutant?"

"Even if we tried, that would be very hard to achieve," Hank says. Something in his mind flickers, shifts, and though his tone remains sober Charles realizes he is being teased. "I did work out an algorithm that should allow for maximum death toll in least possible time."

"And?"

"Approximately twenty-seven years, assuming no significant improvement of abilities - this is mostly regarding Erik, Janos and Alex, possibly Sean, as the rest of us are unable to contribute to mass murder in comparison - and full dedication, but of course the planet would be in a very sorry state afterwards. A more reasonable approach would take anywhere from fifty-eight to three hundred years, depending on how we define mutations and just how much personal time we would intend to devote to it."

"I see. And you have figured this out just to have something to do over lunch?"

Hank hunches his shoulders, which Jubilee greets with a merry laugh. "No. I, uh. I was pointing out flaws in Erik's line of thinking."

Charles considers commenting. He finds himself speechless.

"I think he is over it, mostly, if that helps any."

There is a wealth of meaning in the casual "mostly", one that Charles is certain he doesn't like. It worries him. A lot of things worry him, surprisingly.

It is not so surprising that most of those things have to do with Erik.

He hides after his talk with Hank is finished. He climbs to the attic, which takes him half an hour, and hides in the highest room, where the dust is so thick the light is a palpable presence. Thoughts don't exist up here, a curiosity of time-space, Charles believes, which is why he occasionally comes up here to think. Here he is a frightened child, who can sense people's thoughts from twenty feet away, he is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood and a man, who's come into his own and is at peace with the world and himself, and it was so ever since he was seven and first discovered this timeless place.

His mother doesn't come here, the maid considers it her duty to once a month give it a cursory sweep, but other than that he is alone. He will always be alone here.

Here he is just Charlie.

He sinks to the dusty floor - there hasn't been a maid in the house for years - and hugs his legs to his chest. He is so thin he should manage to wrap his arms around his knees twice, but the joints ache, and so he holds himself in a loose circle, only enough to huddle for warmth.

He has lost, he thinks grimly. Lost before he even began to fight. The children are following Erik now, resigned to his vision of the world, which hates them and needs subduing. Even if he chose to fight, he wasn't sure he would be able to, not when Erik's very presence throws his mind askew, when he can't think about anything but kissing him when they stand too close.

Erik doesn't even look feminine, which would make this somewhat understandable. But no, Charles has to concede that he does want to touch and kiss Erik and that he is a man and it is… frankly it is a little upsetting.

xxxxx

Dust dances before his eyes as he wakes, carried on his breath. Charles sits up, hating the way his arms shake and fail to reliably support him. He startles when a thunderclap shatters the fragile peace and his hands crumble underneath him, sending him back to the floor.

He glares at the pathetic sticks he is forced to wield as limbs currently and, though he could swear the thought has never occurred to him before, he wishes Matthew Xavier had never been born.

The truth of it shocks him.

Perhaps it would have been simpler, he thinks. They are certainly getting on without him, no less happy and safe. Erik looks after them. Erik sees to it that they remain safe.

He really isn't necessary here.

"This is idiocy," he tells himself out loud, and reaches for the stray chair to help himself into a standing position. He wavers, but Erik's regime of terror hasn't been without merit. He still looks like a starved stray, but at least he can traverse his own home without needing to rest on every landing.

He exits the attic closing the door behind him. The latch clicks shut with a long-suffering sigh, unused to exertion.

He'll be the first to discredit the notion of memories tied to objects. No, whatever the mind picks up at a touch originates within, and his finds the worn brass a comfort. He holds on to the doorknob. To him it is what the touch of mother's arms is to other children. To him, the room is Charlie's beloved blanket and playroom, unlike the bedroom, which has only ever been Charles'.

He makes his way downstairs mindless of the dust in his thankfully re-grown hair - if nothing else, at least his hair still looks healthy. He yawns as he opens the door to the living room and makes a vague waving motion to indicate a greeting.

A few heads turn from the TV and he is treated to welcoming smiles. The rest of them are hilariously engrossed in the show. Charles watches the progress with some confusion, but then again he is baffled by most shows. Erik raises an eyebrow at him and the corner of his mouth tilts. They stare at one another for a moment, searching perhaps for words, for reason. At least Charles knows that's what he is doing, and failing.

There's no reason in it, just feeling.

Charles ducks his head, certain that there is a flush on his face, and watches his palms as his insides unfold and he feels warmth. Nothing else, just that. He smiles at his hands and basks in the glorious feeling for a moment. This is the first time this living room was ever warm in his memory.

His consciousness flickers then, expands, searching for the others. Jubilee is in her crib, soundly asleep. Two rooms down from her there are Naiad and Will, both on the verge of sleep, but resisting it for the time being, because there still are secrets to share. Charles ensures they feel comfortable, but doesn't intrude any further.

Azazel and Riptide are in the kitchen, toasting the end of the final coil of barbed wire, which they were distributing evenly around the mansion, as a good job done, even as another lightning bolt strikes home not too far from the house and Charles sees, in striking clarity, twenty men ghosting through the mansion, quiet as ghosts and just as transparent.

He is on his feet before he can think about it. "Intruders!" he hisses, and in an instant the TV is off and everyone present turns to the door.

The glass of the window shatters, the doors bangs against the wall and cold, foreign minds invade the bubble of warmth.

"No, don't!" he yells, but everything in the room that is metal shakes, there is a flash of red from where Alex is standing, still small and controlled, but unmistakably there, ready to rip forth and cut the attackers down. In the opposite corner smoke billows and Azazel straightens, ready for battle, with his hand on Riptide's shoulder, whiskey glasses still in their hands.

The fingers that were too close to the triggers of the guns tighten and Charles experiences a moment then, when the world curls around him like a soap bubble. A touch, a whisper will burst it and then time will start again and people will die, in this house that he hoped would be safe, would be the haven for all those who need a haven.

"No," he says, the bubble burst and everything stops.

Erik freezes with his hand extended to the head of the squad. A letter opener stops inches from the man's forehead and falls to the floor.

Charles breathes in and feels the heartbeats thrumming in his head and focuses on those he does not yet know. Twenty. Twenty men. Twenty minds, twenty souls surging through his bloodstream, twenty very different lives circling through his vision.

They have come to their death tonight, and they know it.

Charles sinks to the floor clutching his head, gasping for breath as the pounding on the inside of his skull begins, insistent like the drums, but louder, bereft of melody, only the dreaded rhythm, boom, boom, stick against bone.

It isn't fair, he tells himself.

Agent Stryker has a young son at home. Agent Buchs takes care of his elderly parents. Agent Kinnley has a mistress, which his wife pretends to ignore, because his two sons adore him.

Moira recognizes some of them.

Azazel harbors no particular ill-will towards anybody, he'd just as well be tending the roses in the garden, but he will kill to preserve himself, preserve them, without hesitation and without remorse.

Raven cries inside, but she is determined and she knows her way around a knife now.

Hank, Alex, even Sean…

Charles is crying. He can't help it. His throat is closing up and he cannot breathe for it, and he pushes against the memories, against the foreign minds, but doesn't release them, or anybody, just yet. This isn't what he hoped for, this isn't the future he planned, he wished for, he imagined. He will hold them still, because he is not ready, he cannot choose, they have no right to make him do this. It's not fair.

He bows, until his forehead is against the floor and the room remains frozen in time around him. The illusion is perfect, but for the billowing curtains and the occasional flash of lightning.

There is a way out of this, he tells himself. He can hold them, of this he has no doubt, he can make them the perfect living statues to fill his empty home, until it all shatters and crashes around him with ferocity previously only encountered in atomic bombs.

When he stands, at last, he is resolute.

"There will be no killing in this house," he says. He is quiet. There is no need to shout, when he can send the words directly into the cerebral cortices of any of their minds.

They listen. He knows they listen. He leaves them no choice.

He turns and walks to the leader of the squad, plucks the gun from his hands and lays his palm on the man's temple. There are few enough memories. The sudden disappearance of Cerebro's parts did not escape the attention of the Agency, which, in turn resulted in the Agent Stryker at their doorstep. He had been given orders. Simple orders. Track down, disable, kill only if necessary, report back.

This is a decent man. A good agent. He followed the tracks diligently, he located the target. His intention was to serve his country, no more. He thinks they are freaks of nature, of course, but has no ill will. He has seen what they can do, however, has seen them train - the grounds are not so vast a pair of binoculars keeps them out of sight always - and he knows the best chance of bringing anyone back is unconscious.

There are syringes in his belt and a vehicle converted into an ambulance, because the man is not quite so foolish to assume there will be no wound to tend to.

In fact, Charles discovers, a little mortified, the man is a little too smart. A lesser mind would have risked coming in with a smaller group, to nab a child while they all slept, but this one chose to go in guns blazing, because against a telepath he would have no defense but to shoot first.

Charles has to choose. Right now. He feels Erik's gaze boring into his back, and he knows Erik stands exactly where he was left, with his palm extended, ready to kill for this place, for these people, for himself. He thinks of Erik's gaze, of the power he wields, and knows that if he chooses wrong, there would be no force that would keep Erik with him, because even his tricks won't be enough, when Erik is burrowed so deeply beneath his skin.

Charles clings to the belief that he should hesitate now, that he would hesitate, that he would be remorseful and apologize before his mind lifts in a tidal wave onto the sandy beach of the man's memory, swallowing the castles and footprints there. He swears to himself he is remorseful, that this is mercy, that otherwise they would be killed, but he knows that he is lying to himself.

He lets the wave curl to the sides, around a precious phone call from the man's son, but the moon that drives them is merciless, and the sweet voice is swept back into the ever hungry depths.

They came into his house, Charles thinks and the next wave arrives taller, stronger. There is a time for finesse and diplomacy, and there is a time for messages delivered in block capitals. He takes everything, from the moment the orders have been uttered in a nondescript CIA office.

When he is done the man blinks at him and lies down on the floor, obediently falling into sleep.

Charles turns and the other agents take their cue and lie down on the floor as well. He could go to them, one by one, but from where he stands he can see into them with perfect clarity: they have less information than their leader. They are field agents, soldiers; organized and precise. Charles makes a sweeping motion with his hand, the neurons crackle and snap and reform, and the memories are gone, leaving behind a white cloud. It is as easy as wiping the words written in the sand.

Erik fights his hold. He fails before he even began, but it is a valiant effort. Charles turns and looks into his eye, straight into the fury there. The face is motionless, but inside the furious storm rages. Charles stares it in the face and dares it to strike him.

"Azazel, take them all to Dixon, Missouri," he says. "Leave them where they will be found and where no harm will come to them until they are."

Azazel blinks, as though waking from sleep and Charles stares him down. His response does not matter, not when it comes to doing the deed - Charles could make him obey, but doesn't. Not yet.

He is profoundly relieved when the man bows his head and grasps the arms of the two agents closest to him and disappears in a puff of smoke.

Charles doesn't move while Azazel flickers in and out of the room, until the last of the agents is gone. He catches an image Azazel sends his way, a quiet roundabout in the middle of the town, completely deserted at this hour, but would bustle with activity as soon as the sun is up. Charles nods, acknowledges a job well done.

He turns to Moira, next. "Erik, take that off her."

He will not beg, he tells himself as he feels the refusal, as Erik glares and curses him in his mind, as he isn't able to curse with his voice. Charles looks at him and feels the heartbeat within, feels the fury powering him from within, and he sweeps inside. The fury becomes his, becomes him, and he is strong with it; anger is Erik's strength and now it is his, too.

Erik's body turns towards Moira, holds out his open palm, and Charles is unmoving in the middle of the room, watching, feeling the hatred within grow with every passing second as the pressure inside his own skull threatens to splatter his brain on everything within ten-foot range.

"I know how to control you. I can learn to control your power through you," he promises, painfully aware that his voice is breaking and his face is wet with tears. "Do not make me."

This, perhaps, is his greatest failure of all. He doesn't watch. He can't bear to. He knows the collar unfolds from Moira's neck and falls to the floor, he feels the metal uncurl as if it was moving against his own skin, because he hears the curses Erik utters, even if he doesn't understand them.

"Charles," she says, when the metal is gone, but he silences her.

"I'm sorry, Moira," he says when his fingertips land on her forehead. "This is the alternative, and I'm choosing it for you."

This is, if anything, worse than Stryker, because Moira is a friend. Her mind is prickly and balanced and its touch is familiar and soothing, but Charles makes it yield. He draws back time as she watches him with what would be fear, if she understood, and behind her eyes the months unfold and he carefully blanks out the faces, quiets the words, leaving behind only enough to comfort or torment. He leaves the bare bones of memories, the fondness and the guilt, which is too deeply ingrained to risk uprooting, the knowledge that she was held prisoner, threatened with painful death should she choose to contact her superiors. She has the scars to prove it.

When he is done, he brushes his lips against her mouth and whispers, "Sleep." Her eyes slide closed as she pitches forward. He catches her, bearing as much of her weight as he is able, and deposits her in Azazel's waiting arms.

When he straightens and pulls back within, when he dares to look up again, they are all staring at him. They stay still, even now, the terror that Charles thought to be their constant companion in the months since Erik became the de facto principal of the school has given way to something different, something far more primal and inexplicable. It hurts worse than the migraine pulsing in the back of his head, because that emotion will eradicate all else, with that in the soil no trust can grow and where there is no trust, there will be no friendship.

The drums keep going, only instead of sound it is now a heat wave that starts with an earthquake, which shakes the very foundations of the earth and crumbles its crust. The fires from the core sweep through him at each beat, and the first touch is agony, but immediately in its wake there comes another, and another, the sticks hammering onto the drumhead at hundreds of beats per minute.

There is liquid on his upper lip. His palm travels cosmic distances to rest his fingers on the curve of his mouth. He tastes salt and coin. He would like to say his fingers are stained red, but what isn't?

"I won't blame you if you choose to leave," he says and makes the effort to look into their eyes.

The last thing he remembers is the red pattern on the Persian rug growing larger until he disappears in it, forever falling into the stylized plant that has no bearing on the natural world but which must have been inspired by something living.

xxxxx

Charles is swathed in white. The light hurts his eyes. He wonders if he's finally dead.

Someone laughs. Charles squints and barely makes out a female figure, clad in white smoke. Her hair is golden and her smile is heavenly.

iI'm flattered, sugar, but you couldn't be more wrong./i

iEmma Frost,/i he thinks at her. The memories are slow and disjointed, but there is a face there, to go with the voice, which is not a voice, but a smell, a look, a sound, all rolled into one, and it is hard as diamond and just as cold. iThe telepath./i

iOh, Mr Xavier, so long as you persist on calling yourself a telepath, the rest of us are merely very intuitive./i

Her attention waivers and Charles gets the impression someone is being shaken.

iWhat is going on?/i

iOh, don't worry. It's just that your friend doesn't appreciate being out of the loop, no more./i

This time she thinks in two directions at once, which Charles knows, because there is a certain echo to her words.

iHe is fine, Erik,/i she thinks. Or thinks and says. He isn't sure. /iHe overdid it. Burned too bright with too little fuel. Give him time./i

Emma flinches. The reply was not to her liking, whatever it was. iI can't. He is here and he is conscious, but I wouldn't count on any chess games anytime soon. He needs time./i

iThe mind is not unlike a muscle. He overexerted it. It can happen. He will recover on his own terms, forcing it will hurt him. Can I please have a coffee and some sleep now? I believe I earned it./i

iErik wants to know if you're okay,/i she thinks and it's a single, irritated voice this time. iHe is being extremely unreasonable about it./i

Charles hesitates. iI am… okay,/i he allows. iI think I'll be fine./i Provided he could negotiate his way out of this endless expanse of white, which, despite being entirely shapeless, managed to be a labyrinth. Wonderful.

xxxxx

It's not that he wakes, precisely, because he is still dreaming the most claustrophobic dream he has ever had. He thinks he stopped being unconscious a long while ago. This is more like regaining the use of his senses.

Strangely enough, smell is the first to return. There's soap and washing powder, a little cologne and sweat in the air. Medical supplies, disinfectant. It combines into a hospital, a little room with not enough air and too much doctor. His mouth tastes stale. He wonders how long has it been and if anyone has bothered to brush his teeth.

Sight returns next. There is a blinding white light overhead, periodically obscured by faces. Charles recognizes Hank, who is there most often, to shine more light into his eyes. Miss Frost leans over him with a smirk on her lips, as she informs the audience that it shouldn't be long now, which he guesses, rather than knows, because she doesn't bother to think it at him, but he can see her lips move.

Raven is there to kiss his forehead, which is the first thing he feels. After the kiss there is the hardness of the bed, the rough material of the sheets, the warmth of skin touching his.

"Reacting to stimuli," Hank says at the same time as something sharp pricks his fingertip. Charles turns in his direction. He feels like a cotton pad, white, soft, muffled.

"Hank," he manages. "What time is it?"

"Two in the morning." There is a moment's pause. "March the first."

Charles sits up. He'd expect dizziness, if he were awake, but there is none. He is fine, other than the stiffness of his joints. He can slide off the bed and walk. "March the first?" he asks, because that part doesn't make sense. "But it's February, it's not even Valentine's Day yet."

"You were out of it for two weeks," Hank says. "Miss Frost says you overtaxed yourself. She says not to worry, it happens to telepaths who don't know their limits. Does it?"

Charles stares and tried to remember. "It never happened to me."

Hank nods. "Miss Frost usually comes in first thing in the morning, to check up on you. Do you want to sleep? I could give you something for sleep."

Charles takes in the room. He recognizes it as one of the servant's quarters in the eastern wing, adjoining to the garage Hank has claimed as his laboratory.

"Professor?"

"No drugs."

"Will you be comfortable here?"

"Aren't you going to sleep?"

Hank ducks his head. "I find I rest better if I nap for an hour every now and then."

"I see," Charles says and lies back on the narrow bed and clenches his teeth as Hank relieves him of the catheter. There are wires taped to his chest and his head, he realizes for the first time. He reconciles the steady beeping with the drumming of his own heart and it is strangely soothing.

He watches the ceiling, trying in vain to see the shape of Hank's mind as he tinkers with the equipment, but there is nothing, just the blue fur on his head, the humming under his breath, the occasional comment Charles is sure he is not meant to hear.

There is something shaped like a chandelier in his hands. It is the second Cerebro, Charles deduces after a moment. Incredible.

He has no sense of time passing, which he finds not at all strange. He closes his eyes and evens out his breath when Hank looks his way and curls on the couch. Feigning sleep, even in a dream, after so many years of nothing but sleep is hard, his body wants to move, wants to dance.

It is seven in the morning when there is a knock on the door and Miss Frost enters, closely followed by Erik, whose head is encased in that ridiculous helmet. Charles would like to say he hates it, but he knows he has no one to blame but himself for its presence. He will be lucky if he ever sees Erik again, so for now the dream will have to be enough.

"So you are awake, fascinating." Her slender hand touches his forehead. iCan you hear me?/i

Charles shakes his head, stares at her until his eyes water, but he manages to sense nothing.

Erik glares at no one in particular. "You said he would be fine."

"I also said what he did was the mental equivalent of you lifting the Statue of Liberty and walking on its shoulders across the Atlantic."

Erik scoffs. "He managed projection just fine in Russia. It shouldn't exert him like this."

"It wasn't with the same brain, then, unless the story you're telling me is a gross exaggeration, which to be fair it sounds like. Knowing exactly how to do something is not the same as being capable of doing it." Emma turns away from Erik and strides confidently to Charles' side, her hips swaying as she walks. "Can you hear anything? Feel anything?"

"I heard you," Charles says. "But the rest, no. I can't."

Behind him the machines beep at a frantic pace. He doesn't quite understand why, he is calm, there is no reason for the machine to start a frantic concert, he is well. He is fine.

His head is wrapped on all sides with wool, white fuzzy wool. No one is around, he is alone, but there are people in the room and he is dreaming, yes, he must be dreaming, because it is only in dreams that he can't know people by the shape of their thoughts.

The machine is roaring now and that is fine, that's well, the alarm will wake him and it will be fine. His fingers tighten on the edge of the bed and he feels the hardness of the frame, feels it dig into his skin, it cannot be long now, he will wake up, he will wake up, he will wake up!

"Make him stop," Emma commands. Charles hears her loud and clear but she is not real if she has no cerebral echo, she is not real. Nothing is real. "I can't talk to him if he panics, he will shut me out."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Take the silly helmet off, for starters."

Erik glares. "Certainly not with you here."

"It's either that, or knock out a telepath in a state of panic. Which is never a good idea, as panic tends to cling, and when he wakes up he will lash out. Trust me, I have been there. I don't think my nurse has ever stopped dribbling."

"What would that accomplish?"

"Let me put it thusly: if I woke and was unable to feel the minds around me, I would naturally assume there were no people around me. If I came across something that looked human and wasn't projecting thoughts, I would likely ignore or kill it, depending on how in my way it was." Emma takes a seat and extends an exquisitely manicured hand before her. "Your Charles is on the verge of hyperventilation because he has no idea what's real. He feels the physical sensations, but if he is anything like me, his dreams would have been palpable up until now, so physical sensation proves nothing. The only way he can be sure he isn't dreaming is to hear people's minds. Which he doesn't presently."

"Again, how does me not having the helmet on help? You said he's locked in."

"Oh, honey, you cannot possibly be that dense." Emma smiles, showing off a row of perfect teeth. "You said he died in your mind, when no one else felt a thing, that he did it unconsciously. I really don't think there is time for a lecture on how telepathy works." She rolls her eyes at Erik's growl. "But please yourself.

"Projecting thoughts requires conscious effort and dying tends to turn people's minds inwards. There is no death I have witnessed that didn't start by the dying turning inwards. Really good telepaths may be capable of latching onto people they want to drag down with them, and he is very good, but you tell me he didn't mean it. So, him reaching out for you as he died required an open pathway. You had to let him in and it doesn't matter how good he is. If you didn't welcome him in then, he would slink back inside his own head, like everyone else, and die quietly. Or move on quietly, as the case may be. I'm guessing if there's one mind he can feel right now, it is yours, if it weren't conveniently blocked."

Emma spares a glance at Charles. "He is distressed, because he thinks he can't wake up, and you are not making it any better. Any moment now he will start panicking in earnest and then there's two ways it could go - he will either try to startle himself awake by jumping out of the window, or he will grasp at his powers and start flinging them about. He is not ready for telepathy yet. If he tries it now, then it's back to the coma. Do you want that? Because I can promise you, it will be no more fun next time around. Or the next. Eventually he will go too far, which is far more serious than you can imagine, and then what you will have is a vegetable Charles to water and wheel out into the sun." Emma pauses and smirks. "If it helps any, I have no interest in reading your mind. I have nothing to gain."

Erik's anger could poison the entire ocean, by the look on his face, but he reaches for the helmet. He tries to, at any rate.

Behind Charles the machine goes wild.

"No," he manages and he lunges at Erik, wrestles his hands away from the metal. "Don't, no, no, no." He can't take it off. If he takes it off and he, too, is silent, if he is just an image, a vision, not really there, no.

It might be a dream, Charles thinks, but at least he can hope.

"Calm down," Erik says, and a little of the panic shows on his face as well. He grabs Charles' wrists and the helmet lifts itself from his head.

Nothing. There is nothing. He is dreaming, then, Erik isn't real, this isn't real, the pain digging into his hands isn't real and still he doesn't wake.

Charles throws his head back and screams, until his lungs burn.

Somewhere off to the side someone says, "Oh, do shut him up," and suddenly there is a pressure against his mouth, warm and insistent. Charles' eyes open wide and he sees Erik, comically serious as he kisses him.

Slowly, the beeping eases into a more comfortable rhythm. Charles' eyes water but he won't close them, he won't blink, because he isees/i Erik. It's faint, this aura, this edge, whatever it is, but he sees it. He feels the fragile suggestion of thoughts, and he cannot tell what they are, but they are there and they are Erik's - he recognizes the shape, the texture, the taste of them.

He wraps his hands around Erik's neck and holds on while the world reorganizes itself around them.

"It is adorable, yes," Emma says. Someone is standing beside her, which Charles knows only because they are shuffling their feet. He cannot be bothered to look. "Shall we move on now?"

Emma stands beside them and touches her fingertips to Charles' temple. iRelax,/i she thinks at him. iMr Xavier, relax. You will not be able to feel anyone for some time, that is not a cause for panic./i

She slithers in his head. Charles can feel her in his mind, razor-sharp and ice-cold. iHow is it not a cause for panic?/i

She conjures a memory for him, cuts it out of liquid crystal and lets it play. A teenaged girl, feeling the shift of minds for the first time, feeling the spill of secrets: hers, others', everyone's. He feels her panic and the surge of power within, as she screams and everyone around her drops to the ground in agony.

iI was in a coma for a month,/i he hears. iWhen I woke I thought it went away, but of course eventually I started hearing things again./i

iThis never happened to me./i Charles feels Erik's hands grip the shirt on his back.

"Emma…" he says with a hint of a growl.

"Hush." iNew brain, Mr Xavier. You assumed its limits would be the same as your old one's, and in time, with practice, perhaps they will. Right now, you have hurled yourself at the sun and burned your little wings off./i

She withdraws. Charles clenches his eyes shut. Her touch is unpleasant, hurtful, but it is real. She is human, the only human he can feel that is real, more real than Erik. That alone cuts him like a knife.

"Well, then. Do you need anything else?" Miss Frost straightens and flicks a mote of dust off her shoulder.

"No." Erik says without looking at her. "You can leave."

She smiles. "Thank you."

The door clicks shut behind her, but doesn't stay shut for long. Raven is already there, but then rest of the team files through the door and Charles digs his fingers into Erik's shoulder and bites his lip. He can't feel them. They are shapes in the space before him, but they have no minds. None that he can see.

"You are not dreaming," Erik reminds him.

Right. Right. Charles hides his face in Erik's neck. He feels blind and deaf and dumb. The silence is weighing him down. It is like a tomb designed specifically for him.

"Professor?" Alex says as he steps into the room. "Are you alright?"

He doesn't even understand. He hears the words and they make sense, but the meaning is gone. The steady beat of his heart speeds up and he tries to keep it down, but this half-reality is too frightening.

xxxxx

He burrows in his bed, shoving his head underneath the pillow as far as he's able to go without suffocating himself. The pillow is feathery and he can almost, almost make himself believe that the blank emptiness he feels is the result of feathers around his head.

"Charles, get up," Erik says around midday.

"No."

"You will eat. Then physical therapy."

"No."

"The kids are beginning to wonder if you are even still alive."

"I'm not."

He gets no verbal reply. Erik rips the covers off and makes a grab for the pillow. "Get up."

"I can't go out there," Charles says. He will not beg, but he is not above implying he is. "Erik… I lost control. I stopped you. Everyone. Held you down against your will. I made you, Erik, I iforced/i you to do what I wanted."

"You solved a problem." Erik shrugs. "You did it well. But don't ever do that again."

"I won't, I promise."

"Don't be stupid. You will do it again, if you need to." Erik crawls onto the bed until he is on his hands and knees over Charles and grins and his gaze is smoldering, setting Charles' insides aflame. "You will do what must be done to protect us all. The kids know this. They understand."

"I never wanted that. I wanted…" What did he want? Peace, he answers immediately. For the children to be safe, to feel special. To know that someone will fight for them.

"I know how you wanted it. It isn't possible."

"I will not make this a war."

"It is a war. You just don't want to see it yet." Erik is merciless and the faintest tendril of his exasperated affection caresses Charles from within. He shudders, holding in the moan. "Stay, then. For now. I'll bring you something to eat, but you are not talking your way out of therapy."

He gets off the bed and moves towards the door. The moment he disappears Charles feels the emptiness descend, burying him in something solid and transparent, something he can see through, but not breathe in.

It takes him all of thirty seconds to catch up to Erik.

xxxxx

He knows what it looks like, him trailing behind Erik like a pathetic puppy, unwilling to let him out of his sight, unwilling to not have physical contact. He knows Riptide, at least, is making comments and it doesn't take a genius or a telepath to hear the Mercedes wake in the garage and inch towards the man's immediate future.

He sees the pitying smiles on the children's faces. He sees the wide berth Azazel gives him and the smirk on Riptide's lips.

He can feel the acute beating his ego receives every time his head turns to follow Erik, every time he grips Erik's sleeve to stop him from leaving. He hates himself a little bit for it. He digs his fingers into Erik's arm, rests his forehead on his shoulder and hates himself a little bit more for the show of weakness.

Erik is still the only thing that is real to him.

He sleeps uneasily, but it is waking that is the worst, when the world is no different from the dream and he isn't sure whether he is awake or asleep and he wonders if Emma was lying, that he will never get his abilities back.

He experiences, for the first time in his life, a panic attack, when he dreams of Erik. It is a very odd dream, he concedes, warm and full of flickering fire and patchouli scented chess and Erik's hands on his sides, tracing the shape of him, proper shape, not the skin and bones he is now. It is almost … pleasant, Charles wonders, the feel of a man's fingertips against his skin, of hard muscles and stubble.

Erik's mouth is against his, sliding open as they kiss, gentle and slippery. There's a brush of tongue against his mouth, a crackling of fire, a hand on the small of his back. He is naked and their mouths open, their bodies slide together, hard and heated. He breaks away because it is too much, too soon, and stares at Erik and the emptiness behind his eyes.

He startles awake. The bed is empty, he is alone, and whatever arousal the dream caused (oh god, he was dreaming of Erik!), it was gone because he was alone, Erik wasn't there.

"Charles!"

It is only when he has Erik's weight pressing him into the bed, the weight of Erik's mind forcing order onto his, that he realizes he is hyperventilating. "Breathe, Charles," Erik says. His hand is heavy against Charles' chest. It forces effort into every breath, conscious work, and, after a while, it soothes. "What the hell happened?"

Charles turns his head, feeling his face redden. "Nothing."

"Don't ever lie to me," Erik says, gripping Charles' chin and turning his head. "What happened?"

"You weren't here. I woke up and you weren't here." Charles wishes he was feverish, but he knows it is shame which brings the color to his face.

Erik sighs. "I was in the bathroom."

"It's too far," Charles says in a broken whisper and he pulls the duvet over his head. "It's too far," he repeats and it sounds just as puerile this time around.

The duvet lifts and Erik slips into the bed beside him, wrapping himself around Charles in the darkness, until there is nothing in the world but Erik and him.

Only then Charles lets himself sleep again.

xxxxx

Charles feels like weeping when, the very next morning, Hank turns to him and there is a cogwheel of a thought triggering a cascade of movement within his brain. He speaks about Cerebro but Charles isn't even listening, he watches in wonder as the wheels turn and shift and Hank's mind unveils the machinery before them.

He comes to understand, slowly, that the smiles of the children are good-natured and not pitying, that while Riptide and Azazel are amused, the mockery carries a touch of respect, borne from the show of power earlier. They are fully aware of what it means to upset a telepath and Charles is a little frightened when his distress brings the memories of Emma's displeasure to the fore. He wishes to soothe their apprehensions, but they don't have much there. They seem content where they are, so long as the mutant cause moves on and they have a job to do, and Erik has that under control.

"You need to control yourself," Emma says one morning, less than a month later, sipping coffee from Charles' mother's prized porcelain cup. He has trouble understanding why is she still here, when Erik quite explicitly told her to go.

"Don't trouble yourself figuring it out," she says and her flesh flickers into diamond. "I remain because this is where entertainment is at, these days."

"You tried to start World War Three," Charles says, reaching for the coffee, but the memo has made its rounds and Emma pushes a glass of orange juice his way. He grimaces, but his mouth is parched and to his dismay he likes the juice, omnipresent as it seems to be. Erik makes a point of there being fresh oranges in the house for the express purpose of hydrating and vitaminizing Charles' wasted body.

"Yes. It didn't work out. Shaw was always going to go out with a bang, now that he has, it's time to look for other options."

"So you choose to remain here."

"I have my reasons." Charles sees a flicker of doubt on her face, at least he thinks it's doubt, it is hard to tell on a face carved from such an exquisite stone. "Your abilities need honing."

"I am perfectly comfortable, thank you." He isn't, not entirely. He can feel the minds around him with something approaching ease, he can hold a conversation without opening his mouth, but it is still not enough.

"You nearly killed yourself before."

"I'm sure your concern is appreciated." There's more to it. Charles watches her face as she returns to her fleshy form and behind her eyes there is greed, awe and not a small amount of fear.

"Consider it a token of my good will," she says. "I want you to teach me."

"Absolutely not."

"Mr Xavier, I may be your only hope of getting back into shape." She smiles at him, blonde, coifed, perfect like a porcelain doll. "All the others, even your precious Erik, are so simple. You can control them without even trying. I'm sure you could learn to control their abilities, too." The fragile cup is so thin, it is nearly transparent, like the wonder in her voice. Charles watches the flow of the liquid within, transfixed. "Me, on the other hand," she says and her fingers trail down her substantial cleavage, "I am diamond. I can help you train. I can be a challenge, and believe me, you need one right now, if only to know your limits.

"In return, you will teach me your tricks." Emma raises the cup in a mock salute. "I would consider this a fair exchange, wouldn't you?"

"Miss Frost, you have no moral fiber. Why should I teach you anything that make me uneasy to even consider?"

"Come on, Mr Xavier. We both know morals are just as fluctuating as the minds that beget them. We have seen into the hearts of men, you and I, and what, precisely is within? Chaos." She pours herself another cup and stirs into it two spoons of sugar. "The future is what we make it, Mr Xavier. And we could make it anything."

"We could, yes. But I'm afraid it is not one I could ever live in. Thank you for your offer, Miss Frost. I'm grateful for your help, but I have to decline further assistance. You are welcome to stay, of course, if you so desire."

"It doesn't worry you?"

"What?"

"Leaving me in your house, unattended? With your children running free?"

Charles smiles, but it is the smile of a shark. "Miss Frost, I may be indisposed at the moment, but rest assured, the moment I find the hint of your presence in any mind that isn't your own, you will find yourself two years old. Permanently."

"Touché."

She watches him leave the room. He can feel her grin chase him all the way up the stairs, even as he takes them head on, one step at a time and panics, because iit was not his voice/i. He is not capable of thinking of such threats, how can he deliver them, then, when he is not capable of dealing out such punishment, he cannot, no.

Erik meets him on top of the staircase, one hand holding Jubilee's. He stares, uncertain and Charles shakes his head, grateful to have the excuse of vertigo to lean against him and breathe.

"What the hell?" Erik asks.

Charles shakes his head again.

"What the hell, Charles?" he asks louder, mindless of the child. The thought of a swear jar flickers through Charles' mind and he nearly laughs. Erik would go bankrupt and Jubilee would never want for money.

"I threatened Miss Frost."

Erik's gaze flicks between the staircase and him, and at first he is amused, but then he frowns. "What did she do?"

"Nothing," Charles says. "She did nothing."

xxxxx

Charles is in the kitchen when it happens. Jubilee sits on the table and together they are baking cupcakes, one of the few edible things Charles feels competent enough to make. She giggles at him and carefully coats the sweetmeats in flour while he mixes the batter.

"Now just a cup of milk," he says and turns to the fridge. He returns, carefully holding the cup before him, when something inside him shifts and the voices pour in, relentless and urgent.

The milk splatters over his shoes and the kitchen floor and Charles very nearly follows. He grasps the edge of the table for support and lowers himself to his knees.

"Charles!" Jubilee cries, peering at him from her perch. There is flour on her face and her little mind reels with worry and surprise, because it happened so fast, and Charles can hear Hank, in his laboratory, letting out a whoop of delight as he puts the finishing touches to Cerebro, he can hear Alex's panicked "oh shit" when Erik sends a sheet of metal his way, Erik's glee when the metal is shattered by a plasma blast.

He sees through Emma's eyes as she raises an eyebrow at him in the mirror. She is brushing Angel's hair and in the background there is Raven, who looks up, startled by his presence. A smile breaks on her face.

Charles sits on the kitchen floor, in a puddle of spilt milk and laughs.

"I'm okay," he tells Jubilee. iI'm okay/i, he tells himself and feels a knot of worry in Erik's mind disappear.

xxxxx

The new Cerebro is magnificent. Hank opened the roof of the garage to install a dome - a spherical shape was somehow very important - and a walkway that located the user precisely in its center.

"There's still some fine tuning to be done," Hanks says as he hangs upside down from the catwalk and fiddles with the cables beneath. "Would you like to try?"

"Emma should go first," Erik says from the door.

Miss Frost, who stands behind him, folds her arms. "Thank you, no. I will not be a lab rat."

"That's perfectly all right," Charles says and picks up the helmet. It is lighter than the one he remembers from the CIA facility. It feels much more comfortable on his head.

Then Hank does something and the world explodes in brightness. Charles clings to the railings because he is everywhere all of sudden and it is heady, fantastic and triggering an intense wave of vertigo.

Along with the memory of CIA base Moira flashes through his mind and he is there, with her, listening to the steady, organized stream of her thoughts. She is worried and apprehensive, she is scared, but resolute and-

"The mutants must be apprehended," she hears, and Charles holds in the shock and slithers into her, unseen, unfelt.

Her eyes flicker and he is in a CIA office, sitting at the far end of a table.

"They erased weeks, months of people's lives. What more do you need, Ezra?" The chubby man on the director's side glares and continues talking. "If their telepath is good enough to do that, what else can he do? Drive a car into the White House and shoot the President? Any idiot can do that. This man can walk into the White House and walk out with every state secret without anyone being the wiser. Do you understand that? It's a matter of national security!"

"We don't know what he wants," the director says. Indecision is written all over his face.

"Which is exactly the point. We don't know. We let him in here, to wander about and who knows what he gleaned. They have Dr McCoy now, and that machine, and what have we got?

"Then there are the others." The man flips a file open. "The Jew is capable of lifting submarines out of the water, according to the captain. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what could that mean, if a single man can lift vessels of that size into the air. Let's face it, gentlemen, this is a crisis. Shaw, at least, had the decency to go about his plans covertly, through human means, but those people have no qualms about making a show of themselves. We will have a panic on our hands, the more certain the longer they remain at large."

Charles' focus wavers. He leaves Moira and is instead hurled among the millions of people populating the United States. He is weightless, formless, free…

He wrestles the helmet from his head and bends over the railings of Cerebro, trying to catch his breath. The spherical space seems to resonate, reverberating the thoughts even now, and he is in its center, listening, feeling, iliving/i.

There are hands on him, underneath him, and he is carried out of the sphere and into the much less crowded space of the lab. Erik sweeps the table clear with a thought, to Hank's dismay, and Charles is extremely glad not many people are around to witness this. Erik doesn't let go, instead he holds Charles close while Charles slowly wrestles his breathing under control. It is so hard to have a body again.

His head is still swimming, the vision of Moira, the elusive touch of her mind lingers on his, but there is more there now, the men listening to the reports, to the reiterations of the few memories of him that he allowed Moira to retain. He feels the beginnings of a headache, but for now it is still manageable.

"We have a problem," he says.

Three minutes later the laboratory is a war-zone and he, Hank and Emma are hiding under the work table as everything not nailed down sails across the open air.

"I really wish he wouldn't do that," Hank grouses. "I have just finished putting everything into order."

"There was order?" Emma smirks a little and uses a piece of a chromed plate to check her make-up. "I didn't notice."

"Don't worry," Charles says. Erik is calm, even as he stands in the eye of the storm and wills the equipment to orbit him. "He has it under control. It helps him think."

"Do you?" Emma holds his gaze for far longer than necessary until Charles looks down.

"I'm afraid we will have to risk a trip," he says. "I have to be in the same room as them, to be sure."

"You are certainly not going anywhere," Erik says. Most of the room settles. "But yes, a trip is necessary."

In his mind there curls a vision of destruction and gruesome death for everyone involved. Charles sighs. "Really, Erik, is it too much to ask that not every plan of yours include copious amounts of corpses?"

"How many is copious?"

"One is too much."

"My friend, your math teacher is weeping, wherever he is." Erik grins and Charles cannot avert his eyes fast enough. His face feels warm, which is ridiculous, he is a grown man, not a teenager, and this is Erik, not some girl.

He tries to think of chess.

Emma considers her nails. "Did you perhaps consider having intercourse before planning battles? It would no doubt help us all keep focused."

"How would it help you?" Hank asks.

"I wouldn't have to listen to them skirting about the issue in increasingly convoluted metaphors, as entertaining as they are. It is not so complicated, gentlemen. I'm sure your scientist friend could draw you a diagram."

"Miss Frost, I am fully capable of handling my affairs on my own. I would thank you to stay out of this."

"I wouldn't dream of interfering, Mr Xavier." She smiles at him sweetly, but the vision she pushes his way renders diagrams redundant. Charles grits his teeth and Emma gasps for breath as her mind tells her she was doused by icy water.

"How much can you find out from here?" Erik asks. The storm is over; most of the equipment is back where it belongs, only a few stray pieces still hover.

Charles gives Cerebro a dubious look. "I'm not sure." He's found Moira by accident, finding her again and listening in would be easy, but further than the meeting it was anybody's guess. He didn't think he could read the minds he didn't already know at this distance - even slipping into Moira's allowed him only the access to the surface level of her mind. "I will try to find Moira again, maybe the meeting didn't finish yet."

A part of him rebels at the invasion of Moira's mind. She doesn't deserve this sort of treatment, not after the sacrifices she made for them. What other choice is there, however? Charles gets up unsteadily, holding on to the table with one hand. "I need to get back into Cerebro," he says.

Erik protests. Of course he does.

"I will be fine," Charles assures him, when he walks into an immobile wall of flesh and anger. "I can handle a little more, I wasn't anywhere near my limits. This is just listening, hardly an effort."

Erik raises a brow and Charles rolls his eyes. They are getting quite adept at holding those conversations outside of telepathy and normal communication - pretty soon they wouldn't need either, he thinks with some humor, so long as they keep their eyebrows and ocular muscles they would be fine. This is something wholly different from mere telepathy.

"I will know," Erik tells him, and Charles just stares. There's something foreign in Erik's mind and he realizes with a start that it's him. He wishes for time to dwell on it, but Erik is already stepping away, freeing the path to the heart of the machine.

Hank fetches a chair for him. Charles grips the armrests and focuses on Moira. The hedgehog-like slant of her mind, the brightness of her gaze and the assured tone of her thoughts burn in the darkened sphere of Cerebro. Charles closes his eyes and when he opens them he is looking through her eyes.

The meeting is still on. He takes a deep breath, feels Moira's fingers stretch and claw on the armrest of her chair and the room unfolds before him. Moira is a little irritated and not a little worried. She remembers nothing, but there is a tinge of fondness to the nothing, as though she knows there was some happiness there. She doesn't dare speak, she is only a field agent and they are already stretching the regulations by inviting her along to this meeting.

"This telepath," says the man Moira identifies as McAlester, "could be a weapon. The million dollar machine, you tell me, works like a dream. The stolen parts can be replaced, that much the engineers tell me. No damage has been done. All we need is a telepath to operate it."

"A telepath we don't have."

"We could have him." McAlester leans forward. "Sir, what we have here is an opportunity. Cerebro and that telepath can put us light years ahead of the Soviets."

"Yes, except the last team sent to extract him returned with weeks of their life struck from their memory. How do you plan on fighting that?"

"We know the youngsters they recruited remained in his care."

The pause is heavy.

"Blackmail, then."

Moira recoils. "Sir, I'm sorry, do you mean to kidnap those children?"

"Sit down, agent." Mr Ezra looks at her. "Sit down, or leave this room."

Moira sits, but cannot settle. She is seconds from storming out. Charles calms her down. He needs to stay, he needs to listen.

"Do we know how many there are?"

McAlester winces. "We have the mansion under observation. Unfortunately, our scope is very limited, as we don't know his exact range and coming too close would result in discovery. About twelve people, including a pair of young teenagers and a small child."

"What of the other one, Shaw's woman?"

"She hasn't been spotted. Given how the Jew seemed to feel about Shaw, I doubt she is still with them."

"I understand the gains." Ezra leans forward and props himself on his elbows. "However, you propose to send our agents to abduct a child with, let's not be afraid of the word, superpowers. We have seen one of the slice statues in half, we have to assume the small child you mention is capable of no less. You propose to blackmail a man who can take away memories and bring him here, against his will."

McAlester winces. "The risks are great, I grant you."

"The risks are horrifying, Richard, and I don't like you dismissing them so easily. You're asking me to send out our agents to face something against which we have no weapon."

"This could very well win us the war."

"Or it could destroy us." Mr Ezra considers his folded hands. "I grant you, the prospect of the telepath in Cerebro is an attractive one."

"Agent MacTaggert," McAlester says, turning towards her. "How likely is it that this man would strike against us?"

Moira hesitates. She understands, now, that this question is the reason she is here in the first place. Her hands are restless. "He seemed benevolent. I don't believe he would move against the CIA, while he had other options."

Mr Ezra rubs his forehead. "Seemed benevolent. Hah. That's all we have, 'seemed benevolent' to describe the biggest security risk this agency has seen in all of its existence." His fingers drum staccato on the table. "Go ahead and make your plans, Richard. Observe. Question, if you can be discreet. Make me believe you can pull this off without striking years from anybody's memory.

"You have two weeks to convince me there is a feasible way of recruiting Mr Xavier," Ezra says and Charles wonders if the bright spots are a figment of his imagination, or whether the CIA has very talented interior decorators.

Moira's mind closes in on him and then he is gasping for air with the dome of Cerebro overhead and the scent of Erik's cologne in his nostrils.

"I wasn't finished," he gasps. "I need to go back, they weren't done!"

"No."

"It might be dangerous, professor, we didn't have time to test it fully, the readings of the machine are fluctuating."

"You put him in a fluctuating machine?" Erik asks, half-turning to Hank and if it's possible for blue fur to pale, it is doing so now, while simultaneously standing on end and quivering and dear lord, Hank is an adorable ball of fuzz.

"Am I actually needed here, because charming as you boys are, I have better things to do than watch you beat each other over the head."

Charles, it would seem, was voted out of having a vote in his own house. Splendid. If his head hurt any less, he would make a stand for himself, but as it were he was having trouble enough keeping his head above water.

He is grateful when he finds himself with a couple of aspirin and a glass of the damnable orange juice in hand, lying on the couch in his living room with an icy compress on his head.

Tempers fray when he finishes relating the conversation, and more than half the kids want to storm the CIA headquarters this very minute, to leave it in ruins. Erik's vision is the most graphic one, but his is messy, whereas Alex's leaves the place in neat little slices.

"We've done nothing to them!" Alex growls and Charles sees a flash of red about his chest, too quickly gone to do real damage, but there nonetheless. His control is slipping when he is agitated, which is of course no surprise. He has chosen the solitary for a reason. It worries Charles, because what other reason could there be for this but the deeply seated wish to not hurt anyone, and here he was proposing to go out and slay people for making plans.

Hank lays a paw on his shoulder and Alex settles, somewhat, still growling out loud and roaring in his mind.

"I'm afraid it is my fault," Charles says quietly into the compress. The aspirin is taking its time, but it is fine, he can wait it out.

"How is it your fault, professor?" Sean asks, while still chewing on his fingernail.

"The show I made of myself when I was first invited to the CIA building. Some of the agents were quite shaken. Hank's foray into theft put them on edge, and my recent display hasn't helped matters any."

"They would have shot at us," Alex points out sensibly. "They came here, it's not like we went after their super secrets, or whatever."

"The possibility of us doing so is very much real. Given the ease with which we walk into the facility when we need something." Charles shifts and winces when his brain rattles within his skull. "Plus, Cerebro is a magnificent tool, its possibilities are endless, and I put it in their minds myself. I'm sorry."

"You said they know where we are. You said they are observing us!"

"I don't sense anyone on the grounds or nearby," Charles says, and gestures vaguely at Emma for confirmation. She closes her eyes, clearly humoring him, lets out a long sigh, but shakes her head.

"No one but us within two mile radius."

"Well, if their plan relies on their Cerebro, then clearly it needs to go." Erik flexes his hands and a forgotten letter opener rises from the shelf and buries itself in the woodwork opposite.

"That would solve most of our problems, yes. However, consider this: if we destroy the machine now, it would be a pretty obvious conclusion that we know of their plans. Therefore either we listened in, or someone is spying on them. Since Moira was there for the whole conversation and claims to magically not remember us at all, she would be their first suspect."

Erik's eyebrows furrow and Charles glares.

"No. I will not let anything happen to Moira."

Erik rolls his eyes.

"I don't care. She is on our side."

"We hardly have a reason to attack overtly," Hank says. "We could sabotage it. It's useless without a telepath anyway, but if we rewire it, it will still work, at least look like it's working, but it won't be doing anything useful."

"How easily can they fix it?"

"Well, if they know the trick, I'd say five minutes, but I don't think they know the trick."

"Is there a chance they could learn?"

"I built Cerebro. Unless they know more about it than me, I don't think they will."

"It's not good enough." Erik folds his hands. "Disabling Cerebro without letting anyone know it is disabled ensures only that they can't use it. It won't stop them coming after Charles, it won't change anything."

Hank ducks his head, ashamed. Then, immediately, raises his gaze. "There could be a wire in the house," he says, panicked, and the mood is infectious because everyone sans Erik starts looking underneath the chairs and tables. There is a lot of frantic gesturing going on, and even more whispering. Charles winces because the pitch of frantic whispers is far more distressing than a regular conversation was.

"If you are quite finished," Erik says as the letter opener flies obediently into his hand. Everyone pauses to watch the blade - a dull, ornate blade, but a blade all the same - fly through the air. It seems to grin at them, they think very loudly, it seems to burn. "I check the house for recorders and transmitters regularly. There are none."

The children settle.

"We need to cause some mayhem," Charles says, hardly believing his own words. It makes sense. A warning delivered with enough force would make them reconsider, hopefully, until something more permanent could be achieved.

Erik grins at him and Charles is a little bit ashamed of the approval and a little more for being ashamed of being ashamed of Erik's approval. Fortunately his head is still pounding and he can dump the confusion on the migraine and pretend it is not his.

"There is a problem though," he says in the tacitly approving silence. "We know that they know where we are, but don't know how many know."

"Not a concern. Miss Frost, you will accompany me to the facility," Erik says. "We can find out who knows and we can take them out."

"Erik."

"They came to our house, Charles." Anger curls in Erik's voice, carrying though his mind into Charles. He feels its heat burning him up from the inside. "You will not ask me to wait until it happens again."

Charles doesn't. His eyes flutter closed. "All the same, showing up there and killing everyone in your path will be no better than declaring a war and then they will start looking in earnest and they won't bother with spies and binoculars, they will bring napalm."

"Killing everybody tends to put a stop to a war."

"You can't kill everybody."

"No," he agrees. The hard edge in his voice, however, says that he will try, if provoked, by god he will try, and he will achieve such carnage as the human world has never seen before he is stopped.

Charles closes his eyes and lets his head tip back. The pounding in his head has dulled to an ache, but the ache has migrated to his neck and shoulders. He doesn't even notice when he falls asleep, surrounded by the concerned minds of his students and friends.

He wakes in his own bed. It's dark outside. "How long did I sleep?" he asks Erik, who is busy pulling on a black turtleneck. There is a scar on his side. Charles feels his fingertips itch with the need to touch it.

"Six hours."

"You should have woken me," Charles says as he sits up.

"We are ready to move."

"I expect wanting to go with you is quite pointless?"

"It is."

Silence descends between them. Charles doesn't dare to look away even if he knows he should, because this sudden quiet, this peace, it sends his heart fluttering madly and it is insane. He is insane. The covers crease in his grasp as Erik crosses the room and leans over him. One of his knees comes to rest on the bed, but neither of them dares to move any further.

Someone bangs on the door.

"As your awkward courtship amuses me, I don't mean to interrupt, but we are on a tight schedule here! I fully intend to sleep tonight," comes the voice of Miss Frost and Charles is torn between hysterical laughter and shoving her off the stairs.

"Promise me you won't kill anyone," Charles says urgently. He grips Erik's shoulders and somehow it's only too easy for his hands to slide to his neck until Charles holds his face and they are less then a breath apart. "Promise me. Please."

"I can't do that."

"You can't kill men who haven't done anything yet," Charles whispers as their noses bump. It's only marginally better than what he said a lifetime ago on the beach, by the way Erik's mind flares, but it reaches home. "I don't want blood on my hands, I can't want it, not even Shaw's, and I helped you kill him."

When did it happen, he wonders, that blood on Erik's hands became blood on his, when did they become so hopelessly intertwined that he could no longer judge their actions separately?

The question must have migrated through the ether, because there is sand on Erik's mind now, sand, the sea and the beach, and Charles, bleeding in his arms, bleeding into his arms, into his mind and soul, and it will never go away. But that's how it ended, Charles thinks, not where it began, because if Emma is right - and there is no reason to suspect she isn't - then it began long before the Cuban beach. Charles feels his eyes close as their lips finally meet, mid word, mid breath, when there is no time for this, when they both have bigger issues to deal with.

"I will not let anyone give me a reason," Erik whispers in the space between them, before he stands. "Check on Jubilee when you get up."

Charles falls into the blankets and stares at the ceiling. His head is aching, but that is a mere inconvenience now. He closes his eyes and sweeps through the mansion, then the grounds, until he is certain he can count the rats in the cellar and the pigeons on the roof.

He feels Erik meet Emma, Azazel and Hank downstairs, he senses the moment they wink out of existence, out of his reach. He breathes in and the world becomes an inch smaller, then two, and he can reach as far as the village, where most souls are asleep in their beds, dreaming of a day that will start like any other.

Hank is returned, pleased with himself, twenty minutes later. Azazel gives the mansion a cursory sweep, reassures himself that all is well, and then he is gone again.

There is a child in the first house by the road, dreaming of ponies. Her sister, a few years older, dreams of going to school for the first time. Their parents sleep soundly, their dreams an ill-defined cloud of positive feelings.

Charles gets lost in the oneiric maze, falling on the verge of sleep himself. His headache has bowed out and disappeared, leaving a stiffness as a parting gift. He huffs.

Then, without warning, rage descends on him. All the hatred it is possible to feel in this world, concentrated into a weapon, a blade so fine it could carve atoms. The world screams in terror as the fires start and engulf the horizon.

Charles wrestles himself out of the bed and falls to the floor. His knees won't thank him, but he is already running, bruises the furthest thing from his mind.

"Hank!" he yells out loud and, more subtly, remembering the hour, mentally. iHank!/i

It's undignified, the way he crashes into the man, ending up hanging from his elbow, but a few seconds of recovery is all he can afford, maybe more than he can afford.

"I need Cerebro, now."

"Professor, you just..."

"Now, Hank!" As an apology and explanation he pushes some of the rage into Hank's mind, just a fraction of it, appropriately tagged and explained. iI need to contact Erik/i, he says. iHelp me!/i

Hank, to his credit, merely nods, grasps Charles' elbow and marches him to the garage. They pass a few of the children on their way - Erik went with Emma and Azazel only, Charles knows - who look at them anxiously and start following.

It takes four and a half minutes to get Cerebro warmed up. Charles paces down the walkway while Hank fiddles. "It's still very raw, I'm sorry, professor, the materials are a little unused to what I do with them. The earlier session fried a few cables."

"Just get it working. Please, Hank."

Finally the lights flicker and the racetrack of Hank's mind zooms through the finish line in a flurry of fireworks. Charles doesn't wait for verbal confirmation, the helmet is on his head when Hank flips the switch.

It's easy to latch onto Erik. Charles closes his eyes, breathes, and there he is, breathing alongside him, like they were standing back to back.

There is a storm of paper before them and a metallic cabinet, bent out of shape. A man kneels on the floor, sweating and frantic, and Emma's wearing an expression of smug disinterest.

"Charles," Erik growls and a hundred thoughts rip through his mind at supersonic speed.

Emma raises an eyebrow. "We have company now?" Erik glares at her and something in his expression makes her shift into diamond.

iDon't think I will let you stop me,/i Erik thinks.

iYou were supposed to break in, cause some havoc and gets out!/i

"They put a kill order on you," Erik says out loud. The furniture rattle. Charles feels the nails in them vibrate. They feel like icy water on naked skin.

The man on the floor shudders, but says nothing.

Charles falters. He isn't sure why, he should have expected it, but the words - the thoughts - are lined with such intense horror, which bleeds over the edges and latches onto the sands of memory, onto the Cuban beach. The threat of nuclear winter causes less dread than this. Erik is so tense Charles thinks if he ran his fingers down his arm he could get an Allegro in E minor.

"The two weeks he was given, was to find an alternative," Emma says. She considers her nails. "And now I really want to kill him, because he is considering me instead. Bad idea, sugar. Trust me."

Charles thinks.

"We should let him," he says and doesn't even notice that Erik speaks as he does. A vehement ball of "never do that again" strikes him in the stomach with the force of a speeding car and he grins ruefully. "Sorry."

iWhat do you mean let him?/i Erik thinks.

iIf we let the CIA assassinate me, then the problem is solved, isn't it?/i

iNever figured you for a a martyr,/i Erik remarks wryly.

iI'm not. If we know they are coming, then we can anticipate them, give them a show. And… we even have a body./i

Erik is silent. He watches the CIA official with a look that would make the Devil himself nervous. To the man's credit, he manages to hold on to his bladder. Charles smirks when he spies the bottle of scotch on the desk. Liquid courage, available at a convenience store near you!

iA body that's been in the ground for half a year. They aren't that stupid./i

iIt's enough to hold a funeral. Six months during wintertime in an iron coffin should leave enough for reconstruction. Enough for a casket funeral./i

Erik hesitates. It's not because of the thought of the corpse. iIt's risky./i

iIt's doable./i

iWhat about him, then?/i

iI have an idea./i Charles hesitates. iAt least I think I do. May I?/i

Erik clenches his fists, but when he exhales Charles is there. It is different then mere telepathic contact. He feels Erik move alongside him, their minds entwined, he feels the anger and hears the blood rushing through their veins. He takes a step and it's no harder than if he were on his own.

Emma watches him and, though her face remains impassive, she is fascinated. Charles smirks at her, or maybe Erik smirks, and Charles merely looks her way, he isn't sure. He knows it's him who touches Erik's fingertips to Agent McAlester's temple and focuses.

There is a ghost of hands on his shoulders. Erik is leaning into him and they are both towering over McAlester and it would be so easy to let himself be lost, with Erik, in Erik. Charles shudders.

It's a question of balance, he tells himself. He is in three bodies simultaneously now, performing remotely what is an enormously tedious operation in person and he manages; it is like balancing a knife on his fingertip, like turning a satellite dish from a distance, like holding a dying man still from within.

The point between rage and serenity is halfway between him and Erik, and when they stand there they could move the foundations of the Earth.

He sifts through the memories Richard McAlester holds at bay. New memories take shape under his fingertips - falling asleep at the office, a bad dream, waking, sifting frantically through the files and leaving them a mess, the inevitable deadline rushing his way, no ideas, nothing. The telepath would be so useful, but what if he can't be made to cooperate? He already sent children into battle. Charles plants the seed of doubt, confident that within a week McAlester will understand that assassination is the only plausible course of action. The telepath is dangerous, he must be taken out. Outside the mansion in Westchester there is a grassy hill, a perfect spot for a sniper, Stryker mentioned in preliminary reports that Xavier's office overlooks the hill.

It would take a single sniper, these mutants wouldn't even know something was wrong before the man is returned to the base and without the telepath they would be harmless.

Charles withdraws and McAlester's head lowers to the desk.

iFix the room. He will think he messed up the files himself, when he was drunk,/i he says. iAnd come back home./i

xxxxx

The hardest part is not sitting still at his desk while the sniper takes aim.

It is a beautiful day, first of the truly warm days of spring, and the window is wide open. Charles reads a very interesting article on the intermediary between DNA and the protein product - the postulated particle is not unlike DNA in nature, and serves as a messenger between the two - and the sniper on the hill watches him through the visor of his rifle. He is kind enough to supply an image of what he expects to happen; he aims for the head, the subject should collapse without a sound. Charles fixes the vision in his mind and catches Erik's eye.

This is the part the Erik protests the most, hates the most. His doubts roll throughout the room, dark and foreboding and tinged with desperation. He will not make a mistake, or it will be a mistake for which the world will suffer greatly.

Charles smiles at him, trusting, as the shot rings out and he collapses under the desk.

He sees that the sniper is on his feet the moment the bullet hits its target, already seeing the blood spouting from the wound, and he runs, as fast as his legs would carry him. A car awaits on a nearby country road and he speeds off into the distance, as Charles sits up and picks up the bullet, harmlessly nestled against his collar.

"Good catch," he says, as Erik wraps his arms around him. He is shuddering, terrified now as he hadn't been moments previously, and Charles holds him as the children file into the room, with their hearts in their throats.

"I'm fine," Charles says. "It went well, the sniper is gone."

So, no, getting assassinated is not the hardest part. Nor is it contacting Smith, Wentsworth and Chris, the ancient law-firm looking after the Xavier estate. They are appropriately sympathetic, in a quiet, shark-like way that all overpaid lawyers acquire over time, and they are relaxed. The proceedings are simple: Charles had the foresight to leave a will behind, in which he bestowed all the family fortune on his newly returned brother Matthew. Due to his condition and hopeful prospects, Raven is easily accepted as a manager of the estate.

Finding an embalmer to deal with the remains and keep his mouth shut about the actual state of the body is no problem when the grieving Miss Xavier is willing to handsomely reward the service, because she wishes to give her brother a proper funeral. Charles fights with Erik on the subject of erasing the man's memories afterwards, and wins.

"I will not make it a reset button," he says firmly. "Some things can be dealt with without memory erasure." Besides, the embalmer is old and solitary - his career has turned him into a bitter cynic, who is happy to turn a blind eye to murder for a handful of cash.

Charles tells Erik this, after the argument is won, and Erik sulks for the better part of the day.

The exhumation, whilst unpleasant, is almost funny in a way. Especially for Erik, when Charles risks a peek into the coffin and promptly looses his lunch.

"I can't see how you are unaffected," Charles tells him later, even though, of course, he already knows and tries to forget. Erik's gaze softens then and he kisses Charles, a technique which has so far been proven to reliably reduce Charles to a flustered teenager. He combats it, not without some success, but for now he remains vulnerable.

The hardest part is pretending to be a prepubescent during the funeral.

Charles giggles inappropriately when the pastor recites a touching eulogy on the bright future of man and the acts of God. Raven elbows him in the ribs, and he settles, briefly.

He lasts until they are ready to move on to the wake, but he has had enough after the sixteenth person he vaguely remembers from school approaches Raven to offer their condolences. They never stay long - all it takes is a good look at his face and the brief reiteration of the sorry tale of Matthew's life thus far - but there is a never ending supply of well-wishers.

At least three try to subtly ask if Raven is attached to anyone presently, and if not, would she consider going out with them.

A CIA liaison is present for the funeral. He and Moira approach the coffin at the same time and when she turns she gives an imperceptible nod, which the man reports into the cuff of his suit. Charles blinks in what he knows is a childlike fashion when they walk past him and smiles.

The man is satisfied with a cursory glance at the body. Moira is sad and confused. Charles resists reaching out to her. She will get better in time, he knows. There's only so long one can grieve for someone one doesn't even remember.

After the funeral it is a matter of a minutes hour to locate the watchers, who keep tabs on the mansion, and plants the suggestion the mutants left, fearing to remain where the telepath was no longer there to shield them.

xxxxx

"I can't believe that worked," Erik says when Charles joins him in the library later that evening. The chessboard is already in place, the pieces awaiting the battle.

"It was a perfectly sound plan."

"We shall see how much breathing room it gives us."

It's not over, Charles knows. The CIA considers him eliminated, but Erik and the children will remain a concern, festering in their minds and eventually the agency will try to seek them out. It won't be for a while, Charles thinks - hopes. They will have some time to figure out the next move.

His gaze lingers on the edge of the chessboard as Erik hands him a tumbler of whiskey on the rocks. Their fingers touch on the chilly glass, and Charles smiles.

"I graduated from orange juice to alcohol?"

"So it would seem." Erik raises his own glass in a silent salute. "But only because you are adorable when you are drunk."

"God, don't remind me."

"I thought it was exceptionally sweet. I know for a fact that Azazel still grins when he hears the word 'groovy'."

"You," Charles says as he nudges a pawn two paces, "Are a horrible human being, my friend."

Erik grins at him. "And proud."

THE END.