To my fellow assassins,
I am the one responsible for the murders of Jean Grey and Scott Summers, aka the assassins Phoenix and Cyclops. I also did that other kid – what was his name? Dawkins? Darmody? Whatever, yeah, I killed that little punk. Busy day, you know how it is.
Why did I kill them, I imagine you'll ask. The truth is … I did it because I felt like it. I mean, sure, they got in my way, and all three refused to join me, even though I offered them a pretty sweet deal of murder, mayhem, and even more murder. But they declined – so I killed them.
So take note, boys and girls: I will not hesitate to remove any obstacles from my path.
P.S: By 'obstacles' I mean 'people'. And by 'remove' I mean 'kill the fuck out of'. Just so we're clear.
Ciao."Is this a joke?" Charles asks Moira incredulously.
"I don't know what this is," Moira replies tiredly.
Charles crumples the copy of Shaw's note and tosses it somewhere over his shoulder.
"Is it genuine?" he says, trying to ignore the tense coil of anger sitting on his chest. It's one thing for Shaw to have left a bloody note at the scene of Armando's death; quite another thing entirely for Shaw to completely forget his name. Charles feels his hands curl into fists of their own accord.
"Maybe," Moira says. "I've got a team working on it. You'll know when I know."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Alex bursts out. "That's it? You've got people working on it, so just sit back and relax? Seriously?"
Raven lets out a frustrated noise before Moira can form a response. "Oh, my god," she says loudly, and jabs a pointed finger in Alex's direction. "We've been through this a million times, already, Alex. What is it about staying under the radar that is so difficult for you to understand?"
"There's a difference between staying under the radar and sitting on our asses because we're too afraid to go out and kill that motherfucker like he deserves!"
"It's not a question of fear, you asshole!" Raven shouts at him. "It's about not losing another friend to that psycho – or did you miss the part where he killed Armando just because he got in the way?"
Alex's face goes bright red, and for a second, Charles thinks he might launch himself at Raven and do something they'll all regret.
But Alex takes a deep breath and says, through gritted teeth, "No, Raven, I did not miss that part. But maybe you missed it when he killed my goddamn brother and his girlfriend for the exact same reason. You think I don't know how messed up Shaw is?" he adds, when Raven looks ready to keep arguing. "Of course I know, and if I didn't before, I sure as hell do now. But hiding from a threat isn't what we do – we go out and we kill people for money, and the thrill, and a little professional pride, but mostly to wreak other peoples' vengeance because they can't do it themselves. Just because it's personal now doesn't mean we can't do the same for ourselves."
It's a nice speech, Charles will give him that. Very rousing and inspirational. Charles should have been the one to give it. Even Raven pauses before retaliating.
"And I agree with all that, Alex, honestly, I do," she says finally, quiet and conciliatory. "If it hadn't been for Armando –"
She breaks off there for a second. Charles feels something in his stomach clench at the look on her face and is simultaneously glad and annoyed that there are no guns in the immediate vicinity.
When she gets her composure back, Raven goes on with, "If Shaw hadn't just murdered our friend, I'd be right behind you out the door and looking for the bastard to make him pay. But – Armando was good, Alex, he could handle anything, and Shaw just …" She trails off again. "I just don't think any of us could handle losing another friend right now, alright?" she eventually tells Alex, who just avoids her gaze and shrugs tensely.
Catching Charles' eyes over Alex's shoulder, Raven adds, beseechingly, "Charles, tell him. It's a bad idea, right?"
"Unfortunately, Raven," Charles says, "I think I'm going to have to side with Alex on this one."
"What?" say the stunned voices of not just Raven and Alex, but Moira, Banshee, Angel and Hank as well. They're all staring at him like he's just spontaneously grown another head.
Charles smiles, although it's a little bit forced. He's sort of ridiculously angry, in a way he hasn't been since that night he argued with Raven and she stormed out, and it's hard to remember all the calm, rational reasons he gave himself and the others about why they shouldn't go out and risk their safety unnecessarily while trying to find Phoenix and Cyclops' killer.
Because, fuck it, Armando's dead and they know who did it. The only thing stopping any of them from catching up with Shaw and ripping the man's prick off and shoving it down his throat is their fear that somehow, Shaw is better than them, that he might kill them all before they get the chance to do likewise. But it's like Alex said – this is what they do. And Charles, rich, arrogant, highly-functioning sociopath that he knows he is – and proud, damnit! – would rather shoot himself before he lets a tosser like Shaw do it for him.
After he's finished explaining this to everyone in the room, there's a long silence.
"Fucking finally," Alex says eventually, and Charles is gratified to see that he's smiling for the first time since he heard about his brother.
"I am so glad you've changed your mind," Hank says, speaking for the first time since receiving the news about Armando. He says it with a surprising amount of relief, and not for the first time does Charles wonder why they let him make the decisions, since they clearly never agreed with him in the first place.
"Well I'm not," Raven says, arms folded as she glares at Charles. "So, what, I've just spent the past few weeks supporting your decision to play it safe for nothing?"
Charles thinks about this for a second. "Yes," he says.
Raven brings a hand to her face, exasperated, and mutters something that sounds a lot like, "If I don't kill him before his next birthday it'll be a fucking miracle." Eventually, she says, "Fine," and she sounds pissed as hell. "I can't say I'm not looking forward to beating the shit out of this guy, but next time, just – just make a decision you know you can stick to, alright?"
"Deal," Charles says, glad she isn't taking this harder.
"I guess I'll get going then," Moira says, getting to her feet. "I've got to see Armando's family and tell them that their son is dead and that there isn't even a goddamn body for them to bury –"
"Hold up," Banshee says, frowning. "There's no body?"
"No," Moira says, looking equally pained and furious about it. "No body, but the amount of blood at the scene – I've got opinions from two different MEs and they both agree that losing that much blood isn't compatible with survival."
To everyone's surprise, Banshee breaks out into a huge, relieved grin. "He's alive, then," he says confidently. When Moira goes to protest, he adds, "I don't care what your experts say, I know Armando, okay, and if there's no sign of a body, then he's not dead. He's not, I know it," he says, when his words are met by doubtful silence.
But nobody wants to be the one to bring Banshee back to cold, harsh reality, so no one says a word to challenge him. Banshee gets a stubborn look on his face when he realises they're essentially just humouring him, but he just huffs out a frustrated breath and slouches back in his seat rather than argue his point any further.
After Moira has gone, Charles claps his hands together. "Alright," he says loudly. "Everybody figure out what weapon they'd most like to use on Shaw and we'll meet back here at midnight, agreed?"
There's a murmur of cheerful assent around the room as Charles turns to leave. As he does so, his foot brushes against the crumpled ball of paper that was Shaw's unbelievably tasteless note, and Charles sees red.
The thing is, Charles has a temper. He usually hides it quite well, concealing it behind a combination of charm and wide-eyed idealism, and leading a double life has actually only helped him keep it buried. But when he's stressed, or in danger – always a major concern in the life of a career assassin – it tends to burst out of him in really quite volatile ways. So losing four people, two of whom are important to Charles (and one who perhaps means more than he'd like to admit) – that's pretty much beyond Charles' ability to keep a handle on his temper.
And then there's that itch under his skin, the one that has him longing for a gun in his hand and somebody to aim it at. The one that only goes away when there's blood on the walls, and his clothes, and his hands … The shock of Erik leaving and Shaw killing other assassins has proved an efficient distraction from the need to take a contract, to go out and erase some low-life from existence, but the craving – and that's exactly the right word, this is like an addiction, Charles is self-aware enough to recognise it as such – is back with a vengeance now that he's decided to do something about Shaw.
He needs to sort himself out before he goes anywhere, though. He's shaking, as much from lack of sleep and too much caffeine as from rage. If he goes after Shaw like this, he's going to end up as little more than a bruised, bleeding, dead mess in an alley somewhere. He needs something to … take the edge off, as it were.
It takes a few seconds to pull himself together, but once he does, Charles kicks aside Shaw's note and starts to stalk out of the room.
"Where the hell are you going?" Raven says, bewildered.
"Just popping out to put a bullet through somebody's brain," he says calmly, without looking back. "Won't be long."
. . .
There are dozens of contracters in the city, but the closest is the White Queen. Charles spares a second to realise this is probably a really bad idea, before he thinks, fuck it, and kicks down the door of her warehouse-slash-office-slash-base of operations.
There's no sign of the White Queen, but her two sidekicks are there. Azazel and Riptide both look up, stunned, as Charles strides into the building.
"I want a contract," Charles tells them. "I don't care who, and I don't care why, just get the White Queen in here and I can be on my way."
Azazel glances across at Riptide, who shrugs and raises his eyebrows as if to say, "Nuh-uh. You deal with him".
"She's not here," Azazel says eventually, his voice surprisingly soft for someone with a – is that a fucking sword? It is, it's a bloody sword, what the actual fuck – in his hands. "Come back later."
"Listen," Charles says amiably, and raises his hand to point a gun right at Azazel's unfortunately sun-tanned face. "I've had a really unpleasant couple of weeks, okay? I've been dumped, I've been shouted at by a very angry, very scary woman, and I've had some extremely uncomfortable revelations about my psyche. And on top of that, I've just lost a close friend," he adds, moving forward so that the muzzle of his gun is just centimetres from Azazel's forehead. "So as you can imagine, I am really not in the mood for this bullshit. Get me the White Queen, or I take out my frustration on you."
There's a suggestion of movement in the corner of Charles' eye. "You know," Riptide says icily, "you're pretty confident for a guy with no back-up."
He swings a baseball bat into view, gripping it like he's moments away from taking Charles' knees out. Charles just smiles and, before either Azazel or Riptide can register it, he's got a second gun aimed right at Riptide's heart.
"Whatever gave you the impression that I need back-up?" he says.
. . .
"Nah, you don't want that one," Azazel says, some time later, dismissively tossing aside the file of one Carole Steadman, the doctor who's recently been running around the city killing off her patients. "She ain't exactly all there, know what I mean? You go over there and threaten her with a gun, she'll probably put it in her mouth and pull the trigger for you. Where's the fun in that?"
"I'll bear that in mind," Charles says dryly. Both Azazel and Riptide are a lot more personable when they're not threatening you with grievous bodily harm, but their senses of humour are somewhat unsettling.
Riptide slides another file across the table. "This is more your style," he tells Charles, who glances at it and recognises the name as one of those that Raven found for him not so long ago. "Hit-and-run. Guy got off because one of the jurors went running his mouth to a friend. Called the whole trial into question, and our man didn't get so much as a warning. Killed a six-year-old girl," Riptide adds, so indifferently that Charles feels vaguely affronted.
"I'll take this one, then," he says finally, taking note of the name – Lester Williams – and address. "Far be it from me to let a miscarriage of justice –"
"What the fuck," says another voice, and Charles, Azazel and Riptide's heads turn, as one, to where the White Queen is standing in the doorway, arms crossed and one pale eyebrow raised, "is going on here?"
"Ah," says Azazel quietly.
"Right," says Riptide, succinctly.
The White Queen makes her way slowly over to them. Her icy gaze flicks between Azazel and Riptide, before it lands on Charles and her other eyebrow goes up. This should be fun.
"Professor X," she says coolly. "And to what do I owe this pleasure?"
"The pleasure's all mine, really," Charles says, smiling and leaning back in his seat. "I'm just here to pick up a contract, you know how it is."
The White Queen eyes him suspiciously for a few seconds. Then her mouth twitches in a faint smirk, and she says, loftily, "Still wearing that ridiculous mask, I see."
Charles self-consciously reaches up and unnecessarily straightens his mask. He hasn't worn it since Erik asked him to take it off, and now it doesn't sit right on his face. There's probably a metaphor in that, but Charles isn't touching it with a ten-foot pole.
"One has to protect their identity," Charles answers lightly. "We all have our own preferred methods of doing so."
"Quite," the White Queen replies. "Well. Have you found what you're looking for?"
"I believe I have," Charles says, waving Lester Williams' file as proof. He's rather enjoying himself. "I'll let your flunkies fill you in on the details."
"Oh, come on!" Riptide protests abruptly.
"Riptide –" Azazel starts placatingly, but Riptide speaks over him.
"Flunkies?" he echoes indignantly. "You know, I've been doing this job for years, fucking years, and all anyone remembers me for is being her –" he jerks a thumb at the White Queen, who blinks in astonishment "- goddamn lackey!"
"Oh," Charles manages, completely taken aback. "Well, I – I do apologise, Riptide, I had no –"
"It's insulting, actually," Riptide continues, apparently on a roll. "And a little hurtful. I mean, is it really so much to ask for a bit of respect?"
"Is this how you both feel?" the White Queen suddenly demands, looking to Azazel, who rubs the back of his neck uncomfortably and won't meet her eyes when he nods. "Why didn't you say something?"
Her voice is quieter and a good deal less cold. Charles looks at her askance and realises that this would probably be a good time to leave, except this is all sort of horribly fascinating and he can't quite tear himself away.
"Well, you know, it was just easier," Azazel shrugs, now avoiding everyone's gaze. "And, I mean, I don't mind so much, dunno about Riptide –"
"Whoa, wait, hold up," Riptide says, holding up his hands. "I wasn't blaming you, Em …uh. Shit," he adds, when he remembers Charles is still in the room.
"I won't tell a soul," Charles promises, hand on heart. The White Queen fixes him with a look that quite clearly tells Charles that he's going to keep that promise if he wants to keep breathing.
"Uh, right," Riptide says uncertainly, and then, to the White Queen, "No, look, this isn't your fault. It just pisses me off when people who barely know us –" he throws a pointed look at Charles, who winces and offers a very sheepish, "Sorry", "- start making assumptions and being really obnoxious about it."
The White Queen is silent for a moment. Then she slowly offers her hand to Riptide.
"Alright," she says. "Starting from now, we're partners. All three of us," she adds, looking over Riptide's shoulder to where Azazel is watching her carefully. "The next time anyone calls you a flunky, or a lackey, or whatever, we'll flip a coin to see who gets to rip their throat out. Deal?"
"Deal," Riptide says, shaking her hand, and Azazel makes a noise of agreement. It's all very solemn and professional, but there's something about the way the White Queen holds both Riptide's hand and his gaze that makes Charles feel uncomfortably like he's intruding on something far more personal.
"Professor," the White Queen says after a few seconds, turning to Charles with another cool smile. "If you've gotten what you came for, then I think we can safely say we're done here."
"Of course," Charles says, getting to his feet. "'Till next time, then, Azazel, Riptide." He gives them a wave as he makes his way to the door, and just as he's twisting the handle, adds, "Emma."
The White Queen laughs, though she doesn't sound at all amused.
"That's cute, Professor," she calls after Charles, and then, in a decidedly less friendly tone, "I hate cute."
Charles makes it out alive, but only just.
. . .
Lester Williams is tall but stocky, in his early thirties, with dirty blonde hair and a heavy-set face that not even his own mother could love. Or so his file says, and Charles casually flicks through the rest – the usual, really: absent father, working mother, an unremarkable education, a string of poorly-paid menial jobs, and a criminal record as long as Charles' arm – while Williams sleeps.
The night is cool and dry, and Williams' apartment is reasonably warm, so Charles can only assume some sort of sixth sense wakes the man up, some fifteen minutes later, just as Charles is stowing the file in an inside pocket.
"Ah, Mr Williams," Charles says in a friendly voice. "Good evening."
At the sound of Charles' voice, Williams jerks fully awake and sits up. His hand automatically goes for the nightstand, for the gun he usually keeps there, but Charles clears his throat pointedly.
"Looking for this?" he asks, holding the now-unloaded 9mm up. "Sorry, Mr Williams – can I call you Lester? Wonderful," Charles adds, without waiting for an answer. "I believe in taking precautions. For future reference, I'd suggest you keep it under your pillow."
Williams' eyes go from Charles' face to the gun in his hand and back again, before he says, "So – so you're not gonna kill me, then?"
Charles makes a face. "Figure of speech," he says apologetically. "Of course I'm going to kill you."
"But – why? What have I done to you? I don't even know who you are!" Williams is backed up against the headboard now, hands gripping the sheets tightly.
Charles sighs. He really hates having to explain things to people he's only going to kill anyway, but some part of him – probably his seldom-used conscience, it's the only thing it's good for these days – always demands he be fair about these things.
"You've done nothing to me, as far as I know," Charles says eventually. "It's about someone far more important: Rachel Miller."
Williams frowns. "Who?"
"And that," Charles says flatly, "was the point at which I might have spared you." He stands up, tossing Williams' gun to the floor and taking out his own. "Rachel Miller, the six-year-old girl you ran down several months ago while you were fleeing from a bank you'd just robbed. The girl who might have survived if you'd only stopped and called an ambulance. The girl whose family now has to live with the knowledge that you got off scot-free while they bury their daughter tomorrow."
"Oh," Williams says quietly. "That girl."
"Yes, Lester, that girl. Now, if you wouldn't mind, I think I'll be getting on with my work."
"No! No, wait!" Williams says, holding his hands up defensively. "I've got money –"
"So have I," Charles interrupts. "Possibly more than you've ever seen in your pathetic little life, Lester, believe me. I don't do this for the money."
"Well, what then? What do you want?"
"Right now, I want to see your brains splattered across the wall," Charles tells him brightly. "At some point, that's going to happen, you just have to choose how – the easy way, or the hard way."
Williams appears to think about this, which is a mistake on Charles' part, although this doesn't become apparent until twenty seconds later, when Williams says, "Gonna have to be the hard way, then," and leaps from the rather shabby mattress towards Charles, who doesn't manage to pull his gun up in time.
He goes down under a hail of blows from Williams' heavy fists; both his gun and his mask go skittering off into the corner, while Charles kicks out wildly and connects with Williams' kneecap. He lets out a grunt of pain but doesn't stop attempting to pummel Charles' face into the threadbare carpet, and Charles swears out loud and grabs Williams' wrist on the next swing and twists.
Something snaps, Charles can feel the crack of a bone under Williams' skin, and Williams cries out and rolls away. Charles gets to his feet quickly, but not quick enough, because Williams' strategic retreat has taken him to where Charles' gun is, and now he's got it in his hand, staring down the sights through streaming eyes, his injured hand cradled to his chest.
"A little advice," he spits. "Don't stand there threatening your mark, it only gives them time to come up with an escape plan."
Charles laughs, more to annoy Williams than because he finds the situation funny. "Lester, my friend, did I ever tell you who I am?"
Williams thrusts the gun towards Charles face. "I don't give a fuck," he hisses. "You could be the goddamn President and I still wouldn't –"
Over his shoulder, Charles sees a faint movement. The shadow of the curtains is wrong, although Charles isn't sure why. Puzzled, but with more pressing matters on his mind, he sticks his hand out and says to Williams, "Professor X, nice to meet you."
From here, he can see Williams' pupils contract, which gives Charles the same warm, fuzzy feeling that a picture of kittens gives to a small child.
"Oh," Williams says weakly. "Shit."
"Indeed," Charles smiles, and then blinks when an incredibly sharp blade appears from nowhere to press against Williams' neck.
"Put the gun down, and back the hell away," says Erik.
. . .
Ten minutes later and Charles still can't believe this is happening.
Williams is handcuffed to a radiator, a thin red line at his throat where Erik's knife had broken the skin -
("Whoops, sorry about that," Erik had said blandly, as he'd shoved the struggling Williams to the floor. "Any deeper and you'd be bleeding out by now. Painful way to go. So I've heard.").
- his face sullen. He's quiet for now, but Charles gets the impression he's just storing it all up and he's going to let loose any second. Charles doesn't think he can stand that.
Meanwhile, Erik is leaning against the wall, looking for all the world as though the past three weeks haven't happened, as though he didn't just leave Charles without any kind of explanation – at which point anger loosens Charles' tongue.
"How did you know where I was?" he asks tightly.
Erik's expression turns cagey. "I, uh," he says, tapping his knife against his thigh nervously. "I might have been following you." The last few words are said so quietly Charles has to strain to hear them.
"Oh," Charles says finally, resolutely telling himself that this is not the least bit romantic, he really needs to stop reading Twilight, goddamnit.
"I heard about Darwin," Erik adds, looking up, and something in Charles snaps.
"Don't you – don't you dare," he says furiously. "If you say you're sorry, I will tear your head off, Erik, I mean it."
Erik opens his mouth, then closes it without a word.
Charles can't look at him without wanting to break something, so he looks down and makes sure his gun hasn't been damaged in the fight. In the silence, Williams lets out a snort.
"Really?" he sneers. "This is the best you can do? I've spent the past I-don't-know-how-many years hearing about the great Professor X, and it turns out he's too busy arguing with his boyfriend to finish a fucking job?"
Charles grits his teeth. "Shut up," he says quietly.
Williams ignores him. "I mean, seriously? I've seen junkies and frightened teenagers more professional than you –"
"I said," Charles says, gripping his gun with shaking hands, "shut up."
"- wait 'till people hear about this, you'll never get another contract in your life –"
"Shut up!" Charles shouts, though it's drowned out by the sound of his gun firing, and when the echoes of the shot fade away, Williams is slumped forward, mouth sagging, eyes blank. There's a splatter of blood on the wall behind him, a glistening, dull red that matches the colour of the wound on Williams' forehead.
Charles sucks in a breath, his heart thudding in his ears. He glances up and catches Erik's eyes and –
The next thing he knows, he's being shoved hard against the wall, and Erik's mouth is on his, an impatient, greedy kiss that Charles feels all the way down to his toes. Charles' hands hang helplessly by his sides, his gun falling to the floor with a clatter that he barely registers. Erik is pressing him into the wall, a long, hot line against him, and –
Charles slaps him. Honest-to-god, all-out bitchslaps him so hard that his hand stings with the force of it.
There's a stunned silence. A bright red handprint colours the side of Erik's face as they stare at each other, and Charles tries to shake some feeling back into his hand.
"Your reflexes have gotten better," Erik says at last.
Charles is very tempted to slap him again. "I'll show you reflexes," he says indignantly, and hauls Erik forward into another brutal kiss.
Things are very hazy for the next few minutes, and when Charles surfaces from Erik's mouth, he's on his tiptoes, one leg hooked around Erik's hip, clutching at Erik's shirt and muttering, "You arsehole, you complete and utter wanker." He breaks off as Erik slides a hand into his hair and tugs, baring his throat, his breath hitching when Erik sinks his teeth into his skin. "I was miserable without you, ask Raven, I wrecked another study when you didn't come back – god, why didn't you come back, you bastard, do you know how long you've been gone –" Charles lets out a soft whimper as Erik grabs his other leg and wraps it around his waist and pushes him further up the wall, "- oh, hell, tell me later, you're going to fuck me right here –"
Erik lets out a loud groan, his head falling against Charles' collarbone. "Did I –" he starts, and swallows hard. "Charles, did I ever tell you about my mother?"
Charles freezes in the act of unzipping his pants. "I'm sorry," he says blankly, "I think I heard you wrong. Did you really just say –"
"My mom, yeah," Erik says, and there's a barely-there smile at the corners of his mouth that drives away the sarcastic retort Charles had been about to utter.
"Okay," Charles says slowly instead. He unwinds his legs from around Erik's waist and takes a steadying breath. "Okay, I think we've skipped a few vital steps here – really fun, sexy steps, I'll have you know – and it's been a very long day for me. So I think the best solution is to go home and get really drunk."
He gently pushes Erik away and kneels down to retrieve his gun. When he straightens up, Erik is watching him with a shuttered expression on his face. Charles starts to leave, stopping at the door to call back, "That was an invitation, by the way."
Charles suspects, when he and Erik leave the building together, that they both have matching, unbelievably stupid grins on their faces.
Charles is absolutely okay with that.