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[FIC] "A Greater Compliment," a gift for aeronautilus

Title: A Greater Compliment
Author: speak_me_fair
A Gift For: aeronautilus
Characters/Pairings: Erik Lehnsherr/Charles Xavier, Mystique/Azazel, Riptide (Janos Quested), Sean Cassidy, mention of just about everyone else.
Rating: PG-13
Length: 6,700 (approx)
Summary: A letter, a war, a courtship, and a trip to the Empire State Building. None of these things are quite what they seem, but Charles is damned if he's going to accept that on trust.



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"To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved."

— George MacDonald


*

Janos — Riptide — his mind says, but Charles has rules and one of them is going to be the names thing, damn it, so he'd better get used to Janos pretty bloody quickly if he wants to settle in — is the first to arrive.

He comes to the school in the early morning, walking across the lawn as though paths are beyond his comprehension, leaving tracks behind him on the dew-frosted grass that everyone politely pretends don't start in the middle of nowhere.

Sean is all prepared to greet him like a particularly vicious bird of prey, scrambling up the stairs to the roof and his worst scream building in his mind, all ready to swoop and destroy — although what he's planning to do once he's accomplished his attack is a complete blank to him, and so to Charles as well, though Charles is somewhat relieved at the fact Sean still hasn't mastered the intricacies of planning violence.

The explosion of desired chaos in his mind had been quite unpleasant enough, as far as wake-up calls go, without adding focused desired chaos to the heart-pounding alertness assaulting him.

Sean it's too damned early stay where you are — he slams into a conflicted and furious Sean's mind, and is relieved when the urge to move fight act is relinquished in favour of sullen obedience.

He gets himself into the chair and out of the house in a rather less dignified manner than he would have preferred, but considering everyone else is just waking up in varying states of confusion as Sean channels his energy into making sure they are all awake, he decides that he has at least come out on top as far as an assumption of coherency goes.

He has no qualms about reading Janos's thoughts.

More oddly, Janos has absolutely no problem with letting him straight into his mind, as though this is a completely normal form of conversation for him.

Emma, Charles remembers, and wonders why Erik's Brotherhood haven't built up better defences against mental intrusion, what with her continual presence in their midst.

The response is startling.

"We have, of course," Janos says, gravely polite and his voice very soft. "But I have no objection to your establishing my motives."

And his motives are simple.

Janos no longer believes in violence, except when it is necessary to protect himself and those like him. He has no interest in a war.

And Erik and his Brotherhood do not need his protection, so he came —

"I was sent," Janos corrects him, and if he had smiled, Charles would have hit him with a lasting mental cut that would have scalded him with embarrassment at two a.m. for the rest of his life, but there is no sense even of hidden amusement lurking in his eyes or mouth or mind. He is steady and serious and calm, even as Hank comes to Charles's side. "I was sent. This is a very different thing, Professor. Here I can do good. Your protection is not —"

Adequate — his mind finishes, and Charles knows very well indeed where that dry understatement has come from.

"We do just fine," Hank rumbles.

"And yet I am here," Janos points out. "If it were, I would not be."

"Look, we don't want your damn kill-first ethics here —" Hank is working himself up into a fine exposition of beliefs, and Charles raises his hand to silence him, quietly delighted when that simple gesture still works on Hank, who is no longer very easily quelled at all.

"He's not bringing anyone's ethics here, Hank," he says, withdrawing from Janos's mind. "He's offering help. On our terms. Where will you go, Janos, if I say no?"

"Back to Magneto, of course," Janos says, simplistic and honest. "Mutants will always have a home with him. But he said I would find more worth to my wants here."

More worth to my wants. Somehow Charles doubts those were the words Erik had used, but to go back into Janos's mind, having extracted himself so neatly and professionally and quietly, simply to find out his most recent memories of Erik, would be a form of sophistry that even now he is not prepared to develop.

There are some forms of pure selfishness that he still refuses to allow himself.

Janos does smile, then, a small and private look that is oddly confusing; there is affection in it as well as a gentle sort of amusement, and neither of those are things Charles could have ever imagined from the man who creates whirlwinds merely for the love of destruction.

"He said you would not believe that," he agrees. "If you are willing to read it, he sent a note."

"Oh come on —!" The words come from Hank like an explosion, disbelieving fury powering them. "Like we're going to believe a note from —"

"Hank," Charles grits out in exasperation, and manages to restrain a sigh. The way Hank and Alex behave at any mention of contact with Erik is disturbingly like medieval peasants under threat from bubonic plague when they hear a sneeze.

It's a relief to hear Sean's pounding footsteps behind him.

"Banshee," Janos says, restored to his former solemnity.

"Sean," Charles corrects him automatically, even while a rather confused part of him is wondering why Sean merited a greeting when Hank did not.

But Janos merely inclines his head, and repeats, "Sean," in the same neutral tones.

Unable to resist, Charles takes a look at his surface thoughts, curious more than anything, and catches himself on the brink of laughter at what he finds.

When in doubt, say nothing, had been Janos's approach, and he had thought all appellations for Hank were either guaranteed to infuriate him or far too informal. So he had chosen to say nothing.

"Ah," Charles says. "Janos, you're going to have to work that one out for yourself, if you're staying."

"He's staying?" Sean yelps.

"If he wants," Charles agrees, deliberately enigmatic, and holds out his hand for the note, not entirely surprised when Sean intercepts Janos on his way up the steps to take it from him.

"Uh, Professor, I think this is —"

"Well, I do hope so, otherwise I've just been thoroughly lied to," Charles says with all the dryness he can muster, which considering the circumstances is a surprising amount. "You don't have a secondary mutation with regards to telepathy and lying to a telepath, do you, Janos?"

This time the amusement goes all the way to Janos's eyes.

"No," he says, as Sean stands uncomfortably on the steps, holding the folded paper uncertainly as though it might suddenly explode.

"Excellent," Charles says, and then, "Sean. I believe that's addressed to me?"

"Uh," Sean says, staring between Charles and Janos. "Yeah. Sorry. Here."

"Thank you," Charles says politely, and then — "Oh. Perhaps you should find Janos a room."

He is not quite certain of what provokes the unusual silence as he manoeuvres his chair around to go back in the house, but he is somehow under no illusions that it has anything to do with courtesy. The lack of the usual helpful offers of unwanted assistance, however, is something for which he is more than grateful.

~~


Charles,

I do not know how you will respond to Riptide's arrival, nor to the knowledge that your sanctuary is — and always has been — so easily accessible to Azazel. Perhaps that discovery may stand as a token of good faith, rather than a potential threat; I have no way of knowing and, possibly hypocritically, have no intention of allowing you to make your feelings known to me directly on the matter.

But since I have made a gesture of good will in allowing you even to know this much, I would like to ask one thing in return.

Let Riptide stay with you.

You always promised and promise the mutants you find a sanctuary, while I have always thought that same word to mean 'stagnation' rather than a means of protection. I want, you believe conversely, which is not true — I want to give all those like us, like Mystique, like Azazel who will never be able to hide who and what he is, a chance to fight for what they should have been given freely — and you believe that to fight is to declare war, and that to do so is inherently and morally repugnant.

We cannot and will never agree on this. But perhaps there is something we can agree upon, namely, that I cannot change what I desire, and nor can you.

As important a truth is this: nor should I, nor should you.

Perhaps you are right, that not only do we not want the same things, but that we never did.

But I cannot bring myself to entirely believe that. I would do anything to protect those I love, who are mine. I know you would do, and are doing, the same.

If you are reading this, you know why Riptide has come to you. You may not like it, but you need the more immediate means of protection he can offer as much as — unwilling though I am to concede this point — he currently needs this sanctuary you offer so very blithely, and in my opinion naively, more than he does anything I am able to offer him.

To tell you this is not to say that I think I was ever in error, nor that I believe I am wrong in my opinions now.

But I am prepared to admit that in many respects, nor were you. Nor are you. I admit this knowing very well that you will never make a similar concession.

This once, then, I am saying please — or is it asking? No matter — believing you won't refuse a straightforward request for — shall we call it mercy? — to be extended towards Riptide.

If my belief is misplaced, and you cannot bring yourself to give way even that much, please send him home, where no harm will come to him.

Magneto.


Charles wonders when it was that he became the intransigent one, the one who has to be plea-bargained with; the one who has to be coaxed, flattered, coerced, outright implored for anything at all.

He, the one who insists upon peace, is being treated like a dictator.

He decides not to think about that.

Then he wonders how long it took Erik to decide on his signature.

He manages to almost entirely convince himself that Erik didn't even need to think about it, no matter what the rest of the note tells him as to how much thought went into its phrasing, its painful honesty.

(The low, confident voice of his gut instinct, the voice he listens to less and less these days, because what use has it ever been to him? tells him it was almost a day, and probably more, tells him that Erik handed it to Janos as soon as he was done, for fear he would throw the whole missive away and then regret what must have felt like weakness.)

It is easier, as it always is, to pay attention only to surface thoughts — his own, as well as those of others.

Janos has no hidden agenda, Charles has no intention of using him as the weapon Erik doubtless imagines he should be, and Erik's note does not reflect the truth of anyone's feelings.

On the surface.

And that, Charles thinks determinedly, is where it is all going to stay, in the name of a relatively peaceful existence, and the possibility of future courtesy.

Somewhere along one of the hallways, something breaks very loudly, and he sighs.

Having Sean and Janos in the same house brings up the potential for a whole new cornucopia of potential destruction that he really does not feel equipped to deal with.

The sound of Sean's gleeful and slightly malicious laughter confirms him both in his fears and in his assumption that it had been Janos who had broken whatever it was (probably the vase on the hallway table, which never gets used for anything — and quite possibly never will be again, the smashing noise really had sounded quite thorough — and yet somehow seems to get closer to the table edge as the day goes on.)

He supposes it's one way of solving problems — just break it past fixing and so make sure it's no longer there to worry about.

Really quite elegant, as far as solutions go, he has to admit.

On the surface.

~~


Azazel brings Emma Frost to the mansion next, though he does not leave her alone as he did Janos, that early morning.

Charles skims his thoughts — he knows better than to try Emma's mind for anything — and finds that same strange affection-amusement feeling that he saw in Janos, underlying a calm ease and ready permission for Charles to investigate as thoroughly as he would like.

She can help, they say, so why not...

If she causes trouble I will take her and return...

I do not trust her promise but she has given it...
and that thought trails off even more than the others, because that promise, whatever it is, was not given to Azazel, but to Erik — to Magneto — and Azazel is worried that mention of his name might cause Charles to refuse to listen to them.

The thought is strangely painful, as though he is being misjudged — and somehow, he is quite sure it is not his own pain at the thought he is feeling.

Emma's, perhaps, since she stands there beside them, still silent, and might well be in Azazel's mind enough to leave traces of her emotions behind. No matter how careful and controlled she is usually, the general mistrust in which she is held, even after she has made her opinions and stance clear, must be difficult for her.

Azazel's own feelings? No. Not even on the surface can Charles convince himself of that. Azazel moved past what he considers to be such petty concerns as hurt feelings long ago.

Charles refuses to consider anything and anyone else it might belong to, what would have led Azazel, who left even the possibility of regretting his actions behind him somewhere in the past, to have the sharp tang of sorrow hovering around his mind.

Azazel, after all, had abandoned all such human traits years before, and —

Longer ago than you can imagine... Azazel thinks at him, and yes, that is always the damnable thing about being in someone's head — if you're not careful, you are in their head and they can hear you as clearly as the reverse. But Azazel is not insulted or annoyed or even surprised, he is simply waiting for Charles to finish.

Charles, intrigued, looks a little deeper, sees further back than he had ever imagined, sees thoughts so old they are almost race-memory — and are not, cannot be, for Azazel is alone, terribly alone, and always has been —

"I would prefer it if you restricted yourself to my more recent activities," Azazel says aloud, and Charles hears, very clearly, from, I suggest, the last hundred years. We do not have time for much more.

"Good God."

Azazel's gesture at himself is mocking. "Hardly," he says very dryly, and Charles nods, conceding the point. "Do I have your permission to speak with Riptide?"

"Janos," Charles says pointedly, "should be in the training room, and I don't feel comfortable letting you —"

The black smoke that cuts him off and simultaneously makes up both Azazel's response and disappearance is both annoying and expected.

"I've asked him about making it smell better," Emma says dryly, waving a hand in front of her face, "but so far? No change."

Quite unexpectedly, Charles finds himself laughing.

"We're not here to spy, Xavier," Emma says in the same tones. "We've got no interest in losing this place its status as a self-proclaimed sanctuary." She imbues the last word with the same distaste that Erik's letter made clear.

I have always thought that same word to mean 'stagnation'...

"And I hardly think you're in need of the same help as Janos," Charles says mildly. "So what's this about, Miss Frost? Other than to remind me that whatever Janos has been working on to help keep this place safe, it obviously didn't involve keeping out teleporters."

"Oh, I'm sure he has," Emma says, still amused. "Just not this teleporter. You can't ask someone to block out a friend, can you?"

Charles's mind goes blank with a kind of hard rage. Master manipulator that Emma is, she is also as cutting as her diamond form, and utterly incapable of restraining herself from showing off her insights, no matter how she comes by them.

"Not a friend, no," he agrees flatly, but he takes no satisfaction from the way something small and sad flickers in her cool eyes. Whatever she had hoped for, coming here, he has disabused her of it.

He does not feel guilty in the slightest.

"Well," Emma says briskly, "Pleasantries being all covered, I expect you'd like to know why I'm here."

"I wouldn't mind," Charles agrees. "But out loud, if you please, I have no intention of going anywhere near that death-trap you call a mind."

"Sugar, we can safely say that goes double for me," Emma said, wholly unoffended. "And I'm not — let's just say I've got my instructions, and they surely do not include overstepping any boundaries."

"A civilised discussion, then?"

"If we can," Emma says, her eyes clear and looking directly at him. Charles realises she has been doing so since she arrived with Azazel, no guilty flicker or poorly concealed fascination in her gaze. Emma sees power, not appearance, and in him more than anyone she sees her opponent, her direct adversary. He could be blind and deaf and entirely frozen beyond all movement, and Emma would view him no differently.

It's a strangely consoling thought, and makes Charles feel just a touch more receptive of whatever it is she is here to suggest.

As it is, he doesn't need to feel receptive at all. What he does feel, quite unexpectedly, is shocked and sick and rather less happy with himself than he has been in a long time.

That Erik should think he has to ask about sending children that the Brotherhood encounter to his school, if they are too young or too — well. Little though Charles approves of the word, he knows it to be true.

Damaged.

But that Erik believes he has to ask! Intolerable thought.

And yet — sadly understandable.

There are far too many reasons that Erik dislikes the word sanctuary, and Charles knows damn well that first on the list, whether he admits it even to himself or not, is the fact that he was never offered one until it was too late.

Even when Charles is at his angriest, his bitterest, even in the moments where he has come close to blaming Erik for every evil the world contains and his own inability to fight them while standing upright and unassisted, he has never even considered that those would be aspects of Shaw's inheritance Erik planned or plans on taking up.

"Dear God, Emma, neither of you needed to even —" he starts, and then realises, with returning clarity of thought, why it is Emma who is here, why Azazel did not simply deliver a note.

Charles is not the only one who has lost faith since Cuba.

Erik, who had very little to lose in the first place, has lost his, as well.

And his was only ever placed in himself, before Charles —

"You didn't do him any favours," Emma agrees. She sounds almost sad — perhaps mourning the loss of the absolutism Erik could have been forcing upon all mutants everywhere, rather than giving them a choice. Could have been, would have been, perhaps — if only Charles had left him alone with his beliefs.

But he hadn't, he didn't; at the time, he thinks, he genuinely believed it was impossible to either let Erik walk away or to draw back himself. And it's resulted in him doing something much worse, if he's honest, starting off by telling Erik he was not alone and then ending it by telling him that he was, that he is, that in the only way that matters, he's on his own.

My capacity for self-sabotage, just for the sake of lashing out and a moment's satisfaction. It's not just a failing, it's a bloody disease.

"He thought if he asked, I would say no. Because it's him asking." Charles swallows. "God, how did it come to this?"

"It's not as simple as that," Emma says. "Janos offered something in exchange, when he arrived. But potential children, with no idea of how many, or where they come from, or what they can do — it's a lot to ask, Xavier, even if you were both still friends, it's a lot to ask of anyone. He knows that. I'm his gesture of good faith, this time. And I have to tell you, I'm not enjoying the experience one bit."

Good faith. Professional respect. When did they start meaning the same thing?

But that's not the point, and he won't allow Emma to distract him from it with her little divergences into fascinating approximations of honesty.

"It's — no. You're talking about children," Charles says, and he knows he sounds cold and hard and uncaring, and cannot change the tones of his voice for the life of him. "He has no right to assume I would do anything except agree to help in any way possible."

Emma sighs, and her shoulders curl in a little for one brief moment, but when she looks up from her hands, her smile is as bright and relentless as ever.

"Well, I'm glad we've got that settled," she says, determinedly, painfully professional and cheerful. "Thank you for your time, Professor. I'll wait for Azazel outside, if I may. I'm sure you've got any number of eager eyes to make sure I don't stray too far from acceptability."

Not cheerful at all, then, Charles realises. Murderously angry, though he's not sure whether it's with him or the world.

She walks out of the room as though she were the owner, confident and easy in her gait.

And Charles, his world rocked too many times in a brief space of time to be able to keep to his vow to remain on the surface of his own emotions, lets himself start to realise what is happening.

It is war. They are at war, all of them. Erik is right.

But so is he, he is right too, because this is no place where violence can serve as part of any answer; it is not a battle where training will count. It is a war of attrition. An attrition of faith, of belief, of affection.

There will be no victors, if this continues.

There can be no victors. Not when they are doing it to themselves.

~~


There are other arrivals. Children, sometimes — more often transient guests, in need of a place to stay while they decide what they want, what they need, where they belong. Charles never tries to convince them to choose the school and his methodology, knowing that by the gesture of using a strangely-willing Azazel as a means of transport, Erik too is staying clear of anything resembling preaching — at least to those too young or frightened or badly-treated to be truly capable of making that kind of decision.

Gestures of good will, Charles thinks, and tries not to think of the other meanings behind what they are doing, as though they are bargaining with fate by having these strange instances of ceasefire, giving their ideals over as hostages to an uncaring fortune, in order to salvage what they can of those too-few things they admit they agree on.

The children and the short-stay visitors always seem to find a kind of security in Azazel's company, find him reassuring and accept what he tells them without too much difficulty — and Azazel always has his mind open to Charles, an explanation ready and waiting to be pulled out, or simply skimmed across, effortless communication on both sides.

Charles has less to do, when it comes to convincing people to at least try out the idea of safety, than he ever had before, even when they all worked together.

He is trying not to rely on it becoming a constant.

So when he hears the sound of someone starting to walk down the hallway, seemingly out of nowhere, he knows it is Azazel, as it always is, but he has come alone — which has come to mean recently that he is interested in seeing Janos, and nothing else.

Charles is not sure how he knows that there is something different about this time, that there is more to this visit than a simple meeting with a friend, but nonetheless, he does. Azazel is alone, but his mind is buzzing with determination — and uncertainty.

Charles has come to the point now, with Azazel, where he would consider it rude to pry much further without asking permission. He wonders at times if he would ever have got there with anyone again, were it not for the reminder that once, he had ignored boundaries quite blithely — and the result had been a gaping silence in his mind and heart that he knows will never quite leave his awareness.

But Azazel is easy to deal with, in that he is frighteningly straightforward and has no concept of subtlety. If whatever's bothering him is something he thinks they need to discuss, Charles has no doubt that they will.

When he puts his head round Charles's study door, therefore, he is prepared for any number of possible outcomes — and strangely, none of them cause him anxiety.

"Janos is —" Charles starts immediately and possibly over-optimistically, and Azazel shakes his head, interrupting him — a rare discourtesy that surprises Charles a little.

"No, this time I am here to see you."

"You can't possibly tell me you want to stay. You come in and out of here more than a bloody cat with a new catflap, I'm thinking of setting you up a room just so I don't have to greet you every time."

"No," Azazel says gravely, "I do not want to stay. I leave cravings for peace and complete avoidance of reality to Riptide."

"Not to me?"

"But you do not believe in peace except as an end result," Azazel says, seating himself comfortably in a chair. "Like Moses, you imagine you are going to die before you get there, and you do not think you will even get to see it from a distance, but you believe it will happen, nevertheless. Riptide thinks — or tries to think, I am unclear on this — that if he lets Sean and Alex resent him enough, he will earn half an hour of real-time peace a day, or some such nonsense. I do not talk to him about that, it is very dull."

"And you want to... talk to me?" Charles asks, utterly bewildered. The thought of having a philosophical discussion with a mutant who not only happens to be thousands of years old, but bears an uncanny resemblance to the traditional form generally attributed to the Christian Devil, is somewhat unnerving.

"Not really," Azazel says, and gestures at his head. "Oh, go on, you know you do not want to resist."

"Azazel, your temptation powers are getting rusty," Charles says, rolling his eyes, but he takes the invitation for what it is — a concession on Azazel's part that he is uncertain of what he wants to say — and focuses on reading Azazel's thoughts instead of analysing his odd behaviour.

It is the same as always, at first, that overlying feeling of affection-amusement, tempered as it has become recently with associations of friendship, because of Janos, and a healthy amount of wariness, because of Emma — though why Emma should have been the one to finally convince Azazel that the school is not, in fact, a haven built solely for the hopelessly naïve is somewhat beyond him. Their conversation, after all, had been more than civil — and Emma could not have read his mind, or she would know how very far from his outward demeanour he had been feeling, by the end of her visit.

Still. Wariness, and friendliness, and the usual half-laughter, and — oh.

"Raven?" Charles says, stunned. "Raven and you?"

"Mystique," Azazel says patiently. "And — yes. She would not approve of my telling you, or my thinking that you should even know. But —"

Magneto said precisely the opposite, Charles pulls from him, a confused impression of too many emotions from too many people following that; Azazel uncertain as to what anyone had really felt or meant, and so still finding it impossible to convey anything clearly.

But this much is true. Raven — Mystique, he reminds himself sternly — and Erik have fought, and have done so, ironically, in the way that only families can, while all the time arguing about the nature of family.

"It was funny," Azazel agrees, obviously picking up on his amusement, if not the cause of it. "They became very loud."

Charles nods. "Does she still slam doors?"

"Yes," Azazel says with a smile. "It is one argument which does not prove effective against me." His smile turns wicked. "I have become far more precise in my movements and timing, of late."

Charles snorts. He can imagine only too well.

"So, yes, this was — hmm, this month, I think, has mostly been concerned with their argument. Now, of course, Mystique is angry with me, as well, because I told her I did not agree with her. She thinks that to love, or to be lovers, means that whether I agree or disagree, I should support her. She also thinks that all family is what we choose, and if we change our minds, so be it. And so — there has been fighting."

"Ah," Charles says, understanding all too well, and then — "But —"

"You think Magneto believes the same? Oh no." Azazel smiles, and this time it is strangely sad, a memory more than an emotion. "No, he has never believed that. Only wished it were possible, but then — who has not wished and hoped, in their time?"

They talk a little more, Charles carefully not playing the role of the paternalistic boor that Raven seems to have assumed he would instantly inhabit, Azazel as carefully not holding out any empty assurances of how he will behave.

It is as though they have mutually agreed, without even the aid of Charles's telepathy, that such things are far, far beyond them or indeed beyond logical expectation. Raven has chosen her path, and she will walk it no matter what any of them say — up to and including Azazel, so much is clear.

But when Azazel has gone, and Charles is left alone to think of what he has been told, he allows himself to finally hear the rest of what Azazel had come to tell him, however obliquely; he lets himself think about what lies behind those days and days of fighting that Raven and Erik had apparently indulged in, the memory very clear in Azazel's mind and kept apart and safe and crystalline, waiting for Charles to find it.

"You don't get to tell me who my family is!"

"No, and I don't try, either. But I'm not going to let you soothe your conscience by saying 'he doesn't love me, he never loved me, I don't care'. Because he did, and he does, and you do. Grow up, Mystique. Love doesn't come to order — and nor does stopping it."


Mystique's rage had come from that casually-flung taunt 'grow up', Erik's from what he saw as her refusal to accept reality. Their two deepest intolerancies, used against each other.

No wonder they're fighting, Charles thinks, and wonders just how bad it must be, living in the same building — or even the same complex — as those two, right this minute.

He does not look too carefully at why he is so consoled — more than that, so reassured — by what Azazel has deliberately told him without ever breaking anyone's trust by repeating that exchange aloud.

And he carefully, carefully keeps his mind away from dwelling too much on what the teleporter had said, just before they moved on to less intrusive matters.

Who has not wished and hoped, in their time?

~~


"Why's everyone blaming me?" Sean moans a few months later. It's not, Charles thinks uncharitably, that cold and wet is a very good look on anyone, but on Sean it just looks pathetic beyond any kind of mortal measurement.

"Because," he says, not particularly nicely, "this was your idea."

"You could have said no way!"

"Believe me," Charles says wearily, "I really wish I'd had that foresight."

Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with Sean's idea — at least there hadn't been, when he initially suffered from it. Now, however, when he is unwillingly stuck on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, in a howling gale and attendant lashing rain, Charles can quite safely say that his reluctance to turn down anything that seems like willing participation has put him in a position where what he really wants to do is to shout for a lengthy period of time about Terrible Ideas.

"But schools!" Sean is still, hopelessly, pursuing his point. "Schools have field trips, right, so we should have field trips, and this place —"

And then he goes a startling red, his skin patchily flushed with cold and embarrassment and the impact of the wind.

"This place?" Charles is honestly confused. As far as he can tell, 'this place' is something that seems like a wonderful idea in theory and is an absolute disaster in practise, particularly when put together with five youngsters whose interest had waned before they even got to the building, Janos trying to corral them like a particularly elegant sheepdog, and Sean performing his idea of a guided tour.

"Has elevators," Sean says in an unhappy whisper. "Like, there's all these famous places, but this one —"

Charles understands. He wishes to God he didn't, but he understands.

"So I thought..." Sean continues in the unhappy, dogged voice of someone who feels they are very thoroughly in the wrong and are not quite sure how this has happened, "I thought, yeah, elevators, observation deck, really famous building..."

"Five mutant children on a sugar high and me? Congratulations, Sean, you've outdone yourself." Sarcasm is a remarkably effective way of letting people know you're not really that annoyed, Charles has come to realise.

Sean laughs, and rubs his hands over the back of his neck. "Yeah, I'm awesome like that," he says, but he looks a lot less miserable. "Man, how'd Alex get out of this one anyway?"

"He said something about the temptation of using his plasma beams on the whole building being too much to bear," Charles says with a straight face. "Of course, I believed him implicitly."

"Uh-huh," says Sean, the scepticism almost tangible and born of painful, Alex-based experience. "Janos lost a bet, didn't he?"

"Yes," Charles agrees instantly. "And quite possibly a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. Not that I would know."

Sean grins at him. "Yeah, funny how you guess so well, I'm all impressed," he says, and bounces off to convince the kids that no, no-one wants to see the really cool thing you worked out last night, thanks, guys, that's — yeah, also? Get down from there, now.

Charles isn't quite managing not to laugh. Rain, cold and wind aside, there's something fantastically, terribly wonderful about watching Sean Cassidy being forced into the position of 'responsible adult'.

Judging from the expression on Janos's face, he more than agrees.

"Imagine," says a familiar voice from behind Charles, "if I had thrown him from here. Of course, you would have been forced to do a lot more work than I remember you doing at the time, what with needing to wipe out the memories of most of Manhattan, but the thought is still an amusing one."

Even if Charles were not restricted by the damned and damnable chair, he doesn't think he could have turned around. He certainly can't reach out with his mind. He doesn't want to know.

He is desperate to know.

And he's not going to ask, and he's not going to move, and he's certainly not going to make a fool of himself by coming up against that blasted helmet with an attempt to feel that familiar, well-loved, badly missed mind — and failing to feel a thing.

"Hello, Erik," he says, and is impressed by his own calm. "Dare I ask what you're doing here?"

"Would you believe I lost a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors with Azazel?" Erik asks dryly, making it clear he has been listening in for some time.

"Possibly," Charles says. He wonders if it's appropriate to smile, any more, at Erik's terrible sense of humour. "I'm more shocked by the concept that Azazel would admit to knowing how to play it."

"Ah. Inconsistencies in a story. Emma keeps telling me that's what'll get you every time." Erik quite obviously has as little idea as Charles how this conversation is supposed to go. "Charles, damn it, will you at least look at me?"

And it's not that odd a request.

It's not that terrible a thing to do.

It's not hard at all to turn one's head — and yet Charles can't, he absolutely can not do this, it's a gesture of implicit faith and unwanted hope too far.

"You are the most stubborn man I have ever had the misfortune to meet," Erik says, but he doesn't sound angry. He sounds amused.

He sounds like Janos's mind felt, all that time ago, like Azazel's so often does.

He sounds like affection and amusement and something Charles had almost successfully convinced himself had never existed in the first place, like all the things between the lines of the letter; in Janos's self-containment when faced with all the animosity Hank could conjure, that first morning as he stood in the dew; in Azazel's memories of Erik's month-long argument with Raven about family and —

—and love.

Who has not wished and hoped, in their time?

A gesture of good faith.


Emma, repeating those same words, as though she were trying to give him a far more important message.

The sadness flickering across her cool clear gaze when he failed to respond.

The children Azazel has been bringing to the mansion.

The temporary guests who have asked for nothing, nothing but a roof over their head and to be left in peace.

The words Erik must have agonised over, long before any of it began, before he started any of this strange repetitive offering that is not a war after all, not one born of violence and not even one of attrition, but rather a courtship of the betrayed and the hurt and the defensively wary and disbelieving.

Offerings of faith and hope and love, slow and yet certain, waiting only for Charles to make his own leap of belief, and offer a measure of trust in return.

I cannot change what I desire, and nor can you.

As important a truth is this: nor should I, nor should you.


Charles, knowing he should have dared to look beneath the surface of what was being said and what was happening long before now, turns his head.

Erik smiles at him from beneath his dripping hat, soaked through and unconcerned and free from any of Magneto's trappings.

"Hello, Charles," he repeats.

Charles pauses, summons all that remains of his courage and something that once he would have termed his faith in himself — and reaches out with his mind.

And finds Erik waiting.

FIN
Tags: author: speak_me_fair, fic, gift for: aeronautilus, rating: pg13
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