A Gift For: confusedkayt
Characters/Pairings: Charles/Erik, ensemble
Summary: Canon!AU. "Shaw has someone very dear to me," Charles said in a low tone. "You're not the only one playing for keeps, Erik."
Notes: Did my best to incorporate elements of all three of your prompts. :) Huge thanks to my super speedy beta!
"We need to find an expert on genetic mutation," Moira had said, and Levene had rolled his eyes and said, "Christ, you're starting to sound like that weirdo who sits in on all of McCone's meetings," and that was how Moira wound up in Langley's shitty canteen with both the weirdo who sat in on all of the Director's meetings and his personal aide.
The weirdo -- a tall, heavyset man with thick black hair and horn-rimmed glasses -- affably introduced himself as Oliver. She wasn't sure if that was his first or last name. "I hear you've been pestering the Director with a lot of bunk about mutants," Oliver said cheerfully. "Did you read the paper I sent over?"
"Yes," Moira said, placing the file on the table between them. "I found it very...engaging. I didn't realize the CIA had a whole section devoted to this sort of research."
Oliver shrugged with false modesty. "My pet project, Agent MacTaggert. So what sparked this sudden interest in our strange little theories?"
She took a deep breath. "I need to know if the kind of mutations you mentioned in your report might have already happened."
Oliver glanced over at his aide, who was watching Moira a little too intently, his fingertips resting at his temple. Moira kept her head high and met his gaze levelly. She knew what she'd seen: Colonel Hendry in the Hellfire Club just moments before the Director claimed he was in the war room. A man who looked like a devil appearing in a puff of smoke and sulfur. One woman who transformed her body into diamond, and behind her, another whose scaled skin was sapphire-blue. They were real. Moira would not let these skeptics tell her otherwise.
"I believe you already know the answer to that, Agent," Oliver said, to her surprise. He sounded sincere -- like he was actually taking her seriously. "Charles?"
"Yes," his aide said. It was the first time the man had spoken. His voice was light and warm, with an unexpected English accent. He leaned forward, blue eyes still intent on her face. "This is very important to me," he told her quietly. "If I can help you, I will do my utmost."
They dragged him out of the water half-drowned, salt stinging his eyes and burning in his lungs like bitter disappointment. But that fucking voice cut through the roaring in his ears, blanking out the shouts on the ship and the self-recrimination twisting his guts -- you are not alone.
In the floodlights on the deck of the cutter, his unexpected savior looked unlikelier still, small and sopping wet, dark hair plastered to his head and eyes just as compellingly blue as they had been in the water. Erik found that he couldn't look away.
"Erik," the stranger -- Charles Xavier -- said, reaching out to clasp Erik's elbow. "We should find a place to talk--"
"Charles, man, what the hell were you thinking?" A wiry black man shouldered through the clump of sailors, carrying a thick bundle under his arm. "Are you trying to get your ass killed?"
Charles's lips twisted in a grimace of apology, or perhaps just embarrassment at having been called out. "I could feel him in the water."
"And it didn't occur to you that maybe some of us are better equipped for diving into the middle of the ocean?" the man asked with fond exasperation. He lobbed the bundle over, which Charles fumbled badly. This close, Erik could see his hands shaking with cold.
"Here," he said, surprising himself. "Let me help."
The bundle turned out to be a blanket. Erik shook it out and tossed it across Charles's shoulders. "Thanks," Charles said. He stumbled down to sit on the slick deck, his back against the curving hull.
"You're an idiot," Erik informed him.
The black man laughed as he reappeared with another blanket for Erik. "I think I'm gonna like you," he remarked, passing it over. Erik accepted it warily. "You don't take the Professor's shit, that's a good start."
Erik felt distinctly off-kilter, the fury and panic and desperation that had almost consumed him in the water suddenly aborted, left twisting in free fall, unresolved. What the hell was he doing here? Who were these people, anyway? "There is no 'start,'" he said shortly. "I have urgent business to attend to. If you could just drop me at the port--"
"You're after Sebastian Shaw -- although I believe you know him as Schmidt." Charles's voice was low and even. "You were willing to die in pursuit of him."
Erik stiffened, hands clenching involuntarily into fists at his sides. "I didn't ask you to interfere."
"No, you didn't," Charles said, his smile incongruously bright. He reached up to tug at Erik's wrist; entirely against his instincts, Erik allowed himself to be drawn down to sit beside him, their knees bumping. "But I have a feeling it will prove quite fortuitous to us all that I did." He paused, pressing his fingertips to his temple, eyes going distant for a moment. "Ah. Any luck, Angel?" he called, craning his neck upward.
A slip of a girl flitted overhead, to Erik's slack-jawed shock. She had wings, he realized. She was flying.
Not alone, indeed.
"The sub dove too deep for me to track it," the wasp-winged girl shouted back. "Sorry, Prof. We lost Shaw."
Charles shrugged, eyes dark, but his hand came to rest on Erik's knee. "For now," Charles said. He gave Erik's leg a gentle squeeze. "But I prefer to focus on what we've found."
There were only five actual mutants at the CIA facility: Charles, of course; Darwin, the black man, who proved to be as physically adaptable as his nickname implied; Angel, the girl with wings; an all-too-eager young scientist called Hank, whose feet were wonderfully inhuman and dexterous; and the youngest of the group, Sean, whose shrieks literally shattered glass and who seemed quite put out at having missed the previous night's adventure. The man nominally in charge of the CIA mutant division was an enthusiastic human called Oliver, but over the course of Erik's first full day at the facility, it became quite obvious who actually headed up the team.
What was it about Charles that inspired such uniform loyalty among such outwardly disparate mutants?
"Why do they all call you 'Professor'?" Erik asked. It sounded all too much like Schmidt, Herr Doktor, who had affected a scholarly air as though to lend legitimacy to his psychotic pursuits.
Charles gave him a self-deprecating smile. "Not a title I actually earned, I'm afraid. I once studied genetics at Oxford, but I was still years away from being granted a doctorate when -- well." He looked away, lips thin. "Anyway, here I am instead. But I helped to recruit the others and I assist in their training regimens, and I suppose 'professor' has a better ring to it than 'training officer'. Darwin came up with the moniker some time ago. It stuck."
If Charles was the general of the group, then Darwin was clearly his first lieutenant. And Darwin's particular mutation made Erik wary of physical confrontation. For all his outward amiability, Darwin seemed to have made Charles's well-being his primary concern, and his reflexive adaptability made him the ideal bodyguard. And he was smart, too; Hank and Charles may have been the intellectual heavyweights, but Darwin was both clever and observant. Someone to watch out for.
So Erik was very careful to plan around Darwin's movements late that night at the facility, waiting until he was sure the man was long abed before making his way through the labyrinthine corridors to Oliver's office.
The locked door posed no deterrent; a twitch of his wrist, and the tumblers clicked into place. He flicked on the desk lamp with a snap and made a beeline for the locked safe where Oliver kept the CIA's confidential files. They'd been down in this office earlier, when Oliver and that woman MacTaggert had politely interrogated him for every scrap of information he had on Schmidt; he'd seen MacTaggert place her notes into the safe. Rather foolishly trusting of them. Combination locks were hardly barriers to a man of his powers.
But the safe was empty.
"Looking for something?"
Erik whirled around, all the metal in the room humming in anticipation of attack. Charles sat in the far corner of the office, cloaked in shadow. He held a thick file on his lap.
"Tell me," Erik said after a moment, "do you make it a habit to regularly monitor all your associates' thoughts, or am I a special case?"
It was difficult to tell in the dim light, but the edges of Charles's mouth seemed to quirk into a smile. "I wouldn't call it 'monitoring,' although I've had occasion to learn that forewarned is forearmed. But it's hardly my fault this time. You were broadcasting your intentions quite loudly, my friend."
Erik met his gaze evenly. "Then you should know not to stand in my way."
"I don't intend to." To Erik's considerable surprise, Charles got to his feet and held out the file. The name Sebastian Shaw was printed across the front like a brand. "This is everything the CIA currently has compiled on Shaw. Use it wisely."
Erik hesitated, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "You're not going to try to convince me to stay?"
"From what I know about you, I'm surprised you've managed to remain here this long," Charles replied wryly. "Of course I want you to stay, Erik. But will my saying so have the slightest impact on your decision?" He huffed out a breath, not quite a sigh, looking suddenly far older than his years. "I've seen what Shaw did to you. I've felt your agony. And I understand what this means to you. We needn't work at cross-purposes, you and I."
Charles stepped in closer, still proffering the file. Their hands brushed as Erik accepted it. Everything about this encounter left him feeling strangely wrong-footed, discomfited. He was being given what he wanted. He should take it and go. That had been the pattern of his entire adult life to date, all his focus directed to the sole purpose of tracking and killing Schmidt. Charles and his merry band of mutants would only distract him from that goal. And until last night, Erik had never even considered the possibility that there might be others out there like him. Why should that fresh knowledge change anything?
Why had it changed everything?
"I don't need your help," Erik said harshly, as though saying it aloud would make it so.
"Perhaps I need yours." Charles caught Erik's wrist, his eyes intent on Erik's. "Shaw has someone very dear to me," he said in a low tone. "You're not the only one playing for keeps, Erik."
The moment caught and held for several heartbeats too long. Erik could have easily shaken him off, but something kept him in place, transfixed. He'd seen it that night in the water -- the pure iron determination hidden behind the wide blue eyes and deceptively soft exterior, the sheer bloody-mindedness. Charles Xavier was a contradiction in terms, both fascinating and repelling, but the longer Erik spent in his company, the more the fascination began to win out.
"I won't make you stay," Charles finally said, releasing him. He took a step back away from Erik. "I could," he added -- and it wasn't arrogance, simply stated fact, and wasn't that intriguing? "But I won't."
Erik could find no response to that. He clutched Shaw's file tightly in his hands and waited for Charles to walk away.
After another long moment, Charles did, turning his back on Erik with visible reluctance. He paused only once, at the doorway. "And to answer your earlier question, yes," Charles said quietly, without looking back. "You are a special case."
And then he was gone, leaving Erik with a thick folder of new information and not the slightest idea where to take it.
Morning found Erik in the gym, sparring with Darwin. Darwin's gift seemed to operate entirely on reflex -- he could only react to whatever Erik threw at him, rather than preparing his physical adaptations in advance.
"You've got to develop better control, or you'll be trapped on the defensive," Erik called, sending a single barbell weight spinning at Darwin's chest. Darwin immediately encased himself in thick protective scales. The collision set off sparks against his adapted skin.
"Whatever, man," Darwin said, grinning as he shook off the body armor. "I'm not even breaking a sweat here."
Erik grunted in acknowledgment and grabbed a towel. That's when he noticed Charles standing in the doorway, watching them both with a smile curling his lips. "Erik. So you decided to stay."
"You don't sound particularly surprised," Erik remarked, scrubbing the towel across his face before slinging it around his neck.
Darwin laughed and took a seat on a bench. "It's kinda tough to take a telepath by surprise, you know?"
There was a loose bolt in one of the weight machines, nothing crucial to the integrity of the structure. With no warning whatsoever beyond the slight curl of his finger, Erik freed it and sent it hurtling toward Charles's head.
He felt only the barest whisper in his mind -- stop -- and a brief, uncanny sense of his thoughts momentarily not being his own. The bolt dropped harmlessly to the floor at Charles's feet.
"It does give me a certain advantage," Charles said levelly. His eyes were bright with mirth.
Erik ought to turn and run -- had Charles just taken control of Erik's own powers? -- but he found himself mirroring Charles's faint smile instead. "Not terribly polite of you, it is? Invading other people's minds like that?"
"Would it help if I pleaded self-defense?" Charles asked, raising an eyebrow.
"The best defense is a strong offense," Erik countered. "How can I trust you to stay out of my head at all?"
Charles tilted his head to one side thoughtfully. "I suppose you can't."
The honesty was refreshing, and more reassuring than any empty promises Charles might have made. Erik allowed himself a smile. "I would have stopped the bolt before it hit you, you know."
Charles grinned. "I know."
"Hey, Erik." Darwin leaned back against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. "So why did you decide to stick around?"
"Shaw has allies," Erik said, never taking his eyes off Charles. "I suppose I could use some of my own."
Angel lost the chess match in about twenty-five moves, which was a far stronger showing than Erik would have expected. She rolled her eyes and flicked her king onto its side. "Yeah, yeah, whatever," she sighed. "You beat me like ten moves ago."
"Thirteen," Charles corrected with a sharp smile. "But you made an excellent show of it. Didn't she, Erik?"
Erik refused to allow him the satisfaction of a flinch. Of course Charles knew he'd been watching, for all that he was on the couch halfway across the lounge and ostensibly engrossed in a newspaper. But there was metal inset in the base of each piece to weight it -- a travel set -- and he couldn't help but follow along.
"You were too focused on his queen," he told Angel, pointedly ignoring Charles's smug grin. "You didn't even see his knight coming. You've got to pay attention to the whole board."
"Whatever," Angel said again, getting to her feet and flicking out her wings. "I'm gonna go do something that's actually fun now." But Erik saw her study the board one last time before she flitted out.
Charles lifted an eyebrow, gesturing to the now-unoccupied chair. It was clearly futile to feign disinterest. Erik sighed and took his seat opposite Charles. "Are you so desperate for a good partner?"
"I'll make a grand master out of Angel yet," Charles said loftily, resetting the board. Of course he would play white. It went without saying. "She's a clever girl, very pragmatic. A quick learner."
"You're fond of her."
"I'm fond of all of them."
"It shows," Erik remarked. It came out more gently than he'd intended. "Professor."
Charles rolled his eyes. "I'm not really--"
"Why didn't you complete your studies?" Erik asked, genuinely curious. Mutation aside, Charles seemed far better suited to ivy-covered halls and study sessions and libraries than to covert government work. He certainly dressed the part of the university don. "White opens, by the way."
Charles shot him a sardonic glare, moving a pawn forward. "I was called home by a...family emergency," he said carefully. "I never had the opportunity to return."
Shaw has someone very dear to me, Erik remembered him saying, that first night in the facility.
"Yes," Charles said, blatantly eavesdropping. His shoulders hunched forward as though wary of attack. "Angel reminds me of her somewhat. Quick tempers and warm hearts. But Raven never had the patience for chess, I'm afraid."
Erik carefully tucked the name away, hoarding it with all his other secrets. Who had she been to him -- family, friend, lover? All of the above? Was that why Charles took the extra time with Angel -- with all these young mutants? Coaxing their minds open to further possibilities, giving them a sense of community, setting them at ease with their own bodies and abilities. Was he only trying to make up for what he'd lost with the absent Raven?
He didn't ask, though, not now. He moved his own pawn forward to counter Charles's and settled into the game.
There was an old radar installation set out on the facility's grounds. Erik felt drawn to it from the start, sensing strange twists of metal and wires humming within its broad white dome; a week into his tenure with the CIA, he finally asked Charles about it. Charles just pressed his lips into a thin smile and deflected him over to Hank.
"Charles and I converted it into a sort of transmitter," Hank explained, leading Erik inside. He gestured up to what looked like a helmet, suspended by a series of steel alloys and extensive copper wiring above a small upraised platform. "I call it Cerebro. That's, um, Spanish, it means 'brain.' See, the electrodes connect Charles to the transmitter, which amplifies his brainwaves and expands his telepathic range by -- um, really quite a lot. So anyway, when he picks up another mutant, his brain sends a signal through a relay, and the coordinates of their location are printed out over here--"
Erik ran his hand along the smooth railing, picking out every trace metal in the alloy. "You seem far more enthusiastic about this device than Charles."
Hank stilled, mouth twisting. "Yeah. Well, no, I mean, he was really into it at first. He helped me develop the schematics, but...."
A chill tripped its way down Erik's spine as he regarded the helmet. Upon closer observation, the electrodes looked like something Herr Doktor would have enjoyed all too much. "Does it hurt him to use it?"
"Not exactly," Hank hedged. Erik narrowed his eyes, and the railing vibrated warningly. "I mean, not physically. Well, maybe a bit, but we worked those kinks out. He used to -- look, it's kind of a personal thing, it really isn't my place to discuss--"
Erik breathed out slowly, releasing his grip on the rail. Pain was the only truly effective form of deterrent he'd ever known; something must have happened to put Charles off a telepathic enhancer of his own damn devising. Who might he have reached out for -- ah. Raven. "Charles mentioned that Shaw...had someone, someone dear to him."
Hank nodded, backing away from the railing warily. Erik snorted. As though the grating beneath his feet weren't also constructed entirely of metal. "His sister, yeah," Hank admitted. "She disappeared years ago. That's why Charles joined the CIA, I think, looking for her. When I came up with the concept for Cerebro -- well, yeah, it's pretty obvious why he was interested. He used to spend hours in here at a time, searching. That's how we found the others."
Sister. No wonder Charles had thrown his career aside to chase after her. "But not her?"
"It took us a while to calibrate the machine so that he could seek out particular individuals," Hank said. "He couldn't find her for kind of a while. But Cerebro's range isn't exactly global, and she could've been anywhere in the world."
Erik drummed his fingers against his leg. "But he did find her eventually, I take it."
"Sort of." Hank fidgeted with one of his instruments; it was patently obvious that he wasn't actually doing anything with it. "It was...bad. The relay shorted right out, knocked him off his feet, I had to pry the helmet off him. He was unconscious for more than a day. I thought there must've been a fault in the wiring, God, I really thought I'd killed him. But it was her, he'd brushed up against her mind and she'd...kicked him out, I guess you could say. Violently. I never could figure how she'd done that, but if she's been with Shaw this whole time, and he's got his own telepath -- well, that's probably what happened. The other telepath must've intervened."
It was difficult to restrain himself from dragging the entire structure down about their heads. He'd been right. This was a fucking torture device. With Charles as lab rat. "And you'd never considered what might happen if he tried to use this on another telepath? Of course she'd assume her mind was being attacked!"
Hank shrank back, straightening his glasses. "His sister isn't a telepath! How could we have known--"
"Never mind," Erik snapped, swallowing back his anger. It was well after the fact, after all. "So Charles hasn't come near Cerebro since, I presume? No wonder he isn't using it to track Shaw."
"He did try," Hank blurted out, blinking. "Uh. Didn't you know? The very first night you were here. But it didn't work."
"No, Cerebro's working fine, but...." Hank shrugged. "Charles said he couldn't feel him anywhere. But like I said," he went on hastily, "even with Cerebro, Charles can't reach everywhere. Shaw's probably just out of range."
A complex machine designed specifically for a telepath to search out other mutants -- it should have been the answer to all of Erik's prayers, a direct path to Shaw, and yet it failed. Erik ought to have felt frustrated, furious, but the only emotion he could dredge up was a grim sort of relief.
There were plenty of other ways to find Shaw. As far as Erik was concerned, Charles should never have to set foot into this damn transmitter again.
Erik enjoyed driving. There was just something uniquely satisfying about being encased within a smooth metal shell, feeling the rumble of the engine and the road peeling away beneath the tires, being so completely in control of the vehicle.
And with the judicious application of Charles's mental influence, speed limits need only be the very loosest of guidelines.
"I am not talking our way out of the ticket when you inevitably get pulled over," Charles argued, clutching the overhead handle with white knuckles. But he was also laughing so hard he could barely get the words out, so that was clearly an empty threat.
They hadn't needed Cerebro to locate the CIA's newest potential recruit; he'd done quite a fine job splashing himself all across the local headlines on his own. An otherwise nonviolent robbery in Indianapolis gone wrong and massive property damage the papers had confusingly credited to an arsonist.
"The shopkeeper described bursts of red light 'hula-hooping' out of the kid," MacTaggert had told them, passing the file over. "Summers is being held in the local jail for now. You have less than forty-eight hours before he's transferred over to Terre Haute. Assuming you want a nineteen-year-old delinquent on your team."
"He's an angry, confused kid who deserves a second chance," Charles had replied. He'd shot a quick glance over at Erik. "And I don't want to risk Shaw getting to him first."
Which was why they'd been on the road for the past five hours, currently speeding through West Virginia, the setting sun glaring through the windshield. Erik wanted to cross the Ohio border before giving up for the night, but given the unsubtle way Charles had been projecting his growing weariness at Erik for a good thirty minutes, that was looking less and less likely.
"So how do these recruitment trips normally work?" Erik asked, breaking the silence.
Charles shifted in his seat, twisting to prop his elbow up against the window. He blinked sleepily. "About as you'd expect. We find the mutant, we speak to them, we show off our powers a bit. In this case, I'd imagine that the choice between joining us or going to prison will be a fairly simple one for Alex Summers to make."
"And if the local police give us any difficulty?"
"They won't," Charles said with a faint smile. "You'll find that working for the CIA has its perks."
It sounded hollow, though. Erik couldn't help but wonder if Charles chafed at the limitations of his arrangement with the government. If he ever felt a bit like a lab rat in a very comfortable cage.
"Have you ever..." Erik tapped his temple pointedly. "Persuaded anyone to join you?"
"No," Charles said at once. His face darkened. "I would never conscript anyone against their will."
Erik relaxed slightly, loosening a knot of tension in his chest that he hadn't known existed. The other recruits had seemed willing enough, but with a power like Charles's, would they even know the difference?
"I'm sorry," he said, and meant it. "But I had to ask."
Charles met his eyes searchingly, but there was no light brush against his thoughts that Erik had come to recognize as Charles's gentle mental intrusion. After a moment, Charles sighed and looked away, slumping back into his seat. "I know," he murmured.
Erik turned his attention back to the road, trying to ignore the sinking sensation in his stomach that felt obscurely like guilt.
They made it as far as Charleston before Charles finally insisted they pull over. "If only for dinner," he said. But dinner at a local diner turned into drinks at the bar next door turned into Erik fumbling to keep Charles upright while they all but bribed the proprietor of the nearest motel to procure them a room for the night.
Charles was a warm, solid weight plastered all along his side, far heavier than he should be, making Erik stagger a little as they made their way down the hall. Erik should have minded a lot more than he did. "I'm tempted to toss you back in the car and keep driving until we find a proper hotel," he grumbled.
"If you put me in a moving vehicle right now, I'll just be sick all over the upholstery," Charles retorted, far too cheerfully.
There was only one room vacant, of course. Erik didn't even try to wrestle both the sticky lock and Charles, just unbolted the damn thing with his powers. Two beds, thank God for small mercies, narrow and hard though they appeared. Erik shoved Charles onto the one next to the window, claiming the one by the door for himself. He gave the room a cursory examination: small, dingy, but more or less clean. The mellow lamplight probably hid the worst of the grime. There was a stack of tiny paper cups next to the sink in the adjoining bathroom; he filled two with water and brought them back out to Charles.
"Here," he said. "Water. Drink it."
"I'm not a child," Charles protested, but he drank the damn water. Both tiny cupfuls. Up against the -- how many glasses of scotch? Not to mention the exceedingly questionable shots that even Erik was starting to feel -- well, it wouldn't make much of a dent against tomorrow's inevitable hangover. But it would have to do.
Neither of them had had the foresight to grab their suitcases from the car. Fuck it, Erik wasn't going back outside again now. He stripped down to his undershirt and boxers and crawled into the empty bed, rolling onto his side to look at Charles. Charles remained on top of his coverlet, eyes slipping closed. His lashes were startlingly long and dark against his cheeks. "Remind me never to drink with coal miners again," he mumbled.
Erik huffed out a laugh. "This isn't a mining town, Charles."
"West Virginia," Charles sighed, flapping his hand negligently. "Whatever. What was in those bloody shots?"
"I think the last one was blue."
The ensuing silence lasted long enough that Erik thought Charles must have drifted off. He flicked off the lamp by its metal chain without touching it.
"Raven is blue," Charles finally said, so low that Erik could hardly make the words out.
He hesitated, then propped himself up on one elbow. The window blinds were open, and the ambient light from the streetlamps was enough to pick out the line of Charles's profile, his hands clasped against his stomach. His eyes were wide open, staring up at the ceiling.
"Your sister," Erik said quietly. "Blue?"
Charles exhaled softly. "She's a shapeshifter. She can look like -- oh, anything she chooses. Young, blonde, beautiful. But her natural form is blue. She's beautiful." The sheets rustled. "I don't think I ever told her how beautiful. My fault."
Erik searched very carefully for the right words, uncertain how far he could push. "Charles, I don't think your sister disappeared because you didn't praise her looks often enough."
"It was the break between terms," Charles said. His voice sounded distant, dreamlike. "We were supposed to go to New York for a week, but I had a project I wanted to finish up at Oxford. Just another few days, but she was so impatient, and we'd already booked the hotel, so I thought, what was the harm...?"
Erik remained silent, just listening. The darkness felt warm and soft, like a blanket around them, closing the rest of the world out.
"I flew over three days later." Charles's breath hitched. "She'd never even checked into the hotel."
"Did you go to the police?"
"Of course," Charles said tonelessly. "And then they asked me for a physical description."
It took a minute to sink in, but -- shapeshifter. How could you track someone who could look like anyone? If Raven hadn't wanted to be found -- even if she had, but was being held by someone as unscrupulous as Shaw....
And still Charles had never stopped looking. He'd left behind his studies and his future, joined the CIA, threw all his energies into finding other people like them, desperate to make a difference, to create some sort of safe haven, to make up for his imagined failures with his sister. And now -- perhaps all this time -- Raven was with Shaw.
"I just want to know that she's safe," Charles murmured. "That's all. Safe, and happy."
Their beds were separated only by scant inches, the space of a narrow nightstand. But Erik somehow couldn't bring himself to breach the distance. What if she can't have both? he wanted to ask. Safe or happy -- what choice would you make for her? For yourself?
He was still turning the thought over and over in his head when he slipped smoothly and unexpectedly into sleep.
The afternoon was half gone by the time they reached Indianapolis, but on the plus side, at least the hangover had worn off by then. Alex Summers was being kept in the holding cells of a local police station, guarded by what looked like half the force. Which was a bit much for a touch of petty larceny, Erik thought, but he was unsurprised by the overreaction.
"Well," Charles said under his breath as they surveyed the overflowing station. "This certainly won't do."
It was amazing how quickly a room could clear when you had a telepath on your side.
They made their way down to the cells unaccompanied. Erik shot him a pointed smirk, and Charles rolled his eyes. "My head hurts. I didn't want to have to do this with the entire peanut gallery on hand."
"And that little display of mental prowess hurt less?"
"Oh, do shut up," Charles muttered. "I thought my telepathy made you uneasy."
Erik shrugged. "It takes getting used to. But it's a part of who you are. You shouldn't have to apologize for that."
"I don't intend to," Charles said tartly, but his face flushed at Erik's obvious approval. It occurred to Erik that for all Charles preached acceptance and brotherhood, he'd probably experienced precious little of it himself until very recently -- and the other mutants he'd recruited looked up to him as a teacher rather than seeing him as an equal. Erik allowed his arm to brush against Charles's, letting his smirk soften into something more genuine, and was rewarded with a brilliant smile.
He was startled to realize that they'd already reached Summers's cell.
"Hello, Alex," Charles said.
The boy in the cell jerked upright, eyes wild. He was a handsome enough young man, the sort of wholesome All-American Midwestern boy one didn't expect to find behind bars. But there was something tight and frightened in his eyes, in the tense way he held himself, that Erik found instantly familiar. This kid had been knocked around by life well before he'd landed himself in here.
"Who the hell are you?" Alex demanded gruffly, puffing out his chest as though to make himself larger, more in control. It didn't work; he was still just a scared kid in a narrow jail cell.
"I'm Erik Lehnsherr, and this is Charles Xavier," Erik said, careful not to talk down to him. "We're here to discuss your future."
Alex snorted, nodding at the bars between them. "Yeah, I gotta tell you, it doesn't look like there's much of that to discuss."
Erik smiled. "That's all a matter of perspective." He waved a hand, and the metal bars parted smoothly, leaving plenty of space for a young man to slip through, should he so choose. Beside him, Erik could feel as much as hear Charles's sigh, but the tentative brush against his mind was warm, approving.
"Okay," Alex said after a long few moments. "I'm listening."
In retrospect, they should have known it was going too easily. But Alex had made far too much of a spectacle of himself when he'd been arrested, and it didn't take government connections to work out where he was being held. They were halfway across the parking lot with their new recruit in tow when Charles stopped abruptly, his eyes going very wide.
"Shaw's telepath," he said. "She's here."
That was when the winds picked up.
Alex stared up at the clear blue sky. "You've got to be fucking kidding me, it's not tornado season--"
"This isn't a natural wind," Erik said tightly. He didn't have eyes for anything but Charles, who stood stock-still with his fingers pressed to his temple, brow creased in concentration. "Alex, get in the car."
Erik tossed the keys at him with more force than was strictly necessary. "The black Buick. Get inside."
"It's someone like us, isn't it?" Alex said slowly, clutching the car keys in his hand. "The wind--"
Sure enough, Shaw's man emerged from around the corner of the building, as immaculately dressed as he'd been on the yacht, whirlwinds gathering at his open palms. The telepath stood just behind him, her eyes narrowed on Charles. "Hey there, sugar," she called. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Take the boy and get him out of here," Charles said through gritted teeth. "She's not as strong as I am, I can hold her off for as long as you need."
Fuck that. Erik reached for his rage, glowing within him like a banked fire, and let it seep out to fill his skin. They were in a city. There was plenty of metal on hand. "Summers, if you're not going to get out of the way, you'd better not come crying to me when you get hurt."
"Erik!" Charles snapped, sparing him a quick, heated glace. "We're right in front of a bloody police station, we can't afford to make a scene--"
The storm-maker released his whirlwinds.
"Rather late for that, isn't it?" Erik remarked acidly. He ripped a streetlamp out of the ground, hurling it at Shaw's people. One of the whirlwinds swooped up to catch it and flung it right back at him. Erik deflected it with a grunt.
Charles was still locked in some sort of mental struggle with the other telepath, standing straight and still, heedless of the wind whipping around him. He was like the eye of a hurricane, calm and fierce, glorious; Erik felt something snare within his chest, hopelessly tangled. But he couldn't pick the knot apart now.
There was no sign of Shaw, or any of his other minions; apparently he had more important things to do than investigate reports of a jailed young mutant with control issues. Erik focused his energies on the whirlwind man instead, making a deliberate show of tossing the streetlamp back and forth between them while simultaneously allowing a crumpled ball of various metals to grow behind the other man's back. The wind knocked him to his knees as he reached out and yanked the makeshift lump toward him.
It smacked Shaw's man in the back of his head, knocking him out cold. The winds died down immediately. The woman let loose a low, piercing whistle; before Erik could figure out what the fuck that meant, there was a puff of dark smoke and a fucking comic book devil materialized beside the unconscious man. He put his hand on whirlwind guy's shoulder and they both vanished.
"Oh, no you damn well don't," Erik snarled, leaping to his feet. "Not without telling us--"
He heard a strange, high-pitching whooshing sort of noise, and then bright red pulses of energy whipped past him, heading straight for the telepath. So much for keeping Alex out of the fray. Her eyes widened for only a fraction of a second before her body transformed into pure diamond.
The energy beam deflected right off her, but Erik hardly noticed. At the precise moment the telepath turned to diamond, Charles cried out and collapsed to his knees, clutching his head.
He didn't even remember moving, but somehow he was at Charles's side, grabbing his shoulders. The red-skinned man reappeared and then vanished again, taking the woman away with him and leaving that unpleasantly sulfurous smoke in their wake. Erik couldn't have possibly cared less. "Charles!"
"I'm fine," Charles groaned, lifting his head heavily. He rubbed his temples with a grimace. "I can't read her in her diamond form. Being so deeply entrenched in her mind when she shifted -- it's a bit like being kicked in the head."
Erik shifted his arm carefully around Charles's back, helping him to sit upright. The adrenaline from the fight and the sudden burst of terror at Charles's collapse surged uncomfortably through his blood, his pulse racing; he did his best to ignore it. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Charles looked up at him, eyes very, very blue. His lips twisted in a crooked smile. "Bit of a headache. It will pass. Erik, I'm so terribly sorry I let her slip away--"
"Fuck her," Erik said, and kissed him.
It only lasted for a few pounding heartbeats, but oh, Charles's lips were warm and pliant against his, and he arched up into the kiss like a compass needle seeking out due north. Erik reluctantly pulled away to find Charles staring up at him, dazed. "I've definitely been hit in the head," Charles murmured.
"Come on," Erik said roughly, dragging his gaze away from Charles's still-parted lips. "Let's get moving before they come back with reinforcements."
He'd completely forgotten about Alex fucking Summers, of course, who was standing there watching them uncertainly.
"Good work with the energy bursts. It's not your fault she snapped on Charles. Now get in the damn car, Summers." Erik helped Charles to his feet, shooting Alex a glare that dared him to comment further. "Unless you've changed your mind about joining us?"
"Whatever," Alex said, unimpressed. "Like I wouldn't have seen way worse in prison."