Cleaning up the aftereffects of the incident in the parking lot was a bit more complicated than just cutting and running, of course. Erik did his best to surreptitiously sort out the metal debris and keep an eye on Alex while Charles spoke to the police chief at length. Oddly enough, there were no actual witnesses to the skirmish -- which meant that either the general populace of Indianapolis was far stupider than even Erik gave them credit for, or Charles was a talented enough multi-tasker that he'd managed to divert an entire police station's worth of curious bystanders while simultaneously engaged in his battle of wills with Shaw's telepath.
"Frost," Charles said wearily, when they finally made it back on the road several hours later. "Her name is Emma Frost. The other man calls himself Riptide. The teleporter is Azazel. Know thy enemy, et cetera, can we please use proper names now?"
Erik slanted him a glance. "Frost's mind must have been a veritable fount of information."
Charles's lips thinned. "Yes, what little I could read through her not inconsiderable defenses. Unfortunately, that goes both ways. Pull over at the first hotel you find, please, I need to make a phone call. We're not going back to Richmond."
They booked two rooms at the hotel -- this one of a slightly higher class than their lodgings in Charleston -- and Alex immediately disappeared into his, muttering about a proper fucking bath and three days rotting in that damn concrete bunker and pillows, Jesus Christ. Erik thought, resigned, that he was probably going to like this kid.
The second room was another double, like the last, but the beds were each worth two of the cramped twins in last night's room. "The lap of luxury," Erik remarked dryly.
Charles just shot him a quick smile before sitting cross-legged on one of the beds and occupying himself with the phone on the nightstand. He'd seemed withdrawn and anxious ever since the fight with Frost, though he'd kept up a good front for Alex's sake. Erik perched on the edge of the other bed and waited.
"I need to speak with Agent Muñoz," Charles said tersely, presumably to one of the CIA's operators. It took Erik a few seconds to make the connection -- Darwin, of course. Charles's favored lieutenant.
Several minutes passed before Darwin came on the line, during which Erik watched Charles grow increasingly concerned, worrying his lower lip distractingly between his teeth. Finally, his face brightened. "There you are. It's Charles. Yes, we found the Summers boy -- no, wait, I need you to listen to me." He took a breath, looking up to meet Erik's eyes. "You remember Plan B? Execute it tonight."
Erik frowned, and Charles held out a placating hand. "Of course," he said into the phone. "You can charge the hotel to my account if necessary. I just want you well out of Virginia first." A pause. "Not until late tomorrow night at the earliest, and that's only if we push straight through. It's a longer drive for us. Yes, still in Indiana. I'll explain at the house." He nodded, smile strained, as though Darwin could see him. "You as well. Be safe," he added, then hung up the phone and buried his face in his hands, breathing deeply.
"Charles?" Erik asked, doing his best to tamp down his instinctive alarm. "What's 'Plan B'?"
"A house up in Westchester." Charles looked back up at him, running his hand through his hair. "It's mine, technically, though I haven't lived there in years. I told Darwin about it -- oh, some time ago. As a back-up in case we ever needed to leave the CIA in a hurry." His brow creased. "Oh, God, I should probably call Moira and warn her--"
Erik pushed himself off his bed to sit beside Charles, clasping his shoulder. "Charles. You've worked all this out with Darwin, yes?"
"In exhaustive detail," Charles said, with a small, reluctant smile.
"So trust him to take care of things on his end." He rubbed small circles into Charles's shoulder, trying to keep his voice low and soothing. Erik had never had much occasion to offer or receive comfort, but this felt natural enough. "Why are you having them bug out?"
Charles's smile faltered. "Frost. I didn't get much from her -- surface thoughts, mainly. But I have to assume she could read just as much off of me. If Shaw's interested in recruiting...."
"You think she might have discovered the Richmond facility from your thoughts."
"There was also an entire police station full of personnel," Charles added. "Even with the CIA's involvement, prisoner transfer involves an awful lot of paperwork. Some of it might even have been accurate, and who knows who Oliver might have spoken to in that office, or what he might have said. It would be no effort at all for a telepath of Frost's ability to skim their minds for that information."
"But this other house is safe?"
Charles nodded. "It's not listed on any of my records with the CIA; no one there knows it exists, apart from Darwin. And I certainly wasn't thinking about it while I was facing Frost -- it didn't occur to me until much later."
Another thought occurred -- "Won't the guards at the CIA try to stop your team from leaving?"
"We've worked that out," was all Charles would say to that.
They sat together in silence for a little while, listening to Alex thump about in the neighboring room. Eventually Charles sighed, some of the tension draining out of his spine. He shot Erik a sidelong glance. "You were rather magnificent out there today, by the way. I don't think I had the opportunity to mention it."
Erik shrugged, dropping his hand uncomfortably. "I just hurled some metal about. It didn't take much finesse."
"I beg to differ," Charles retorted. There was something soft and strange in the curve of his smile. "But I also meant the way you handled Alex."
Erik frowned. "I didn't do anything. Dealing with young mutant idiots is your area of expertise, not mine."
"You spoke to him like an adult, you encouraged him to take initiative, and you never attempted to either coddle or bully him." Charles rested his hand on Erik's knee, pressing gently. His body felt far too warm, too close. "That's far better treatment than he's received from anyone else in quite some time."
"Charles," Erik said quietly. "Earlier, after the skirmish--"
"You had damn well be about to kiss me again," Charles murmured, the words tumbling from his lips like a prayer, so Erik did.
He'd had his fair share of lovers, of course -- most perfunctory, one- or two-night stands at best -- but once, memorably, he'd allowed himself to fall further. Magda had been a beautiful, delicate girl; he'd always been so damn careful making love to her, terribly gentle, terrified he would break her apart.
(And he had, in the end, though not with his hands. The human heart, it turned out, was far more fragile than the body that contained it.)
But Charles was far from delicate. He kissed back fiercely, arms wrapping about Erik with a surprising strength belied by his soft cardigans and posh accent. He pressed Erik down into the mattress, straddling his waist; it was all Erik could do at first to just hold on. So no, he didn't need to be careful with Charles, who could easily overpower him with a thought if Erik ever pushed too hard.
He didn't need to be gentle, but somehow, he wanted to be. He took his time, holding Charles firmly in place by his watch, by the buckle in his belt, by the firm weight of Erik's own body against his. And when Erik deliberately opened his mind to Charles -- pressing their foreheads together, the yes falling from his lips and his thoughts alike -- Charles's smile was so bright it could have powered the whole Midwest.
"I touched so many minds in Cerebro," Charles murmured afterward, mapping out the topography of Erik's face with his fingertips. "Hundreds, maybe even thousands -- there are so many of us out there. I could feel them all -- their isolation, their hopes, their ambitions. And every one of them unique, beautiful in their own way. But that night, in the water--" He pressed his lips against Erik's temple, wonderingly. "God, Erik, I've never felt anything like you."
Erik trailed his palms along the smooth, soft skin of Charles's side, enjoying the way he squirmed slightly at the ticklish spots. "The feeling was entirely mutual," he remarked dryly. "When did you first know that there were others like us out there -- that you weren't alone?"
Charles stilled. "Raven, of course." He shifted again, slipping his arm around Erik's waist. "She's not my sister by blood, you know."
"If you like," Charles said, breath huffing against Erik's cheek. "I was twelve. I found her in our kitchen, searching for food. She'd disguised herself as my mother. I nearly hit her with a baseball bat."
Erik chuckled and turned his head to catch Charles's lips. He took his time, tongue tracing along the slightly crooked line of Charles's teeth, feeling the pleasant vibration when Charles hummed softly into his mouth, the light stubble on Charles's chin rasping against his own. He could feel Charles's mind brushing up against his own, like a contented sigh, soft and forgiving. Gradually, they separated, kisses growing shallower, the breaths between lengthening. Charles smiled against Erik's lips, a singular sensation that Erik was rapidly becoming far too fond of.
"But you wound up taking her in instead," Erik finally said. "Just the first of many strays, apparently."
Charles tucked his grin into the crook of Erik's neck, limbs loose and heavy. "I suppose we all have our vices."
They took their time getting to Westchester. It would be at least a thirteen or fourteen hour drive straight through; even Charles could admit that there was no real urgency. "We could abandon the car and catch a flight instead," Erik offered, that first morning.
Charles pinched the bridge of his nose, considering it. "No, Darwin will be fine. And I'd prefer not to leave a paper trail."
It was a thin excuse, as both he and Erik were more than capable of covering their tracks, but Erik didn't press. For all Charles's anxiety over his team, he didn't seem particularly eager to return to his family's home. Erik refrained from asking.
Around midday, they pulled over into a gas station by a wide, empty field somewhere in Ohio. The lone attendant was napping in the tiny attached convenience store. Erik manipulated the mechanisms within the battered payphone to negate the need for coins; Charles huffed at the petty thievery, but completely failed to suppress his smile as he placed a free long-distance call to the Westchester house.
While Charles spoke with Darwin, Alex wandered out into the field, ostensibly to stretch his legs. He'd been remarkably compliant, not once complaining about the long road trip. Erik checked to be sure the station attendant was still half-asleep before following Alex off.
"I didn't have a chance to properly observe your powers yesterday," he remarked, watching Alex lazily through his shades. "Mind giving me a demonstration?"
Alex jammed his hands in the pockets of his jeans, mouth twisting. "Dunno if that's such a great idea." He glanced nervously back across the field to the gas station, the narrow country road.
"No one's near enough to pay us any mind," Erik said patiently. "And you won't hurt anything out here."
"I could hurt you."
Erik grinned. He'd been told it wasn't his most reassuring expression. "You're welcome to try."
Alex shuddered, but he also took a few steps further away from Erik, rolling his shoulders back to loosen them. "All right, man, but I'm warning you, this shit's kinda hard to control."
They really did look a bit like hula hoops, Erik thought, fascinated. Three distinct hoops of energy gathered like a storm cloud about Alex's torso, then burst out seemingly at random. And he hadn't been kidding about his control issues. One singed a rather spectacular swathe of grass, another made good headway against the nearest tree, and the third spun off to fortunately dissipate in the open air a few meters short of the gas station.
"Marvelous," Erik told him sincerely. Alex's face flushed; he'd certainly never been complimented on this before. "But yesterday, in the parking lot, you managed to hit Frost dead on. So you are capable of some control."
Alex shrugged. "That was mostly luck, I think. And I mean, it's not like I was aiming for anything out here."
"Lesson number one," Erik said. "You're always aiming at something. It doesn't necessarily matter what, but you must give yourself a target, direction. Otherwise you're just shouting into the storm. And the storm doesn't give a shit."
This time Erik hadn't noticed the flicker in his mind that signaled Charles's particular attentions. But when they returned to the car, there was something soft and searching in Charles's gaze. "My turn to drive," Charles said, his voice low and terribly fond, and when Erik silently handed over the keys, Charles's fingers tangled against his, just for a moment.
They stopped for the night in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. It certainly wasn't an issue finding vacancies in the local motel, but again, they booked only two rooms. Erik hesitated in the doorway for only a moment. "There's only one bed."
Charles gave him an arch glance over his shoulder. "Will that be a problem?"
Erik closed the door behind them with a smile.
Erik came awake all at once, fully alert and tensed for attack. For once, Charles had beaten him up -- he was already fully dressed, perching at the side of the bed. His face looked pale and drawn, and there was an odd note in his voice that set off loud alarm klaxons in Erik's mind. "What's happened?"
"I just called Moira. The facility was attacked last night. Oliver's dead."
Erik nodded slowly. He wouldn't grieve for the man, but that didn't mean he took any joy in his death. And Charles had worked with him for much longer. "Shaw?"
"Presumably." Charles kept his tone steady, if strained. "There's no way to be sure, though. He left no witnesses."
Stupid. So fucking stupid of Erik to forget why he was here in the first place. He'd allowed himself to become distracted by these young mutants, the heady temptation of being among others like him for the first time in his life. He should have taken the file from Charles and run on his very first night. He might have tracked Shaw on his own by now, instead of wandering aimlessly about the country with an idealistic university drop-out--
Charles flinched back as though struck. "Right," he said, voice brittle. "We need to get to Westchester as soon as possible. I'll get Alex moving and meet you at the car in, say, fifteen minutes?"
He was gone before Erik had a chance to say anything at all.
Erik refused to relinquish control of the wheel for the entire remainder of their journey. He also was not averse to giving the car an extra burst of speed with his powers whenever the roads were empty enough to permit it. Charles seemed too preoccupied to notice. Alex vocally expressed his approval on a fairly regular basis, in between the occasional pleas to let him have a go of it, which Erik paid no attention whatsoever. Lunch was whatever crap Alex grabbed them at the convenience shop when they inevitably had to refill the gas tank. Potato chips, maybe, and a Coke. It didn't matter. Erik hardly tasted it.
They reached New York in record time, Charles giving terse directions as they neared Westchester County. But when the narrow drive opened up to a wide, immaculately manicured lawn, afternoon sunlight glinting off -- were those turrets? Erik was sure he must have made a wrong turn somewhere.
"Holy shit," Alex said, sticking his head out the window.
Erik glanced over at Charles incredulously. He'd guessed that Charles came from money -- his upper-crust accent, his insistence on covering every bar tab, every restaurant bill -- but this was rather beyond the pale. "I thought you called it a house, not a fucking estate."
"Home sweet home," Charles murmured, gaze distant. "Just pull in here."
It was impressive, Erik had to give him that. Now they just had to remake it into a fortress.
Darwin and the others were already heading out to greet them -- Charles must have telegraphed their arrival to the house. Alex tumbled straight out of the car, bitching about sitting in the backseat all damn day, and Charles sighed and went on ahead to introduce him to the rest of the team.
Erik started to follow them, but as soon as he stepped out of the Buick, his legs cramped up and he had to stop, leaning against the car for support. It wasn't just his legs, he realized -- all his muscles ached, as though he'd just run several back-to-back marathons. He grimaced and breathed deeply, trying to stretch it out.
"I was worried you might be overdoing it." He looked up to find Charles beside him, concern etched across his features. "You were using your powers to speed us along all day, Erik, that takes a physical toll as well. Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
Erik shrugged, then winced when every muscle group in his shoulders screamed at him. "I didn't think you wanted to be anywhere near my head today," he said, too honestly.
"I didn't need to go diving in to feel the power rolling off you," Charles retorted. The smile he offered Erik was faint but genuine. "Come on, Darwin's getting Alex settled, now let's get you inside."
"Do you intend to carry me?"
Charles coughed, clearly suppressing a laugh. "No, but I could probably dull the pain receptors in your brain for a few minutes, if you'd like."
Now that was a ramification of Charles's abilities that Erik hadn't considered. "You can do that?"
"Yes," Charles said, looking suddenly hesitant. "If you'd like. Only if you'd like."
While he still wasn't terribly keen on the notion of Charles rummaging about in his head, he would prefer to be able to walk into the house on his own power. "All right," he said warily. "Let's give it a try."
Just as he suspected Charles's show of pressing his finger to his temple was born of habit rather than necessity, he was absolutely certain Charles didn't need any physical contact with the people whose minds he touched. But he could appreciate Charles's caution in telegraphing his intentions. And when Charles stepped in close, reaching up to gently cup his palm along Erik's cheek before settling his fingertips at Erik's temple, a degree of tension drained out of Erik's body that had nothing to do with telepathic manipulation.
"Better?" Charles asked, breath brushing against Erik's lips.
Erik closed his eyes, feeling the aches subside, like cool aloe numbing a sunburn. Charles's thumb stroked lightly across his cheekbone. "Getting there," he agreed.
Somewhere in the house, Sean shrieked with laughter. This was immediately followed by the sound of shattering glass. Erik sighed. It sounded like Charles's little trick would be coming in very handy in the weeks ahead.
It was fully dark when Erik struggled out of formless dreams, feeling thick and disoriented from his nap. He should have at least pushed through past supper -- now his internal clock would be thrown off kilter for another day or so. Out in the hall, the grandfather clocked chimed ten o'clock, resonating even through the thick bedroom walls. He'd slept nearly seven hours, then. No wonder he'd awoken.
There was no hope of falling directly back to sleep now. He might as well explore his new home.
Halfway down the curving staircase, his stomach chose to remind him just how little he'd eaten that day. Well, this was a damn mansion, there must be some sort of food tucked away somewhere. Erik reached out with his powers, feeling for the particular arrangement of metals that might suggest kitchen appliances. It was an imperfect experiment, but after a few false leads, he pushed open a plain oak door to discover the kitchen. An enormous cast-iron stove dominated one corner, singing in Erik's mind. There was already a light on; Charles sat at the bare table, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, staring down at his clasped hands.
"Charles?" Erik called softly, stepping inside, leaving the door standing open to the hall behind him.
Charles glanced up at him briefly. "Ah, hello," he said. His smile didn't reach his eyes. "Couldn't sleep?"
There was something closed off about his entire demeanor, as though he'd turned himself inward. His gaze flickered back down to the table. A line of tension stretched across the set of his shoulders, his rigid, unwelcoming posture setting Erik awkwardly on edge. If it were anyone else, Erik would have left him to the solitude he so clearly desired, but this was Charles. Erik had already fucked up whatever this thing was between them once today; he had to try again.
"You okay?" Erik asked, wincing inwardly at the platitude. He ought to be taking the seat right beside Charles; they'd never had much respect for one another's boundaries, and there was no reason to start now. But the distance sat heavily between them, impassable.
Charles's lips thinned. "Of course," he said tonelessly. "It's just..." He sighed, bringing his hands up to massage his temples.
A trickle of pure ice pooled in Erik's stomach. Without making any overt movements, he reached out to every scrap of metal in the kitchen.
"Sorry," Charles went on, with his familiar self-deprecating smile. "I haven't been in this house for...quite some time. I'm afraid that some of the memories are proving rather difficult to shake."
Erik gently eased every one of the stainless steel kitchen knives out of their block. Charles gave no sign that he noticed. They were well out of his line of sight.
It's kinda tough to take a telepath by surprise, you know?
"Understandably so," Erik said quietly. "This kitchen is where you first met Charles, wasn't it?"
Charles went very, very still. Erik clenched his hand into a fist, and all of the knives flew directly toward him, stopping abruptly inches away from Charles's body. One slipped in closer, not quite teasing the bare, smooth skin at Charles's throat.
"Please," Raven said, still wearing her brother's voice, his face, those familiar blue eyes fixed imploringly on Erik's. How dare she.
And oh, God, why had it never occurred to him before now that Charles's "house in Westchester" was the house he and Raven had grown up in together?
There was no time for self-recrimination, or anger at Charles's naïveté in leading them all here. He had no idea how to project telepathically, but hadn't Charles once told him how loudly he broadcasted? CHARLES! Erik thought as loudly as possible, shouting inside his head, praying it would be enough.
"You could at least have the decency not to hide in your brother's skin," Erik snapped, stalking toward her. "Do you have any idea how long he's been searching for you? What he's given up? Why return to him now, like this?"
Raven gave him a long, hard look. It was somehow a completely alien expression on Charles's familiar features -- there was no affection in it, no intensity. Even angry, or hurt, Charles's eyes on his had never been so utterly devoid of intimacy. Erik had never even realized what was there until it suddenly wasn't.
And then she shifted.
Under other circumstances, he might have been fascinated by the ripple of blue across her features, the fluid shift of skin and muscle. Blue-scaled and copper-haired, her amber eyes gleaming, Raven's true form was absolutely stunning. Erik couldn't have cared less. "Thank you," he said curtly. He eased the knives away from her a few more inches, giving her a bit more breathing space. Now what the hell was he supposed to do with her until he could find Charles?
"No," she said. "Thank you." And with an agile swiftness he couldn't possibly have foreseen, she kicked out and struck him squarely in the solar plexus.
He stumbled backward with a grunt, winded, but still managed to whip the knives forward. But she arched her spine back with a flexibility that shouldn't be physically possible (for a human, he reminded himself, which she most certainly wasn't) and then backflipped over the side of the chair, ducking and rolling onto the floor. What a magnificent weapon she was. Erik had to drop the knives, hampered by the realization that he absolutely could not kill Charles's sister; a most inconvenient handicap. Oh, he understood Raven Xavier all too well. He knew what it was to be coerced by Shaw, manipulated by him, honed into a deadly blade. She would fight dirty and well; he couldn't let her gain the upper hand. He threw himself at her, tackling her to the floor, trying to pin her arms while reaching out for any metal he might use to bind her. But she wriggled out of his grasp, kicking at him again -- he narrowly dodged being struck in the head--
The voice reverberated within his head, freezing him in place. Raven was held similarly immobile. After far too long -- Erik's blood roaring in his ears -- the tight pressure on his mind released, and he scrambled backwards, gasping with relief at being able to move. He pulled himself to his feet.
Charles stood in the open doorway, hands clenched into fists at his sides. And God, Erik never wanted to see that expression on Charles's face again. He looked wrecked. It must never have even occurred to him that his own sister might betray their location to Shaw. Stupid, trusting man.
But God, it should have occurred to Erik. He should have seen this coming a mile away. How could he have allowed himself to become so thoroughly distracted?
"Raven?" Charles whispered.
She still couldn't move her body, but Charles freed her enough that her head and neck, at least, were mobile. "I didn't come here to attack you, Charles."
Erik? Charles murmured in his mind, seeking -- confirmation, reassurance, denial, he didn't know. All he could give Charles was the truth.
"I came downstairs and she was wearing your body," he said bluntly. "I don't take deception well. But I didn't initiate the fight."
Charles nodded, never taking his eyes off Raven. "You should have come directly to me," he told her. His voice sounded like sandpaper, scraped raw. "You can always come to me, Raven. Always."
"Let me go, Charles," she asked, not quite pleading. "Please. I won't try to run."
Erik shook his head at once, but Charles clearly ignored him. Raven let out a sigh that seemed to ripple down the entire length of her body, then drew herself upright, head held high. They both had steel in their spines, the Xavier siblings; together, they would have been a force to be reckoned with.
"I came to warn you," Raven said roughly. "There's a revolution coming. Shaw's revolution. And if you're not with him, you're against him."
Charles stiffened. "Did he send you? Is he hurting you? If you're free to come and go as you please--"
"He doesn't know I'm here. He doesn't know about this place -- yet, but he'll find out, he always finds out." She took a gulping breath. "Please, Charles. Come with me. Join us. Shaw's promised -- we won't have to hide anymore. We can live like kings--"
"At what cost?" Charles grabbed her hands; she recoiled, but he wouldn't let go. "Raven--"
"Mystique," she snapped. "It's Mystique now."
"Mystique," Charles said, the desperation thick in his voice. Erik's chest felt tight just listening to him; he grabbed the back of the nearest chair, willing himself calm, feeling all the metal in the room vibrate with his futile need to set things right. But there was no one here for him to fight, nothing his powers could fix. This wasn't his battle. "Stay with us here," Charles went on. "We can keep you safe--"
"I'm through with hiding," she said, not quite a sob. "Charles, why would you fight us -- me? Why would you take the side of humans, of people who hate and fear us, over your own sister?"
"We're not at war!"
"We will be," Erik said quietly. "She's right about that much."
"Not if we stop Shaw," Charles retorted. "We don't need to stoop to his level, we have it in us to be the better men--"
Raven shook her head, now clasping his hands just as tightly. "You can't stop Shaw, Charles. And we already are the better men -- the better species. Can't you see that?"
Charles went suddenly still, staring at her intently. "Why?" he said softly. "Raven, what's Shaw planning?"
"Come with me and find out," she pleaded. Then her eyes went very wide. Her form rippled rapidly, shifting into a human body, young and blonde. The disguise she used to wear as Raven Xavier, perhaps? "No! Charles, you promised--"
"I'm so sorry," Charles said, and closed his eyes, still clutching her hands in his own. She let out a soft sob and crumpled to her knees, and he followed, wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight. He pressed his cheek to the top of her head and looked up at Erik. "Oh, God," he said quietly. "It's far worse than we'd previously imagined. Shaw's trying to start a nuclear war."
Erik took that in slowly. Strange, how very monstrous the thought was, and yet how little it shocked him. Herr Doktor had been an unapologetic Nazi; that he intended to expand his genocidal tendencies on a global scale was singularly unsurprising. "Then we'll stop him," he said. "As we already planned."
Charles stared at him for a long moment, unreadable. Erik couldn't begin to name the emotions flickering behind his wide blue eyes. "Yes," Charles murmured. "I suppose we will."
"Charles." Erik didn't want to ask, but he had to. "How did she get here?"
"Azazel," Charles said on a sigh, rocking his weeping sister in his arms. "He'll be back for her momentarily. No one else knows they're here."
"I'm afraid that won't last long." Erik grimaced. With the CIA facility destroyed, they'd need to find someplace else to go. Somewhere isolated enough for four -- no, five rowdy young mutants to hone their abilities, and quickly, the battle fast approaching whether they were ready for it or not--
"Yes," Charles said, so softly that Erik could hardly make it out. "It will."
He gently loosened his hold on Raven, pulling away just enough to tilt her head up. Her hazel eyes glistened in the lamplight. "I missed you so, so much," Charles told her.
She let out a little hiccup, forcing a smile. "Yeah. Me, too."
"You're beautiful, you know," he said quietly. "Just as you are. I never meant to make you feel otherwise." He reached up to curl her blonde hair around his fingers. "I only ever wanted to keep you safe."
"We can make the world safe for all of us," she urged. "Mutant and proud." She shifted again, back into her natural, blue form, meeting his eyes beseechingly.
Charles smiled sadly, and all at once, Erik understood what he was going to do. "I know we can. And we will." He gently cupped her face in his hands, bringing her down to press a kiss to her forehead.
And his arms were open to catch her when she slumped forward, unconscious.
A puff of smoke and sulfur heralded Azazel's arrival; Erik reacted at once, knives at the ready, but Azazel was frozen where he stood. "It's all right, Erik," Charles said wearily. "I've got him. Could you please assist me with my sister?"
Erik knelt at Charles's side, lifting Raven carefully out of Charles's embrace. When he had her securely tucked into his own arms, he got to his feet. Charles followed, briskly wiping the tears off his cheeks as he walked up to the immobile teleporter.
"You will return with Mystique to wherever you came from," Charles said, pressing his fingertips to Azazel's temple. "And then you will forget you were ever here."
Erik shifted his hold on Raven, arching his eyebrows. "You're letting her go back to Shaw?"
"Raven made her choice," Charles said roughly. "I have no right to take it away from her. All right, I'm going to release Azazel now."
He did. Azazel blinked, as though coming out of a trance, then mechanically held his arms out for Raven. With one last glance at Charles, Erik sighed and passed the girl over, then took a step back.
He was really getting sick of the scent of sulfur, he thought irritably as Azazel and Raven vanished.
The instant they were gone, Charles sank into a chair, burying his face in his hands. He was shaking, Erik realized, striding quickly to his side. He should be angry with Charles -- should be furious. Charles had brought this down on his own head by blinding himself to the possibility that Raven might betray the mansion's location to Shaw. He'd unthinkingly placed all of them in very real danger.
But Charles had the look of someone whose entire worldview had just come crumbling down around him, and God, Erik couldn't walk away from him now.
When he reached out to clasp Charles's shoulder, Charles jerked away. "Not now," Charles said harshly. "I can't, Erik, I'm sorry."
Erik stepped back, palms open. "All right," he said. "I understand. Believe me, I understand--"
Charles's head whipped up, his eyes blazing. "I just wiped my own sister's memories of the house we grew up in," he snapped, voice cracking. "I erased any knowledge of its existence out of her mind so that Shaw and Frost couldn't force it out of her. What, exactly, do you think you understand?"
"I understand what it is to think of yourself as a monster." If it came out a bit too roughly, well, maybe that was what Charles needed. Someone to fight with. "You did what you had to do--"
"To save myself?" Charles laughed, an ugly, strangled sound. "Yes, I'm aces at self-preservation, Erik."
"No, to protect the people you care about," Erik retorted. "Darwin. Alex. Angel. Sean. Hank. Shaw would have considered any one of them to be a fucking prize. And they are, but not for him. Never for him. And Raven -- if he knew you had a place like this to retreat to, if he suspected she knew about it--"
Charles squeezed his eyes shut. "I know that now. Of course I know that, why do you think I did it?" He shook his head helplessly. "God, I always hated this house, I never thought she'd come looking for me here, I never thought she could really be working with Shaw, not willingly--"
"I know," Erik said, as gently as he knew how. "That's what I've been trying to tell you. I know what it means to have to take desperate measures. I understand, Charles." He waited a moment, just looking at him. Charles's hair was a wreck and there were dark bruises smudged under his eyes; his shirt was rumpled and damp at the shoulder from Raven's tears. He was probably the most powerful telepath in the world, could wipe a man's memories in a breath and freeze him in place and quite possibly kill with a thought, if he so chose; a man of Charles's abilities had greater potential for becoming a true monster than perhaps anyone else Erik had ever met.
Thank God it was Charles, then.
"I promised her once that I would never read her mind," Charles whispered.
What comforting lies people told themselves, Erik thought, aching with the need to touch him, knowing he might not be welcome. Alles ist gut. But he and Charles had never made each other any promises they couldn't keep. "I'll leave you be, if that's what you'd prefer."
But Charles reached out and grabbed his hand, finally looking up at him. "No," he said. "Please. I don't want to be alone right now."
"All right." Erik gently tugged him up to his feet. "Come on. That chair doesn't look terribly comfortable. I hear there might be an actual bedroom or two upstairs."
Charles's breath hitched in what might have been a laugh. He pulled himself in toward Erik, almost awkwardly, as though uncertain they'd fit; Erik sighed and wrapped his arms around him, holding him close. Slowly, gradually, he could feel the tension melt out of Charles's whole body, Charles's arms slipping around Erik's waist, his cheek pressing into Erik's shoulder.
"I'm not just going to stop Shaw, you know," Erik had to say, making sure to keep his determination honed bright in his mind. "I'm going to kill him."
"I know." Charles's grip on his waist tightened, not quite hard enough to bruise. "But don't you dare lay a finger on my sister." He hesitated, then pulled back enough to look up at Erik, expression guarded. "You have every right to be angry with me."
"I know," Erik agreed. He ran his palms up and down Charles's back, tugging him ever closer. "Maybe tomorrow."
Charles sagged back against him, heavy with relief and exhaustion and still-sharp grief. His thoughts fluttered against Erik's, not intruding, just warm and light and there. Erik worried he might be getting too used to the sensation, then decided he didn't care.
"Hey," he said quietly into Charles's hair. "You okay?"
"No," Charles murmured, with wrenching honesty. He pressed a kiss against Erik's neck. "But I'm working on it."