catbird: (lightning)
Phantom Limbs
Charles makes himself forget. Erik is there to remind him.
PG, response to a kinkmeme prompt, unbetaed. 8755 words.

There are two reasons Emma decides to tell Magneto about Xavier's little weakness - one, because it is a weakness, and ought to be exploited, and two, because she wants him to trust her. Their working relationship is not all it could be, and she knows why (even though he hardly ever takes off that helmet, unlike Shaw). She has seen Shaw's history, knows what he's done, and she knows that unless she made him, Magneto is never going to forget that she worked for Shaw first. It doesn't bother him as much with Riptide and Azazel, probably because he regards them merely as pawns. But he resents her.

So she goes to him one night while he's obsessively poring over some book or other, brushing up on his engineering skills to built some new infernal device. Magneto claims to be largely self-taught, but Emma has seen traces of Shaw's handiwork in his. Probably he isn't even aware of how much he learned from his tormenter, and Emma isn't going to provoke him by telling him. No, she'll keep that to herself until she needs to destroy him, which she thinks she might some day. It'll be much easier than destroying Shaw, so for her, the fact that Shaw is dead is a win-win situation.

"Did you know that someone tampered with Xavier's mind?" she asks him.

He looks up sharply, and for once Emma really wants to know what is going on in that mind of his. "What do you mean?" He's always quick to anger, especially when it comes to Xavier.

"Last time we fought his X-Men, I got a glimpse behind his defences," she tells him with a smile. Shaw would have given her a little bit of praise, she thinks, but Magneto just looks suspicious.

"I didn't tell you to attack him. Just keep him off our backs."

"Well, I improvised." She pouts a little, but it's useless with him. "And someone put a block on parts of his memory. He probably doesn't even know it."

"You mean there's another telepath out there?"

She shrugs. "Perhaps. Or he might have done it himself, but I don't see why he'd want to cripple himself like - "

He's on his feet as though speed is one of his mutations, and she feels the air around her buzz with his magnetic powers like a gathering storm. "You do not talk about Charles Xavier like that," Magneto snaps.

Emma nods, and hides a triumphant smile. So /that/ is what's really going on. Magneto still feels guilty about Xavier's injury - maybe their friendship isn't as dead as everybody thinks. Another chink in Magneto's armour, very good...

"Understood," she says, and then adds, "But I don't see why another telepath should have any interest in blocking memories about you."

He stares at her blindly for a few seconds, then turns away with a dramatic sweep of his cape. "Out," he growls, "leave me."

Emma goes. Maybe, she thinks, it's time to befriend that Raven girl. She's Xavier's adopted sister, and Magneto's closest confidante among the Brotherhood, so she'll be the one who knows what's going on between the to men. And unlike Magneto, Mystique has no helmet to protect her thoughts.
*
Sean is walking to the kitchen, blearily contemplating the merits of cornflakes versus toast, when he sees something that makes him scream - not like an awe-inspiring mutant, but like a little girl.

"Aiiie," he screams, suddenly awake, "Magneto!" and then a moment later he remembers that he really ought to warn everybody before Lensherr kills him dead, and screams, "Guys! We're being invaded by Magneto!"

Magneto stares at him. He looks intimidating in his helmet and cape, but the stare lasts so long that Sean recovers some of his wits and notices that Magneto doesn't look threatening - if anything, he looks as if Sean's reaction has shocked him a little.

"Er," Sean says. "Should we - I mean, are we going to fight?"

Magneto raises his brows, then he smiles grimly, and perhaps a little proudly. "Survival instincts. Good, you're learning. But I'm not here to fight."

Just then, Alex and Hank come running down the stairs. "You're not here to fight?" Alex asks, panting. "Because I'm totally ready to fight!"

Magneto takes them all in. Then, very slowly and deliberately, he reaches up and takes off his helmet. He doesn't look any different than he did when they were all a team, Sean thinks. Intimidating, sure, but not particularly evil. "I'm alone," he tells them, "and I've no desire to hurt any of you. Where is Charles?"

Oddly enough, ever since he got beastified, Hank has turned into something of a leader. "Why?" he asks Lensherr. "What do you want with him?"

"I want to talk," Lensherr says, raising his hands. It's probably meant to be a harmless gesture, but it looks all too much like one of his moves when he's using his powers. They tense - and Lensherr grimaces a little as he lowers his hands. "We're all mutants. I only fight you because you insist on getting in my way."

Then suddenly his eyes unfocus, and Sean shares a look with Alex and Hank - the professor is doing his mojo, so it's out of their hands.

*

Charles' mind touching his feels like a chord being struck by thin air. You fight because it's all you know, my friend. Charles sounds as he always did - calm and gentle and incredibly condescending. And yet his presence is so achingly familiar that Erik feels no rage, only the echo of a peace he will never have.

You're wrong, you know. You could have peace any time you want. My house is always open to you and your followers.

Erik frowns as he concentrates on his reply. What you have isn't peace, Charles. It's a hiding place.

It's closer to peace than what you have.

He's right, but only in the sense that Erik was never going to have the kind of peace Charles aspires to. The only time he has ever felt anything like it was in those brief moments when Charles was in his mind. But that's no better than a drug, judging by the way Erik craves it, and he can't afford an addiction.

If peace was an option, if the mutant race didn't need him, Erik might beg Charles to never leave his mind.

I'm in my study Charles tells him gently. Why don't we talk over a cup of tea?
*
Charles cannot help but be a little hopeful as he tracks Erik's progress up the stairs to his study. His thoughts are guarded, and his intent in coming here isn't immediately obvious from them. He's not here to fight, but he expects a confrontation. But then, Erik always expects a confrontation. His mind feels oddly unfamiliar to Charles, as if the months spent apart in which Erik's mind was shuttered behind his helmet made a great difference. He worries, briefly, that Erik might be going mad underneath all that metal and determination, because usually people's minds stay familiar even if Charles has not met them for years.

But if anything, Erik feels... better than Charles expected. There are other feelings there besides rage and fear, feelings that are, right now, a lot stronger. Chief of all there is anxiety, mingled with guilt. Erik is nervous about facing him, because it's the first time since the beach. He knows about the wheelchair, is thinking about it now, what it will look like, whether Charles will be in pain, whether he will seem less -

Well, that is a surprise. Why did he never notice this before? It can't possibly have escaped his attention that Erik Lensherr found him incredibly attractive. Is it something new then? Something Erik himself didn't realize until he left Charles?

He doesn't quite know what to think about this little revelation. It doesn't bother him - Charles is probably one of the very few people on the planet who know just how many men are attracted to other men - but he himself has never thought of Erik that way. His feelings were merely friendly. Quite detached, really. He wanted to help, and to... it's hard to remember what exactly he wanted. Their friendship was so brief, so fast, so strangely intense, that in hindsight it doesn't make a lot of sense.

"Have you been telling the children they need to be afraid of me?" Erik asks when he enters. He's staring, the way most people do when they see the chair for the first time, and yet completely different from most people. Raven looked at him the one time she snuck into his hospital room while he recovered. The look of someone who hurts for him because they - oh.

Erik loves him. The emotion is so overwhelmingly intense and painful that Charles needs to force himself not to recoil. Instead, he says, as calmly as he can, "In the time since you've killed Shaw, you and your Brotherhood have caused thirty-seven more deaths. Last month, when we stopped you stealing that nuclear warhead, Hank, Alex and Sean all three spent time in the hospital. They have reason to be afraid."

Erik's emotions shift like the direction of a storm at sea, from one kind of pain to another. "I'm sorry," he says. "For hurting the children."

But not for killing humans. Charles can feel it, the lack of empathy, their deaths hardly even a statistic to Erik, whose memory is overburdened with death, stifled and crushed by death. He sighs.

"Are you - " Erik has to force himself to say it. "Are you all right?"
Charles glances down at his legs, which sit in the chair like one of the mannequins Alex uses for target practice. Hardly even a part of him anymore. He can't feel them, but he still misses them. It doesn't hurt though. Charles has always tried to be aware of his own privilege, and he knows that this absence of pain, compared by what he sense in Erik, is a sort of privilege, too.

"I'm fine, thank you, Erik. I'm adjusting very well."

Erik frowns at him. He still hasn't sat down. He keeps pacing, always an eye on the window or the door, and another on Charles. Bit by bit, Charles withdraws his mind, because it's becoming unbearable. Suddenly, Erik stops and stares at him. "What did you just do?"

"I didn't do anything."

"You -" Erik taps his temple. "You're gone. I can feel it."

You're gone. The words trigger a half-memory, something like a glimpse of a nightmare, delirium, blurred and abrupt, and when Charles opens his eyes again, gasping, he finds himself slumped forward in the chair and Erik kneeling before him, his knuckles white where he grips the armrests, and his expression frantic.

"I'm fine," Charles breathes, and wishes he didn't sound so ragged, "Erik, I'm fine, really."

"No, you're not." Erik grips his face. If anyone were to approach them right now, friendly or not, Charles thinks Erik would kill them.

"You're not fine," Erik repeats, and Charles is starting to believe him, because there's something surging up inside him, something heavy and deep and forgotten, like a phantom limb re-growing, and just as painful. Erik's hands are hot on his face, they smell of him, and Charles's body remembers what his mind does not, because he turns without wanting to and presses his lips to the heel of Erik's right hand in a shuddering kiss.

Something's wrong with him. Something's very, very wrong. "I'm sorry," Charles says, his manners failing him last, "but I think I'm going to... faint."

*

“Hank,” Raven says before he can get out a single word. “I just spent six hours on a plane looking like this,” she flashed briefly into the bulky shape of a fifty-something businessman with lank hair and a sweaty face, “and I’m not in the mood for a fight.”

Hank nodded slowly, and spread his paw-like hands wide in a conciliatory gesture. “It’s a family emergency, naturally we’ll have a cease-fire,” he agrees. “Did Lensherr call you?”

“No. Charles did.” She taps her forehead once. “He sounded distressed – what happened?”

All he had said to her was Please come in a tone she had heard from him only once before, at the beach. Raven hadn’t hesitated.

“Magneto came here – to talk, he said.” Hank growls a little under his breath. “They were in the professor’s study. Alone. Next thing I know the professor is unconscious, and Lensherr carries him down to the infirmary. Wouldn’t let anyone go near him until I convinced him that he might need a doctor.”

Raven can’t believe that Erik would harm Charles intentionally – but she can’t bring herself to defend him just yet. For all she knows they started talking civilly and ended up trying to kill each other. “How is Charles now?”

“Unconscious.” Hank rubs his furry blue scalp, and fusses with his glasses. “There are no injuries as far as I can tell, he’s physically fine – well, as fine as he was before. So most likely it’s got something to do with his telepathy.”

He steps out of her way when she comes inside and directs her steps to the infirmary. “No one else dares go near Magneto,” he says as he follows her.

Raven doesn’t even know why Erik suddenly came here. He must have had a reason – Erik has elaborate systems of justification for everything. Even the things he eats for breakfast are part of a strategic diet. On the other hand, he and Charles are madly irrational about each other in a way that still, after everything, makes her jealous of both of them.

The mansion’s infirmary has seen much use since they first brought the mutants here, and seeing Charles in one of the beds is painfully familiar. Raven snuck in a few times during his recovery after the beach, although this is the first time she sees the wheelchair. It’s much bigger than she thought it would be, clunky almost, and she can’t imagine Charles in it – if not for Erik’s distracting presence she would stare at it for longer than is polite. He sits in a chair by the bed, a rigid tension in his shoulders as of someone who has sat in the same place for a very long time. The helmet is on the nightstand, but Erik wearing the cape, and an invisible cloak of silence around him.

“It’s me,” she says, although she knows Erik can tell people apart without looking through some ingenious use of his powers.

He doesn’t answer, but when she comes into his field of vision he follows her with a hollow-eyed stare as she moves to the bedside and brushes the hair out of Charles’s sleeping face. He looks more like a little boy than ever.

“What happened?” she asks. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if he says that he hurt Charles intentionally.

“Someone altered his memories.” Erik’s voice sounds like gravel.

Raven turns in surprise. “His memories?”

For a moment it looks as though he’ll refuse any further explanation, but then he launches into a brief, terse account of what happened since Emma brought this to his attention.

“Do we trust her?” Raven asks.

He shakes his head.

Raven studies Charles. “Did he seem any different to you?”

“Yes.”

She waits for more, but Erik keeps silent. There are topics he will talk about at length, with great eloquence, in different languages – and there are things on which all you’ll get from him is broody silence. She looks at the helmet again, wondering why he has taken it off when there might be another telepath waiting to attack them. Erik doesn’t usually allow himself any vulnerabilities, although there are times when he takes incredible risks – not precisely out of recklessness, although Raven doesn’t want to call it a death wish either.

She has been there for nearly an hour, mostly keeping a silent vigil with Erik, when Charles stirs. Erik leaves her to nurse him back to consciousness with much coaxing and a glass of water, making no move to help or interfere.

Charles’s gaze is as lost as she has ever seen it until he recognizes her, and then he smiles like he smiled the day they met – untainted delight at seeing her. “You came.”

“You called,” she replies, returning the smile.

“With enemies like you,” he jokes hoarsely.

Raven shakes her head at his brittle humour. He doesn’t seem any different to her. “Do you know what happened?”

Charles rubs his temple, and turns his gaze on something in the distance. Raven has always been good at reading people’s faces, studying their expression, and there is none she knows like she knows Charles. There is a shadow over him, something he isn’t telling them.

“Someone altered your memory,” Erik says abruptly. “I want you to check ours.”

It’s a command, and Raven gives him a look. “Charles is ill. And he can check my brain when I say so.”

Erik hardly looks chastised. The expression he wears is the one he gives people whom he considers spoiled children.

Charles touches her hand. “It’s fine,” he assures them softly. “Erik is right. I should check.”

He presses two fingers to his temple and looks calmly at Erik. How can he be so calm? There’s not a shade of resentment or regret or longing in his gaze, or if there is, it is so very veiled that not even Raven can discern it. Erik’s face on the other hand is wide open, like a freshly torn wound, so intense that Raven is almost embarrassed to be watching.

In the end, Charles merely shakes his head. “Nothing. It seems that your friend Emma is as loyal to you as she was to Shaw.”

Raven frowns at him. Mentioning to Erik that he had taken up exactly where Shaw left off was never a good idea. She knows because it made her more than a little uncomfortable and she tried talking to him about it. That was the first real argument they had. Charles has to know that.

“Is there another telepath?” Erik asks, changing the subject, but not the tense tone between them.

Charles suddenly seems to find his hands on the white sheets fascinating. “I doubt it.”

“Then she may be right. You could have done this to yourself.”

“It’s possible,” Charles says mildly, and Raven knows he means Yes. It’s as good as confession.

“Then you can lift the block,” Erik says in a challenging tone.

“Probably.”

“But you won’t.”

Raven tries to interrupt before they come to blows. “What sort of memory is it?”

“A recent one,” Charles says, clearly glad for the diversion. “The sophistication of the block does suggest that the memory itself is quite strong and complex.”

“But you don’t want to know.” Erik sounds angry, but not surprised. As if he expected Charles to disappoint him.

“That, I assume, was the point of blocking the memory in the first place.” Charles sounds patient, but there’s an undercurrent of defensiveness that is almost aggressive. “There are things we would rather forget. I’m sure you of all people can – “

Erik cuts him off by rising to his feet so sharply the chair nearly topples. “Don’t talk to me about wanting to forget, Charles,” he snaps. “The point is that you don’t. You never forget.”

“I can,” Charles says softly. “If I choose to.”

Erik stared at him for a moment longer, so coldly that even Raven felt slightly afraid of him, and then took his helmet and left, leaving behind an icy silence.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Charles apologizes to her.

Raven shakes her head at him. “Sometimes, Charles, I can’t believe you read minds. It’s like saying just the wrong thing is another power of yours.”

*

Charles is well aware that he has been less than honest with his friends. But he sees no point in telling a truth that, in a few minutes, will once more cease to exist. Especially when it’s a truth that none of them want to know – a sad little truth that is of no use to anyone now. It’s merely a remainder, something that lingers like a phantom limb, causing only pain and confusion. If Erik knew just what the memories he blocked are, then he’d no doubt agree that Charles is better off without them.

He remembered everything while he was unconscious, and knew it still when he woke up. Perhaps it was the closeness of Erik’s mind that caused the memories to uncurl from their hiding place like blossoms after a cold night. It was a presence so similar to that first time, when Charles sensed all that darkness and despair and still it lit him up like a spark of fire, the merest brush of their thoughts like a revelation of things to come. He never felt as alive as when he jumped into the sea, the waves closing over his head while his arms wrapped around Erik.

If anything, in the infirmary, the feeling of closeness was more intense. Erik’s thoughts were on him, and between all the mingled, contradictory feelings, beneath the anger and the pain, Charles had caught a single articulated thought:

I wish I could let you go.

So he knows Erik understands. Perhaps it would be fairer to make them both forget, but Erik would never allow it. His mind is a legion of things he will never give to oblivion, an ark for the dead. It’s like a forge, with memory as the fire in which he sharpens his blades. For a moment, Charles was so overwhelmed by his own wish to go back to blissful oblivion that he forgot that.

But accepting that he can’t help Erik will be much easier once Charles is done with this. Much easier. He pours another two fingers of brandy and savours the soothing burn as it goes down his throat. Better. He’s ready now, calm enough to do this. Charles puts his fingers to his temple, and their cold tips feel like the muzzle of a gun (a borrowed memory, Charles has never had a gun pointed at him, it was he who did the pointing), loaded and ready to fire.

The door creaks open, and Charles realizes that he forgot to lock it. Raven comes in without knocking, as she always did.

“Raven,” Charles says, and tries not to sound like a murderer caught red-handed. “I thought you’d gone with Erik.”

She comes to his desk, looking older somehow, although Charles cannot tell if that is because of her blue form, or because of his own exhaustion. Probably they all look older. “You can tell Hank whatever you like,” she tells him, “but if you were fine you’d have known I never left the house.”

“It’s been a long day.”

She glances pointedly at the glass. “And an early night?”

“Is there something I can do for you?” Charles knows he is being aggressively polite in the way that annoys her the most. But right now, all he wants is for her to leave.

“I’m your sister,” she says. “If you need me, I’ll be there. Always. And Erik... you know he will, too. He loves you like a brother. Still.”

Charles won’t correct her. It won’t matter that Erik’s love is anything but brotherly, not tomorrow. Charles won’t remember, any more than he’ll remember his own feelings. He’ll remember Erik as a man who could have been his brother, in a different world. And that will be all, and nothing will hurt.

But he remembers yet. And he can’t help asking, like a starving man, “How is he?”

“Most of the time?” Raven raises her brows at him. “Better than you right now.”

“It’s only a memory.”

“Is it? I know you. If you really didn’t know what it was, you wouldn’t rest until you know. You already remember, don’t you?”

He considers pointing out that he could make her stop asking questions. But Raven shakes her head before he can say anything. “You two are made for each other, do you know that?”

She has no idea how right she is. “Take care,” he says softly to her back as she lets herself out. He means ‘of him’ as much as he means ‘of yourself’.

“No, Charles,” she sighs. “You take care.”

When the door clicks shut, Charles is too sober again. He feels cold, as if winter is closing in around him. But he’s too tired to move closer to the fire, or fill his glass again. Things will be better once he forgets. Not warmer, but easier to bear. Much smoother and lighter.
Severing a memory feels like plucking at a guitar’s strings, sweet music until the wires snap.

*

4 Months Later

The Brotherhood has set up camp in Conneticut, but the proximity of Westchester has been the last thing on Erik’s mind for a while. The X-Men kept quiet lately, and the Brotherhood has its own problems.

Two weeks ago, Riptide and Azazel were ambushed on a mission. Not even Emma can find a trace of them with her telepathy, so whoever got them knows how to block her abilities. To Erik the situation is quite clear – it has to be the government. They’ve no doubt used the time since the Cuba crisis to develop weapons and strategies against mutants, and now they’ve made their first move.

Even if Azazel’s powers weren’t so vital to the Brotherhood, Erik would move heaven and earth to find them, save them, or avenge them. They’re his people, his brothers, and the world should know what will happen to anyone who dares lay a hand on Erik’s sisters and brothers. They need a warning, and they will get one.

But to do that, Erik has to find them. He has tried for two weeks to think of a strategy, but the only viable solution is the thing he least wants to do.

He has to go to Westchester, and ask Charles for help. They need Cerebro to do this, and Erik knows that Hank and Charles have been working on a new Cerebro in Westchester. Maybe that is why they have been so quiet.

This time when he goes to Westchester, he makes it as threatening as he can. If the children want to fight, they will get a fight, and they will lose it. With Raven, Emma and Angel at his back, Erik is sure of that.

But Hank receives them peacefully, and with a quiet authority that no one would have guessed he’d ever assume. He acts almost as if he’s the one in charge of the house and the children, and listens to Erik’s demands calmly before giving a verbose account of their progress on Cerebro 2.0. But there is one topic he avoids.

“Where is Charles?” Erik asks, interrupting Hank in mid-flow.

Hank makes a vague, expansive gesture. “The Professor is busy, I’m afraid. You’ll have to do with my humble self for now.”

Erik only needs to glance at Emma. “He’s lying,” she says with a devious smile.

Hank sighs, a low grumble deep in his throat. “One of these days I have to get my hand on some of that metal your helmet is made of.”

“Xavier is not well,” Emma continues. “Beast is afraid of him. So are the others.”

Erik flexes the fingers of his left hand, and a penknife presses into the fur of Hank’s throat, its point right above his pulse. “Where is Charles?”

“You may not wish to disturb him,” Hank replies with remarkable composure.

Erik touches his helmet. “I may do whatever I want.”

“Downstairs,” Hank mutters. “In the basement.”

*

The wine-cellar was once a blind spot for Erik, full of wood and glass and other things that were dead to his powers. But now, as he descends the stairs, he can feel metal everywhere, lining the walls, running through them as wires, reinforcing the doors, reaching up the surface as transmitters and receivers. There is no current, no twang of electricity. The whole structure is incomplete, and he can feel the gaps in the circuits like missing teeth.

It’s a cage, a fortress, and the mindset behind it has to be uncannily like Erik’s own.

It takes him a long time to find Charles – every time he tries to focus on the unique metal signature of the chair, his mind slips off like raindrops on glass. It’s Charles, keeping him away, fighting him off without any great effort, like a horse flicking its tail at some gnats.
But Charles can’t do much against him while he wears the helmet. The doors all have metal locks, and yield to him in an instant as he progresses to the heart of this new Cerebro. Closer and closer – now he can clearly feel Charles, the only dark spot in the whole structure, the iron in his blood a dull warm red glow among the bright metal.

The last door folds aside with a groan. And there is Charles, pale and haggard in the bright neon light, hunched over ever so slightly. He hardly looks like himself, with his collar askew and his hair unkempt, and his eyes perfectly clear and cold.

Erik has seen much, much worse devastation done to human bodies, and yet for a moment he stills in shock. Something about Charles Xavier has always seemed untouchable, as if hardship could never break through the layers of power and money and privilege, of cultured manners and easy arrogance.

“There’s no need to look so concerned,” Charles says. “Hank seems to have got it into his head that I’m some sort of invalid. But to tell the truth – I am better than I ever was.”

“Have you looked into a mirror lately?”

Charles dismisses his body with a single gesture. “This is merely a shell. You’ve done me a favour, in many ways. Like a blind man’s hearing, my powers have grown to an extent I never dreamed of. And that is only the least of the gifts you gave me. You made me see. You taught me a lesson I sorely needed taught.”

Charles voice is still every bit as soft and persuasive as it was before, but the things he says, the things he is about to say, go against everything he was like nails on a chalkboard. “I wasn’t trying to teach any lessons,” Erik says, although maybe that is half a lie. Maybe he wanted Charles to learn a lesson, even if he didn’t want to teach.

But not like this. This is all wrong, like an elegant watch taken apart and put together again as a gun.

“But I see a lot more clearly now,” Charles says. “The blinders have come off. And I know I don’t have to let you waltz in and make demands. This is my home, Erik, and my life, and you’re not welcome in it.”

“The Charles Xavier I knew would never have denied his help to someone who asked for it.”
Charles laughs, shaking his head. It’s a kind laugh, so very condescending. “And look where that got him.”

Erik takes another step forward. He doesn’t know why he’s so cautious – Charles is defenceless against him, but he sits there like a crouching tiger, waiting to pounce. “I know how this’ll end,” Erik says, “but I’ll offer it once. Don’t make this ugly, Charles. Let me help you.”
“You’ve grown complacent. That helmet won’t protect you against everything, you know.”

Erik turns, but a second too late. Hank and Raven have snuck up on him on silent, padded feet, like a pair of hunters in the dark. They come at him with identical grace, and the same dead, blind stare in their yellow eyes, and he realizes for the first time that a cape is anything but practical in hand to hand combat.

It tears under Beast’s claws as he dives to get away from them, and nearly trips him up before he can use his magnetism to balance himself in the air, held by invisible hands. Raven tries to get at his helmet, her fist slamming into his collarbone instead with surprising strength.

They’re mind-controlled, soldiers and hostages at the same time. Killing them would be easy in a room full of metal, but Erik would kill himself as soon as kill them and Charles knows that.

But there’s Beast, coming at him again with a roar, and Erik has no choice but to rip a pipe out of the wall and slam him square in the chest with it. Another flick of his hand, and wires grip Raven’s ankles, pulling her off him. She nearly strangles him by holding onto his cape with all her strength, and as Erik gasps for air, he sees Charles watching with a hollow smile.
The cape comes off, and just in time. He manages to knock out Hank and tie up Raven, but before he can turn to Charles again, Alex Summers bursts into the room. His lasers burn through the air in a bright red arc, and burn to the metal panel Erik uses to shield himself within seconds. He can feel their heat through the helmet as he thrusts forward his hands and rips the metal chest-panel out of Alex’s suit. The boy freezes instantly, because Charles is apparently mad, but not mad enough to release Alex’s powers unchecked.

This time Erik waits for the attack. The lights are flickering and water is rushing down from the ceiling through the broken pipe, but he can’t hear anything but Raven’s struggle against the wires holding her. There are three people left in the house – Angel, Emma and Sean. Emma is probably immune against Charles’s mind-control, and she might protect Angel, so Erik expects Sean.

He doesn’t expect the sound of smashing glass from upstairs, followed by a scream of pain from Angel.

“You can’t protect anyone,” Charles whispers behind him. “You never could.”

There is a long moment, like melting glaciers and the silence after a shot, where Erik very nearly kills Charles in blind despair but then he remembers, of course, of course Charles would know the very worst thing to say, just like he knew the very best things, the right things to seduce him to his cause.

Instead of going to help Angel, he rips a long thin piece of metal from the wall and whips it at Charles like a blade. The shallow cuts to his shoulder are painful enough to break Charles’s hold on the children – Raven slumps on the floor, the screaming upstairs stops instantly. But he can see Charles recover already, regaining his control. So with a wave of his hand, pulls the chair out from under Charles, dropping him in a helpless sprawl on the floor.

“I didn’t want to do this,” Erik says as he steps over him, keeping the strip of metal floating within Charles’s sight.

Charles is furious, but he knows he has lost. “Didn’t you?” he asks. “Not even a little? All the times my X-Men have stood in your way... no, I suppose you really didn’t. What a merciless enemy you are, my friend, letting me escape time and time again when you could clearly have defeated me all along. You’ve been holding back.”

“We’re mutants. We don’t harm our own kind.”

“Well parroted, Erik. But unlike Shaw, you really mean it, don’t you?”

Erik’s fingers twitch, the metal strip flicking forward a few inches, nearly piercing Charles’s skin. He grits his teeth. If Charles thinks he can hurt him by comparing him to Shaw – well, he can. It’s one thing for Erik to know that Shaw has made him the man he is, and another thing entirely to have Charles say it to his face like that, ugly and hurtful and true.

“It’s all right,” Charles goes on, in a tone that would be soothing if it weren’t poisonous. “I know why you’ve really been holding back. You needn’t hide from me. In fact, you can’t. I know everything about you. I know what you are, Erik.”

“What?” Erik is completely thrown by this turn. What is Charles talking about?

Charles smiles, sweet and twisted. “It’s adorable, really. You have a little crush on me. Well, I say adorable, but it’s not all butterflies and roses, is it? Especially the bits where you want to bugger me senseless. Maybe even right now, hm?”

Erik struggles for words. A denial, at first, but it won’t come. It dies in his throat. It would be foolish to lie to Charles – and more undignified than having his innermost secrets ripped out of him like this.

“I’m not ashamed of what I am,” he says through his teeth.

Charles’s smile turns mocking. “You hid it long enough.”

Luckily, it’s just what Erik needed. It makes him angry, and anger has always been his source of strength. He goes down on one knee by Charles’s side to look him in the eyes. “I wouldn’t exactly call it a crush, Charles,” he says quietly.

For the first time in this fight, Charles looks unnerved. His eyes seem to be growing darker, shaded, the pupils dilating, flickering as if he doesn’t want to look at Erik, yet can’t bring himself to look away.

Erik has spoken English fluently for more than a decade. But this is a sentence he hasn’t said out loud, or even thought, since he first learned it as a schoolboy, aeons ago and far too young to comprehend how terrible it could be. How it could break a man, when nothing else could.

“I love you.” His voice breaks a little under the weight of things he knows he will never have, and Charles shudders.

“No,” he breathes.

“I love you,” Erik forces himself to say again, “I love you and I will always love you, even though it doesn’t change a thing.”

Charles turns his head, grimacing, and then his lashes flutter as he looks up again. His expression is open, frantic, entirely different from what it was a moment ago. Terrified, but himself. “I know,” he says breathlessly, “I knew it all along, what you were, what I was doing to you – “

“Doing?” Erik asks. “You hardly seduced me.”

“Oh, but I did, my friend.” This is fully Charles, patronizing even when he is out of his wits with fear. “I seduced you, just not in the way you mean. I knew what you were, and I still jumped in after you to stop you from killing yourself. I knew that by telling you about mutants, by giving you a new family, by giving you a cause that would last so much longer than revenge, I was only making you a thousand times more dangerous than you were. I knew exactly what I was doing.”

Erik tries to stop Charles, wants to tell him that he is not well, but Charles speaks faster and faster, and more laboriously at the same time, as if something is strangling the words he so desperately wants to get out. “No, my friend, please, let me speak – why do you think I took that risk? Why did I try so hard to make you stay? I tried to appease you, to please you, to prove myself trustworthy, anything to keep you at my side –“

“Because you’re the most infuriatingly arrogant man on the planet, and can’t resist a challenge?”

“No. Erik.” His name is almost a sob on Charles’s lips. He’s struggling now, like a man on his last breath. “Because I, too, am utterly – “ He gasps, his eyes rolling back, but still he grits his teeth. “Because I – god. Oh god, I can’t. I don’t. There’s this hole in my head – Erik – “

Realization comes like an icy grip on Erik’s heart. This is what Charles tried to make himself forget. He touches Charles’s cheek, not gently, because he can’t. All he can do is try not to bruise him with his need to hold on to him.

Charles groans softly. “Everything will be all right,” Erik promises, unable to think of anything else in his distress. “Alles wird gut.”

Something of the madness creeps back into Charles’s strained features as he hisses, “You don’t believe that yourself.”

“Actually,” Erik says, and knocks him over the head as gently as he can, “I do.”

For many, many years he didn’t believe in his mother’s last words, until Charles Xavier stepped into his life and proposed a way in which they could come true. Not for him, maybe, but for the rest of the world. For Charles, for every other mutant on the planet.

Everything will be all right.

*

Charles wakes to a familiar sensation. His head feels bright and clear and empty, as if someone took a broom and swept out everything that cluttered it up, all the pain and discomfort. He knows that feeling from his Oxford days, when he used to cure hangovers in the blink of his eye, simply willing them away. But this is not his handiwork. Someone else has been inside his head and tidied up.

Even without opening his eyes he knows he’s not in his Oxford flat. This is Westchester, his own bed in his own room, Raven’s next to it, and she is there, but she’s not the only one. Downstairs there are people in the infirmary –

He opens his eyes, remembering with a groan. Erik sat by the bed, in shirtsleeves but still wearing the helmet.

“You can take that off if you want,” Charles offers.

“Can I?” Erik raises a brow. He sounds rough, as if he hasn’t slept in days, but there’s a trace of wry humour in his tone.

It’s infectious. “Pleading amnesia sounds like a wonderful idea,” Charles replies. “But unfortunately my mind is back in perfect shape and I remember everything. I cannot tell you how much I regret – “

Erik shushes him with a gesture. “Most of what you said was true enough.”

“Still. I want you to know that when I first made the decision to alter my memories – which ultimately led to this little disaster, as I kept trying to adjust them, I was trying to solve problems, not create them. I honestly thought this would make things easier.”

“It seems like you’ll have to live with yourself like the rest of us.”

Charles nods. The pain is of a different quality, now that both their feelings are out in the open. If possible, it’s worse. “As you said. It changes nothing.”

“I said more than that.”

“I see you haven’t lost the charming habit of saying whatever will make people most uncomfortable in any given situation.”

“The truth tends to do that, when people hide themselves.”

Charles sighs. There is a possibility that they could continue their argument without pause until the end of days – and in some terrible, desperate corner of his heart, he wants it to. It’s better than being apart. But prolonging this will only make it worse.

“Erik, why are you still here?”

“Do you want the convenient explanation, or the uncomfortable truth?”

“I can guess the latter, I think.” Erik still wore the helmet, but Charles was reasonably confident that he felt the same about their argument.

Erik shrugs slightly. “Well, in that case I’m here because I need Cerebro to find my people. Your government has finally shown its hand by kidnapping them and no doubt putting them in some secret laboratory to study them – if they’re still alive.”

A quick sweep of the house tells Charles that the only members of the Brotherhood not present are Riptide and Azazel. Raven, thank god, is safe, still in her room. “What will you do once you find them?”

“Free them and show people what happens if you try to harm my brothers and sisters. I will make an example of this.”

Charles didn’t expect a different reply. “What if I refuse my help?”

“I’ve already proven who’d win that fight, Charles.”

Charles touches the painful lump on the crown of his head. “I’d wish you’d find another way to knock me out next time.”

Erik smiles, but doesn’t relent. “Are you going to refuse?”

“If I help you find them, you’ll have to agree to do it my way. No casualties, and we keep a low profile. This will strictly be a rescue mission.”

“You’re in no position to make such demands,” Erik said, fondly irritated.

Charles smiles back at him. It will hurt so very badly when Erik leaves. Even their arguments are infinitely more pleasurable than anything else in Charles’s life, and he could swear Erik feels the same. “You’d win a fight, my friend, but what then? Would you torture me?”

“I could take a hostage.”

“You wouldn’t,” Charles says gravely. “That is one of the very few things you wouldn’t do.”
Erik makes no attempt to deny it. It makes Charles strangely happy to know that there are lines Erik still won’t cross, ways in which he hasn’t become his own tormenter. He touches Erik’s hand on the sheets. “A temporary truce.”

“Any other terms you’d like to dictate while you’ve got the upper hand?”

“Only a small request.”

Erik leans forward. A devilish smile flicks over his features. “And what would that be?”
“Will you take off the helmet?” Charles pleads.

Surprise smothers Erik’s smile, and he straightens. Clearly that is not the sort of request he expected. But after a long, grave look at Charles, he reaches up and takes off the helmet.

*

Two Weeks Later


“This is amazing,” Hank gushes, and for a moment he is fully the awkward, geeky kid they first encountered at the CIA research facility. In his excitement over the progress they’ve made with rebuilding Cerebro, he has crushed three different sets of glasses trying to polish them.

“We’ve done very well,” Charles agrees more moderately, although inside he feels nearly as giddy as Hank, if for different reasons. He’s looking forward to their completed work, too, but more than that he is enjoying the present, every precious moment of working side by side and in perfect synch with Erik.

“What you can do with metal is simply extraordinary,” Hank says to Erik, with no sign that he has ever felt anything but star-struck admiration for him. “And I still can’t believe you don’t have an engineering degree!”

Erik doesn’t seem to know what to do with so much praise, and he hides it behind one of his ‘I’m above these childish pursuits’ expressions, but Charles can just feel the tingle of pleasure coming from him, too. Hank is perfectly right that given the chance, Erik could have made an excellent engineer, or physicist, or architect. Much of his talent is innate and instinctive, but he has a surprisingly broad education, too, particularly when it comes to languages and literature.

“A degree isn’t everything,” Charles says, ostensibly to Hank, with only a glance at Erik. “I think that Erik would make an excellent teacher.”

Hank huffs a little, but nods. Then he grows very awkward for a man his size. “I’ll... go get some sleep, then. Test run tomorrow?”

Erik and Charles nod in unison, and watch him leave. The room, despite its spacious dimensions, seems to shrink as soon as Hank is gone, to a space that can barely contain them.

“I meant it,” Charles says before Erik can say anything. If they find Erik’s followers tomorrow, then he needs to make his move before they split up again. “This school needs more teachers. And I think that any student could profit from a greater... diversity of opinions.”

“I’m America’s number one most wanted,” Erik retorts. “Hardly the kind of teacher you’d want at your school.”

“You’re only number one because I know that discretion can be the better part of valour.”

Erik gives him a bemused look. “Are you courting me again, Charles?”

“I don't think I could stop,” Charles says, and he can feel the colour rising in his cheeks at this admission.

Erik stoops at his side, one hand on the armrest of the chair, the other on Charles’s knee. Charles looks at it, but he can’t feel it. His body stops somewhere at his hips, except in dreams. If it were anyone but Erik, he’d stop them from taking such liberties with parts of himself he cannot control.

“It’s working,” Erik says.

Charles probes the surface of his mind, and finds, as he hopes, that Erik feels the same quiet, giddy elation at their working together, the same pleasure and need. But underneath that, there’s something else. Desire, so focused and intense that Charles knows Erik isn’t going to stop at a hand on Charles’s knee unless Charles stops him.

“Erik,” he warns, and then sucks in a sharp breath because Erik’s hand, unnoticed by him, has crept up until the point where Charles can just about feel it, an inch or two below his belt.
He doesn’t want to remind Erik of the injury he has caused. It’s unfair, Charles thinks, that he has to remind him at all, as if it isn’t perfectly obvious every minute of the day.

“It doesn’t change a thing,” Erik murmurs, misinterpreting Charles’s reluctance. He pulls him down, into a kiss that sets Charles on fire, every fibre of his body that he can feel. This is what Tantalus must have felt like, when the boughs were bending towards him, promising sweet fruit only to slip from his grasp like so much sand.

“Erik,” he breathes, but thinking it is easier. What do you want with me? And he sends Erik a thought that is hardly articulate, regretful and apologetic and bitter, all wrapped around a single word that he encounters now in the minds of everyone who meets him.

Cripple

He knows Erik’s mind, all the ways in which it has been twisted by terrible ideologies. He thinks in terms of survival and fitness, Darwinism at its most ugly. He judges bodies, not by their appearance, perhaps, but by their abilities, and he is fully capable of killing what he considers to be without value.

Charles won’t make him fight the disgust and fear that he sees in the way Erik recoils from that little word. It’s another reason why Charles wanted to forget in the first place, because Erik’s reaction would be so much easier to bear without love.

Without the helmet, the emotions flitting over Erik’s face are terribly easy to read. Charles doesn’t reach deeper, because he doesn’t want to know the things Erik is thinking, remembering.
So it comes as a surprise when Erik moves again – a small, sharp, angry headshake, and then he starts unbuttoning his shirt. It falls to the floor, and Erik strips off his undershirt as well, while all Charles can do is stare.

He has seen a few of Erik’s scars, but mostly the ones inside. The pattern of atrocities on his skin is new and horrifying – a moment too late, Charles realizes that he recoils from it the way Erik flinched from him. But it seems to be what Erik expected, the point he was trying to make.

They’ve both lost limbs, in some way or other. They’re both paralyzed, both haunted by phantom pains.

Erik’s smile is wry, a little unsteady. “I’ve shown you mine,” he says. “Will you show me yours?”

The kiss feels like a pact signed in blood. Charles thinks he should be used to that now, that every action, every minute between them is a point of no return, every word heavy as gold. Everything should be easy, now that all is confessed and they’re so close. But it is not. It’s like they’re drawing a map of things to come on the sheets of Charles’s bed, negotiating their bodies like they will negotiate their beliefs. Some of it is difficult, some impossible, some breathtaking and unexpected.

Afterwards, there is a promise. “If I ever forget this,” Erik whispers into the back of Charles’s neck, holding him close. “Remind me.”

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