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Come as Close as the Air (for Blessed is the Match Consumed, a Remix)

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Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.

-- On the Concept of History, These on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin

 

1. share in a memory of grey (1966) 

<yes, let's go>

"Protective custody, Charles? Even MacTaggert couldn't get me out of that debrief in one piece. I can hardly imagine which ideals you bargained away for this level of security clearance."

In response, the telepathic equivalent of a mouth snapping shut, starting and stopping again, thoughts being reconsidered and then discarded in favour of other thoughts until -

<let's just walk out of here ... > 

Charles is not distressed about the situation, Erik realizes. The casually impatient set of the shoulders; hands tucked in trouser pockets; resignation in the skewed corners of the mouth - all this he takes in with a sidelong glance at the man standing outside the holding room door, who waits for him to pass first before following two steps behind. All the better suited for Charles' enactment of guard duty and -
Oh . 

And now Erik knows how the thought does not end:
walk out of here ...
and never come back.
and tell the CIA to go fuck themselves for once and for all.
and go home. 

And how it does:
before you throw the temper tantrum that compromises everything we've accomplished.

Of course, that is not how Erik would characterize it – accomplishments, us.

This is not what Erik would accept and he should be running, burning it all down already, instead of play-acting one half of the dysfunctional family unit returning from a long business trip. The illusion is complete when Charles finally breaks the silence twenty minutes out of Langley.

“Ororo and Jean missed you terribly.”

Erik swallows past a suddenly constricted throat. “And you?”

“Always, dear friend. Always.” 

He draws his hands over face at that, crumbling, and reaches out with his power to let the car hum along without any assistance from the steering wheel. “You are a real piece of shit, Charles.”

Charles doesn't comment on the oft-disputed driving technique, just grips Erik's shoulder tight for an instant.

<it's only for a little while, I promise. Azazeal going missing in conjunction with your extended radio silence after Budapest raised too many red flags to ignore. we just have to reassure the agency that you haven't gone rogue.>

Whether Charles himself needs reassuring is an un-thought sinking between them.

Everything is blurring together. And this is the worst part of all. Erik knows he should be angry or at least vindicated but he is too scrubbed out, too resigned and too exhausted for anything for forbearance. Their grotesque facsimile of mutual understanding and forgiveness.

He reaches up with both hands and holds onto Charles', still resting there on his right shoulder.

=========================

2. now we're somewhere else (1992)

Moira set down the mug, coffee barely touched, and reached for her attaché, signaling that their meeting was drawing to a close. 

“Thank you for coming to see me.”

“Nonsense, Charles. The pleasure is all mine. Your sitting room is considerably more hospitable than my office.” She added, retrieving a sheaf of paper from her case like it was an afterthought, “There is one last item before our appointment concludes.”

Charles amiably refilled his teacup and waited for her to continue.

“I noticed in your report that a number of students have been assigned demerit points last month for violation of the dress code. Is it remiss of me to assume that closer examination of the specific infractions in question would support the agency's previous threat assessment?”

Charles chuckled. “Is it now agency policy for intel to be so heavily based on choice of apparel? I don't remember it given much credence in the grand scheme of things during my tenure at the mutant desk. Admittedly, that was only for a brief period during a particularly hideous couture era we'd all do well to leave entirely unconsidered.”

“How many, Charles?” She shut her case; it locked with a firm click.

He waved a hand in the direction of her briefcase, careless. “The numbers are all in the report.”

Moira's lips thinned. “So all of them,” she continued in a flat voice, “All twelve students decided to wear Magneto Was Right t-shirts, knowing it would be in flagrant contravention of school policy.”

“I doubt a little toothless adolescent rebellion is something the agency needs to concern itself with.”

“My colleagues over at the bureau would disagree. It wasn't so long ago that a stint shadowing teenaged college students in the SDS made quite a bit of head-way with the mortgage.” 

“Were they all so young, then? I always forget about that.”

Moira ignored the shift in conversation and the window of thoughts he was clearly nudging her towards. Sentimentality put them on dangerous ground, especially the way he wielded it. They were silent for a time before she cleared her throat.

“Magneto is recruiting. All the data coming in suggests he's getting better traction since his return to North America. Of course it's nothing compared to how difficult it would have been if he had the same level of organization back when we first started.”

“The agency must know the social and political landscape is entirely different now. We needn't be overly concerned about a movement that begins and ends with buying a trinket to make some fashion statement.”

“So you refuse to address or even acknowledge the fact that you are losing more students than ever to Magneto.”

“Loss might be overstating it.” <loath as I might be to admit it, he does occasionally manage to advance the mutant cause.> He continued as a rueful echo in her head. 

“Magneto is an extremist. His stance has grown no more compromising and even you must agree that his methods by now easily fall under the category of terrorism.” Charles remained impassive. And Moira threw the gambit she had been holding on to. “It's gone on long enough. We need to bring him in.”

Charles gathered himself even straighter in the armchair and directed the full force of his attention on her. “We need to do no such thing. Erik offers mutantkind a choice. Or, even more importantly - given the paucity of any truly viable alternative to the one we provide - the necessary illusion of a choice.”

“The pieces we've been able to discern of Magneto's communication infrastructure look pretty damn real to me,” she responded.

Charles shook his head, impatient. “Do you know, Moira, that John has been circulating a petition? In time, I will consider the request, and, given he demonstrates adequate command of procedural democracy, even allow for possible alterations to the dress code.” He smiled. “It's quite marvellous: to be able to guide the students' rebellious frisson in a praxis unmatched by even the best-designed civics class.”

It would leave your school at odds with every other Initial Entry Training program the agency oversees.”

“Does anyone come close to matching the track diversity or completion rate of our students?” When no answer was forthcoming, he leaned back in the chair again with his teacup. “This isn't like any other service academy. No one asked to be here. We have to convince them of it. The challenge of that conviction, building it day-by-day, lesson-by-lesson, is one that I relish.”

“And a challenge that Magneto seems to have no trouble meeting,” she retorted.

“Need I remind you that your predecessor made an extravagantly dangerous policy of permitting Erik himself on the school grounds for six years. In the role of instructor no less.”

“And look at what a mistake that turned out to be.”

“The school was the only reasons his agency loyalties endured for as long as it did.” Charles snapped back. 

She picked up the coffee mug again and took a slow, deliberate sip. “I wonder sometimes, Professor, about the nature of your allegiances.”

It took a while for him to answer. “Don't exert yourself over much, dear.” he said mildly. “Thirty years and counting. You'd think the CIA would have pins for this sort of occasion. Or at least a commemorative t-shirt.”

His smile was not a nice one, closer to a grimace.

It faded. He stood. “Drive safely, Deputy Director.”

=========================

3. visions of shadows that shine (1963)

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Agent MacTaggert.” Sanford's eyes flicked over the contents of the folder at a rate that was almost imperceptibly fast. “As someone familiar with the situation, what would you suggest?”

The directness of the request caught her off guard. She had been prepared to answer questions, but didn't expect to be neither so explicitly nor so immediately pressed for counsel. “Mistakes have been made. It goes without saying that the op is entirely inappropriate. And an especially egregious misstep considering Lehnsherr's background.”

Sanford tutted with exasperation. “It was unbelievably foolish of them to have been conducting their activities on US soil.” When Moira stared back, confused, “The strike team, dear,” she explained.

Continuing at a half-murmur to herself, Sanford added, “A pity as well about the Nazi science. So unfortunate that they had a tendency of going overboard... even if certain assets have since proven to be useful to us post-war. Silver linings, I suppose.” Her attention snapped back to Moira. “So what next?”

“Extraction,” Moira instantly replied.

“What an interesting word to have chosen, Agent. I wasn't aware you took their agency affiliations so seriously.”

Moira didn't quite know how to respond to that. “Someone has to step in.”

Sanford paused her perusal of the papers and looked up. “You're right of course. Stryker's a precocious kid, but he's made a right mess of it. 'Sustained research trials' on 'exemplars of human genetic abnormalities,'” she quoted from the report. “Could they have been more blatantly nefarious?” Sanford sighed and rolled her eyes, an obvious invitation to commiserate. “A woman's work is never done, is it, MacTaggert?”

Moira cautiously shook her head.

“We need to think about overrides. Angles,” Sanford continued. “There are multiple high-level backers involved at this point.” She suddenly broke off and and studied the notes, flipping a few sections back. Having found what she was looking for, Sanford surveyed Moira intently. “Shouldn't be too difficult...” she said, softly tapping her finger on a passage from the page. “Exquisite work, what Xavier did on you.”

Moira suddenly felt ill.

“I'm sure he understands the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in, the national security risk involved.”

“I agree, Ma'am.” Moira perfunctorily confirmed.

“Xavier is a responsible man. He must foresee how this could easily unravel catastrophically in the wrong hands. There are the Russkies to be vigilant towards, of course, but with things being in flux, we need to also get ahead of numerous other subversive elements that are still in the early stages of development. We are fighting a war, agent, and we have a duty to protect the American public who are ignorant of the many fronts on which it must be waged.”

Moira could only nod.

Sanford sighed again. “It's more of a gamble than I usually take, but I have a good feeling about this. He'll want to work with us and I'm willing to concede him significant oversight in order to secure his co-operation.”

Moira blinked at that. “Your office has the authorization for that?”

Sanford sniffed delicately. “Oh, there'll be a mountain of chain of command bullshit to dig through. My department don't have the leverage to spare right now for easing unauthorized asset transfers without a matching cover. A semi-controlled leak would be sufficient, I suspect. Any ideas about sources? Potential angles?”

Moira hesitated. “It's already such a horrific situation. There are a number of children involved. I'm not convinced...”

Sanford cut her off. “Excellent. We'll go with human interest in that case. A daughter of a friend has ex-state department connections but now works at the Globe. Name's Tilby. Get her in there.”

Sanford jerked her head and Moira hurriedly turned to leave. She hadn't felt so off-kilter since her first days with the agency and couldn't wait to get out of there and catch her bearings again.

“How do you sleep at night?” The question stopped her at the door

“No better or worse than any other agent, I suppose.”

“Many a night I find myself unable to fall asleep for thinking of all the mutant babies that will be born by the time I wake again.” In the otherwise darkened room, Sanford's eyes glinted in the halo of light surrounding the desk. “Treasure it while you still can.”

Moira held her gaze, unsure if she was free to leave yet. She must have communicated something right because Sanford's stare relaxed into one of appraisal and when she spoke next, her voice had lost most of its chill.

“I like you, MacTaggert.”

“Thank you for the opportunity, Ma'am,” Moira answered automatically.

“Does the agency have a mutant desk running?”

Moira shook her head.

“Better get that started again, Agent.”

“Yes, Ma'am. I'll make sure to keep you updated.”

Sanford inclined her head, dismissing her for good this time, and Moira finally backed out of the office.

Moira could hardly believe the whirlwind proceedings that just happened. She wasn't sure if she could like Sanford, because to be completely truthful, she gave Moira the creeps. Sanford had been too long out of the field, Moira decided, if she had ever been in it in the first place. You could never tell with that level of people, if they just sprung up from the forehead of D.C., fully-deformed as they are. Penned in with only bureaucracy and political manoeuvring to order the insides of a life did that to a person, Moira concluded, and left it alone.

=========================

4. a strange melody (1964, 1965)

Of course they had all agreed to it, having talked it over with everyone, including the children. Repeatedly, in fact, and at such length that Charles, who had once considered himself a judicious sort of man open to dialogue and the free sharing of any opinion, was forced to concede that he had little patience for it in actuality. No one needed to have all their doubts and misgivings attended to, especially once it was clear that undertaking the mission was a foregone concluson.

But as always, actually following through is a different matter entirely.

As soon as Azazeal is secured in the transport carrier, Raven clocks him. She doesn't even look a bit sorry for it. Dazed, Charles takes another jab to the chin before he recovers enough to drop down and roll under the nearest truck. Breathing heavily, he sends the other agents away in their own vehicles, smoothing over the last twenty seconds into nothing they'd ever miss, then searches for a way out of the situation.

Raven slowly circles the jeep, tracking the dark huddle of his body for any movement. She's already so angry he can't risk doing anything telepathically, and Erik wasn't doing anything to stop her. It isn't anything like the tussles of their childhood, or even their adolescently vicious fights at Oxford. The truck rocks above him and Charles thinks for a second she's trying to tip it over, wonders if she might actually be able to do it, before realizing she had only leapt on the roof. 

A series of lateral thumps and the sound of smashing glass alerts him that Raven had kicked her way in from the top to gain entry to the truck. Just as he decides rolling out to be the better option, a car door explodes open and he finds himself tugged out and brusquely deposited in the back seat, her left heel pressed to his windpipe.

Even with the armrest digging into his back and barely able to breath, Charles can't help but marvel at how mesmerizing her movements were. Unbidden any conscious decision, he projects his reactions lightly at her before realizing what he is doing. Then suddenly feels frantic with the need to share with her his appreciation and respect for Azazeal, for Raven's own deadly grace.

“I'm sorry, Raven.” She has her head turned away from him. The side of her body angled towards him like a blade.

“Mystique, I'm sorry.” He tries again.

She shoves him one last time, and walks away. “They'd be nice compliments. But after all that, I don't like how your thoughts feel any more.”

Erik, sitting on the hood of the nondescript agency station-wagon that had carried the three mutants to this cornfield in Nowhere, Iowa, just watches them. 

--

Raven insisted on coming along, witnessing, she'd called it. Charles had decided not to tell her that the main reason he had agreed was because her blue presence would make it easier, help them get it over faster. He felt guilty for the subterfuge until he realized that it wouldn't change her mind, beyond instilling an even thornier sense of self-loathing.

No one else besides Erik, for whom attendance was a given, expressed interest in actively participating. Charles was glad because it was important to demonstrate the precedence of non-involvement as a norm. Independent of whatever his own collaborations entailed, getting involved meant advantages and risks to be negotiated, opportunities to be taken. All entirely left up to the individual mutant.

It was clear enough when he and Erik introduced the case before the others. The CIA had facilitated the rebuilding of Cerebro, but the operation of it, access to it, on the mansion grounds, was entirely on their own terms. The agency had also made good on Alex's request to obtain custody of his brother. The paperwork was being fast-tracked and Scott would be with them by as soon as the coming weekend. And now they were being given a chance to stretch their engagement capabilities.

Not everyone saw it that way.

“But they're thinking of him like an animal! Or an object!” Raven made air quotes around assorted words she plucked from the mission remit Erik read from that she had been scrutinizing with furrowed brows. “'Acquire.' 'Subdue.' 'The aforementioned point-of-supply.' Is that supposed to be us?”

Charles winced. Anything stripped of context can be made to sound damning, but the the way Sanford had constructed the mission parameters didn't help. It was irritating enough that it was Erik who had received the assignment as the primary point of contact, but there was really no cause for the agency to be so crude. Sanford was needling them, testing and stretching at their limits. 

He pledged to have words with her during the post-op debrief. It wasn't a helpful approach she was taking conceptually, in the long run. It wouldn't be difficult for him to cultivate relationships with Congress, the State Department, and maybe even the Pentagon, if it came to it. If Sanford wanted to secure their assistance for covert activities, she needed to stick to the language of their mutual interests in national security, self-determination, and good governance.

He made use of it now.

“What we're talking about is the protective detention of one of the most dangerous mutants any of us have ever encountered. Not to mention the opportunity to establish the framework by which he will be justly tried and humanely treated. There is no better way to test our progress as a group, and to redress the harms that were done to us.”

He thought he caught a flicker of something in Sean's eye then, but when he checked again, it was clear Sean had tuned out, as he tended to do when the subject came up. The thought of all the long term psycho-physio distress the ordeal might have caused them was a sobering one and Charles made a renewed promise to ask Hank to look into it more.

He turned towards Hank now. “What do you think about this?”

“Azazeal is a criminal.” Hank answered firmly, and for him, that seemed to be enough. He started to brainstorm aloud about the inhibitor specs they had been given, and the possible modifications required to turn them into portal devices. 

As Raven continued to fume, all Ororo and Jean wanted to know was whether agreeing to the mission meant they would be helping the people who had kept them captive, or punishing them. He could hardly blame them.

“This will absolutely help us find those people responsible, and bring them to justice.” He tried to make eye contact with Erik, but it was futile because the other man was avoiding him strenuously.

He faced Ororo and Jean again. “There is a court-martialing process that this will help set the standard for. Do you know what that means?”

“We're gonna get them in trouble?”

“They're not going to mess with us any more?”

Charles nodded. “We will make sure it can never happens again. Not to us and not to anyone.”

Erik made a sound, but then mercifully stayed silent.

The girls still didn't look entirely convinced. Raven shot him a dirty look and bundled them out with assurances that sounded somehow like the combination of caramel corn and a session in the danger room.

--

After everyone had slowly emptied out of the room until only the two of them remained, Charles couldn't stop himself from grating Erik. “Not that a little support wouldn't have been appreciated, but you seem awfully sanguine about the prospect of having to hunting down one of our own.” He drew away from the thought that the barb sprung from a secret wish for someone to stop him.

“I am in no position to offer him any better.” Erik said, looking at him evenly.

He glared back. Abruptly, Charles had enough of reasonable and understanding. “So much for principles then. What, the spirit is willing but reality is not?”

Erik glanced away, refusing to engage. “What is it that they say? Better the devil you know...” He trailed off.

“And knowing exactly where is the one you don't know and how to keep him indebted to you?”

Erik finally bristled at that. “I have no idea where they'll be keeping him. And neither do you.”

“But it wouldn't be too difficult for either of us to find out.”

He blanked out again. “As you've said in your infinite wisdom, there are certain advantages to working for the CIA.”

“Oh yes, all these advantages. How ever will you manage them all now that you've opted for a life of diminished expectations and acquiescence.”

“Not much of a choice.”

Charles had nothing to say that hadn't already been said many times over, and settled for glowering at him.

--

Azazeal is too fast to hold on to, even without him slipping in and out through space and time.

After a few rounds where his lightning-fast tail-blade gets the better of the agents' attempts to simply subdue him, they resort to an ambush of fists, pistol handles, kicks, and extend-able batons. Even so, Azazeal battles on, a red frenzy of movement, as none of them can get close long enough to use their restraints. Instead, they force an restriction on the amount of space he has left to work with, pummelling him towards the carrier that will be used to contain him.

The speed at which the situation deteriorated to outright brutality disturbs Charles. Try as he might, his telepathy frustrates him, leaving him unable to do very much unused as he is to influencing minds in this state. Just as Charles starts to panic about the possibility of a prolonged assault an agents finally trips him and Azazeal stays down, the effectiveness of his tail impedes by his rolling body made haphazard by the blows that rain down on him. Once they are confident about their temporary respite, the agents fall on him as one.

At that point, Raven, who had been watching frozen and horrified, interrupts the muttered swearing and pained grunts with her cries. “Stop it! You're hurting him! Can't you see you're hurting him?”

No one heeds her pleas, the agents instead escalating to a device that leaves the barely conscious mutant convulsing. When an instrument that looks suspiciously like a cattle prod makes an appearance, Raven moves to charge at the knot of them. Erik quickly cuts her off mid jump and holds her down in a tackle before she could attract even more attention. She is fraying apart in his arms, spitting and weeping and clawing. And it takes all the metal around them for him to ground himself enough to contain her furiously shifting form.

Charles watches him mumbles whispery-gibberish to her like a prayer, eventually settling on something that he repeats over and over until she is quiet again, herself and blue. “We'll make it better; I promise, I promise, I promise.”

--

Sanford wasted no time when they stepped into her office. “Status of the asset, Xavier?”

“Contained.” Charles extended the manila file folder towards her. “The full write-up.”

She was very pleased. Though her face was inexpressive as ever, her voice was warm when she said “You are destined for great things.”

Erik snorted and walked out of the room.

Charles didn't bother to hide the scowl he was directing at Erik's stiffly retreating back. “I'll take care of it.” He muttered to Sanford.

That Erik allowed himself to be baited by semantics was infuriating when there was so much more at stake. It was the height of irresponsibility to leave Charles stuck on smoothing over his petulant outburst when they could have been presenting a stronger, unified position on mission parameters.

“It's already done! We've long since agreed. You're just putting the cause in jeopardy and the two of us at a disadvantage.” Charles hissed at him. Erik ignore him and kept walking away.

Charles strode back into the room. “We'll be just a minute.”

Sanford's profile remained neutral as she calmly ordered, “Stand down,” into a discreetly placed handset. 

There must have been something about his expression since she then smiled knowingly at him. “Don't worry, Charles. Erik won't leave us. How could he, when there are so many of us for him to convince so much of? Take your time, dear. Just let the secretary know whenever you're ready to resume.”

Everything about that interaction was a shock. Charles hurriedly left before he could say something he would regret and went to catch up with Erik. 

--

It goes a lot better with the next set of coordinates when they go to New Orleans. And it's almost like a family vacation, because this time, it's not a felon, but only a boy, dishevelled and suspicious, but bright in the best way. And best of all is how they can bring him back, Ororo in the lead, the two of them already thick as thieves during the long road trip back to Westchester. (Bring him back home, they dare to briefly fool themselves.)

Until it gets a lot worse when Alex joins up with the air force without telling any of them until he's about to leave. The unexpected upheaval shocks and subdues everyone by turns, most of them seeking comfort in a long afternoon of squabbling in the common room.

Charles finds Erik though in Cerebro, of all places.

After spending a number of minutes staring at Erik's back, he breaks the silence. “Alex is a good kid. He's going to do well over there.”

“Is. He.” Erik's sharp enunciation is as cold as he's ever heard him.

“You wanted an army, Erik. Armies go to war.”

“To fight Shaw! To fight our oppressors! To fight for something worth fighting for!” He explodes. “That is not our war. That,” he viciously jabs a finger in the air, pointing nowhere and everywhere, “Is not a just war.”

Charles is suddenly dizzy with yearning in that moment. Struck with how devastating that much pure idealism is. He wants to hold it, to swim in it, to drink it all up, how strongly and absolutely Erik hopes-wants-believes. Wants it against him, touching him, surrounding him. Wants it seeping in from all sides until desire alone is enough and everything.

His legs are trembling and he thinks he might throw up or punch him. He does an about face and practically runs from it, from Erik.

--

Charles wakes up to find Cerebro torn asunder from within. Panels are strewn down all over the base flooring and ugly gashes are gouged so long and deep in the skeleton, severing in so many places it's a wonder how it remains standing. He doesn't call it in, doesn't charge into Erik's quarters to escalate with an unholy mixture of fury-dread-anticipation and lash back at him, then resume whatever it was they started the night before. He doesn't even tell Hank about it, going as far as tampering with the biosignature settings to the best of his ability so the good scientist would be prevented from accidentally finding out by, oh, at least five minutes.

Instead, he avoids everyone, holing up in the study to work on the stack of mutant profiles he had been in the process of drafting. Things are moving along at a brisk rate. They now average a new addition to the school every three months and he was getting better than ever at monitoring the M-surveillance and defense projects to his satisfaction.

He doesn't want to the work to suffer.

--

Charles wakes up to find Cerebro repaired, better than new. At breakfast, Erik tells him that Raven has left to go travelling. This is against every protocol they'd agreed to; she hadn't cleared it with anyone, set up no dates, no rendez-vous locations, no points of contact. It might have been illegal.

He mechanically speeds through the paperwork she should have filed and waits to hear back from the agency, dreading the response and what it might mean for their operations. He doesn't know if he could bear to use Cerebro on orders of the CIA to track down his own sister. When the unconditional approval comes back almost immediately, he is surprised by how easily they had agreed. And then he is not. He thinks about Sanford's knowing smile. Thinks about Erik watching him in Iowa.

--

Erik surprises him and fucks him against the kitchen counter two mornings in a row, then the next evening allows a switch for Charles to plow into him with merciless thrusts in bed until he is sobbing and biting into the pillow, begging for more of it. They spend the whole night curled up tight against each other.

--

They don't talk about any of it. There are a lot of things now they don't talk about.

=========================

5. a hollow of haze (1963)

It was more the way he left the landing than anything else that made Erik follow after. Charles had hurried up the stairs like he was running away. They were back in the mansion now, safe. If Charles was running, there was something there to outrun. It meant Erik had to catch up.

They had been just standing there, looking down at the corridor with craned necks to keep the children's rooms in their line of sight. And sharing exhaustion, soothing each other with the different flavours of it like it was balm. He had been indulging Charles. From the moment they were past the inhibitor range, they communicated with telepathy whenever it was possible.

There was a lot he wished to convey. He prepared it carefully, wanting to properly catch everything in a wrapped bundle of thoughts, feelings and impressions for Charles. exhaustion that he turned rust-like with the dash of a joke, gratitude, relief, sharp protectivenss that was folded over something soft and much too tender for him to examine closely. lingering worry pulled tight like string that he flicks at, something loosened something unmoored so that he's always reaching trying to hold on, thick blanketing concern soft and waddled all around, all tempered by the tang of righteous fury – we'll get them all every last one never forget never again never never never

And Charles had taken it, briefly savoured it, and fled.

Erik chased him inside his bedroom, not bothering with the door behind him. Charles doubled back to close it, then latched it for good measure, before he made eye-contact again. It was close enough to an opening for Erik.

“It wasn't just Tilby was it?”

“What do you mean?”

“You didn't expect me to be so credulous about the effectiveness of the American fourth estate,” he said with the disdain befitting of a German exile. 

When Charles didn't answer, he started to pace around the armchair Charles had perched on. “Did you?” He asked again with mounting incredulity. “My God, you did.”

In reaction, Charles drooped, shoulders sagging first before his entire upper body slowly collapsed forward as he buried his head in his hands. Whatever shield he had been using fell apart and Erik was hit a dose of resignation and distress that was at odds with anything else Charles had projected since their release.

“We don't have to talk about it now.” Charles mumbled into his sleeve.

He sounded so lost Erik almost spared him, and extend a comfort he desperately wanted to be able to provide Charles with. That wasn't quite what they've promised each other though, as much as Erik rues, and loves it, alternately. So instead, he infused his voice with patience and as much kindness as he could muster. “Of course we do.”

Charles wordlessly shook his head. He had a lot of metal on his persons. It was probably his way of indulging Erik after what happened. He tugged softly at it now, set it to hum along gently. Slow and steady, Erik settles into a rhythm as soothing and intimate as long strokes across a forehead, up and down a back, that keeps himself calm, as much as it is for Charles' benefit.

“What haven't you told us? What could be so terrible? Hank and I already have preliminary designs to upgrade the grounds. He's probably dreaming about the blueprints as we speak. I have good leads in mind who will be useful in helping us root out the threat. I am going to make sure that never happens again. You must believe me.”

Charles looked up with weary eyes.

“And not all of them through my usual channels, or have my track record of bad habits, if that's what you're so worried about. We are surviving this. It was what it was on the inside and we all did what we had to do to get out. But we're out now and we're free.” Erik tried for light-hearted. “It's not like you've secretly ransomed the children or something.”

Charles didn't answer. Didn't even crack a smile.

“Charles?”

“Charles,” he said again, hands rising to grip the air in front of him. His voice got quieter and quieter as the metal around them, in them, made itself known.

“What did you agree to?”

--

The blood near Ororo's injured ankle ran hotter. Thoughts about her ankle felt worn. Like an overly soft nightgown. Thinking about it, about how she didn't find the prickly blood under the bruises strange, was soothing. But it was all wrong somehow.

She pulled the blanket over her head and turned on her side. It had been late at night by the time they all got back to the mansion; when she concentrated, she could sense the drafts of slow breathing across the room that meant Jean had fallen asleep, but she was wide awake.

In the parking lot, as soon as there had been enough cars between them and the building to feel like the horrible people still standing around outside couldn't just change their minds and grab them again, Mr. Lehnsherr and Dr. Xavier had stopped. Ororo had been too busy being able to feel airy and watery and all the weather emotions to pay attention, then Jean had tugged her sleeve and she turned around and everyone else was staring at Mr. Lehnsherr.

“Erik?” Dr. Xavier had asked.

“Please, let me just - ” Mr. Lehnsherr had said.

And then he had fallen on his knees with his hands trembling in the air the way it did when he was using his metal power to do something difficult. Jean stepped towards him and Ororo stood closer to her. 

“Don't be alarmed, children. Mr. Lehnsherr is just checking to make sure we're all here and that we're all ok,” Dr. Xavier was saying when something swept through her, slightly fizzy and warm. It had happened so quickly that she and Jean blinked at each other in surprise. It wasn't a feeling like being touched, or looked at, or thought of like when Dr. Xavier wanted her attention. But made her notice her bruises, without knowing how, and without any of them hurting. Whatever it was, Mr. Lehnsherr did it over and over again. Ororo tried to stand still. The cars all around them had buzzed.

“He's just making sure we're all here.” Dr. Xavier had said again.

Tears were running down Mr. Lehnsherr's face and he was breathing loudly. Then everyone else started crying, even Dr. Xavier. Ororo tried to focus on feeling the air running over all the little patches of tears on their faces, instead of thinking about how terribly sad Mr. Lehnsherr was, the people back in the building. Because then she wanted to run, run with gusts of air helping push her faster away. But she could tell everyone wanted to wait for Mr. Lehnsherr. He had been patient for her, back in there. And so she had to be patient for him now.

She was starting to wonder if his knees hurt, being pressed on the concrete for so long, when Dr. Xavier had said “Ok, Erik. We're ok.”

“We're ok. We're ok.” Mr. Lehnsherr had said back. And finally got up again.

Then Mr. Lehnsherr had refused to let anyone else drive. He didn't want to let anyone leave the van at night either, just pulled over on the side of the interstate. Dr. Xavier talked to him for a long time – half out loud and probably half in their heads, then untangled himself from Raven and got into the drivers seat.

After that, the four days on the road was easier. No one cried that way again. Whenever anyone needed to get out of the van, which was often, especially during the day, they would stop and everyone would run around, as far away as they wanted to, or even just in circles.

Mr. Lehnsherr made the sunroof bigger for her, so she could always feel the air, coming and going in different directions. It was so good, like breathing good deep breaths, that she had been comfortably dozy the entire way.

But now she couldn't sleep. Ororo concentrated some more, focusing on air like Dr. Xavier had once suggested. The difference between the physical layers of it over her body (which didn't completely feel like her own) and how she took notice of them in her thoughts (which didn't feel like they completely belonged to her). It was terribly unsettling. She stretched outward instead, wider and wider into the mansion. Moving air, even the minimal eddies and drafts of indoors, was much better.

Two floors above her, Dr. Xavier and Mr. Lehnsherr were still talking and moving, moving and talking.

=========================

6. to brown and to yellow, they fade (1971)

It had taken Ororo months to convince Professor Xavier to let her proceed with the field training assignment she chose. At the time she couldn’t understand why he would be so reticent. Especially when Remy, who was thirteen months younger, had already been allowed to accept his placement, which only comprised of minimal tactical support comparatively. According to her briefing dossier, Long Cheng was the largest CIA base in the world.

The professor had even insisted on travelling with her as far as Honolulu. She had been furious when he first made his intentions clear, but it became increasingly difficult to argue against the reasoning when the American Society of Human Genetics had their annual conference scheduled there for the following week. As much as she wanted to accuse him of tampering with one of the most prestigious events of the scientific community just to get on her case, that was a display of teenage narcissism too blatant for her to engage in.

The silent treatment, however, was not – shields up and everything. So that's what she had indulged herself in, all the way from New York to the end of the layover terminal where he was allowed to go no further. Her last view of Professor Xavier was of him receding in the dim waiting area. He stood right up against the barrier, a stack of journals cradled in his arms, and looking so apologetic and forlorn that she couldn't help but finally smile and wave over a little farewell breeze to reassure him. He was only trying to watch out for her after all. His wave back wasn't anything close to enthusiastic, but she'd let her shields fall and could feel the burst of affectionate pride he sent.

The runway was very bright compared to the artificial lighting inside the airport. She suddenly recalled a line written on one of her evaluations from years ago. “A very bright future ahead of her!” There was an old joke related to that particular phrase Jean used to make about mutant career counselling. Ororo puzzled over it on and off during the rest of the flights, but couldn't remember what it was, or why it was supposed to be funny.

[]

=========================

7. wander in my words (1968, 1971)

He was not at all surprised when Jean left with Erik. He had felt it slowly taking form in the shapes of her mind over the years.

It was still at least two hours before he noticed and he managed to stay out of Cerebro for another four. In the end, Charles gave them a full week before calling it in. He told himself he was being generous. That he waited as long as he did out of respect for them. That is was only fair play. After all, Erik was a fugitive. Erik left . He stole Jean. Not a nice thought and not fair to anyone. In some of his finer moments he managed to correct himself and even believe in it: Erik had more to promise Jean. Afterwards, he always felt better for it, and then much worse.

There was no single final conversation with Erik he could wear out in remembrance. No note; just a copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem left in his study. The inscription inside the front cover: “If you must do this, I leave you to do it alone. EML”

Charles absently noted to himself that the 'E' and 'M' and 'L' were closer to spikes of ink that happened to have found themselves collected together, than letters.

--

When Ororo doesn't come back after Laos, Charles stares at the note all evening, each spike a different way it could have gone that haunts him. She wasn't ready He could have been more upfront Should have allowed Jean to visit She would have talked Ororo out of it Helped set a course for her heart on anything but the CIA

This time there is no one to blame but himself.

=========================

8. till one day I returned // dream about the pictures that I play of changes (1964)

“Permission to speak, Ma'am?”

“Out with it already, MacTaggert. Watching you fidget over there for the last quarter of an hour has given me hives.”

Moira squared her shoulders. ”It's imprudent to give Project M that particular assignment of asset containment at this juncture.”

“Oh? Please go on.”

“It's too soon. And it's too much like an ultimatum. Instead of an assignment that emphasizes the mutuality of our work, like a recruitment trip, this target represents the opposite. It delineates too clearly between our positions. And we haven't even offered them any particularly vital incentives to ensure they're ready to make the correct decision.”

Sanford continued to stare at her without any reaction and Moira found herself unexpectedly agitated.

“It's fricking a line in the sand! Humans versus mutants! Us or them! I can't imagine Lehnsherr wanting to do something like this. We're going to lose them.”

Despite the outburst, Sanford remained unfazed. “It doesn't matter what Lehnsherr or Xavier wants. Whether it's some hokey mutant paradise or a U.N.-sanctioned wet dream. Those are not the constraints we are working with.”

Moira bit down on her embarrassment and curiosity and waited it out. Sanford did not want a witless, cowering sycophant.

“They are orderly men, MacTaggert. This is the line being drawn.” She shifted the papers around on her desk so that there were two stacks, then gestures to one, “Order,” followed by the other, “Chaos,” and brusquely shoved at the second pile so it cascaded past her blotter and onto the floor. “They side with one because they cannot bear the alternative.”

“Lehnsherr is so volatile...” Moira murmured, trailing off.

“Exactly. And?” Sanford gestured for Moira to continue her thought.

“Most of his life has been ruled by forces out of his control. It makes sense that he will gravitate towards known quantities over which... he has some measure of leverage. He craves certainty.”

Sanford nodded emphatically.

“Lehnsherr, for all his bluster, has realized that waging open war against a state, on behalf of a people, is a far messier business than a covert vendetta against a single individual. It's clear that's what he intends, eventually. In the meantime, he recoils from anarchy, needing to bide his time. He needs stability, he needs clear, concrete objectives that he can choose to comply with or reject. Lehnsherr needs the grounding, the perverse peace and clarity of focus, that Xavier, and the Agency, can provide.

“And what does Charles need? What makes you think it aligns with what we can offer him.”

If Sanford noticed her informal use of Xavier's first name, she did not mention it. “It doesn't. He's not our man, not fully, and he never will be. It would serve you well to never forget this, Agent MacTaggert.” Sanford turned a sharp eye towards her.

Moira nodded and suddenly feeling caught out, quickly moved to re-organize her briefing notes. When she looked up again, Sanford has allowed herself the rare luxury of sitting idle, simply staring into space with both hands lightly resting on her desk. When Sanford spoke, her voice was unfocused and almost inaudible, as if sharing a long-relished secret that could only be whispered into empty rooms or against the ears of lovers.

“It is awfully easy to convince men who are falling over themselves looking, hoping, to be convinced. The trick of it is that they remain vulnerable to any compelling argument that might come along.”

Sanford clenched both hands into fists.

“Luckily, we have everything to offer, and endless morsels to tide Xavier over. While Lehnsherr has nothing, and, if we do our jobs properly, will never have very much.”

She looked at Moira.

“Because what Xavier himself absolutely cannot do without, what Xavier needs, is hope.”