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He wakes to a shock of pain and darkness.

For a long few minutes, he simply lies there and breathes. His head is muddled, fuzzy, and his ears feel as if they’re stuffed with cotton. He can hear the distant thump of movement, and something rattles nearby, but the sounds are muffled. His head is pounding with fierce pressure, like a mild headache going bad, and for a second, he thinks he might be sick. He shuts his eyes.

After he’s gotten the nausea moderately under control, he opens his eyes again and tries to make out where he is. There’s barely any light, throwing everything into dim, vague shadows. He smells dust and wine and a damp, musty darkness. He can see nothing definitive, no clues to tell him his location. He puts his hands on the ground to push himself up so he can see more, but his limbs are strangely unresponsive. He feels numb and weak, his muscles rubbery and shaking. It takes him three tries to manage to get onto his elbows so his face is no longer pressed against the dirt floor. For a second, he balances there on his arms, trying to muster the strength to sit all the way up. But when he tries to push up, his arms give out unexpectedly, and he slams back into the floor, the pain lancing through his head making him cry out hoarsely.

Something to his left stirs at the sound. “Hey, you awake?”

He jerks reflexively away from the voice, reaching for metal, for a weapon. The instant he tries, agony courses through his head and his chest, and he bites back a ragged scream. The pain only makes him react again, scrabbling for the familiar comfort of his power, and the agony that follows squeezes his throat shut.

“Don’t fight it,” the voice coaxes. “It’s the collar—it’ll stop hurting if you don’t fight it.”

It takes a long moment for those words to make sense, and when they do, he freezes in abject horror. When he stops trying to reach for the nearest metal, the pain in his chest and head abate instantly. That only confirms his fears, and with trembling fingers, he reaches up to his neck and feels—feels—

Smooth, unbroken plastic, cool against his touch. Oh god.

He fights to stay calm, but his breath shortens anyway and he can’t stop his pulse from speeding up until his head goes light and he thinks he might be passing out. No, this isn’t right. This can’t be happening. He’s supposed to be out there, at home, safe, planning their next excursion, calculating their next move. Not here, not collared like an animal awaiting slaughter, awaiting sale

He forces the panic back, drawing on hard-learned discipline. Breathe. Just breathe.

“Where am I?” he croaks, his voice hoarse.

“Cellar,” his hidden companion replies. “Wine cellar, by the smell of it.” After a second, he adds tentatively, “I’m Hank. Do you have a name?”

“Erik.” One breath, in and out, then another. “Why are we in a cellar?”

“I think this is where they…where they keep us. Before they…”

Hot anger swells ups. “Before they sell us.”

“Yeah.”

They fall silent. Erik grits his teeth and sits up quickly, before his muscles have any time to fatigue. His head protests the rapid movement, and for a second, he sways in the darkness, hands outstretched for balance. Then, slowly, his vision stops spinning, and the disorienting dizziness fades. He inhales stale air and squints through the dim light.

He’s in a cage. It’s designed like an oversized dog carrier, with breathing holes to the sides and one entrance shut with thick metal grating. He puts his hand out and touches the metal, resisting the fierce urge to reach out to it, to call to it. Trying to use his power will only hurt, with the collar firmly locked in place. He pulls at the tight ring around his neck, straining at it until the pain makes him stop. It doesn’t budge, but he hadn’t expected it to. The humans have designed these things to be mutant-proof. The feel of it around his neck makes bile rise to his throat. Disgusting.

The cage is large enough for him to shift around and crouch, but not stand up. He moves to the door and laces his fingers through the metal grating, peering out into the dark cellar.

Two cages sit across from his. One is small, the other double the size of his own. As his eyes adjust, he can barely make out the dim forms in their prisons. In the one directly across from his, a huge, blue-furred mutant presses almost directly up to the grating, clearly too big to fit comfortably into his cage. His features are animalistic, but his eyes are sharp. Intelligent.

The other mutant is lying on the floor of the cage, unmoving. Erik can see a mop of black hair, the glimmer of something bright.

“Her name’s Angel,” the blue-furred mutant rumbles. Hank. “She’s been here longer than I have. She hasn’t been talking.”

“What can she do?” Erik asks.

“I don’t know. I saw…wings, I think. Maybe.”

“What can you do?”

“What? Besides look like this?” He presses his enormous paws against the grating, blue fur sticking out against the hard black metal.

“You’re big,” Erik says. “Strong. Can you—”

Hank is already shaking his head. “These cages are reinforced. They were prepared.”

The unspoken they’ve done this before doesn’t need to be said.

Erik breathes deeply. All right. He’s in this, and he needs to get out. It’s that simple. Plan.

“Are there any others?” he asks.

Hank shakes his head. “Angel was here when they brought me. They brought you a couple days later. I haven’t seen any others.”

Good. At least none of his Brotherhood has been taken. He hopes.

He doesn’t know exactly how these slave rings work. For all his work in destroying them, he has never been inside one before, never been this close. He’s always dealt with the aftermath, after the cages have been smashed open, after every human involved is dead.  

Now, the fact that he’s in a slave ring strikes him full-force, and he has to lean back against the wall of his cage before he loses his balance. Everyone knows what happens to slaves. They’re sold like animals, and there are only two ways to go: to the government for experimentation or to wealthy collectors who delight in having little mutant play toys. Erik hates them both, hates the cold callousness of scientists and the casual cruelty of men who have too much money to waste. There are flimsy laws against mutant abuse, but everyone knows that the police doesn’t enforce them. No one cares for freaks. They see mutants as pets, as curiosities, as things to be bought and displayed and shown off to their friends. Erik regards them all with cold hatred.

His own helplessness washes over him like a sudden tide. He could tear this place down so easily. He could escape in half a second, kill every human in this place with a twist of his hand. But the collar chokes him back, renders his powers useless, and his own defenselessness makes him furious. He is powerful, and to be brought low by humans, by this thin loop of plastic around his neck—the indignity is humiliating.

He looks out the grate again, eyeing Hank’s bulk. Surely even with his powers dampened, Hank could send a man flying with one bat of his paw. “How many of them are there? Humans?”

Hank is already shaking his head. “Too many. They’ve got tranq guns, too. I…tried to fight them once when they brought me food, and they shot me. Now they’re cautious.”

“Then I’ll take them by surprise when they open my door.”

“No. They shoot a dart at us before they open anything now. Not enough to put us out, just to make us too weak to resist.”

Erik grits his teeth in frustration. “Are you sure?”

“They do it to Angel, too, and she doesn’t even try to move.”

Fuck. Even without his powers, he’s a formidable fighter, trained by years of hardship and struggle. But if he has no openings, that training is about as useful as his mutation. He’s stuck.

It isn’t bad, he rationalizes. If he’s sold to some rich human bastard, chances are, he’ll be able to escape. More often than not, the humans collect mutants as trophies, for sport almost, and they underestimate the powers of their little pets. They turn down the collar’s settings so their slaves can impress their friends with little party tricks, and they get complacent. It’s happened before, humans forgetting the power of their mutants, and one day, they forget to turn the collar all the way back on, and the next morning, headlines are splashed across the front page: ‘MUTANT ESCAPE’ and, more often than not, ‘HUMAN CASUALTIES.’

Erik will need to bide his time, that’s all. His human…owner—and god, how he loathes the word—will be careless, and they’ll pay for it with their life. Erik will only need to wait.

Still, the thought of being bought chafes at him, and the possibility of the government getting its hands on him is almost too much to stomach. If he’s sold to a research corporation, then he’s as good as dead. Scientists who work day-by-day with dangerous powers know all-too-well not to underestimate their subjects. They’ll keep him drugged up, helpless, and when the time comes, when they’re done fiddling with his genes, they’ll kill him. They call it ‘euthanasia,’ but that doesn’t fool anyone. In the labs, you die when an experiment goes wrong or when they stick a needle into you and toss your body into an incinerator.

Erik shudders at the thought. He will die—he will kill himself—before he lets himself be strapped down to a lab table to be poked and prodded and studied.

A sudden movement across from him jolts him out of his thoughts. Hank is sitting up straighter, his expression contorting in anger—or is that fear? “They’re coming.”

“What?”

“I can hear them.”

Erik straightens, too, his heart suddenly hammering double-time in his chest. He grabs the metal grating with white fingers, trying to peer up the stairs to their left. After a second, he hears it, too: the solid thud of footsteps. Not one but many. Several men are headed their way, the soles of their boots clattering hard against wood, murmuring a conversation Erik can’t make out. The hatch at the surface level creaks as they pull it open, and bright light floods down onto the stairway, illuminating the cellar. Erik looks across, and yes, that is fear on Hank’s face. Fear and heavy hopelessness. He looks so young, Erik realizes. He can’t be more than a boy underneath all that fur and muscle.

“…down here,” the first man says gruffly as he descends. “I’ve got three of them today. Two of them are in good shape, but the girl’s a little…let’s just say she’s not so energetic. Pretty one, though.”

“Only looking for a nice, pretty one,” another voice replies. This one is light, arrogant. Wealthy rich man it is, then. “I’m trying to surprise the wife for her birthday. She always liked the pretty ones. Fascinated by the creatures.”

“You’ll like the girl then,” the first man says. “She doesn’t fight much, but she’s got pretty wings. Shimmer in the light and all.”

They stop at the foot of the stairs, and two more silent men follow behind them. Erik studies them as they glance around the cellar. The first man—the seller, he surmises—is lean and muscular. His hair is shorn to the scalp, and he’s clean-shaven. He looks military. He has a pistol at his hip that he keeps touching, as if to reassure himself that it’s still there. His eyes are dispassionate, cold.

The buyer is almost a complete contrast. He is shorter and stockier, made soft by luxuries. He is wearing a neat gray suit with polished loafers and a briefcase in hand. Not a hair on his head is out of place. He is the epitome of a wealthy, upper-class gentleman. His expression is curious as he surveys the place, and when he spots Hank, his eyes widen comically.

The other two men don’t say a word as they post themselves on either side of the stairway. Enforcers, Erik muses. They’re wielding what look like shotguns. The tranquilizers Hank spoke about, probably.

“He’s massive,” the buyer breathes, staring at Hank, who shrinks back.

“He was a difficult one to catch,” the seller tells him. “Took three of us to put him under and another three to load him onto the truck. But I think you’d be interested in the girl next to him.”

He points, and they shift down to the smaller cage. The buyer crouches in front of the grating to peer through, and his expression lights up. “She’s beautiful.”

“Isn’t she? She’s a pretty thing to see in flight, too. The wings almost glow in the sunlight. It was a shame to shoot her down.”

“Can I see her? Up close?”

“Of course.”

The seller motions to his men, who come to stand by the cage. One of them pokes the muzzle of his gun through the grating and fires a shot. Angel barely flinches, but Erik still slams a hand against the side of his cage in fury. The men don’t even look in his direction as they pop Angel’s cage open and pull her out by her arms. She is nearly unconscious, her head lolling as they lay her out on the ground, all loose-limbed and vulnerable. The buyer tilts her head toward him to study her face and smiles. Then he caresses a hand up her bare arm, trailing his fingers up until they touch the thin film of her wing, flattened on the dirt floor.

“Amazing,” he says, pinching her wing between his fingers. “These things really held her weight?”

“She’s extremely light,” the seller answers. “Designed like a bird, I guess.”

“She’s very pretty. Very pretty. I think the wife will like her.”

He said the wife, but Erik hears the implied, and so will I. The lewdness of the man’s words makes a hot coil of rage heat in his chest. He reaches automatically for the metal grating, wanting to swing it up and bash the buyer’s face in, to bash all their faces in. But he’d forgotten about the collar, and the moment he tries to move, a jagged flash of pain rips through his head. He cries out hoarsely, one hand going to his head, the other flying to the collar, tearing at it, trying to get it off, get it off.

“Ah,” the seller says, drawn to Erik at last. “This is our latest arrival. Evidently, he hasn’t figured out the collar yet.”

“What does he do?” the buyer asks, his eyes inquisitive.

“Nothing you’d be interested in, I think. It’s got something to do with weapons. When we tried to grab him, he twisted up all our guns. It took a hell of a lot of ammo to bring him down.” The seller crouches down so he can look through the grating. His cold dark eyes meet Erik’s. “I think this one will go to the government. Stryker keeps bothering me about giving him powers he might be able to weaponize. This one could be helpful.”

Erik glares right back at him, defiant and angry. The government, echoes through his head. I think this one will go to the government. He pushes back the terror at the thought. No. He refuses to acknowledge the possibility. He refuses to give this man the satisfaction of seeing his fear.

“All right,” the buyer says, his attention already gone back to the girl. “I think I like her. How much do you want for her?”

The seller gives Erik one last, long look before standing again and walking back to the others. “The starting price is $15,000.”

“$15,000?”

The seller shrugs. “These things aren’t cheap to capture, you know. It takes time, planning, and effort. We’d like to make some profit of it.”

The buyer looks at him doubtfully. Then he glances at Hank, who looks huge and imposing, even when he’s pressed up against the back of his cage like he’s trying to melt away. “Fine. $15,000.”

The seller smiles, all teeth and no humor. “That’s the spirit. Now how do you want her transported? We can do it ourselves or…”

He trails off and cocks his head. Somewhere above them on the ground floor, someone is speaking loudly. Another voice answers him, more patiently. It sounds like an argument. The voices draw closer to the hatch until the louder voice yells something in exasperation, and two sets of footsteps pound down the stairway.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Reed, I tried to keep him out but he—”

“Oh, no worries,” the second voice says, sharply accented and far too pleasant to be trusted. “Mr. Reed and I have spoken on the phone. We have an understanding. Isn’t that right, Mr. Reed?”

The seller regards the new arrival with a suspicious look. “And who are you?”

“Charles Xavier. We spoke on the phone yesterday.” He strides forward and offers his hand. “You said you had new mutants…?”

“Oh. Right. Mr. Xavier. I wasn’t expecting you today.”

“You said I could come by anytime.”

“Right. Well…” Reed spreads his arms out. “As you can see, we’ve only got three. Two,” he amends, glancing at Angel.

“I told you on the phone that I would take any mutant you had,” Xavier says with a smile. It’s a charming smile, and Erik’s eyes narrow automatically. Charm is a thin veneer to cover up lies. He knows this from experience. “So I’ll take all three.”

“Two,” the other buyer interjects. “I’m taking the girl.”

“I said, I’m taking all of them,” Xavier repeats firmly.

“The girl’s been sold,” Reed says. “And, actually, the one over there, I might have another buyer. You can have the blue one, though.”

“I’ll take the blue one,” Xavier agrees, without even looking in Hank’s direction. “And the man over there. As for the girl, I’ll double your price. How much did you want for her? Ten?”

“Fifteen,” Reed says, sounding interested.

“Thirty then,” Xavier says briskly. “And the others?”

“As I said, the one over there might have another buyer.”

He points at Erik, who glowers back at him. Xavier walks over to his cage and bends to look inside. Erik transfers his glare to him. Blue eyes gaze steadily back, neither retreating nor pressing. There’s no fear in that look, or aggression; there’s only curiosity and, strangely enough, the thinnest edge of respect.

“I want him,” Xavier says, not breaking eye contact.

Reed frowns. “I might have a buyer lined up. You know how the government wants the ones with interesting powers.”

“What does he do?”

“Something with weapons. Crumpled all our guns when we tried to snatch him. You don’t want something dangerous like that.”

“On the contrary,” Xavier murmurs. He straightens and turns back toward Reed, hands in his pockets. “So how much for all three? The girl is already thirty. The other two? Fifty? Eighty total?”

Reed narrows his eyes. “I’ll give you the furry one for twenty. He was trouble. The other one, I’m leaving for the government.”

“How much do you want for him?” Xavier asks resolutely, pointing at Erik.

“I told you—”

“And I’m telling you, I will match any price the government gives you. How much are you asking?”

Reed hesitates, his eyes flicking from Xavier to Erik, then back. “My government contact would go for fifty.”

“That’s extortion.”

“Fifty.”

Xavier presses his lips together for a moment, the look in his eyes considering. “Thirty-five.”

“Forty-five.”

“Forty. Not a cent more.”

“All right.”

Xavier smiles. “Excellent. Ninety total then.”

“Wait,” the first buyer protests, “I was here first. The girl is mine.”

Reed gives him a dispassionate look. “This is a business, Mr. Brandt. If you can beat thirty, you can have her. Otherwise…”

Mr. Brandt looks momentarily outraged. As wealthy as he looks, he’s probably unused to being challenged. He glances down at the briefcase in his hand, and his expression twists in displeasure. “Do you take check?”

Reed shakes his head. “Cash only. You already know this.”

“Fine.” Brandt huffs and shakes his head. “You can have the damn girl. My house doesn’t need freaks anyway.”

He stomps angrily up the stairs and disappears. Xavier looks after him with an expression of thinly veiled contempt. When he turns back to Reed, the pleasant smile is fixed back in place. “So, Mr. Reed, do we have a deal?”

“We do, indeed.”

They shake on it, and Xavier nods up the stairs. “I have my money in my car.”

“How do you want to do transport?” Reed asks. “We have a truck, so we can deliver to an address to your choice. Of course, there will be transport fees, but—”

“That won’t be necessary,” Xavier cuts in. “I’ll be taking them with me now, if that’s all right.”

Reed nods. “Yes, we can do that. I’ll get my men to bring them up.” He motions sharply to the guards standing by, and they stride forward, guns raised. Erik flinches back instinctively as the nearest man thrusts the muzzle of the gun through the grating.

“What are you doing?” Xavier snaps, catching the arm of the man in front of Erik’s cage.

“Transport,” Reed answers him, looking confused. “The cages are too big to haul upstairs. We’ve got spare cages up there, so we’ll just tranq them and move them up.”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Xavier says sharply. “Just let them out. They can walk of their own accord, you know.”

Reed stares at him as if he’s lost his mind. Erik stares at him, too, because if Xavier believes the three mutants are simply going to follow him up like dutiful pets, he is sorely mistaken. But maybe this is it—this is the opportunity he has been waiting for. It’s come far sooner than he anticipated, but he’s prepared. He tenses in the shadow of the grating, ready to spring, ready to attack.

“You are aware these things are dangerous, right?” Reed asks slowly. “These aren’t dogs. I don’t know if you’ve bought mutants before—”

“I have,” Xavier assures him. “Let me just…” He backs up to the stairway and sticks his head over the railing. “Alex! Could you come down here please!”

After a moment, a blond boy appears on the stairs. He’s young, probably only eighteen, nineteen. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looking as if he belongs in a high school somewhere, not here, in the middle of an illicit mutant sale.

“Yes?” the boy—Alex—asks.

“Would you mind taking care of our new friends?” Xavier asks. “And have you got the money?”

Alex hands over the briefcase he’d been holding and then pauses to survey the cages. Anger flits over his expression, and he scowls at them all. “Professor…”

“Who’s this?” Reed demands. “I don’t like random people walking in and out of my operation.”

“Relax,” Xavier tells him, setting the briefcase on the nearest flat surface—the side table—and popping it open to reveal crisp bills. “This is Alex, my friend. He’ll be handling transport.”

“He’s a kid,” Reed hisses, barely looking at the money. “He’s going to get killed—he’s going to get us all killed.”

“Alex knows what he’s doing,” Xavier replies. “You see, he’s a mutant, too.”

All of them freeze. Erik’s eyes fly to Alex’s throat. No collar.

Reed notices the same thing in an instant. He draws his gun reflexively and aims it straight at Alex. His men follow in suit, aiming their shotguns in Alex’s direction. “I think you forgot something, Xavier.”

“Put your weapon down,” Xavier says, his eyes narrowing. “If you hurt my friend, I can assure you that your operation will not survive.”  

Reed doesn’t budge. “Where’s his collar?” he growls.

“He doesn’t need a collar,” Xavier says, his voice taking on a testy edge. To Erik’s surprise, he moves directly into Reed’s line of sight. “Please put your weapon down, Mr. Reed.”

“Professor…”

“Alex, please let those two out of their cages and help them take the girl to the car. I’ll handle this.”

The boy hesitates, then moves to Hank’s cage. He glances at the nearest guard, who in turn glances at Reed for instruction. Reed doesn’t move.

“I’d like the keys,” Xavier says.

“I’ve seen some arrogant sons of bitches before,” Reed says, his eyes riveted on Xavier, “but even they wouldn’t risk taking the collars off their animals. These things are vicious, Xavier. You can’t be so stupid as to let them off-collar.”

Xavier smiles, very politely. “I said, I would like the keys.”

Reed stares at him for a long silence. Then, finally, he makes a frustrated noise and gestures to his guard. The man unhooks keys from his belt and hands them to Alex, who bends and unlocks Hank’s cage. He flings open the grating with a little more force than necessary and says, “Come on, man.”

Hank hesitates. Then he crawls out tentatively, as if he’s expecting to be struck at any moment. No one touches him as he straightens to his full height, towering over all of them. He glances at Xavier, who looks so small next to him. It would take a swipe of his paw to take the man’s head off easily.

Alex pushes Hank away from Xavier, toward Angel. “Help me with her, will you? I’m going to let the other guy out.”

Erik tenses. Alex unlocks his cage and says, “You, too, let’s go, man.”

He doesn’t need to be told twice. He surges out of the cage, cramped muscles unwinding with sharp twinges of pain. Alex backs up a step at his proximity, leaving the way to the humans wide open. Erik considers it for a split second. He could reach Xavier in a single bound. The man is slight of build and shorter than he is, which would make him easy to overpower. All Erik would have to do is grab him, take him hostage, and he would have his way out of this damned place.

He shifts his weight forward, and in an instant, Alex’s hand is clamped tightly around his arm, holding him in place.

“I wouldn’t,” he says lowly, his eyes locked on Erik’s. “You go for him, and I’ll hurt you.”

Erik stares at him, incredulous. Is he actually protecting this human? He has no collar. Why hasn’t he run? Why hasn’t he already killed Xavier and made his escape? It would be so easy, unless Alex has some harmless mutation, and even then, without the collar, surely he could easily overpower Xavier with physical strength alone. He’s young and strong, and Xavier looks soft and spoiled by his wealth. There would never be a better opportunity.

“I’m serious,” Alex warns. “I’ll explain later. Come on.”

He releases Erik’s arm and looks over at Hank, who has gathered Angel up in his arms. Satisfied, he heads up the stairs, clearly expecting them to follow. Hank starts after him, his massive shoulders brushing the side railings of the stairway, but Erik hesitates. What is this madness? The humans are defenseless. Near defenseless. With Hank’s bulk and Alex’s freed mutation, it would be quick work to overwhelm them. Why aren’t they acting? Why are they simply obeying?

The guard nearest to him points his shotgun at Erik’s chest, clearly nervous with him out in the open. Erik snarls at him, but Xavier says to him, “Please join the others outside.” Erik looks over at him, meeting those blue eyes again. He still doesn’t look afraid, even with Erik out of his cage and standing so close. Is he really that brave? Erik wonders. Or simply a fool?

Finally, he turns and follows Hank up the stairs. He doesn’t have the advantage anyway, not without Alex and Hank. The humans have got three guns among them, and he’d be shot down before he took a step toward them. He’ll have to bide his time again. The idea of waiting longer grates on him. He grits his teeth and climbs up to the first floor.

“Come on,” Alex says, leading them out the front door of the house. There’s a car outside with a trailer attached. Alex goes to the trailer and slides the door up, revealing a spacious, empty back space.

“Sorry, buddy,” he says to Hank, “but I don’t think you’ll fit in the car. You’ll have to get in here. We can put the girl in the front though, and you…” He looks at Erik. “You can sit in the back with the big guy here, or you can sit in the car. Your choice.”

Erik looks at the trailer. It’s dark and confined. “Car.”

“Okay then. Help me with the girl. Do you know her name?”

“Angel,” Hank says, clutching her close. “What are you…why aren’t you…” His eyes flicker down to Alex’s throat.

“Collared?” Alex grins. “Charles is different. You’ll learn. Come on, give her to me, and I’ll put her in the car.”

Hank doesn’t relinquish his hold on her, and Erik approves of his protectiveness. He moves to their side, half-glaring at Alex. “Explain now.”

Alex stares at them. “Now? Really? You don’t want to get away from this place first? It gives me the shivers.”

“We aren’t going anywhere with you and your…human without an explanation,” Erik says flatly. He glances around and sees no one anywhere near them. They could take this car and go. Run. “Let’s go. With the car, we could make it to a border by night. We could stash it away and go—”

Alex starts shaking his head as soon as Erik says border. “No.”

No?”

“No. You don’t understand. Charles is the safest bet we’ve got. You know how dangerous it is for mutants on the streets these days. If you haven’t got papers, you know they’ll sell you into the system if you’re caught.” He looks at all three of them in turn. “None of you have papers, do you?”

Erik simmers. “No, but—”

“But nothing,” Alex cuts him off. “New York is crawling with hunters. If you think you can make it, go. But if you actually want to survive, come with us.” He points at their collars. “Don’t forget, you still have those things on. That Reed creep is going to give the key to Charles. So if you want it off, you’ll come.”

Erik hesitates. It’s true that New York is infested with humans running around trying to capture mutants. The mutant business has exploded over the years, inspiring every armed idiot to grab a gun and try to make easy money. And it’s true, he won’t make it a day with this collar around his neck, clearly identifying him as a mutant. Alex makes sense. Erik just wishes he knew why the boy doesn’t just run, doesn’t seize his freedom with both hands and flee.

Then he realizes what Alex has said: if you want it off, you’ll come.

Off. The collar, gone. It sounds impossible. A human, bold enough to take the collars off his mutants? Absolutely unthinkable. If Alex hadn’t been standing there with his neck bare, Erik wouldn’t have believed it. But Alex is standing there, and Erik suddenly sees the way out. Clearly this Xavier is too stupid for his own good, trusting his mutants enough to free them of the only thing keeping him safe. But Erik’s not complaining; he’ll take any opportunity he’s got. His plan solidifies in his head: when Xavier takes his collar off, he’ll kill him, free the others, and run.

“Come on,” Alex says, oblivious. Hank reluctantly hands Angel over to him and climbs into the back trailer.

“Sorry if it gets bumpy back here,” Alex tells him. He goes to the car, opens the backseat door, and carefully maneuvers Angel in. She’s still limp and groggy from the tranquilizer as Alex arranges her limbs and safely buckles her in. Then he crosses back to the trailer and gives Hank the flash of a smile before sliding the door shut.

“You can sit in the back with Angel,” Alex says to Erik. “Charles needs me to navigate; he’s awful at directions.”

He climbs into the passenger seat, and after a moment, Erik slides into the back. There aren’t even any restraints back here; it would be easy to reach over the headrest and strangle Xavier as he drives. But Alex looks unconcerned as he pulls out a map and a marker, circling a city and drawing a path to the left.

After a few more minutes, the driver door opens, and Xavier slides in. “Everyone settled?”

Alex nods. “The big one’s in the back.”

Xavier twists to look in the back. His brow furrows as he spots Angel slumped on the left. “Is she all right?”

“I checked her pulse,” Alex says without looking up from the map. “It’s slow but steady. Tranquilizer, I think. It’ll wear off.”

“Good.” Xavier’s gaze travels to Erik. “You okay back there?”

Erik simply glares at him until he turns back around.

“We’re heading home?” Alex asks. “No detours?”

“No, Alex,” Xavier laughs, “not this time.” He cranks the engine on and pulls out of the driveway. “How long’s the drive home?”

“Two hours, give or take.” Alex reaches over and switches on the radio, his grin sharp. “Pitbull?”

Rap begins to chatter from the speakers.

Xavier sighs. “Excellent.”

*

*

*

Xavier lives in a mansion. It’s enormous, sprawling, and disgustingly extravagant. Erik doesn’t know why he’s surprised, considering the man just paid ninety thousand dollars out of pocket as if it were nothing.

He stops the car in the driveway by a sparkling fountain. Erik gets out immediately, wanting to get out in the open, where he has better chance to fight his way free if an opportunity presents itself. He stands stiffly on the gravel drive as Alex gets out and opens the trailer to let Hank out. Xavier crosses to the other side of the car to check Angel’s condition. He reaches out and touches her cheek, and Erik feels a little snarl build in his chest. He remembers the lewdness in Brandt’s eyes, in his touch.

“I’ll take her,” he says sharply, shouldering Xavier roughly aside. He almost expects to be struck, to be punished for speaking so rudely. But Xavier only gives him a bemused look before stepping aside, allowing him to unbuckle Angel from the seat and lift her out. She balances unsteadily on her feet, a bit more awake now. Erik allows her to lean on his shoulder as they make their way slowly to the front door.

Xavier unlocks the door, but before he can even reach for the handle, it swings open wide, and a little girl leaps through, straight into his knees. She hugs his legs and shrieks up at him, “Sean’s being mean to me again!”

Erik stares at her. Xavier laughs and asks, “What is Sean up to now?”

“He ate my cookies!”

“Ate your cookies?” Xavier repeats, properly outraged. “That is a serious offense, indeed. Let’s go inside and see what we can do about that, yeah? But first, let me introduce you to our new guests.”

The girl releases his legs but sticks close by him, her eyes suddenly shy as she surveys them. “Hi.”

“This is Kitty Pryde,” Xavier says. “Kitty, why don’t you show them something cool?”

The girl grins and reaches out to Angel. But when her hand touches Angel’s knee, it goes through it, sliding right past without touching her at all. Erik stares at her, stunned. No collar. She’s a mutant, too, not Xavier’s daughter or a human child.

Why is she here?

“Charles says I’ll be able to do more,” Kitty says bashfully, darting back to Xavier’s side. “But right now, that’s about all I can do.”

“She’s only recently manifested,” Xavier explains. “She’ll grow into it.” He looks back up at them and his smile falters. “I’m, ah…I’m afraid I didn’t get all your names.”

“The girl’s Angel,” Alex says helpfully.

“Angel,” Xavier repeats. “Very nice to meet you. I’m sure you’re not feeling too well, so I’ll have a bed set up immediately.” His gaze shifts to Erik. “And…?”

Erik gazes defiantly back at him without a word. Xavier studies him for a long moment, not frustrated, not impatient. Finally, he turns his eyes to Hank, who ducks his head and mutters, “Henry McCoy.”

“Henry. Welcome.”

“I…” Hank hesitates, only continuing when Xavier nods encouragingly. “I go by Hank, actually.”

“Hank. Even better. You don’t happen to know your friend’s name?”

Hank glances over at him. “We’re not, um…we’re not friends. I just met him at…His name’s Erik.”

“Erik.” Xavier’s gaze settles on him again, warm and friendly. “Hello, Erik. It’s very nice to meet you.”

Erik glares at him. Xavier is unperturbed. He reaches down to take Kitty’s hand and says, “Let’s sort things out with Sean, all right? Alex, will you get these three settled? I think the bedrooms in the west wing are free. I tried to tidy them up last week, but I can’t be sure…”

“I’ll handle it,” Alex assures him. To Erik and the others, he says, “Come on,” and leads them into the house.

The place is even more decadent inside than out. Luxurious leather couches sit in every room they pass, rich carpets cover the hardwood floors, and huge, profligate chandeliers dangle elegantly from the ceilings. It looks like a museum. It looks like something out of a period film, huge and unnecessary. Erik hates it on sight. He glares at everything as they pass through, climbing up the stairs to the third floor (third floor, and that isn’t even the top level). Alex leads them to the left and down the hallway, their shoes making almost no noise in the soft carpet underfoot.

One of the doors to the side suddenly flings open, and a young, dark-skinned girl who looks about Kitty’s age dashes out. She nearly runs smack into Alex’s legs, and when she sees that there are people in the hall, her eyes widen and she stops stock-still.

“Ororo,” Alex says with a grin. “What’s up?”

“Are these new people?” she asks, peering up at Erik curiously.

“Yep, we picked them up a few hours ago.”

“Hi,” she says, holding out her hand. “I’m Ororo Munroe.”

His glare softening, Erik reaches down and shakes her hand. Her fingers are ice-cold. “Erik.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ororo says solemnly. Her dark eyes land on Angel, who is still leaning heavily on Erik’s shoulder. “Is she okay?”

“She just needs to go lie down for a little bit,” Alex tells her.

“Is she sick?”

“Yes, just a bit. Do you know if the rooms down here are clean?”

Ororo nods and points. “I saw Charles taking out extra furniture a few days ago. I think they should be ready.”

“Good.”

He leads them onward, Ororo trailing behind them now. She looks up at Hank and asks, “Can I pet you?”

Hank laughs aloud in surprise. “Um, yes?”

She reaches out a hand and tentatively pats his fur. When he doesn’t protest, she strokes his leg more boldly, delight flitting across her face. “It’s so soft.”

“Thank you?”

Alex laughs. “You’re going to have Ororo rolling around in your fur all the time now.”

Hank doesn’t look too unsettled at the prospect. In fact, he looks a little flattered, slowing his pace a bit so Ororo doesn’t have to run to keep up.

They stop at the next door on the left. Alex throws it open, revealing a neat, airy bedroom. The curtains have been pushed open, letting bright sunlight flood in through the windows and giving the room a warm, welcoming glow. Alex steps in. “This is what all the rooms look like, pretty much. Angel, you can have this one. Erik…”

He’s already moving across the room, helping Angel onto the bed. She slumps down gratefully into the thick, downy pillows, her eyes drifting closed in exhaustion. Erik realizes suddenly how thin she is, how few clothes she is wearing. He can practically see her ribs through her skin, and her legs are so exposed, so bare. He draws up the covers over her body, tucking her in. He knows what it’s like to be stared at, and he wants to save her the indignity, even if Xavier has been nothing but friendly so far, even if Xavier has expressed no interest. A human’s intentions can’t be trusted.

Erik dislikes leaving her there alone, defenseless, but she seems safe enough for now. So he closes the door behind them as they leave and continue down the hall.

Alex doles out two more rooms nearby and sets them loose to explore their new quarters. “You can wander wherever you want,” he says. “The mansion’s fair game, and so are the grounds. Charles just doesn’t really like anyone in his study on the second floor, but that’s pretty much it. The kitchen’s on the first floor if you’re hungry now, but otherwise, dinner’s usually at seven. If you need anything, just take a walk. You’ll run into someone who can help.”

Then he leaves them. Erik stares after him, unable to believe what is happening. Is he really to be left here unsupervised? Unrestrained? The door is open. He could just…walk out.

Then he remembers the collar and scowls. Of course. Easiest way of managing them, keeping the collar on. He thinks of Alex, of Kitty, of Ororo (is she a mutant, too?) and wonders when Xavier plans to set him free.

He walks a circuit of his room, examining everything closely. These are hardly the conditions of squalor and cruelty he was expecting. He’s seen slaves’ quarters before. He’s seen dark, airless basements, padlocked rooms, barred windows. In one house, the mutants had been chained to walls in a sick facsimile of a medieval prison.

But this—this is a room, not a prison. Nothing is cramped here, and no expense is spared, even in this—presumably—guest room. The bed is a solid four-poster with clean, thick sheets and four fluffy pillows. There’s an empty dresser to the side, and a closet as big as some of the rooms Erik’s slept in. He’s even got a spectacular view of the front driveway, fountain and all. The windows open without a squeak. He breathes in the fresh air and wishes he were outside.

Well. Why can’t he be? Alex had said they have permission to wander, after all.

He turns and leaves the room, shutting the door securely behind him. In the hallway, he takes a moment to situate himself so he can remember the way later. Then he heads down the corridor and finds the stairs to go down.

When he reaches the ground floor, he hears a scream. Without a thought, he races for the sound, thrusting out a hand for metal and—

The pain drives him to his knees. He hits the wood paneling hard, one hand thrown out to catch himself, a gasp strangled in his throat. For a second, he kneels there, blinded by pain, struggling to breathe. Collar. Collar. He forces himself to stop trying to call to metal, to stop doing what has come naturally to him since he was twelve years old. It is so, so hard to fight against instinct.

Someone touches his shoulder, and he flinches violently away. Xavier is crouched in front of him, hand outstretched, his expression concerned. “Erik?”

Erik glowers at him, waiting as the pain fades into a dull throb. This is Xavier’s fault. Humans. Stupid, arrogant imbeciles who believe they control the world. Erik wishes he could kill them all sometimes. It would make the world such a cleaner, better place.

“I’m sorry about the collar,” Xavier says, managing to sound sincerely apologetic. “Come up to the study—I’ll have Alex fetch Hank and Angel, too—and I’ll take it off.”

Erik doesn’t let himself hope. To have the collar off, so soon? There’s a catch. There must be.

Still, he follows Xavier up the stairs again to the second-floor study. He remembers Alex saying something about keeping away from this room, but Xavier seems to have no qualms about it as he lets Erik in. Erik stands near the door so he can make a clean escape if necessary. Xavier looks at him for a moment before walking over to his desk and peering down at some papers. Erik takes the opportunity to scrutinize the room. It is large but cluttered, unlike the rest of the house. Books are everywhere: on shelves, in stacks on the floor, piled up on chairs. The large desk looks sturdily built and old, as if it hasn’t moved from this room since the house was built. There are several thick stacks of paper on its surface next to the flat screen of a computer. Xavier is sifting through one of these stacks now, shuffling folders from side to side. He hums softly as he works, a little tune Erik hasn’t heard before. He has a pleasant voice.

Of course, Erik doesn’t trust pleasant things.

After a few minutes, Alex knocks on the door and pushes Hank and Angel in. Angel looks much more alert than before, even though she’s only been resting for what must have been an hour or less. Her eyes are wary, and she looks as if she’s ready to fly out the nearest window, if only it were open. She glares at her surroundings, then turns her dark eyes to Xavier, who looks back calmly.

“Would you like me to stay?” Alex asks.

“No, Alex, I’ll be fine,” Xavier answers, dropping Angel’s gaze. “Could you go see if Bobby’s all right? I left him downstairs with Sean. They were having something of a screaming match.”

The scream. More mutants? Erik wonders. How many of them are there in this god-awful house?

Alex raises an amused eyebrow. “Bobby’s trying to win a screaming match with Sean? Good luck with that.”

He disappears from the doorway, leaving the three newcomers to stare at Xavier with varying degrees of hostility. Hank looks mostly baffled and uncomfortable, tugging with one huge paw at the collar half-hidden by the blue fur on his neck. Angel is still glaring, though she looks a touch confused as well. Erik glowers in Xavier’s direction, wondering where he stashed the keys to the collar and when he’s planning to let them go—or if he will at all.

“Angel,” Xavier says. “I don’t know if you were awake enough to remember, but I’m Charles Xavier.”

Angel’s expression doesn’t change. “I remember.”

“Good. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“Excuse me if I don’t feel the same,” she growls back, and Erik nods. Someone has to say it. They aren’t here as guests, as much as Xavier insists bizarrely on treating them like it. They’re slaves. They were bought. They’re standing here because they were sold to this man, and they aren’t forgetting it.

Xavier nods. “That’s only to be expected. Please, sit.”

None of them budges. Xavier doesn’t look ruffled by that at all. Instead, he opens the drawer of his desk and draws out a slim card, like a card key of a hotel room. Erik barely refrains from leaping across the room and wrestling it from his hand.

“I’m sure you know what this is,” Xavier says, holding it up. “I’ll let you free of your collars, but first, I want you to listen to me.”

Oh. Here’s the catch. Of course.

If Xavier was expecting an answer, he doesn’t get one. After a delayed pause, he says, “Well, here’s the deal: you can go, or you can stay. After I unlock you, you’re free to go. I’ll give you food, water, anything you think you’ll need. I would only advise that you get out of New York as quickly as possible. Things are heating up here, after all, and it is very possible that you could get caught the instant you set foot in town.

“Or,” he continues, “you could stay. It wouldn’t be permanent, only for a couple of months. If you stay, I will file certificates of freedom for you. You know what COFs are?”

Of course they know what COFs are. Of course. As such, they can only gape at Xavier, because he can’t mean…He wouldn’t do this for them. He’s human. He paid nearly a hundred thousand dollars for them. This is far, far too good to be true.

“The paperwork takes at least two months to go through the system,” Xavier goes on, meeting their shocked stares evenly. “After I get your papers back, I’ll give them to you, and you’ll be safely on your way. You won’t have to worry about being hunted, or being sold again. You’ll be free.” He holds up the key card. “All you need to do is wait a while and be patient.”

They continue to stare for several moments. This can’t be happening. This is some surreal dream. COFs are notoriously hard to come by. Mutants can file for themselves, of course, but the chances of the application going through is next to zero. Can’t be having mutants with equal rights as humans, after all, what with humanity’s penchant for superiority complexes. But if a human files a COF on a mutant’s behalf, the paperwork is much more likely to be accepted. A million times more likely. But for a human to voluntarily file one? This never happens. Even pro-mutant human activists are hesitant. Humans are too fond of their power to ever willingly sign it away, to give it up.

Erik narrows his eyes and says what they’re all thinking: “Liar.”

Xavier raises an eyebrow. “What?”

“You would never file a COF for us.”

“Oh?” Xavier gestures expansively. “Ask anyone in this house. I’ve filed for all of them. Alex already has his. So do Bobby and Sean. Ororo and Kitty are safe because they’re juveniles, but once they hit eighteen, I’ll file for them, too. I’m not lying.”

He’s lying. He must be lying, because to think that Xavier, a human, would cheerfully offer to give them COFs, to set them free…the thought is preposterous. Unbelievable. Fairytales, stories mutant mothers tell their special children under covers in dim flashlight and hushed whispers.

But there is evidence. A mansion full of evidence. Alex, Bobby, Sean…All of them have their COFs? Then why the hell are they still here?

“Think on it,” Xavier suggests. “Let me get those collars off you first. Promise not to kill me?”

His tone is teasing, but his eyes are serious. Slowly, the three of them nod, and Xavier grins. “Excellent.” He walks over to Hank, who has to bend over so he can reach. The key card slides in to the paper-thin slot at the back of the collar, and it beeps once as it falls open. Hank lets out a soft sigh of relief and straightens again, flexing his muscles.

“What is your mutation?” Xavier asks, curious.

Hank grimaces. “Can’t you tell?”

“You know the collar doesn’t do too well with physical mutations,” Xavier says. “But it can muffle other powers. Do you have any?”

Hank shrugs his broad shoulders. “I’m smart, I guess. I like science.”

Xavier’s eyes light up. “Science! A boy after my own heart! Remind me to show you the labs later. They’ve been collecting dust for far too long.”

For the first time since they arrived at the mansion, Hank looks moderately less discomfited than before. He nods almost eagerly, and Xavier steps over to Angel, who eyes him like he might be hiding a viper up his sleeve.

“I won’t hurt you,” Xavier tells her solemnly.

She scoffs. “Guess how many times I’ve heard that before.”  

For a second, Xavier looks almost sad. Then he reaches over without a word and unlocks the collar. The instant it’s gone from her neck, she scurries back away from him, as if she’d expected him to grab her. He watches her go without moving, collar in hand. Slowly, still furtively eyeing Xavier to make sure he makes no sudden movements in her direction, she reaches back and touches the tip of one wing. As it flexes under her fingers, the tension shudders out of her shoulders, leaving her drooping and clearly exhausted. Her captivity has worn her down to the bone.

“You should rest,” Xavier says gently. “Can you find your way back to your room, or should I ask Alex to come back up?”

Her response is to slip out of the room, disappearing from view. Then Xavier turns to Erik, who watches him through narrowed eyes.

“Last but not least, my friend,” Xavier says.

“I’m not your friend,” Erik snaps.

Xavier pauses, studying the hard lines of Erik’s face. He doesn’t seem frightened at all, which is surprising. Erik has been told he’s a frightening man. He’s struck terror into the hearts of many humans. He’s used to being angry and fearsome. But Xavier calmly meets his glare without flinching, only studying, considering.

“No,” he says after a moment, “I suppose not.”

Erik forces himself to remain still as Xavier reaches up and slides the key card into place. The collar beeps once, and Erik tears it from his throat, hurling it across the room. He reaches out with everything he has, and the metal rushes back to him, sings in his veins, thrums its power through his very pulse. Everything in the room lifts at once, all the metal responding instantly to his call. Xavier steps back, eyes wide, and Hank blinks in surprise.

Erik almost smiles, but he doesn’t, because he’s not the type of man to smile. Instead, he revels silently in the insistent pull of metal, tugging his fingers in a hundred different directions. The computer, the lamp, the bookends, the paperclips, the outlets, the wires, the light bulbs, the spirals…

The watch on Xavier’s wrist. Erik reaches out and pulls at it, tightens it. Xavier’s eyes fly open further as he feels his arm wrenched forward, and for a brief second, fear flashes behind his eyes. That’s right, Erik thinks triumphantly. You’re afraid, just as you’re supposed to be. You aren’t stronger than us at all. You only think you are.

Then Alex bursts into the room. “Charles, everything downstairs is—” He sees Erik’s outstretched hand, sees Xavier’s open-mouthed astonishment. “Get away from him,” he snarls, shooting between Xavier and Erik. “What are you doing to him? Let him go.”

Erik releases Xavier’s watch. “What?” he asks coolly.

Alex ignores him. “Professor, you okay?” He sounds genuinely concerned, as if he actually cares for this human. “He didn’t hurt you?”

Xavier chuckles wryly. “I think he was only making a point. I’m fine.” The fear is gone from his eyes, leaving only bright curiosity. “That’s a fascinating ability you have, Erik.”

Erik scowls. He hadn’t meant to be fascinating. He’s not here to be ogled at, to be put on display. With a twist of his wrist, he drops everything in the room, not bothering to be gentle. Xavier winces when his computer crashes back down onto the desk but doesn’t comment.

“Well,” Alex says, his tone guarded, “are they staying?”

Xavier shrugs. “I don’t know. I told them to think on it.” He walks to the door, pausing at the threshold. “You can let me know any time what you decide. Just tell me if you’re going to leave, because I’d like to give you some supplies before you go. Or you could pilfer things from the kitchen, but then I get confused with who’s eaten what, and—well, it would just be simpler if you asked first.”

Then he’s gone. But not even a full five seconds later, he pokes his head back through the doorway and adds, “Dinner’s at seven. I’ll be cooking tonight, so don’t worry about exploding plates or possible food poisoning.”

He winks at Alex, who shouts after him, “That was one time! Once!”

When he’s gone, Alex turns back to them, abruptly serious. “Listen, take the offer. Charles is the real deal. He means what he says. I didn’t believe him at first either, but he got me my COF in three months, and…and the mansion is a great place. You could do worse than spend a couple months of your life here. At least there’s free food and TV. The fact that you don’t have to worry about being grabbed off the street is a plus.” He shrugs. “Just my two cents. But you can do whatever you want.”

Then he’s gone, too. Erik exchanges a look with Hank. Then, with silent accord, they walk out of the study and down the hall again, Erik trailing his fingers along the wall, feeling metal sing the whole way.

*

*

*

Dinner is a strange affair.

Erik is very used to eating alone, or with Mystique and Azazel and the other members of the Brotherhood. They always eat in silence, brooding in their own thoughts, planning and worrying and wondering if their door is about to be broken down by policemen shouting for them to surrender. But Xavier’s mansion somehow feels…safe. It seems isolated, set apart from the dirty world outside, enclosed in warm light and a lavish spread of food. Erik feels the tension roll out of his shoulders as he sits at the end of the long dinner table and watches the others chatter away. It has been years—probably since he was a child—since he last felt this relaxed. He has to remind himself that this is dangerous, that letting down his guard is just asking to get killed. To resist the lull of supposed safety, he subtly feels the metal silverware, testing the edges of the knives. Sharp enough to cut through meat, but still too dull to maximize as weaponry. Still, when no one is looking, Erik slips his knife into his pocket.

There are nine of them total, though the noise level would suggest twenty. The five residents are sitting on the left end of the table, laughing and shrieking at each other as they fling insults and conversation back and forth. They are clearly comfortable with each other, which means they’ve been here a while. Erik wonders for how long, and how they got here. Did Xavier buy them all? Did he pluck them out of slave rings just as he’d plucked Erik?

Erik and the other two newcomers have seated themselves on the opposite end of the table, wary of the company, mistrustful of Xavier’s hospitality. Angel hadn’t touched her food for the first ten minutes, watching the others eat with suspicious eyes. It was only when none of them keeled over dead that she dared to pick up a dinner roll, and when that went down without a hitch, she snatched up everything in reach, clearly ravenous.

Hank eats slowly and not as much as his thick build might suggest. He alone is sitting a little closer to the other five, listening in curiously. Longing crosses over his face from time to time, as if he wished he could join in. He’s just a boy, Erik remembers. He wants to be included, to feel safe. Is he naïve for trusting Xavier so easily? Is he a fool?

Erik has settled himself as far away from the others as possible, keeping his distance even from Angel and Hank. Even though they were brought here together, he isn’t sure he can trust them. Hank, for one, seems to be falling too quickly for the charm of the mansion. Angel looks suspicious of everyone, and Erik can’t be sure she won’t stab him in the back if it means advancing her own agenda. Erik respects that, because he feels the same way. He doesn’t trust anyone, really, except for his Brotherhood, and even then, the trust only goes so far.

Xavier is sitting comfortably in between the two groups, bridging the gap. For most of the meal, he turns more to his five young residents, interjecting from time to time, scolding them when they start to fling food. Erik listens as they babble amongst one another, catching snatches of words and names. Alex, Ororo, and Kitty, he already knows. Sean is the redhead with wide splashes of freckles across his nose and cheeks. Bobby is the other blond boy who smiles but doesn’t laugh much. They are all young; Bobby, Alex, and Sean are probably nineteen at most, and Ororo and Kitty look ten. They belong in school, in a classroom. What are they doing here? For protection? Safety? Or maybe Xavier is holding their COFs hostage? But no, Alex wouldn’t be so loyal, and these children wouldn’t look so content, if they were being coerced. So what is Xavier doing, really? Why…everything?

He glances at the human in question. Xavier smiles constantly, his lips never quite covering the white flash of his teeth, his blue eyes bright as he speaks. He gestures with his fork as he talks, waving demonstratively, looking as animated as the children are. They laugh as he tells an awful joke, and Alex follows that up with his own story. Xavier listens attentively, not judging, not condescending. He acts as if they are equals, humans and mutants. He acts as if they’re a family, almost.

Erik isn’t falling for it. Humans are master liars. Facades come naturally to them, as naturally as breathing. Erik has learned not to trust humans since he was young, and he won’t trust this one, no matter how good he pretends to be.

Halfway through dinner, Alex steals a mouthful of mashed potatoes off Bobby’s plate, and in retaliation, Bobby touches Alex’s goblet with a finger. The water inside solidifies instantly, cracking the glass. Erik stares, as do Hank and Angel. They are all so used to hiding that the casual use of powers startles them. But Xavier and the others barely pay it any attention. Xavier only says in exasperation, “Alex, don’t—” but it’s too late, because Alex picks up the glass and dashes it to the floor, watching in delight as it shatters into a million pieces.

“I’ll never get tired of breaking frozen things,” Alex crows, and Bobby grins as Xavier massages his temples and mutters, “Someone remind me to add that to my list of things Alex has broken and needs to replace before Thanksgiving.”

Beside them, Kitty pulls on Ororo’s short hair, and Ororo turns with a playful snarl, pulling back her arm to slap her hard. But her hand swipes right through Kitty’s shoulder and slams straight into her corn, spraying food everywhere. Kitty shrieks with laughter at the furious look on Ororo’s face. Xavier stands up and tries to instill order, but he ends up laughing too hard to instill much of anything. Sean tries to reach over to keep Ororo from lunging at Kitty, but the little girl apparently has more strength than Sean expected, because she pulls Sean along as she leaps. Kitty recoils so quickly she pulls the tablecloth with her, lurching all the food platters toward her as she falls out of her seat. Xavier bends over and starts to extricate Kitty from the tablecloth, but Kitty struggles so hard that she gets more tangled, and when she twists quickly to try to escape, the entire tablecloth slides off the table, yanking all the plates of food off with it. The room is suddenly filled with the sharp clatter of plates breaking against the hardwood floor and splats of food against the ground.

All of them freeze. Erik is on his feet, and so is Angel. They’re both ready to bolt, ready to run if Xavier looks in their direction. Slaves have been disciplined for less than this; Erik has seen evidence of it. He has seen a poor mutant boy slashed across his arm for doing nothing more than forgetting to address his master as sir.

But Xavier doesn’t look angry. He doesn’t even look irritated. Instead, he just looks surprised, kneeling there with gravy smeared on his slacks and corn in his hair. At his side, Kitty struggles free of the tablecloth at last and looks at the mess, her eyes wide. She doesn’t seem terrified, only contrite. “Oh, Charles,” she breathes, “I’m so sorry.”

He glances down at her, and his expression softens into exasperated amusement. “Well,” he huffs finally, “I knew it would be too much to hope for one dinner that didn’t end in one disaster or another.” He stands up and wipes mashed potatoes from his cheek. “You five are cleaning this up.”

Kitty nods quickly, scrambling to her feet. “I’m really sorry.” 

Sean crosses his arms with a world-weary sigh. “I don’t get why I have to help. I tried to stop it.”

Xavier claps him firmly on the arm. “We’re all helping. Alex, will you get towels from the kitchen? Bobby, stop grinning and get over here and help me wrap up this tablecloth. It’s ruined.” He glances over at Erik and Angel, who are poised near the doorway, and Hank, who is sitting stunned in place. “I’m sorry about dinner,” Xavier says with a small grin, “but this is quite normal. I don’t think we’ve had a peaceful dinner in two weeks.”

“Not true,” Alex interjects. “There was last Saturday.”

Bobby nods as he bends over to pick up shards of a plate. “No one even broke anything.”

“Ah. Right. Bobby, please get the dustpan from the laundry room; I don’t want you to cut yourself. Kitty, will you help him with the glass? Ororo, come over here before you fall into everything.”

Xavier directs them with a brisk efficiency that indicates he’s done this many times before. The children obey without question, helping brush everything together as Bobby fetches a dustpan and broom. He reaches down to freeze some of the liquids so they’re easier to sweep up. Alex and Xavier pile as much debris onto the tablecloth as they can and then wrap it up into a neat bundle. Sean gingerly extracts Ororo from the middle of the mess and picks some green beans out of her hair.

“Hey,” Bobby says, brightening, “let’s clean off in the fountain.”

“No,” Xavier protests, “do you know how long it took me to get food out of there last time?”

But the others have already been seized by the idea, and they rush to finish cleaning in a whirlwind of action. Xavier looks bewildered as they nearly yank the tablecloth from his hands to throw it in the laundry, and when the room has been mostly wiped down and put back together in some semblance of order, they bolt out the door. Kitty screams with laughter as Sean throws her over his shoulder, and Ororo grabs the hem of Xavier’s shirt and pulls him bodily along. He’s still protesting as he follows, but he doesn’t seem that perturbed.

Erik exchanges a quick glance with Hank and Angel. They haven’t been prohibited from following, and Erik isn’t eager to stand awkwardly in the abandoned dining room with two other testy mutants. So they tail the boisterous crowd through the hallway, then out the front door.

The fountain sits in the middle of the circular driveway, water spraying high and steady in the clear night air. Erik stops near the door and watches it for a moment before the sight is utterly ruined by Sean dunking Kitty in head-first. Then he climbs in himself, followed quickly by a whooping Alex and a laughing Bobby. For all his griping, Xavier willingly boosts Ororo over the side of the fountain and into the water. He seems content to just stand to the side and watch until Bobby grabs his shirtfront and hauls him in. Erik takes a step forward at that, sure that Xavier will come up spluttering and furious and ready to hit Bobby full across the face. Mutants playing around with each other is one thing; mutants playing with humans? That is entirely different, and potentially dangerous. Very dangerous.

But Xavier surfaces with a gasp of incredulity that morphs quickly into a wicked grin. After a moment, he side-tackles an unsuspecting Bobby into the water, and they go under in a massive splash that sloshes water over the side basin into the gravel. Ororo giggles and points at the sight, and Alex yells his encouragement as Xavier and Bobby wrestle it out. Eventually, Xavier ends up on top, pinning Bobby’s arm behind him.

“Come on, Bobby,” he pants, his hair dripping water in his eyes. “You know I was on the wrestling team in college.” He’s laughing breathlessly. “Give up?”

Bobby struggles uselessly for a second before going limp. His grin turning smug, Xavier opens his mouth to speak again, but the water suddenly freezes around his thighs. He loses his balance at that, releasing Bobby automatically to catch himself against the lip of the basin. Bobby darts away into the unfrozen water, snickering. “Who’s giving up now?”

Xavier scowls. “Cheater.” But the annoyance in his expression is only half-hearted at best, and he looks more comical than anything, trying to free himself from the ice climbing his pants.

They look…happy. All five mutants are completely at ease, even with a human barely five feet away, a human who bought their lives. Erik hasn’t forgotten their status as slaves, even if Xavier and his young friends have. Granted, the boys supposedly have their COFs, but still—don’t they remember that they were sold and bought once like vegetables in a market? Like slabs of meat to be prodded or dolls to be acquired like collectibles? It’s thoroughly perplexing.

After all six of them are thoroughly soaked and mostly scrubbed clean of mashed potatoes and gravy, they climb out of the fountain, sopping wet and dripping all over the gravel.

“Can’t we stay a little longer?” Ororo whines, splashing around near the tall horse figurine at the center of the fountain.

“Come on out,” Xavier tells her, holding out his hand. “We don’t want you getting sick.” She pouts until he adds, “We can go swimming in the pond tomorrow, during the day when it’s warmer.” Then her eyes brighten, and she takes his hand, letting him pull her out of the water.

They track water through the house to the nearest closet, where Xavier fetches them all towels and directs them to the bathrooms to dry off and wash the rest of the food from their hair and clothes. Then he pulls out a towel for himself and sets about scrubbing water from his hair. It is only when Alex and the others are gone that he seems to realize that Erik, Angel, and Hank are still hovering nearby, waiting for instructions. Surprise flickers across his face, and he says, “You don’t need to stick around and watch me clean myself off, you know. You’re welcome to go.”

Hank is the first to find his voice. “Go? Go…where?”

“Go to your rooms, of course. Or wherever you’d like. I don’t have curfew here, except for the girls because they’re young and they need a little discipline. But you’re older, Angel, you’re allowed to come and go as you please, of course. That goes for you, too, Erik, Hank.”

They stare uncertainly at him for a moment. They have no specific orders? They’re allowed to come and go as they please?

“Aren’t you afraid we’ll escape?” Erik asks brusquely.

Xavier looks astonished, as if the thought had never occurred to him. “What? Why would you ever need to escape? You’re free to leave. I thought I’d made that clear earlier.”

Angel eyes him suspiciously. “You mean if we wanted to go…”

“Then go.” Xavier gestures down the hallway. “You know where the door is. But I’m rather hoping you’ll stay. Having COFs is so much safer for you, after all. I can have paperwork drawn up as early as tomorrow. As I said, it’s your choice.”

They’re silent for a long moment. Xavier stands there and looks back at them, dripping water onto his ridiculously expensive carpet, towel in hand.

Then Hank asks hesitantly, “What…what happens if we stay?”

“Happens? Nothing bad, I assure you. You live here. That’s all.”

“We don’t have to…do anything?”

Xavier shrugs. “You can do whatever you want. If you stayed, Hank, I could show you the lab under the house. Maybe you could make better use of it than I have. There are also two libraries and an exercise room on the third floor. There’s a hiking path in the back of the house, too, if you’re an outdoors person. I would just ask that you’d tell me if you want to go into town because…well, there have been incidents. It would just be easier if I were to accompany you.”

“And we can leave at any time?”

“Any time you want. I won’t keep you.”

He just sounds so sincere. Those blue eyes are so open, so candid, that Erik almost believes it. Almost.

Hank, however, drinks it in. “Then I…I think I’ll stay.”

Xavier beams. “Excellent. If you want, I can sit down with you tomorrow and figure out where we can start with the paperwork.”

“Yeah, that’d be…nice.”

“Great.” His gaze turns first to Angel, then to Erik. When they keep silent, he says, “No pressure. Just let me know when you decide.”

Angel lingers for an uncertain moment. Then, when Xavier doesn’t elaborate, she turns tail and almost runs for the stairway. Hank shifts from foot to foot before offering an awkward, “Good night,” and disappearing after Angel.

That leaves Erik standing in the hall with Xavier.

The human eyes him for a couple of seconds. Then he continues to towel his hair. “And you, Erik? Have you decided?”

“Why?” Erik asks flatly. “Why would you just let us go? You paid for us, and we weren’t…cheap.”

Xavier straightens and gives him a solemn look. “I didn’t pay Mr. Reed because I wanted to own you. I paid him for your freedom. At least, that’s how I look at it. Of course, you’ll need COFs to make it legal, but that’s a matter of paperwork.” Displeasure twists across his features. “You’re a man, just as I am. I don’t consider you my property, nor will I ever.”

“I’m a mutant.”

Xavier raises an eyebrow. “And that should matter to me because…? The only difference between us is that you have an X gene, and I…I don’t.”

He falters for just a split second at the end, but it’s enough for Erik to notice. Was that a furtiveness behind his eyes? Xavier’s turning away, the movement almost casual, but Erik has been reading people for long enough to know a mask when he sees one. Xavier is hiding something. Of course, Erik had known it; Xavier is a human, and he can’t be half as kind and genuine as he pretends to be. But what is he hiding?

“In any case,” Xavier continues, his face half-obscured by the towel, “why do my reasons matter? I’ll make my choices, and you make yours. I’ll be happy to file a COF for you. I’d prefer to file a COF for you. But I’ll be just as happy to let you go wherever you’d like.”

Erik narrows his eyes. Where are the cracks in Xavier’s offer? What is the trick here?

Xavier catches his mistrusting look. “You don’t have to believe me, Erik,” he says with a sigh. “That’s fine. Just do what you want. I won’t order you into anything.”

With that, he takes another towel from the linen and walks to the stairs, leaving Erik to stare after him, entirely unsure of what to think.

*

*

*

Charles rouses slowly in the morning, as always. He opens his eyes first at nine o’clock but doesn’t drag himself out of bed until almost nine-thirty. By the time he pulls on jeans and a t-shirt and wanders into the kitchen, it’s almost ten.

Still, there’s no one downstairs. That’s only to be expected; the boys sleep in until nearly noon every day, and Ororo and Kitty usually fix themselves breakfast at around eight before darting back upstairs to hang out in each other’s rooms. Charles is glad the girls are close. At that age, they need friends and support more than ever, and he isn’t always around to provide it, as much as he’d like to. Even if they can cook up some destructive schemes sometimes, Charles figures it could be worse. At least they don’t yet have the ability to destroy entire wings of the house, as Sean, Alex, and Bobby can do when they’re goofing off.

He makes himself a cup of tea and roots around the cupboard for cereal. He could have sworn he’d bought six double-pack boxes last week, but there’s only one paltry box left. The consequences of living in a house of constantly-ravenous children, he supposes. He’ll have to go to town later.

He’s in the middle of a bowl of cereal and the morning’s newspaper when he hears the front door open, and a moment later, Erik walks into the kitchen. He stops dead in his tracks when he sees Charles sitting at the kitchen table. For a second, they stare at each other. Then Erik’s brows draw together, and he shoots Charles a defiant look, as if he dares Charles to demand explanations, to punish him for leaving without asking.

Instead, Charles asks, “Good run?”

Erik looks thrown. “What?”

Charles nods to his shirt. “You’re sweating and dressed for exercise. I assume you’ve gone on a run.”

“Oh…Yes, I went for a run.” He studies Charles warily. “That’s all?”

 “What else do you want me to say?” Charles returns his gaze to his newspaper. “There’s cereal in the cupboard and bagels somewhere, too. You’re welcome to make your own breakfast. The same goes for lunch. We usually only eat together for dinner.”

There’s a beat of silence. Then he hears Erik move further into the kitchen, skirting around the table as if he’s afraid of Charles lunging for him if he gets too close. Charles pointedly pays him no attention as he searches for his breakfast. He’s fairly experienced with these newcomers now; he knows he needs to leave them their space for them to ever even begin to believe that he means them no harm. Erik needs to learn that Charles isn’t interested in dictating his every move. He’s interested in keeping them safe, in giving them shelter and, if they want it, a home. But they never believe him when he tells them those things outright, so the only way left is to let them figure it out for themselves. Some of them seem as if they’ve never trusted another person in their lives—Erik has that look. But others, like Hank, are young enough to trust quickly and easily, because all they really want is for someone else to shoulder the burden they’ve been carrying for so long.

Speaking of Hank.

Charles finishes off his cereal and leaves Erik still picking out food in the kitchen. He climbs to the third floor and walks quietly down the left hallway to the end. Alex had shown him the night before which rooms he’d assigned to their new guests, and Charles stops in front of the second door to the end on the right. He knocks firmly and waits.

After several seconds, he hears the springs of the bed squeak in protest as a weight rolls off of them, and heavy footsteps pad up to the door. It cracks open, and Hank looks out nervously. “Um…Mr. Xavier?”

“Please, it’s Charles. Did I wake you?”

“No, I was just…” Hank is already dressed, or maybe he hasn’t undressed all night. Apprehension is fairly radiating off of him. Charles is willing to bet that Hank has been awake for hours and hasn’t left his room because he was waiting for explicit permission to do so.

His tentativeness makes Charles’s heart hurt. His body is large and mature, but his eyes look so young. He can’t be too much older than Alex and the other boys. How long has he been living in this fear?

“Well,” Charles says gently, “there’s breakfast downstairs if you’d like some. When you’re ready, I can give you a tour of the lab. Then we can go to my study and go over some of the information I’ll need to file your COF.”

“Oh. Oh, right. Of course.”

Charles points him downstairs to the kitchen and tells him to come find him when he’s ready to see the lab. Then he heads off to the attic. Seeing Hank in his old clothes reminds him that the new arrivals don’t have any spare clothing, and they’re going to need some replacements if they’re planning to stay. He remembers how cold Angel had looked the night before, in her old tattered jumper and ripped shorts. He also remembers the fading bruises he’d spotted on her legs and arms, and the memory makes him clench his jaw hard in anger. He’s got to remember to write to Moira later to get updates on the situation in the committee.

He finds several of boxes of his mother’s old clothes and hauls them downstairs. He knocks on Angel’s door but doesn’t receive an answer. So he leaves those boxes for her in the hall and goes back to the attic for more. For Erik, he finds several serviceable turtlenecks and slacks, plus a pair of jeans and a couple of t-shirts. Erik is taller than Charles himself, but Charles figures that if worst comes to worst, Erik can live out of his closet until they make better arrangements. He runs into a bigger problems with Hank, no pun intended. After digging through a dozen dusty boxes, he manages to find a couple of extra-large shirts and pants. They’re definitely going to need to go to town later though if Hank doesn’t want to be doing laundry every couple of days.

He drops Hank’s box off in front of his room and drags Erik’s over to his door. He knocks and, not expecting an answer, starts to leave the clothes on the floor like the others. But the door opens abruptly, startling him, and he nearly drops the box. Only Erik’s reflexes save him the embarrassment of spilling everything on the ground; his hand shoots out to steady the box until Charles manages to get a better grip on it. Then Erik retracts his hand and crosses his arms, his expression flat. “Yes?”

“I brought you extra clothes. I thought that after your run, you wouldn’t want to change back into those sweaty clothes, and…” He realizes belatedly that Erik is naked from the waist up. He’s wearing a towel and nothing else, probably fresh from the shower. Charles can’t help the way his eyes automatically trace the lines of Erik’s figure. He’s a lean man but finely muscled. His strong shoulders taper down into one of the narrowest waists Charles has ever seen. He is maybe a bit thin—too many ribs showing too prominently, his exposed hips jutting a little too sharply—but that could easily be remedied with a steady diet. His skin is mostly smooth, but Charles doesn’t miss the long scar along Erik’s shoulder, or the other one on his right side along his ribs.

Erik endures his scrutiny without comment. When Charles’s eyes finally make their way back up to his face, he raises a cool eyebrow. “Clothes?”

“Ah—yes. Yes. Right here.” He hands the box over. “They’re old things I pulled from the attic. Let me know if they fit all right. It’s not much, but it should hold you over until I can go to town to buy you some more.”

“What if I’m leaving?”

“Then it should hold you over until you go.”

Erik balances the box against one hip and opens the flap to peer inside. Apparently satisfied that Charles had been telling the truth, he nods and asks, “Is that all?”

“Yes.”

Erik closes the door without a word, leaving to Charles to stare at the paneled wood for a startled moment. He has to remind himself that Erik’s a victim, that a little rudeness and hostility is to be expected. Alex had been much the same when he arrived, after all. So had Bobby and Sean. He’s gotten far with them; he can only hope to have the same success with Erik.

He spends the rest of the morning in his study reading over some of the headlines of the Washington Post and the NY Times, paying special attention to the articles on mutants. In New Jersey, the mayor of a small town is supporting a mutant protest at a school. In Oklahoma, a little mutant girl was shot by her mother, allegedly by accident. Within the month, the Senate will be voting on the addition to the Mutant Registration Act that will require mutants to be chipped like animals. The thought makes Charles furious.

Hank appears at one o’clock, knocking shyly. Glad for the distraction, Charles leaves his computer and leads Hank down to the basement, where the lab is. They pass through the living room where Sean and Bobby are dueling away on the Xbox. They’re shouting insults at each other as they play, and Charles hopes that Sean will be able to keep from cracking the screen in his excitement so that they won’t have to replace the TV. Again.

The lab is cold and dark. It hasn’t been touched since Charles moved back into the mansion only a year ago. For one thing, he hasn’t had the time to run any experiments, and for another, he’s had no inclination to visit the place of his nightmares. He has too many fears about this room, too much grief. But his father and Kurt Marko are long gone, and the lab is only a room now. If someone can put it to use, if someone can make a good thing out of this place, then Charles is only too willing to hand it over.

Still, he can’t fully suppress the shiver that runs through him when he flicks on the lights and sees the shiny silver lab tables. All the equipment is still there, everything still neatly in place. It’s as if his father had just walked out of the room and could be back any minute. The thought raises goosebumps on the flesh of his arms, and he hopes Hank doesn’t see the slight hitch in his step as he walks into the room.

“This is the lab,” he says, spreading his arms grandly. “What do you think?”

Hank seems to shed his inherent uncertainty as he steps into the lab. He glances around with wide eyes and runs a paw almost reverently over the nearest covered microscope. “It’s huge.”

“Yes, well, my father was a scientist. He liked to work at home, so he had this lab built. It’s…well, it was state-of-the-art at the time, but I’m sure most of this equipment is outdated now. If you really want to work down here, I can buy new equipment of course. Just let me know what you need.” Charles watches Hank wander around the room. “What sort of science do you like?”

“I actually have a degree in biophysics.”

“What?” Charles raises his eyebrows. “How old are you again?”

“Ah…nineteen.”

Even younger than Charles had suspected. “You’re a genius!”

Hank ducks his head, clearly embarrassed. “Well…”

“What school did you go to?” Charles asks, delighted. Mutants have so few opportunities to go to school now. Discrimination is horrific in academia, and those mutants that are accepted to college drop out more often than not due to bullying or sometimes even death threats. That Hank survived the skewed system and emerged with a degree is spectacular.

“Yale.”

“Yale!” Charles beams at him. “That’s fantastic. I went to Harvard myself. Studied genetics. That’s my specialty, you know.”

“Oh?” Hank glances furtively at him, badly-hidden curiosity in his eyes.

“You can ask me anything,” Charles encourages.

“Well…what do you study in genetics?”

“Human genetics,” Charles answers. “Mutations. The X gene is my main focus. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Mutations in the very code of our beings, allowing us to change, to adapt, to do incredible things.” He realizes his mistake instantly and backtracks, “Of course, I’m speaking generally, of the human population…” But Hank doesn’t seem to notice his slip-up. He’s already across the room, bending over to look at some empty Petri dishes.

Charles leaves him there, with instructions to come find him later when Hank is ready to go over COF paperwork. He returns to the living room to find that Kitty and Ororo have commandeered the TV to watch The Lion King. Sean and Bobby are grumbling about having to end their game, but they make no move to change the screen. Alex is in the kitchen eating the last of the cereal.

He’s seen his usual five, left Hank in the lab, saw Erik after his run earlier—that only leaves Angel. Charles wonders where the girl has gotten to. He hopes she didn’t just leave without so much as a word to anybody. For one thing, he hadn’t seen any food missing from the kitchen, which means that if she’s gone, she left without taking any supplies whatsoever. For another, every mutant that leaves without taking his offer of COFs feels like a personal failure. Running off into the thick of New York without proper documentation can be deadly. Charles hopes Angel is smarter that.

He makes three circuits of the mansion and doesn’t find her anywhere. When she doesn’t turn up after nearly an hour of searching, he gives up. She’ll turn up when she’s ready, he figures, and it isn’t his job to police her movements anyway.

When he returns to the living room, Sean and Alex are trying to coax Kitty into melting through the wall from the living room to the kitchen. She manages to get an arm and part of a leg in, but that’s about it. Either way, it’s good that she’s testing her limits, because that’s the only way she’ll grow into her mutation. Charles leaves them to it.

Ororo runs in after a few minutes and begs him to come help her outside. He acquiesces, because he can never say no to wide, pleading eyes.

“What did you want help with?” he asks when they’re outside by the fountain. A glance inside tells him that the water is a little murky from their romp the night before. He’ll have to remember to call someone to come take care of it.

“Look,” Ororo says, holding out her hand. She closes her eyes, and her expression creases in concentration. Then, out of nowhere, a snowflake floats down and lands on her outstretched palm, melting almost instantly against her warm skin.

Charles laughs in breathless delight. “Did you do that?”

She beams at him. “Yes. I think I can do more than rain now. Yesterday, I made it snow a little. It was really hard, but if I really thought about it, I could do it.” She reaches out and grabs his hand, turning it palm-up to the sky. “Now you try.”

He gives her a bemused look. “Try what?”

“Try to catch!”

He looks up and sees a tiny snowflake flutter down from the blue sky. It spins lazily in the air and then gets whipped away by a breeze before he can reach out and catch it. Ororo giggles and shouts, “You’re too slow!”

Charles grins. “Not true. You cheated.” He knows there wasn’t a breeze before.

Ororo gives him her wide-eyed, innocent stare. “What? I didn’t do anything. Try again.”

After a moment, another snowflake drifts downward. This time, when it’s near his nose, Charles reaches up to snatch at it, but another breeze sucks it away, and his hand closes on nothing. Ororo shrieks with laughter, and Charles attempts to scowl at her. “Not fair.”

“I didn’t do anything,” she insists, though her smile is threatening to split her face right in half. “That was fair.”

“I’ll show you fair,” Charles says, lunging for her. She leaps back with a scream, but he pursues her relentlessly around the fountain, once, twice. Ororo is a quick girl, but Charles’s legs are longer, and within seconds, he’s on her heels. He reaches both arms out to grab her, and—

Abruptly, he’s lying flat on his back, dazed and winded, his vision spinning. For a second, he simply lies there and stares at the sky, baffled. Then, slowly, he realizes that his right arm is pinned across his chest, pushing him to the ground. He tries to sit up because the gravel is digging painfully into his back, but his arm refuses to budge. It’s as if his body isn’t his own at all.

Before he can begin to panic, he hears Ororo screaming. She sounds frightened and furious all at once. “Stop it! Stop it! What are you doing?”

He lifts his head with an effort and sees Erik standing in the doorway, his hand outstretched. Ororo runs up to him and hits him hard in the thigh. “Stop it!”

Erik glances down at her, clearly startled. “What?”

Stop it! Let him go!”

“But—he—”

“Let him go!”

Erik drops his hand. As suddenly as it had come, the pressure lifts. Charles scrambles to his feet so quickly that the blood rushes to his head, and he sways in place for a second, trying to regain his balance. He stares wide-eyed at Erik, then at his arm. He remembers how Erik had uprooted almost his entire study after he’d taken his collar off, and how he’d tightened Charles’s watch almost painfully around his wrist. Telekinesis? What else could it be? Charles resists the urge to tear his watch off; he doesn’t want to be at Erik’s mercy again—once was quite enough—but he doesn’t want to show nervousness either. He isn’t afraid. All mutations are sources of awe and admiration, not fear. Never fear.

Erik’s gaze is filled to the brim with wary calculation. Is he expecting Charles to retaliate? To hurt him back? If he is, he’ll be disappointed. 

“Well,” Charles says as calmly as he can manage, “what was that?”

“Charles!” Ororo runs to him, throwing her arms around his knees. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, sweetheart,” Charles reassures her, reaching down to pat her back. He looks back up over her to Erik, eyebrow raised questioningly.

“I thought…you were running at her, and she was screaming,” Erik explains guardedly.

Charles’s eyebrows climb. “You were protecting her?”

“I thought I was,” Erik mutters, dropping his gaze.

“That’s…that’s very sweet of you, Erik. But I wasn’t trying to hurt her.”

“He wasn’t,” Ororo echoes emphatically. “He would never hurt me.” She peers out from behind Charles’s legs and sticks her tongue out at Erik. “You’re mean.”

Erik looks taken aback. “I’m mean?” His eyes fly from Ororo to Charles, then back. It doesn’t take telepathy to know that he’s shocked that this little mutant girl would choose a human over a fellow mutant.

Ororo nods mutely, glaring at Erik. Wispy clouds are beginning to gather above his head, and Charles is willing to bet that if they stand there for much longer, Erik is going to get a private thunderstorm. As hilarious as that might be, Erik would probably be less than amused. So Charles pats Ororo on the back again and suggests, “Why don’t you go inside and see if Bobby will make you a snack? It’s almost four. Just don’t eat too much because we’ll have dinner at seven, all right?”

Food dispels all other thought, as always. Ororo nods eagerly and dashes off past Erik into the house. The moment she’s gone, the clouds begin to disperse.

Erik continues to watch him cagily, and Charles decides not to address it. There’s nothing he can say that hasn’t already been said, after all. Trust is something Erik will have to learn for himself.

Fully conscious of Erik’s eyes tracking his every movement, Charles goes over to the fountain to peer inside. It’s dirty with leaves and bits of bread and corn. He’ll put in a call to town later to get someone down here to take care of it before mold starts to grow. He’ll just have to make sure the children stay inside that day, or at least until the cleaners finish. Most people in town have yet to discover he has mutants at his house, and he’d like it to stay that way.

A flutter draws his attention away from the water, and what he sees when he looks up makes his breath catch.

Angel flits across the sky at nearly roof-height, her arms outstretched for balance as she zooms past. With her thin body and translucent wings, she cuts an elegant picture outlined against the clouds, like a fairy straight out of a book. But the best part is the look on her face: she is smiling broadly, her expression perfectly content, her eyes half-lidded as the wind whips through her hair. She looks happy. She looks like every mutant should look: brave and unashamed and gloriously beautiful.

Charles can’t help it. He laughs aloud, in delight and awe and wonder. The sound jolts Angel out of her trance, and she loses the rhythm of her wing-beats, tumbling instantly from the sky. Alarmed, Charles leaps forward without thinking, arms outstretched to catch her. Before she can slam into him, however, she jerks to a stop almost ten feet above his head. Both of them stare at each other in surprise, because her wings aren’t beating and she should, by every law of physics, be free-falling. But she dangles there in mid-air, and after a moment, Charles belatedly remembers Erik. He turns and finds the other mutant with his arm thrust out again, fingers outstretched. Steadily, he lowers his hand, and Angel floats safely down to the ground. As soon as her feet touch gravel, she scurries back away from both Charles and Erik, her expression shuttered again.

“I was just…” she mutters, looking away.

Charles grins brightly at her. “You don’t have to justify yourself to me, Angel. I think it’s wonderful. Is flying fun?”

She nods slowly. “Very.”

“That’s fantastic.” When she continues to eye him cautiously, he feels the need to add, “I’m not upset with you, of course. I told you that you could go wherever you wanted, and I meant it. And I love seeing mutations at work. Yours is very beautiful.”

Angel watches him for another disbelieving moment. When his gentle smile doesn’t waver, her expression softens, and she says a bit shyly, “Thank you.”

Charles beams at her. “You’re very welcome. Don’t let me keep you. Go on.”

Giving him a last curious look, Angel turns and launches herself back into the sky. Charles watches her go with a twinge of admiration and envy and then turns back to Erik. “That’s quite a useful mutation you’ve got there. Telekinesis?”

Erik hesitates. Then he answers, “Metal manipulation.”

“Ah. Metal.” Charles glances down at his watch. “Any metal?”

“Any magnetic metal.”

“Fascinating.”

Erik’s eyes narrow in annoyance. “We aren’t objects of your fascination.”

Charles shoots him a startled look. “No, of course not. That’s not what I meant at all.”

Erik simply gives him a skeptical look before turning back and reentering the house. After a minute, Charles follows him in.

Erik is nowhere in sight, but he finds Hank in the game room, watching silently as Bobby and Alex try their hands at pool. As always, they manage about three shots before the game devolves into trying to beat each other with the pool cues, and then Charles makes them put the cues down before they injure themselves or destroy something. Hank’s expression hovers somewhere near a smile as he watches, and Charles takes that as a good sign.

“Are you ready to go over some paperwork?” Charles asks him once Bobby and Alex have settled down a bit.

Hank nods eagerly. “Yes, I think I am.”

“Excellent. Let’s go to my study then.”

Once they’re settled, Charles behind his desk and Hank in the armchair across from him, Charles pulls out the blank forms he’d printed the night before and sets them on the table. “You understand how COFs work?”

“I fill out forms, you vouch for me, and we send in a packet of information to the Mutant Department of Public Safety, right?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but basically yes. Are you already registered? Under the Mutant Registration Act, all mutants must be registered before requesting further paperwork.”

“I understand the MRA,” Hank assures him, “and yes, I’m registered.”

“Good. That saves us about five forms.” Charles takes the registration forms off the top of the stack and puts them to the side. “That leaves these twelve. I’m going to ask you to fill them out as best you can, and if you have any questions, you can ask me. Then once you return the forms to me, I’ll write your letters of recommendation and make sure all the forms get to my friend at the MDPS. Then we’ll take it from there. Simple enough?”

Hank nods. “Sounds good.”

“Good. Here, take the forms and take a pen, too. Bring them back when you’re done, and I’ll help you put them in order, okay?”

“Okay.” Hank gathers the papers together and takes a pen from the container on the desk. He stands and opens the door, then hesitates. “Um…Charles? I just wanted to say thanks.”

Charles smiles warmly at him. “I’m happy to do this for you.” He really, really is. There is no better feeling than helping a mutant get a much-needed COF, no better sight than the utter relief in a mutant’s face as Charles hands over the finished paperwork.

He spends the next couple of hours sorting out some financial matters. By the time Bobby sticks his head through the door and announces that dinner is ready, he is famished enough to eat anything the boys have managed to concoct.

To his surprise and pleasure, Erik and the other two new arrivals are already seated. They’re still clustered on the other end of the table from Ororo and Charles’s regulars, but at least they hadn’t needed to be summoned. The table is already set, and a couple of minutes later, Alex bursts out from the kitchen bearing something that looks like Kraft macaroni and cheese in great steaming platters. It even looks a little edible, which is a marked improvement from last week, and Charles settles into his seat and reaches eagerly for the fork.

Before he can even take a bite, his cell phone rings. With a groan, Charles digs it out of his pocket and almost hits ignore before he sees the name flashing across the display. The smile slips off his face instantly, and he stands. “Excuse me.”

He ignores their curious looks and goes to the kitchen. “Hello?”

“Mr. Xavier, I’m calling on behalf of Mr. Adler. He told me you would be interested in merchandise…?”

So soon? Charles bites his lip. “Yes. Have you got some?”

“We caught one yesterday. Interesting one. You might want to hurry in if you want him; we’ve got buyers coming in all night, but he’ll probably be gone before morning.”

Charles thinks for a moment. Adler is located in Brooklyn. It’s about an hour and half drive from the mansion. “I’ll be there in a couple of hours. Hold him for me.”

“Will do.”

Charles ends the call and whirls, nearly running smack into Alex, who is hovering in the doorway. “Another one?” he asks, his eyes serious.

Charles nods. “We need to leave immediately.”

“All right. Should I get the money?”

“No, you get the car, and I’ll get the money.”

“Okay.”

Alex disappears, and Charles returns to the dining table. “Sean,” he orders, “you’re in charge of the children. Make sure they eat and get into bed at a reasonable time, please.”

Sean frowns in understanding. “Is Alex going this time, too?”

“Yes.”

“You’re leaving again?” Kitty whines.

“Yes, darling, but I’ll be back soon.” Charles bends over to kiss her lightly on the head. “I expect both of you to be good for Sean, all right? Bobby, you’re in charge of dinner clean-up. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave Alex and me some leftovers.” He straightens and says to Erik, Hank, and Angel, “I’m sorry I won’t be joining you for dinner tonight.”

Hank asks, “Where are you going?”

“Nothing you need to worry about,” Charles tells him. “I’ll be back before morning, if you’re worried about getting your paperwork in, but take your time about that. Also—”

Alex runs in from the hall. “The car’s outside.”

“Good. Let me grab my things, and we can go.”

In his study, Charles stuffs the bundles of bills from the safe into a briefcase and grabs a coat. Then they hurry out.

*

*

*

It’s nearly two in the morning when Erik is woken by the sound of the front door flinging open, followed by muffled shouting. He’s out of bed in an instant. In the hall, Ororo is standing in her doorway, eyes wide. Kitty is already creeping toward the stairs, clearly nervous but too curious to resist. The struggle downstairs continues, and something crashes to the floor. After a moment, Sean runs up the stairs and yells, “Bobby, get down here!”

The door to Erik’s left jerks open, and Bobby stumbles out, his hair sticking up. “What?” he demands, wiping sleep from his eyes.

“Charles is back, and we need a hand!”

Instantly wide awake, Bobby hurries downstairs on Sean’s heels. After a moment, Erik bolts down after them, feeling for the closest metal, prepared to defend himself or attack, whichever is necessary.

The three boys are wrestling in another boy through the front door. The new arrival is dark-skinned, black-haired, and spitting in anger. “Let me go!” he snarls. “Let me go!”

“Calm down!” Alex snaps. “You’re fine, you’re safe!”

“Let go!”

“We’re all mutants here, man!” Bobby shouts. “Stop!”

At that, the new arrival ceases struggling, clearly shocked. “Wait, what?”

“We’re all mutants,” Alex echoes, sounding cross, “so calm the fuck down. God.” He has the boy’s arms pinned behind his back, with Sean grabbing him in a bear hug from the front. “Finally. Bobby, could you go help Charles?”

Bobby’s eyes widen. “Is he all right?”

“I’m perfectly fine,” comes Xavier’s voice, sounding tired. A moment later, he appears in the doorway. Erik’s eyes are instantly drawn to the blood on his shirt. He scans the human up and down and pinpoints his hand as the source of the injury. Xavier is gripping a towel tightly around his left palm, the cloth already soaked red.

“Charles!” Bobby cries in alarm. “What happened?”

“I’m fine,” Xavier insists. “It looks much worse than it is.”

Bobby reaches out and takes his hand. When he peels off the towel, Xavier hisses through his teeth.

“This needs stitches,” Bobby says uncertainly. He looks a bit green. “I think.”

“I’ll get the first-aid kit,” Xavier tells him. “You help Sean and Alex settle in our new guest.”

“Charles—”

“I can take care of this, thank you. I need you to help them.” He looks up and sees Erik standing on the stairs. At some point, Kitty and Ororo have drifted to the stairway as well, and they’re staring in horror at the blood on Xavier’s shirt.

“Charles?” Kitty whispers.

He gives them a bright grin that is only slightly forced. “I’m fine, girls. Please go back to bed.”

When they don’t budge, Bobby heads up the stairs and takes their hands. “Come on, Kitty, Ororo. Let’s go back to your rooms, okay? Charles is going to be fine. Once you’re back in your rooms, I’ll bring you some hot chocolate, okay?” He glances at Xavier, who nods encouragingly. “Yeah, I’ll get you some hot chocolate, how does that sound?”

He leads them back up the stairs. Alex and Sean pull the new arrival to his feet and hustle him upstairs past Erik. Xavier sighs heavily and disappears into the kitchen. After a moment of indecision, Erik follows.

He finds Xavier digging the first-aid kit out from the pantry and fumbling to open it with one hand. “Here,” he says without meaning to, “let me help.”

Xavier looks up at him, visibly surprised. Erik is surprised at himself, offering to help a human like this. Barely a week ago, he’d been killing slave owners like him, but Xavier isn’t quite the same as the ones he’s seen, is he? There’s something different about him. Something strange.

Trying not to think too much on the fact that he’s helping a human, Erik opens the first-aid kit and draws out the antiseptic and gauze. “Sit down.”

Xavier obeys, laying his hand out onto the tabletop, palm up. “You’ll have to disinfect it first. There’s hydrogen peroxide—”

Erik gives him a scornful look. “I’ve done this before.”

“Oh. All right then.”

He dabs the hydrogen peroxide onto a bit of the gauze and wipes off the cut with it. Xavier flinches but doesn’t pull away as Erik dabs at the wound. As he cleans away the blood, he can see that it’s a long and deep laceration stretching almost all the way across Xavier’s palm. He can’t stop himself from asking, “What happened?”

Xavier smiles wanly. “I was caught off-guard, that’s what.”

“The boy,” Erik says. “A new mutant?” He’d seen the collar around the boy’s throat.

Xavier nods. “Alex and I got him from a seller in Brooklyn. Wiped me clean. The other buyers were driving hard bargains.”

Another mutant rescued at Xavier’s hands. Surely the human doesn’t go around spending his own money just to set hapless mutants free. Why would he do such a thing? Even the pro-mutant human groups stop short of actively interfering in slave rings. And to put thousands of dollars of his own money on the line for nothing…What is Xavier up to?

He finishes cleaning off the wound and inspects it carefully. “Bobby was right, this needs stitches.”

“Oh. That’s all right. I’ll just wrap it up tightly.”

“Stitches will help you heal better.”

Xavier pulls his hand back. “Hospitals are unnecessary, really.”

“I wasn’t talking about a hospital.” Erik riffles around in the first-aid kit until he finds the thin needle and thread. “I’ve stitched wounds before.”

Xavier’s eyes widen. “Oh…okay.”

After a second, he slides his hand back across to Erik, who threads the needle quickly and starts to work on Xavier’s palm. The human looks away as the tip of the needle slides into his skin, and Erik raises an eyebrow. “Squeamish?”

“Not fond of needles.”

Erik works methodically and calmly. He’s dealt with injuries before, since the Brotherhood avoids hospitals like the plague. This isn’t the worst cut he’s stitched up by far, and Xavier is not the worst patient he’s had. The man sits quietly and doesn’t fidget, so the stitches turn out even and neat. When he reaches the end of the cut, Erik snips off the end of the threat and knots it. Then he presses a length of gauze along Xavier’s palm and secures it with a few strips of medical tape.

“It’s not perfect,” he says critically, surveying his work.

“It’s much better than I could have done,” Xavier replies, withdrawing his hand and examining it. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Erik says gruffly, rising to wash his hands in the sink. Then he puts the unused gauze and thread back into the kit and closes it up. He moves to wash the needle, but Xavier says, “Don’t bother with that, just toss it out. I can get more.” Erik glances at him, then shrugs. He drops the needle in the trash can and returns the first-aid kit to the cabinet.

They stand there in the kitchen for an awkward moment. Xavier looks at the floor. Erik studies him out of the corner of his eye. Xavier looks tired, dark circles ringing his eyes, his face drawn and pale. What happened in Brooklyn? Erik wonders. Why is this human willing to put himself on the line for a mutant?

Finally, Xavier asks, “Have you decided yet?”

It’s clear what he’s asking after. Erik pauses. He’s certainly given the matter a lot of thought. The possibility of a COF is tempting. So tempting. But Erik itches to get out of here, to reunite with his Brotherhood and continue on as he always has: hidden, living on the outskirts of society, deconstructing the human hierarchy slowly and surely. As kind as Xavier seems and as happy as the other mutants look, something about this house rubs Erik the wrong way. Maybe it’s the luxury of it all, the isolated grandeur. Erik has never trusted wealth, and he won’t start now. Every instinct in him is screaming for him to get out before Xavier changes his mind, or worse, shows his true face.

But a COF is hanging in the balance here. If he thinks about it logically, the good he could do with a COF in hand is immeasurable. He would no longer be wary of walking directly down a street in full view of others. He would no longer be afraid of slipping up on his control and accidentally shifting a lamp, or crumpling a doorknob. People will know he is a mutant, yes, but there is nothing they’ll be able to do about it if he has a COF to protect him. The Brotherhood could use a mutant with a COF. It would mean the greatest advantage possible, and all he’ll have to give up is maybe three months of his time. No big sacrifice for such a precious document.

Besides, if Xavier ever turns on him, Erik is sure he could overpower the man. This house is full of metal after all. Xavier doesn’t pose much of a threat. He can be used, though, and Erik intends to do just that.

“Yes,” he says at last. “I want that COF.”

Xavier breaks into a smile, lifting some of the weariness from his face. “I was hoping you’d say that. We can get the paperwork started tomorrow. I’m afraid I’m a little worn right now.”

“Of course.”

Xavier walks to the door and stops just an arm’s length away, close enough for Erik to reach out and touch. His voice dropping, he says, “I really am glad you’re staying.”

Erik locks gazes with him. “Only until I get my COF.”

Something that might be disappointment flickers briefly behind Xavier’s eyes. “Yes, only until then, of course. Get some sleep, Erik.”

Xavier disappears around the corner, and after a moment, Erik shuts off the light in the kitchen and follows him out.

*

*

*

The new boy’s name is Darwin. The other boys take to him immediately. They spend most of the next morning outside hurling things in Darwin’s direction and watching with whoops of delight as his body ripples and adapts to protect him. Hank stands to the side for about twenty minutes before Alex drags him in to join them. Then he tentatively throws a flowerpot in Darwin’s direction. When no one scolds him for making a mess, he grows bolder, and pretty soon, he’s attacking Darwin with as much fervor and laughter as the others. Xavier watches from a safe distance for a while, shaking his head when his flower beds are completely obliterated. He doesn’t move to stop them though, and after a while, he returns indoors.

Erik watches all this from the second floor library where he’s sitting in the window seat, a book open on his lap. It’s been a long time since he’s had the luxury of sitting down with a novel, and the feeling is almost…peaceful. Erik knows he shouldn’t be lulled into complacency by the supposed security of the mansion, but he figures that it can’t hurt for just this once. Just until he gets his COF.

He’s gotten halfway through the third chapter when the library door opens with a soft click. He looks up to see Kitty hovering in the doorway, her eyes wide when she spots him there.

“Sorry,” she stammers. “I’ll just…”

“Come in,” he says. He instantly regrets the offer, because he has no idea how to deal with children, but Kitty is already venturing further into the room, her expression cautious but also inquisitive.

“What are you reading?” she asks.

Erik holds up the book so she can see the cover.

“The A-ee-nade?” she tries.

“It’s the Aeneid,” he tells her. “By Virgil.”

“Oh.” She doesn’t look very interested. “Charles usually just lets me read Harry Potter.”

“That’s…good.”

“Yeah. It’s interesting. I like the movies better though.”

“Oh.” Erik hasn’t seen the movies or read the books, so he can’t judge either way.

After a moment, she turns her pale eyes to him and asks, “So what can you do?”

“Do?”

“Yeah. Like, I can go through things. What can you do?”

Erik wordlessly holds up a hand and summons the metal paperweight from the desk to their left. It floats slowly through the air toward them, and Kitty’s eyes widen comically as she spots it. She opens her hand, and Erik lets the paperweight settle gently into her palm. She clutches it for a moment before looking up at him with awe. “You can move things with your mind?”

“Only metal,” he explains.

“That’s so cool!”

“Here.” He takes the paperweight from her hand and crumples it, then reforms it. When he puts it back in her hand, it’s a crude flower, rough-edged and hurried but still recognizable as a rose.

“It’s so pretty,” Kitty breathes, eyes riveted on the sculpture. “Can I keep it?”

Erik nods before he remembers that the paperweight isn’t his at all. But it’s too late; Kitty is already hugging the rose to her chest and looking at Erik as if he’s given her something precious. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Erik replies awkwardly.

Kitty admires the rose for another second before giving Erik a shy smile. Then she almost runs out of the library, the rose cradled in her hands.

Erik turns back to his book and manages to make it through the rest of the chapter before someone knocks on the library door.

“Hello,” Xavier says, slipping into the room. “Kitty told me I could find you in here.” He grins. “Thank you for the rose. She’s showing it off to everyone. I think you made her day.”

Erik shrugs. “You’re missing a paperweight now.”

Xavier waves a dismissive hand. “That’s nothing. I haven’t seen Kitty that excited in a while.” He walks closer until he can make out the title of the book between Erik’s hands. “Ah, the Aeneid. Are you a big reader?”

“Sometimes. When I feel like it.”

“That’s great.” Xavier pulls the armchair nearby a little closer and settles himself in it. He holds out a folder to Erik, who takes it slowly. “That’s the paperwork to get the COF application started. Are you already registered?”

Erik’s eyes narrow. “No.”

Xavier nods affably. “That’s no problem. The first five forms are for registration.”

Erik hands the folder back to him. “I won’t be registered.”

Xavier blinks. “What?”

“I won’t be registered.”

“Why not?”

“Why are we required to tell the government what our powers are? Why are we required to give them the information they need to take us down?”

“Why do you assume the government wants to take you down?” Xavier asks. He sounds so naïve.

“You know as well as I do that the registration databases are abused all the time,” Erik says testily. “The government runs experiments—”

“Those are rumors—

“—and they look in the databases to find interesting mutants for their labs. Those records make it so much easier for them to find mutants with powers they want to study. So why would I want to run the risk?”

“Those experiments are rumors,” Xavier repeats, his brow furrowing. “There’s been no concrete evidence of such a thing happening.”

“You know the government buys mutants from slave rings,” Erik snaps. How can he be so blind? When he had bought Erik from Reed, he had been told the government was an interested party. He hadn’t seemed surprised by the information either. “What the hell do you think the government wants with them?”

Xavier’s expression is adamant. “The government would never treat its citizens like that.”

“We aren’t citizens,” Erik snarls. “We’re slaves, in case you forgot.”

“Erik, that’s not exactly—”

He shuts the book with a bang. “You’re a human,” he sneers derisively. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Xavier stops dead, his expression stricken. Erik feels a vicious pang of satisfaction at that. Doesn’t Xavier see how different mutants and humans are? No matter how often he treats them as equals, the rest of society draws a bolded line between them. Maybe it’s about time Xavier woke up from whatever fantasy world he’s living in. Maybe it’s about time someone shows him that a different reality exists outside his sheltered, self-created utopia.

“You’re right,” Xavier says finally, his voice quiet. “I am human. But I understand better than you think I do.” He stands up and puts the folder down onto the armchair. “Think about it. You can’t get a COF without getting registered.”

He shuts the door behind him as he leaves.

*

*

*

Erik settles into a sort of routine.

He gets up early in the morning and goes for a run. By the time he gets back, Kitty and Ororo have usually pilfered some food from the pantry and run back upstairs. Xavier is usually the only one in the kitchen at the table, sipping his tea and reading the morning newspaper. Erik gives him a perfunctory good morning before grabbing some toast and leaving.

He spends most of his day either lounging in the library or exploring the grounds. Sometimes he sits by and watches as the kids test out their powers all over the place. Sean can scream at a decibel high enough to shatter eardrums. Bobby freezes everything in reach, snickering when unsuspecting passerby slip on patches of ice. Kitty is getting better at her control, managing to stick half her body through objects before chickening out. Ororo manages a thunderstorm once. Darwin joins them outside more often than not, laughing as if he’s been a part of them forever.

Alex is the only one who can’t train outside. He’s confined to the Danger Room underneath the house because his power is apparently so volatile that it could very possibly take the entire house down. Erik has yet to see exactly what his ability is, but he knows it’s something big and dangerous. He stores that information away for future reference.

Hank spends most of his day alternating between hanging out with the others and staying cooped up in the lab under the house. Erik doesn’t know what he gets up to with all that scientific equipment, but according to Kitty, Xavier spends hours down there with him. In the first week, they get a delivery of fresh microscopes. Hank coos over every one of them as if they’re the most beautiful things he’s ever seen, and he and Xavier haul them all down to the lab and don’t emerge for the next two days.

Angel is starting to warm up to the others, much more slowly than Hank and Darwin had. For the first few days, she perches on the roof and watches them from a distance. Eventually, Ororo and Kitty lure her down to join them, and within the week, Erik sees her romping outside alongside the others. She’s more reserved than her companions, but in the rare moments when she lets down her guard, she laughs as hard as any of them, pure happiness in her eyes.

Xavier is the only one who doesn’t seem to have a set schedule. Some days he’s shut up in the lab with Hank, and others, he’s outside with the others, wrestling in the grass like he’s a boy, laughing as if he’s one of them—and they accept him as one, as if he’s eighteen and a mutant just as they are. Granted, he doesn’t look that much older than they are, but he’s saddled with the responsibility of caring for them all, and Erik thinks that playing the father role to so many children has aged him, or at least matured him. When Xavier’s not outside or in the lab, he’s in his study on his computer or speaking on the phone. Erik doesn’t know what he does in his study, but sometimes, he can see Xavier through the window, pacing across the room agitatedly, his expression contorted in frustration as he addresses whoever’s on the phone.

They haven’t mentioned the COF folder again. Xavier doesn’t press him on it, and he doesn’t offer. He shoved that folder underneath the bed in his room and hasn’t touched it since. All his COF hopes will have fallen apart if he needs to register. It goes against the very grain of his nature to obey the MRA. When the law first passed eight years ago, Erik had been outraged. Like many other mutants, he’d refused to register his mutant status, as a matter of principle. It was only later that the rumor had circulated that the government was misusing the information in its databases, and then no mutant wanted anything to do with the registration boards. Erik has seen the labs before, has seen the atrocities that the humans commit in the name of science. He refuses to contribute to that, refuses to make himself a victim.

But still. A COF. The things he could do with the freedom that document affords. The choice is impossible.

He just needs time, he figures. A little more time, and he’ll be able to properly weigh the pros and cons of staying. He just needs to think.

Meanwhile, the peace of mansion feels so…good. He has never lived in such lazy contentment before. Nothing is required of him, and he does as he pleases. He worries about nothing and wants for nothing. Xavier is extremely well-off, and he is all too willing to spread the wealth. All his guests get whatever they ask for, within reason, and Xavier buys surprise gifts, too, to the delight of the children. They have all they could ever want to eat, all the room they could ever want to run amuck in, and all the freedom they could ever need. It is hopelessly idyllic, and as one week goes by, then two, Erik finds it harder and harder to remember that this is not the real world, that this is the bizarre, perfect daydream Xavier has built for himself and all of them. It can’t last. It could never last. But Erik stays all the same, because it is the only peace he has ever known, and it is strangely addicting.

Only until he decides about the COF, he reminds himself. Only until then.

*

*

*

One afternoon, he hears a knock on his bedroom door. A glance at his clock tells him it’s five o’clock, too early for dinner. He swings his legs off the bed and sets the book he’d taken from the library on the nightstand.

When he opens the door, Xavier is standing on the other side. Erik stares at him for a full ten seconds. The human is dressed in a slick black tuxedo, his hair combed neatly back, his face clean-shaven. With his perfect little bowtie and tailored suit, Xavier looks like the model aristocrat. He looks like he truly owns all the wealth he so easily throws around.

“Hello, Erik,” he says. He sounds nervous, and that sets Erik on edge instantly. “Am I interrupting anything?”

Erik shakes his head.

“Ah. Good. I was wondering if I could speak to you for a moment?”

Erik leans against the doorframe. “I’m listening.”

“In private.”

Erik frowns. After a moment, he opens the door wider and steps back. Xavier walks in and shuts the door behind him, fussing restlessly with his cufflinks. He doesn’t speak for several moments. Instead, he glances around the room, his eyes lingering on the bed, then on the book on the nightstand.

Finally, he says, “I’d like to ask you for a favor. You have every right to refuse.”

“All right,” Erik says guardedly.

“I’m going to a party tonight. A gathering.” He hesitates, clearly reluctant to continue.

“What is it?” Erik asks.

“I need a mutant. It’s a mutant party.”

Erik blinks, thrown. “A what?”

Xavier fiddles with his sleeves, not quite meeting Erik’s eyes. “It’s like a society party, except we’re expected to bring our…our mutants along. To…”

Erik scowls, grasping his meaning without having to be told. “To show them off.”

“…Yes.”

For a second, Erik doesn’t know what to think. All this time, he’d thought Xavier was different. He’d thought Xavier was being sincere about the equality thing and freedom and COFs, but now he’s planning on going to one of these sick society parties where the humans parade their mutant slaves around like pets to be gawked at and petted, and why would he do such a thing? Why? When he’s thrown away so much money to buy them and make them feel safe and normal?

Finally, he manages coldly, “I won’t be your plaything, and I won’t be prodded and stared at all night. No.”

Xavier’s face falls. “That’s all right. I thought you’d say that.” He scuffs one shiny dress shoe against the carpet. “I’ll have to ask Bobby again, then.”

Erik freezes. “You’d take one of the boys?”

Xavier nods. “We’ve gone once before. Bobby hated it. That’s why I was going…That’s why I asked you, but if you aren’t willing, that’s fine.”

His expression is torn between self-loathing and resignation. He doesn’t look like a man about to enjoy a society party. He doesn’t look like a man about to enjoy much of anything, and that confuses Erik.

“Do you even want to go?” Erik demands.

Xavier shoots him a horrified look. “Oh god no. Never. These parties are nauseating.”

Erik stares at him, thoroughly perplexed. “Then why…?”

“What? You think I’d go to these things voluntarily?” Xavier barks a laugh. “No. I only go because outside of my…dealer contacts, this is the best way to find other mutants. A lot of times, the humans at these parties consider mutants passing fancies. They’re brief novelties at best, and all it takes is a little cash to persuade the humans to give up their licenses of ownership.” His face darkens. “That’s how I found Ororo.”

Erik glances at him in surprise. “Ororo is underage.”

“You know there are no laws regulating mutant trading,” Xavier mutters, an edge of anger to his voice. “As much as there should be.”

Erik studies him for a long moment. So there is an altruistic reason behind the parties after all. Then is Xavier really as perfect as he seems? Is he truly different from all the other slave owners Erik has heard of and encountered?

“Of course,” Xavier continues, “as I said, you have every right to refuse. You’ll remember that I told you when you came here that I won’t order you into anything. But I thought that since you’re older than the boys…Well, I’d hate to expose them to the sort of objectification that happens at these parties.”

“So you’ll let them objectify me instead.”

“Well, I…that’s not exactly what I…it means that…I suppose?” Xavier’s expression flits from confused to mortified to bewildered. Erik almost laughs.

“I’ll do it.”

Xavier’s eyes widen. “What?”

“I’ll do it,” he repeats resolutely. “This is how you’ll find other mutants, right? Then I’ll help you. It’s better than making one of the boys go.”

Xavier smiles in relief. “I’m glad you see it my way. Bobby will be glad, too.” He checks his watch. “We need to get going by six o’clock. The party starts at six-thirty.”

Erik eyes Xavier’s elegant tux. “I have nothing to wear.”

“I…might have had a suit made for you.” Xavier has the good grace to look embarrassed.

Erik’s eyebrows rise. “Ignoring the fact that you assumed I’d agree, where did you get my measurements?”

“I have a good eye, mostly. I’ll bring it up to your room. And…” He hesitates, apprehension lurking behind his eyes.

“What?” Erik asks warily.

“And…I’ll have to put your collar back on.”

Erik can feel his spine snap straight. Even the memory of the collar lying cool against his neck makes him shiver. Of course. Slaves always have their collars on. In his weeks at the mansion, he’d almost forgotten that mutants running around unfettered is unheard of. Everyone at this society party will expect all mutants to be wearing a collar. If Erik comes in without one, Xavier will surely be accused of reckless endangerment of the partygoers, and Erik will be put down.

So it only makes sense. But that still doesn’t stop Erik from blanching at the thought of voluntarily cutting himself off of his powers.

“I’m sorry,” Xavier murmurs. “It’s necessary though.”

Erik nods stiffly. “I understand.”

“I’m relieved to hear that. I’ll be right back.”

Xavier slips out of the room, leaving Erik to wonder what he’s just agreed to.

*

*

*

An hour later, they’re in the car with Xavier behind the wheel and Erik sitting uncomfortably in the passenger seat. He prefers to drive whenever possible, but it would only raise questions if the human weren’t in control, so he sits obediently in the passenger seat and tugs at the hem of his vest. Xavier has acquired a reasonably well-fitted three-piece suit for him, complete with a fashionable black tie. The sleeves are just a little too short, but Erik doesn’t mind; he’s not one for formalwear after all, so he can’t judge. And the tie and shirt collar manages to hide most of the plastic ring encircling his neck, though its weight against his skin still makes him feel a bit sick. Mercifully, Xavier has the setting on the collar turned all the way down, so Erik’s grasp on his powers is merely dimmed, not shut off. He can still feel the thrum of the engine as the car speeds along, but the sensation is muffled and he doesn’t think he would be able to properly reach out and seize the engine if he wanted. At best, he can still sense metal around him, which is good enough for now.

They reach their destination in twenty minutes. Erik peers out the window up at another mansion—of course it’s a mansion. It’s much more modern than Xavier’s home, with tasteful banisters overlooking the driveway and great white columns framing the door. At a glance, it’s not nearly as large as Xavier’s, more of a real house than the monstrous castle Xavier calls home. Lion statues guard either side of the entrance, and carefully-spaced flower arrangements line the ground under every windowsill. This house is certainly well-kept, if nothing else.

A valet stands at attention as Xavier pulls up. Erik climbs out of the car and waits as Xavier hands the keys over to the valet. Then they start up the stairs to the door, Erik trailing on Xavier’s heels like the dutiful puppy he’s supposed to be.

Xavier draws them to a stop at the entrance and announces to the door attendee, “Charles Xavier, please.”

The man checks the list and nods. “You’re expected, Mr. Xavier. Welcome in.”

Inside, the party is already in full-swing, even though it’s only 6:45. The wealthy like being punctual, Erik supposes. He glances around the wide atrium where most of the guests have gathered. The other mutants are painfully easy to spot; they have their collars in full-view and are wearing expressions ranging from miserable to sullenly angry. Erik clenches his fist at the sight of them, wishing he could tear this mansion down around their heads and rip those collars from their necks. If only his Brotherhood were here with him. The things they would do to this party.

“Keep close, all right?” Xavier murmurs, taking a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter. “I don’t want you going too far.”

Erik raises an eyebrow. “Afraid of me running?”

Xavier sighs. “How many times have I told you I don’t care about that? No, I’m afraid of the other humans trying to poach you. You wouldn’t believe what some of these arrogant pricks would try when they think they see something interesting.”

Erik almost smiles. “Arrogant pricks?”

“Well, they can’t all be as splendid as I am,” Xavier sniffs, and Erik does smile a bit at that. Xavier looks startled at his response, then pleased. He smiles back, and for a moment, Erik feels almost…comfortable.

Then a slightly balding older man comes up behind Xavier and claps him on the back with a jovial grin. “Xavier! It’s been a while!”

Xavier’s smile turns charming seamlessly, even as Erik’s smile falls off. “Mr. Tiller! Yes, it has been quite a while.”

They shake hands, and Mr. Tiller asks, “Have you met Vera?” He gestures to the side at a beautiful young woman who might have been his wife, except for the fact that a black collar is sitting starkly against her white skin.

“No, I don’t believe I have.”

“No? Well, Vera here can do the most remarkable thing. Show him, Vera.”

The woman obediently reaches out and clasps Xavier’s hand. Erik watches warily as a dazed look slides instantly over Xavier’s face, his smile turning a bit vague, as if he’s had a little too much to drink. His eyes fluttering closed, he lets out a huff of surprise and then falls silent. Vera continues to hold on until Xavier’s swaying on his feet, smiling blissfully as he nearly falls flat on his face. He’s only saved by Erik leaping forward and hauling him upright, which breaks Vera’s hold. The woman steps back as Xavier continues to lean heavily against Erik’s shoulder, clearly too disoriented to stand straight. He can feel Xavier’s soft gasps against his collarbone, the light breaths raising goosebumps across his skin. Xavier digs his fingers into Erik’s side for a moment, fighting to regain his balance. Then, eventually, he manages to straighten up, though he keeps a steadying hand on Erik’s arm.

“Ah…” he says, still sounding a bit fuzzy. “That was…interesting.”

Mr. Tiller laughs. “You recovered better than I did. After she touched me for the first time, I was flat out on the floor for nearly ten minutes. And that wasn’t even the whole of it; you should feel her off-collar.”

Xavier shakes his head with a chuckle. “No, once was quite enough, thank you.”

Tiller grins. “If you’re sure.”

“I am.”

They sip their champagne for a minute. Then Tiller glances at Erik and asks, “Aren’t you going to tell me who your boy here is? I couldn’t help but notice you got a new one. Old one wasn’t working out?”

“Bobby is just fine,” Xavier replies politely. “This is Erik.”

Tiller waits with a smile. When Xavier doesn’t offer anything more, the older man prompts, “And what does he do?”

“Oh, he moves metal. A little thing, really.”

“Well, let me see.”

Xavier glances at Erik, then nods. Erik has to shut his eyes to concentrate hard enough to break through the muffled effect of the collar. Once he’s got a good enough feel of most of the metal in the vicinity, he reaches out with his power and shakes Tiller’s watch just enough to rattle him. The man jerks his hand back with a startled exclamation, staring down at his wrist. 

Xavier laughs. “He did the same thing to me when I first brought him home.”

“…Interesting,” Tiller comments, sounding less than impressed. “Vera’s much more fun, I think.”

“You might be right,” Xavier agrees with an easy grin.

They chat for another couple of minutes before Tiller takes his leave, distracted by a passing mutant with purple hair. As soon as he’s gone, Xavier’s bright smile fades a little, and he downs the rest of his champagne.

Erik doesn’t miss how Xavier is still holding onto his arm. “What did that girl do to you?” he asks lowly.

“Vera? I don’t know exactly. All I know was that I was feeling about as happy as I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and I couldn’t have cared less about anything happening around me. Thank you for grabbing me, by the way. It would have been horribly embarrassing if I’d cracked my head open on the floor.”

“You’re welcome,” Erik replies, glancing around the room. “Are they all going to be like that?”

“Like what?”

“Eager to show off.”

“Oh, most of them, probably.” Xavier looks at him. “You’re all right? The collar is turned down enough?”

Erik nods. “I’m fine.” He’s discomfited, of course, but it’s better than having the collar turned on full.

They spend the rest of the evening drifting from room to room in the mansion, conversing with whoever bothers to stop them, Erik demonstrating his powers wherever necessary. Xavier seems to know most of the guests already, probably because of his status. He mingles with them with the ease of a man born into the upper class, full of polite charm and polished manners. He really knows how to appeal to people, Erik muses. He has wide, open blue eyes and a way of leaning into people when they speak, of acting as if they have captured his whole attention. The other guests are always eager to share with him, parading their mutants around and offering everything from fashion opinions to dating advice. Xavier brushes off the latter with dismissive laughs, always steering the conversation back to the mutants. Once or twice, he asks if the owner would be willing to sell, and both times, he gets a firm no.

By the time the party ends, they’ve gotten nowhere. As everyone begins to file out, Xavier asks Tiller if he’d consider selling Vera and gets an emphatic refusal.

“Well,” Xavier sighs, “that was my last hope of the night. It appears I’ve dragged you along for nothing, and I’m sorry for that.”

The valet pulls up with the car, and Xavier gets into the driver’s seat as Erik settles into the passenger side. “It’s fine,” Erik tells him. “We learned some things.”

Xavier raises an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“Vera can influence emotions. Mrs. Hendon has a mutant who can shimmer in the light. Kipling doesn’t like his old mutant and might be willing to sell him at some point.”

Xavier sighs again. “I suppose there’s that.” He turns on the engine and pulls out of the courtyard onto the street. “You can take the collar off now. The key’s in the glove compartment.”

Erik scrambles for it a little more frantically than he means to. He finds the card and fumblingly slides it into the slot. It seems like forever before the collar beeps and unlocks, and the flood of renewed power makes him almost dizzy with relief.

“Better?” Xavier asks as Erik tosses the collar unceremoniously into the backseat.

“Yes. Much.” He lays his hand against the car door, comforted by the gentle thrum of machinery.

After a long silence, Xavier glances over at him and asks casually, “So have you given the COF any thought?”

Erik resists the automatic urge to scowl. Yes, he’s given it thought. He’s given it too much thought, to the point where he isn’t sure what he wants anymore. He is still dead-set against registration. He won’t enter his name into any national human database, no matter the cost. And yet, some part of him is still uncertain. If the registration had been all that had been holding his decision in the balance, he would have been long gone by now. He should have fled from Xavier’s mansion the instant he knew he’d never get a COF. But he’s still here, and he has no inclination to leave. He doesn’t want to leave, and that thought shocks and scares him. The Brotherhood needs him. He’s in no position to get comfortable, to be lulled into this false sense of peace. He has no right to wallow in the luxury of the mansion while there are still mutants out there suffering and dying at the hands of the humans. But he shies away from the idea of leaving because, if he’s honest with himself, he likes it here. He likes it here, and that isn’t right. He isn’t supposed to be enjoying himself when there’s still so much work to be done. His Brotherhood might be tearing up the country searching for him right now, and all of their plans must have been put on hold in Erik’s absence. He plays critical roles in most of their ambushes and attacks, not to mention the fact that he’s the figurehead, the leader. He knows how important he is to the cause. And still he lingers in Xavier’s mansion. Still he hesitates, and he doesn’t know exactly why.

“That’s all right,” Xavier says, oblivious to his inner turmoil. “Take your time. I’m in no rush.”

Erik doesn’t answer him. He turns to glower out the window into the night, and they don’t speak again for the rest of the drive.

When they get home, the girls are already in bed. The older children are gathered in the game room, nearly killing each other playing ping pong. Xavier pops in to check in with them, making sure they all had dinner and cleaned up afterwards. Erik stands silently behind him, noting how comfortable Hank, Angel, and Darwin seem. They’re lounging among the others as if they belong there, as if they’ve been friends for years instead of mere weeks. They’re children, he tells himself. They adapt easily.

That doesn’t explain why he feels completely at ease himself here in the mansion, or why he can’t help but grin in amusement when Xavier gets roped into a ping pong battle and is promptly pelted by Darwin, who looks as if he has a future in the Olympics. It doesn’t explain why he takes a seat in the corner of the room and watches the others joke and goof off and act like the children they are instead of returning to his room and stripping off this uncomfortable suit.

Inevitably, his gaze is drawn to Xavier, who chatters on with the rest of them, effortlessly including everyone, as charming and friendly as he’d been at the party earlier in the night. The only difference is, his smile at the party had been a mask; his smile here is entirely real. It lights up his eyes in the most alluring way, and Erik notes, not for the first time, how attractive Xavier really is. He is young, handsome, wealthy, and charismatic. What is he doing here, shut up in his isolated mansion with a rabble of young mutants, when he could be wining and dining in high society every night, taking his place among the social elite? Even if Erik doesn’t completely trust the man yet, he does grudgingly appreciate the sacrifices Xavier’s made to help the mutant minority. But why?

After an entire tournament of ping pong in which Darwin destroys everyone, the kids fight over movie choices. They end up popping in Casino Royale, with Xavier as the deciding vote, and pile onto the couch to watch it. Xavier settles in an enormous, ragged armchair that sits near the wall. The mud-brown chair is a monstrosity, clearly old and looking far too beat-up and faded to belong in the otherwise fashionable room. Xavier sinks so far into its cushions that he looks almost like he’s being eaten. It shouldn’t be adorable, but it is, and Erik has never called anything adorable in his life, but right then, he can’t think of a more apt description of Xavier being engulfed by his armchair.

Goddamn it, he thinks after a moment, when he realizes how disgustingly mushy that sounded. This mansion is making him soft.

Erik means to return to his room. It’s been a long day, and he wants to be out of the stifling formality of the suit and warmly ensconced in his bed. But he doesn’t move. Instead, he drags his chair a little closer to the others, still far enough to be unobtrusive but close enough to watch the movie. It’s been a long time since he’s allowed himself the luxury of even watching TV, let alone seeing a film. There’s just been no time and no reason; the Brotherhood has much more important things to do, and Erik doesn’t usually enjoy the senseless fantasies playing out on screen anyway. But tonight, something is different. The atmosphere is sleepy and content, and Erik lets it draw him in, lets the quiet peace of the mansion settle in around him. For tonight, he’ll let himself relax. It can’t hurt.

The others begin the film laughing uproariously and making snide comments about odd details in the movie. But as the minutes tick by, they slowly quiet down, enthralled by the action and tired out by their own antics. Eventually, they fall silent completely. When Erik glances over, Sean and Alex are dead asleep. Angel is leaning against Darwin’s shoulder, her eyelids drooping. Only Bobby and Hank are still paying attention to the movie, the lights from the TV flickering across their faces.

Erik looks over at Xavier and can’t explain the sudden, tight squeeze of his heart.

The human is sprawled in his ridiculous armchair, his legs thrust out onto the extended leg rest, his arms folded across his stomach. His head is sinking into the headrest as he snores softly. He pulled off his bow tie and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt, so Erik can make out a sliver of collarbone and the pale skin of his throat. Xavier’s tuxedo is going to be rumpled and messy when he wakes up, Erik muses. The human doesn’t look quite so elegant like this, but that only makes him look more genuine. More real.

He isn’t aware of how long he stares at Xavier’s sleeping form, but the next thing he knows, Bobby’s getting up and muttering, “Good night.” A glance at the dark screen tells him the movie is over. Hank is rising, too. He offers Erik a fleeting smile before disappearing into the hall. In the remaining minutes of the movie, Angel and Darwin have succumbed to exhaustion, falling asleep where they sit. They look so peaceful. So safe. Is this what Xavier is doing? Erik wonders. Is he giving them back the childhood they can’t find anywhere else? 

After a moment, he levers himself out of the chair and reaches out to shake Sean’s shoulder. The redhead jerks awake with a bleary, “Wha…”

“I thought you might want to go to your room,” Erik explains. “It’d be more comfortable.”

“Oh. Right.” Sean shifts slowly, but that’s still enough to wake Alex up. The blond groans but doesn’t open his eyes until Sean hits him in the chest.

“Try that again, and I’ll punch you in the face,” Alex grumbles, but he gets up all the same. They rouse Darwin and Angel, too, and head for the door. Only Sean lingers, glancing hesitantly at Xavier slumped in his armchair.

“I’ll take care of him,” Erik tells him quietly. Sean studies him for a moment before nodding and following the others out.

When they’re gone, Erik pads across the room to shake Xavier’s shoulder. The human’s brow pinches and he mumbles something in his sleep but doesn’t wake up. He tries to shake him again, a little harder this time, but Xavier just curls up onto his side, his face buried into the arm cushion. Erik considers just leaving him there, but it seems a little callous to abandon him after everyone’s gone, and Xavier will probably wake up with a crick in his neck if he stays bent up in the armchair like that. After a long moment of deliberation, Erik bends over and slides his arms underneath Xavier’s legs and back. The human is loose-limbed in sleep, making it a bit difficult to maneuver him into a comfortable hold, but Erik manages it eventually. He shifts a bit to tighten his grip, which slides Xavier’s head into the crook of Erik’s neck. He shivers as Xavier’s breath ghosts softly against his skin. The memory of Vera flashes through his mind, of Xavier leaning heavily against Erik’s side, his hand clamped around Erik’s arm. He’d been so warm then. He’s so warm now.

Erik carries him with a little difficulty up the stairs. Xavier is heavier than he looks, and Erik hasn’t been well-fed these past years. But the last three weeks at the mansion have helped fill him out a little, and he manages not to drop Xavier as he climbs to the second floor and veers to the left. He’d figured out by the second week where Xavier slept; he’d seen the man leaving his bedroom once or twice at odd hours in the morning when Erik couldn’t sleep and Xavier had been doing who knew what. He heads unerringly for that room now, walking slowly down the dimly-lit hallway to keep from jostling Xavier awake. He has to balance his load awkwardly to reach the doorknob, and then they’re safely in.

His eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness. After several moments, he is able to make out the details of Xavier’s room. It is noticeably larger than the guest rooms but just as fashionably furnished. Still, despite the increased space, the area is a little more cramped than expected, with papers and books lying haphazardly here and there. There’s a desk to the left underneath the window, presumably where Xavier works when he’s not in his study. The surface of the desk is covered in more papers, open books, and pens. The place is something of a mess, but that makes this room feel more lived-in than Erik’s.

He carefully steps around a stack of textbooks by the door and makes for the bed. It’s a huge four-poster that looks immensely comfortable with its stacks of pillows and thick comforters. His arms protesting the strain, Erik gently sets Xavier down onto the bedspread and pauses. He knows he’s done enough already, carrying Xavier up here, but the human just looks so stuffy in his tuxedo that Erik can’t help but shake his shoulder again, hoping to get him to wake up and change into something that won’t leave him stiff in the morning. But Xavier still doesn’t rouse, so after a moment, Erik levers him up and strips him of his jacket. There. That’s better. At least Xavier won’t be so hot when he wakes.

A little embarrassed by this sudden inclination to…mother, Erik walks to the nearby chair and tosses the suit jacket over its back. Xavier can deal with it in the morning. He turns to leave, but the pages on the desk catch his eye. He glances at Xavier and finds the human dead to the world. He probably wouldn’t wake if the boys were burning the house down around his ears. He won’t notice Erik snooping a little then.

Erik steps over to the desk and peers at the papers through the darkness. After a moment, he brushes them aside to reveal a map of the United States. Some of the states are colored blue, some red. The majority are white, uncolored. Erik looks for a key and doesn’t find one. He picks up the nearest page and squints at the title. ‘The Study of a Transformed X Gene in Rattus norvegicus.’ Science. Xavier is a scientist. Right. And he studies the X gene? Interesting.

He picks up another page. ‘Discussions on Constitutionality of MRA: the Legal Line.’ With a scowl, he sets that one aside and glances at a third one. This one is a newspaper clipping with the heading ‘Senate in Debate over MRA: To Chip or Not to Chip?’ The date is much more recent than the other papers, within the last month. Erik’s scowl deepens, and the only reason he doesn’t crumple the article up and toss it aside in disgust is because these are Xavier’s things, not his. Instead, he forces himself to set the page back down onto the tabletop and moves to the other side of the desk.

There is one folder on top of the rest on the left side of the table. Erik wouldn’t have opened it, but it’s labeled ‘do now’ so he can’t curb his curiosity. He flips it open and finds three neatly-typed letters within.

The top one has Hank’s name on it.

Frowning, Erik picks the folder up and carries it over to the window, where a sliver of moonlight slicing through the curtains gives him enough light to read by. He scans the letter quickly and realizes it’s a recommendation. A well thought out, firm recommendation that manages to straddle the line between insistent and aggressive. The end of the page is signed Charles Xavier in a neat, elegant cursive. Erik reads it again and understands the second time through what this is: Xavier’s recommendation letter to be attached to Hank’s application for a COF.

He really wrote one. Xavier really intends to help them, and if his glowing letter is anything to go by, Hank might actually receive his COF. Erik doesn’t know why he’s surprised by this; all this time, Xavier has been nothing but truthful. But this might be the first time Erik actually believes it.

The second letter is one for Angel. It is equally fulsome. Erik scans it quickly before hesitating at the third letter.

It can’t be. He never even agreed…

But it is.

The first few lines read, “I, Charles Francis Xavier, fully endorse Erik (ask for full name) in his application for a Certificate of Freedom. I understand the gravity of such a request and consider Erik an upstanding model of a mutant citizen and the ideal candidate for a COF. If I were asked to describe him, it would be impossible to capture his character in so few words. But I would say that he possesses strong moral principles and a devotion to his fellow man that is difficult to express. He also possesses a certain, quiet strength, the likes of which this nation was built on, and the likes of which ought to be awarded, not punished…”

A letter of recommendation for him, to go with the untouched COF application stuffed under his bed. Xavier took the time to write a letter for him, personalized and as flattering as the others, even though he knew Erik would likely refuse his offer to file for a COF. A rush of emotions suffuses him at the thought, so quickly and chaotically that he can’t differentiate between them. All he knows is that when he turns to look at Xavier snoring away in his bed, he feels no hostility, no inherent suspicion for this human. Only a confused sort of respect and the very beginnings of something that might be trust.

He carefully slides the letters back into the folder and sets it back onto the desk. Then he walks out the door, making sure to shut it gently behind him.

*

*

*

The next morning, Erik returns from his run to find Ororo and Kitty in the kitchen shouting different ingredients and Xavier gamely attempting to combine them all into a huge bowl.

“Chocolate chips!” Kitty yells.

“Mm, all right, dear, pass me that container, will you? Thank you.”

“Strawberries!” Ororo adds enthusiastically.

Xavier nods at the fridge. “Fetch them for me, and I’ll add them.”

As Ororo hops over to obey, Kitty thinks for a moment and then exclaims, “Lollipops!”

Busy stirring the batter, Xavier laughs. “I don’t think that would taste too good with everything else, Kitty.”

Lollipops,” she growls stubbornly.

“Fine,” he relents. “But if these pancakes turn out awful, I’m blaming you.”

He turns to check on Ororo’s progress and spots Erik standing in the doorway. “Ah, Erik! Good run?”

He nods. “I went around to the lake.”

“Wasn’t it beautiful? It’s been a while since I’ve been out there. The sun rising over the water is magnificent, if I remember correctly.”

“You do,” Erik tells him. He’d been out there in time to watch the sun rise over the hill, sending the first rays of daylight piercing through the dark water. It had certainly been a sight to see.

“Here,” Xavier says to Kitty, handing her the bowl. “Will you stir for a while? Let me know when everything looks well-mixed.”

Kitty takes to the task happily, and after a moment, Ororo joins her with a whole container of strawberries. Xavier steps to the side of the kitchen, and Erik follows.

“Thank you for…putting me to bed last night,” Xavier says lowly.

“What?”

“Sean told me.”

“Oh. I was just…”

“Thank you.”

Erik nods a bit awkwardly. “You’re welcome.”

He pauses, wondering if Xavier noticed that his papers had been touched and moved. But the human’s expression is not suspicious in the slightest, just warm and a bit fond.

After a handful of seconds, Erik realizes to his astonishment that the fondness is directed at him, not at the girls. What?

“Also, thank you again for accompanying me last night,” Xavier adds. “I know it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences.”

Erik shrugs. “I’ve had worse.” At least no one had been trying to kill him.

Xavier grimaces in sympathy. “I’m sure you have. Anyway, I have another favor to ask you.”

“Already?”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing big. I just need you to watch the girls today and keep an eye on the others to make sure they don’t utterly destroy the house.”

Erik raises an eyebrow. “Where are you going?”

“Business,” Xavier answers evasively. “It’s nothing you need to worry about. I’ll be gone until dinner, probably.”

“Are you…taking anyone?”

“No. It’s not that kind of business.”

Erik resists the urge to inquire further. Xavier’s affairs are none of his concern. “All right.”

“Thank you. Also, could you tell Hank I left the magnesium in the bottom drawer on the far left in the lab?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks.”

With a parting smile, Xavier returns to the girls, who have managed by now to make a spectacular mess of their clothes and the batter. He groans at the chaos but doesn’t scold them, as always. Xavier never scolds, Erik notices. He only laughs and gently corrects, and the children respond eagerly to this sort of attention. He is a natural leader.

Erik lingers for a couple of minutes before heading upstairs for a shower.

When he comes down again twenty minutes later, Xavier is already gone.

*

*

*

Moira smiles when she spots him. Rising from the table, she opens her arms, and Charles hugs her with a grin.

“Hi,” she says. “It’s been a while.”

“Yes, well, I’ve been busy.”

Moira raises an eyebrow. “How many have you got in that mansion of yours now?”

“Nine.”

She whistles lowly. “That’s a lot. Is that what you’ve been doing for the last couple of months?”

“Mostly,” Charles replies. “I’ve also been busy filing COFs for them.”

“Of course.” Moira’s smile gentles a bit. “You know, I don’t think I ever told you how much I admire you for what you do.”

Charles shrugs. “It’s the least I can do. Anyone who has half my fortune and any shred of common decency would do the same.”

“Clearly, almost no one else feels the same,” Moira comments dryly. “You know mutant trafficking numbers have grown exponentially over the past five years.”

Charles thinks of the number of studies and articles he’s read through in the past three months alone. “I’m well aware.” He gestures to the table and settles himself into the nearest chair as Moira resumes her seat. “So what’s the recent news?”

Moira sighs. “It doesn’t look great. They’re having a hard time getting people to even consider an equal rights bill. Having a fully-fledged Senate committee formed for it seems a little far-fetched right now.”

“Ah.” He’s only slightly disappointed. Public opinion on mutants has always been dismally low, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. Most people are loath to upset the status quo. “That’s only to be expected.”

“Yes. Senator Blakely is still firmly onboard though, and he thinks that he can have another couple of senators supporting the bill within the month.”

“There’s something. The more senatorial support we get, the more chance this bill has of getting off the ground.”

Moira nods. “Blakely will keep lobbying. Other than that, there’s not much we can do at this point.” She picks up her cup of coffee from the saucer in front of her and asks, “Do you want anything?”

Charles shakes his head. “That’s fine, thank you. I actually have another question for you.”

“Shoot.”

“You’re CIA,” he begins slowly, “you know the inner workings of the government.”

Moira laughs. “I know some of it, yes, but not nearly all. Just because I’m CIA doesn’t mean I’m privy to every shred of information that passes in and out of the government.”

“I think you might know this,” Charles tells her. At the seriousness of his tone, her smile slides off. “I want to know if there’s any truth behind the rumors of government experimentation on mutants.”

Moira stares at him for a second. “What?”

Charles frowns. “You know all the talk about the government catching mutants and funding experimentation on the X gene and various powers? All this time, I thought it was just talk. Is it true?”

“No…of course not.”

“Are you sure?”

Moira shakes her head, her brow furrowed. “Of course I’ve heard the rumors, but I’ve seen nothing of the sort. Where did this come from?”

Charles remembers how vehemently Erik had refused to be registered. “And the rumors that the Mutant Registration Database is being used to find mutants for these experiments? That’s not true either?”

“No. As far as I know, no.”

As far as you know?”

Moira sighs. “Look, Charles, it’s flattering that you think I’m important enough to know everything that’s going on in the Agency, but I’m just an agent. I answer to my boss, and he answers to his. We’re too far down the chain of command to be in-the-know about every operation. Some things happen…behind the scenes. I’m sure I don’t know about ninety-nine percent of the black-ops programs in the CIA. So no, I can’t say positively that none of that stuff is happening in the government. If it’s happening, it could be CIA, it could be NSA, or it could be some organization I’ve never heard of before. But as far as I know, nothing like that is going on.”

Charles sighs in frustration. “I understand. But you would tell me, wouldn’t you? If you knew of something like that happening?”

Moira looks aghast. “Of course I would.”

“Good.” He toys with his sleeve for a moment, then pulls his chair closer to the table. “Okay, what’s the plan today?”

Moira reaches down to the briefcase at her feet and pulls out a folder. “Here. Senator Foley. She’s from Massachusetts, but she’s in New York today for a conference. I’ve already called her office ahead of time, and she’s scheduled us in for lunch at eleven-thirty.”

Charles glances at his watch. “We have an hour. Tell me about her.”

“Well, she owns no slaves. She’s avoided the mutant issue for her past election and hasn’t openly endorsed or opposed the MRA. But I have it on good authority that she has mutant leanings—her cousin’s supposed to be a mutant, which might have something to do with it—so there’s a good chance that if we lobby well enough, she might officially join us.”

Charles flips open the folder and gazes at the picture inside. “We’d better lobby well then.”

*

*

*

He gets home at nearly nine-thirty at night, exhausted but satisfied. He’s certain Senator Foley will eventually commit to their cause, even if she’s hesitant now. She’s a good woman, and she knows what’s right. She’s only afraid of what her more conservative constituents will think, but given time, she’ll almost certainly come around.

After Moira had taken him to see Foley, they’d dropped by another senator’s office and visited the mayor for dinner. Both officials had been nothing but welcoming, and they’d listened politely to what Charles and Moira had had to say. Senator Rowley had been reticent on the topic, but the mayor had sounded intrigued. If they can get him on their side, that will be a victory worthy enough of being celebrated.

All in all, a good day. The fact that the mansion is still standing when he returns is a bonus. Not that he hadn’t trusted Erik’s supervision, of course.

As expected, everyone has already eaten. He can hear them in the living room shouting at the TV—probably playing on the Xbox again and trying not to strangle each other, because they’re all so hilariously competitive about their video games. Grinning fondly, Charles drops his bag off at the kitchen table and opens the refrigerator.

There is a container marked ‘leftovers.’ He pulls it out and finds cold spaghetti and meatballs inside. Good enough.

He’s in the process of sticking a plate into the microwave when Erik appears in the doorway. “You’re back.”

Charles nods. “Just got back five minutes ago. You managed to keep everyone under control for a day. Congratulations.”

Erik shrugs. “It wasn’t hard.”

With the scowl Erik is capable of, Charles figures that it probably wasn’t. “That’s good.”

He sets the microwave to two minutes and digs silverware out of the left-hand drawer. After a moment, Erik asks, “How was your day?”

Charles glances over at him surprise. Since when has Erik been interested in his day? Then he realizes that Erik isn’t making polite conversation, he’s fishing for information. Of course.

“It was fine,” he says. “Better than fine. Pretty good.”

“Oh.” Erik leans against the doorframe, his arms crossed. “What did you do?”

Charles shrugs and putters around to find napkins. “Played politics. It’s all very boring, honestly.”

Politics?”

At the astonishment in his tone, Charles laughs. “Yes, politics, or something like it. Why?”

“You just don’t seem like the type, Xavier.”

Xavier?” Charles echoes, raising an incredulous eyebrow. “You’ve been here for over three weeks and we aren’t on a first-name basis yet?”

Erik’s eyes narrow. “I thought…There’s an etiquette. Proper respect.”

Charles rolls his eyes. “And I thought I told you that I don’t care what those licenses say, you aren’t property. Call me by my first name like everyone else. Please.”

Erik studies him for a long moment. Then he says haltingly, “All right…Charles.”

“There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Charles beams at him and turns to fetch the spaghetti when the microwave beeps. He carries the steaming plate over to the kitchen table and settles down into the nearest chair. “Have you already eaten?”

Erik nods. “With the others.”

“Ah. Okay.”

Erik doesn’t move from the doorway though. After a couple of seconds, he pushes off the wall and walks over to take a seat across from Charles. He sits there in silence as Charles spins pasta onto his fork. A few mouthfuls later, he says, “Can I ask you something?”

Charles nods. “Of course. Anything.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Doing…what?”

“This. All of this.” Erik gestures expansively to the mansion. “Buying mutants and freeing them. Giving them COFs. Letting them stay in your house. Why?”

Charles considers his question in mild surprise. The others have never asked after his motives, but Erik seems intent on knowing. Charles can’t explain it all without giving away some secrets he’d rather keep, but he supposes he can try to give Erik the answers he wants.

“Because I can,” he answers. “Because I have the resources to do so. Because I don’t believe in the subjugation of a kind of people simply because they’re different.”

Erik gives him a flat look. “Those are diplomatic answers. What’s the real reason?”

Charles is startled by his insight. “What?”

“Is it because someone you know is a mutant?” Erik presses. “Is it because something happened that turned you pro-mutant?”

Raven’s face flashes briefly through his mind. He pauses only for an instant, but Erik pounces on it. “So it is that. Was it a family member? A friend?”

“That’s…not it,” he tries, but Erik is already convinced.

“I knew it,” he mutters. “I knew you had to be connected.”

Let him believe it, Charles decides after a moment. Let him believe that that is all.

“So?” he asks. “Does it matter if I’m connected?”

Erik shrugs. “I knew there had to be a reason. That’s all.”

Charles frowns. “So you think that people can’t just be morally upright?”

“No. I don’t.”

“So people can’t just want to do the right thing. There has to be an ulterior motive.”

“Not an ulterior motive,” Erik says slowly. “Just…a reason.”

“You couldn’t believe that I’m doing this out of the kindness of my heart?” Charles asks. “That I looked at mutants and knew how fundamentally wrong this was and wanted to help?”

Erik hesitates, as if he’s searching for the right words. Finally he answers, “No, I wouldn’t believe that. I’ve known enough humans, and I know that they’re selfish, fearful creatures. They wouldn’t raise a finger to help a mutant unless they knew they had something to gain.”

Charles bristles a bit at that. “That’s as wide of a generalization as I’ve ever heard. Not all humans are the same, Erik. And may I remind you that you came from humans.”

Erik’s eyes sharpen. “All the humans I’ve ever seen have acted in the same way. They hate us, and they fear us. And we did come from humans, that’s true. But we’re better than they are.”

“You’re better than I am, you mean?” Charles asks, suddenly angry. He hadn’t figured Erik was so vehemently anti-human. His arrogance is stifling. “Or did you forget that I’m human as well?”

Erik shoots him a startled look. “No, that’s not what I meant.”

“Isn’t it?” Charles stands stiffly. “Excuse me. I’m not hungry anymore.”

He deposits his plate in the sink and walks out, leaving Erik alone at the kitchen table.

*

*

*

They avoid one another the next day. It isn’t difficult, since Charles shuts himself up in his study and Erik wanders off to do who knows what. Charles passes the time catching up on national news and reading over some of Hank’s lab reports. He corrects a couple of calculations, solves one of the errors Hank had been unable to resolve, and sets the folder aside to discuss with the boy later. As he reaches for a highlighter, his gaze falls on the ‘do now’ folder, and after a moment, he picks it up and flips it open.

Hank has been very diligent about his COF application, so Charles doesn’t worry about him. Angel has been a little slower in completing her paperwork, but she’s getting it done. Erik, though…

Charles takes out the third letter and sighs. He’d written it just in case Erik had decided to get a COF after all, but now he isn’t so sure Erik will change his mind. The man’s clearly dead-set against humans and the required registration. Obviously, he’s had some traumas in his life that have turned him irrevocably against humans, and Charles thinks that that is a damn shame. If they’re ever going to coexist, human and mutant, then there has to be an understanding between them. There has to be acceptance, not hatred.

He sighs again. Just yesterday, he thought they’d been making progress, what with the senators and mayor agreeing to listen. But then Erik…Sometimes it seems as if society takes a step forward, only to be hauled back by the same close-mindedness that landed it in this position in the first place. Erik wants emancipation for mutants, and Charles wants the same thing. But Erik doesn’t seem to understand that using hatred to fight hatred is counterproductive.

Well. They all have their beliefs. Charles puts the letter back into the folder and sets it aside. Erik is one mutant. Although there are anti-human, mutant supremacist factions out there, Erik is probably not a part of them, which makes him not nearly half as extremist as some mutants Charles has heard of. It could be worse.

*

*

*

“I’m sorry,” Erik tells him the next day at dinner.

Charles starts. He gets the feeling that Erik is not a man to apologize lightly. “For what?”

“For offending you. When I said that mutants were better than humans, I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“Oh.” Charles glances around the table. Everyone else is engrossed in their own conversations. Tonight, Erik has chosen to sit directly to Charles’s left, giving them enough privacy to talk without being overheard. “Well, I don’t think that’s what you meant at all. You don’t really think mutants are inherently better than humans?”

“Aren’t they?” Erik asks, reaching for a dinner roll. “The X gene is an evolutionary adaptation, isn’t it? And adaptations are improvements to help a species survive?”

“Well—that’s simply put, but yes—”

“Then yes.” Erik shrugs. “Doesn’t that mean it’s scientifically proven?”

Charles frowns. “That’s an oversimplification of science. Let me ask you this: are all mutants good?”

“All the mutants I’ve known.”

“But of all mutants,” Charles insists. “Are they all good?”

“No, but they’ve been shaped by the human culture, by a corrupt society—”

“Maybe they have. But aren’t humans shaped by this same culture?” Charles spears a bit of ham on his fork and chews on it speculatively. “How can we all be bad or all good? We’ve been shaped by our environment. Nature versus nurture, isn’t that right?”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, perhaps we should learn to judge people by their character, not by the presence or absence of an X gene.”

Erik studies him for a moment. Then exasperation and condescension tinge his expression as he drops his gaze and pokes at his salad. “You’re an idealist, aren’t you?”

“Aren’t we all, at some point?” Charles answers with a bright smile, and reaches for his glass of water.

They spend the rest of dinner chattering on inanely about nothing. Sean and Bobby have a scheme that Charles is sure will end badly, but he doesn’t know enough details from their hushed mutterings to figure out how to stop them yet. Alex is trying to get milk to snort from his nose as Kitty cheers him on—ever the troublemaker, that Kitty, and a better parental figure might have scolded her, but Charles only grins to see it. He wants her to run wild, to run free, to learn that it is better for her to be loud and giggling and herself than anything else. It is a warming thought, to believe that he has provided the semblance of a home for them where they can be whoever they’d like. He hopes that, in time, Erik and the newer arrivals can feel the same way.

After dinner, all of them settle into the living room for a movie night. Angel and Bobby drag out blankets and pillows for everyone as Charles makes five bags of popcorn in the kitchen. He can hear Alex and Sean fighting over what movie to watch. After a moment, Kitty interjects that she’d like to see the newest Star Trek movie, and Charles grins when the boys acquiesce; the girls have got everyone in the mansion wrapped around their little fingers, and they never hesitate to use the fact.

He’s in the process of bringing back the popcorn when his phone rings. Handing the bowls over to Darwin, he pulls his phone out of his pocket and steps back into the kitchen. “Hello?”

“Charles, it’s Moira. I’ve got some excellent news. Are you sitting down?”

He frowns. “No.”

“Oh, well, you might need to. The proposal for underage mutants is going through.”

For a second, he simply stands there in shock. Then he sags against the doorframe and whispers, “Really?”

“Yeah. Blakely whipped up enough of a frenzy to push it through. You know how people feel about underage mutant trafficking anyway; no one wants to think of children being involved in all this, mutant or no. Blakely called me and told me to tell you that he’s got majority support in the Senate. It sounds as if there’s similar support in the House, and the president is already a given, seeing as how he spoke out against underage trafficking during his election…”

Charles breathes for a long minute. The numbing shock is starting to ebb away into a sharp flare of hope. “Moira, this is big. This is an important step.”

“I know that.” She sounds restrained, as if she’s holding her own joy tightly in check. “You were the first I wanted to tell. I know how long you’ve been pushing for this.”

He laughs, the sound tinged with disbelief and amazement. “Is this really happening?”

“Congress is set to vote on it within the month. The results are expected to be in favor of the ban on underage trafficking.”

“This is…this is fantastic news,” Charles says, slowly so that his voice won’t tremble with excitement. “This is huge. The first step in promoting mutant equality. First we’ll get them to admit that mutant children deserve to be protected as well, and then we’ll move on to the bigger motions.”

“You don’t have to lecture me,” Moira says with a laugh. “You’re preaching to the choir. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know. Our next meeting is on Saturday, don’t forget.”

“I won’t. Thank you, Moira.”

“Of course.”

She hangs up first, leaving Charles to stare blankly at his phone. This is…this is it. In all his five years packed full of lobbying for pro-mutant acts and protections, not one of his proposals or the proposals he supported has gone through. But now, it is happening, a piece of pro-mutant legislation is passing, and when it does, it will be a landmark decision. It will be the first governmental action since the MRA eight years ago that protects mutant rights rather than undermines them. The implications of this first step are massive.

Such good news warrants celebration. He is sure he has champagne somewhere, or, failing that, some excellent wine. He wants to drink, wants to toast. But the children are underage and tired, probably in no mood and too young to understand the enormity of the situation. And Erik…will he even appreciate the efforts of a human government? Most likely, he will only scoff in distrust and dismiss the news as rumors—not what Charles is looking for in a drinking partner at the moment. But no matter, he can drink by himself; nothing, not even Erik’s anti-human leanings, will ruin his mood now.

Happily, he slips his phone back into his pocket and leans back into the living room to tell the children, “I’m going to be in my study if you need anything.” They wave at him distractedly, riveted on the space battle unfolding before their eyes. Humming under his breath, he leaves them to it.

He goes down to the cellar and fetches a dusty old bottle of champagne. Then he practically skips to his study and shuts the door.

Erik is inside, sitting at the chair by the fireplace. Charles stops, surprised.

“Erik. Why aren’t you…”

“With the others?” He shrugs and stands. “You were acting strange. I wanted to know why.” He gestures to the bottle in Charles’s hand and asks, “Did something happen?”

“Strange?” Charles laughs as he crosses the room to his desk and pulls a tumbler out of the drawer. After a moment of hesitation, he adds a second glass to the first and tries to work open the cork to the bottle. “What do you mean? I was smiling. I smile all the time.”

“Not like that,” Erik says, and Charles is too busy yanking at the cork to see the considering light in Erik’s eyes. “And you left in the middle of movie night to…what? Have a drink in your study?”

“Well,” Charles says, putting the bottle down on his desk and searching for a corkscrew. “As a matter of fact, I do have good news. Damn, where did I put that thing?”

“Third drawer on the left.”

Charles checks. “How did you…”

“I felt it.”

“Oh. Right.” He retrieves the corkscrew, but before he can set it to work, it pulls itself out of his hand and latches onto the cork. With a quick twist, the cork pops off with a soft bang, and champagne spills onto Charles’s desk.

“You’ve got fantastic control,” Charles observes as he pours them each a glass.

Erik shrugs. The corkscrew drifts down to sit on the edge of the desk. “What news?”

“What news,” Charles repeats, sipping his drink. It’s a little dry for his taste but it sends a pleasant buzz down his throat all the same. “Here, take yours. My friend who works for the government called me earlier. She told me that Congress is very close to passing a ban on underage mutant trafficking.”

As expected, Erik’s reaction is unimpressed. “Very close?”

“As in, we should expect the news within the next month.”

“And only on underage mutant trafficking?”

“These things take time,” Charles tells him, downing his glass and pouring more. “Making it illegal to trade children under eighteen is a step. A very important step. Do you realize that this is the first time the government will have legally sided with mutants since the MRA? Do you realize how huge this is?”

“It’s one thing,” Erik says dismissively. He doesn’t touch the champagne Charles has offered him. “It’s not enough.”

“Isn’t it? How many years have pro-mutant coalitions been fighting for this? This is where the change starts, Erik. Look.” He sets down his glass and sweeps aside some papers on his desk. He’d brought his map down from his room earlier, he is sure of it—ah, there. He yanks it out from underneath a textbook and holds it up so Erik can see the whole of the United States. “The blue is pro-mutant, the red is against. White is undecided. This is the data from three years ago.” He flips the map over, where the blue and red have expanded across the country, the white dwindling to isolated areas in the South and Midwest. “This is today. This year. See how much it’s changed?”

“I see a lot of red,” Erik says stonily.

Of course he would focus on that. Charles sighs. “Look at the blue instead. Eleven states have switched from undecided to at least popular-majority pro-mutant. Three have changed stances from anti-mutant. It’s still far from a national majority, but it’s better than the paltry four states we had supporting mutant rights three years ago.

“New York, of course, is a hotbed of political infighting over the subject, but it’s looking more and more positive as time goes on. People feel less kindly toward mutants here, but—well, that can change, too. It will change. Starting with things like the ban.” 

Erik watches him, his expression now inscrutable. “And this matters to you?” he asks, standing. “Changing—this?” He waves his hand expansively, indicating the room, the mansion, and, Charles assumes, the entirety of the mutant-human conflict.

“Of course,” he says, brow furrowing. “I’d have thought I made those intentions clear when I brought you here and offered you your COFs.”

“I didn’t think you’d…” Erik glances away for a second. Then he refocuses his gaze on Charles, scrutinizing him. “Buying mutants and trying to set them free is one thing. But actively getting involved in mutant politics? That’s different. That’s…serious.”

“I am serious about this, Erik,” Charles tells him. “You have no idea how serious I am about this.”

Frustration flits on the edge of Erik’s expression. Charles watches him for a moment before asking, “What?”

“Nothing,” Erik mutters. “I just…can’t figure you out.”

Charles laughs. “I’m not that complicated.” He picks up the second glass of champagne and holds it out. “Look, I’m in the mood to celebrate, and you’re the only one old enough to enjoy this with me.”

After a lengthy pause, Erik takes the offered drink. “Is that the only reason I’m here?” he asks, and if Charles isn’t imagining it, his tone is just shy of amused.

For some reason, eliciting even that much emotion out of Erik pleases him. He flops down in the chair behind his desk and grins. “You came here on your own, my friend.”

He’s even more pleased when Erik doesn’t protest his use of my friend. It seems as if they’re making progress. 

They toss back their drinks, and then Charles pours them some more. After the third glass, Charles is starting to feel pleasantly buzzed, and he leans back in his chair, a little drowsy and a lot happy and wondering if the momentum from the ban can be maintained. In the morning, he’ll have to call Moira back, help her formulate a game plan to continue their lobbying for more concessions, contact Senator Blakely and thank him for his contributions, explain to the older children what this will mean for them…But for now, he’ll just enjoy the comfortable warmth of his study, the fizzle of champagne down his throat, and Erik’s quiet company.

He isn’t sure when he drifts off, but he rouses in Erik’s arms on the stairway toward his room. “What…”

“You fell asleep,” Erik explains, his voice hushed. “It’s three in the morning. Everyone else has gone to bed, and I…didn’t want to leave you there.”  

“Oh.” Another time, he might have protested the indignity of being carried like a child to his room. But the alcohol has loosened his inhibitions a little, and Erik is so very warm. He presses his face into Erik’s firm shoulder and sighs softly, wishing this sort of sleepy contentment could last forever. Erik’s arms around him make him feel so oddly…cared for. He tightens his hold around Erik’s neck, making a pleased little noise at the back of his throat. Curiously enough, he feels Erik’s stride slow a little, so that he is taking measured steps toward Charles’s room instead of walking quickly as he had been before. The observation passes through the fog of his thoughts and is gone in an instant. He burrows closer and closes his eyes again, dozing off to the steady thud of Erik’s heartbeat.

*

*

*

Xavier—Charles—is noticeably cheerier the next morning, which is saying something, given that he already starts every morning with shining smiles and eager kindness. The children notice but don’t comment, not until Alex asks finally, “Is there a reason you’re in such a good mood, Prof?” and Charles finally caves and tells them all happily about the upcoming ban on underage mutant trafficking, leaving out most of the more confusing details and focusing on the fact that this is a vital step to human-mutant equality. Erik gets the feeling that most of the children don’t understand exactly how this helps them, but they smile and slap high-fives all the same because they trust Charles and his assessment of the situation. Hank is the only one who seems to really grasp what Charles is saying, and he hurries over to whisper some quick words to the human, who nods and smiles widely. Hank makes a soft noise of disbelief in response, and Charles claps him on the shoulder, his joy nearly impossible to contain. The happiness makes his eyes bright, and Erik watches them, watches the way that blue gaze flits around to everyone and how each person preens a bit at the attention. When Charles’s eyes land on Erik, he can’t help the way he sits up a little straighter, wanting to…what? Impress the man? The thought is ridiculous. And yet, Erik still feels a little thrill of pleasure every time Charles seems to notice him, to look at him a little longer than he looks at the others.

How utterly childish and…needy. He swallows the rest of his breakfast and takes his leave.

He spends most of the morning in the library in the back where Charles seems to have stored most of his nonfiction books. Erik digs out several volumes on law and the early mutant debates but finds little on more recent legislation, such as the MRA and its amendments. He figures that this is due to Charles pulling most of those books for his own research, rather than due to an oversight in the library’s selection. Still, Erik figures he’s found enough to last him through the morning, so he takes the small stack back to the window seat and settles in to read.

The law books are dense and difficult reading, but Erik forces himself through them. He has always known general details about the MRA, but he has never read up on the background of the bill or some of the alternative versions that might have passed. Some of the earlier incarnations of the act make hot fury swamp through him, and he wonders how much worse it could have been for mutants if the humans hadn’t, for some reason, cut back on their blatantly hateful discrimination to produce the MRA that eventually passed. There had been talks of rounding up mutants and tagging them, or creating an entirely separate mutant state. The latter doesn’t sound like such a bad idea to Erik, but the idea’s opponents had argued that dumping the mutants into their own territory would strengthen the mutant community rather than weaken it. The possibility of the mutants building an army in their own little kingdom had been too much for legislators, and they’d scrapped that idea.

Shame. Erik thinks that giving the mutants their own country would have been immensely helpful. Imagine being able to operate his Brotherhood from an entire state of supportive mutants. No need to fear the authorities storming any headquarters, no need to slink around dark alleys like street rats—ideal conditions to plan the takedown of the human regime.

He is reading over one of the older mutant-human debates between two New York representatives when he hears a soft, “Hi,” by his knee. Startled, he glances up to see Kitty hovering by his leg, her smile shy.

“Oh,” he says. How engrossed was he in reading that he didn’t even notice her approach? “…Hi.”

“I was wondering,” she says carefully, “if you’d make something for me?”

Erik sets his book aside. “What?”

She holds out her hand. Various coins sit in her palm. “Charles gave me some change. Can you make something out of them?”

Erik takes the coins and peers at them. “These are Canadian.”

“Yeah. Charles said that they’d work better because U.S. coins aren’t usually magnetic. He said U.S. change is usually made of…alloys…or something. I think.”

Of course. Thoughtful Charles. Erik tests the weight of the coins in his palm for a moment, feeling the threads of steel and nickel calling to him, vibrating softly against his skin. “What would you like?”

Kitty beams and climbs up on the window seat next to him. “A raindrop—no, a snowflake!”

Erik raises an eyebrow. “A snowflake?”

“Yeah. I want to give it to Ororo as a surprise.”

“All right.” Erik closes his hand, pressing the coins so tightly together that they fuse. Then he opens his hand again and holds it out so Kitty can watch as the metal squirms around like beads of mercury, dripping together in intricate patterns until a little snowflake begins to form. Kitty lets out a gasp of delight, and Erik can’t help but smile at her wide-eyed amazement. He takes more time with this sculpture than the flower he’d given to her before, so the details turn out in sharp clarity. Almost before he’s done, Kitty plucks the snowflake out of his hand and holds it up to the window to admire it.

“It’s so pretty,” she breathes. “Thanks.”

He nods. “It was nothing.”

Instead of leaving, she digs into the pocket of her jeans and spills out a dozen more coins onto the space on the seat between them. “Can you do more?”

Erik thinks he’s beginning to understand why Charles can never say no to her earnest pleas. With a sigh, he sets his book aside and picks up a handful of change. “Sure.”

As he works on her next few commissions—“A dragon! A dog! A butterfly!”—she chatters on about the mansion life, about what Sean’s up to downstairs, about everything that captures the attention of a bright eleven-year-old. Her shyness is a thing of the past as she slowly relaxes into his company, leaning back against the fluffy seat cushion behind her. After five minutes listening to her explain Bobby and Hank’s latest plan to test Darwin’s limits, it suddenly occurs to him that he can use her to fish for information about the mansion—specifically, about Charles.

“Kitty,” he says, breaking into her detailed explication of how they put up the Christmas tree last December, “how did you get here?”

Kitty stops, puzzlement suffusing her expression. “What?”

“I mean, how did you come to the mansion?” Erik clarifies. “Did Charles bring you here?”

Kitty quiets for a moment. She draws her knees up to her chest and lays her head on them, eyes tracing the movement of the coins as Erik manipulates them. He is starting to think that she won’t answer when she says very softly, “When I started getting my powers, my parents tried to protect me. They didn’t want me to get registered. They were just trying to hide that I could do anything special. But somehow, people found out, and these…men came to try to take me away.” She turns her face down to hide it in the crook of her knees, so when she speaks again, her voice is muffled. “My parents made me go out the back door and told me to run. I went all the way down three blocks until I ran into Sean. He took me to Charles, who told me that it’d be safer for everyone if I came to stay with him. He said that the men wouldn’t find me at his house, and if they couldn’t find me, they’d leave me parents alone. So I went with him.”

Erik processes this in silence. “How long ago was this?” he asks finally. “How long have you and the others been here?”

Kitty shrugs. “Less than a year? Since…last August, I think. When I got here, Sean and Bobby were already here. Alex and Ororo came afterwards.”

So Charles hasn’t been rescuing mutants for that long. Why now? Erik remembers the look on the human’s face when he’d asked after ulterior motives for helping mutants—Charles had stiffened ever-so-slightly, but even that small movement had given him away. Maybe that connection—family member or friend? Erik wonders—had only developed in the last year or so. That would explain the sudden interest in slave rings and mutant legislation.

“So,” he continues after a moment, “do you know anything about Charles before he started to help people like us?”

Kitty blinks. “Um…no.” Her brow furrows in thought. “Now that I think about it, no one knows much about Charles, I guess. I mean, we know he’s a teacher, or he was. That’s why we call him Professor sometimes. But he doesn’t talk a lot about himself.”

“Doesn’t that make you a little suspicious?” he hints. “You know nothing about him.”

Kitty shrugs. “Not really, no. Like Alex says, we’d be somewhere a lot worse if he hadn’t taken us in. He’s nice to us. He’s a good person.”

Well, that’s true enough. They all would be somewhere a lot worse if Charles hadn’t brought them here. Erik thinks of the mutant prisons he’s broken into over the years and knows that this mansion is infinitely better than anything the other slaves must endure.

He tries to question Kitty a little more, but she’s too distracted by the sculptures he’s churning out to give him more than perfunctory answers. Eventually, he decides that she doesn’t know much more than he does, so he lets his questions subside and focuses on the detailed wings of the butterfly that Kitty wants.

A lion, another rose, a dog, and a delicate little butterfly are the end results of the coins Kitty brought him. She examines them each in turn, gasping in awe at each intricate detail, and Erik feels stupidly proud of impressing an eleven-year-old girl. He has never had his power admired so…innocently before. His Brotherhood had seen his mutation as an advantage over their enemies; his power was their power, and with it, they could tear down buildings and raze hated laboratories and change the world. But he has never used his power for such a whimsical thing like creating tiny sculptures out of coins before. It feels oddly satisfying.

“Thank you,” Kitty says, gathering up her prizes in her hands. “I love them.”

“It wasn’t any trouble.” He smiles at her—and how is it that in this mansion, with these people, smiles come so easily?

She pushes off the window seat and heads for the door. At the threshold, she turns around and says solemnly, “Don’t eat too much at dinner tonight. Sean is cooking again, and the last time he cooked, we all had stomach aches.”

Erik remembers that incident. It had only been a week ago, after all. He’d been spared because he’d taken one bite and decided that he’d rather risk offending the redhead than killing himself over undercooked beans. “Thanks,” he tells her. “I’ll remember.”

She disappears out the door, and he returns to his reading. He can only manage another twenty minutes before the words start to blur in his vision. That’s probably as good a sign as any that he needs to take a break, so he puts the book down onto the stack he’s gathered and leaves them there for later. Then he heads down to the kitchen to fix up some lunch and finds Charles and Angel at the dining table, a chess set in between them. This startles him because, barring Erik, Angel has been the most suspicious of Charles from the beginning. She gets along with the other children fine, but she has always been reticent with Charles. To see them sitting together, Angel focused on the board in front of her rather than on the nearest exits, is surprising.

“So the rook goes like this?” she asks, not even noticing Erik’s arrival.

“Yes, in straight lines.” Charles picks up his own remaining rook—black, Erik notices—and demonstrates.

“And I could take your pawn if I wanted?” She points to the piece in question.

“Yes, with your knight. But be careful, because that would open your knight to attack by my queen.”

Angel bites her lip as she surveys the board. “Then I guess I could…move my bishop here?” She points again.

Charles gestures to his rook. “I could trap you pretty easily if you did that.”

She lets out a frustrated sigh. “This is hard.”

“There are always options,” Charles says patiently. “You just have to look for them.”

Black is winning the board, which is only to be expected because it seems to be Angel’s first time with chess. But the placement of Charles’s pieces has weaknesses that could turn the tide of the game if white only pressed hard enough. At a glance, Erik sees three moves that could pressure Charles into a more defensive position.

Angel, inexperienced as she is, sees none of them. She picks up her rook instead and starts to move it directly into the trap Charles has set with his bishop and queen.

“Wait.”

Both of them look up, jolted out of their study of the board. Charles’s face splits into a wide smile. “Erik! I haven’t seen you all day.”

“Wait,” he repeats, crossing over to Angel’s side. “Here.” He takes the rook from her and puts it back where it came from. Then he shifts one of her pawns forward to threaten Charles’s bishop. “That’s better.”

Charles glances appraisingly at him. “Do you play?”

Erik shrugs. “I used to.”

“Then help me,” Angel says, sounding cross. “I’m losing everything.”

After a moment of consideration, he draws up a chair and sits down by her side. Charles raises an eyebrow. “Am I about to be trounced?”

Erik returns his gaze coolly. “I don’t know. Are you?”

That draws a laugh out of him, and Charles moves his queen.

Twenty minutes later, he’s been hemmed in by his own trap and squandered the last of his pawns, knights, and rooks. Erik captures his queen as Charles tries to protect his king, and after that, it’s almost too easy.

Charles is laughing as he tips his king over. “Well played, my friend, well played. I haven’t had a challenge like that in a very long time.”

“You fought valiantly,” Erik says, just a bit smug. “It was almost a shame to slaughter you.”

Slaughter—” Charles’s eyes narrow. “I demand a rematch.”

Angel shakes her head and stands. “All this chess business is giving me a headache. Thanks for the lessons, Professor, but I think I’ve had enough. I’m going outside.”

Charles waves a distracted goodbye, already focused on resetting the board. Erik switches into Angel’s vacated seat and offers magnanimously, “You can play white. I don’t need the advantage.”

Charles’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh-ho, you’re certainly confident. You seem to think I’m easy pickings. Allow me to disabuse you of that notion.”

And disabuse he does. Five minutes into the new game, Erik realizes that Charles had only been going easy on Angel earlier. Now, against Erik, Charles takes a much more conservative tack, setting careful defenses and waiting for Erik to be the aggressor. He doesn’t commit his forces high into the board where they can be trapped; instead, he lies in wait, hiding his strategy behind a few fakes that Erik has to admit have him fooled a couple of times. Erik has never faced an opponent like him before, and it stirs up an excitement that sharpens his focus so that all he sees for the next hour is the board, the pieces, and Charles’s considering expression that is as good as a poker face. They battle their way slowly across the board, sometimes pressing, sometimes falling back, steadily losing their pieces to the enemy.

When Charles is left with his king, three pawns, and a knight, he laughs a bit breathlessly and eyes Erik’s queen inching up the side of the board. “You’re very good.”

Erik grins sharply, all teeth. “I like chess.”

“I can see that.” Charles studies the board for a long minute before picking up one of his remaining pawns.

Erik’s grin widens, and Charles aborts the motion, watching Erik now instead of the board. He carefully sets his pawn back down and picks up his knight instead, moving it safely into position to fortify his defenses. Erik isn’t disappointed in the slightest; even though Charles avoided his most obvious trap, Erik will still have him in four moves. Within the next minute, he’s stripped Charles of two of his remaining pawns. “I think this is the point where you surrender.”

Charles smiles brashly and shifts his king to the left. “Never.”

“And now?” Erik asks two moves later. The white king and one pawn are all that remain of Charles’s forces. Erik still has his queen, his king, both his knights, and a pawn. The conclusion is pretty much foregone.

Charles frowns for a moment as he scrutinizes the board. When he finally seems to realize that there’s no way out, he tips his king over for the second time and says with a sigh, “You’re brutal.”

Erik grins and concedes, “You didn’t make it easy.”

And then they’re both just looking at each other and smiling—that damn smiling again—and Erik can’t tear his gaze away. He is intrigued, he has to admit it. He has been drawn to those blue eyes from the very beginning. He wants to take Charles apart and see what makes him tick. He wants to learn what secrets lurk behind that intelligent gaze. He wants to know who Charles lost and why he’s helping other mutants now. He wants to know a thousand other little things that aren’t relevant in any sense of the word, like Charles’s favorite books, or if he likes to run, or if he’s always so guarded when playing chess or does he ever take risks.

And, oh, the realization hits him like a lightning bolt straight down his middle: that’s why he hasn’t left yet. That’s why he didn’t turn tail and run the instant he knew he wasn’t getting a COF. Because when Erik has questions, he wants them answered, and Charles Xavier is three dozen questions wrapped up in a heavy dose of charm and shielded by unfailing courtesy. Charles Xavier is a mystery begging to be unwrapped, and Erik is…entranced.

Before he can fully grasp that sudden insight, Charles’s phone rings. He pulls it out of his pocket and frowns when he sees the number. “Excuse me.”

Erik watches him leave, his wariness returning at Charles’s pinched expression. Bad news, more likely than not. The only question is, what?

*

*

*

“No,” Charles says sharply, taking the stairs two at a time up to his study. “Keep them there. No, I don’t care what anyone else says, I’ll beat any price anyone else puts up. How many…Just one? No, I want her. Keep her there. I want her, understand? Good. I’ll be there in an hour.”

He ends the call and snatches up an empty briefcase. He spins open the safe impatiently and empties it—almost a hundred thousand dollars. It might be overkill, but he doesn’t want to underestimate the other buyers; his contact had strongly hinted that this mutant is special, and he knows that particularly interesting mutants can easily drive prices up over fifty thousand. He’ll have to visit the bank later to restock the safe for future transactions, but for now, he can’t worry about that.

He runs out and tries to find one of the boys to accompany him. They’re not in their rooms or in the game room. He hops down the stairs and checks the living room—no one. Damn it. He needs to leave as soon as possible, but he doesn’t want to go alone; new mutants are always calmer and less willing to tear him apart when he has another mutant along to help.

He nearly forgets all about Erik, but when he rushes through the kitchen, intent on running out to the back to check the lawn, he finds the other man still sitting at the table, resetting the game. He looks startled to see Charles so flustered, but then his eyes zero in on the briefcase and realization flits across his face.

“Have you seen one of the boys?” Charles asks, stopping in the doorway.

“No. Why?”

“I’m—going on business, and I’ll need—”

“I’ll go.”

Charles gapes at him for a moment. “What?”

Erik stands. “You’re going to buy a mutant, aren’t you? I’ll go.”

“Are you—are you sure?”

“I want to help mutants, too,” Erik says, and there is something dark in his voice. “So yes, I’m sure.”

Charles hesitates. Erik is certainly strong enough to protect him if it comes down to that, but he is also strong enough—and angry enough—to attack. It could be risky, exposing him to the sort of cruelty that slave rings can offer and then expecting him to keep quiet. But he doesn’t really have any choice, seeing as how the boys have gone off to who-knows-where and he needs to hurry if he wants to get there in time to negotiate at all. So he nods and says, “We’re going to have to hurry.”

Erik nods. “I can do that.”

One thing about driving with Erik, Charles realizes quickly enough, is that it can be a simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying experience. He’s in the driver’s seat, but he’s far from in control; Erik has his hand pressed against the inside of the passenger seat door and is doing something that is pushing the car far past what is legal and what must be safe. Charles just grips the steering wheel tightly, checks twice to make sure he has his seatbelt on, and prays they aren’t spotted by any cops.

They reach the given address in record time, fifteen minutes earlier than expected. When Erik lets the car judder to a halt outside the warehouse, Charles takes a moment to steady himself, puts the car in park, and tucks the keys in his pocket. Then he steps out of the car, briefcase in hand, and hurries to the door.

Before they knock, Charles takes Erik’s elbow and says lowly, “All right, listen to me. I know you’re going to want to…break something, and maybe hurt the humans inside. But please, please refrain from doing so.”

Erik’s eyes narrow. “Why? There’s so much metal inside. I can feel it. I could bring this roof down on their heads before they realized anything was happening. We could grab the mutant and be gone in a minute.”

“That’s not how I do things, that’s why,” Charles insists.

“That’s not how you—Have you considered that these people deserve to die?” Erik snarls. “Catching and selling mutants like animals. Like cattle.”

“Maybe the world would be a better place without them—”

Maybe?”

“—but you can’t do anything, Erik. If word gets out that a mutant attacked a bunch of humans, you’d be hunted. You know how hard the police cracks down on these types of things. You’d be chased down and shot, and I can’t protect you from murder charges. Do you understand?” Charles steps in closer to him and locks their eyes together. “I can’t protect you from that.”

“I don’t care if they hunt me,” Erik growls stubbornly.

“It’s not just you,” Charles retorts, his temper beginning to flare at Erik’s obstinacy. He is starting to realize that Erik can be frustratingly single-minded. “Do you know what sort of repercussions this would bring down on my head if you were caught afterwards? I hold all your paperwork, Erik. I’d be the one responsible if you broke any laws, and if I’m arrested or jailed, then what will happen to the children? They’ll be taken away, and you know damn well that they won’t be going someplace pleasant. If not for me, then control yourself for them. Please.”

After a long moment, Erik drops his glare. “Fine. But if anyone tries to attack me, I will defend myself.”

“Fair enough.”

Charles knocks on the door, which opens almost instantly. The guard inside eyes them suspiciously until Charles says, “Mr. Levitt is expecting us.” Then he waves them in and points them to the wall. Charles obediently raises his arms for the pat-down. Satisfied, the guard moves on to Erik, who glowers stonily back at him. Charles clears his throat softly, and Erik relents, allowing Levitt’s man to search him for weapons. The guard finds none, but Charles has no doubt that Erik would be able to strip the gun from the guard’s belt with barely a twitch of his finger. He only hopes that Erik won’t try.

They’re pointed through a narrow corridor into the back of the warehouse. As they near, Charles can hear several voices, most of them cross, one of them calm and cool. He feels Erik tense beside him as they round the corner and come upon a group of men facing off. Three men stand on one side, their arms crossed and their expression severe. Opposing them is a tall, firmly-set man with a haircut and bearing that identifies him as some sort of military. He is flanked by two other men, clearly his bodyguards. He is the one speaking evenly as the other three argue loudly over what sounds like a matter of price.

Charles scans them over quickly and then feels his heart skip a beat as he looks down at the cage between them and sees the mutant.

It’s a little girl. Jesus, it’s just a little girl, only as old as Ororo or Kitty. Her hair is red as a dawn-streaked sky, hanging in dirty strands across her face as she huddles at the bottom of the cage. She’s dressed in a t-shirt that is slightly too large for her and jeans that are torn at the knees. Charles’s heart clenches a little as he spots the collar around her neck, loose—made for a mutant much older and larger than she—but still effective. She doesn’t even look up as they approach; she continues to stare at the floor of her cage, her thin arms wrapped around the bony knees drawn up to her chest.

He hears Erik mutter something harsh behind him that might be German, but he forces himself to ignore it. Striding forward, he says, loudly enough to carry over the arguments, “Hello, I’m Charles Xavier. I’m here for the girl.”

All the men fall silent and turn to regard him as he approaches. The military man looks vaguely annoyed. From the other group, the middle man steps forward and says, “Who are you?”

“An interested party,” Charles replies. “Where’s Mr. Levitt?”

“He won’t be coming,” the middle man says. “I’m Proctor. You’ll be dealing with me today.”

“All right.” Charles hefts his briefcase. “How much for her?”

The military man glances at him. “I was here first.”

“Now, now, Colonel,” Proctor says, holding up a hand. “I’m going to hear every proposal before I decide on anything.” He nods at Charles. “What’ve you got?”

“What do you want?” Charles counters, unwilling to overbid too early.

“Colonel Stryker here is offering forty.”

“Fifty then,” Charles says easily.

Stryker narrows his eyes. “This is government business, son. Take your interests elsewhere.”

Government business? This marks yet another time he’s encountered a government agent in these slave rings. What does the government want with these mutants?

His mind flashes unbidden over to Erik’s furious insistence about government-sanctioned experiments—but no, it can’t be. Moira would have heard. Someone would have noticed by now. Although mutants do disappear all the time, and it’s become such a regular occurrence now that families rarely bother to report the missing to the authorities anymore, knowing that the police will do very little…

In any case, this is no time for speculation. Charles smiles sharply at Stryker, meeting the man’s stare without flinching. He can feel his patience fizzling away with every second that little girl sits in the cage. “I don’t care if the government is involved. I want this girl, Colonel.”

“And if I decide to confiscate this mutant?” Stryker asks. “As a matter of national security?”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Proctor interjects. “I have fifteen men patrolling the grounds, Colonel. You have—what—those two? You’re not going to be stealing any of my merchandise if I have anything to say about it.”

Bless the natural paranoia and simple greed of mutant traffickers, Charles thinks. By Stryker’s displeased frown, he doesn’t have any backup other than the two men at his side. It will come down to money then, and money is something Charles has.

“Sixty then,” Stryker says sourly. His composure has slipped somewhat in light of the fact that he doesn’t necessarily have the situation in hand.

“Answer?” Proctor asks, glancing at Charles.

“Sixty-five.”

“Seventy.”

“Eighty.”

Stryker’s frown deepens. “Eighty-five.”

They’re nearing all the money Charles has with him. “Ninety.”

“Give me a computer, and I’ll transfer a hundred to you right now,” Stryker tells Proctor.

The seller shakes his head. “Cash, Colonel. Come on, you’ve done this before. You know how it is. Can you beat ninety right here or not?”

A muscle ticks in Stryker’s jaw. Charles senses victory and tightens his grip on his briefcase, keeping his expression carefully blank.

“I can be back tomorrow,” Stryker grits out. “A hundred.”

“Right here,” Proctor repeats. “Right now.”

The colonel looks down at the girl, up at Proctor, and then over at Charles. His icy eyes sweep over Charles’s figure, studying, assessing. Charles endures his scrutiny coolly, though his heart is pounding against his ribs. He itches to be free of this place. He wants the deal done, wants the girl on his car. Only when they’re miles away and on their way home will he feel even marginally at ease again. He hates the darkness of these deals, hates the scummy feeling he gets as he hands over money for lives. But he’s doing it to save them, and he hopes that makes a difference.

“Fine,” Stryker spits out finally. “You win today, Mr.…” He pauses, consideration flashing coldly behind his gaze. “Xavier, was it?”

Charles ignores him and turns to Proctor. “Ninety then. Is that satisfactory?”

Proctor waits for a moment. Then, when Stryker does nothing more than scowl in his direction, he nods. “Cash, right?”

Charles holds up the briefcase. Stryker turns on his heel and stalks out without another word. His two bodyguards linger for a moment before following him out.

“How do you want to handle transport?” Proctor asks as Charles counts out the money. “We can ship her along, or if you’ve got a big enough car, we can load up the cage in the back—”

“I’ll take her now,” Charles says firmly. “Without the cage.”

Proctor eyes him doubtfully before nodding. He must figure that two grown men will be able to handle one frightened little girl on a suppression collar. Charles hands over the money and asks, “What can she do?”

Proctor barks a laugh as he passes Charles the collar key and a folder with documentation, which Charles hands to Erik. “Usually, people ask me that before they pay me.” He gestures to one of his men to toss him the keys to the cage and bends to unlock it. “She’s a strange one. Messed with our minds when we tried to catch her, and she threw things at us, too. Explains why the government’s so interested in her; they’ve put out a call for mutants with mental powers…”

Have they? Charles stores that information away for future analysis. As the cage’s door swings open, the girl doesn’t move or even flinch. Uneasiness beginning to sink into his gut, Charles says, “Messed with your minds, you said? Is it possible she’s a telepath?”

“Could be.” Proctor shrugs as he reaches in and grabs the girl by the arm. She jerks in violent surprise at the contact, her eyes snapping up to Proctor. She’s trembling like a leaf as he pulls her roughly out and thrusts her to Charles, who kneels to meet her eyes.

“Hey,” he whispers, and god, if she’s a telepath, even a weak one, that collar must be terrifying her. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you, all right? I need you to come with me. You’ll be safe.”

He holds out his hand but doesn’t touch her. He knows how easily a telepath deprived of powers can startle. He waits for a minute, two. When Proctor makes a noise of impatience, Charles glares at him until he falls silent, then returns his gaze to the girl’s glassy green eyes. After an eternity of hesitation, she reaches out and slides her small hand into his. He can’t quite hide his relief at even that modicum of trust. He wants to leave as soon as possible, but he hadn’t wanted to risk traumatizing the girl any more than she already has been.

Charles reaches in slowly, and when she doesn’t protest, he scoops her up in his arms and pulls her close. His heart squeezes a little when she stiffens in his hold, as if she’s afraid he’ll hurt her, or crush her. He’ll have plenty of time to teach her to trust later, when they’re free of this place.

“Gentlemen,” he says, nodding. Proctor waves a hand in dismissal, already pulling out his phone, most likely to coordinate other mutant capture efforts. Charles glances swiftly at Erik, who is studying Proctor and his men with his jaw clenched tight. After a long moment, he turns and stiffly leads the way out, Charles on his heels.

When they’re at the car, Charles says, “You drive.”

Erik pauses in surprise. “What?”

“I’m going to sit in the back with her,” Charles explains, hooking the fingers of his free hand under the car door handle and pulling it open. “Please.”

Erik studies him for a moment before nodding. He holds out his hand, and the car keys wiggle their way free of Charles’s pocket and fly to him. Charles can’t help but grin at that, at the ease with which he uses his power.

“I’ll never get tired of seeing you do that,” he remarks as he climbs into the back.

Erik’s only reply is to pull them out and away from the warehouse, almost before the engine has fully turned over.

It is five o’clock by the time they return to the mansion. Charles spends the entirety of the trip trying to coax the girl to tell him her name, but she only stares blankly at her hands, unresponsive. He has a sneaking suspicion that her telepathy is much stronger than he expected, and that the collar is inhibiting her in more ways than one—he knows how extensive telepathy can be, after all, how it can engulf and subsume every other sense. But he hesitates to remove her collar just yet; she could lash out in panic, and he wants to have her in a safe environment before he risks that.

When they reach the mansion, Erik parks in the garage, and Charles gets out of the car. It takes him five minutes to convince the girl to follow him out, and it is only when he shows her the key to her collar that some recognition sparks behind her eyes and she almost scrambles out.

“What’s wrong with her?” Erik asks, eyeing her haggard face.

“Let’s go inside,” Charles says instead, walking backwards toward the door so he can keep an eye on the girl to be sure she follows. After a moment, he feels Erik’s hand on his elbow, making sure he doesn’t stumble.

They make their way inside and are almost instantly assaulted by a barrage of noise. Sean is screaming in laughter at a decibel almost too high for human ears, and footsteps are pounding across hardwood floor. Charles is nearly knocked straight off his feet by Darwin zooming by, and the boy turns in his run to shout, “Sorry, Charles, it’s a war—” He skids to a stop at the sight of the girl. “Is that—?”

Sean slams into view at the end of the hall, grinning maniacally. He’s followed closely by Alex, then Bobby. All of them stop dead at the sight of Charles, Erik, and the girl in the doorway.

Charles waits a beat before asking, “Is the house still intact?”

“What? Oh yeah,” Alex says distractedly, his eyes riveted on the girl. “We were—we were playing tag, but…is that where you went? Why didn’t you come get me, Charles—I would’ve gone—”

“I was fine,” Charles assures him. “I had Erik with me.”

Got you!” Ororo yells as she rounds the corner and slaps Bobby on the leg. Then she notices the stillness of her friends and glances over. Her eyes widen at the new arrivals, and she hesitates by the wall.

“This is…our new guest,” Charles tells them. “She’s being very shy, so I’m going to take her up to my study. Can you lot keep it down?”

They all nod without a word, and Charles holds out his hand again. After a delayed moment, the girl takes his hand tentatively, keeping far enough away that their contact is tenuous at best. Charles leads her gradually past the boys and through the foyer, up the stairs. He isn’t surprised when Erik follows.

When they are safely ensconced in his study, Charles pulls the curtains closed—light sensitivity when telepathy is strained, he remembers—and keeps the lights off. Erik watches him curiously but doesn’t comment. He stands to the corner of the room as Charles pulls out the collar key and crouches in front of the girl.

“I’m going to take your collar off, all right?” he says slowly, looking for any hint of understanding in her expression. He can’t be sure his words are penetrating the fog of her fear, or if she can even comprehend them without reading the baseline of his emotions to provide context. Still, when he holds up the key, her dazed gaze fixes on it and sharpens, desperate and hungry. Charles hesitates a moment, but there is nothing they can do to protect against telepathic attack, and the longer he delays, the more pain and panic the girl must be enduring. With that in mind, he reaches up carefully and sweeps her long red hair out of the way so he can slide the card key into the back of her collar. It beeps once.

The instant he removes it, overwhelming terror and anger and confusion swamp him. He’s barely aware of hitting the floor as the girl clutches her head and backs away, her green eyes suddenly bright with clarity. She is afraidhurtwhereisthisplacewhereamI and whoarethesepeoplewhoishe—he—he—

He is not her, he fights the tide of thoughts that are not his own, he knows this, he knows this, and even after all this time, he still instinctively tries to raise his shields, to ward off attack, but of course, he has nothing, and her fear tears through his natural mental barriers like bullets through tissue paper, and she is in him, she is him, and he sees—

—Sean is on the ground, Alex’s hand dug tight into his shoulder—Bobby is sprawled ten feet away, moaning in pain—Darwin is on the stairs, collapsed against the banister—Angel has crashed into the garden outside, her wings jerking—Hank is staggering against his lab table, test tubes shattering against the tiled floor—Ororo is stumbling to her knees in the kitchen, stumbling toward Kitty, who is crying—Erik is still on his feet through sheer determination, leaning against the wall for support, trying to find enough focus through the pain and fear to reach for metal, to fight, to protect, to defend Charles—

Charles.

STOP.

Charles, he is Charles, he is not a little girl, he is nothe spears through the onslaught and scrabbles clumsily for the mind that is not his, for the intruder who is—focus—Jean Grey—which tells him nothing, but that’s not important, not when he has a way in—

Jean.

heknowsmynamewhoisheohgodwhereamIhowdoesheknowme

Jean, stop. STOP. Look at me.

It is hard, so hard to even think through the painfearuncertainty flooding from her mind, but Charles can ignore pain, he is good at ignoring pain, and with an effort, he shoves past the haze of his own pulsing, instinctual terror at being invaded and forces himself to remember how to project, clear and firm and loud enough to be heard over this torrent of chaos.

Jean, look at me. Only me. Look.

It is sharper than he intends, and with a pang of surprise, Jean looks, with both her eyes and her mind. Her full attention directed at him makes him grit his teeth; she’s not yet in full control of her telepathy, if the lancing pain through his head is any indication. She doesn’t know how to interact mind-to-mind without projecting everything, and it is almost too much. For a moment, Charles loses himself in the flood again, hurtling through the turmoil of her mind, but—no—there is Jean, and there is Charles, and he must not forget that.

Calm your mind, he orders, with all the authority he can muster. His projection is clumsy—it’s been a long, long time. Still, he manages it, and she understands. Slowly, the gale in her head parts long enough for intelligible thought to trickle through—You can hear me?

Yes. He can’t mask his relief, can’t hide it from her. Their minds are so tightly wound because she doesn’t know how to touch without being engulfed. My name is Charles. I need you to calm down, all right?

I—can’t—I don’t know how—

Focus. Focus on me.

Like Raven, he thinks to himself. The beach.

There’s a beach. Dark, clear water, blue-black as the midnight sky, crashing and dissolving into froths of cloudy foam. Sand, soft and warm between toes, feet sinking to the ankles. Sunlight, no shadows, gentle welcome on skin. Seagulls, swooping far overhead, wings beating in soft flaps, feathers drifting through the sky into water below. Silence, no voices, only this: only the sea, the sand, the sun. Peace.

Her mind shudders in his and quiets. The storm of fear and pain subsides, leaving behind only hard-edged exhaustion. I’m so scared.

I know. I’ll keep you safe.

She releases him abruptly. He snaps back into his own mind, into the silence, with a jerk. It takes him a long moment to realize that he is on the ground, and that there is blood running from his nose. He’d bitten his lip, and now there’s a stinging cut on his mouth to match the pounding pain that lingers in his head. His mind is raw, torn by Jean’s power. It hurts to even think.

After another moment, sound filters back in through his ears. The voices are strange, because they’re from outside, not from his head. It is only once he remembers how to listen without telepathy that the words take form and begin to make sense.

“Charles? Charles! Are you all right? Charles!”

That’s Bobby’s voice, but it is Erik who pulls him up, cradles him carefully in his arms, and checks him over for injury. Bobby is on his feet again and disappears from view. Alex and Darwin run in through the doorway, their eyes wild, the fear in their expressions uncontrolled when they spot the blood on Charles’s face.

“Charles!” Darwin says, his gaze darting from him to Jean. “What…Did she…?”

Jean automatically shrinks away at the boys’ accusatory glares, and Charles figures he should say something before she panics again. He swallows coppery blood and croaks, “Everybody calm down.”

Erik’s hands tighten around him. “Where are you hurt?” he asks, his tone biting.

Bobby returns with a handkerchief dug from one of the drawers in Charles’s desk, which Charles accepts with a weak smile and presses against his still-bleeding nose. “Ah…nowhere.” At Erik’s disbelieving look, he amends, “Nowhere we can fix, at least. I have a…god-awful headache though.” He hasn’t felt pain in his head—his mind—this bad since…well. Since he was seventeen.

“What happened?” Alex demands, glaring in Jean’s general direction but never actually looking at her. It’s clear he isn’t sure if glowering at a small child is socially acceptable.

Charles looks at Jean instead of him and says gently, “Jean, these are my friends. They won’t hurt you. In fact, they’re mutants just like you are. I know you’re scared, but you’re safe here.”

After a moment, he tentatively tries to add a projected sense of warmth to that, but for one thing, he can’t offer that sort of comfort without his own telepathy, and for another, his mind is still far too wounded to even try. The effort makes him whimper, and Erik’s eyes narrow sharply. “Charles?”

“I’m fine,” he says through gritted teeth. He remembers how effortlessly Jean had reached out and brought them all to their knees, remembers Kitty crying. “Is everyone else all right?”

“I…” Darwin rubs his forehead. “A little headache, I think, but it’s clearing up pretty quickly. Sean went to check on the girls. I don’t know where Hank or Angel are.”

As if on cue, they hear loud footsteps rushing up the stairs. A second later, Hank appears at the door, his huge frame coiled tight with tension. “You guys, what just happened—”

Even when smiling, Hank cuts an intimidating figure. Now, when he’s frowning in bewildered fear, it’s no wonder that Jean lets out a soft shriek of terror and dives straight for cover—behind Charles. Erik flinches as she launches herself at them, and the poker from the fireplace whips free and flies toward her, but Charles shouts, “Erik, no!” and the poker clatters abruptly to the floor. Jean makes it safely to him and clutches his arm with white, bloodless fingers. Keep me safe, she thinks desperately, her mind engulfing Charles’s again. You promised, keep me safe.

He winces at the rough, untrained edge of her mental touch. “Jean,” he says out loud, “if at all possible, can you refrain from using your telepathy?”

“Charles?” Erik says sharply. “Is she hurting you again?”

“No. I’m fine.” His head is starting to pound mercilessly though, and he wants Advil. A box of Advil. Jean is clinging tightly to him, her eyes wide and still terrified, and he thinks that what both of them need right now is a little isolation and rest. “I think…I need to lie down.”

“That’s a good idea,” Erik says, his voice almost stern, and Charles has to laugh at the way he sounds like a disapproving parent. Erik tries to lever him to his feet, but Jean refuses to let go. Annoyance flashing across his face, Erik tries to reach down to tear her away, but Charles murmurs, “No, it’s all right. She can come with me.” Erik half-glares at him but doesn’t say anything. Instead, he pointedly escorts both of them past the boys and to Charles’s bedroom.

“I’ll check on the others,” Erik says, once Charles has practically fallen into bed, Jean climbing up after him. After a second of hesitation, he adds in a near-growl, “If she gives you trouble…”

“She won’t,” Charles says, a bit fuzzily. He’s getting very tired and suspects that Jean is subconsciously slipping into his mind to find some sort of comfort there. Before he can say anything more, her exhaustion drags them both down, and he’s glad to let the piercing headache fade away into unconsciousness.

*

*

*

Waking up is an ordeal.

He opens his eyes for barely a second before groaning aloud as the headache makes itself present again. The sunlight streaming through the side window almost physically hurts. It’s like a bad hangover, except sleep hasn’t diminished the pain at all. Fantastic.

His arm is also numb, and when he turns his head to investigate, he sees why: Jean is tucked up warmly against his side, her head pillowed in the crook of his elbow. She looks much calmer in sleep, almost peaceful. There is still a tiny crease between her eyebrows, though, and Charles can feel the restless stirrings of her mind bleeding through to his. He’s going to have to teach her to control herself, he muses through the pounding headache. She can be very dangerous if left unchecked.

He is loath to disturb her, but it seems as if he’s managed to sleep through the night and into most of the morning. He’s wasted enough time already. Plus, his head feels as if it’s splitting apart, and he isn’t sure he can endure much more of the pain without some sort of medicine to combat it. So, carefully, he pulls his arm out from underneath Jean’s head and slips from bed. Amazingly enough, she doesn’t even stir. He tries not to think on how exhausted she must have been, on how long she must have been crouched in that cage, frightened to death and waiting to be sold to the highest bidder. If Charles hadn’t gotten that call, if he hadn’t been there…

In the bed, Jean’s brow puckers, and she whimpers softly. Charles freezes in place, waiting until she settles again before letting out an inaudible breath. He banishes his anger, trying to smooth the edges of his mind so that she can rest easy. He isn’t sure it works, but Jean doesn’t open her eyes. After a moment, he pulls the covers up to her neck, draws the curtains, and steps into the bathroom.

A glance in the mirror brings a grimace to his face. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair is sticking up all over the place, and his split lip is swollen. He looks as if he’s survived a terrible night at the bar—a familiar enough look from his teenage years.

With a sigh, he splashes water onto his face and strips out of his old, rumpled shirt, which is spotted with blood. Jean is still sleeping when he digs through his closet for new clothes, and once he’s blindly pulled on the nearest pair of jeans and a t-shirt, he leaves her slumbering peacefully on in his room.

He checks his watch in the hallway and is startled to find that he’s been unconscious for nearly eighteen hours. It makes sense, he supposes—he must have been recovering from Jean’s attack, though with the pain spiking through his head, he doesn’t feel very recovered at all. It’s noon already, and he can hear someone clattering around in the kitchen, probably fixing lunch. His stomach growls, and he makes an executive decision to head downstairs and see what he can find.

It’s Angel in the kitchen, slathering peanut butter onto bread. She freezes when he appears in the doorway, holding his head and wincing at the bright fluorescent kitchen lights.

“Hi,” she says cautiously.

“Hi,” he returns. “Good morning. Or noon, I suppose.”

After a moment, she continues to make her sandwich and offers, “Everyone else has already eaten, I think. They’re in the Danger Room.”

Charles frowns. “All of them?” Only Alex uses that room, and when he does, he is always alone. Using the Danger Room usually precludes company after all.

Angel nods. “Erik and the guys at least. They went down there an hour or so ago. Can I get you anything, Professor?”

Charles shakes his head and crosses the kitchen to root around in one of the lower cabinets. “I’m just here for some Advil. My head is killing me.”

Angel pauses, the bread knife hovering above a third slice of bread. After a beat, she says, “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.” He digs out a couple of tablets of Advil and, after a second of deliberation, adds another two tablets.

Angel leans against the counter and purses her lips. “What happened yesterday? I mean, one minute, everything was fine, and then everyone just—collapsed. Were we…I don’t know…under attack or something? Did it have something to do with that new girl?”

She is doing an admirable job of keeping her expression blank, but Charles can hear the thin thread of fear running through her voice. He gives her what he hopes is a reassuring smile, ignoring his stinging lip, and answers, “The new girl’s name is Jean. She’s a telepath, and collars affect them a little differently than other mutants. When I took it off her, she panicked a little.”

“That was her panicking a little?”  Angel echoes skeptically. “Because that was…” She hesitates for a brief second. “Are you sure it’s safe to have her here?”

Charles stops searching for a glass for water and meets her eyes. “This house is for anyone who needs shelter, Angel. I’m not going to turn anyone away because they can’t control themselves yet.”

Angel’s eyes narrow. “I know that. Of course. I’m not talking about sending her away or anything. But if she panics again—”

“I’ll teach her to keep her mind to herself,” Charles tells her. “That’ll keep her from hurting anyone unintentionally.”

Angel frowns. “And how are you going to do that? It’s not like there’s a Telepaths for Dummies guide out there.”

Charles laughs. Oh, what she doesn’t know. “Yes, that would make our lives so much easier, wouldn’t it? Don’t worry, Angel, I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve.” He fetches some water from the refrigerator and downs the pills in a single swallow. Setting the glass down in the sink, he asks, “The Danger Room, you said?”

Angel nods and returns to her sandwich. Charles leaves her to it, nursing his throbbing headache as he heads down to the Danger Room. He wonders what the boys are up to in there; usually, he would be worrying, but if Erik’s there as well, they can’t have broken anything too vital, or injured themselves too badly.

When he arrives, the room is in flames.

“Good God!” he cries, stopping dead in the doorway. “What on earth…”

“Charles!” Sean shoots to his feet across the room, grinning as he does. “You’re up!”

“I am,” he agrees, staring wide-eyed at the state of the room. “What—”

“Oh, don’t worry about this,” Bobby interjects, setting his hand on the wall. Ice creeps out from his fingers like spider-webs, turning the flames into icicles protruding from the walls and the floor. “We’ve been doing this for hours, and no one’s gotten hurt.”

“Doing what, exactly?” Charles asks, noting the charred mannequins on the far end of the room.

Alex, who is lying on the floor panting, answers breathlessly, “Training.”

Training. Alex training? Charles has tried several times to help Alex gain some control over his powers, but they haven’t had much success with it. Their sessions usually end in flames, but never on such a large scale as setting the whole room alight. Charles hasn’t figured out how to be much more helpful than setting out the mannequins and pointing Alex in the right direction, but it appears that whatever they’ve been doing for the past few hours has been paying off: one of the mannequins has half its body burned off, and another has been knocked clear to the floor.

“And it’s working?” Charles asks, impressed.

Alex nods happily. “Hit the mannequins a couple of times. I think my aim’s getting better.”

After a moment, Charles ventures further into the room, stepping over a sheet of ice as he does. “How…?”

Alex gestures vaguely over his head in Erik’s direction. “Erik, mostly. He gives some good advice.”

“Does he?” Charles has to admit, he’s pleasantly surprised. Erik has never really interacted with the others outside of dinner and the occasional social gathering in the living rooms; for him to actively seek out the boys’ company and to even offer advice, is a promising sign. Maybe he’s adapting to mansion life, finally. Maybe he’s finding his niche.

If Erik is starting to fit in, maybe he’ll decide to stay. Charles can’t deny his delight at the thought.

Erik detaches himself from the wall he’s leaning against and shrugs. “I just thought it would be a good idea to see what Alex was capable of. Then we decided to try some things out.”

“Those things seem to have worked,” Charles observes, nodding at the maimed mannequins. “You hit the targets? That’s definitely improvement.”

Alex flushes in pleasure at the praise. “We’ve been working at it.” At Charles’s sideways glance at the rest of them, he clarifies, “Well, I’ve been working on it, and Erik’s been helping. Bobby’s here to put out the fires. The others…”

“We’re here for the show,” Sean chimes in with an easy grin. “Not every day we get to see Alex let loose. It’s pretty cool. And Hank’s taking data, I guess. He’s making something to help with Alex’s control.”

Their smiles slip off as they lapse into silence. Then, after a clear hesitation, Darwin asks, “Charles, are you okay?”

They all turn to him expectantly, their expressions blanketed with concern. Even Erik, who is usually so good at hiding his emotions, has hints of worry in the crease of his brows and the downward tug of his mouth. They care about him, Charles realizes again, about what happens to him. Even after all this time, the sentiment still surprises and warms him.

“I’m fine,” he says, and when they level simultaneous unconvinced looks at him, he amends, “I’ll be fine.”

Alex stares at his hands for a moment. Then he asks, “What happened yesterday? Jean’s some kind of telepath, isn’t she? And she—what—attacked us?”

“She panicked,” Charles explains. “So yes, she lashed out a bit. Don’t worry, it won’t happen again. Hopefully.”

“Hopefully,” Erik echoes flatly.

“Hopefully,” Charles repeats, because that’s the best he can give them at the moment. Erik meets his gaze and holds it, his blue-gray eyes unreadable as usual. Consternation has settled into his expression now, and Charles figures that Erik’s about to lecture him on one thing or another. When Erik moves toward the door and calls over his shoulder, “Keep practicing,” before taking Charles’s elbow and steering him out, Charles is proven right.

When they’ve left the boys behind, Erik stops in the hallway, pulls Charles around, and studies him carefully. “You’re all right?”

Charles manages a smile. “Your concern is touching, but I’m fine. I took some Advil.”

“Advil.”

“It’s helping.” And it is. He can feel his headache ebbing away, very slowly but surely.

Erik doesn’t release him, and Charles suddenly notices how close they are, how tightly Erik is grasping his upper arms, his fingers hot where they’re clamped around Charles’s skin. “Were you really that worried?” he asks softly, startled.

Erik lets out a sharp breath and steps back. Charles misses his touch almost instantly. “No…Yes. Are you going to be okay, or aren’t you?” Erik’s tone turns surly, but he can’t completely hide the concern that had furrowed his brow only a minute ago.

Charles smiles, then grimaces when his swollen lip protests the movement. “Yes, I’ll be fine. I’ve got some questions though. Walk with me?”

Erik nods, and together, they head upstairs and then across the lawn to the house. Charles keeps their pace slow, taking in the gentle sunlight and letting the slight breeze ease the pressure in his head. It’s been a while since he’s enjoyed the Westchester grounds without the children running around screaming or tackling each other. It’s certainly peaceful, especially with Erik as a silent, solid presence at his shoulder.

Eventually, Erik says, “Jean is a telepath.” It’s not quite a question.

“Yes,” Charles answers anyway. “A particularly strong one, too.”

Erik raises his brow. “Why do you think that? Or have you met telepaths before?”

Charles suppresses a wince. Damn. If he’s not careful, he’ll give himself away. “No. But surely she’s strong, if she’s able to bring all of us to our knees, even at her age.”

“That’s true.” To Charles’s relief, Erik doesn’t look suspicious, only considering. After a pause, he says, “She’ll have to learn how to control herself. It’ll be dangerous otherwise.”

Charles nods. “I was thinking the same thing.”

They walk for another minute in silence. Charles pauses along the way to dislodge a pebble from his shoe, leaning on Erik’s shoulder for balance as he does. Then they continue on until Erik says suddenly, “I could do it.”

“Do what?”

“Train Jean.”

His tone is casual, as if he offers to train other mutants all the time, but he doesn’t. Charles jerks to a halt, shocked and delighted in equal measure. If Erik is offering…if he’s willing to interact with the others, even take on a teaching role, as Charles has, does that mean he’s considering a more permanent stay at Westchester? Even without the promise of a COF?

“That would be…” Charles inhales and hopes he isn’t smiling too widely. “That would be great.” Erik can take the reins with Jean, give her the control she needs, and she in turn can give him focus, a purpose—but wait. Charles had appointed himself Jean’s teacher because he knows telepathy. Erik, on the other hand…

“But…how are you going to do it?” he asks, hoping his expression gives nothing away. “Telepathy is a tricky thing.”

Erik shrugs. “I know a telepath. She’s taught me a few things. I can pass them on to Jean. It should help, if only a little.” He gives Charles a swift, half-amused glance and adds, “I’d be better at it than you, in any case. You don’t know anything about telepathy, do you?”

Charles fixes his gaze in the distance, on the spires of Westchester. “No.”

It’s a long moment before he realizes that Erik is no longer beside him. When he notices the absence of Erik’s step at his side, he stops and turns, confused to find Erik standing ten feet behind him, his eyes narrowed and the amusement in his gaze gone. “Erik?”

“You’re lying,” Erik says, his voice abruptly dispassionate and certain. “You know more about telepathy than you’re letting on.”

For a second, Charles reels, shock and fear chasing their way across his face. How does Erik know? How can he? Charles has always been so careful, and there’s no evidence of anything, of the experiments, of any files—he knows this, he’d burned those files as soon as he’d found them, watched the pages curl red-edged in the fireplace, their ashes the only smoldering remains of his childhood. There’s no way Erik could possibly—

That’s right. There’s no way Erik could possibly know. His eyes are locked on Charles’s face now, watching closely for a reaction. Of course. How clever.

Charles forces a smile. He isn’t sure if he manages it. “What do you mean?”

Erik takes a step toward him. His shoulders are rigid. “You’re very good, Charles. But I’ve known a lot of liars, and I know one when I see one. Yesterday, you did something in Jean’s mind. You knew what to do when she attacked us—I could hear your voice in my head, calming her down. How did you know how to do that?”

“I—” Charles splutters, his mind whirling. How had he not anticipated this? How had he just assumed that everyone would forget how he’d been the only one to stay rational under the onslaught of Jean’s mind?

“You what?” Erik presses, taking another step toward Charles, his proximity more menacing than comforting now. “Explain it to me, Charles: you what?”

He forces himself to breathe, to think. Erik can’t know. Erik is groping blindly for information, guided by Charles’s reactions, which means that the first order of business is to stop reacting. Charles flattens out his expression, banishing the fear and astonishment to some dark corner of his mind that can’t reach him right now. Calm.

Frustration flits briefly through Erik’s eyes, and he says harshly, “Your masks can’t fool me now, Charles.”

Charles almost flinches at the callous edge to his voice. What does Erik think he knows? “I’m not trying to fool you,” he tries softly.

In an instant, Erik is in his face, his hands clasping Charles’s upper arms again, but this time, his grip is hard and bruising. “Don’t lie to me,” he hisses, and Charles stares at him in utter shock at the change in his demeanor.

Erik?”

“Don’t lie,” he snarls again, and Charles’s watch tightens painfully around his wrist. Startled, a touch afraid, he cries out, and Erik’s gaze flies to his hand and back. The watch loosens again with a clatter of metal, loosens until it flies apart entirely, falling to the ground in scattered pieces. Charles tries to wrench himself out of Erik’s hold, but Erik’s fingers dig into his skin, unforgiving.

“I’m not lying,” Charles snaps, reaching for anger to hide his fear. “Let go of me.”

“Tell me,” Erik orders. “Tell me the truth.”

“The truth? About what?”

“About the lab,” Erik answers sharply. Charles blinks at him in surprise, because he’d expected to be confronted about telepathy, about his familiarity with it, but the lab? What?

“I’ve seen it, Charles,” Erik growls. “I saw it this morning, when Hank was showing us the prototype he was developing for Alex. Do you know what it looks like? It looks like the government labs. It looks like where they’d strap down mutants and take their blood and torture them until they showed their powers. So tell me: what kind of research did your father do?”

Charles is very aware of the blood draining from his face, of the way his knees weaken so that he clutches Erik back for a second for support. The crack in his composure lasts for a split-second before he manages to pull the seams of his mask back together, but it is enough; Erik’s expression turns thunderous, and he doesn’t so much release Charles as shove him away, both of them stumbling back.

“He experimented on mutants, didn’t he,” Erik spits, and Charles can see his mind spinning with a hundred conclusions. “He was one of them. The government scientists. And you—you were there.”

Charles can’t suppress his shudder. Needles, anesthetic, IVs sliding up his arm, the terror of the silence in his head, ‘lie down, Charles, that’s my boy, this won’t hurt at all, it’s going to be all right’

Yes. He was there.

Erik takes his silence as acquiescence and inhales sharply. He glares at Charles then with such hatred that Charles retreats another step, feeling the metal in his belt buckle rattle. He is half-afraid for a second that Erik will rip off his belt and strangle him with it, but nothing of the sort happens. Erik only stands there, looking furious and repulsed, and Charles can only gape, because surely Erik is making the wrong assumptions, but Charles cannot correct him because no one can know.

“It makes sense,” Erik grits out, quickly as if all the pieces in his mind are slotting together at once. “The way you knew how to deal with Jean—what happened? Did your father experiment on a telepath? Did he teach you how to defend yourself against mental attacks? Is that where you learned to keep Jean in line?”

“No—”

“And that must be why,” Erik continues, as if Charles hadn’t spoken, “why you’re helping us. Helping mutants. Because—why—you felt sorry for us? Years too late? Trying to make amends?”

“No!” Charles cries, even though yes, that is part of it, but Erik will never know the whole truth, will never see that Charles suffered as much at his father’s hands as the other mutants put together, in those early years. His breath shortens to even think of it, and he feels vaguely lightheaded again, as if all the air has been sucked from his body. “Erik, will you listen to me?”

“What can you possibly have to say?” Erik demands. “You told me yourself that the government wasn’t conducting any experiments—you lied to my face! You knew all along—your father was one of them!”

“No. No,” Charles says desperately, trying to hold their tentative trust together, even as he feels it cracking beneath his feet. “Listen, Erik, I truly do not believe the government is conducting any experiments on mutants.” Then, thinking of Colonel Stryker and his insistence on owning Jean, thinking of the way at the very beginning, how Mr. Reed had been holding Erik in reserve to sell to the government, Charles amends, “I didn’t, at the time. I swear to you.”

“So what the fuck did you think your father was doing?” Erik snarls disbelievingly. “And that colonel—what did you think he wanted with Jean? To help her?”

“No, I didn’t think…”

He hadn’t thought. That had been it. He hadn’t wanted to believe, hadn’t even wanted to consider that the government he trusted in, the government he was working so hard to change, could do such a thing. Surely someone would have noticed. Moira would have told him. Senator Blakely. A secret like that couldn’t have been kept hidden from the public all this time. And as for his father, Charles had known that after those first couple of mutants, Brian Xavier had never touched another mutant, because he had had Charles, his perfectly willing son, and all his data was private, Charles had never known where it went, had never thought Brian Xavier would work for the government…

He takes a trembling breath and steadies himself. His heart thunders on in his chest, and he counts its beats, waiting for it to slow. Erik is watching him critically, surveying him for a reaction, for guilt. But Charles has no guilt to give him, only shame that it has taken him so long to even realize that his father’s research might have been government-sanctioned instead of privately motivated. All this time, he had thought that his father had been searching for an answer to his son’s disease, when maybe—could it have been that Brian Xavier had been funded by the government, searching for an answer to what they thought was a nationwide cancer, to be burned out? The thought makes him sick to his stomach.

“Erik,” he says, when he can finally speak, “let me explain.”

“I don’t want your excuses—”

“My father experimented,” Charles interrupts him. “It’s true. But I never knew what he used the data for. Who he might have collaborated with. I thought—I always thought it was a private venture. My father was an avid scientist, and when mutants came to light, I thought it was natural curiosity that he wanted to study them, to find out what made them the way they were. I never thought it had anything to do with the government.”

“And the government buying mutants in the slave rings?” Erik asks bitingly. “You really thought they had innocent intentions? I don’t believe you. Even you can’t be that stupid.”

“Maybe I can,” Charles replies, suddenly tired. His head is hurting again so powerfully that he can barely see. He has never felt a headache like this before, and he wonders if Jean might have inflicted some long-lasting damage with her clumsy control. “Maybe I didn’t want to believe it was possible. I figured that the government was buying out mutants to…to study them. Peacefully, like an exchange of information. Not in a laboratory. Or maybe they’re employing the mutants for their own devices—still sinister, I know, but not as terrible as experimentation—or maybe—I don’t know. I don’t know, Erik. I just didn’t want to think…” He takes a breath. He hadn’t want to think on it at all. He had just wanted to rescue all the mutants he personally could, and then use Moira’s help to find officials who would listen to him, who would listen to reason. He had had so many good arguments against mutant oppression, and he had thought that he could make change happen, from the inside. But if Erik is right, if he has been so blind…

“My government contacts said nothing,” he says, his head spinning. “They told me themselves that the government wasn’t involved in illegal experimentation of that sort…”

“And you believed them?” Erik snorts derisively. “You’re a fool.”

“Maybe I am,” he says helplessly. “But I thought they would know. More than I did, at least.” And he had believed them because he had wanted to. But Moira had acknowledged that there were huge swaths of government action she wasn’t privy to, and even Senator Blakely couldn’t have known everything…

Damn it. How could he have been so naïve?

“You have to know,” he says, a bit unsteadily, “what my father did…I didn’t approve of it.”

“Who cares if you approved or not?” Erik sneers. “You’ve seen the evil humans can do. And yet you still defend them time after time—”

“Because I am human, Erik! I don’t know why you keep forgetting that!”

That stops Erik in his tracks, finally. But he recovers in a second, fury thrumming through him so strong Charles can feel it. “You can’t deny that people like your father—people in the government—are wrong—”

“Of course they are!”

“—and deserve to die.” 

Charles freezes. “What?”

“They deserve to die,” Erik repeats flatly. “Those facilities deserve to be torn down, and anyone who ever played a part in any experiments can go down with them. It’s no more than they deserve.”

“Are you actually suggesting—condoning murder?”

Erik’s gaze, when it meets his, is cold and reminiscent of the first few days at the mansion, when Erik looked as if he loathed everyone. “You can’t deny that some people deserve to die.”

A chill shivers down Charles’s spine. He had known Erik was anti-human, but to go so far as to contemplate mass murder so dispassionately, with so much hatred in his eyes…who is this man?

“I’ve seen laboratories,” Erik says, his voice low but still steel-tight with tension. “I’ve seen what happens there. It’s unforgivable. What your father did was unforgivable. Humans are cruel creatures.” He glances at Charles. “Maybe not all of them, but enough. Mutants have to fight for what is theirs.”

“What is theirs?” Charles asks hoarsely. What could justify violence on this scale, when things can change just as surely through laws, through peace?

“The future,” Erik answers simply, his expression cold and firm.

Charles has no idea what to say to that, except, “You’re wrong.”

Erik raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think so.”

“You think violence is the only way to change things?” Charles asks. “You’re wrong. This underage mutant trafficking act—it’s change. The government is capable of change.”

“That’s not enough,” Erik growls. “Not nearly enough. The only way they’ll learn to change is if we force them to. If we have to kill to do it, then so be it.”

He clenches his fist, and Charles’s belt buckle and the metal remnants of his watch tremble, and something in Charles’s mind clicks together.

Impossible.

Barely an instant later, blind panic rushes through his mind, knocking him straight to his knees. Across from him, Erik staggers too but doesn’t fall. He throws up a hand as if he means to reach for Charles but then catches himself and aborts the motion, remaining where he is ten feet away. For a second, Charles tries to decipher the complex spasm of emotions that flits across Erik’s face. Then the full brunt of Jean—and it is Jean—hits Charles like a punch to the gut, and he blanches at the agony that arcs through his head.

scaredwhereishehepromisedaloneagainsoalone

Jean, STOP.

thereheiswanthimhepromised

And she reaches with scrabbling mental fingers for him, digging in with far more force than necessary. Charles cries out at her careless touch, his cheek pressed hard into the dirt, blood rushing to his head. Jean, stop, you’re hurting me. Jean, CALM YOURSELF.

The panic cuts suddenly, leaving Charles dizzy and gagging into the grass. Charles?

Yes, it’s me. I’m outside. I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you woke up. I’ll be there in a moment. Please, can you…can you leave my mind? Just until I get there.

There is a momentary pang of fear and mistrust from her. Then she withdraws in a jerk, as rough with her exit as she was with her entrance. Oh, Charles needs to teach her to control that.

He kneels there for a long, shaking minute, trying to breathe through the raw agony in his head. After a moment, he feels hesitant fingers on his shoulder, pulling him gently up.

Erik isn’t quite embracing him as he had after Jean’s first attack, but he is at least no longer furious; instead of rage, his eyes are again lit with muted concern. Charles focuses on the way Erik’s fingers curl warm and firm over the rounded curve of his shoulder, and slowly, his breath steadies.

He can’t quite remember where their conversation had fallen off before Jean had woken up; his head is muddled with pain again, the Advil, if it had done anything, useless once more. He can’t take much more of this, if this is what he should expect from Jean. His mind is unshielded and vulnerable to every mental intrusion, and if Jean doesn’t learn to interact with him more gently, she will cripple him.

“Are you all right?” Erik asks at last, crouching by Charles’s side.

“I’ll be…fine.” Mustering his strength, he manages to rise to his feet, teetering for a moment until Erik puts his hand on Charles’s elbow. “I’m afraid we’ll have to continue our discussion later, my friend. I need to check on Jean.”

Erik pauses for a very long moment. Finally, he says, “Of course,” and keeps his hand on Charles’s arm as they make their way painstakingly back to the house. Some part of Charles takes comfort in the obvious care Erik is affording him, even after their harsh words. Most of him is too tired from the mental strain of holding Jean at bay to bring the argument back to the surface of his mind, so he lets the altercation fall away, memories to think on later.

As soon as Erik ensures that Charles has made it back to his room without collapsing, he disappears back into the hallway. Charles hesitates in the doorway for a second, wanting to call him back, but then Jean’s mind presses heavily against his, and he steps into his dim room, hoping his expression is more reassuring than exhausted.

The instant she spots him, Jean flies out of the bed and buries herself in his arms. “I woke up and you were gone,” she mumbles into his shirt.

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry. Come on, let’s sit down for a minute, all right?”

He guides her back to the bed and sits down cross-legged across from her. They remain in silence for a long moment, studying each other. Jean still looks like a captive, her clothes ripped and torn, her hair still twisted and tangled in her face. She needs a bath desperately, but more than that, she needs to understand that she’s safe here so that she won’t lash out in a panic.

Charles decides to start small. “My name is Charles Xavier. Do you remember that?”

Jean nods. “I’m Jean Grey,” she says, wrapping her arms around her bent legs. “I’m a telepath.”

“Yes, a rather remarkable one, too.” Charles smiles at her, and after a beat of hesitation, she returns it shyly. “You don’t have to hide your powers here, Jean. No one will hurt you. There are other mutants here, too. I don’t own you, do you understand? Even if I am a human. We can coexist, humans and mutants.”

“No.”

He stops, confused. “No?”

“Not…not no to coexisting,” Jean says, her eyes cast down to the dirty sneakers on her feet. Charles notes idly that she’s left mud-tracks across his pristine cream sheets, and that he’ll have to change them later.

But that’s unimportant at the moment. Pulling his eyes away from her shoes, he asks, “No to what then?”

“No…you’re not human.”

Charles gapes at her. Of course. Why is he even surprised? She has seen his mind, and even a mediocre telepath would be able to sense that aching darkness in his head, the endless void that is so obviously a piece of him torn out. He still protests though, out of habit. “Wha…of course I am.”

“No.” She looks up and peers into his eyes. “Your mind feels…different. Not human. I’ve never felt a mind like yours before.”

He takes a very deep breath and clasps his hands to keep them from trembling. “Can I tell you a secret, Jean?” he asks after a moment of deliberation, as if she couldn’t know every secret in his mind if she wanted.

She nods, her eyes intent on his face. He studies the lines across his palm, traces them with his thumb. “You’re right,” he says quietly, raising his gaze to meet hers. “I’m not human. But no one can know, do you understand? It’s our secret.”

“Our secret,” she echoes solemnly.

“That’s a good girl,” he says with a smile, and then hops off the bed. “Are you hungry?”

Her ravenous expression is all the answer he needs. Grinning, he holds out his hand to her and says, “Then let’s go find something to eat.”

*

*

*

Erik does not go downstairs again. Instead, he shuts himself in his room and sits against the backboard of the bed, his legs stretched out in front of him. He has to think.

He had known it. He had known there was something wrong here, something Charles was hiding. He had seen little hints of it from the beginning, but he had never pressed too hard, and in time, his natural mistrust of humans had faded. But he had known all this time that no human could be nearly as altruistic and kind and perfect as Charles pretended to be, and now it had all come to light.

Charles’s father had been a scientist. Charles’s father had done the same things to mutants as the hateful government scientists that Charles had claimed didn’t exist.

And Charles had known. He had known all along and denied it, and Erik had believed his innocence, if only for an instant. Goddamn it.

He had walked into the lab and stopped dead in shock. He had recognized the lab table, like a bed, long enough to fit a man; the medical equipment tucked away in dark shelves; the bright, almost blinding lights, designed to keep study subjects stunned and disoriented. He had almost torn the whole place down around their ears, but he had needed an explanation, he had needed to hear it from Charles’s lips.

And Charles had all but admitted it. Erik had trusted him. But as when Erik had confronted him, Charles had looked so horrified, so pale, as if he were innocent after all, and for just a moment there, Erik had doubted…

No. No. Charles’s father represents everything Erik loathes. He should never have trusted Charles in the first place. He has lingered here for too long, and for what? For a human who has, like all others, proven false? He’s been a fool.

He needs to leave immediately. He needs to find his Brotherhood. According to his occasional glimpses at the newspapers Charles leaves on the kitchen table, his people haven’t been active in the two months since he’s been missing. They must be trying to recover him, or at the very least, waiting for him. He doesn’t know how long they’ll search, but he knows that once they conclude he is lost, they will not wait for long. They’ll appoint a new leader—Emma, perhaps, or Mystique—and they’ll move on.

He has to find them first.

Still, he hesitates. Despite his deception, Charles has been vital to Erik’s survival so far. It would feel almost cruel to leave him without so much as a goodbye. But surely Charles would understand. Their last words exchanged had been in anger. He would understand if Erik chose to leave.

And besides, Erik does not owe him his allegiance, or any explanation.

His mind made, he gets up off the bed and gathers what few belongings he still has. He stuffs his clothes into the bag in the back of his closet, ignoring a pang of guilt, because these are the clothes Charles bought for him. Well, Charles did it of his own free will, he rationalizes, and he has never wanted anything in return. Erik doesn’t owe him anything.

He’ll leave when everyone else is asleep, he decides when he has his things packed. With any luck, his absence won’t be detected until morning, and by then, he should be miles away. For now, he will wait.

After a few minutes, he figures it would be a good idea to take some things from the kitchen, to tide him over in case he needs to skirt towns and stores for a while. He heads downstairs, glad when he meets no one along the way. But as he nears the kitchen, he hears the soft murmur of voices and slows. Coming to a stop by the doorway, he peers around the doorframe.

Charles is seated on the counter, dangling his feet over the edge, heels resting against the cabinets below him. Jean sits next to him, her hand clutching Charles’s tightly. Both of their eyes are shut, and Jean’s brow is pinched in concentration. Charles’s brow is covered in a thin sheen of sweat.

They are silent for a long minute. Then Charles murmurs, “No,” and Jean opens her eyes and whispers, “Sorry, sorry.”

“That’s all right,” Charles says, keeping his eyes closed. “Try again.”

Jean shuts her eyes again, and Charles winces. “Not so roughly.”

“Sorry,” she whispers again, and then they lapse into silence. Conversing through telepathy? At the thought, Erik automatically builds up his mental walls, just as Emma taught him. He knows his defenses would be next to useless if Jean truly wanted to hurt him, but all he can do is take precautions. In time, he might have been able to teach her what he learned from Emma, but…well.

Charles’s face suddenly crumples, and he lets out a sharp cry, his free hand flying to his head. Without meaning to, Erik leaps into the room, half-reaching for him before he manages to stop himself. Jean’s eyes snap open, and fear suffuses her expression. “I’m so sorry—I didn’t mean—”

“I’m fine,” Charles gasps, beads of sweat running down his cheek and neck, dampening the collar of his shirt. “I’m fine. Just…give me a moment please, Jean…”

They notice Erik at the same time. Charles’s eyes widen, and he slips off the counter, wiping perspiration off on his sleeve as he does. “Erik.”

He glances between Charles and the girl, who shrinks toward the human when Erik’s gaze passes over her. “Were you practicing?”

Charles nods. “I was having her go through my mind, keeping out of the areas I told her to. It’s supposed to teach her to control what she sees.”

An exercise your father taught you from his experiments? Erik thinks darkly but doesn’t ask. He doesn’t want to argue with Charles again, not when he’s going to be gone soon anyway.

“Did you need something?” Charles asks politely. Always so polite. Erik wants to snarl at his kindness.

Instead, he says, “I wanted some food.”

“Oh. Of course. I’m going into town later today to restock, because the boys have eaten almost everything in the pantry. You’re welcome to whatever’s still left, as always.”

Charles smiles at him, more tentative than he usually is. When Erik doesn’t return the smile, he wilts visibly and says to Jean, “Come on. Let’s go back upstairs, if you’re full.”

“Okay.”

Charles helps her off the counter and reaches out to take her hand. Jean doesn’t take it. “You go ahead, Charles. I’ll follow you.”

Confused, Charles looks at her for a long moment, enough meaning laden in their locked gazes that Erik can tell they’re speaking silently. Whatever Charles hears must reassure him, because he gives her a quick pat on her shoulder and disappears out the door. Then Jean turns to Erik, who looks back guardedly.

“I like Charles,” she says bluntly. “And you don’t.”

Erik blinks. “What?”

“You don’t like him,” Jean repeats, with the same flat tone from before. “I can feel it.”

Alarmed, Erik slams his mental walls up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She gives him a withering look that is surprisingly grim for such a young girl. “Charles is a good person. The first good person I’ve known in a long time. I don’t know why you’re here if you hate him so much, but—”

“I don’t hate him.”

“—but if you even think about hurting him, I’ll know. And I’ll hurt you.”

Her voice is dark with promise. Erik stares at her, struck dumb. This girl has known Charles for barely two days, and yet she is already threatening others on his behalf. How does Charles do this? How does he inspire trust and love so easily? Erik finds it absolutely baffling.

“I won’t hurt him,” he says quietly. “I wouldn’t.” And it’s true. But he won’t be staying either.

Jean tilts her head, her intense green gaze studying him. Then she simply nods and turns to follow Charles out.

When she’s gone, Erik goes to the pantry, glances inside, and grimaces. Charles hadn’t exaggerated; most of the shelves are empty, save for a few bags of popcorn, some chips, and three cans of peaches. Not nearly enough sustenance for a trip. At least Charles had said he was going to town later. In that case, Erik will wait until after he’s returned to pack food and then, when everyone has gone to bed, he’ll be on his way.

He tries not to think of what Charles’s reaction will be when he finds Erik gone.

*

*

*

Jean is, as expected, still quite exhausted from her ordeal, so after another half hour of practicing, Charles forces her back to his room to rest. She’s out like a light as soon as he tucks her warmly into his bed. For a moment, he gazes down at her, fondness stirring in his chest already. He really needs to stop getting attached to people so quickly. But Jean just looks so small in his bed, and so trusting, too, if she’s willing to sleep so easily in the presence of a man she only met yesterday. Then again, she has poked through most of his mind, and he doesn’t know of a more intimate—and true—way to get to know someone.

It’s late afternoon by then, and he figures that if he hurries, he can pick up groceries in town and be back in time for dinner at seven-thirty. He runs into Bobby on his way to the car, but when he asks if the boy wants to accompany him, Bobby shakes his head and shouts that Hank is showing them how to build a bomb. Charles gapes at him for a moment before remembering that this is Hank, and whatever he’s demonstrating for them, it’ll hardly be dangerous because Hank is often more cautious than most adults Charles knows. So he leaves them to it and takes the car out.

The drive is not even fifteen minutes long, and still, Charles finds his mind drifting to Erik. He has a moderate headache from working with Jean, and he doesn’t particularly want to revisit what ugly words Erik had tossed around in their argument earlier, so he doesn’t think on specifics. He only brings into focus the main concepts: Erik had accused Charles’s father of experimenting on mutants, he had accused Charles being party to it, and he had accused Charles of hiding that information from him. Right on all accounts, except he didn’t know the whole story. And because Charles hadn’t explained anything, Erik probably hates him, as purely and thoroughly as he apparently hates all humans.

That thought is unsettling. He respects and likes Erik very much, and the idea of losing Erik’s esteem and friendship hurts more than it should. Charles can’t deny it: he’s far too attached to Erik, too attached to a man who has never hidden his hatred of humans or his intentions to leave. Funny, how Charles always seems to grow closest to the ones who can never give him what he wants.

And what does he want? He considers that for a moment. He thinks of Erik in a tuxedo at the party, quiet and obedient even as his eyes dart around the room, trying to find other mutants to help. He thinks of Erik smirking at him across the chessboard as he tears through Charles’s set defenses with calculated ease. He thinks of sitting with Erik in his study with glasses of champagne, the firelight warm against their faces, Erik’s arms even warmer around his body as he carries him to bed. He wants…more.

All right. Now that sounds dangerously close to something more than friendly affection, and Charles shies away from the thought instinctively. He’s been burned by more-than-friendly attachments before, and he’s hurt people, too. The last thing he wants to do is set himself up for heartbreak, or to set Erik up for the same. Erik’s been hurt enough in his life without Charles throwing anything else into the mix.

It’s a relief when he pulls into town and refocuses on his job here instead of on Erik. He grabs a shopping cart and walks up and down the aisles, pulling handfuls of boxes and bags off the shelves. The children will eat almost anything, as long as it’s edible and will fit in their mouths.

He’s trawling through the store for animal crackers when his phone rings. When he digs it out of his pocket, he sees that it reads ‘Moira.’

“Hello?”

“Hey, Charles. I’ve got the information you wanted.”

“Already?” he asks in surprise. He’d only called her a few hours ago while Jean was eating, inquiring after a certain Colonel Stryker. He’d thought it would take Moira several days at least to get back to him.

“Well, Stryker’s not exactly operating a low-profile operation in here. As far as I can tell, whatever he’s doing isn’t on the books, but there’re enough rumors floating around if you know where to listen.”

“What sort of operation?” Charles asks, hoping, praying it isn’t what he thinks it is.

Moira breathes out a shaky sigh. “I’m really sorry, Charles. I need you to believe me: when you asked me that one time, I really didn’t know.”

He stops walking, his free hand clenching white-knuckled around the shopping cart handle. “What?”

“There’s…talk. That Stryker’s running an underground mutant operation. He’s been requisitioning funds, the kind of money you’d need to buy mutants. He’s been disguising the purchases probably, which is only to be expected. People I’ve been asking though—they seem certain that Stryker’s gathering mutants to…to…”

It’s clear she’s trying to find a euphemism. Charles saves her the trouble. “To experiment on them.”

“…Yes.”

Damn it. Had this been how it had felt to Erik, when he’d discovered that Charles’s father had been one of the scientists he hated? Had he felt this cold fist clenching around his stomach, like all his insides had frozen over in shock and disbelief and horror?

“Damn it, Moira,” he whispers, clenching the phone so hard in his fist he’s surprised the plastic doesn’t crack. “I never thought the government would…I trusted that…”

“I know.” She sounds about as miserable as he feels. “I never thought it was possible either. But some men like Stryker don’t play by the rules, and they’ve got government backing to do it, too. You have to be careful, Charles. I don’t know how you ran into Stryker, but make sure you don’t draw attention to yourself. He’s ruthless, and he always gets what he wants. If he finds out you have a whole mansion of mutants, I’m sure he’ll try to get his hands on them.”

Charles forces himself to breathe evenly. He’ll discuss the danger with Erik later. They’ll have to take precautions, to make contingency plans. Although all his paperwork with the mutants are legal, he doesn’t doubt that if Stryker really wanted them, he would find some bullshit excuse to take them. Charles won’t—can’t—let that happen.

“All right,” he says finally. “Thank you for the warning. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay. Be safe, Charles.”

Suddenly, all he wants is to get out of this store as soon as possible and get back home. He doesn’t care if Erik’s still upset with him, he needs his advice. Erik’s been on the run before, and he’s bound to have good ideas.

After making another round of the store, he gives up on the animal crackers and heads for the cashier. She raises an eyebrow at his packed cart, and he says with a grin, “Big family.”

“Ah.”

It takes nearly ten minutes for him to check out completely, and by that time, a long, irritated line has formed behind him. He flashes them all an apologetic smile as he wheels his laden out of the store.

After he’s transferred all the bags to the trunk of his car, he pushes the cart back to the nearest deposit area. He stands there for a second, trying to figure out where he left his keys and—

CHARLESCOMEQUICK—

Cars, three of them, coming up the driveway, black and sleek, and through the window, she can see the face of the first man who gets out—older, graying at the temples, his face stern, and—there is a gun at his hip, ohgod—

Stryker. Panic roars up in him, his or hers or both. Charles fights through the heavy flood of her mind and snaps, Jean, focus, remember what I taught you, remember what we practiced?

In her terror, it takes her a long, precious minute to obey. She pulls her mind out—and god, her range at her age already; another time, he might have marveled at it, but not now, not the time—until she’s barely touching the periphery of his thoughts, and he can breathe again. His mind races. Good. Now get Erik. Tell him to tell everyone else to stay in their rooms. Tell him under no circumstances is he to use his powers against anyone. Tell him to wait for me. Then find Kitty and Ororo—here, she flashes confusion, and he shoves memories at her, memories of their smiling bright faces—and go to my room and lock the door, understand?

She struggles to form an intelligible answer, clear enough for him to hear it. Yes.

Good. I’ll be there soon.

She withdraws from his mind with a yank, and he slams back into reality—he’s on his knees in front of the supermarket, a woman at his elbow asking him anxiously if he’s all right. He stammers out a thanks and stumbles to his feet. Then he runs.

*

*

*

Erik is lying in bed staring at the ceiling when the door to his room bangs open, and Jean rushes in, her terror so powerful that Erik can almost breathe it in. He shoots up, takes one look at her expression, and leaps off the bed. “What is it?”

—they’re here, they’re coming for me, oh god, oh god—

“Charles said,” she begins, each word sounding as if it takes an enormous effort, “to get you. Someone’s coming.”

He throws out his senses and curses when he feels it: three cars coming up the path to the courtyard. When he focuses closer, he can make out the men inside—twelve, if his count of watches is accurate. Then he feels the much more sinister, distinct taste of guns.

Shit.

“Get the others,” Erik orders, rushing for the door. “I’ll hold them off for as long as possible, and you take the others and run for the woods behind the house—”

“No.” She throws out her arms to bar his way, and it should be ridiculous—he is three times her size—but there is enough steel in her expression to give him pause. “Charles told me to tell you not to use your powers against anyone. I will—” She takes a trembling breath. “I will make you obey if you won’t do it.”

“Can you really do that?” Erik asks, his voice almost a threat.

“I don’t know,” she admits. “But I’ll try. For Charles.”

What the fuck…Erik can protect them all, and Charles doesn’t want him to? What the hell is Charles thinking?

“He says,” Jean continues, “to tell everyone else to stay in their rooms. I’m supposed to get Kitty and Ororo and go to Charles’s room.”

The cars are getting closer. It would be a simple matter to crumple them, to take out the men inside with just a flick of his fingers. He’s done as much before, with his Brotherhood. He pushes Jean to the side, intent on heading off the threat of these men before they can even set foot out of their cars.

But then he hears Charles’s voice in his head: “I’d be the one responsible if you broke any laws, and if I’m arrested or jailed, then what will happen to the children? They’ll be taken away, and you know damn well that they won’t be going someplace pleasant.”

He has to control himself. If not for himself, then for the children.

Goddamn it, when had he allowed his concern for these people make him weak?

“Fine,” he grits out, spinning back around to face Jean. “I’ll tell the boys and Angel. You find Ororo and Kitty and do as Charles said. Did he say what he’s going to do about this?”

“He just said he’s coming,” Jean answers breathlessly. “He said to wait for him.”

Fine. Somehow, even after Charles’s lies, Erik still trusts him—still trusts him enough to stand down. He’ll analyze that later, when they’re not in danger. Now, he pushes Jean off down the hall and sprints the other way. He finds everyone else downstairs, congregated in the kitchen and laughing as Sean tries to flip an omelet and fails miserably, half the egg slopping over the pan to the floor.

“Aw, Sean, that’s our dinner,” Bobby complains.

Erik bursts through the door, and all of their smiles slip off when they see his expression. “Go to your rooms,” he commands, his voice tight. “Stay there and lock the doors. Ororo, Kitty, go to Charles’s room and stay there until either Charles or myself comes to get you.”

“Erik, what’s going on?” Angel asks, her eyes wide.

“Someone’s coming,” Erik answers, almost vibrating with adrenaline. He can feel a fight coming, and he tamps down on the urge to lash out preemptively. Calm. “Charles and I will handle it.”

“We can fight, too,” Alex argues, his eyes flashing, but Erik snaps, “Go upstairs. No one’s fighting anyone.” Unless the humans attack first, that is. Then Erik will kill them, Charles’s orders be damned.

A knock on the door makes them all freeze. Then Erik points upstairs mutely, and they rush out in silence, their footsteps so loud in the hall that if there had been any doubt about occupants in the house, the humans will have none now. When the children have disappeared, Erik waits for a long moment, then another. When the knock comes again, more insistently this time, he moves into the foyer and takes a deep, calming breath.

Then he opens the door.

The colonel from the warehouse stands on the doorstep. Surprise flickers across his face before he manages to smooth it out. “Oh. You. Xavier’s bodyguard? His business partner?” He eyes Erik’s casual attire. “Or something more personal than that?”

Stryker doesn’t know Erik’s a mutant, he realizes with a jolt of surprise. When he had accompanied Charles to buy Jean, he hadn’t been wearing a collar. He had been, for all intents and purposes, human. He can use this.

“Hello, Colonel,” he says, trying to emulate the pleasant tone that Charles always uses. He isn’t sure he succeeds, but Stryker looks more restless than wary. “It’s something of a surprise to see you here.”

“Official business,” the man says vaguely. “Let us in.”

It’s not a request. Erik doesn’t budge from the doorway. “Mr. Xavier isn’t home. Can this wait for another time?”

Grim satisfaction flashes through Stryker’s eyes, and Erik realizes that this visit, at this time, is entirely purposeful. They had waited for Charles to leave, and that doesn’t bode well for anyone in the mansion. Do they know Charles is on his way back right now? Do they care?

“I’m afraid not,” Stryker says, motioning to his men, who push roughly past Erik into the house. It’s all Erik can do not to slam them back by the metal in their uniforms, in their hands and boots—they stink of metal.

“What is this about?” Erik demands, clasping his clenched fists behind his back so Stryker won’t see them.

The colonel ignores him, striding into the foyer with all the authority of a man who has never been questioned. He glances in interest at the height of the ceiling, at the beautiful chandeliers of the hall, at the rich carpets underfoot. “I knew Xavier was loaded,” he whistles, “but I didn’t imagine this.”

“What is this about?” Erik repeats testily, counting the men as they troop in. Eight, nine, ten, with two lingering outside, probably to watch the path. Twelve total—he’d been right. He’s outnumbered, but if it comes down to it, he knows he could take them on.

“I asked around after we met,” Stryker replies, peering at the paintings on the walls. “Apparently, Xavier’s quite the collector. He’s been running around mutant rings for a while now, always taking the whole lot, throwing down more than enough cash to catch the government’s attention.” He turns his head to give Erik a meaningful look. “I’m here to ensure that nothing illicit is taking place. If Xavier’s money isn’t legitimate on all accounts…well, I think we’ll have a duty to take his property off his hands.”

Erik’s skin crawls at the insinuation behind his words. Does the colonel truly have the authority to confiscate the mutants in this house? And even if he doesn’t, what’s to stop him from doing so anyway?

Nothing, that’s the answer. Nothing but Erik, who will bring down this entire house around their ears before allowing them to lay a hand on any of the children.

“I think,” Erik says, a bit shocked when his voice comes out light and agreeable—Charles must be having an effect on him—“if you’re going to accuse Xavier of a crime, he should be here to answer you.”

Stryker waves a hand. “So he can destroy evidence? No, this is better.” He stops and cocks his head, listening for something. The sound of his men moving around is all that greets him. “Where are the mutants?”

Erik runs through several options and finally decides on, “Upstairs.” If Stryker is going to search the house, he’ll find them anyway.

“Hmm. And you, Mr.…”

“Tanner,” he supplies. It’s one of his less-known aliases with the Brotherhood.

“Mr. Tanner. Right. What are you to Xavier?”

“His friend,” Erik answers, which is the truth.

“Ah. I see.”

Erik stands tensely to the side as the man to his left starts to poke through the small hallway desk. “What are you looking for?”

“Oh, anything really. You don’t need to worry about it, just stay out of our way.”

They wander through the foyer for a couple of minutes before pushing on into the side living room. Erik follows silently on their heels, praying Charles hasn’t got any incriminating evidence anywhere. Not that he believes Charles is really doing anything illegal, but if Stryker comes across one of Charles’s pro-mutant articles or those red-blue maps, he could probably twist his findings to suit his purposes. Erik doesn’t doubt the ingenuity of government agents.

Thankfully, they find nothing in the living room besides popcorn lodged in the couch cushions and the discarded Xbox controllers from the boys’ latest video game. Stryker raises an eyebrow at the gaming system but doesn’t comment. Once they have thoroughly torn apart the room, leaving books and pillows strewn about the floor, Stryker straightens and says, “Right. Let’s get straight to it then. I want to see the mutants.”

“We should wait for Xavier,” Erik says stiffly.

“No, I want to see them now. They were upstairs, you said?”

He starts toward the stairs and is nearly on the first step before Erik catches up to him and grabs his arm. Stryker’s eyes widen, and Erik is surprised by his own daring. But Stryker thinks he is human, so no one strikes Erik for his insolence. He grips Stryker firmly and says, “Let me fetch them down for you. It’ll only take a moment.”

The colonel studies him for a moment, his cold eyes locked on Erik’s. He must see nothing suspicious there, because he nods sharply and says, “I’ll be waiting here. Don’t take too long.”

Erik takes the first flight of stairs slowly, but once he’s out of sight, he sprints up three steps at a time. Alex’s room is closest on the left, but when he tries to door, it’s locked. Right. He flicks the lock open impatiently with a twist of his hand and throws the door open.

A whistle of displaced air is all the warning he gets before something hurtles toward him. Erik grabs its metal signature and slams it to a stop before shooting an incredulous look into the room. Alex is standing behind his bed, his chest heaving. When he sees that it’s only Erik, he whispers, “Sorry, sorry, I thought…”

“Don’t worry about it now,” Erik hisses, letting the ashtray Alex had thrown at him drop to the ground. “Come here. We’re getting the others.”

“What’s going on?”

“Just come.”

With Alex on his heels, he collects the rest of the boys and Angel before heading down to the second floor. Here, he hesitates. Should he shield the younger girls from sight for as long as possible or bring them to Stryker? The colonel will find them eventually if he searches the whole mansion, and if he finds out that Erik’s tried to hide any mutants…

No, he can’t risk that. Better to play along until Charles gets here.

He snorts derisively at the thought. Since when has he played along? Since when has he done nothing and waited for a human to come save him?

Since Charles, answers a helpful voice in his head, which he shoves away irritably as he unlocks Charles’s door.

He assigns one of the boys to each of the young girls, trusting them to keep their charges out of harm’s way if it comes to that. Then, after giving them strict instructions to keep their mouths shut, he leads them back downstairs.

Stryker is, as promised, waiting patiently at the foot of the stairs. When he sees the size of the group, his eyes widen, and he murmurs, “Oh, quite the collector.” Then shock snaps his spine straight, and he demands, “Where are their collars?”

“Not needed,” Erik tells him shortly, interposing himself between the colonel and the children. “They aren’t violent.”

“Aren’t violent,” Stryker repeats, sounding unconvinced. “This is very unprecedented. I’ll have to make a note of that.”

“But not illegal,” Erik says firmly.

“No,” Stryker concedes. “Not illegal.” He runs his eyes over the mutants, and Erik has to resist the urge to use one of the metal railings from the stair banister to smack the intensely interested look off of Stryker’s face. Stryker is staring at them like they’re cattle, and Erik has no doubt that if the colonel were to get his hands on any of the children, he would have them strapped down on a table in a heartbeat.

His eyes brighten when they land on Jean. “Ah, there’s the girl I was looking for.”

He steps toward her, and she whimpers. It’s a quiet sound but enough for Erik to step directly in front of Stryker. “Don’t touch them.”

The colonel regards him with a cool stare. “Mr. Tanner, step aside. I’m not going to hurt them. I just want to examine them, that’s all.”

Erik clenches his fists. He has no reason to resist, not if he wants to keep his cover as Charles’s human friend. So he shifts over, praying Jean won’t panic and bring them all down with her telepathy. Just stay calm, he thinks, hoping she catches his words, just stay calm, stay calm…

She doesn’t say a word as Stryker crouches in front of her. His gaze runs over her small body a couple of times before he reaches for her. She flinches back violently, and Erik can’t help himself; he reaches down, pulls Stryker up, and snaps, “That’s enough.”

Stryker shoves him hard. “I don’t think you understand, Mr. Tanner. I’m in charge here, and I’ll have you arrested, too, if you try to interfere.”

He bends toward Jean again. When she cries out in terror, Alex grabs her hand and yanks her toward him, snarling, “Can’t you see she’s scared?”

Stryker’s face suffuses in fury. “How dare you speak to me like that, slave!” His hand whips out and backhands Alex across the face, sending him staggering into Hank. Erik’s hand clamps around Stryker’s shoulder, rage roaring through him. Everything metal on Stryker rattles audibly, and the colonel’s eyes widen in shock and muted fear. Too late for fear now, Erik thinks with a snarl, grabbing the colonel by the lapels of his uniform. He hears guns cock behind him, but warping the barrels into loops is child’s play. The men cry out in alarm as their weapons twist in their hands, and Stryker gapes, his hands scrabbling against Erik’s iron grip.

The sound of a car coming up the drive cuts through the sudden chaos, and they all freeze. A second later, they hear the car door thrown open, then footsteps rushing up the walkway. “Get out of my way!” they hear, and Erik is almost stupidly relieved to recognize Charles’s voice, laced through with worry. A moment later, Charles himself appears in the doorway, his chest heaving as if he’d run, his eyes wide as he takes in the scene. He glances first at the mutants, his gaze sharpening at Alex’s reddened cheek. Then he looks at Erik, at Stryker in his grasp.

“Colonel Stryker,” he says into the silence. “What, may I ask, are you doing in my house?”

All the fear is gone from Stryker’s face now, replaced by sneering indignation. “I was conducting a search of your home for illegal ownership of mutants, and then I was attacked by your own pets,” he spits. “Tell this creature—” he glowers at Erik, hatred in his eyes, and he must know Erik is a mutant now “—to let me go before I break his arms.”

“As if you could,” Erik snarls, but Charles says sharply, “Erik, that’s enough.” Erik gives Stryker one last contemptuous look before shoving him away.

“What’s this about, Colonel?” Charles asks icily. “Do you have a warrant?”

“I don’t need a goddamned warrant.”

“Actually, you do. Please get out of my house before I call the police on you for trespassing.”

“The police wouldn’t do shit against me, and you know it,” Stryker sneers. “I can have your precious pets put down right here, on the spot, for attacking me and my men.”

“Anything they’ve done is on my orders,” Charles says firmly, “and I’ll face the consequences. But I’ll maintain that they were doing nothing but protecting my property against trespassers. We’ll see if your warrantless search holds up as well in court.”

“In court,” Stryker snorts. “In court. If you think this would ever go to court, you’re stupider than I thought, Xavier.” He seems to have recovered his composure, and when he looks at Charles, his eyes are cold and sinister. “Besides, it’s a good thing you’re here now. I was going to poke around for a little and then have my men call you home. You’re needed for this next part, after all.”

“Next part?” Charles echoes with a frown. There is something in Stryker’s chilly smile that makes Erik’s gut twist in unease. He takes a step closer to Charles, just in case he needs to throw the human behind him for safety.

Stryker straightens his uniform and directs his smile at Charles. “Charles Xavier, son of Brian Xavier and Sharon Xavier, stepson of Kurt Marko.” Charles’s frown deepens. “You see, I did some research after you stole that girl from me. At first, there wasn’t much to see—Oxford graduate, boy genius, very impressive. But then I dug a little deeper, went back a little further, and do you know what I found?”

Charles does a very good job of seeming unaffected, but Erik is close enough to see his hands clench and unclench. He’s gone pale, too, enough blood leaching out of his expression for Erik to worry. “What, Colonel?”

“Your father was a scientist,” Stryker says, and despite himself, Erik finds himself listening a little more closely. “He was quite the experimenter, in the early 1980s. I wasn’t too surprised to find that when mutants were discovered, he got really deeply involved in that. In fact, he was one of the foremost mutant researchers, wasn’t he?”

He pauses, waiting for a response. Charles says, “Yes,” his voice slightly unsteady.

Stryker nods. “Right. He did so well in his personal lab that the government began asking for his expertise. He had a lot of theories back then, theories the government liked but couldn’t really prove one way or another because it was hard to get our hands on enough mutants to test on. It was hard to get any mutants, really, so imagine the government’s surprise and delight when Brian Xavier comes to them and announces that he has a mutant to run tests on. The government’s pleased, of course, and they agree to fund him, and for most of the ’90s, he runs all sorts of experiments. Your father was the pioneer on mutant suppression techniques, wasn’t he?”

Charles chokes out a strangled, “Yes.” He looks deathly white now, and Erik wonders what’s wrong, what part of Charles’s past is affecting him like this. His father had run experiments, yes; none of this is new. And yet Stryker’s eyes are triumphant, as if he knows he has a trump card, and Erik waits in trepidation, knowing he won’t like it, knowing he can’t help but hear it.

“Well, I dug a little deeper and found his files. Paper copies, of course. They never bothered to enter the data into a computer. It was a pain in the ass, but I finally found it: your father’s original experiment reports, complete with a full profile of Subject X. That’s the mutant he ran his experiments on, you see.”

“Stop,” Charles whispers, swaying a little. He looks faintly green.

Stryker grins ruthlessly. “There was a great load of information there, even if there was no name. It was a kid. I can tell you all about him, if you’d like. Brown hair, blue eyes, skinny type. Freckles. Scar on his left knee. He was born in a hospital not far from here, on January 10, 1985. Well, I thought, that date looks familiar, so I went back through your files, Mr. Xavier, and guess what I found?”

Dread settles deep in Erik’s stomach. He already knows the answer.

Stryker smiles, his eyes gleaming with victory. “That’s right: you. You were born on January 10, 1985, in New York City. You were Subject X. You’re a mutant, Mr. Xavier, and how you’ve hidden it from the world for so long, I’ll never know. But you’re not going to be able to hide any longer. You’ll be coming with us now, along with all your little mutant friends.”

Stryker takes a single, menacing step forward.

“Jean,” Charles says, his voice suddenly extremely steady even as his entire body trembles, “now.”

All of the men collapse to their knees, crying out and clutching their heads. Charles goes down, too, crumpling to the floor, and Erik reaches for him in panic while stumbling under the weight of Jean’s mind. Beside him, Stryker struggles up, struggles to his knees, and manages to hurl his useless, warped gun. Erik is too distracted by Charles’s fallen figure to track it quickly enough, and it hits Jean square on in the forehead, knocking her out cold. The attack ceases instantly, and the men stagger back to their feet, their brows gleaming with sweat, their gazes terrified and wary.

“Run,” Charles croaks from the ground. “Run!”

“No,” Erik snaps, trying to grab his arm, “I’m not leaving you—”

“You’re not getting away!” Stryker snarls, lunging, and before Erik can stop him, he’s got Charles pinned underneath him, shouting at his men for restraints, for a tranq dart. Erik tackles him off, and they roll across the floor in a mess of jabbing elbows and thrown punches. Erik catches Stryker across the face, and the colonel knees him hard in the gut, hard enough to knock Erik breathless for a dazed moment. That moment is all it takes; Stryker kicks him off and then grabs the proffered dart from one of his men. He slices Erik across the arm with it, which makes him fall back long enough for Stryker to stab the dart into Charles’s exposed neck. Charles collapses, senseless, to the floor.

“Charles!” Erik grabs the nearest gun and hits Stryker so hard the butt of the weapon flays open a strip of skin at the man’s cheek. Stryker cries out and staggers back, clutching at his face. Erik flings the gun forward into the back of Stryker’s head, and the colonel goes down in a heap.

The room has descended into chaos. Half the men are scrambling for the exit, the other half scrambling in pursuit of the children, who have fled. Erik grabs Charles under his arms and lugs him toward the door. He’s not going to get far with this dead weight, damn it, and Charles doesn’t have enough metal on his body for Erik to float him. At least the children are out of sight, hopefully running for safety. Erik can’t concentrate on getting Charles out of here and defending them at the same time, so he can only hope Alex and the older kids can protect the younger ones, at least until Erik gets there.

He’s got Charles halfway onto his shoulders when he hears a panicked shout from what sounds like the front door—had the kids been trying to make it to the car? But there had been guards posted out front, two of them. Fuck. Erik shoots a glance at Charles and finds him completely unconscious. He’d be a liability more than anything in a battle, so after a moment of deliberation, Erik reluctantly leaves him in the kitchen, tucked away in the corner where he won’t be easily found.

Then he runs for the front door. When he skids to a stop in the doorway, he finds the children huddled together on one side, Sean, as expected, yelling loudest, Stryker’s men arrayed against them. The two guards outside have received reinforcements from the men fleeing the house, and damn it, Erik hadn’t warped their guns. Hank is swaying in place, hit multiple times in the chest, and Bobby and Alex are already on the ground, unmoving. Erik feels a sudden, unexpected surge of terror before he realizes that the guns are loaded with tranquilizer darts, because of course Stryker wouldn’t risk harming his precious test subjects. Then his fury overtakes him again, and he twists the guns up into pretzels and slams all the men back by every single piece of metal on their bodies.

“Erik!”

He turns and shouts, “Get to the car!” They can’t stay here, not if the government knows this location. They’ve got to get somewhere safe where they can think and figure out their next move.

“We can’t—Hank’s too heavy—fuck—”

He fights back a curse himself. Half of the children are unconscious, the girls are terrified, and Stryker might have reinforcements coming after him at any moment. He’s also beginning to feel woozy from the dart Stryker managed to graze him with; the sedative on the tip hadn’t been enough to put him down instantly, but it must have been enough to impair him. He’s losing focus. They need to move.

“All right. Get the girls to the car at least, and then we’ll figure something out. I’m going to get Charles.”

Sean nods, Jean gathered in his arms. Erik turns to run back into the house but before he can take more than two steps, he hears a soft puff and breathes in the familiar scent of sulfur. He has time to think, Azazel, no! before he feels the ground lurch underneath his feet, and he’s gone.

*

*

*

When he comes to, he is in a bed, blinking at a ceiling that is jarring because it is not the ceiling of his room at Charles’s mansion. He tries to sit up and nearly falls over, nausea spiking through his head.

“Awake finally?”

He looks up to see Mystique sitting in an armchair pulled up to the side of the bed, watching him impassively. “Mystique. Where…?”

“Motel. We pulled you out of there, and then you keeled over. Emma said it was just a little sedative, nothing to worry about.”

The house. Stryker’s men. Erik bolts upright. “The others. Where are the others?”

“Relax. We got them out, too. Figured they were mutants, given that that one girl had wings and all. They’re in the next room over.”

But Charles. He’d stashed Charles in the kitchen, and if they hadn’t looked, they wouldn’t have found him. “A man,” he presses. “Was there a man there? Brown hair, older than the others—he was in the kitchen—”

Mystique jerks in recognition. Curiously enough, a flash of fear passes through her expression. Erik dismisses the sight, focused singularly on Charles, because if they hadn’t gotten him out, if Stryker’s gotten his hands on him—

“Where is he?” Erik demands.

“We didn’t—” she stammers, her aloof mask cracking. “We just got you and the other ones outside. We didn’t look inside—”

But surely the children asked after Charles. Surely they’d fought to get back to him, to rescue him.

“The others,” Erik says, confused.

Mystique understands. She has always had a way of understanding him. “We…chose not to,” she says carefully. “He’ll be fine. He’s got his ways—”

Erik can’t comprehend her. They left Charles behind? “He was unconscious,” he says, impending rage coloring his words. He can feel the anger coming, but right now, he is numb with shock and horror. “He was unconscious, he couldn’t fight back—”

Her scales sink from sky-colored to midnight blue, almost indigo. He recognizes it as a flush of anger. “Why do you care? He can take care of himself. If he’s been—parading around as a human for all these years anyway—” her expression twists into a sneer “—then he can pretend a little longer. Did you know he’s a mutant? Had you fooled, didn’t he? Charles can be a manipulative bastard like that.”

The bitter edge to her voice snags his attention, and then he hears what she’s said and…

“Wait,” he says, everything grinding to a halt. “You know him?”

Mystique freezes. Then she lifts her chin defiantly and says, “Yeah, I knew him once.”

How…?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she sniffs.

“It matters,” Erik growls, standing. “How do you know Charles?”

She stands, too, her fists clenched at her sides. “It was a long time ago, okay?”

Tell me.”

She glares at him, and he glares back. She knows Charles. Mystique knows Charles, but how? He needs answers, right now, because if he doesn’t focus on something other than Charles at his mansion, then his mind will spin up a dozen scenarios of Charles at Stryker’s mercy, strapped to some lab table, needles jabbing into his skin, screaming his throat hoarse as he breaks and breaks and breaks—

“Magneto.”

He realizes that everything in the room is shaking. Unclenching his fist abruptly, he snaps, “I’m ordering you to tell me how you know Charles.”

She holds his gaze for another second before sighing and averting her eyes. “He was my brother.”

Erik sucks in a breath. “Your brother?”

“A long time ago. Adopted, so not really related. I ran away when I was fourteen.” She shrugs. “That’s the last I saw of him.” Her face twists in anger. “Not that I care. He drove me away in the first place. It was good riddance, as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t need him dragging me down.”

The pieces are starting to come together. Charles’s reasons for helping mutants—his own sister, not to mention himself. And Charles is a mutant. It makes no sense. He has no powers—surely Erik would have noticed before, surely Charles would have slipped…

Why would he lie?

The door to their left suddenly opens, and Erik whirls. In the doorway, Emma tilts up an eyebrow and says, “Calm down, Lehnsherr, it’s just me. Kids in the other room have been asking for you. Demanding you, really. I’ve been keeping them calm, but they want answers.”

Erik grits his teeth. “So do I. Mystique, come.”