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A Different (Darker) Path

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It is Hank who finds her, in the end. He stands outside her hotel door, as awkward and human as he is in her fondest memories, babbling about how long he has been searching and he's sorry but can he please come in? She opens the door wider and closes it behind his bowed shoulders, tracking his path to the leather settee with her yellow eyes. He sits, head bowed in his hands, for a long moment, and when he looks at her it is with despair and desperation.

He tells her, then. Tells her how four years ago the war closed her brother's school. How the men arrived only days after. How Charles' hands were white-knuckled upon the arms of his wheelchair. How the men smiled when he tried to send them away. How the only reason they didn't take Hank was because the serum made him register as 'human', and by the time he woke up it was too late, and Charles was already gone. How he only managed to find her because Alex called and told him what happened in Vietnam, and he knows she left, they haven't spoken in years, but this is Charles and he is sure she wants him back as much as he does.

She has seen the files in Bolivar Trask's keeping, and she is suddenly ill with dread, because no mutant has survived four years in that man's hands, and 'oh, Charles, you idealistic fool'.

"We'll need help," she tells Hank. "Call Alex. Tell him to get his squad back together. We are going to visit the Pentagon."

Rescuing Erik is neither easy nor clean. They've buried this monster deep, but concrete can't hold up to Alex, and the rest of his squad have no qualms about clearing a path. Hank is reluctant, but he helps, and they are free and clear with smoking wreckage behind them Charles would never approve of.

Erik is looking oddly dazed, as though he cannot believe there is more to the world than the plastic, glass, and concrete that has been his life for ten years. Still he looks at her, suspicion warring with gratitude as they sail down the highway, and he asks.

"Why now, Mystique?"

Her borrowed hands are white knuckled on the wheel, and she doesn't look at him as she answers.

"They have Charles."

Erik goes very still, the car vibrates more than it should, Raven - because she is Raven now, scared for her brother even though he's not her brother and he didn't understand but he didn't deserve this - forges on.

"He's been there for four years, Erik." She won't call him Magneto, for neither of them are that now. "I'm going to get him back, and I need your help."

He doesn't hesitate. "Where do we start?"

They rely on Mystique to find Charles. Much and all as Erik would simply like to destroy every member of Trask's staff until someone tells him where they can find the telepath, her way is quicker, and right now - after four years - time is of the essence. So he waits instead, locked in a room of finery with mutants he barely knows, and those he does seem torn between being grateful he is there and angry for the same.

He confronts Hank, in the end, because he was with Charles when it happened and if he hadn't been playing human perhaps he could have actually protected the man he called his friend. The look Hank gives him in return is searing and furious and self-loathing, and Hank knows he failed, but he knows enough to know Erik did as well.

"Where were you?" he asks. "Where was Raven?"

Erik has an argument good and ready. He was trying to save the president. He was locked away where he couldn't help anyone. But, in the end, it boils down to only one thing.

Charles needed him, and he wasn't there.

He leaves Hank be after that, and is still stewing in silence when Mystique walks through the door, all wild, ferocious beauty and deep, dark fear.

"I know where he is," she says. "We go now."

Trask is in Paris when they hit his facility. A shame, Erik thinks. He would have liked to destroy the man as easily as he peeled apart the walls of this place of atrocities. There are defences, of course, meant to stop mutants, but they are still in their infant stages and against a concerted attack they don't stand a chance.

There are a lot of mutants inside, too many, and Erik has a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach even before he sees the crude copy of Cerebro, looking much like the CIA's original prototype. He understands, suddenly, why Charles is still alive, and when Hank howls in rage and begins systematically destroying what was once his own creation Erik closes his fist and lets the metal do its work.

They don't linger, pushing onwards and inwards, where glass lines the steel walls and the men wear helmets that are not his but feel the same and his stomach twists, knowing they used the helmet he stole from Shaw to control the man he once called friend. He shatters every mirror he can find, lifts the helmets from their heads and crushes them all without a thought, and by the time he reaches the last door he has far outstripped the others, leaving them to wreak havoc in the hallways behind him.

A twist of his fingers deals with the lock and then he is inside, surrounded by reflections of himself and Charles. Charles, who is propped on the floor with his back to a mirror, ragged, thin, hollow eyed, and everything Erik never wanted him to be. He crouches before the telepath, in the path of his unfocused gaze, the first time he has been in Charles presence without the helmet since Cuba.

"Hello, Erik," Charles says softly, but he is still not looking, and it takes Erik a moment to realise that he can't. That the odd, unfocused haze to the telepath's eyes is not fading as they flicker errantly about the room.

They have done this, he thinks, rage rising. The humans. So afraid they did not trust a crippled man with his powers locked away behind glass mirrors and steel helmets not to harm them. Wanting to keep him alive, but unwillingly to do so without reducing the risk. Charles has no telepathy in this room, they've taken his sight, he can't run, and Erik doesn't even twitch as he seizes every piece of metal within reach and shatters the mirrors into a thousand scattered pieces.

There is a cacophony of gratifying noise, then silence once more, and Erik is just as soft as Charles when he speaks.

"We're leaving."

He gathers the telepath in his arms without another word. Charles doesn't resist, limp and compliant in Erik's hold. He is far too light, far too quiet, and Erik's rage rises so that he does not notice the way Charles is growing tauter and tauter in his arms. He does not notice anything until he reaches the room where he left the others and finds them standing in bewilderment as those they had been fighting clutch their heads and howl in wild abandonment.

"Charles." Raven is suddenly beside him, clutching her brother's arm as she begs. "Don't, Charles, don't. It's not worth it. They're not worth it."

It is strange, to see her act the part of restraint, but she is also right. Charles will do this thing now, acting out of pain and fear and hatred, and he will regret it later. Not because these men do not deserve death - they do, and Erik will gladly give it to them - but because killing them now will mean they have taken everything Charles has left. It will mean they have won. Broken the one mutant they, the humans, most needed alive and whole.

"Charles," Raven says again, insistent, and the telepath drops his hand from his temple, gazing in her general direction with a blank expression.

"Come on," Erik says, ignoring the men lying prone around them. "We need to go."

They destroy whatever they can get their hands on as they leave, and not a single wall is left standing by the time they are done.

They can't go back to Westchester, that much is clear, and the nearest Brotherhood hideout Erik knows of is a day's drive from Trask's facility. They pile into stolen cars, them and the mutants they rescued, and Erik does not know about the others, but his is filled with silence. Raven is driving again, tense and bursting with anger as Hank sits beside her. Alex is a coiled snake on Erik's right hand, and on his left Charles appears to be trying to meld into the door. The telepath has not said a word since his initial greeting to Erik, and Erik can't feel his mental presence either. He cannot understand it. After so long locked inside that room with all his senses cut off Erik would have expected... well, anything but this. It is concerning, but he can think of nothing to say or do.

Six hours into their drive Charles turns and glances his way, his voice hoarse and cracking, an outer reflection of his inner being.

"You were right," he says, and it should be a victory, but all he feels is sorrow and hate.

He has spent so long opposing Charles' view he never knew how much he didn't want the telepath to change it.

Retaliation comes swiftly. They hear the news two days later, splashed across a TV screen as an answer, an appeasement to those who have heard the truth of what happened at the Pentagon. From families, friends, those who are afraid. There are machines, they learn. Machines programmed to hunt them down and destroy them, and the bitter taste in Erik's mouth cannot be disappointment in the human race, because he gave up on them long ago, so it must be fear.

"The world is screaming," is all Charles says before he lapses back into a hollow silence, and Erik doesn't know what to say to that. He doesn't know what to say at all. Not to Charles. Not to Raven. Not to any of the frightened mutants milling about in one room casting him looks equally distrustful and hopeful.

Alex comes to stand beside him, arms folded, stance confident and controlled. It is a far cry from what he was when Erik and Charles first approached him, and it is with an expectant air that he turns to the older man.

"So, what now?"

What now indeed? With Charles a fractured reflection of his old self, Erik no less full of anger than he had been eleven years ago on the edge of Cuban waters, and a score or more of unfamiliar faces looking for answers from those who had saved them?

He watches them all a moment, then he speaks. "We're going to defend our own."

"Oh, yeah?" Alex is unconvinced. "How, exactly? This isn't like Cuba. They can fight back now. It'll be a bloodbath."

That is a soldier speaking, he knows. The voice of experience.

"I don't know," he admits at last. "I don't know."

Raven has not felt so powerless in years. Her powers, always a reliable safety net, now offer her no more security than the four changing walls they ensconce themselves in week after week. Charles is withdrawn, a wasted wreck who can barely be forced to maintain those functions necessary to live, and she is powerless against that as well. Maybe it is the eleven years they have been parted. Maybe it is the misunderstandings that ripped them apart beforehand. Maybe it is because she was too late, and Charles was broken before she even knew she needed to save him from that fate.

There is a part of her, raw and bleeding and filled with rage, that wants to scream 'I told you so!' in his face. A part that wants to seize a hold of skeletal shoulders and shake him until he returns to being the man she knew and loved, despite their differences. The other part of her wants to weep, because she never wanted to be proven right like this. It swells inside her. A storm, a hurricane, building and building until she is ready to snap. Break. Shriek. Destroy.

She is on the verge when Charles touches her hand, fingers feather-light, unseeing eyes pointed away from her, and says, "Raven."

She freezes, she stares, she wants to cry, because this is proof. Proof that Charles is still in there somewhere. Proof that he is not lost. A sob escapes her, and she wraps her arms about his neck, drawing him close and holding him as she hasn't dared to since Erik carried him out of that nightmare.

He moves as though he doesn't quite remember how, his arms - thin, too thin, he needs to eat more - snaking about her torso to return her hold as his breath leaves him in a silent sigh that ghosts past her ear.

"Where have you been?" she cries, because it has not been here. He has been in another world. A world of twilight and nightmares and death.

"I don't know," he whispers in a voice that is shattered. "But I don't want to go back there."

Raven stopped believing in miracles a long time ago. It is just as well, because Charles' recovery is neither miraculous nor lasting. He fades in and out with as much consistency as the radio in their latest hideout, and she never knows whether she will be confronted with her brother, quietly shattering yet concerned she is ripping herself apart inside, or a raging madman who screams 'this is what you wanted!' at Erik when the soldiers who had the misfortune to stumble upon them drop to the ground in agony and the metal bender tells him to stop.

He frightens her when he is like that. He frightens Erik, and sometimes she wonders if Erik didn't realise til now what a monster her brother could be. The monster he never was, because there were boundaries, built in self taught lessons, in her demands for privacy, in the tragedies that occurred when Charles didn't know better. He knows better now, yet he doesn't. She doesn't want to be near him when he is like this. Feral, unhinged, lurching towards the cliff edge despite their shared attempts to bring him back. She doesn't know what they did to him. She doesn't know what they've made him. She doesn't know if there is enough of Charles left to save.

"I don't hate them," he tells her one day, in what she hopes is a sudden moment of clarity, but came too swiftly to be. "I just wish they were dead."

Hank has never known guilt like this. Fear, yes. He's been bullied enough in the past to know that. Anger at those who mistreated him, mistreated his friends. Disgust and contempt mingled with longing for what he is and wished he could be. Fury at Raven and Erik for walking away. For leaving. And now guilt. Guilt because all his strength and intelligence is worth nothing in the end. He couldn't stop the war. He couldn't save the school. He couldn't save Charles.

Erik and Raven act as though it is not yet decided. As if the clear, gaping holes in Charles' rationality are not a danger to them all. It is an illusion. A dream. A matter of time before Charles doesn't stop when Erik gives the word. Before Trask wins.

He's not afraid to admit he's afraid, but he still sits with the Professor when it comes his turn. He still babbles, trying to drown out the sound of Charles fingers drumming on the arm of whatever chair has been chosen for him. A drumbeat. A countdown to the moment when sanity evaporates entirely.


He starts at the interruption, trailing off mid-word, and looks up to see Charles trying to focus on him. He never did determine how bad the damage to the telepath's eyes were, or what caused it in the first place.

"It wasn't your fault." The words are brittle, crackling like dried up paper underfoot, but he knows enough of the man before him to know they are sincere.

"I could have done something if I wasn't..." he argues.

"Yes," Charles agrees softly, his gaze trailing away to the window. "You could have come with me. We could have died together."

The Sentinels find them, of course. It was really only a matter of time. They are ready, though, and Erik has come a long way from the man he once was. They protect him as he weaves the metal through the Sentinels, halting them and holding them as Hank finally puts his intelligence to use and reprograms every last one of the abominations they are. When he is finished they stand together, shoulder to shoulder, and it is not until the silence has stretched into infinity that he realises they are waiting. Waiting for the words to come. The words of restraint, of pleading peace, of 'give them a chance'.

Huddled in his chair, Charles doesn't say a word, and Hank thinks he has never seen a look of loss so cuttingly deep as that which flashes across Erik's face as he turns to the telepath in question.


He stirs, head lifting to tilt in Erik's direction, but all he says is, "Make sure you don't miss."

Charles is dead.

This Erik knows. The man he once knew did not survive the fires of the world. Or rather did, but came out the other side an unrecognisable creature. Sometimes he wonders if Charles saw him the way he now sees Charles at their first meeting. Broken, dangerous, jagged edged, but somehow still carrying that remnant of before. He thinks not, because somewhere amongst all the anger and pain that he was Charles saw reason to hope. Erik, on the other hand, sees not a glimmer.

They are safe again now, relatively speaking. The Sentinel program has been decommissioned after ten of their number singlehandedly destroyed the White House in one fell swoop. The people are running scared once more, like frightened sheep, and Erik wonders what Charles would have to say now were he still here.

"I am," says the figure in a wheelchair that is not his friend. Charles reads their minds these days like the pages of a book, so he must know how often the thought crosses Erik's mind that he is a danger to them all like this. It would only take a thought, and it seems a mad thing that they are all trusting this man, who has been pushed to the brink and left to dangle there, not to cross the line.

They all do nonetheless, because this is Charles, and they are all too desperate to believe he is truly gone.

"You're not," he argues listlessly, playing chess without a partner, banishing nostalgia for the ghost it is.

"It's what you wanted," the telepath reminds him. "Us fighting the same battle, wanting the same end."

He doesn't know what end he envisions now. Or what end Charles might envision. Not what they each once did, he is sure, and still not the same. "I didn't want you to change."

The answer is surprisingly calm. "Yes, you did."

Maybe. Yes, he had wanted Charles to know the truth. But not like this. "Not because of them."

"Because of you, then?" The smile is foreign, twisted, wrong.

"Because you needed to," he hisses back. "Because none of this would have happened if you had just listened."

"Because it's my fault, yes?" Charles speaks slowly, a warning, low and dire. "Everything that has happened. Cuba. Raven. My legs. The President. The mutants Trask picked and chose like cattle sent to the slaughter. I should have listened. I should have fought. I should have saved them."

"I never said that."

A laugh. Bitter. Scornful. "You didn't have to, Erik. You've thought it enough times. Everyone has. Hank, Alex, Raven. To them what was done to us. No mercy. No peace. No attempt at understanding. Just death and suffering and hatred in an unending cycle that drags on and on with no foreseeable end in sight. And in the end nothing will matter. None of it will, for there'll be nothing left to fight for, and no one left to fight for it."

The same words, even now. "You want them dead just as much as I do."


"Then how..."

"I also want us dead. I want that woman to stop screaming. I want the man next door to not have seen what he did. I want the boy to open his eyes. I want to stop being afraid and to understand what I'm fighting for and why is this happening and who am I?"

He swallows, nervous, out of his depth, lingering on the cusp of understanding this broken creature. "You're Charles. Charles Xavier."

"Ah... And who is that, exactly?"

It is an honest question that should never have been asked. Still, he answers it.

"My friend."

Charles watches him a moment without seeing a thing, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, a piece of history emerging in the present. "Is that why you are still here?"

He never once considered leaving. He doesn't consider it now. "I'm here to repay a debt to the man who saved my life."

Charles hums softly. "You paid that debt."

"I paid half," he corrects. "The rest remains."

The look he receives is knowing, and resigned. "You can't fix me, Erik."

It is an ultimatum. Charles should know better. Erik has always picked the losing battle, has always kicked all the harder for being down.

"No." He shakes his head. "You couldn't fix me. But that's just the thing, Charles. I've always fought harder for the things I want, and you've never been able to stop me."