Actions

Work Header

An Earlier Heaven

Chapter Text

There was nothing pleasant about the months that followed the Cuban mission.

First, there had been weeks spent in hospital, a time of pain and grief over the total loss of his lower limbs. Moira had been a godsend, forceful and gentle by turns, the perfect counterpoint to Charles's own cycle of acceptance and despair. He'd tried for the boys -- Hank, Alex, Sean -- to be as positive as possible whenever they had shuffled in to stand at his bedside and he'd mostly succeeded; but other times, the ache had been all-consuming and inexplicable to those around him who hadn't suffered through it.

And beneath his physical infirmary had been the raw wound of his emotional losses, the total removal from his life of the people he loved most in the world -- Raven, his dear sister, and Erik.

Erik.

Like his legs, it was a loss that could not be put into words, no matter how hard he tried. Though they'd only known each other a few months, Erik had become wound around him like a piece of his metalwork, until Charles felt like living without him was like trying not to breathe. The gap Raven left in his life echoed the loss of his beloved father where the Erik-shaped hole in him was more akin to his now-useless legs.

By the time Charles left the hospital to return to Westchester, he'd mostly wrestled his emotional demons under control and he was starting to get a handle on his new life confined to a wheelchair. It was amazing how much he'd taken his unfettered movement for granted, a hard lesson he learned only when it had been taken from him. He'd always been independent, fiercely so; it was a blow to his ego to find himself dependent on anyone, even his young companions who were genuinely so happy to be of service.

And then there'd been Moira, also so willing to help, so mired in her own guilt for firing the bullet that had crippled him -- not that Charles blamed her. He hardly even blamed Erik outside of his darkest, most painful moments. But Moira's mind swam in it, a fact that made Charles's decision to remove her memories a little easier. If she forgot everything after the attack on the CIA base, he told himself, she wouldn't have to shoulder that remorse any longer. Still, it had been cold comfort once she'd been sent away, the loss of his last friend in the world.

A future where he helped shape and guide the new mutant species had lost much of its luster once he realized he would have to do it alone.

Their first month together in the mansion after Charles came home was not as terrible as it could've been, but only because they all tried so hard. Hank threw himself into his experiments, including every permutation imaginable for a faster, stronger wheelchair, while Alex took it upon himself to make sure the others trained a little every day, and Sean showed a deft hand at managing the routine issues that eluded the other two, such as cooking and housework.

Faced with his pupils' dedication and resolve, Charles couldn't let himself do anything less than match it, and it wasn't too long before he was again looking forward to each day, looking forward to time with Hank in his lab, or helping Alex and Sean in training, or just the four of them sharing a meal. Hours not spent with his students were spent on plans for more of them, on the practicalities of what he'd need to do to make his dream a reality.

Even the holidays, which Charles had dreaded beforehand, turned out to be unexpectedly pleasant despite the bittersweet undertones they couldn't quite avoid in their celebrations, no matter how hard they tried.

Slowly, Charles began to push his old hurts away from the forefront of his mind and focused on that future -- his school, a safe haven for other young mutants who might need his help.

That was when the nausea started.

The first days were irritating, a stark reminder of how much accommodation he'd come to need, but hardly troublesome in the scheme of things. But when it didn't abate after a week, Hank started watching him with a hawkish concern he appreciated but didn't agree with.

"Honestly, Hank," he told him one morning as he emerged from the bathroom closest to Hank's lab where a swell of nausea had sent him. "It's probably just a virus that I'm more susceptible to given my compromised health these past few months. I'm sure it's nothing."

"Charles," Hank began, his voice rumbling with the concern that battered at Charles's mind. "Even if that's the case, I don't think it would hurt if we just got you checked out."

"I think I've seen quite enough of hospitals for the foreseeable future," Charles said mildly. "It'll keep."

"But..."

"Thank you for your concern," Charles called over his shoulder as he rolled away. "But I'm fine."

Fine, Charles found, was a relative term. The nausea didn't abate, and he started to feel as tired as he had those first, dreadful days after his injury, so lethargic that getting himself out of bed seemed an insurmountable task. He tried to hide it from the boys, hoping he'd improve any day, but they were deep into a second week of ever-more-increasing nausea. Charles was just stubborn enough to hold out a little longer, until one night when he did his mental security sweep of the grounds, he found the boys huddled in the kitchen, three bright minds clustered together, heavy with worry.

"....something, Hank," Alex was saying as Charles eavesdropped through Sean's mind. "This is getting ridiculous."

"I've tried," Hank protested, sounding young despite his growl. "He won't listen. He says it's nothing."

"Could he be right?" Sean asked. "Are we all wound up for nothing just because we're worried because of...you know?" Since Charles was in his mind, he could see a flash of what Sean meant by "you know" -- Charles in Moira's arms on the beach as he rushed toward him, then later, the boy's impression of Charles pale and still in his hospital bed, infinitely more human than they ever wanted to see him be.

"Of course, he could be right, but he could also be wrong," Hank explained. "Look, there's a lot his brain could be missing because of the diminished sensation -- cues that's something seriously wrong somewhere. The nausea could just be the only side-effect he can feel."

"So we make him get checked out," Alex declared. "End of discussion."

"We can't make him do anything," Sean pointed out with a roll of his eyes. "Prof's got a will of iron and, you know, kickass telepathic powers."

Hank sighed, feeling older than his years. Charles could sense it even from Sean's mind. "I'll talk to him again, tomorrow," he said. "But you guys have to back me up this time."

"Don't worry, Beast," Alex teased as he slid out of his chair, landing a friendly slap on Hank's furry arm. "We've got your back against scary old Professor X."

As "Beast" growled out a reply, Charles slipped out of Sean's mind and left them to the rest of the evening. With a sigh, he slowly settled himself into his bed, knowing what he'd have to do the next day.

"Good morning," Charles said when the trio trudged down into the kitchen several hours later, already dressed for the day and enjoying a cup of tea.

His greeting was met with a few grumbles and grunts that they decided passed for a response as they each made a beeline for their respective morning lifelines -- Hank to the coffee, Sean to the sugary cereal and Alex for the fresh fruit, something he'd come to miss while in prison. Charles fought down a swell of pain at how his preference reminded him of Erik, who had also taken an unlikely joy in fresh fruits and vegetables, just one more scar left by his childhood.

Once they were seated and engrossed in their meals, Charles cleared his throat, meeting each one's eyes before he spoke. "I know you've been worried about me the last few weeks," he said, watching as they all squirmed under his level gaze. "And while I won't have you ganging up on me every time I disagree with you -- Alex, what you're thinking will not be shared aloud, thank you -- I am touched by your concern and willing to defer to Hank's rather expansive knowledge on the subject."

He added, with humor at their apprehensive faces, "You've won, gentlemen. Stop looking like I'm going to eat you for breakfast."

"So that means you'll go to the doctor?" Hank asked with relief.

Charles couldn't help the small smile on his face. "Not exactly," he told him. "I will, however, consent to any such tests as you can see fit to run here. Your lab is as kitted out as the local clinics and I was serious about not setting foot in the hospital unless it's absolutely necessary."

Neither Alex nor Hank was particularly pleased with the compromise on the table, but they accepted it for the concession it was. "We'll run blood and urine tests today," Hank announced. "I should be able to put together some imaging equipment by tomorrow sometime if we need it."

Charles nodded in agreement as he checked his watch. "I have a 9am phone call scheduled with one of my attorneys," he told him. "It shouldn't take more than an hour or so. I'll come up when I'm finished."

With that, he exited the kitchen, leaving them to finish their breakfast in peace, and headed toward his study to prepare for the call. Charles wanted his school to be as properly established as possible, to avoid any questions he could for as long as he could, which was why he had the best lawyers his money could buy working on the legal details for him. Thankfully, his money could also buy a team willing to work over the phone at the insistence of their rich, invalided client, a fact he appreciated even more now that his days were spotted with unpredictable bouts of nausea and the rare nap.

After the conference call, Charles kept his promise and presented himself to Hank to be poked and prodded to the young scientist's satisfaction. He'd already given a urine sample and was rolling his shirt sleeve down after having given the blood sample when his other two wayward students showed up. "You missed all the fun," he told them wryly as he buttoned his cuff.

"We're just worried about you," Alex said, defensive and still a little sensitive from the rebuke at breakfast. Sean hung behind him, unsure of their welcome.

Charles sighed, feeling his edge of annoyance with them soften in a wave of fondness. "I know, Alex," he said because he did know; he could always feel their admiration and regard, their respect and their sympathy, even when it cut a little too close to pity for Charles's comfort. He reached over and patted the only part of the young man he could reach, which happened to be one of his crossed arms. "I hope you'll all forgive me for my stubbornness on this, though. I really don't relish a return to the clutches of the medical establishment if it's at all possible. But it's not because I don't appreciate your concern. I'm sure I would react the same if it were one of you."

Alex and Sean relaxed a little with his words and even Hank, bent over his work, seemed to lose some of the tension in his shoulders.

"Well, then," he said to Alex and Sean. "Hank will need time to run his tests and, while he does, you two owe me some training time. In fact, I think it might be time for a little pop quiz to evaluate what you've been working on."

Sean actually groaned. "Does that mean you're going to make us dodge imaginary bad guys?"

Charles gave him one of his rare, wicked smiles. "Very likely," he answered, carefully maneuvering between them and the lab equipment to get himself turned toward the door. "Come on, you two."

"I'll be in contact when I have something," Hank let them know as they filed out, the boys looking comically morose.

Thank you, Hank, Charles said into his mind. I'm sure it'll turn out to be nothing.

I hope so, Professor, Hank sent back. I really hope so.

Charles was almost able to forget about the tests, his nausea and his physical fatigue as he put Alex and Sean through their paces, making use of his telepathy to devise any manner of test his mind could fathom. For Sean, it happened to be whatever large flying creature he could conjure up, although he made sure to keep away from any image that might've reminded them of Angel's dragonfly-like wings, watching as Sean ducked and flew and twirled to evade them. For Alex, control was still their biggest obstacle, and Charles used his mind to help guide him through the same kind of meditations he'd once used with Erik, teaching him to find the sweet spot between rage and serenity. But it was fear, not anger, which was Alex's greatest weakness; Charles could feel it lessening every time they made it through another session with nothing destroyed or no one hurt.

After a few hours at it, both boys were chilled but sweating from the exertion and even Charles could feel the stretch of exercise on his powers, so he called it quits, congratulating both of them on a job well done. After he'd sent the boys off to shower and get ready for dinner, he reached out to Hank with his mind. How goes it?

They should be finished in a minute, came Hank's answer. I haven't checked them yet. I, uh, got distracted, sorry.

Charles didn't have to ask with what -- he saw what Hank was poring over: his plans for the new Cerebro he wanted to build. You're completely forgiven, Charles told him. I'm on my way.

He didn't bother pulling away from his light telepathic connection with Hank, content to follow the boy's mental ramblings like pleasant white noise in his head as he made his way up to the second-floor lab. Charles was aware as Hank managed to lay aside his blueprints, instead turning his attention to the tests he'd run on Charles's blood and urine, cataloguing each result in quick succession.

Charles was still several yards away from his destination when he felt Hank's mind grind to halt, flaring outward with a supernova of emotions, a tangled mess of shock-disbelief-confusion-shock-fear that hit Charles like a slap in the face.

Hank? he tried, first with his mind. When he received nothing but another projection of that same coil of emotion, he called out with his voice as he quickened his pace. "Hank! What's wrong?"

Panic was spreading from somewhere and Charles pulled his mind away from Hank's to see whose it was. It lessened considerably when Hank was gone from his head, but it did not fade entirely. He entered the lab winded, arms aching a little from the exertion. Hank looked unharmed, hunched over his workbench, an open text hugged against his chest. There were claw marks on the book's cover, as if Hank had forgotten himself and handed it roughly.

"Hank?" he asked again, somehow keeping his voice steady. "Tell me. What's wrong?"

Hank slowly lifted his gaze from the scattered mess of his work bench, yellow eyes wide in his furry blue face as he fixed them on Charles. His mind was still a blanket of shock that Charles avoided to stop its edges from bleeding over.

"Professor..." he said in a low, growling voice. He shook his head, then cleared his throat before continuing. "Professor, is there any way you could be...pregnant?"

"Pregnant?"

Suddenly, Charles didn't need Hank's panic to feel hysteria pushing at his thoughts.

He had more than enough on his own.

**

Given the next hour or so, Charles was glad that Alex and Sean were sufficiently distracted to stay away from the lab because having it out with Hank was difficult enough.

"It fits," Hank mumbled, having started to pace, something Charles envied. "The nausea, the fatigue, the tests but there's no way, right?" When he asked, he looked up at Charles imploringly, begging to be told that it was impossible.

Charles managed to answer, despite his suddenly heavy tongue. "It's not like men go around giving birth, Hank."

Hank frowned at him. "They don't usually go around reading people's minds or turning blue and furry or controlling met....you know what I mean," he finished. "It's not like we haven't seen some extraordinary divergence from the accepted norm. It's as theoretically possible as anything else, isn't it?"

"Theoretically," Charles agreed reluctantly. "But there must be another explanation."

"Of course! Definitely," Hank nodded. "I mean, it's not as if you've done something, you know, um, physically, that might have triggered, uh, this if you actually do have some kind of secondary mutation that meant you could get, ah...well." He let out a strangled laugh which was even more disturbing in his new, lower register than it would've been in his human tones. "I mean, it's not like you....with someone...male..."

Charles closed his eyes, a hand coming up to pinch at the skin between his eyebrows. Despite his growing horror at the thought, the evidence was mounting against his skepticism at a rather alarming rate, and he knew if he answered the question buried within Hank's rambling statement, his protégé would realize it as well.

Because the fact was, Charles had done exactly what Hank implied was impossible.

Once, the night before their last night before Cuba, Charles had taken the risk that he'd worried in his head for months on the road, had chanced everything on his foolish hope that Erik felt the pull between them as strongly as he did. He'd offered himself to Erik, hoping that it would be enough, praying that if the man had a glimpse of a future that wasn't about pain and violence that maybe he'd think twice before giving himself over to it. Charles had thought it might've made a difference to Erik that someone loved him as much as Charles did.

Of course, it hadn't.

For once, Charles had earned the naive charge that Erik had so often laid on him for thinking that something as simple as his love could undo an entire lifetime worth's of damage, and he'd paid for that naivety -- first with his heart, then with his legs.

And now, apparently, with everything else.

"For argument's sake," he said slowly, opening his eyes. "Let's just say that that assumption can't be used as conclusive against this diagnosis. What would be the next step?"

Hank let out something that was dangerously close to a squawk, some choked, disbelieving sound that barely escaped his throat. "Uh, okay," he said, his panic so strong that Charles had to shield against it. "The imaging equipment, an ultrasound," he told him. "That would be the most definitive way to tell."

"And you implied this morning you could put one of those together here?"

"Oh, yeah," Hank assured him.

Charles nodded. "Then do that and we'll move on from there."

"Sure, I'll get started on it right away."

"Let me know when it's ready," Charles told him, turning to go. "I'll be in my study for the rest of evening."

"Charles..."

He stopped, glancing back over his shoulder. "Yes, Hank?"

Hank's mind was suddenly full of questions that flitted against Charles's furiously, his curiosity almost overwhelming everything he was feeling. "I...do you...I...who would you...?"

Charles's mouth turned up at the corner but it was a mockery of a smile, a defeated expression. "Do you honestly want to know the answer to that?"

Hank cringed. "No, I guess not."

But given the onslaught of sadness and sympathy that came his way from the scientist, Charles figured Hank already knew.

Charles did as he'd told Hank and went straight to his study, even going so far as to mentally beg off dinner with a quick thought at Alex and Sean where they worked in the kitchen. He knew it was a cowardly thing to do but he needed time to think, time that wouldn't be afforded if he had to face all three young men across the dinner table. He could barely handle his own questions, let alone anyone else's.

He'd barely had time to come to terms with all the horrifying possibilities the future might hold if Hank's tests were right before Charles felt a stinging blast of anger so strong that he sensed it without any particular extension of his powers. It reminded him of how he'd sensed Erik in the water that night in Florida, unexpected and blistering, demanding to be heard through no conscious effort of its feeler. Concerned, Charles didn't think twice before he traced it back to Alex's mind, nimbly sliding in between his raging thoughts to find what had upset him so.

Alex, Charles realized as he look out through his eyes, was in the lab with Hank and Sean, the other two watching as Alex paced the available space like a caged tiger, veins roaring with outrage. Charles could feel it in his tense frame, in the clench of his fists, in the way he held himself so tightly, trying to keep rein on his crumbling control. He could even feel the build-up of energy inside him that Alex worked to suppress.

Sean tore his eyes away from Alex to give Hank a dubious look. "Okay, maybe I'm not smart enough to follow, but doesn't it seem like the answer here is that you screwed up your test?"

"I ran it twice just to make sure," Hank said miserably. "It's accurate."

"So, you're telling me the Professor's really...?" Sean shook his head, leaning back a little more heavily against the workbench behind him. "Wow." He wiped a hand over his face. "And ew."

"I don't know for sure yet," Hank told them. "I mean the tests say yes, but we're going to try and confirm with an ultrasound. It could all be a big mistake."

"But you think you're right, right?" Alex asked as he finally stopped pacing. "Truthfully. Do you think it's a mistake?"

Hank bowed his head. "No," he admitted with a sigh. His expression was pained as he continued, hesitant in his explanation. "When I asked him about whether he'd been doing the kinds of things that he might need to be doing in order for this to actually be a problem, he didn't give me a straight answer. Which pretty much confirmed it."

"Doing what kinds of...?" Sean asked, before comprehension swept across his face, turning it a violent shade of red. "Oh god, things I didn't need to think about ever."

"But how?" Alex asked, all of his emotions still so soaked in anger that Charles couldn't decipher any nuance without pushing more deeply than he felt comfortable. At Hank's horrified expression, Alex added, "No! I meant -- how did it survive? First the bullet and then nobody noticing all that time in the hospital?"

"Luck?" Hank ventured. "His spine took the brunt of the bullet, so that might've saved it from damage. And I guess the humans missed it because they weren't looking for it." He shot Alex a steely, narrow look. "How did you know it happened before the bullet?"

Alex met Hank's look dead-on. "For one, the Prof has been laid up ever since, so we know nothing's been going on. But more importantly, because I'm not blind. There's only one person to blame for this." In Alex's head, Charles saw a flash of Erik as he'd looked on the Cuban beach just before he'd disappeared with the others. "That bastard."

Sean jumped as Alex's fist came down onto one of the tables in emphasis. "I'm confused again," he told them. "Tell me you didn't just call the Professor a bastard!"

"Of course not!" Alex said, lip curling up in a sneer. "I'm talking about Erik."

"Huh? Oh!" Sean's eyes were wide before he shook his head as if to clear away the image. "God, more things I never wanted to think about."

Hank had his arms crossed and was watching Alex with his most intimidating, thunderous expression. "So you're saying you don't have a problem with this?"

"I have tons of problems with this," Alex corrected him. "First, that asshole turns on us, cripples Charles, leaves us on an island surrounded by people who want to kill us, and now this? I don't have nothing but problems with this."

"I mean with the Professor," Hank clarified. "Because he's..." Charles didn't appreciate Hank's use of a certain hand gesture to illustrate his point, but he was too concerned with Alex's answer to pay it much attention.

He felt most of Alex's anger drain away, leaving fatigue and concern as his strongest emotions. "Of course not," he said quietly. "He's still the professor."

"Oh." Hank looked away. "I just thought maybe you would."

Charles felt ashamed to admit he had expected the same thing, especially given Alex's past. And he could see some of what he had expected to shape Alex's opinion as it crossed the boy's mind -- furtive assignations between inmates in prison, the crude jokes and cruder threats. But they were softened by other memories: a scene of a slender man laughing with a boisterous woman as they shared their cigarettes with him, then a night spent on the woman's sofa when he'd needed it badly.

Deciding guiltily that he'd spent enough time eavesdropping on Alex's thoughts, Charles skimmed over to Hank's, where he found lingering discomfort at the thought of Charles and Erik being involved physically -- Hank's mind refused to use the word "sexually" -- but it was a personal discomfort, based on thinking of them as mentors, as authority figures to look up to. There was also the sadness and sympathy Charles had felt earlier, hints of Hank's own sorrow over Raven at the very corners. Sean was similarly uncomfortable and confused, but there was no judgment or recrimination, just anxiety on what the possibility would mean for them all.

Charles couldn't help the rush of relief he felt as he gently disengaged from their minds, knowing he hadn't lost their respect. It was enough to ease some of his own terror at the idea that he was actually going to have a child and not in the way he'd ever envisioned it happening. For all the fantastic and amazing things he'd contemplated in his life, this had never even crossed his mind. Charles wasn't even certain he was ready to accept it even when there was a growing sense of the truth of it in him.

In the end, Charles chose to ignore it as much as he could for the rest of evening, telling himself that there was no need to borrow trouble. Perhaps there was some other, less unusual explanation that he and Hank would find in the morning, and he'd be able to chalk the day up to some kind of surreal dream. Instead, he went over more paperwork for the school, some accounts from one of his holdings, and then settled down with a book, a newer genetics text he hadn't had a chance to read yet. He studiously ignored the half-finished game forever frozen on the chess board that one of the boys had moved to a corner sometime before his arrival home from the hospital.

He checked on Hank's progress a few times as the night grew later, finally admitting to Hank that he was heading off to bed. Hank bade him a mental good night, still absorbed in his work and his own thoughts, thoughts which Charles left undisturbed as he went through his slow, modified bed routine and tried to get some sleep. Before his paralysis, it would've probably been more difficult to sleep given what he had on his mind, but he still acclimatizing to his new reality and it took its toll on him. Before he knew it, Charles was asleep, only awaking up at the touch of several active minds close to his own.

May I ask why you are all outside of my door? Charles sent out as he pulled himself up in bed, glancing at the clock on his bedside table. It was 7:30AM, not early for him but rather so for his students.

I finished the ultrasound, Hank answered back, even his mind-voice expressing the sleepless night he'd passed. We're ready.

I'm not, he told Hank, then to all three, Go have breakfast, I'll meet you there when I'm dressed.

Charles could feel their hesitation as they obeyed him, dragging heavy feet in the direction of the kitchen. Sometimes Charles felt so much older than them, even though there was hardly more than a decade separating him from their ages. Still, those years were important ones, and they made Charles feel ancient, especially that day, his body stiff and tired and even more uncooperative than he'd come to expect since the accident.

Then, of course, there was the nausea and vomiting to contend with as well.

When he reached the kitchen, Charles didn't need to read the minds waiting for him; they were broadcasting loudly, and he addressed those thoughts immediately. "You are not all accompanying me for this test," he told him, continuing before their protests could begin. "I mean it. I don't need you either of you holding my hand. Hank will do."

"We're just worried," Alex said.

"I know," Charles said with a smile. "And I'm touched by that, but frankly, this is embarrassing enough as it is. You and Sean can wait outside but I don't want an audience."

That compromise seemed to mollify Alex who nodded before he began to attack his breakfast of sausage and eggs. Instead of running off as they usually did, everyone lingered in the kitchen until Charles managed to finish his toast and tea, then followed at his side as he made his way to Hank's lab. Hank was the only one who went ahead, to get the equipment ready.

Charles couldn't quite shake the feeling he was about to face a firing squad, not when he was surrounded by Alex and Sean's anxiety as well as feeling his own. Hank was waiting for him when he wheeled into the lab, a low-slung cot set up next to the makeshift ultrasound, one he could easily transfer himself to for the examination. He let his admiration for Hank's ability and ingenuity distract him from his worries as he maneuvered onto the cot, lying flat with his torso propped up on his bent elbows.

Hank held the wand nervously in one giant blue hand. "Are you ready, Professor?"

"Let's find out," he said with a weak smile, wondering if Hank understood the reference. "On with it."

And, then, there it was, the thing Charles had refused to let himself think about the night before, the thing that Charles was still not ready to entertain as real.

There, in black and white on the ultrasound monitor, was the unmistakable shape of a fetus in his abdomen.

With a sigh that only hinted at the panic that settled over him, Charles let his shoulders fall to the cot, one hand pressed over his eyes.

Oh god, he thought, echoing Sean's sentiments from the day before. The things I never wanted to think about ever.

Chapter Text

No matter how hard he tried, Charles had a difficult time accepting the reality of his condition. It wasn't that he doubted the truth of it, or the proof of it, or even necessarily wanted it to be false; he just couldn't quite wrap his mind around it.

He was pregnant.

By Erik.

Charles was going to give birth to a child that he'd conceived with his friend-turned-lover-turned-adversary, and all the help he had from a world that could barely tolerate the existence of men who loved other men -- let alone ones who got themselves pregnant from it -- was three outrageously young mutants who knew even less about the world than he did.

For a week, he tried to digest it in such plain terms, but all he won for his trouble was a series of powerful headaches that only aggravated his nausea and left his telepathy unreliable and oversensitive. Hank had hypothesized that it might've had something to do with the hormonal fluctuations his body was experiencing but Charles had been too ill to care much for the science of it.

It took another few weeks before the nausea dropped off, but Charles was grateful when it did, glad to be able to both enjoy his food and keep it down. The fatigue lessened as well, to the point where Charles actually began to feel more like himself than he had since the New Year. Training was still going well for Alex, Sean and Hank, and the boredom of confinement that came with the frigid New York winter had the boys agreeing to do some of the reading Charles recommended, books on everything from battle strategy to genetics to the history of equatorial Africa -- anything in an effort to broaden their horizons further than what was commonly taught in public schools.

It was these secondary assignments that gave Hank the idea that they needed to expand the Xavier library's offerings on a particular topic.

"There's not much on pregnancy," Hank pointed out. "Or even much in general biology that's helpful."

"That's because my father was a nuclear physicist and my specialty is genetics," Charles explained. "There wasn't much need for obstetrics in either of our disciplines."

"It's not my area of expertise either," Hank admitted. "Which is why we need some guidance." He paused and scratched the back of his head. "I know we don't really have any other options, but I'm flying blind here, Charles."

"What he means," Sean offered from where he flipped through a book on the evolution of aerial locomotion in the animal kingdom, "is that he don't know nothin' about birthin' no babies."

Eventually Charles made plans for a trip into town and agreed to let Alex and Sean accompany him, which delighted them but sent Hank into a sulk that no one was sure how to break. It was even more difficult when Hank had to watch them pile into the car, Sean bouncing excitedly in the back while Charles tried to make himself comfortable in the front passenger seat. Through his lowered window, Charles clasped Hank's furry blue hand and tried to convey everything he felt for his young friend in that moment -- his sympathy, his understanding, his determination that it would be different one day. When Hank gave him a weak smile and nodded, Charles hoped it meant he'd succeeded, if only a little.

"You guys watch it," he warned Alex and Sean with a wagging finger. "Make sure you don't let the Professor stay outside too long, he can't regulate his temperature like he used to, and then there's his other condition to think about it."

Charles wanted to protest being talked over and coddled like a child, but Alex just gave a short bark of a laugh. "We've got it, Hank," Alex said. "But thanks to that little speech, I've got a new nickname for you." Alex waited until the car was already rolling down the drive before he revealed it, shouting it back at Hank as they sped up. "Mama Beast!"

Charles wasn't sure if he could make it out with his ears, but Hank's annoyed growl was clear in his mind, leaving no doubt that his superior hearing had discerned Alex's words.

As they made their way into town, Charles realized with a shock that it was the first time he'd left his home since returning from the hospital. His wealth made it easy to have his needs met without travel -- lawyers, grocers, bankers and everyone in between had all been happy to accommodate him by bringing their services to him instead of the other way around.

Navigating the world in his chair was a new experience and not a pleasant one, even with Alex's and Sean's assistance. The thoughts he encountered in strangers weren't necessarily pleasant either -- they tended to range from pity to disgust, solicited only from the sight of him in his chair. It was one of those times when he could understand Erik's impatience with the world's intolerance, even when he couldn't condone it.

There had been some discussion among his self-appointed young caretakers if Charles should even risk going into town himself in his "other condition," as they were fond of referring to his pregnancy. He'd put a stop to that discussion quickly, pointing out that he was, in fact, the adult in the house and the only one who'd be making decisions about his life. Once they'd been sufficiently put off by that, Charles had also reminded them that he was barely showing, especially through the layers of warm clothing demanded by the winter weather. Between his shirts, sweater, jacket and the blanket thrown over his legs, Charles was fairly certain the slight thickening in his middle was hardly noticeable to the world at large, especially when most of said world flinched at the sight of the man in a wheelchair.

The third stop while in town was the bookshop, a real hole-in-the-wall that specialized in second-hand and rare books. He didn't recognize the girl working behind the counter, but the high shelves of books in every direction were just like he'd remembered from years ago, a maze of ink and paper and glue that made his hands itch in excitement. Unfortunately, one thing that had changed over the years was Charles, and his wheelchair was not equipped to squeeze through the small spaces between rows.

So he approached the counter instead, smiling at its attendant. "Hello, there, I was wondering if you could help me?"

She looked at him, and Alex and Sean behind him, with nothing more than the friendly detachment of an experienced retail worker. "Sure, what are you looking for?"

"Books," Sean answered. At the looks that answer earned him, he added, "About babies."

Charles couldn't help but laugh, both at the remark and the raised eyebrow it earned from the clerk. "Biology texts," he clarified. "Particularly those dealing with the study of the body." Then, with a look at Sean, he finished with, "And, yes, things relating to the human reproductive systems would also be beneficial."

"Teacher?" she asked.

"How could you tell?"

That earned him a real smile, not the one worn to placate customers. "I think I have some books that might work," she told him. "I'll be right back."

"And I'll be right here," Charles assured her with a smile. Once she was gone, he turned to the boys still loitering behind his wheelchair. "Go, browse," he told them. "If you find something you like, bring it up. You've more than earned a few books."

By the time the clerk returned with a stack of books for his approval, the boys had wandered away into the various shelves, looking for something that piqued their interest. Charles flipped through each of the books she recommended, weighing its usefulness given their need. He quickly had a stack of books that would do, one of books that wouldn't, and ones for the texts he wasn't sure about.

"What do you teach?" the clerk asked him as he deliberated on the next set she offered.

"A little of everything," he said. "Whatever it's needed."

"Sounds like you know must know a lot."

"Well, I try," he said. "But I've been told I often fail."

Her smile widened a little. "Now that I find hard to believe."

I can't believe you're flirting with her! came Alex's scandalized voice in his head. What the hell?

I'm not flirting with her, Alex, he sent back. Even if I was, it's not like I could do anything beyond it. Or have you forgotten my conditions? It was a little sharper than he'd intended, but Alex didn't seem too upset as he answered with a wave of wordless remorse. Charles sighed, trying to ignore the headache he felt coming on.

After that exchange, Charles was glad to leave the bookstore, with their rather impressive number acquisitions in tow. Alex and Sean had even picked out several they liked, some of which Charles even approved of, classics mixed in with the used comics and dime store detective novels.

Outside, Sean continued his rather passionate defense of his favorite potboiler novelist while Alex fetched the car. The human traffic had thickened on the sidewalk and it was much easier to wait in front of the bookshop than to try and push his way through it once more, and the press of all those minds could get tedious in a crowd, especially since he'd become so unused to it. It was almost a relief to stay where he was.

Professor? he heard Alex's voice in his head, reaching out. Is everything okay there?

Charles frowned. Yes, of course. Are you all right?

Yeah, it's just...I thought maybe someone was paying me a little too much attention.

Charles, who had been lightly shielding his thoughts, immediately dropped them as he glanced around. Sean had stopped talking when he saw Charles lift his fingers to his temple and he could focus on skimming across the thoughts of the hundreds of people on the street, stretching his examination to include the people in the shops and the cars, every inch of human activity between the bookshop and where Alex had parked the car. He didn't sense anything unusual, but he didn't take that as proof of much, not when he was only able to touch the lightest thoughts of those around him. There were just too many of them for him to delve more deeply.

By the time Charles had finished his sweep, Alex had arrived with the car, a troubled look on his face. He and Sean quickly helped Charles in, then Alex slid into the driver's seat once the wheelchair had been loaded into the trunk. "Did you pick up anything?" he asked Charles.

Charles shook his head. "I didn't, I'm afraid."

Alex huffed a shaky laugh and ran a hand through his hair. "I just I'm just paranoid."

"Not at all, Alex," Charles assured him. "There may have been someone but with so many people to check, I missed it. I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Professor," he told him, shoulders relaxing a little. "It was probably just my imagination."

On the drive back to the manor, Charles made a promise to himself that he'd work more with Alex on his self-confidence, something that was still obviously suffering from the effects of the past. The simple fact -- one Charles had accepted -- was that now that he was in the chair, if there were ever a repeat mission for the "X-Men," someone else would take the lead on the ground, and Alex's powers and instincts made him the best choice. He wanted Alex to be prepared both mentally and physically if that day ever came.

Focused as he was on more important issues -- working with Alex and Sean, his and Hank's crash course into the medical profession, his own ambivalent feelings toward his "other condition" -- he didn't think much about Alex's perhaps-stalker until a few days later when he was roused from his reading by an anomaly on the edge of his mind. It was like a black hole, a blind spot that made the edges all the more noticeable for its presence. Charles had only experienced it once, but he'd never forget it, not for the rest of his life.

It was Erik, wearing Shaw's helmet.

Charles reached out to find his pupils at various tasks throughout the house: Hank was eating a solitary lunch since he'd missed the communal one while holed up in his lab; Sean was in the den, glued to the television; and, Alex was in the bunker, working with Hank's newest tweak of his suit.

Hank?

Yeah, Charles?

Erik is on his way here, Charles explained, soothing over Hank's shock with his own calm. He's alone, but he's wearing the helmet. I want you to go to the bunker and stay there with Alex until he's gone.

What? No! We can't leave you alone with him. There's no telling --

Sean is just across the hall in the den. He'll be close if I need him, but it's not like Erik is going to harm me.

Hank's worry refused to be calmed. Charles...what about your condition?

I'm wrapped up like a mummy, just like I was when I went into town. He'll notice nothing. Charles assured him. I need you to go to Alex, Hank. I know he has some issues with Erik and I'd rather hear what he's come to say without a fire fight.

As the blank spot that signified Erik reached the front lawn, Charles felt Hank's grudging compliance as he hauled himself out of the kitchen and down into the basement. He had just enough time to fill Sean in about what was happening before the metal of the study's doorknob began to rattle along with the light fixtures that lined the walls.

Then the door opened and Erik was there.

He looked good, was Charles's first, irrational thought, despite the redesigned helmet and the strange new clothing. Erik stood tall and proud as he stepped inside the room, flicking the door closed with his powers.

His eyes remained fixed on Charles as he circled toward him, handsome face half-obscured by the telepathic-proof metal he wore as a shield. Despite his absolute conviction that Erik had not come to hurt him or anyone else, Charles also couldn't stop the frisson of fear he felt as being alone with this new, unknown version of his dearest friend, one that was essentially a stranger thanks to the months they'd been separated. For all Charles knew, nothing remained of the Erik he'd known but the attractive, impassive shell.

It seemed Erik was content to stand in the middle of the room and stare, so Charles took it upon himself to start the conversation.

"Erik," he said in greeting, clearing his throat a little when the name caught there. "This is a surprise."

"Charles," Erik said in return, voice rough and gravelly. His pale, flinty gaze remained steady on Charles where he sat in his wheelchair.

It was unnerving, and Charles unconsciously tugged at the blanket where it draped over his stomach, then folded his hands over the same spot to keep it as hidden from scrutiny as possible. "I assume you came here for a reason?" he asked. "I mean, I'd like to believe it was just to visit with an old friend, but I'm hardly that sentimental."

"You're right, in a way. I came to see you," Erik said, expression obscured by the contours of the helmet. "To see if it was true."

For one terrible moment, Charles felt the grip of real fear, terror at the idea that Erik had somehow learned of his pregnancy. But then he felt a slight vibration in the metal of his wheelchair, as if Erik was touching it with his powers, and Charles released a steadying breath. "The wheelchair, you mean?"

A sharp nod was his answer as Erik finally broke his stare. His eyes darted away to take in the room, lingering on the untouched chess board in the corner. "I only learned of it recently," he admitted. "I didn't know before." His eyes slid back toward Charles but seemed unable to hold the connection. When he spoke again, his voice was even rougher, almost trembling. "I am sorry, Charles."

Charles didn't want to acknowledge the ache in Erik's voice, even though it cut through him as surely as the bullet once had; he wasn't sure if he could trust himself if he let himself think about it. Instead, he focused on the clue in Erik's words, which made sense of Alex's observations from their trip into town.

"It was you, wasn't it? That Alex saw in town. Or someone that works for you." Charles shook his head, unable to mask his disappointment. "You've been spying on us, Erik?"

"Janos is not here to spy on you." The tremble of emotion was gone from Erik's voice, from his body language. "He's here to protect you."

"Thank you for the concern but it's not necessary," Charles told him. He let some steel creep into his voice as he added, "I'd appreciate if you called him off."

"You need it more than anyone," Erik argued, the sudden gust of anger like a furious wind. The metal in the room rattled with it. "Just because you're willfully blind it what's out there doesn't mean I am. I'm not going to let --- "

"With all due respect," Charles began, raising his volume just enough to make sure Erik stopped speaking to listen. "That's no longer your responsibility since we've parted company." Erik looked wounded by the observation even from behind the shadows of the helmet and it cracked the last of Charles's resolve to be strong. He couldn't stop himself from asking, with longing evident in every line of his body. "Unless you've changed your mind?"

Erik looked away. "No," he said quietly. "I haven't."

It was amazing, Charles reflected, that something he expected could still sting so sharply. "Was there anything else you wanted?"

Erik made a noise in his throat, one Charles had learned to associate with frustration. He stepped forward. "Charles..."

Charles couldn't fight the instinct to raise his hand, an unambiguous signal for Erik to keep his distance. It was probably the only time he'd never denied Erik anything of himself, but it wasn't just about himself anymore. "Is there anything else, Erik?"

He drew his dignity and reserve around him like the cloak he now wore. "Other than my sincere apology? No, nothing else." He turned away. "Goodbye, Charles."

Somehow it felt more final than the beach had and it hurt almost as badly. "How's Raven?" he asked softly, watching as his words stilled Erik's departure.

He didn't turn around. "She's well."

"Will you give her my love?"

Erik bowed his head in agreement. "Of course."

"And tell her...I miss her." Even without telepathy, they both knew he wasn't just talking about Raven. "Very much."

And then Erik was gone, nothing left to speak of his presence aside from the rumbling echoes in the metal and the hollow ache in Charles's chest.

Charles made sure to wipe the wetness from his face before he alerted Hank, Alex and Sean that he was once again alone.

 

**

Charles realized a great deal in the wake of Erik's surprise visit.

He realized that for all the moving on he'd thought he done in the four previous months, his heart was still as broken as it ever was, something that didn't seem likely to change any time soon. Seeing Erik again had only reminded him of the raw, empty place inside him that he'd been intent on ignoring for as long as possible. He knew pretending it didn't exist wouldn't heal it, but he was beginning to think nothing ever would.

Charles also realized that for all the ambivalence he'd felt about having a child, especially through such an unusual manner, he was already on his way to loving his theoretical offspring with a fierceness he hadn't expected. For that moment when he'd thought that Erik knew, he'd been filled with a protectiveness for his unborn child that rivaled the ones he'd felt for any other person, even Erik or Raven. The thought of Erik somehow harming or separating him from his child had invoked a terror that still left him shaken days later, one that confirmed the decision he'd made when he'd refused to let Erik near him.

He had no plans of ever letting Erik know of this child's existence or its extraordinary origins.

If he'd thought it would be difficult to secure promises from his pupils that they'd help him with that decision, Charles would've been very mistaken. In fact, the three young men had been demonstrably relieved when he'd brought it up to them in the weeks following Erik's visit, relaxing the nebulous tension he'd noticed from them but been unable to understand without going beyond his typical level of telepathic nosiness.

"When Erik showed up, we thought maybe you'd tell him," Hank explained for the group. "We didn't think that was a good idea but it was your decision, so...we didn't want to say anything."

"You three must know you can tell me anything you're thinking," Charles said. "For one thing, I've probably already picked it out of your thoughts but, more importantly, I value your opinions immensely. Just because I may not allow your advice doesn't mean I don't need it."

"Do you think he actually called off his spy?" Alex asked. "How can we trust that he's not looking in the windows at night?"

"We can't, but I think Erik spoke the truth when he said his associate's surveillance was confined to town," Charles answered. "He came because he'd only just learned about my paralysis. If Janos was, ah, "looking in the windows," he would've known long before now."

Alex was still suspicious and distrustful, but Charles didn't expect anything different. Alex, more than Hank or Sean, felt strongly about Erik's actions on the beach, especially in regards to abandoning them at the mercy of the ships which had so recently tried to destroy them. That resentment had been compounded by the news of the pregnancy and the realization that Erik had abandoned more than just a close friendship that day.

Between training, their studies and the chores that kept their household running smoothly, the four of them also began to contemplate the necessities of life after the child was actually born. Charles had already adjusted his long-term goals as soon as Hank had confirmed it, pushing back his timelines for opening the school to accommodate the months before and after when the child would necessarily be the central subject of his attention. But there were other, more mundane matters to think about, such as clothing, formula and other supplies, as well as how he'd obtain legal paperwork for a child born in secret, to a male mutant.

The boys, on the other hand, filled much of their free time when their own baby-related project: the nursery.

The choice of room for the nursery was common sense since it needed to be as close to Charles's suite as possible. Of the ones adjacent to his own, he chose the room directly across the hall for the purpose, liking both the easy access and the west-facing window with its pastoral view of the grounds. He didn't have many ideas on decor past needing the basics, but that was where Alex, Hank and Sean shined, brimming with suggestions and recommendations. Charles couldn't help but be amused by their enthusiasm and touched by their pure, honest excitement.

Hank wanted to design a better crib and Alex wanted to build it himself, though Charles had doubts about trusting him with the power tools necessary for the job. Sean stayed out of the crib discussion entirely; he was more interested in amassing enough toys and decorations and baubles to entertain the most demanding newborn.

One evening at dinner, Hank and Alex were bickering over the designs for the crib when Hank surprised him with an unexpected question.

"What if the baby can bend metal?" he asked. "Would it manifest early enough that we should minimize its use in the design?"

As unbelievable as it was, Charles hadn't actually thought about what mutations, if any, a child born of two mutants might have. "I'm not sure," Charles admitted. "I don't have a large sample but some mutations manifest earlier than others. I could always read minds, but I didn't understand what it meant for many years." He cast a look toward Hank and Alex before he continued, waiting to gauge reactions. "Raven, too, manifested at birth, but Erik didn't realize he had an ability until after puberty."

There was a wave of sadness from Hank but it didn't show on his face. "My feet were always a little larger and shaped differently," he told them. "But it wasn't really noticeable until I was older."

"I could always wail one out," Sean laughed. "But I didn't start breaking glass until I was walking, or so my ma told me."

Alex didn't seem inclined to add to the discussion, eyes focused on his uneaten meatloaf like it was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen.

"An answer as diverse as our mutations," Charles noted.

"Maybe they'll be a metal-bending telepath," Sean said. "Best of both worlds."

"Or maybe, he or she will be completely human," Charles told them. "There's really no guarantee either way."

"It's not like it matters," Alex finally said, looking up from his plate. "You'll love the kid regardless."

He could feel Alex's conviction radiating from him, his belief that Charles would love his child, no matter what. It was humbling to feel it from someone else when Charles hadn't even been certain of it himself until recently.

"Yes," was all he said aloud. "I absolutely will."

Everything was as normal as it could be in a household belonging to a telepath and his three mutant students when the news came via one of the wire services that Charles monitored about a suspicious attack against a government research facility in Louisiana. The information was sparse but he had a feeling it was the work of Erik's band of mutants, labeled as it was by the reports as the work a fringe group with a radical ideology. Charles knew from his time of cooperation with the CIA that numerous installations like the one they'd used as a base existed; it made sense that Erik would choose one as a target, once he'd located it.

The attack was a sober reminder that it wasn't just rhetoric that stood between him and Erik. They'd been splintered by real differences, ones that meant life or death to themselves and others. Erik had killed three agents when he'd freed Emma Frost from the CIA headquarters and another five at the Louisiana location -- lives Charles didn't consider as inconsequential as Erik had.

Charles didn't share his suspicions about the attack with the others, knowing it would only ignite tempers that would have no real outlet. Though the complication of a birth had delayed many of Charles's plans, none of them had ever involved open warfare, not of the kind Erik wanted to instigate. Charles's first concern would be finding other mutants and offering them a safe haven where they could learn to control their powers and live their lives in peace. He was also willing to protect those same mutants from any threat, but he would not be the one responsible for the opening salvo -- not against Erik or the government.

With Raven and Erik so present in Charles's mind, it was little wonder that Hank came looking for him that night, his mind leaking messy emotions even as he politely inquired if Charles was busy.

"Not if you need something," he said, pushing aside the newspaper he'd been reading. "What can I do for you?"

"If you don't want to, it's okay," Hank hastened to say. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable or sad."

"You won't," he promised. "What is it?"

Hank let out a great sigh and sank down onto the sofa, slouching much in the same way Charles had seen him do before his transformation. "It's just that I've been thinking a lot," he explained. "About Raven."

"You don't have to be afraid to say her name, you know," Charles told him. "I won't break if you mention her or Erik."

Hank nodded a little but he was still nervous, a feeling that overlaid the deep sadness that had driven him to seek Charles out in the first place. "It's just...I miss her," he confessed. "And I think about her a lot."

"That's understandable," Charles said. "You shouldn't feel guilty about it."

"I just wonder, you know?" Hank sighed. "If she left because of me. What if I hadn't made the serum or offered it to her? She went with Erik because he accepted her natural blue form and I didn't."

"Nor did I," Charles admitted. At Hank's surprised look, Charles gave him a sad smile. "I didn't mean to reject her, but I did, often and probably more badly than anything you did to her." From Hank's mind, he could sense the echoes of a memory rising up: Hank telling Raven that they needed his serum, that they'd never been accepted otherwise, then Raven's tears as he'd left the second injection with her and went to use his own.

"She was my dearest friend and I made her afraid, Hank. I'm the one who taught her to hide, who made her so ashamed of her true form that she asked for your serum in the first place." Charles leaned forward a little in his chair. "If there's anyone here that needs to shoulder the blame, it's me, not you."

"Don't you blame her, even a little? For going with Erik?"

"No," he said. "I put Raven in a cage her whole life and Erik set her free. Why wouldn't she want to go with him?" Charles managed another weak smile. "If I would've asked, she would've stayed, I think. But it wasn't what she wanted and it would've been wrong of me to put my needs before hers."

Hank was contemplating his answers, turning them over in his head. He was quiet for so long that Charles was ready to excuse himself and leave the young scientist alone with his thoughts when Hank spoke again. "Do you blame Erik?"

"Sometimes, I wish I could. I think it would be easier if I did." Charles glanced toward the chess board, its game forever left unfinished. "But no, I don't. It's hard to explain to someone who's not a telepath but once you've touched almost every corner of someone's mind, you understand them almost as well as you do yourself. It's hard to cast blame when you know them as well as that."

Curiosity was something that Charles often felt from Hank and he felt it then, coming off him in waves. "You can ask whatever you'd like," Charles said in gentle encouragement. "I won't mind, although I may choose not to answer."

Hank couldn't meet his eyes, yellow gaze focused on the floor. Or maybe on his feet, now as well-matched to his new form as they'd been ill-suited for his former one. "You loved him."

It wasn't a question, exactly, but Charles knew what he meant. "Yes," he said softly. "I still do. That, perhaps, is the one thing that hasn't changed."

"Even after everything?" How can I still care when she left me, too?

"Listen to me." Charles laid a hand on the blue arm he could reach. "There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to how you feel. However you feel about Raven now or come to feel about her in the future, it's fine. You don't have to beat yourself up over it."

Hank pulled away, towering over Charles as he stood to leave with a mumbled excuse. He waited until he was almost out the door before he spoke again. "I blame them," he said. "I blame Erik for deciding to leave us on the beach and I blame Raven for going with him, just like I blame Angel for what happened to Darwin. I don't want to -- I want to be the better man. But I can't, not yet."

When the door shut behind him, Charles shook his head, sighing. Oh, Hank.

He tried to speak to Hank again about what he'd shared that night, but Hank was firm in his deflections, so Charles gave him the space he wanted. He understood how Hank felt -- and Alex and Sean. They all still had their wounds from that day on the beach, and some would heal more quickly than others. It had taken months before they'd made their first strides, and Charles was committed to making sure they continued on that path. He vowed that he'd help them deal with their anger and grief in the way he'd been too late to help Erik.

Despite the complications added to his life by the strange little matter of a pregnancy, Charles also found himself being grateful for it. As distractions went, it was a better one than he could've ever imagined and planning for the event was the part of the glue that held them together through their individual crises. There was an entire week dedicated to preparing the nursery room for the eventual arrival of its furniture, during which the room was cleared of its antique trappings and cleaned thoroughly, a task that threw up far more dust than any of them had been expecting and left them all sneezing for days. The boys had even banded together to paint the walls, something Hank was still bemoaning days after they'd finished when he realized how hard it was to remove the smudges of paint from his fur.

"Now I'm not just furry, I'm spotted and furry," he complained to Charles one morning from where the young scientist sat at the kitchen table with him, watching Charles slice fruit for breakfast. Hank picked at a spot of pale yellow paint near his elbow in emphasis.

Charles tried to hide his amusement, but it was almost impossible in the face of Hank's comically tragic expression. "It will come out, Hank. Honestly, you've gotten rid of most of it. Another day or two and it'll be gone entirely, I'm sure."

"At least it wasn't a horrible color like chartreuse or magenta," Hank said wryly.

"Neither of which are appropriate colors for any walls, let alone a nursery." Charles grinned as he reached for another apple. "I believe the goal isn't to scar the child from day one."

Charles's comment made Hank grin in return. "That's going to be hard with Alex and Sean around," he pointed out.

"I can see your point." He allowed himself a laugh. "But I have faith -- in all of you." He pushed his chair back from the table to move toward the sink. "I know I don't say it enough, but I've been very grateful for everyone's support and help."

"It was weird in the beginning," Hank admitted. "Okay, no, it's still weird. But it's exciting, too, you know? It's something good."

Charles set the used knife near the sink to be washed later and was turning to look at Hank when it happened. It was so very light, like the faintest stirrings of butterflies in his stomach. But it wasn't butterflies and the realization of what it was caught Charles by surprise. Without thinking, he stopped, reaching to lay a hand on the swell of his abdomen.

"Charles?" Hank must've noticed the abrupt change in his movement because he sounded concerned. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," he said, pleasure lighting up his words and his face. "More than fine, actually. I think I just felt the baby."

Hank's yellow eyes were wide behind his glasses, mouth approximating an "O" of surprise before he began nodding. "Makes sense," he said. "All the books say quickening happens between 18 and 20 weeks."

Hand still pressed to his stomach, Charles let himself focus his telepathy inward for once instead of out, to see if he could sense anything. There was something there, something as faint as the movement had been, a small awareness that fluttered like hummingbird wings against the touch of his mind. It was the most incredible thing he'd ever felt.

It was, as Hank had said, something good.

**

End of Part 2

Chapter Text

By the time winter had finally given way to spring around the Xavier manor, the combined efforts of its four occupants had the household as prepared as it could be for the impending arrival of a newborn -- perhaps mutant -- child. Charles was both impressed and amused by his students' dedication on that point but he couldn't argue with the results. Other than worrying about the messy realities of the actual birth, there was nothing left to do but wait.

With the milder weather, Alex and Sean took to training more than they had during the winter, lured outside by the attractive promise of fresh air and warm sunshine. Even Hank pulled himself away from his projects in his lab long enough to join them, so Charles would often look out of the open windows in the study to see the three of them on lawn together, sometimes training or rough-housing, and sometimes just hanging out together. It was a welcome sight, one that filled Charles with warmth when he thought about what it meant. These three young men had spent their much of their lives feeling separated from everyone else because of their mutations, always on the outside looking in. In finding them, Charles had brought them together, helping them -- and himself -- build something that made sure they'd never feel that way again. More than a team, he reflected, they'd built a family over those months and it wasn't nearly as frightening as he'd always expected it to be.

Spring was also when Hank finally finished rebuilding Cerebro, much to both his delight and dismay. He was certainly proud to have finished it, but he also refused to let Charles actually test it, given his current state. While Charles had very particular ideas on what he thought about any of his students telling him what he could and could not do, he also trusted Hank's knowledge enough to accept his moratorium on using Cerebro, if only because the health of his unborn child was a compelling argument that invalided Charles's appeals to Hank's scientific curiosity.

Like so many other plans he'd made, Cerebro was shelved for the time being, although Charles couldn't really let himself mind too much. After his initial discomfort with his situation, followed by his cautious acceptance of it, Charles had finally found his absolute peace with the idea. With that peace had come his own special brand of curiosity, the kind that reminded him that he was experiencing something absolutely unique in the world. Just as he'd always delighted in his primary mutation, he was starting to see that maybe there was some to be found in his secondary mutation as well.

There were increasing physical discomforts to endure as they moved closer to the due date, and some moral issues with which Charles had to wrestle. The best scenario he and Hank had agreed upon for the birth grudgingly included the abduction and mind alteration of an local obstetrician, which Charles abhorred even when he accepted the necessity. Still, they were minor issues after the year he'd had and, along with the fact that the wires were free of any discussion about a mutant panic or new attacks that sounded like Erik's group, Charles was happy to enjoy the early spring months without too much complaint.

Charles lost some of that patience as the summer came on and the temperatures climbed much too high to be comfortable for anyone who'd spent the last several years in Oxford, especially coupled with his growing pregnancy. By the end of April, Hank's estimation of a mid-July due date seemed awfully far away.

Sometimes he couldn't help but think about Erik with an heaviness in his heart, that same ache that would probably never fade entirely. Sometimes he even reached out with his powers at night to see if he could catch any stray thought from either him or Raven, some indication that they ever gave any thought to the ones that they'd left behind. He never felt anything, not even when he searched the local areas for evidence of Erik's spies, but that was only a small comfort in the face of being forgotten so completely.

Evenings were the worst part of the summer heat and they slowly drifted into being the least productive time of the day. After dinner, the four of them usually ended up together in the sitting room where Alex and Hank often crowded in front of the television to fight about what they wanted to watch, while Sean liked to stretch on the floor with his comics or some other reading material. Sometimes it was the local penny saver, which he loved to pore over in search of cheap second-hand items none of them actually needed. Aside from his new obsession with General Hospital, it had become one of his favorite things to do.

"Hey, Professor, do you need a christening gown for the kid?" he asked one evening while Alex and Hank argued in the background about an episode of Perry Mason. "Because Laura one county over is offering a sweet deal on one."

"Not in the slightest, Sean," Charles answered, not bothering to look up from where he was jotting down some of his newer thoughts on his theories about mutant genetics.

"You're not going to get it baptized?" he asked.

Charles did look up at that. "Do I strike you as a religious or church-going type? At all?"

Sean thought for a moment before he shot Charles a sheepish grin. "I see what you're saying."

"I thought you might," Charles said.

"Not to mention, Erik's Jewish," Hank added. Whatever he was going to say next was cut off when Alex jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. "Ow! What?"

"We don't need to mention Erik at all," Alex told him.

"Alex, honestly," Charles said, shaking his head.

Hank gave Alex a defiant look. "It's part of the baby's heritage, an important part. Is the Professor just supposed ignore that?"

Unbidden, the memory Erik had shared with him of his mother and the candles came to Charles's mind.

"Well, it'll definitely help keep the secret from Erik," Sean said sarcastically. "Not."

Children. Charles's mind-voice was firm, earning him the attention of three sets of glaring eyes as they heard the accusation ring through their heads. Enough.

Hank and Alex went back to glaring at each other side by side on the couch, but Sean was still looking at Charles. "Yes?" he asked, sensing Sean's need to ask a question but not the actual question.

"It's too bad the kid's not going to have godparents is all," he explained. "Mine were awesome -- my uncle Mike and his wife. I liked them way better than I liked my parents sometimes."

Charles's expression softened and he knew he was probably projecting fond feelings to go with it because Alex and Hank stopped their bickering to look his way. "I don't think this child will lack for 'awesome' adult figures to turn to whenever I'm too much for him or her," he said. "Not with you three around."

They looked at each other for a moment, before tentative smiles started to form as Charles's meaning sank in.

"Uncle Banshee," Sean said aloud. "I like it."

"Yeah, and Beast can be its favorite teddy bear," Alex said, eliciting a growl from Hank that he ignored entirely.

"Or we can be the three godfathers," Sean added. "Like in the John Wayne movie we watched that time."

Hank frowned. "Didn't they all die in that?"

"Not John Wayne," Alex said. "Because he was clearly the best of them. Like me."

"Yeah, because you're such a good role model," Hank said, rolling his eyes and paying Alex back for the earlier jab.

Charles's laughter broke in before the discussion could continue as he tucked his journal and pen beside him and swung his chair from out behind his desk. "Good night, children," he said as he left, closing the door behind him before the din of their objections reached his ears.

Hank's question wasn't one he hadn't asked himself before; in fact, the closer he came to his child being born, the more he wondered if he'd once again done wrong by Erik. Should Charles have told Erik about the child during that brief visit? His instincts at the time had said no, but instinct couldn't make an informed decision. He'd entertained thoughts that perhaps a child -- Erik's child -- would be the thing that could actually make Erik see that he was on the wrong path, one that would never give him the serenity he craved so badly. Erik who longed to rebuild his family -- was it right for Charles to keep it from him?

For all of Charles's questioning, his instinct remained strong on the point that he needed to protect the child from Erik -- although not really from him, as much as from the forces that Erik would bring with him into their lives. And Charles had to admit there was a fear in him, a deep one that he couldn't quite conquer, that Erik would somehow take the child from him if he knew. With the protection of the helmet on his side, Erik had very advantage over him and Charles couldn't make himself take that risk.

It haunted him, though, just like all the other times he'd failed Erik did. While he knew that ultimately Erik had chosen for himself, Charles couldn't help but wonder what he might've done differently to change where they'd ended up -- separated, discordant, divided. It was not what either of them had dreamed of the summer before, when they'd set off across the country to find others of their kind. It was with bitter hindsight that Charles looked back on who he'd been then: someone who had had no idea that he'd get everything he wanted only to lose it as fast as it had come. It was something he promised he'd never let happen to him again.

The first few days of July were vastly uncomfortable for Charles, and Hank began to monitor him in earnest. All of the fears he'd thought he'd soothed in his young friend came raging to the surface now that time was close at hand. Charles couldn't blame him for being worried but they'd done the best they could under the circumstances and Charles knew that on this point, he had no regrets. Their way, he knew, had been the safest for all of them.

Then one morning, edging into the third week of the month, Charles woke up as he always did and stretched his mind out over the grounds, brushing against the others' minds as they went about their morning routines around the manor. Hank was in the kitchen, longing for the coffee that wasn't yet brewed, and Alex was a mile away on his morning run, feet pounding against the gravel path. Sean was still sleeping, but only just, the light from his window coaxing him to alertness. Everything was as it always was.

Except that morning, when Charles focused his abilities on the hummingbird flutter of awareness in his abdomen, that awareness leapt out to meet him, still too unformed to convey anything coherent but still more unmistakably active than before.

A few hours after that, before the sun had even reached its pinnacle in the sky, it was Charles's mind reaching out wildly, calling Hank, Alex and Sean to his side on a dizzying wave of pain that had them all wincing from its echo thanks to the telepath's link to their minds. After that, it didn't surprise any of them when Hank confirmed that they couldn't wait any longer.

Sean went off to put in a false emergency call to the local obstetrician they'd found who still made house calls, relaying that a woman had gone into premature labor with no way to reach a hospital, while Hank went to check over the makeshift operating room one last time. That left it up to Alex to help Charles, which he did with an uncharacteristically sober expression, thoughts burdened with fear and anxiety.

"I think I'm the one who's supposed be worried," he managed to tease as Alex carefully pushed his chair down the hallway.

Alex just gave him a nervous smile. "You know how it works around here. All for one and one for all."

"You really must stop letting Sean make all the movie choices," Charles advised, voice unsteady from the pain despite his best efforts. Still, it made Alex laugh, and Charles felt better for the effort.

Of everything he'd experienced before, the thing that had prepared him most for what was to come had been the Cuban mission, having to hold desperately to his control in the face of overwhelming pain when all he wanted to do was to let it go. But this time, instead of feeling a life fade while it shared his mind, Charles felt a life being born, and it was as glorious as the other had been terrible, more so knowing that that fledging soul he touched was one that he already loved beyond reason.

By the time the stars were spilled like diamonds across the velvet-dark summer sky, the purloined doctor was on his way home with a not-entirely-false tale of how he'd saved a newborn's life to share with his wife over his late dinner, and Charles was settled back in his room, where his trio of self-appointed caregivers were gathered, looking altogether much too young and much too awkward as they stared down at the small form of a newborn asleep in its handmade cradle.

Charles knew he should probably say something meaningful or at least significant, but he'd passed the point where coherence was possible hours and hours before. Luckily, his companions didn't seem to mind, too enthralled by the novel sight of the infant, pink and plump, her tiny skull dusted with wispy red-gold hair.

"Charles?" Hank's voice was hushed despite its deep rumble.

"Hmm?"

"You never said what you were going to name her," he said.

"Jean," he replied. "I'm going to call her Jean."

**

Life after Jean's birth was a flurry of activity around the Xavier household. Not only because there was now an infant's care to work into the schedule, but many of the plans they'd postponed resumed with gusto, especially the ones relating to Charles's desire to start a school for young mutants.

Once Hank declared that Charles had recovered without any ill effects, the pair focused on finishing the final touches on the new Cerebro, which Hank had rebuilt in one of the basement rooms. He'd used what he could remember from Charles's use of the previous version to fine-tune some of its performance, particularly trying to find ways to make it less burdensome on Charles physically and mentally. Back at the CIA, Charles hadn't always finished a session with the amplifier without some troubling, though temporary, side-effects which had been one of the reasons Erik had always been so distrustful of it. Although Hank didn't admit it aloud, Charles knew Erik's belief that he'd used Charles as a lab rat still bothered him, even after everything; that, like his own experience with his untested serum, had made Hank a much more cautious scientist.

Charles, on the other hand, was less worried about the side-effects on himself as he was learning to weld Cerebro more like a precise tool and less like a sledgehammer. He'd learned from Emma Frost when they'd captured her in Russia that Shaw's attack on the CIA had been precipitated by her awareness of Charles's use of the machine for recruiting, and Charles wanted to minimize any chance that Frost would be able to keep Erik similarly briefed on their activities.

With that in mind, Hank calibrated Celebro to have smaller amplification radius for their first test with it. While it couldn't stop a telepath from noticing if she was within its reach, Emma Frost would, Hank assured him, need to be within 300 miles of Westchester to sense its use. Charles thought the chance of Erik being so close to them without firm cause was slim and considered it an acceptable risk.

"Hank, I'm not letting you stall me any longer," Charles said firmly, sliding his wheelchair into place near the Cerebro headpiece. "If we don't actually test it, we'll never know what other modifications it needs."

"I just want to make sure everything is going to go smoothly," Hank said. "And I don't want you to be distracted while you're in there. Are you sure you won't want to go check on Jean before we start?"

"Jean is fine," Charles told him, reaching out to his daughter's presence. "She's being indoctrinated into the vastly sophisticated world of General Hospital at this moment, likely making her the youngest soap watcher on the planet." Charles gently pulled away from his awareness of her, making sure to shield the connection he usually kept open between them. "Any more objections?"

Hank shook his head, then helped Charles settle the apparatus on his head, fiddling with the electrodes until he was satisfied that everything was secure. "On my count," he said, moving toward the control panel. "3, 2, 1!"

Using Celebro after so long was almost like using it for the first time. Charles felt the same exhilaration as his mind reached out beyond its usual confines, brushing against thousands of others as it unfurled across the land. The mutants he encountered were still bright points of color in contrast to the minds of humans', and he moved between them, lingering only long enough for Cerebro to convert his acknowledgement into a coordinate before he continued on toward the next bright mind calling to his.

As he reached the edge of Cerebro's radius, though, he encountered something strange, unlike anything he knew from previous experiences. It was something bright and spiraling, something that called to him, but something he was hesitant to call a mind because its presence seemed to be scattered over miles. He might've discounted it, or shied away from it, but it felt so familiar that Charles couldn't help but reach out to it.

When it reacted and reached back, Charles was unable to control his own projection of shock as he realized what he'd found. Darwin?

The bright, swirling cloud pulsed in reply. Charles!

Darwin, where are you?

I don't know. There was confusion and uncertainty. Nowhere, everywhere, somewhere. I've been trying to get back, but...

I'm going to help you, Darwin. First, I want you to focus on bringing your entire being together, into one spot. Can you do that?

There might've be humor in his answer. Easier said than done, Charles.

I know, but it's important. You have to try.

Charles waited on the edges of the energy that had once been Darwin and that still contained his consciousness. He watched in amazement as Darwin slowly began to collect the sparkling dust of his being, like a star collapsing in on itself on its way to rebirth as a black hole. Finally, after a length of time that could've been forever or an instant, Darwin was more or less a single point against Charles's mind, but he was fluid, edgeless, not quite solid, still without the grounding in time and space needed for them to find him.

Darwin, he decided, would need to come to them. Can you feel me, feel where my mind is reaching yours from?

After a moment, he heard the answer, coming from that single point. Yeah, I think so.

Can you reach me? Can you follow my mind to where I am physically?

Charles felt the answer more than heard it, as Darwin began to move, hurtling through some plane of existence less material than their own. I'm trying. I'm on my way.

Yes, you are, Charles assured him. And we'll be waiting for you.

When Charles finally cut the connection to Cerebro and removed the helmet from his head, Hank and Alex were having a heated argument to one side of the room, an argument Charles immediately realized was about him.

"Charles!" Hank's voice was barely above a growl. "What were you doing? You were in there for hours and the thing went crazy, it started to spit out nonsense and I couldn't get you to respond."

"I was busy," he told him. "And there's no time for explanations at the moment. Hank, I need you to get set up to deal with a medical emergency, we may have to deal with an injury. Alex," he said, before the boy had a chance to speak. "We need to get outside to the lawn as quickly as possible. And bring a blanket."

Both Hank and Alex knew him well enough not to argue when he gave orders with such authority and they snapped to obey. Charles spared a quick moment to communicate with Sean for an update on Jean before he headed out of the basement at a fast clip, Alex right behind him.

They grabbed a blanket from one of the guest rooms on their way out, and Charles was content to let Alex push him the rest of the way as he focused on trying to locate Darwin's mind without the help of Cerebro. For long, worrying moments, he couldn't feel anything of him but then it was there, hovering just as the far reaches of his powers.

That's it, Darwin. You're almost here, Charles sent out, trying to turn his own mind into a beacon.

"What exactly are we waiting for?" Alex wanted to know, hugging the blanket he carried to his chest.

"When it happens, you'll know," Charles told him. "Be patient."

Finally, Charles could feel Darwin's presence like he was standing with them but there was nothing to see. He was still hovering in whatever form he'd taken. You have to finish it, Darwin, Charles told him. You have to push yourself back into your corporeal form. I'm sorry I can't be more help.

He could sense Darwin's frustration but also his determination. Slowly, as he watched the empty space of the lawn in front of him and Alex, they became aware of something gathering, wispy and nebulous. When Alex reacted as if it might've been a danger, Charles stilled him with a hand on his arm. "No need for that," he told him. "Just watch."

Then the whatever-it-was coalesced into the dark form of a person, veins of light running over the black skin. Alex gasped sharply at Charles's side and he projected a memory outward, completely by accident, but one that explained his reaction to the telepath. As they watched the veins fade and the ash-dark dullness of the form become bright and shadowed with life, Charles knew that, for Alex, it was like watching Darwin be incinerated in reverse.

"Darwin?" Alex asked, leaning forward as if he wanted to move toward his friend, but he wasn't certain he could. "Is that you, man?"

Darwin opened his eyes and focused on them as a smile split his face. "Alex."

As Alex let out a startled laugh and rushed toward Darwin, Charles couldn't stop the smile that settled over his own features, watching as Alex wrapped the blanket around his friend and then offered a supportive arm around him as they slowly made their way back to where Charles waited in his wheelchair.

Even after all he'd been through, Darwin's eyes widened at its sight. "What happened?"

Charles hushed his questions with a gesture. "You've missed a few things, but they aren't important at the moment," he told him kindly. "Right now, let's focus on making sure you're well, all right? We'll have all the time in the world for questions later."

Darwin nodded, almost a little relieved. "No problem."

"Alex, Hank's waiting for the two of you in his lab," Charles told him. "I'm sure I can trust you to keep an eye on Darwin, make sure he gets settled when Hank's through with him."

Alex's smile was so wide it almost hurt to look at it. "Definitely, Professor. I'm on it."

"I thought you would be," Charles said with a smile. "Now, head off. I think there's a certain young lady I need to check on."

When Charles heard Darwin ask "Raven?" quietly to Alex as they headed in through the French doors, he couldn't help but spare a moment to think of how much Darwin had missed, wondering if those events would prove more of a shock to his system that his months spent as formless energy.

Charles did have other concerns at that moment, which was to peek in on his daughter. Jean was sleeping as Sean had said, but Charles knew from experience she'd only sleep for a few hours before she'd wake for another feeding. He brushed a finger lightly against her baby-soft cheek, then pressed a quick kiss to the downy red hair that covered her head before he went in search of some aspirin.

Hank came by a little while later with his findings on Darwin, which had found nothing out of ordinary given that the young man had been incinerated before their very eyes almost a year before.

"He freaked out when he first saw me," Hank admitted. "You or Alex could've warned him."

"I don't think it even entered Alex's mind," Charles said. "But I really hadn't wanted to open that can of worms yet, to be honest. There will be a great deal to explain to him once he's had time to rest."

Charles managed to put off most of Darwin's questions for several days, mainly because Darwin spent those days sleeping. Alex was concerned, but Hank and Charles thought it was a perfectly normal consequence of the stresses he'd been through. On the fourth day, Darwin finally stayed awake long enough to take a shower, don the sweats Alex dug up for him, and come downstairs to join them for lunch.

Darwin let out a quiet whistle as he took in the kitchen where they gathered to eat. "Even the kitchen in this place is impressive," he noted, shooting Charles a grin. "Alex said it's yours?"

"It's ours," Charles corrected. "I bet you're starving. Sean's almost finished cooking."

Charles noticed that Darwin did a double-take at the sight of Jean in her crib on the one side of Charles's wheelchair, but he didn't ask, instead heading over to the stove to greet Sean and offer his help. Charles figured, given the enormity of what Darwin had missed, Jean was a very small part of the things he was about to learn.

Alex and Hank weren't too far behind, showing up just as Sean was setting the food on the table. For a few minutes, everyone focused on eating but finally Darwin set down his fork and looked at each of them in turn. "So," he began. "Which of you cats are going to explain everything to me?"

"We'll tell you whatever you'd like to know," Charles said. "Any of us will. Where would you like us to start?"

Even though he was scared of the answer, Darwin asked, "Where's everyone else? Raven, Erik, Agent MacTaggart?"

Alex, Hank and Sean had matching pained expressions, which left Charles to answer. "They're not dead," he said to start, feeling Darwin's immediate relief. "They've just...parted ways with us."

"That's the understatement of a lifetime," Sean observed.

"I'm going to need more than that," Darwin said. "Parted ways, how?"

It was Alex who answered. "After we took care of Shaw and stopped him from starting World War III, Erik decided that Shaw's plan of killing all the humans wasn't really all that bad, so he picked up where Shaw left off and Raven went with him."

"What?" Darwin said, looking at Charles for confirmation. "Is that true?"

"While hyperbolic in places, it is essentially what happened," Hank said. "Once Shaw was dead, the government turned on us -- tried to blow us up. Erik stopped them and he wanted to blow them up instead. Charles objected." Hank sent a sidelong look in Charles's way. "Erik would've succeeded but Charles...got hurt. Erik joined up with the leftover members of the Hellfire Club, including Angel. Raven decided to go with him."

Darwin looked down at his plate as if he couldn't keep eye contact and digest what he'd heard. Finally, he looked at Charles, "And the wheelchair?"

"I took a bullet in the spine," Charles said without inflection. "It was an accident during the mission to stop Shaw."

"Erik deflected a bullet into his back," Alex said bluntly. "Right before he stabbed him in it by abandoning all of us."

"So what he's doing now? Erik, I mean," Darwin asked. "Is he trying to destroy the world or what?"

"We don't really know," Sean told him, the only one still even pretending to pick at his food. "He broke Shaw's telepath out of prison, but that's the last thing we know he's done, other than stop by to let us he was spying on us."

Confusion was rolling off Darwin, so Charles decided to it was time to take over the explanations. "Erik is convinced that when humans become aware of mutants, they'll react rashly and violently. I don't know what he's doing specifically, but he is focused on being prepared to fight back should that day come. His methods are not ones that I approve of, as you can imagine."

"Yeah, I can see that," Darwin said. "He was always a pretty intense guy." He looked around the table. "So it's been almost a year, right? What have you been doing since? What are you all doing now?"

"We've been here, mostly," Hank said. "I can't really go out in the world because of the way I look now, but I've continued my research. Charles is trying to turn this place into a school for mutant kids, so they'll have somewhere safe to go."

That earned him a genuine smile from Darwin. "That sounds like a great idea."

"You're welcome to stay and help," Charles told him. "Or just stay. Or you can go. You're free to do whatever you want to do."

He shared a look with Alex. "I think I'd like to stay. "

"All right!" Sean said. "Someone else to split chores with."

After that, they managed to work through most of Darwin's other questions, including what happened to Moira and a more detailed account of the Cuban mission. Charles could feel Darwin's sadness as the details were fleshed out, as he heard how Angel helped a madman try to destroy the world, how Erik and Raven left them on that beach with Charles bleeding and in pain. He could also tell that Darwin's sadness was for all them together, a group that should've been a team torn apart by circumstance. Charles didn't know if it was because Darwin hadn't been there for it, or if he was just an incredibly caring young man by nature that he could have sympathy for Erik, Raven and Angel where Hank and Alex struggled.

When it seemed like his curiosity had been completely satisfied, Darwin leaned back from the table and pointed at Jean. "Okay, is someone going to explain her now?"

Charles noticed that none of the boys were in rush to answer that one. He took pity on them. "This is Jean, my daughter."

"How old is she?"

"A little over two months, now," he answered.

Darwin then asked the question that Charles knew was going to be one he'd hear for the rest of his life. "And her mother?"

Alex shot Sean a dirty look when he choked back laughter. Darwin noticed it, though, and looked around. "What's so funny?"

We didn't decide what to tell people! Hank's mind projected at Charles. What should we say?

At the same time, Alex looked hard at Charles. "We can't not tell Darwin," he said. "He's one of us."

"It's supposed to be a secret," Hank said in objection. "No offense to Darwin but secrets mean you don't tell anybody."

"I'm not trying to upset anyone," Darwin said quickly. "Forget I asked."

Charles sighed and reminded himself that this was the reasons he hated secrets. Looking around at each one of the four young men in turn, he finally spoke. "As long as you're certain, Alex. I'm leaving this decision up to you."

He didn't wait to see what they decided, instead taking Jean with him as he left for his study. An hour or so later, just after Charles had fed Jean and settled her back into the crib he kept in the study, there was a knock on his door. "Come in, Darwin," he said.

Darwin did just that, staring at Jean for a moment before he spoke. "So the guys told me the truth about your daughter."

"I thought they might," Charles said.

"It doesn't change anything," he said after a moment. "I still want to stay and help. And I won't tell anyone, I swear."

"Thank you."

"I understand why you need to keep it quiet," Darwin told him. He shook his head. "I came back to a mess. I never would've expected any of it."

From his surface thoughts, Charles knew Darwin meant the splintering of the group, not Jean. "I think I should've expected it, actually," he told him. "Hindsight being what it is, I can see the signs I missed before. I've been accused of being too arrogant to see past my blindness and I think on this Erik proved his point well."

"Hindsight's not very useful, is it?" Darwin pointed out. "By the time you have it, it's too late."

"But at least we won't be doomed to repeat the same mistakes," Charles said.

"Hardly seems worth it, though, does it?" Darwin asked with uncanny wisdom.

"No," Charles said, glancing at Jean. "It doesn't."

**

Chapter Text

Future sessions with Cerebro proved less dramatic than that first one, but no less productive; soon they had a list of potential young mutants who might've been best served by a place with Charles and the others at the new Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.

For all of their enthusiasm, Charles knew that it would be a long, slow process. He and Erik had visited with dozens of mutants on their recruitment, only to return with a handful of candidates. Finding the children who needed them most would be even more difficult, especially given Jean's care and Charles's accessibility issues. Charles knew he could've sent the boys out on their own, but he wasn't willing to delegate that process, even if he'd thought them ready for the responsibility. Recruitment was one area perfectly suited for a telepath.

Darwin quickly became his usual recruitment partner. His calm demeanor was preferred to Sean's more excitable personality, and Alex still struggled occasionally with control, even if only in his own mind. Charles was sometimes disturbed by the attitude Darwin's presence called forth from some of the more bigoted people they encountered, but Darwin took it in stride. Whenever he met someone who wanted to mistreat Darwin solely on the basis of his skin color, though, Charles couldn't help but remember that there was more truth in Erik's views of humanity than he ever wanted to admit.

It took several months, but slowly they gathered a small group of students: a young girl of African origin, a pair of siblings originally from Russia, a jovial young man whose parents needed little encouragement to trust their son to a virtual stranger. The routines at the manor changed again with the addition of actual students, but everyone seemed to enjoy the new roles they inherited. Hank had less time by himself in his lab because he happily taught sciences and mathematics, while Alex took on training and physical education, and Charles took up the rest, giving lessons in the literature and the humanities. Sean, coming from a large family full of young nieces, nephews and cousins, had a deft hand with the youngest among their number. When he was wasn't watching Jean, he could often be found with Ororo or Ilyana, helping them with their assignments or entertaining them with one of the many games he'd once played with his siblings.

Despite the satisfaction he got from watching his dream of a school come together, it could not compare to the joy Charles had from watching Jean as the months went by. It had surprised him at her birth how all-consuming his love for her had been at the moment she took her first breath, but that love only continued to grow. He'd had no experience with children of any age before she'd come along, but he'd been particularly concerned about how he'd cope with an infant, a small being that was entirely dependent on him for all its needs. Even though he quickly learned how to care for her, he already had nightmares that he'd only come to fail in the future, the same way he had Raven. Sometimes that concern was enough to keep him awake at night, as irrational as it was.

No one could've loved baby Jean more than Charles, but her "uncles" came close. It was as if all the nebulous fascination they'd had with the idea of her before her birth was now focused in their adoration of her. Darwin also found himself part of her fan club, a fact that he noted with amusement. It left Charles with the conclusion that his daughter was going to be utterly spoiled, if she wasn't already.

As the months passed, it became clear that her eyes would remain blue, something close to the bright color of Charles's and that her hair would retain its striking red hue. This delighted Sean to no end, even as it confused Alex.

"Was your mom red-headed or something?" he asked Charles one day, looking down at the top of Jean's head like her hair color was one of the greatest mysteries in the universe.

"No," Charles told him. "Maybe one of my grandparents? I really don't remember. I do freckle quite violently, though, if that's any consolation."

"Well, Raven's hair is red," Sean offered from where he was working on some kind of paper craft for the girls.

Charles refrained from rolling his eyes, although Hank didn't. "They're not related by blood," Hank reminded him. "You do know that's not how genetics works, right?"

"I'm glad to give you a crash course, if you want," Charles added.

Sean made a face and went back to cutting up pieces of construction paper. "Thanks but no thanks, Professor."

"There's always the other side of the family to consider," Darwin said, smiling as he took Jean from Alex. "I'm going to bet you don't know much about that cat's history."

Charles could see Erik's memory of his mother in his mind, dreamy and soft with the love he'd had for her. "Not much," he admitted.

He was glad to see that Alex didn't flinch or scowl as the oblique reference to Erik or the obvious one to Raven, and he considered it a minor victory. It helped, Charles surmised, that the Brotherhood's activities had been clandestine enough that they hadn't made any major news wires. Charles didn't fool himself into thinking they weren't active; that wasn't Erik's style. But whatever they were doing, it was off the radar enough that Charles hadn't gotten any wind of it, and neither had any of the others. It made it easier for all of them to forget, even if it was only for the time being, that one day they might be facing their friends as they'd once faced Shaw.

The first anniversary of their mission to Cuba wasn't spoken of among them in the days before it arrived, but they knew it was coming. Charles planned to observe the day by ignoring it, but that became impossible when he woke up to a slicing sorrow imbedding itself in his mind from three different directions. It seemed so strong that even Jean was fussy from it, something that made Charles wonder if not for the first time if his daughter had some kind of telepathic ability or if it was just a consequence of closely he used his own powers to monitor her. He knew Alex had started a betting pool among the four of them on whether she would manifest an ability and what it would be, even though Charles had cautioned them it could be upwards of 15 years before they got their answer.

Charles easily followed the press of their emotions until he found Alex, Sean, and Hank gathered in the sitting room they jokingly called the teacher's lounge, looking solemn and dejected and awash with memory. He could tell they'd been up most of the night, and three pairs of tired eyes looked up when he cleared his throat and entered the room.

He could tell they all expected some kind of reprimand, despite the fact that Charles understood the reasons for their desolation better than anyone. Instead of saying anything, Charles crossed over to the rarely-touched liquor cabinet and pulled out the scotch and five glasses which he balanced on his lap as he hauled it over to the three young men.

Where is everyone, Charles? Darwin projected in genuine confusion from where he stood in the conspicuously empty kitchen.

It looks like we both missed our invitations to a little anniversary celebration, Charles told him. We're in the lounge.

Charles still didn't say anything as he set the glasses on the low table in front of the sofa and matching chairs. Hank was in one of them, looking hunched and miserable, while Sean huddled in the other, looking more dour than he ever had. Alex was slouched on the sofa, the most forceful mix of anger and sadness of them all.

Charles calmly poured scotch into four of the glasses, then picked one up. "Well," he said, when they didn't join in. "Come on."

They shared a nervous look among them but did as he said. "Bottoms up," he ordered, downing his in one smooth gulp, practiced from years spent in pubs before his life had changed so dramatically a year ago to the day. They followed suit, still looking nervous.

He sat his glass on the table, sending out his understanding and sympathy. "I'll cancel classes for the day," he told them quietly. "Take your time, do whatever it is you need to do."

Hank's expression brightened a little. "Thanks, Charles."

He patted what he could reach of him, which was a knee. "I don't know why you insist on trying to hide things from me, any of you," he told them. "Or why you thought I wouldn't understand that you wanted this day for...remembrance."

"We didn't want to bring up bad memories for you," Sean explained. "In case you didn't remember."

"Sean," Charles reminded him. "I remember everything."

The sound of Darwin clearing his throat made them all look up. "Is this a private party," he asked with a sad smile, "Or is anyone invited?"

Alex returned his smile as he gestured for him to come in. "Get over here," he told him. Once Darwin was within arm's length, Alex reached out and pulled him down to sit on the sofa beside him. Charles left them there, speaking quietly to each other, heads bent together.

Charles marked the occasion with a day spent with Jean, Ororo and Ilyana, which he found to be most therapeutic thing he could imagine for dealing with the shadows of a past marked with such disappointment. His girls were a symbol of the future, one he wanted to see filled with as much goodness and light as possible.

Despite the odd rough day like that one, the denizens of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters flourished, both students and faculty. Every time Charles thought he couldn't be prouder of his pupils-turned-teachers, he was proved wrong. It was amazing how much they'd matured and grown into themselves from the young men he and Erik had dragged to the CIA to be part of the reckless and, frankly, dangerous mission against Shaw. But all of them -- Hank, Alex, Darwin and Sean -- had surpassed Charles's expectations long ago.

Before Charles knew it, another New Year was upon them, another winter almost behind them. Everything was going so well that Charles should've expected the spanner in the works long before it came but he was, to a fault, an optimist, no matter how many times the universe wanted to punish him for it.

It was late but Alfred Hitchcock was a favorite in the household, which meant the four boys were gathered around the television while Charles worked at his desk. The children were in bed for the night, and the house was quiet except for the atmospheric music from the television. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the evening, until Charles felt the vague awareness of unexpected minds on the peripheral of his mental reach. It took a minute before the minds came into focus but when they did, Charles dropped his pen with a gasp that drew the room's attention to him.

"Charles?" Darwin asked, frowning.

"What is it?" Alex said, almost at the same time.

"We have company and not the good kind," he informed them. Hank and Alex surged to their feet. "It's Raven and Angel," he continued. "And -- Erik. I can feel the blankness of his helmet."

"What do they want?" Sean asked.

"It looks like we're about to find out," Charles said. "Alex, Hank, Sean -- outside, with me. Darwin, I want you to stay inside in case we have to evacuate the children quickly. We'll stay in contact here." He pointed to his head. "On my mark, don't wait -- get them all out of here, Jean included."

Darwin nodded. "I'll wait in the nursery," he said, before he disappeared into the hall.

Charles exchanged a grim look with Hank before he focused on Alex. "No one does anything without word from me, you understand?" he told them. "Unless I am incapacitated, you are to wait for my instructions."

Alex reluctantly nodded, knowing the warning for meant for him.

"Then let's go."

By the time the four of them were ranged out in front of the manor, the approaching mutants were still a half a mile from the driveway that led to the house. Charles lifted a finger to his temple and reached out to the most familiar of the unshielded minds.

Raven, he said, trying not to let his emotions overcome him at speaking to his sister for the first time in over a year. What are you and Erik doing here?

Charles! she answered in his mind. We're not looking for trouble.

That wasn't my question, he reminded her. What are you doing here? It's out of courtesy that I ask, you know. I could just pull it from your mind.

You wouldn't, she sent back. Not to me.

I don't want to, but I have people here who are depending on me to protect them. I need to know what you want.

I promise it's nothing bad, she said. Please, just let us explain in person.

Very well, he agreed with a sigh, then pulled away from the connection with her. To the three who stood with him, he said. "Raven swears that they mean us no harm, but that they'd rather explain their appearance in person."

"Why should we believe them?" Alex demanded, fists clenched.

"Because they haven't done anything yet," Charles said. "We'll wait for them here. If they're hostile, we'll deal with it then. But it doesn't seem very strategic to walk up where they'll know I'll be able to sense them so quickly, not when they have a teleporter."

"And Raven and Angel aren't the best choices for an attack on us," Hank added.

"Or they're the perfect decoy," Alex muttered but kept his place.

They all watched the horizon until the three figures became visible, a line of movement through the dark. Erik was in the middle, towering over the two women, dressed in the same strange clothes he'd worn during his last visit a year earlier. As always, his telepathic-proof helmet was present. At his left, Angel looked much the same as she had on the beach, as did Raven, though she was naked as well as blue.

"Erik," he said out loud, his voice piercing the eerie silence of the evening. "May I ask to what do I owe this unexpected visit? In the middle of the night, no less."

As they moved closer, Charles could sense Raven's sudden sadness at the sight of him in his wheelchair but he ignored it, as he did Angel's strange pulse of defiance-guilt-anger. He kept his focus on Erik, waiting for an answer.

"Charles," Erik said in return, no hint of emotion in his voice. "I didn't expect the welcoming party."

"You're not welcome," Alex volunteered, the air around him almost crackling with the potential of his power.

Charles spared him a warning in his mind, but kept his eyes on Erik. "What brings you here, Erik?"

Erik smiled, a mocking slide of his mouth. "We've come to ask for -- what do you call it? Oh yes." His eyes caught Charles's. "We've come to ask for sanctuary."

It was the absolute last thing Charles expected him to say.

**

They somehow avoided bloodshed on their way into the manor itself, but it was a very near thing. It was actually chaotic for Charles, trying to deal with so many strong, conflicting emotions being projected by the people who circled around him, and Erik's forceful blankness was another kind of difficulty, an ache his mind wanted to worry.

"I don't think it's too much to ask to know why you've come to me for sanctuary," Charles asked Erik as they all loitered in the mansion's massive foyer. Alex was shouting in his head for him not to trust Erik, but Charles read no dishonesty in either Raven or Angel, so he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until they proved otherwise.

"Isn't that what you're trying to create here?" Erik asked. "A safe haven for mutants? Don't think me ignorant of what you've been up to, Charles."

"The three of you have all explicitly rejected my kind of safe haven," Charles said bluntly, and he could feel the hurt flowing from Raven. "So I'm curious as to what's made you change your mind."

Erik's face darkened. "It's a temporary request only. Was I wrong to think you'd want to help your own sister when she's in need'?"

"I didn't say I wouldn't help," Charles replied, refusing to flinch in the face of Erik's hard, cold gaze. "I just want to know why."

"Our activities have drawn some unwanted attention," Erik finally explained. "We could not remain in our last location."

"So you came to me, knowing that I run a school and brought danger with you?"

"No, Charles," Erik said, mouth frowning, as if he were disappointed Charles would accuse him of such a thing. "We weren't pursued and we don't need protection. Just a quiet place to stay for a few days until I can successfully contact the rest of our group. They are currently...unavailable, however."

"Do I really have to say that I think this is a terrible idea?" Alex said to Charles, ignoring the three visitors. "It could be a trap and, if it's not, how does he know what his enemies will do?"

"Did anyone ask your opinion?" Erik wanted to know, waving his hand a little as if to dismiss Alex from the conversation.

Alex growled low in his throat and took a step forward, energy gathering unconsciously with his anger.

"Alex, no," Charles said sharply, the voice he used that made the boys snap to do his bidding. Alex froze under his own control, forcing himself to bleed out the building energy. "Calm yourself, please. We'll not be using each other for target practice." Charles shot Erik a warning glance. "That goes doubly for you. You are, under no circumstances, to endanger any of my pupils. If you do, not only will any safe haven you've found here end quickly, I will be forced to intervene. Do you understand?"

Erik held his gaze even as he frowned deeply at Charles. "So, we're to stay then?"

Charles ignored the objections in his head from Alex and Hank. "Yes, you may stay."

He missed the collective reactions from the people around him to his pronouncement because Darwin's voice was in his head, reminding him that he was waiting for instructions. Charles, what's going on down there? Is it safe?

For now, he sent back. Erik, Raven and Angel have asked to stay here for a few days and I have agreed.

Are you sure that's a good idea?

No, I'm not, but so far they haven't done anything to warrant me turning them away., he said. And we've already established that hindsight has taught me nothing.

He heard Darwin's dry laughter in his head. Can I come down? I'd...like to see Angel.

Of course.

When Charles snapped back to his surroundings, Raven and Hank were glaring at each other, while Alex had his eyes honed in on Erik who paid him no attention. Instead, he was watching Charles. "Up to your old tricks, Charles?"

Charles ignored him, instead turning to Sean. So far, he was the only one who hadn't contemplated murder in the last five minutes, making him the most level-headed person in the mix. "Sean, will you show our guests to their rooms? You can put Erik and Raven in their old rooms..." -- which would keep them in Charles's wing, away from everyone else -- "...and Angel in the empty room near yours?"

"My room's still...my room?" Raven asked, the first thing she'd said since they entered the house. Her great yellow eyes were fixed on Charles.

"Yes, of course," Charles said.

She gave him a brief, shy smile, so painfully reminiscent of the one she'd given him when he'd found her in the kitchen all those years ago. He started to return it when the uneasy silence was broken by the piercing wail of screaming infant.

It would've been amusing under some other circumstances to watch as everyone's head swung in the direction of the main staircase as the sound grew closer, confusion on some faces, apprehension on others, but not when it was Jean he could hear crying as if something had broken her tiny heart. The fact that it was so uncharacteristic of her only worried Charles more.

Darwin, when he finally appeared on the stairs, shot Charles an apologetic look, and then winced when the three gasps of shock at the sight of him was loud enough to be heard over Jean's wailing.

"I'm sorry, Charles," Darwin said, holding the child close even as she continued to cry. "I was going to leave her in the nursery but she's so upset, I..."

"It's fine, Darwin," Charles told him, worried eyes fixed on his daughter. "Bring her here."

As soon as she was within range, Jean reached eagerly for Charles, almost tumbling into his arms thanks to the height difference between Darwin on his feet and Charles in his wheelchair. But he caught her easily and tucked her against his body, her little head on his shoulder as he tried to console her.

"Darwin?" It was Angel who whispered it, face pale with shock.

Darwin nodded in her direction, not unkindly but with a coolness that was unmistakable "Angel."

Raven was torn between what she wanted to address first, the baby or Darwin, so it was Erik who spoke next. "I have to admit I didn't expect to see you again," he said to Darwin. "It's good to see you, though."

"Thanks, Erik," he replied, similarly polite but distant.

"I'm sure you've realized you missed a great deal," Erik continued.

"Charles caught me up," Darwin assured him.

"I'd be glad to help fill in the gaps."

"Thanks," Darwin said, crossing his arms. "But no thanks."

Jean's sobs had finally quieted to sniffles as Charles gently rocked her in his arms, which meant he was free to say, "Honestly, Erik. Trying to recruit him away when I'm right here? Surely, you could've at least waited until I was out of earshot."

"Nothing said anywhere here is out of your earshot." Then he nodded toward Jean, who had settled into shivery little hiccups. "What about you? Has she even manifested yet?"

"Actually, she hasn't," Charles answered.

"So you're robbing the cradle on a long shot?" Erik shook his head. "Smacks of desperation, Charles. Don't you think a child that young should be with her family?"

"She's with her family." Hank looked fierce as he met Erik's disbelieving gaze. "With us."

"Really?" A corner of Erik's mouth tugged upward like he wanted to smile as he let his eyes move from Hank to Alex to Sean. The look was almost mischievous under the edges of the helmet, reminding Charles of all the moments of laughter they'd shared when they'd first brought everyone to the manor to train. "How's that exactly?"

"Her father's here," Sean said, eyes narrowed at Erik from where he stood at Charles's right. "Is that good enough for you?"

That look of humor on Erik's face only grew, another painful reminder of better times. Again, he let his eyes drift over the boys, one after the other. "Which of you deserve my congratulations?"

It took Alex, Hank and Sean a moment to realize what Erik's almost-teasing comment was implying and, when they did, the identical looks of horror on their faces would've been amusing in another setting. But here, Charles simply knew it was time for him to speak up. "Me," he said, ignoring how the looks of horror on the boys' faces were now directed at him. He kept his placid gaze focused on Erik. "She's mine."

His confirmation was first thing of the evening that left Erik well and truly shocked, something Charles could pick up without his telepathy. Erik's pale eyes widened and his eyebrows rose behind the contours of the mask.

Charles could feel Sean's internal wince. I'm sorry, Prof, I didn't think.

It's fine, Sean, he promised. I'm not ashamed of her and we couldn't keep her hidden forever.

Raven's initial reaction was a complicated mess of delight and sadness, too entwined even for Charles to untangle properly. She didn't speak, just letting her eyes roam over Jean's tiny form, her wistfulness almost tangible between them.

Erik was staring hard at Jean where she huddled against Charles when he finally spoke again. "She's...yours?"

Despite all the reasons he had for the obfuscation he was able to weave, Charles still felt something inside him break at having to do it. He tightened his arms around his daughter's small body as he answered. "Yes."

And then that question, the one he was always expecting. "And her mother?"

This time, no one behind him made a sound. "I'm all she has," Charles said. "Her other parent is in no position to be part of her life."

"How old is she?" Erik asked, his voice so very soft. It was a dangerous sound, and Charles knew his answer was going to be similarly dangerous.

"She's almost a year," he said. "Her birthday is in July."

Erik's expression, even from behind the helmet, was ugly, twisted into something hateful and accusatory, but Charles didn't let himself react. "Fascinating."

Charles kept his expression serene using all of his skill to do so but he knew exactly what he'd just done. "As I was saying," he continued, as if the last five minutes hadn't happened. "Sean, please show our guests to their rooms. Alex? I'll need you to come with me."

Alex looked like he wanted to protest but he stepped up to stand in Sean's place as Sean moved forward, hesitant but game as he said, "Okay, so I guess you guys should follow me? Although I guess you know where you're going without me but, you'll probably need some clean sheets, and I know where those are, so..."

Right before he disappeared up the stairs, Erik shot one more withering glance in Charles's direction. As soon as he was out of sight, Charles let himself hunch over with a sigh.

He felt a strong squeeze on his shoulder and looked up to see Hank standing there. "I know this is going to be difficult," Charles told his remaining pupils. "But I couldn't turn them away, not if they really need our help."

"I know," Hank said. "You wouldn't be you if you could."

He gave them all the best reassuring smile he could muster. "I suggest we all get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow is bound to be interesting. Classes are on hold for the time being, but let's keep the children busy and minimize their interaction with our guests."

"Even Raven?" Hank asked.

"Even Raven," he confirmed. "Good night, everyone." He glanced over his shoulder at Alex, then looked down at the back of his wheelchair. "If you don't mind, Alex? I have my hands full at the moment."

"You've got that right," Alex said as he started to push the chair down the hallway.

When they reached Charles's bedroom door, he motioned for Alex to lean down. "I need you to get Jean's spare crib and set it up in my room," he explained. "I want to keep her close while our guests are here."

"Sure thing."

Charles watched as Alex quickly set the crib up in the corner of Charles's room, dashing across the hall to the nursery to grab the appropriate bedding. When he was finished, he gently stroked a hand over the baby's hair where she lay sleeping in Charles's arms. "I wonder what had her so wound up?" Alex asked. "She's not usually a crier."

"I don't know," Charles admitted. "Maybe she could sense the tension in the air."

"Budding telepath?" Alex teased.

"I don't think you needed to have telepathy to have felt it," Charles told him.

"No," he agreed. He watched Charles place Jean in the crib, pulling the blanket up over her legs. "Erik seemed really mad about Jean."

"He was furious," Charles said with a sigh. "The only way for me to have a child that's Jean's age -- other than the truth, that is -- if I were sleeping with a woman around the exact same time we were..."

"So he thinks you two-timed him," Alex finished. "Even if you did, he crippled you and left you on an island in the middle of nowhere. Doesn't that balance out in his head?"

Charles laughed, but it was humorless. "Ah, no," he said. "It doesn't work that way with Erik. No, he'll see it as me betraying him and react accordingly. I think I burnt the last bridge between us tonight."

"I don't think it matters." Alex's voice was quiet and he was looking down at Jean. "I don't think he would've ever used it, even if you hadn't."

"No." Charles reached out a finger to brush it against Jean's cheek. "I don't think he would've either."

Alex gave him a pat on the arm and then headed for the door. "I think I'm going to need all the sleep I can get," he said. "Because the next three days are going to suck."

Recalling the murderous expression on Erik's face, Charles couldn't have agreed more.

**

End of Part 4

Chapter Text

Charles had hoped for a quiet morning, a chance to deal with his own jumbled emotions about the fact that Erik was again under his roof, but he'd barely finished dressing himself and Jean before there was a steady knock at his bedroom door.

"Come in, Raven."

She was in her natural form, which he did not mind, and she was clothed, which he appreciated, even if it was only in deference to him. She gave him a timorous little smile, as if unsure of her welcome. Now, with no threat to assess, Charles made sure to keep his mind away from hers as much as possible. "I hope you're not surprised to see me," she said. "You know there's no way you could drop that kind of bomb on me --" She pointed at Jean "-- and not expect to have to answer some questions."

"Not at all," he assured her, trying to return her smile as he was hit with how much he'd missed her over the last year. "I expect nothing less than the veritable inquisition."

"It won't be quite that bad," she said with a little laugh. Her eyes kept flickering from his face over to Jean. Finally, she said. "Can I...can I hold her?"

"Of course," Charles told her. He gently picked Jean up, then looked at Raven encouragingly. "I'm sure she'd loved to meet her Aunt Raven."

The burst of sadhappynostalgia from Raven was unavoidable for Charles as she leaned in and scooped Jean up into her arms. "Hi there," she cooed at her, while Jean looked at Raven's scaly, blue face and yellow eyes with a sense of wonder, the same way she looked at Hank before she tugged on his fur and giggled at her own antics. "Hey, pretty girl. I'm your Aunty Raven."

"Aunty Raven?" Charles asked, though he was grinning.

"Of course," Raven said, still too transfixed by Jean's face to look away. Charles couldn't blame her. "You know, like A-aunt-y Clarissa, remember?"

"I do," he said.

Raven's smiled dimmed a little as she finally looked over at Charles, her eyes lingering on the wheelchair. "I wanted to come to see you, you know," she said. "When Janos told us about the wheelchair. But Erik wouldn't let me come with him."

"Any particular reason?"

Raven's reply was muffled as Jean began to run her hands over the textured skin of the shapeshifter's face. "He wasn't sure I'd leave again if I came back." She distracted herself by freeing her nose from Jean's fingers. "I wasn't sure either."

"Raven, look at me." She reluctantly compiled with his request. "I don't want your pity," Charles said firmly, gaze sharp, making sure she understood. "Things are different, but I am not less, do you understand? I don't want you to think of me like that."

She nodded a little but turned away to hide the tears in her eyes, still bouncing Jean a little in her arms. "I don't know what your schedule's like now. Am I keeping you from being somewhere?"

"Well, I'm sure neither me nor my girl there would say no to some breakfast," Charles told her. "Have you eaten?"

She hadn't, it turned out, so Raven accompanied Charles, refusing to return Jean to her father's arms and, in fact, said she considered it her aunt-ly duty to help with Jean's meal. The siblings deliberately kept the conversation light through breakfast, which even extended to when they'd abandoned the kitchen for Charles's study where Raven spread out a blanket on the floor so that Jean could explore to her heart's content. Raven hunkered on ground-level with her, oohing and ahhing over every little thing she did. Jean was at that age where she wanted to explore, crawling with enthusiasm and often pulling herself up on whatever piece of furniture was handy, which often turned out to be Charles's motionless legs or wheelchair.

Charles couldn't help the bittersweet sweep of emotion he felt as he watched her hand grasp at his pants leg in determination, but it was soon interrupted by Raven not-so-subtly clearing her throat. "Yes, Raven?"

"Are we going to keep talking around the elephant in the room?" she asked. "Or are you going to spill and tell me why Jean's here and her mom's not?"

"Can I pass on this?" Charles asked, though he knew the answer.

"Hell, no," she told him. "You have a baby, Charles and the stork didn't exactly drop her on your doorstep. But these things usually take a mommy and a daddy to happen and one of those things seem to be missing."

Given her incredulous tone, Charles couldn't help but wonder what her reaction would be if he informed they apparently didn't when it came to some mutants. He had no plans to find out, however. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"You could at least tell me her name," Raven said. "She's got to be someone I know."

"It doesn't matter," Charles told her. "So I'd really wish you'd drop this."

"I don't understand why it's such a big secret," Raven huffed, doing a rather convincing impression of how she'd been as a teenager, probably giving Charles a preview for what he could expect when Jean reached that difficult, awkward age. "I'm not going to hunt her down and demand vengeance because she abandoned you two."

"Now you're being very overdramatic," Charles said, rolling his eyes. "There's really nothing to tell you. M-- the pregnancy was completely unexpected, but it was clear that I was the only one in a position to raise Jean and that I'd have to do it alone. And I won't tell you who because it doesn't matter," he continued before she could say anything. "Nothing will ever change that fact. Ever."

Raven was looking at him in that suspicious way she'd developed over the years, an expression she said she'd learned from a certain telepath. It meant she was searching every nuance of his face looking for clues, but Charles knew her tricks and kept his face determined but bland. She snorted in frustration. "Fine, be that way. I don't care."

Charles couldn't stop the laughter. "I beg to differ, young lady. That expression says you care a great deal."

"I...just..." Raven scooted over toward him, mindful of Jean's presence, then pulled herself up by the arm of his chair until she was on her knees, looking at him almost eye-to-eye. When he raised an eyebrow in question, Raven leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Just because I left doesn't mean I don't love you, Charles."

"Oh, Raven." Charles returned her embrace, pressing a kiss to her forehead the way he always had, the way he did Jean now. "I never thought it did." So close, it was hard to miss the frustration rolling off her even though he was not its target. "But something tells me you're finding others don't feel the same."

She sighed and pulled away, sinking back to the floor in time for Jean to decide to use Raven's knees as her next climbing obstacle. "I don't know what his problem is."

"I'm assuming we're both talking about Hank?" Charles asked. At her nod, he said, "It's not that difficult. to figure out."

"He's acting like I left him."

"You did."

"I didn't," she protested. "I didn't leave him, I went with Erik!"

"I don't think that's a distinction that Hank grasps," Charles told her.

"Not very smart for a genius, then, is he?"

"Raven..." Charles let out a long breath, choosing his words carefully. "He was very hurt by your decision. It's been hard on him, both your absence and his feelings about it. Please, don't make it harder for him."

"Harder for him?" she repeated. "For him?"

"Yes, him," Charles told her. "Hank was very fond of you. He doesn't make friends easily and it was devastating to him that you left, surely you know that. On top of that, he lost his freedom because the alteration to his mutation. So, please, use some of your vaulted intuition and try not to break his heart. Again.."

Raven glared at her. "Sure you're still talking about me and Hank and not you and Erik?" she asked, her barb more cruel than she probably intended. "Maybe you're projecting a little."

Though she was more right than she expected, she'd never learn the truth of it, at least from Charles. He took a long, slow breath before he tried to speak again. "You're only going to be here a few days, Raven. Then you'll disappear again, for months, years -- I don't know. But if you have no desire to rekindle communication with Hank on a longer term basis, I'd prefer if you'd just let it alone, honestly. Give him a wide berth and save us all the fireworks."

After the fire she'd displayed a moment earlier, even Charles was surprised when she asked in a small voice, "Could I?"

"Could you what?"

"Stay in touch," she said. "With Hank or you or...anyone here."

"Of course you can," Charles told her quickly. "I can't believe you even think you have to ask. Just because Erik and I aren't -- friends, really, any more, that doesn't mean we're enemies. At least not to me."

Raven looked surprised and Charles could feel an affirming emotion rippling from her mind. "I didn't know."

He reached out and gently touched her natural, vividly red hair. "Now you do."

That earned him a smile, watery but bright, calling up another tangle of complicated emotions in both of them that had become customary for the morning so far. Charles was realizing just how difficult it would be for all of them to be together again, even for a few days.

As if she were embarrassed by her display of vulnerability, Raven threw herself into playtime with Jean for the next half-hour until it was obvious Jean was ready for her nap. She then delighted in putting her down to sleep in the small crib Charles kept there, and Raven watched her niece sleep with an intensity that had Charles smiling behind his book as he watched from across the room.

"Jean," she said after a few minutes of examination. "That's Scottish, isn't it?"

"I have no idea," he answered, distracted by the paragraph he was reading. "I don't think I've ever looked it up."

After another few moments, Raven spoke again. "Does Moira ever come by?"

Charles lowered his book and looked at his sister. "Why do you ask?"

"I just wondered." She was still looking at Jean. "The two of you seemed...close. I was surprised she wasn't here when we got here."

"Moira doesn't...I haven't seen her in a very long time," he admitted.

"Why?" she asked. "That doesn't make any sense, does it? I mean..."

"She doesn't remember." Charles busied himself with his book to avoid Raven's incredulous expression. "Everything after Shaw's attack on the CIA base. I made her forget it."

"Why?"

"For our safety," Charles told her. "And hers. I didn't want to tie Moira to me any more than I'd wanted to do it to you, Raven. As long as she knew everything, she had to be part of keeping this place a secret and she couldn't go back to her life with that on her shoulders. It was safer for everyone if she couldn't tell them anything."

"So you let her go."

Charles nodded.

"Forever?" she asked with such sadness in her voice that Charles was tempted to read her mind to find its source.

"Yes," he said.

"You've lost so much, haven't you?" Raven said, her voice still achingly sad. "More than I even knew."

Charles thought about Erik and what he'd thought they could have together, the connection and exhilaration of knowing him, being with him. He thought about Moira, so strong and furious on his behalf when he hadn't been strong enough to do it himself, and he thought of Raven, all the days and nights when she'd been his only friend, only family. "I won't say it's been easy," he began. "But there have been some tradeoffs. I have Jean and she's -- I wouldn't trade her for anything or anyone. I know it's a cliché, but you don't really understand until you have a child, how much it changes you. How much it means."

Raven looked like she was about to say something, though Charles couldn't be sure of what given the inscrutable look on her face. Charles raised his hand to stop her, however, as he finally noticed the strange nothingness that worried at the back of his mind. It was the void that Erik represented on his mental landscape and though prolonged contact over the last twelve hours had rendered it less distracting, he could still sense its closeness.

He tried to raise his voice loud enough to be heard through the closed door, but not loud enough to wake Jean. "Are you looking for me or Raven, Erik?"

The door opened to reveal Erik's tall frame, skull still encased in his helmet that coordinated with his dramatic new choices in clothing. He raised an eyebrow at Charles who sat watching him. "Impressive."

Raven pulled herself to her feet. "Did you need me?"

Erik looked at her for a long moment. "No," he said. "I was actually hoping to have a private word with your brother."

Raven was surprised by that but she nodded. She sent a quick glance toward Charles. "I'll leave you to it?"

Without reading her, Charles couldn't tell if her hesitance was out of concern for him or something else but he smiled to reassure her. "It's fine. I'll speak to you more later?"

She smiled. "Definitely." Raven gave Erik another strange look before she left, closing the door behind her and leaving Charles alone with Erik for the first time since his unexpected visit a year before.

"You are more than welcome to remove your helmet, you know," Charles said as an opening gambit. "I can be trusted to stay out of your head, no matter what you believe otherwise."

Erik touched the smooth metal curve of the helmet as he strode across the room to take a seat in one of the wing chairs. "It was never about trust," he said, which Charles didn't believe a bit. "But I feel rather naked without it these days. I'll keep it on."

Charles raised an eyebrow at that comment. "Then, for the record, I think you look rather ridiculous."

The same humor he almost showed the day before with the boys glimmered under the surface of his stern face. "You didn't raise any objection the last time."

Charles recalled that last meeting, how twisted up with longing and sadness and anxiety he'd been and his own amusement faded. "I was surprised the last time."

Erik must've noticed the change in his mood because his own face hardened and he straightened up in his chair. "I didn't like your implication last night," he said. "You know my war is with humans, not mutants. I'm not here to harm anyone."

So much flew through Charles's mind that it took him a moment to find the answer he wanted among all his thoughts. "It's been awhile, Erik," he said slowly. "I would wager that I know very little about the man you are now."

"I wouldn't hurt my own kind," Erik objected.

Charles didn't let his gaze waver. "You have, in the past."

"Only when they deserved it," Erik said. "This is about Shaw, isn't it?"

"It's not about Shaw," Charles told him. "It's about your first answer. I have no way to know except your word that you won't decide that my students deserve whatever you wish to mete out."

"I would never hurt a child, especially a mutant child," Erik snapped. "Not even Alex, despite the fact that he'd like nothing more than a reason to hit me with a plasma burst."

"But what of other children, Erik?" Charles asked. "Is Jean not safe despite her mutant parentage if it turns out that she's an ordinary human?"

Erik's face grew even more thunderous with the mention of Jean, as if he'd managed to push the implications of her existence from his mind. He rose to his feet in a lurch of movement, unusually ungraceful for him. "She's your daughter."

"We've established that."

When Erik turned to look at him again, even Charles felt a frisson of unease at the expression that met him, ugly and vicious. He'd seen it before, though, but only in another's memories, a remnant of his connection to Shaw as the man had died by Erik's hand.

"Even though it's become clear that you were not -- that you..." Erik shook his head, demonstrably frustrated by his own inarticulacy. "She is your daughter," he said again. "And though you apparently have not shown me the same courtesy, I would never do anything to deliberately hurt you. She is quite safe from me."

Erik didn't wait for a reply before he stormed off, leaving Charles and Jean alone for the first time all morning. Charles sighed as he moved across the room to check that Jean was still sleeping peacefully in her crib, undisturbed by Erik's dramatics.

"He doesn't need to try, does he, love?" he asked the sleeping child. "He does it well enough without any effort at all."

**

Erik had known that coming to Charles would be a bad idea.

As he left the study, his anger flaring, he knew the only reason that he was not warping the metal in his wake was because of how tightly he was holding on to his tattered control. He'd made a promise to Charles when the telepath had agreed to let him, Raven and Angel stay there and he did not plan to break it. He would not use his powers in any way that Charles could construe as a threat.

But it wasn't easy, not when the knot of consuming anger he'd thought he'd learned to ignore after Shaw's death was roiling inside him, desperate for an outlet, not when he was under assault from it and so many other emotions as well -- guilt, pain, regret, and an ache so deep it felt like part of his bones.

Erik didn't realize where he was heading until he was outdoors, standing where he could look out at the satellite dish he'd once moved with his mind. He leaned against the stone balustrade as he'd done that day and forced himself to take long, slow breaths.

It had been Raven's -- Mystique's -- idea to come to Charles when it had become obvious they were cut off from Azazel, Emma and Janos. With Shaw's resources cut off from them for the moment and their teleporter as well, no place had seemed safer than the Westchester manor, not one that was quickly reached or easily accessible. Erik had come with misgivings, but he'd expected that Charles's fondness for his sister and sense of fair play would gain them entrance.

And it had, just as he'd predicted. But what Erik hadn't properly considered was his own reaction to what he'd find there, although never would he have imagined that a development like little Jean Xavier would be waiting for him.

Erik had never let himself suffer under any delusions that what he'd shared with Charles had been anything more than a strange camaraderie forged by circumstance. He had, of course, come to care for Charles -- something he'd admitted as much on that beach, a momentary show of weakness he did not plan to repeat -- but Charles had been more effusive in his manner from the beginning. And then had come the last few days of their time at the mansion, when Charles had shown up at his bedroom door in the middle of the night with a softness in his eyes that even caught Erik off-guard, promises flowing from his lips as surely as his hands had flowed over Erik's body and Erik's over his in return.

As tempted as he'd been, Erik had known not to trust it, ignoring the promises Charles had made in the heat of passion and the pleas that had followed in the days after when Charles had tried to convince him to release his vendetta against Shaw. But deep inside, he'd never doubted Charles's sincerity or his fondness, and it had been a loss he'd regretted when their paths had diverged in Cuba.

Now, however, Erik didn't even have to regret that because it, like some kind of extension of Charles's telepathy, had been an illusion, another trick at Charles's command and that child was his proof, conceived as she must've been within the same weeks that Charles had professed to love none other than him.

If he had seen any other choice, Erik would've turned and left the moment he'd learn that hard truth, but it had been desperation that had brought them there in the first place. Angel and Raven would be safe and protected with Charles until the three of them could leave the country as they planned, and he would not jeopardize them because of his own stupidity. Anyone who had lived through the darkness he had should have known better than to believe, to hope, the way he had. It was just another lesson learned.

Out of the corner of his eye, Erik noticed that he was no longer alone on the grounds. Alex and Darwin, dressed in sweats, were approaching at a run, a measured training exercise by the way they kept a steady pace between them. As he watched, Erik could see that there was a smile on Alex's face, a grin that was echoed on Darwin's, relaxed in each other's company. But as soon as they drew close enough for Alex to notice Erik in return, his feet stuttered to a stop, the teasing expression falling from his face as if it had never been there. In its place was a glare and a down-turned mouth, every muscle suddenly tensed.

Erik offered him a smirk and watched his nostrils flare.

Darwin, who'd stopped when Alex had, was the one who actually nodded in Erik's direction. "Morning, Erik."

"Darwin," he returned. Then he added, "Alex."

Instead of replying, Alex threw him another long glare before he stomped off, leaving Darwin to sigh in the wake of his departure. Erik could admit he found Alex's overwrought reaction to his presence amusing, if confusing.

"He's not my biggest fan, is he?" Erik said when he realized that Darwin had not followed Alex toward the house.

"No," Darwin answered with a shake of his head. "He's not."

"I'm not even sure why," he admitted. Hank, he knew, had a personal, pointed reason to glare at him, as did even Charles, despite the telepath's own crimes. But Erik had never done anything in particular to Alex, not even anything as callous as he'd done to Sean when he'd pushed him from the dish to help overcome his fear of flight.

"I'm sure if you think about it long enough, something might come to you," Darwin told him, which drew a laugh from Erik. The boy's tone wasn't hostile, merely matter-of-fact.

"I am really am pleased to see you again," Erik said. "I'd like to hear how that happened, if you care to share."

"I adapt to survive," Darwin said as he had on their first meeting. "The best that Charles can figure, my mutation turned me into pure energy to combat what Shaw did to me. And for months, I just...floated. Out there." He shrugged, wiping a sleeve against the sweat gathered on his brow. "But then Charles picked me up somehow with his telepathy and guided me back into material existence."

"That's extraordinary," Erik said, ignoring how every mention of Charles made the ache inside him sharpen in intensity.

"I think so," Darwin agreed, then added, with a long look at Erik, "But so's what Charles is trying to do here."

"Is that your subtle way of telling me you have no plans to leave him and join the Brotherhood?"

"I wasn't trying for subtle," Darwin said, but he softened the words with a quick smile. "But it looks like you got the hint."

"What we're doing is extraordinary, too," Erik informed him. "It'll be what stops the humans in the end, not whatever fable of harmony Charles has in his head."

Darwin gave him another measured look. "Charles is tougher than you give him credit for," he said before he nodded again and headed off, tracing the same path around the house that Alex had taken minutes before.

Despite the encounter with Alex, Erik had begun to feel some of his anger calm itself after his discussion with Darwin. It was, ironically enough, a matter of focus; he needed to keep his mind away from Charles and his daughter, away from the raw edges of his hurt on the matter. To do anything else would be to drive himself mad.

Erik wasn't sure how much longer he stood there after Darwin disappeared before there was the tell-tale sound of someone behind him, someone light and quick on their feet.

"Raven," he said. "What do you want?"

"Maybe I was just checking on you," she said as she finally reached his side. "I'm going to guess whatever you had to say to Charles didn't go well."

"No," he admitted. "But I hardly expected it to be otherwise."

She sighed. "I hope you weren't too hard on him."

"Your brother does not need you to defend him from me," Erik told her. "It's really not your place."

"He's still my brother, faults and all," she pointed out. He watched as she turned and sat on the stone instead of leaning on it, blue feet dangling above the ground. "And he didn't have to let us stay."

For the first time, he noticed what was different about her. "You're wearing clothes." It was almost an accusation as he raked his eyes over her blue form, shrouded as it was in a short black dress like the kind she'd worn when she'd went around in her pretty, blonde guise.

"And you called me Raven," she returned. "Old habits are hard to break when you go home again."

"This was never my home," he corrected her.

"Is there something going on that you're not telling me about?" she asked. "You said you wouldn't have a problem coming to Charles but now you're very angry and I'm not sure why."

"Your brother is a very difficult man to deal with. That hasn't changed in a year."

"I know that better than anyone," Raven said. "But he's also one of the best people I know so I wish you wouldn't give him a hard time if you don't have to. He doesn't need that on top of everything else."

"What else is he dealing with?" Erik asked mockingly, although the wounded look on Raven's face made him regret it, especially as his mind supplied an answer in the form an image flashing across his mind -- first Charles, running and laughing with Hank, and then as he was now, contained and sedate in his wheelchair.

"I wasn't talking about that really, but there's that, too," Raven told him, as if she were the one who could read minds instead of her brother. When she spoke again, her voice was soft and sad. "Do you know what happened with Moira?"

"Other than the fact she apparently bore your brother's child out of wedlock?" he asked.

Her eyes widened. "How do you know?"

"Because I can do the math," he told her with a roll of his eyes. "Given the child's age, it's the logical conclusion to draw."

Erik couldn't help but wonder about it, as much as he didn't want to. He looked at Raven, lovely in her natural form, and wondered if the night he'd gently rebuffed her advances in deference to her brother was the same night her brother had conceived his child with Moira, or if had happened later, perhaps in comfort after Cuba. Neither scenario left Erik less angry, nor did any of the ones he could imagine in between.

"She -- do you know why she's not here?" Raven demanded. When he shook his head, she continued in a rush. "Charles erased her memories to protect us. All of us. He sent her away and took away her memories so she could go back to her life and we wouldn't have to worry about what she could tell the CIA about us and Cuba." She crossed her arms and sighed again. "He cared about her -- he had to. I mean, he didn't say it and I never really noticed but -- I can tell. I can tell when he looks at Jean. I saw it this morning. He looks at her sometimes and he's seeing someone else and it's there, the love and the sadness and --"

"I really don't see why you're bothering me with this," Erik said, more sharply than he intended. Just listening to Raven's infernal ramblings about Charles and Moira made his chest ache with the desire to lash out, to destroy something so that it was as mangled as he felt on the inside, and he couldn't do it a moment longer.

Raven frowned at him, all wounded indignation. "You and Charles used to be friends, Erik. You were -- you're the only real friend he's ever had, you know. Other than me, I mean. He's always been so...distant with others. But then he met you."

"Charles doesn't know the meaning of the word distant," Erik argued. "Before you've even shaken hands, he's digging around in your head."

"You don't make friends that way, though," Raven told him. She held up her hand, looking down at the pattern of scales that covered each finger. "I always was so envious of him because I had to pretend and he didn't. But then I saw the way he acted with you and I realized he'd been pretending, too, until you came along." She glanced back up at him. "Don't you see? You're the one who taught me that we can't separate ourselves from our powers. We can't really be ourselves if we're hiding it. Charles was in the same boat all those years, just like me."

She laughed, but it was a hollow sound. "Of course, I didn't figure it out until I hadn't seen him in months, but I guess sometimes it takes a little perspective to see the big picture."

"I'm still confused about why we're having this conversation?" Erik asked again. He brought a hand up to his forehead where it encountered the cool curve of his helmet.

Raven narrowed her eyes and prodded the arm closest to her with a finger. "If you can't be nice...give him a wide berth and save us all the fireworks."

With that she hopped down from the balustrade and marched back to the house, shooting him a last accusatory look over her shoulder while Erik was busy trying to remember if he'd ever heard her use a word like berth before.

Looking out at the satellite dish in the distance where it stood like a massive, silent symbol of something he couldn't understand, Erik couldn't help but ask himself why he was the one who suddenly felt so guilty when he'd been the one who'd been betrayed.

**

End of Part 5

Chapter Text

Charles tried to tell himself that it wasn't cowardice that kept him in his study or fear that had him keep Jean by his side, but doing so only meant he was lying to himself. He knew it wasn't even rational on his part to fear Erik the way he did, but all of the vague concerns he'd had before Jean had been born had come back in full force now that he had Erik prowling the halls. As much as he would miss Raven once she was gone again, Charles would be relieved when the Erik who haunted him was only the one in his memories.

But his wasn't the only mental distress in the household, and Charles couldn't let his boys -- and it was how he thought of them, no matter how close they were in age -- suffer by themselves. Sean was on the most even keel of them all, as was Darwin, despite his ambivalent feelings toward both Angel and Erik. Hank and Alex, on the other hand, had been thrust rather forcefully into confronting some simmering emotions that they had been able to ignore since the Cuban mission.

"You wanted to talk to me?" Hank asked when he appeared at the doorway to Charles's study in response to a mental request for his presence.

Charles motioned for him to come in and close the door before he spoke. "I wanted to check on you," he admitted. "I know having Raven here isn't easy on you."

"I'm not exactly thrilled about Erik or Angel either," he said dryly, sinking down into one of the chairs.

"You know what I mean, Hank," Charles said.

Hank sighed. "I don't have to tell you," he said. "For more reasons than one. I just didn't think it would be this hard having to see her again."

"She'll be gone in a few days," Charles reminded him and he wasn't certain if he meant it as a comfort or a warning.

"I know. She'll go back with Erik and they'll do whatever it is they do and...."

"You'll still be stuck here," Charles said with sympathy.

"She doesn't understand," Hank said. "I know she always thought I didn't, but now, she's the one who really can't. Just because she's all "Mutant and Proud" doesn't change the fact that she can hide her mutation when she needs to. She might not like it, she might even hate it, but doesn't change the fact that she has a mechanism by which she can blend in when she needs to. Look at me." Hank held up his furry blue arms, wiggling his claws. "I can't hide this. I'm trapped." Hank sank back in his seat, radiating his troubled thoughts with his posture. "I bet she thinks it's what I deserve for trying to fix myself in the first place."

"Is that what you think?" Charles asked softly. "That your transformation is some kind of...divine punishment visited upon you because you wanted to change?"

"I don't know." His voice was low, barely above a rumble. His words might've been ambiguous but his feelings were not -- in some way, Hank felt like he deserved to be punished and that his new form was that sentence.

Charles watched him for a moment. "I made a lot of mistakes myself, you know," he began. "I've probably made more in the time you've known me than you've made in your entire life. Do you think this..." -- and he patted the arm of his wheelchair -- "...is my punishment, like your form is yours?"

"Of course not!" Hank's answer was swift and vehement. "How could I ever think that, Charles? What happened to you was..."

"...a very unfortunate accident," he finished, cutting off Hank's thought of Erik's fault. "And what about Jean? Some would say a child, born out of wedlock, even in the most normal of circumstances is a punishment on a woman who got herself in trouble. Surely, that would be doubly true in my case."

"No," Hank said, still fierce. "Jean's not a punishment. She's..."

"The thing I love most on this earth," Charles said with a sad smile. "And while unexpected, I don't regret her, even if she is the product of some very bad decisions on my part. Which is my point, Hank." He made sure his eyes were holding Hank's as he continued. "You made a mistake -- whether that mistake was wanting to change in the first place or whether it was trying an untested serum on yourself is really up to you to decide for yourself. Not me, not Raven, not anyone. But it was just a mistake, nothing more."

"Logically, I know that," Hank said. "But here..." He tapped a large fist against his chest.

"I know," Charles agreed, folding his hands in his lap. "Regrets have a way of eating at you -- at everyone, for whatever reason. But you can't let them consume you."

"I realize that."

"And you especially cannot let Raven tie you up in knots over this," he added.

"I don't want her to, I don't," Hank said, shaking his head. "But I can't help it. I can't just sit there and be all cool and collected like you can."

"Oh, Hank," Charles said with a faint laugh that lacked all humor. "You're quite mistaken if you think I handle anything by being cool and collected, particularly not our current visitors." When Hank gave him a disbelieving look, he pointed out, "Haven't you noticed? I've practically hidden myself and Jean away in this room, and I've got Sean or one of you off with the other students at all times."

"You're just being cautious," Hank told him.

"Some might say paranoid."

Hank thought for a moment, then he cracked a grin. "Maybe a little," he conceded.

"It's fine if your regrets make you wary, Hank," he said. "Just don't let it cut you off completely, yes?"

Charles was aware of Hank mulling over his words in his head, along with abstracts flashes of images that made little sense to Charles. After a moment, he nodded, almost to himself, before he glanced back at Charles.

"Better?" Charles asked.

"A little," he said. "I think."

"You don't have to talk to Raven if you don't want," he assured him. "I can make her leave you alone."

"You'd do that?" Hank said, eyes wide, wiggling his fingers near his head to mimic Charles's power.

He rolled his eyes. "I meant I'd ask her, Hank."

"Oh, right," Hank said with an embarrassed little laugh, but it was much lighter than what he'd sounded like when he'd first come in. After a few more minutes of chitchat, he sent the young scientist on his way, feeling that he had at least accomplished something.

Of course, that still left him with Alex.

Alex's current mental state was like a rash, angry and distracting and pulsing with infection. Charles couldn't even be certain why Alex was angry because of the inflammation to the surface of his thoughts caused by his constant resentment. It reminded him a little of how it had felt to first touch Erik's thoughts down in Florida when Charles had sensed him specifically even surrounded by hundreds of other minds, drawn like a beacon to the anger and pain Erik had been broadcasting for anyone gifted enough to hear it. It was an ironic though apt comparison because so much of Alex's anger was directed at Erik, though wisps of it were directed at others -- Raven, Angel, even Charles.

Steeling himself for it, Charles sent out a mental summons for Alex and took the time before he'd arrive to check on Jean. He hated keeping her confined to his study just because of his own paranoia, so he'd had Sean take her for a few hours, where she could demand the delighted attention of Sean, Ororo and Ilyana, the latter two still under the amusing impression that a ten-month-old was the one of the best playthings ever created. Sean had brought her back when it had been time for her afternoon nap and she was still lost in slumber in her crib, obviously knackered from so much concentrated playtime between Raven, Sean and the girls.

He was still there, looking down at Jean, when Alex slipped in a few minutes later.

"Is something wrong with Jean?" he asked immediately, a ready frown spreading over his features.

"No, she's quite fine," Charles assured him, shaking off the residual effects of such close contact with Alex's tumultuous emotional state. "In fact, she's probably doing better than everyone else in this house, at the moment."

Alex shoved his hands into the pocket of his sweatpants. "That's because she's too little to know what's going on."

"Thank goodness for that," Charles said.

That earned him a tiny smile from Alex, but the boy was far too tense for Charles's liking. He watched him with a placid, steady gaze until Alex snapped, "What?"

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Talk about what?" Alex asked with a shrug, looking much like he must've as a surly fourteen-year-old.

"Oh anything that'll help you gain even a fraction of the calm you've lost in the past twelve hours," Charles said. "Honestly, you're more keyed up than you were when they first showed up."

"Because every minute they're here makes it worse," Alex said. "I want them gone."

"You are among the majority in that opinion," Charles said. "I don't think even they want to stay any longer than they must."

"How can you be so calm about this?" Alex demanded. "The enemy is right under our roof."

"One, you're the second person who has mistakenly accused me of being calm," Charles informed him. "I assure you, it's all a facade. Two, do you really consider Raven your enemy? Honestly?"

"Maybe not Raven," he admitted with a sigh. "But she's not much better. How can you not be madder about her leaving you on the beach?"

"Every child grows up," Charles said, glancing over at Jean's crib. "Even little sisters. I couldn't stop her from going with Erik when he's what she wanted, when he could give her the freedom she craved. That would've been cruel."

"She should've been selfless enough to stay at least long enough to make sure you didn't die," Alex said. "Erik, too."

For a horrifying moment, Charles wondered if he'd misread Alex's anger toward Raven and Erik wrong all those months, if what it had been hiding had been some kind of misplaced envy because Alex regretted not taking his chance to go with them to the Brotherhood. But, as Charles probed at what lay beneath the anger, what he found was far more simple and complex than envy.

"I wouldn't want them here like that," Charles told him. "I wouldn't want them with me out of some sense of guilt or obligation. That would only turn to resentment which is no way to live. And," he added, "I don't want you staying here for that, either."

"Professor." Alex looked shocked, stumbling a little as he sank down in the chair closest to Charles. "You don't think..."

"No, I don't," he said, leaning over to give Alex's shoulder a quick squeeze. "I can tell you're here because this is where you want to be, because this is where you feel like your family is."

Alex flushed a little at the mention of family. "Yeah, I mean, you're cool and so is Sean and Darwin, even Hank. And the new kids, too. And Jean, of course."

"Of course," Charles smiled. "I don't believe that blood makes a family any more than I think our mutations make us better or worse than other humans. I do think of you as family, you know."

"Yeah?" Alex said, looking down at his hands, refusing to meet Charles's gaze.

"Yes," he agreed. "I hope you think of me that way, too. I know we didn't necessarily start out that way, but after we'd spent some time here together, training...you all were more than just a team to me."

Charles had learned the hard way over the three decades of his life that being a telepath didn't automatically mean he knew the right thing to say for the right occasion. If he'd needed any further proof of that fact, he'd only need to look at the ways he'd hurt Raven over the years with the careless things he'd said, something he hadn't understood until he'd touched her mind on the beach and felt how much every fiber in her being longed to follow Erik into whatever future he envisioned. And then there was Erik, someone he'd loved as much as he'd ever imagined he could love anyone, almost from the moment they'd met, and months hadn't made Charles able to choose the right words when they'd counted most.

And now there was Alex, who needed validation so badly but had hidden it so well under his anger that Charles had missed it for years.

"And now, I really couldn't imagine how I'd get on without all of you," he said. "You, Hank, Sean, Darwin...I think of you like I think of Raven or even Jean. Since I first brought you all to my home, you've been my family."

Despite the horrified, embarrassed expression on Alex's face, Charles could feel how pleased he was, deep down, how much his feelings about them all was part of his anger and hurt. "I didn't really have anybody," Alex admitted quietly. He coughed, ran a hand through his hair before he risked a glance up. "You know, before. Jail and all."

"I think we were all incredibly lonely before we found others like ourselves," Charles said, thinking of the rush of emotions he'd felt from Erik as he'd repeated I thought I was alone. "I was incredibly lucky to find Raven so early in my life."

"Yeah," Alex nodded.

"So it makes sense," Charles continued, searching for Alex's reaction to every word he said. "It makes sense that you feel so strongly about the members of your family who have...left you, Alex. You don't have to pretend that doesn't hurt." Before Alex could open his mouth to protest, Charles tapped at his temple. "And please? Remember that I'm a telepath."

Alex flashed him a ghost of a grin. "Point," he said.

"I know that you're hurt that Erik and Raven left us on the beach because I -- you -- we -- because they were part of our family. I understand, believe me. But all the anger in the world isn't going to make it better."

Alex's shoulders slumped down. "I just -- whenever I think about it for too long and especially when I see them -- Erik. I just..." He clenched a fist against his thigh.

Charles could clearly sense what Alex felt for Erik beneath all the anger, the way he'd started to look up to him and cast him in a paternal light, a figure he respected and wanted to follow -- only for Erik to destroy that when he'd abandoned them on the beach. He couldn't help but ache at the reminder of all the things Erik had crushed with his decisions on the beach that day.

"I'm not asking you to forgive him," Charles told him. "But I meant what I said about him not being the enemy. Until he does something that truly warrants that designation, let's keep the bloodshed to a minimum, shall we?"

"Yeah, okay," Alex agreed, the grin gaining a little. "But I don't make any promises if he makes the first move. It's on, then."

"Absolutely," Charles agreed. "I'm not unfamiliar with wanting to protect things from Erik."

Alex's eyes wandered over to the crib. "I know you don't want to admit it, but it's just a matter of time before he crosses that line, Charles," Alex told him. "That is, if he hasn't crossed it already and we just don't know yet. One day, he's going to be the enemy."

Charles closed his eyes. "I know."

"That's why you don't want him to know about Jean."

"One of the reasons, anyway."

"I'm sorry, you know," Alex said, his eyes full of a sudden sympathy that Charles could feel creeping over the edges of his mind. "That he was an asshole to you. That you loved him and he still left you."

Something neutral and deflective was on the tip of Charles's tongue but he thought of the vulnerabilities he'd exposed in his young friend that afternoon and thought, maybe, Alex needed to see that Charles had his own, as well.

"So I am," Charles said quietly, emotion plain in his voice. "So I am."

**

It didn't take a genius to figure out that the majority of the household was hiding from them, Erik noted on his second morning at the Xavier manor. When he was not actively seeking out someone such as he'd done with Charles on that first day, Erik could go hours without any indication that anyone other than he, Raven and Angel occupied the house, despite the half-dozen other people who called it home. Other than Jean, Erik hadn't even seen a trace of the younger children he knew Charles had taken under his tutelage.

Erik also knew that the sudden quiet in the halls of the rambling estate was for his benefit, or at least the benefit of his team. Unlike himself, Raven had no problem seeking out the people she wanted to interact with, even if that person was Hank who seemed to keep himself cloistered in his laboratory in between shouting matches with the shapeshifter. Sean might as well as have been a ghost for all Erik saw him, and Alex was obviously keeping as much distance as possible between them. Even Charles seemed content to stay shuttered away in his study all day, something that struck Erik as patently false behavior. For all his bookishness, Charles had always remained active, moving, as if there were too much going on in his brain to let him rest for very long.

Even as he thought it, though, Erik was struck with the reminder that he likely didn't know much about how Charles acted at present because two important things had changed since he was last privy to Charles's moods and methods -- Charles had been paralyzed and he'd become a father.

It was strange to feel the twist of guilt-anger-pain that came with that memory, guilt for the former and anger for the latter. Even if he'd never admit it anyone, Erik did carry guilt in him for how he'd left Charles, bloody and broken, on the beach, for how he'd done that to Charles himself, a careless flick of his hand in a moment of anger that had ended Charles's life as he'd known it. Torturing himself over it, however, would not change the matter and regret, he knew, was a useless, wasteful emotion. It had no place in Erik's world, not in the future he was building for the betterment of mutantkind.

With Raven wrapped up either with Hank or her brother, and Angel dealing with her own issues over Darwin's miraculous return, Erik had taken to wandering a-field, close enough to the manor in case there was danger, but far enough away that he felt outside of the reach of his reluctant hosts. Not that there was anything Charles could read from him with his helmet firmly in place, but he still sometimes thought he could feel the brush of the telepath's mind, an absent touch like fingers ghosting over skin. The farther away he was from Charles, the less he felt the press of that phantom sensation on him.

It was as he returned from one of these long walks early on that second morning that he heard the voices of three of Charles's wards rising and falling together in what was clearly a serious discussion. He'd been coming toward the kitchen to find himself something to eat for breakfast before the rest of the household woke, but Darwin, Sean and Alex had obviously beaten him to it, something else that had changed since his first stay at the manor. Rather than announce his presence, Erik let his steps slow and instead listened intently.

"...day or two more, at least the most," Sean was saying. Erik could make out the sounds of silverware meeting china. "Then we can go back to our actual lives and not this Twilight Zone we've got going right now."

"It still makes me nervous." Alex, of course. "I don't like him being here."

"That's not exactly news, Alex," Darwin answered. "Where's Hank this morning?"

"Hiding from Raven," Sean snorted. "I think he's literally barricaded the door to keep her out. I think he's sleeping in there, too."

"Charles isn't much better," Alex said. "But at least I understand his reasons."

"A guy puts a bullet in your back, I can see the desire to stay away," Darwin agreed mildly, and Erik tried not to flinch at the bald statement. "No matter how close you were before."

"Yeah, that, but I didn't mean that," Alex answered with a sigh. "I was talking more about Jean."

That hadn't been what Erik had been expecting to hear.

"Another perfectly valid concern," Darwin agreed, although Erik didn't see why there was any concern about him regarding Jean Xavier. "I know how protective Charles is about it."

"We all are," Sean added. "We all agreed to watch out for her, especially when it comes to Erik."

Erik frowned, wondering when the conversation would start to make sense again. He couldn't understand why anyone would think he'd harm an infant, no matter how badly they viewed his choices. They knew him, especially Charles; the continued anxiety among them that he was a danger to a harmless child hurt him more than he'd expected, even though he'd spent years steeling himself for the day he'd have to look at one of them across a battlefield.

"I remember," Darwin said. "You didn't even want to tell me."

"I did," Alex said. "I never would keep something like that from you. You're one of us."

"Thanks, man," Darwin replied and Erik could hear the smile in his voice, even as he slowly backed away from the kitchen, silently moving through the house until he was alone in his room.

He didn't particularly like the memories the room conjured up in him or the fact that it put him very near Charles's bedroom, but it felt safer than anywhere else in the manor. He couldn't stop himself from playing the conversation he'd just heard over in his head, examining each word for some nuance he'd missed. It was obvious they'd been talking around something -- something about Jean, something that Charles was hiding about her, especially from Erik, though he couldn't fathom what that secret could be. Her parentage might not have been openly broadcast, but it was easy -- albeit painful -- to conclude and, whether she was a mutant or not meant little to Erik. He could think of no secret about Charles's child that would be worth the preoccupation Charles's pupils seemed to give it.

But he could've missed something; he was not so infallible to believe he couldn't and since he had nothing better to do with his time until Emma contacted Raven or Angel, it was a harmless distraction, to ponder the mysterious secret a ten-month-old child could be harboring.

When Erik stepped out of his room a few minutes later, he had a new destination in mind. He walked down the corridor and gave the closed door to Charles's bedroom a hard stare before stepping through the open one across the hall. The room was empty, as Erik had expected, painted a cheery yellow that made it glow with the sunlight that came through the windows. Erik had encountered exactly one other nursery room in his life and that small closet of a space had no comparison to what he saw now.
The room boasted furniture that looked to be antique in origin, made of the heavy dark wood that Charles's family seemed to prefer. The one, significant anomaly to that was the crib which, while made from a similar wood, had a stream-lined design that made Erik sure it was a new addition, perhaps even one designed by Hank. One side of the room seemed to be overflowing with a mountain of toys and stuffed animals that a child Jean's age couldn't possibly appreciate yet and everything seemed to be done in shades of yellow and apricot, not a hint of pink to be found.

Erik, as he ran a finger down the line of the crib, couldn't help but wonder who had made the decisions that led to the circumstances he'd found at the mansion when he'd arrived. Had Moira agreed to give up her child to Charles to raise? Or had Charles made the decision for her in line with his own thoughts on the subject, as he had for Raven for so much of her life? Had she chosen the paint and linens for her daughter's room, never knowing she wouldn't remember her in a few months? As little as he cared about humans, including Moira, he couldn't help the sympathy he had for her situation, thinking about what she'd lost in losing her memories of her child. He didn't care how absolute Charles's powers were, there was a spiritual connection between a parent and a child, and Moira would always feel it, even if it was only enough to know she'd lost something she couldn't replace.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement below outside the window and his gaze followed it. It was Charles, Erik realized, almost surprised to see him. He was sitting out on the patio with Jean in his arms, looking out over the expanse of the estate. Before he could stop himself, Erik swept out of the room and down the stairs, toward that same patio.

This time he did nothing to hide his approach, even as he caught bits of the one-sided conversation Charles was having with Jean.

"Yes, yes, I know you want down," Charles was telling the squirming infant, the laughter in his voice so carefree that it hit like a physical pain in Erik's chest. "But you're not really dressed for it. In fact, you lack shoes, my dear." Erik stepped outside as Charles laughed again, still trying to make Jean settle in his arms. "Socks aren't really made for the task alone, I'm afraid."

He took a deep breath before he spoke, hoping his tone would be light enough that he wouldn't be immediately rebuffed. "I don't think she's swayed by your authority on the subject."

Erik watched Charles go tense through his shoulders for the split second after he spoke, then slowly -- consciously -- release it. He turned his head a little to watch Erik as he came around from behind him. "Erik," he said in surprise, almost involuntarily before he focused on what Erik had actually said. "No, she's not swayed at all. She's very stubborn."

"I can't imagine where she inherited that," Erik said, trying to smile to soften his words.

Charles cocked his head and looked at him for a long moment. "Her father. There's no doubt about that."

It wasn't the answer Erik was expecting, though it was the one he had been inferring. It startled a laugh out of him, a quick sound that won him Jean's attention in a way his words hadn't. Before he knew how to react, Erik found himself under the intense scrutiny of a second pair of bright blue eyes, painfully reminiscent of Charles's. She was a lovely child, with her bright red curls and even brighter eyes, though they were the only thing of Charles Erik saw in her. He saw little of Moira other than the hair, which was surprising, though he knew little of the science behind it. Erik was certain Charles could explain the genetics to him if he asked, but those days were long gone.

He didn't really think about it before he stepped forward. "Perhaps I can offer a compromise?"

Charles's eyes widened a little, betraying his surprise. "Do you...you want to hold her?"

"That was the idea," Erik said.

Another thing that hurt -- watching Charles clearly debate the proposition with himself, looking back at Erik's outstretched hands with more trepidation than he'd shown when they'd faced Shaw. He even thought he saw an aborted flick of Charles's right hand, as if he'd been planning to bring his fingers to his temple before remembering how futile a gesture it was.

Erik was almost ready to give up on the tentative offer when Charles finally nodded, holding her up a little for him to take. "Here you go, then."

It must've been instinct that let Erik settle Jean securely against him in his arms because he had precious little experience with it. Jean seemed content with the new arrangement, now that she was lifted higher than her father's lap, studying Erik with a seriousness that belied her age. Then, with great gusto, she began to tug at the edges of his helmet with her chubby little hands.

"You might want to watch her," Charles said, amusement warming his voice. "She's already decided that Raven's scales are a challenge she's ready to face."

Erik used one hand to gently bat Jean's away from his face so he could speak without worrying about her fingers ending up in his mouth. She seemed to think it was a new game and lunged for his fingers, babbling out her amusement. "At least she's distracted enough that she's not trying to escape."

"No," Charles agreed. He watched Erik jostle his daughter around for a moment. "She...likes you."

"Don't sound so surprised," Erik teased before he thought better of it.

"Oh, I'm not," Charles said, strangely stricken by the confession. "I never thought it would be otherwise."

When Erik looked down at him to see if he could understand why, all he saw was Charles's eyes watching Jean with a painful, all-consuming expression of love that made him turn away even as jealousy for it twisted in his gut.

**

End of Part 6

Chapter Text

Charles had never expected anything to be as difficult as watching Erik and Raven leave him on that beach, but he also never thought he'd have the chance to watch Erik hold Jean so very carefully in his arms, enraptured by all the small things she did that dazzled Charles every day.

It had been alarming to witness if only for the way it had left Charles shaken, suddenly questioning all the decisions he'd made before and after Jean's birth. Only Erik could spend a half-hour entertaining a child and completely undo months' worth of work on Charles's carefully constructed defenses.

Erik had been quickly won over by his daughter's charms, just as everyone else in the house had been, from Charles to Hank, Alex, and Sean to Darwin and the students. Jean had seemed equally as enamored with Erik, completely at ease with him despite the fact that he'd only been in the same house for a few days. Charles was a man of science who didn't necessarily believe in many of the wives' tales passed down as common knowledge, but even he had to admit that it was like they had a connection that went as deep as the blood they shared.

From the moment he'd first made the decision to hide the truth of Jean's existence from Erik, Charles had been convinced of the rightness of that decision. There were so many reasons that it seemed like the only real option, though many of them boiled down to one essential truth -- Charles could no longer trust Erik, certainly not with something as important and fragile as a child, their child. There had been no doubt in him that the secret was one that needed to be kept.

And he still felt that way -- even when he'd watched them together, even when he'd seen the way Erik had lit up with all the goodness inside him as he'd held Jean in his arms. But now Charles was even more aware of the ways in which his decisions were robbing Erik of something that has his, no matter how much Charles wanted otherwise, no matter how much Charles might think him incapable of protecting it from his more destructive impulses. Erik was someone, Charles knew, who longed to feel like he belonged to someone, who desperately wanted to find a way to rebuild the family he'd lost during the war; when Charles looked at it in that light, it was especially cruel of him to keep his secret when it could mean so much to Erik to know the truth.

But that was actually part of the reason he had, no matter how cruel it made him. Charles had told Alex he had many reasons to keep Jean away from Erik and he'd been telling the truth when he'd said that Erik's violent methods were just one of them. Almost as much he feared Jean's existence would not sway Erik from his goals, Charles was afraid that it would -- a fragile, illusory calm that would only last long enough to make it even more unbearable when he broke away again. Charles didn't want a false peace, especially not at Jean's expense.

None of those perfectly good reasons, however, eased the guilt he felt over it, just as the guilt, no matter how consuming, didn't break his resolve.

Charles, though, would be very glad when Erik was gone again.

He wanted nothing more than to hide himself from their visitors even more insistently, but Charles knew it wasn't an option. He remained present if distant in his study where everyone knew he could be found if they needed him. Not long after he'd brought Jean back inside after her meeting with Erik, Raven accosted them for more time with her niece, which Charles was happy to grant.

As he watched Raven with Jean, the guilt was there, reminding him of how his arrogance at thinking he knew what was best for her had finally pushed her away for good, as lost to him in many ways as Erik was. Those regrets made it easy to let his doubts whisper at him and he tried to ignore the pain it brought up, even as the frown on his face grew enough that even Raven noticed.

"What are you thinking about that's got you so upset?" Raven asked still on the floor with Jean.

"Erik," he answered truthfully.

"If it helps, you bring the same look to his face," she informed him.

"It doesn't, but thank you for that."

Raven sighed. "I wish it didn't have to be this way," she admitted.

"So do I," Charles said. "But there's no changing it, I'm afraid."

Raven glanced up at him, a frown of her own starting to emerge. "Are you saying that you don't think there's even a remote chance you'll change your mind one day?"

Charles didn't hesitate to skim her surface thoughts to glean a better understanding of what she was asking him. "Will I ever stop believing that Erik and I want different things? Not unless Erik changes his mind. Will I ever come to believe in his methods, his goals? Again, no. That's not who I am, Raven. Nothing will change that."

There must've been more rebuke in his voice than he'd intended because Raven's frown deepened and her eyes flashed, outward signs of her rising temper. "So you won't even entertain the possibility that you could be wrong? That maybe, just maybe, someone knows more than you about something?"

"I don't want to have this conversation with you, Raven," Charles told her. "There's no point."

"Because you never listen," Raven shot back.

"About this? No, I don't." Charles could feel his hand curl into a fist against the armrest of his wheelchair. "No matter how much I love you or -- care about Erik, I will never agree with you on this. You and Erik can call me arrogant all you want and maybe I am, but no amount of discussion on the subject is going to sway me to terrorism any more than I was able to sway Erik against it."

"One day we'll be the only thing that saves our kind from extinction at the hands of humans," Raven argued and it sounded rehearsed, the echo of another voice in her conviction. "What will you say then, when we're the reason that Jean's not been enslaved by humans who fear and detest her?"

"What will you say," Charles began gently, nothing but sadness left in him. "When the reason that Jean is hated and detested is because the Brotherhood has given humans cause to feel that way about mutants?"

Raven was oh-so-carefully precise as she deposited Jean in Charles's lap, nostrils flaring as she tried to hold back her reaction to his words. "You still don't understand a damn thing," she said quietly but fiercely, her voice shaking with suppressed anger before she stomped out of his study, radiating a messy swirl of emotions that made Charles glad that his daughter hadn't manifested any kind of telepathic powers as yet.

In the wake of his argument with Raven, Charles's guilt hadn't waned but he was at least reasonably certain he could be assured of space from the manor's unwanted guests. Charles could admit he was relieved that he wouldn't be further antagonized on either front for the rest of the day, and hopefully that respite would remain in place until his guests were gone entirely from his sphere. As much as he would miss Raven after having her back for so short of time, he wouldn't miss the new tension that existed between them, the one that kept nagging at him to wonder if they were actually as thoroughly broken as he and Erik were.

Refusing to give in to that melancholy, Charles focused his power outward, sweeping through the house for a check of its inhabitants. He ignored the minds of the Brotherhood -- Angel, Raven, the blankness of Erik's helmet -- and instead let his awareness wrap around his own people, the minds that made up his little mutant family. Hank was in his lab alone, muttering under his breath as he worked on some experiments he'd been planning that needed constant attention. He was using their complexity to distract himself from his other concerns, but they were only doing half the job because Raven was still on his mind, Charles could tell. He could also tell that his words to Hank the day before had had some effect, even if it had just added one more voice to the ones that Hank rolled over in his mind, trying to think his way through the things he was feeling. Charles almost reached out to tell his young friend from experience that it was more difficult to do than he expected, but Charles left him alone, satisfied he'd done what he could for the moment.

Next there was Sean who was still entertaining the children and who had been more ignobly burdened with the task since the Brotherhood had arrived, Charles noted. While he had the girls playing Go Fish with one deck of cards, he was teaching the boys to play Poker with another, using pieces of butterscotch and cinnamon discs as chips in their game of Five Card Draw. Charles knew he probably should've disapproved as befitting the headmaster of their burgeoning school but he was actually delighted with Sean's creativity on the matter. They were all having a good time and, more importantly, distracted from the mood in the rest of the household. Charles sent Sean a wave of amusement and approval before he moved on in his sweep of the house.

He let his awareness drift down toward the bunker that they still used as a practice room where he now found Alex and Darwin. Alex had been training earlier, Charles discerned, but now he and Darwin were doing more talking than anything else, a quiet but intense conversation about Erik and Angel and Alex's anger. Charles was glad that Alex trusted Darwin enough to confide in him and that Darwin had Alex in return; Darwin didn't want to bother Charles with his issues but he felt comfortable with Alex, with telling him about how seeing Angel had been like having to relive his own death in some ways. Alex's anger was banked enough that he could listen without it flaring and Charles pulled away as unobtrusively as he could, leaving them to their confessions and their consolation in each other.

Knowing that each member of his household was safe and relatively at peace for the moment helped ease some of Charles's own turmoil, a reminder to focus less on what he'd lost in the last few years and more on what he'd gained. Raven and Erik were lost to him, he could acknowledge, but he'd built something grand from the ashes of that loss, a family of mutant young people who felt safe and cared for and protected, all thanks to him. He had his daughter, who'd grow up among those wonderful people, and they'd all work together to help others in any way they could, no matter what.

It was time, Charles decided, to dwell less on the past and more on the future; if nothing else, Erik's visit had forced him to face how much he was still looking back when there was nothing for him there.

Charles was slowly coiling his awareness back him on himself, away from the others in the house when he felt the spark of something new on the edge of it, two minds, both more familiar than he'd liked. Especially one that was sharp and slick like glass against his consciousness.

Hi, sugar, he caught before he raised his shields. Do you think you could let Magneto know his ride is here?

**

Of all the people in the house that Erik had expected to alert him that Emma was within the range of telepathic contact, Charles had been the last person on his list. Still, it was Charles who found him in his room to inform him that the telepath had finally arrived.

"She and Azazel are waiting just down the hill from here," Charles said without preamble. "I expect this is goodbye?"

"Are you throwing us out immediately?" Erik asked, not quite ready to go with Jean's mystery still tugging at his interest.

"I'm not sure why you'd need to stay any longer?" Charles pointed out.

"It's rather late in the day," Erik said, gesturing toward the waning sun visible through the window in his room. "And I'm sure that your sister would like a chance to say her goodbyes before we left."

Charles had that look on his face, slightly suspicious and not at all pleased that Erik had become used to during many of their debates. Finally he sighed. "Raven may take any time she needs," he agreed. "But I would rather Ms. Frost keep her distance if it's all the same to you. My boys are not equipped with defenses against telepathy like some."

He knew Charles had meant it as a dig but Erik ignored it. "I will go out and meet Emma where she waits. I can make sure that she behaves and remains a proper distance away. Raven and Angel can come along when they're ready."

"Very well," Charles said, already turning his wheelchair toward the door. "Goodbye, Erik." He didn't wait for an answer before he wheeled himself out.

After Erik located Angel to let her know of their team's arrival -- "I know, Charles told me, too" had been her reply -- he set off away from the house, searching the gently rolling landscape for a sign of Azazel and Emma. It didn't take him long before he could sense the metal in their clothing and followed its beacon until he could see them, a strange contrast to the bucolic setting of Charles's grounds.

"I couldn't believe you actually chose here," Emma said when he came into view. "But I couldn't think of anything else your secret message would've meant."

"It was safe," Erik said with a shrug. "And I knew that Charles would agree."

"Your telepath friend seems to have a soft spot," she said.

"Not for you," Erik informed her. "You're not to get any closer to the house."

Emma snorted. "Like I need it to do any damage."

"He's aware of that, too," he said. "But you make him very nervous."

"Good," she said with a smile.

"Where's Janos?" he asked Azazel, who'd stood by silently until now.

"We left him in our new location to keep things secure," he explained.

"Did I assume wrong that we wouldn't be here very long?" Emma asked. "I thought you'd be ready to get out of here as soon as possible."

"Not quite yet," Erik said. "I need you to get in contact with Mystique and tell her to stall her teary farewells for as long as she can."

Emma shot him a look but narrowed her eyes into the distance, the sign he'd learned to recognize for when she was using her telepathy. A minute later, she looked his way once more. "She agreed, but we're both wondering why."

"You can use your powers at this distance?"

"As I've just displayed."

Erik's eyebrow rose at her annoyed tone. "Are you up for a little reconnaissance for me? Charles is keeping something from me and I'd like to find out what it is."

He'd surprised Emma with the request. "I can't touch Xavier's mind without him knowing immediately."

Erik nodded. "I'm aware, but there are others in the house who are in on it. How easy would it be to look for the information in one of the boys' minds?"

Emma folded her arms as she contemplated the question. "Depending on how deeply it's buried? It should fairly easily regardless but the deeper it is, the more work it will take and better the chance they'll become aware of my presence."

"I don't want you to hurt them," Erik warned her. "If that's what it'll take for an answer, it's not worth it, at least not at the moment."

"What's this secret about, anyway?"

"It has something to do with Charles's daughter, Jean," Erik admitted.

Emma let her lips curl upward in a very mean smile. "I didn't know the Professor had it in him after his...difficulties."

The cutting look Erik gave her for that remark was enough to wipe the smile from her face. "Can you do this?"

"I can try," she said. "I'll do a cursory scan of the others in the house. If I don't think I can extract it without damage, I'll pull out. Does that work for you?"

Erik nodded and motioned for her to proceed.

Once again, Emma's eyes narrowed as she stared off in the distance, toward the house where her targets waited. "I'm going to start by finding the child," she said. "It will be easier to find information about her if she's currently in their thoughts and her caretaker would be a good place to start."

"Unless it's Charles," Erik told her. "He seems to keep her close."

"I've found her," Emma said a moment later. "She's with....not Charles. It's the one Mystique thinks of as Banshee."

"Sean."

Emma nodded slowly, still concentrating. "Let's see what I can find..."

Before the words were completely out of her mouth, she flinched, her head snapping a little as if from an invisible blow.

"Emma?" Erik asked cautiously as she seemed to gather her wits, expression growing stormy.

"Oh, why you little..." she muttered under her breath. To Erik, she said, "It looks like the Professor has taught his kids some tricks for dealing with invasive telepathy but nothing I can't handle."

"Emma, I told you not to hurt them," Erik warned her again. "And I didn't want them to be aware of you in their minds."

"The kid knows now, so do you want me to actually get the information or not?" she asked. "I can try to cover my tracks when I'm done."

Erik was already regretting the moment of curiosity that had led him to ask Emma for her help. But the damage had been done, so there was little reason to stop now. "Very well."

Emma's expression was mean as she focused on her powers once again. She didn't keep up her commentary after that, obviously working harder on finding the information inside of Sean's mind than she'd expected she would have to. There were a few more flinches on her end but nothing as forceful as that first one, which she meant she was dealing easily with whatever defenses Sean had raised against her. After another moment of absolute silence, Erik watched as Emma's face transformed into an almost-comical mask of surprise and she let out a bark of a laugh, throaty and sinister.

"What?" he demanded.

When she glanced his way, she laughed again. "This is too good," she said. "You're never going to believe it."

"So you know?" Erik asked.

Emma was nodding in response when her head jerked back again, so sharply that she stumbled where she stood, remaining upright solely because Azazel reached out to steady her. She'd just righted herself from that when she let out a painful gasp before flickering into her diamond form.

"Emma? Emma! What happened?" Erik gripped one icy arm in emphasis.

"Xavier," she said through gritted teeth. "He pushed me out of the boy's mind." She raised a diamond hand to her forehead. "I'd forgotten how strong he is."

Erik went cold with the knowledge that Charles was aware of what Emma had done. He cursed under his breath. "We should probably begin our retreat because Charles won't be pleased."

"Oh, he's not," Emma agreed. "But I don't think you'll want to leave, not until I tell you the secret. There's a very good reason they were keeping it from you."

Erik almost didn't care anymore, except that he recalled Emma's shock and her laughter when she'd unearthed it. "Very well. Quickly, tell me."

"Fine," she said. "You're her father."

"Who's father?"

"The child's."

"Jean's?" Erik scoffed. "That's impossible."

"Oh, really?" Emma asked. "Why do you say that?"

"Because I never slept with Moira MacTaggart, for one thing," he said.

"She's not the one who gave birth to Jean either," Emma told him. "That's the part you won't believe."

"Then who's her mother?" Erik asked. "Not that it matters because I'm still not Jean's father."

"You are," she insisted. "The mother question...it's not so easy to answer, really. But I guess in this scenario, it would -- well, Charles."

"What?" Erik stared at her, looking for some indication that she'd lost her mind. "Are you really suggesting...?"

"I knew Xavier had left a gap in your life but I didn't realize you'd been…that close," she said. "But of course, that's the helmet's fault. And yes I'm saying exactly what you think I'm saying. The secret? The one they don't want you to know? You're Jean's father. Charles gave birth to her, making him her mother."

Erik could barely hear Emma over the rush of blood in his ears as he tried to make her words make sense. "How is that possible?" he asked.

She waved the diamond arm he still had in the circle of his fingers. "Not all secondary mutations are as useful as mine."

"No..."

"I'd show you what I saw in the boy's mind to convince you if I could," she said. "But I don't suggest you take off that helmet since the mother of your child is a very pissed-off telepath at the moment."

It didn't seem possible what Emma dared to suggest. He knew it had to be a cruel joke, some amusement Emma had came up with to cover the fact that she hadn't been able to figure out the real secret. Or, he thought desperately, it was some lie Charles had implanted in Sean's mind to hide the real truth, something chosen to distract him from whatever it was they really wanted to hide. Those were the conclusions that Erik could draw from Emma's report that made sense because what she was saying was impossible. Despite all of the extraordinary things he'd come to accept starting from the moment he'd moved a gate with his mind, Erik couldn't accept this -- it was too far, too much, even to man who knew teleporters and shapeshifters.

Except...

Emma had proven herself no-nonsense and reliable as an operative and Charles wasn't the kind to plant information in his students' head, not even as a fail-safe. And it almost made sense, once the impossibility of it was ignored, more sense than the idea that Charles had let Moira bear his child and then had stripped her of that knowledge. But Charles bearing the weight of it on his own? Refusing to tell Erik of it even when Erik had come to him? That sounded like Charles.

Erik thought back to just that morning to the strange trepidation in Charles when it came to him interacting with Jean, the sadness in his eyes when he'd watched them together. Keeping Erik from his own daughter, letting him hold her and never even thinking of telling the truth, so convinced that he knew what was best for everyone? That also sounded like Charles.

There were so many ways Eirk could feel in that moment but he chose above all his old friend anger and let it light his blood with a sweet fury that made him want to shake the Xavier mansion down to its foundations. He'd need it to keep him steady for what was to come.

Because he was not leaving until he had a word with Charles.

As if she could read this thought through the helmet, Emma spoke. "He's coming for you," she informed him. "I could feel it when he pushed me out of the boy's mind."

"Then for once, Charles and I do want the same thing," Erik declared as he took great long strides back toward the manor. "Because I have a few things to say to him myself."

Erik didn't turn back to see if Emma and Azazel followed, knowing as he did that they had learned to follow him into every battle he chose.

**

End of Part 7

Chapter Text

Charles had never considered himself a particularly angry man but he could feel the anger building through him at that moment, a feverish thrum that made the hand he had on Sean's shoulder shake ever so slightly as he leant close and asked again, "Are you sure you're all right?"

Sean nodded, still a little dazed, eyes squeezed shut behind the hand he had pressed against his forehead. "It's like the worst headache ever but I'm fine," he said. "Is Jean okay?"

"She's fine," Charles assured him, a quick glance to where his daughter sat with her blocks, mostly oblivious to the tension in the room.

"I'm sorry, Prof," Sean said, a wave of guilt hitting Charles. "I tried to keep her from finding it but..."

"This isn't your fault," Charles told him firmly. "Don't you dare apologize."

"What's going on?"

They both glanced toward the door where Alex had skittered to a stop, breathing rapidly from the sprint he'd done to reach them so quickly. Darwin was on his heels and Charles knew that Hank was only a few steps behind.

"Charles!" Alex said, impatient. "You sent out the psychic alarm. What's wrong?"

"Is everyone okay?" Darwin asked, more calmly, eyeing Charles, then Sean in concern.

"Guys?" Hank asked as he reached the traffic jam at the doorway. "What happened?"

Charles finally pulled away from where he was hovering over Sean so he could face the other three young men. "Emma Frost attacked Sean using her telepathy," he explained grimly, watching their faces contort as they reacted to the news. "She was trying to find out about Jean."

"Erik," Alex growled, a sound that was echoed Hank's throat.

"I don't have proof but yes, no doubt," Charles agreed. More quietly, he added, "He knows now. The truth about Jean."

Hank's yellow eyes widened behind his glasses and Darwin let out a startled breath. Alex clenched his fists and almost shimmered with the effort it took to suppress his powers.

"What are we doing to do?" Darwin asked, voice still amazingly calm for all the heightened emotion in the room.

Charles lifted his fingers to his temple. "It appears Erik and his associates are coming our way," he announced. "What we're going to do is greet them at the door."

"And kick some ass?" Alex asked.

Charles felt another shiver of anger sweep over him, his own amplified by Alex's. "That does seem like it might be on the agenda."

He let the boys plan amongst themselves -- he could hear Alex checking in with Sean, then telling him to take Jean and stay in the classroom with the other students -- while he reached out with his mind to check on Raven and Angel. He immediately knew they had not been aware of Erik and Emma's plan but Raven was worried, agitated by orders that had made no sense. They, however, made sense to Charles, banishing any last doubt in his mind that Erik had orchestrated Emma's attack on Sean.

Nausea, hot and bitter, rose in his throat, a physiological reaction to everything he was feeling -- pain, betrayal, sadness, and anger, white-hot and dangerous. He tried to calm himself and mostly succeeded in time to give Sean a reassuring smile as he scooped Jean up in his arms. "If anything happens, I'll know," he promised. He tapped his head. "You'll be in here the entire time."

"Give 'em hell, Prof," Sean said before he went through the door that connected the playroom to the classrooms.

To the other three, he said, "Come on. I'd rather not let our guests get any father than the foyer this time."

They grouped around him as he hurried through the halls, sending a command -- not quite a mental order but something firm enough that it would not be disobeyed -- to Raven and Angel to come to foyer as well. The only one of Erik's little group he could actually track was Azazel but he could tell from the teleporter's mind that they were close, Erik leading the way as Azazel and Emma, still in her diamond form, followed.

"Charles?" Raven asked as she and Angel reached the foyer just seconds after Charles and the others, her voice confused from following the suggestion he'd planted. "What's wrong?"

There were so many ways he could've answered her question, but the one he chose cut to the heart of the matter. "The reason you were asked to stall for time was so Erik could have Emma attack one of my students," he informed her.

Raven's shock was genuine and obvious, but that didn't help Charles's anger, nor did it stop Hank was shooting her a venomous look that echoed the betrayal Charles felt in his gut.

"Charles..." she began, exchanging a wide-eyed look with Angel, but she didn't have a chance to finish because the great doors at the entrance of the manor flew open as if of their own accord, rattling on their hinges from the invisible force used to push at them.

Charles felt Hank's hand on his shoulder and he could see out of the corner of his eye that Alex shifted on the balls of his feet, ready to attack. Darwin was beside him, arms crossed, dark eyes taking in every detail as three figures appeared in the empty space bared by the now-open doors.

It was Erik, flanked by Emma and Azazel, his expression stony and dark behind the lines of his helmet and his pale eyes trained on Charles. As the three of them stepped into the house, every bit of metal around them began to vibrate, including Charles's wheelchair, a fact he could feel against his back and beneath his arms.

Charles wasn't moved by the display. "Your stay here was conditional on one thing, Erik," he told him. "And you've broken the one promise I asked of you." He cut his eyes at Emma as she shimmered out of her diamond form. He noticed, however, that she didn't come near his mind with her powers. "I think it's time you left."

The metal rattled a little more theatrically around him, so much so that Hank tightened the grip on his shoulder, as if to keep him steady in his chair. "Were you ever going to tell me, Charles?" Erik's voice was quiet, sharper with an accent that came and went with his mood. "About Jean?"

"No," he said honestly.

"And you really thought you could hide it? Forever?"

"That was the plan." He lifted an eyebrow. "I gave you more credit than to think you'd have your telepath pry it out of Sean's mind against his will."

"You should've told me the truth to begin with," Erik said, volume rising. "You had no right to keep it from me."

"I think I had every right," Charles shot back. "And you've just proven that today. I can't trust you with her."

"What are you two talking about?" Raven demanded, somehow the only person in the room not too wary to speak up. "Why did you attack Sean? What did you want to find out?"

It pained Charles that he could feel that there were reasons Erik could give that would make Raven accept an unprovoked attack on her former teammate, if even she disagreed with the action personally.

"Your brother has been lying about his daughter," Erik said. "Moira's not her mother."

"I never said Moira was her mother," Charles pointed out.

"You inferred it," Erik argued.

"I said Jean only had one parent in any position to be a part of her life and I wasn't wrong," Charles said.

"Both of you, stop talking in riddles," Raven demanded. She glanced around at all the tight expressions, from Charles surrounded by his pupils to Erik, with Emma and Azazel. "I have a feeling that everyone knows what you're talking about except me, so one of you better fill me in."

"She's my daughter," Erik stated. "And your brother kept it from me."

"Then who's...who's her mother?" Raven asked.

Emma laughed, but Erik didn't take his eyes from Charles. "Yes, Charles," Erik drawled. "Raven would like that explained to her."

Raven turned her pleading yellow gaze his way. "Charles?"

He wasn't sure his vocal cords would let him explain -- he'd spent too much time keeping it inside, everything about Jean and himself and Erik -- so instead he silently asked Raven for permission to explain it via his powers. She acquiesced with a slight nod, and he pushed a flurry of memories at her -- missing Erik, being ill, then Hank's diagnosis, the first grainy images of a fetus; the days of pregnancy and anxiety; and, finally, the first feeling of Jean's life in the fog of medication after the delivery.

Raven stared at him as she raised her hand over her mouth, her shock letting some of her own memories leak through, sour with regret -- Raven, naked in Erik's bed the night before the Cuba mission, first blond, then older, then in her natural form; Erik's words, the seductive quality of his acceptance; and, finally, the last lingering recollection of Erik kissing her before Charles severed the connection with all the finesse of a sledgehammer, mentally cringing under Raven's last blast of guilt.

"Charles..." she whispered again, but he looked away, down at his hand where it lay against smooth metal of the arm rest, still humming under the control of Erik's power. When it became obvious Charles was not going to acknowledge her, she glanced at Hank, eyes narrowed in accusation. "You knew the whole time and you didn't tell me?"

"Of course we knew," Alex said.

"But you couldn't trust me?" Raven asked, again directed at Charles.

"We were here," Hank told her. "You weren't."

"It seems I wasn't the only one keeping secrets, though, was I?" he said, pointedly first at Raven, then Erik, Raven's memories still fresh in his recollection. "I'm not sure why you're still here, Erik. You've outstayed your welcome."

"My daughter is here," Erik said. "You can't keep me away from her."

"The hell I can't," Charles said, tone steady and mild despite the desperate twist of emotions he could feel in his heart. "I mean it, Erik. Please leave. And don't return."

"You have no power of me thanks to this," Erik said, tapping a finger against the metal curve of his helmet. "I'm immune to your tricks. How do you propose you'd stopped me if I wanted to take my daughter with me?"

"Over my dead body," Alex warned, stepping forward.

"That can be arranged," Erik said with a roll of his eyes.

"And mine," Hank growled.

"And mine," Darwin added.

Charles made sure Erik was watching as he lifted his hand, pressing his fingers to the skin of his forehead. He reached out and took control of each of Erik's allies almost simultaneously, an easy task for him after so many years of practice. The only real opposition to his control was Emma who tried to flicker into her diamond form but he was faster than she had come to expect from their first encounter, and he crashed through her defenses before they'd fully formed. Compared to controlling Shaw, it was hardly work to hold the four of them immobile, even with the outrage he could feel from Raven.

"If you try, you'll do it alone," Charles told him. "And I'm serious when I say you'll have to kill us all to do it."

"Really, Charles?" Erik laughed, a bitter, angry sound. "Threats from you? Hardly something to fear."

"Perhaps you shouldn't risk it," Charles returned. "Maybe I learned more from you than you thought I had."

"Just give me a reason, Erik," Alex said, jaw clenched. "I swear to god, just breathe wrong and I'll take you down."

Charles made a halting motion toward Alex with his other hand. "I don't want to hurt anyone, especially someone I once cared about," he said, his voice breaking a little on the end of the sentence. "But it's over, Erik. Any chance you had to be part of Jean's life. It was over the moment you broke the only promise I ever asked of you, when you let Emma hurt Sean. I'm sorry but that's something I can't forgive."

For a moment, Erik's expression flickered behind his helmet and Charles was no longer looking at Magneto's cold mask – instead, it was the wrecked visage of the man he loved so recklessly, all desperation and longing and confusion, everything Erik had never learned how to express in words. "Charles..."

"Please," Charles begged, feeling the emotions swamp him until they stung like tears in his eyes. "For the last time, just go."

The unguarded expression shuttered away and the mask was back, but Erik nodded, one sharp jerk of his head. "Very well." He looked around at his team, still frozen under Charles's control. "My people?"

Charles lowered his hand from his temple and they were no longer statues frozen under his power. He tried to ignore the wounded looks Raven was sending his way, but she'd made her decision years ago and, as much as it pained him, he had no choice but to remember it.

"Come," Erik said to them, and they gathered together as they had on the beach, a line of them with Azazel in the middle, linking hands as they prepared to teleport away from the manor.

"This isn't over," Erik warned, gaze still fixed on Charles's face. Then he gave a nod that must've meant something to Azazel because they all disappeared in a flash of red smoke.

Charles released a shaky breath and ran a hand through his hair. He glanced up toward the young man still vibrating with anger at his side. "I'm ready for that I told you so now, Alex," he told him.

Alex's expression softened a little as he sank down to his knees, level with Charles. He laid a hand on Charles's arm. "You're not going to hear it from me."

"What do we do now?" Hank asked quietly.

"We go on with our lives, same as always," Charles said.

"And if he decides to come back?" Alex asked.

"Then we'll be prepared to deal with it," Charles answered.

Darwin let out his own deep breath, as if he'd been holding it the entire time. "I think we could all use some downtime after that," he said. "Charles, can I give you a push over to the classroom? I bet you'd like to check on Jean."

"I'd like that, if you don't mind," he agreed with a grateful smile.

"I've got it," Hank said, carefully maneuvering the wheelchair from behind. "I think we all probably want to check in on Jean."

"And Sean," Alex added.

Charles remembered the conclusion he'd come to earlier that day, about letting go of the past and focusing on the future. He was even more in need of that philosophy now. He realized that he'd been wrong when he'd thought his heart couldn't break any more than it had on the beach. Erik, it seemed, had a knack for choosing courses of action that could splinter what little of it remained. But he had his children, all of them, from Darwin down to Jean, all of whom needed him and who he needed in return. That was where his future waited.

"Yes," he said aloud, as Hank pushed him along. "I think that sounds like a brilliant idea."

**

 

Their new hideout was an ancient ramshackle of a house, what might have once been a stately plantation house on some small Caribbean island. It had, according to Emma, been one of Shaw's back-up safe houses, so primitive that Shaw had never thought to use it. Erik was not concerned with amenities, so it made the perfect place to wait out the trouble that had cut off Shaw's resources from them.

As soon as the house blossomed into existence around them, Erik broke from the group, stalking away from where the rest of the Brotherhood greeted Janos and began to look around their new, albeit temporary, base of operations.

They'd gotten used to moving by now and the inconsequential details had already been taken care of by one of the others -- Erik quickly found an aired-out bedroom where his bags had been left to wait for him, and he knew food would be waiting in the kitchen if he looked for it. Neither bed nor sustenance was what he craved at that moment and it only took him a few more minutes to find the alcohol stashed in a communal room that still smelled wet and musty with disuse.

Erik poured himself a drink and knocked it back before he refilled the crystal again. With a deep breath, he snatched the helmet from his head and threw it across the room where it bounced against the faded cushions of a settee.

"If you know what's good for you," he said into the air, to himself, to Emma who he knew was hovering at the edges of his consciousness. "You'll keep your powers away from me. I'm not in the mood to suffer the foolishness of any telepaths."

He could tell no real difference from the moment before, but he knew Emma had come to know his moods and obey them as needed, and the warning he'd issued was deadly serious. In fact, it didn't take a telepath to know he wanted to be left alone -- they all knew it and acted accordingly, the faint creak of the walls around him the only outward sign Erik had that he was not alone in the dilapidated manor house.

Erik had little conception of how long he stared out over the dark ocean through the open verandah doors or how long he tried to drink away his turmoil, seeking the numbness he could so often find in spirits. When it came to Charles, though, Erik had learned the hard way that nothing dulled the edge of the knife the way it once had, and it seemed he was doomed to feel every sharp twist of it in his chest, in his gut.

When he finally gave up on the liquor, he was already faintly buzzed and he leaned against the rough painted wood of the doorjamb, out across the empty sand and into the sea. The moon was barely a sliver in the black sky, stars bright and careless around it, cold and mocking like the thoughts that tumbled through his mind. Going to Charles for help had been a risk, he knew, but he hadn't expected it to affect him in the way he had. He should've, perhaps, but he had considered mind-shattering revelations to be the least of his worries when it came to Charles.

Then again, Erik had always underestimated him.

Leave it to Charles, he thought wryly, to be capable of something even mutants thought impossible. Also, leave it to Charles to think he knew what was best for everyone, to think that he had the right to keep something like a child secret from Erik when she was as much his flesh and blood as she was Charles's. It was just another instance of what had always frustrated him most about the man, even when he'd been completely fascinated by him. Erik had never wanted to be at anyone's mercy ever again, but Charles had a way of managing it without anything more than being himself, arrogant and kind, conceited and caring, so powerful that it frightened Erik even when he wanted to trust him with everything he was.

And now this -- a betrayal of Erik's desire to do just that. He had thought, in the back of his mind, that he could always trust Charles with what had been between them and, in some ways, the truth was worse than the fabrication he'd believed. Believing that Charles had been warming his bed with Moira had been a blow but nothing to knowing that Charles had planned to hide his own child from him. His own child, the only family he knew of he had in the world. It felt like crueler than any infidelity could have.

The air had long grown cool by the time Erik let himself think of Jean, who he had wastefully spent so much of the last few days trying not to think of. He recalled her inquisitive blue eyes, painfully reminiscent of Charles's, her unruly red curls, how easy she'd seemed in his presence. He thought about the precious few details he had of her life -- she'd been born in July, she hadn't manifested any powers. He didn't know if she walked yet or talked much, if she'd been colicky infant, how long it had taken for her to start to sleep through the night. He didn't know and Charles had never wanted him to; if Charles's wishes were obeyed, Erik would never even see either of them again, a thought too painful for him to contemplate.

Not that Erik had any idea of what he'd do to avoid that fate. As much as his anger had led him to make veiled threats at Charles, even his anger hadn't blinded him to the fact that his life was no place for a child, especially not an infant. While Charles had chosen to hide away and gather children, Erik had chosen to meet the world head-on. His team was a team of soldiers, adults ready to do battle with the humans who hated them. Erik would be damned if he let Charles keep him from his daughter, but a kidnapping was not the answer.

Whatever the answer was, it didn't come to Erik that night. He didn't remember falling asleep but he woke up sitting on the sandy verandah, the sun warming his skin through the layers of his clothes. Given his state, he was grateful he didn't encounter any of the others as he made his way to his room and found more suitable attire for their new location to don after a much-needed shower. The ancient pipes rattled in the walls as he waited for the cool water to trickle over him, washing away the sand he'd already accumulated on his skin as well as the fogginess of his brain.

Coffee helped, too, enough that Erik could entertain faint humor at the fact he still hadn't encountered another soul in the house, everyone careful to give him the space they thought his black humor deserved. No doubt Janos had been filled in on the explosion that had preceded their departure from the Xavier mansion, warning him against any accidental interaction with their leader. Of course, for all Erik knew, Azazel had teleported them off somewhere to leave him to his thoughts in complete solitude.

That last theory was disproved a few hours into the new day when Erik heard the tell-tale sound of approaching footsteps and looked up from the table he'd commandeered for his papers to see Mystique watching him from across the room. She was once again gloriously naked and unashamed of her glistening blue skin, not covered up as she'd been in deference to Charles's delicate sensibilities.

"I think you've had long enough to brood," she announced as she approached, hands behind her back. "I think it's time to -- what's the saying? -- beard the lion in his den?"

"I'm not brooding," he told her, rattling a blueprint at her. "I'm working."

"We're in the middle of nowhere on lockdown until who knows when," she reminded him. "You're avoiding."

He let out a deep sigh to illustrate how little patience he had for her meddling. "Did you want something in particular, Mystique?"

Her expression fell, losing its hint of attitude. "You never told me. About you and Charles."

"It wasn't any of your business," he said.

She raised an eyebrow -- or at least what would've been a brow on someone else, but on her was a line of pointed scales. "Even when I climbed into your bed that night, you didn't think it was my business that you were sleeping with my brother?"

"It was only once," Erik said before he thought better of it. "And, no, it still wasn't your business."

The incredulity obvious on her face only grew. "That's even worse," she said, sinking down into a nearby chair.

Erik didn't want to know but he couldn't stop himself from asking. "Exactly how is that worse?"

Raven looked down, ducking her head a little. Erik had learned it was a sign of embarrassment. "Charles isn't exactly, um, shy," she admitted in a rush. "I'm figuring if it was only once, he held off on making his move and that's not what he does usually. Meaning...it was unusual for him."

He really didn't want to think about Charles's sexual habits before they'd met any more than he'd wanted to think about a potential liaison with Moira. "Probably more unusual than he was expecting," Erik observed.

"Yeah, definitely," Mystique agreed, but her mood didn't lighten. "I can't imagine what it must've been like for him."

It was something Erik had tried not to think about in an attempt to limit his sympathy toward Charles's decisions. He wanted to hold on to his anger, let his resentment act as a reminder of why he couldn't trust Charles the way he wanted. "He seems to have handled it well enough."

She glared at him. "He's had a lot to handle in the last few years."

Erik agreed to her assertion with a nod. "Yes," he admitted softly, thinking of the first time he'd seen Charles bound to his wheelchair because of Erik's own carelessness. "He has."

"God, Charles, sometimes you are a such selfless bastard," Mystique said after a moment, shaking her head in what seemed to be some confusing blend of sadness and amusement. She glanced over at Erik. "I bet you didn't have any idea."

"About Jean?" Erik snorted. "I think that was obvious."

She shook her head. "About how he felt about you. I told you he loved you."

"You told me he loved Moira," he reminded her.

"I told you I could see how much he loved Jean's other parent," she objected. "Who I thought was Moira, at that time, but who I now know is you." She sat back in her chair, tapping a small square of paper against her thigh as she became lost in thought. Erik hadn't noticed it before but she must've had it in her hands when she came in the room. "He let us both go without ever saying a word."

"Your brother didn't let me do anything and if you're saying you wouldn't have come without his permission, I'm disappointed in you," he told her. "Charles has no right to make decisions for you."

"You're right, he doesn't and I let him get away with it for too long," she said. "But he's still my brother. Even when he pisses me off, I care about him -- and his opinions."

"His opinions are that we are wrong in what we're doing," Erik reminded her, anger creeping in even though he knew Mystique wasn't the proper target for it. "He thinks we should roll over and let the humans murder us in the name of peace and solidarity. Do you agree?"

"No," she said immediately, frowning. "I'm dedicated to the cause, you know that! But..."

"But?" he intoned with derision.

She looked down at the slip of paper in her hand. "Charles asked me how I'd feel if something I did was the reason that someone hated mutants and it ended up hurting Jean. I hadn't ever thought about it like that."

"Charles wants you to think that we can live in harmony with people who want to kill us just for being who we are," Erik argued. "Surely you see the flaw in his integrationist delusions."

"We shouldn't have to hide," she agreed, fierce and lovely in her utter conviction. "But humans don't even know about us yet, not on a wide enough scale. I just wonder if we're...premature."

"Better to wait until they're rounding us up for the slaughterhouse?"

"You know, you want to fault Charles for not telling you about Jean, I get that," she said. "I do. Charles is an arrogant prick half the time and he doesn't even see it. But at least he's thinking about Jean, about how things he does will affect her."

"I'm thinking about all of us!" Erik was on his feet, leaning over the table as he made his point. "Every mutant on the planet and all the ones who'll follow us. I'm making sure they won't ever have to live through what I have."

"Don't you worry about it being us that exposes mutants to the world?" Mystique asked. "What if we're what makes people take notice in the first place?"

"I thought you were done with hiding, Mystique," Erik said, coming around to lean against the table. "Isn't that what you just said?"

"Maybe the world isn't as white as Charles wants it to be," she said, rising to her own feet. "But maybe it's not as black as you see it. Maybe, if you both weren't arrogant pricks, you'd see that there was a place in the middle that works for everyone."

Erik didn't bother answering; he crossed his arms and glowered at her from behind one raised eyebrow.

"There's no talking to you sometimes," she said, throwing her arms up in disgust. "I think I like you better when you're drunk."

"I didn't ask for this little heart-to-heart with you in the first place," he pointed out.

"Neither did I," she said sourly. She held out the paper she'd been holding. "I just came to give you this."

Erik looked at it suspiciously until she started waving it vigorously under his nose, at which point he took it to avoid being slapped in the face with it. "What is it?" he asked, even as the answer presented itself when he turned it over.

What he held in his hand was a photograph -- a snapshot, in color but obviously amateur. It showed Charles, sleeves rolled up, hair mussed and smiling as if on the verge of laughter with Jean positioned in front of him, one chubby hand in the air as she let out an open-mouthed laugh. They'd obviously been moving when the photo had been snapped, so the edges weren't as crisp as they could've been but the subjects were unmistakable.

"Where did you get this?" he asked softly, shocked by the faces staring back at him.

"Hank has a Land camera, you know the kind?" Mystique asked. When he looked at her blankly, she rolled her eyes and continued. "Anyway, he had several so I figured he wouldn't miss one if I helped myself. So I did." She glanced down at the photo Erik still held between them. "I also figured that you probably needed it more than I did now."

Long after Mystique had quietly left him to his maps and plans, Erik stood still, looking down at the photograph clutched in his hand.

 

End of Part 8

Chapter Text

It would've been easy, in the wake of the Brotherhood's abrupt exit, to let his fear over what Erik might do control him but Charles refused to give into the paranoia, no matter how often Alex urged action or how many concerned looks Hanks sent his way in the following days. To do so, he'd explained when they'd gathered with the children only moments after Erik and the rest had disappeared with Azazel, would only be to give Erik more power over them.

"I wish I'd been there to see it," Sean had said, still wincing a little from the psychic trauma of Emma's attack. "It must've been a sight, watching Mom lay into Dad."

"It was pretty badass," Alex had admitted. "Especially when he you-know'ed everyone just to show off."

"It wasn't to show off," Charles had corrected, rolling his eyes. "And Sean? Really? Mom?"

Sean had taken the ice pack Hank offered, unrepentant as he held it against his pale forehead. "You're the one who had a baby, Professor. Nothing left to do but own it."

Charles had had to hide his amusement under a severe expression that had fooled absolutely no one, probably not even Jean where she'd been seated on his lap, happily trying to relieve him of his wristwatch.

Over his protests, however, Hank and Alex banded together against him on several plans for defenses to add around the property and, loathed as he was to admit it, Charles had to admit that they were a good idea. While he was more than used to relying on his own powers to act as an early warning system, there was nothing wrong in having some redundancy in place. It also gave them a creative and productive outlet for the helplessness they felt when it came to Erik and his team, and Charles was not above indulging them on the point if it helped them in some way.

"Why aren't you more concerned about this?" Alex asked one day, bursting into his study, waving the plans he and Hank had been working on. "I don't think you're taking it seriously enough."

Charles sighed, laying aside the pen he'd been writing with. "I'm taking it as seriously as warranted, Alex," he said, leaning back in his chair to watch Alex pace in front of his desk. "I promise."

"You've seen how he gets," Alex reminded him. "Are you saying that you seriously don't think he'll make good on what he said?"

"I'm saying that what he said was extravagant and rash, in the heat of the moment," Charles explained. "Given the time to think about it, he won't follow through."

Alex crossed his arms and watched Charles with a frown on his face. "I still don't like it," he said. "You're our best asset and as long as Erik has that helmet, you're defenseless against him."

"Not badass enough anymore, am I?" Charles asked, humor creeping into his voice.

"You're totally badass," Alex assured him, "if it's not..." He raked a hand through his hair, making it even more unruly. "Look, Erik is like your Achilles Heel or you're his or whatever. And he's got your number when it comes to your powers."

"That's what I have you three for," Charles told him, supporting his words with a burst of confidence in his boys that he made sure Alex could feel even from across the room. "If something happens, I know that you, Sean, Darwin and Hank will be able to protect Jean in my place. I have every faith in you."

Color crept up Alex's neck as he looked away, obviously embarrassed by Charles's effusive belief. It made Charles smile a little, though it was tinged with sadness, that Alex still hadn't quite figured out how to handle the trust and affection of his little patchwork family.

After a moment he spoke again, quiet but fierce. "I meant what I said, you know. About over my dead body."

"I know," Charles said with a nod, voice soft with fondness. "That's why I have complete faith in you."

Despite the brave front he put on for the boys, Charles worried. Of course, he worried. It had been one of his worst fears that Erik would find out about Jean, and their confrontation over it had gone exactly the wrong way, leaving Charles nothing with nothing to do but to worry. Erik had done nothing in the years since they'd met but prove himself stubborn, determined and completely unpredictable. As much as Charles wanted to believe that Erik had no intention of making good on his threat to come back for Jean, he was equally aware that he had nothing but his belief to support it.

He was busy enough during waking hours to ignore his concerns, but they came out in his dreams, leaving his sleep troubled and inadequate. He hesitated to call what he experienced nightmares because he was present enough even in his sleep to tell the difference between it and reality, but every worse-case scenario he could imagine played themselves out every night behind his closed eyelids. He dreamed about finding Jean gone, or watching as Erik disappeared with her in his arms, unable to do anything with the twin hindrances of his paralysis and Erik's helmet working against him. Charles dreamed of feeling the bullet impact him again, but this time higher, closer to his heart, and he dreamed of bleeding out on that Cuban beach, the sound of Jean's cries echoing in his ears. He dreamed of a world on fire, Erik caught in flames of his own making, still clinging to violence as he drew his last breath. He woke for a string of nights, sweaty and shaking, frustrated that he couldn't keep his own subconscious under control.

Charles tried to hide the restless nights, but he realized he hadn't done a very good job of it when Darwin confronted him about it one afternoon.

"You want to talk about it?" Darwin asked as he approached, still in his sweat suit after his run with Alex.

"That obvious, is it?" Charles asked dryly.

"Maybe not to the others, but to me," Darwin told him. "I've seen my fair share of sleepless nights in my life."

"Alex thinks I'm not worried enough," Charles said. "I'm not sure I could function if I did much more of it."

Darwin nodded. "Alex tends to get a little intense when it comes to anything having to do with Erik or Raven or Jean," he said. "This is just the perfection collision of all those things."

Charles knew what Darwin meant, although he was still at a loss to help Alex more than he had. He'd reached a point where he thought only time could finish the job. "Yes, I've noticed."

Darwin caught Charles's eyes with his own. "The truth -- do you think that Erik will come back?"

"Yes," Charles said, no hesitation.

"Even though you told him not to?"

"When has Erik ever listened to me?" Charles asked.

His dry comment earned him a ghost of a smile from Darwin, but it faded quickly. "Do you think he'll try something when he does?"

"I don't know," Charles admitted. "And that's hard for me to admit. Sometimes I think I know him as well as I do myself and then sometimes I think I never knew him at all, which is an affront for a telepath to say aloud, you know."

"Bruises your ego some?" Darwin teased, but his words were gentle.

"That, too." Charles looked out across the empty expanse of the grounds, down the slope toward where he knew the pond sat before the edge of the woods. He thought about the time he'd spent there with Erik when they'd first brought the students to train, how right it had felt to have him by his side. "Erik is not a man easily compartmentalized," Charles said at last. "I know he's capable of both tremendous kindness and tremendous violence. He...feels things deeply but he doesn't know how to deal with it on most occasions." He shot Darwin a look. "It's hard to know a man completely when he doesn't know himself."

"But you tried."

"Even if I know nothing of the true Erik Lehnsherr, I still think I know him better than he does himself," Charles said. "He doesn't want to admit that there's more to him than the darkness and that, that's what frightens me. That one day he won't just be ignoring the good, it'll be well and truly gone."

"Alex, he gave me the play-by-play a while back about what happened in Cuba," Darwin admitted, though Charles had never thought differently. "Why didn't you say yes when he asked you to? It's not like you wouldn't be happier with him than you are without him."

"There are a lot of things I would risk for Erik, but even I have limits, Darwin." Charles shook his head. "My powers have always demanded that I stay true to the lines I've drawn for myself because to do otherwise...it's not a good path for a telepath. Not even for Erik could I blur that line, not even as much as I'd wanted to."

It was a secret he'd never admitted to anyone, not even to himself really, but Charles had been tempted on the beach -- once the fleet had been saved and he'd already suffered the bullet in his spine; when Erik had asked him to join him, Charles had felt the pull of temptation. In his mind, he'd set out his reasons for it, much like the way Darwin had presented it -- how could he save Erik if they were on different sides? -- but something had stopped him. Later, even when he'd missed Erik more than breathing, he'd known he'd been right to say no, even though that righteousness did little to ease the loss he'd suffered.

"I don't think Alex would want you losing sleep over this literally," Darwin said in answer, almost a non sequitur. "But I do think he'd feel better knowing you have some idea of what you're going to do. And I think I agree with him on that."

"I'm not going to let Erik or anyone attack us in our home, if that's what you mean."

"Actually, it's not," Darwin said. "I know that you'll protect us and the kids in any way you can. I'm wondering more about what you're going to do if he comes back without all that."

"You mean, in peace?" Charles sighed. "It's the harder question."

"That's why it's the one you should probably do some thinking on," Darwin pointed out.

"I don't consider myself an unforgiving man," Charles began, eyes trailing away as he realized he'd started to grip his armrest more tightly than was strictly warranted. He forced himself to loosen his grip, flexing the fingers to ease the cramps in them. "And before, before Emma and Azazel arrived, I was actually beginning to wonder if I'd been unfair in deciding to keep him from Jean. But then he had Emma Frost hurt Sean and it changed everything. That's not something I can forget easily."

"But do you think he did really?" Darwin asked with a shrug. "From what the others say, Erik was tight with them before he split. Do you really think he was okay with her hurting him?"

"I don't know," Charles admitted for the second time in the conversation. "I want to believe he wouldn't, but I know I'm not my most clear-headed when it comes to Erik." He raised an eyebrow at the young mutant who sat watching him with an expectant expression. "Since when did you become Erik's champion, hmm?"

Darwin laughed and ducked his head a little. "Someone's got to be on the cat's side around here or else things would be pretty dull," he said. "The truth, though, is that...I remember what you guys were like when I first met you and I'd never seen two people who clicked together like you did, you know? Hard to believe that's all gone when you guys still look at each other like that, even after everything. Especially when Jean and the others are caught in the middle of it. Alex won't ever say it but he misses Erik, too. I think it's why he's so pissed."

"Yes," Charles said. "It's exactly why, although you're right that he'd never admit it if he could get away without doing so. But no matter how much any of us miss him, Darwin, I can't let that guide my decision, not if I can't trust him not to hurt them again."

"I have nothing but respect for you, Charles," Darwin said after a moment and it was obvious that a "but" was coming after that statement. "And I get what you were saying about lines and not crossing them. But..."

"But?" Charles prompted.

"But sometimes those lines let us box ourselves in out of nothing but fear." Darwin looked out over the property much as Charles had done, but the thoughts were different, flecked with light and shapelessness, with the conflicting feelings of disconnect and unity he'd felt when he'd lived as energy. "I had a lot of time to think about the things I hadn't done when I was floating around up there and about why I didn't do them. You don't ever want plain old fear to be the answer when you ask yourself those kinds of questions."

Charles wanted to protest that the situation was much more complicated than Darwin had painted it, but Darwin's knowing gaze stopped him short. At its essence, the entire situation was about fear -- his, Erik's, the humans'. Humans feared what they didn't understand; Erik feared mutants having to live through what he had; and Charles, he feared Erik, for so many reasons. He could see where the humans who'd almost killed them in Cuba had acted rashly because of that fear and he'd see Erik do the same in response.

He wondered, though, whether his own actions had been rash for the same reasons.

When it was clear that Darwin was waiting for a response, Charles favored him with a steady look. "I can only control how my own fear drives me," he told him. "I can't control anyone else's."

Darwin nodded his agreement. "But it's a start."

Charles found he had no answer to that.

**

The small crisis that had necessitated the Brotherhood's forced vacation on the sidelines eventually passed and they were back to their business in no time, so soon that the time they lost was little more than a nuisance. Erik was glad to once again have something to focus on that wasn't Charles or Jean, and no one dared to bring them up after they'd left their dilapidated safe house by the sea for another mission, not even Mystique. It was easy to let the matter slide to the back of his mind, to be worried at in his leisure or ignored if it was his pleasure.

Or it should've been, except that Erik turned out to be his own worst enemy on the matter. At random times and when it was the last thing he needed to be doing, Erik found himself pulling out the photo of Charles and Jean that Mystique had given him.

He'd long since memorized every facet of it, every line and detail about Charles, about Jean, about the hazy background that he suspected was Hank's lab, though it was hardly the place a child needed to be. He searched it for some trace of himself in her chubby little face, looking for some line or curve that would remind him of himself or his mother, a grandparent or a cousin. But laughing as she was in the photo, captured in a moment of pure, infectious joy, Erik only saw the echoes of Charles in their daughter's face, mirrored as it was in the quick, growing grin he shared with her in it.

Part of Erik regretted that he even knew about Jean because she was a distraction he didn't need in his world, focused as he was on his plans. Charles had been a distraction in the beginning, but he'd slowly learned to tame those memories, push them away. Jean was a new problem, a new preoccupation, and he hadn't yet learned how to escape it.

It didn't help that Emma seemed to have gained a new appreciation for watching him out of the corner of her eye, something uncomfortable and knowing about her gaze. It went beyond the smug look of understanding he'd come to expect from telepaths, thanks to his association with both Charles and Emma; it bordered on speculative and weighing, like she was just waiting for him to act in some certain way. He refused to acknowledge it by asking her about it, so he simply clung more securely to the shielded safety of his helmet, even at times when he would've once removed it.

So involved in his own petty distractions, Erik almost missed that Mystique seemed to have developed a strange habit of slipping off with Azazel every few days. He didn't know where they were going or what they were doing, so he said nothing the first two times, but when it had happened twice more in that week, he decided it was worth his time to investigate. Mystique had grown considerably since she'd left the suffocating sphere of her brother's influence, but she was still less worldly than the rest of the Brotherhood and he felt a need to pay her closer attention because of it. He could admit, to himself at least, that he also felt like he owed it to Charles to protect her as much as he could.

Erik waited until he saw Mystique and Azazel disappear together and then he waited patiently until they made their reappearance. It took less than twenty minutes before they were once again moving within the confines of their base, and he could hardly think of what they could be doing when they were gone for such a short time. He gave Raven an hour to settle before he went looking for her, which proved to be easy because she was in the old sitting room that smelt faintly of mildew and the sea. She was hunched over, reading something she clutched in her blue hands.

"We don't have secrets in the Brotherhood, Mystique," he said as he entered quietly, startling out a surprised yelp out of her.

She crushed the papers she'd been reading between her fists, tucking them to one side as she glared up at him. "Oh, yeah, I forgot. That's why I didn't know about your torrid affair with my brother until two years after the fact."

"This isn't about the past," he said, sidestepping the mention to Charles. "This is about the present." He crossed his arms over his chest, eyes fixed on hers. "Don't think I haven't noticed you've been disappearing with Azazel every few days."

"So?" she asked with a toss of her head, a leftover gesture from when she'd frequently had long, blonde hair. He could tell she was trying to be flippant in the face of his inquiry but he could also tell she was nervous by the way her scales rippled along her arms. "What's it to you?"

"Nothing," he said. "Except that you seem very nervous when I ask about it. Is there something I shouldn't know?"

"You're paranoid," she said, but her hand clenched around the papers she'd stuffed between her body and the cushions, and he had his answer.

He flicked his gaze toward her hand. "What do you have there, Mystique?"

"It's none of your business," she said. "Leave me alone."

"The papers," he ordered. "Now."

She glared for another full minute before he raised an eyebrow and curled his fingers in a command. With a sigh, she slung out the hand containing the papers, and he took them without a word. Once he'd smoothed them from their crinkled state, it only took reading a few lines before he realized what it was, a revelation that made him flip to the last page to read the messily scrawled signature.

"A letter? From McCoy?" His surprise was apparent in his voice.

"Yes," she said, snatching the letter back. "Are you happy now?"

"How exactly are you and McCoy exchanging letters when our location is supposed to be a secret?" he snapped.

"I'm not stupid," she protested. "I have a post office box in Miami. Azazel takes me every few days to check it and I mail my letters when I'm there."

"What do you and McCoy have to talk about exactly?" Erik asked, eyeing the letter she held with suspicion.

"None of your business," she hissed. "It's nothing about what we're doing. It's just about...us. I mean, Hank and me. Things we didn't get figured out the last time we talked."

Erik tried to pretend that it wasn't envy he was feeling but there was no better word for the sharp annoyance he felt for both Mystique and Hank at that moment. He chose to glare instead of speak, which led Mystique to add, "You can ask if you want."

"Ask what?"

"About Charles," she said. "About what Hank might've said about what he might've said about you."

"I don't really care," he gritted out.

Mystique spared him an evil grin, one she must've learned from Emma. "Liar," she intoned. "You're dying to hear about all about him and Jean. Admit it."

He sighed, closing his eyes. "There's nothing to hear about from or regarding your brother," he said, refusing to say the name himself. "I believe you were there when he made his feelings quite clear on the matter."

She furrowed her brow in thought, then rolled her eyes. "Please, do you really think he meant that?"

"I've noticed that your brother is a man of strong convictions," Erik said, trying to ignore the ache thinking about it left in his chest.

Mystique watched him for a beat, the teasing expression falling from her face. Erik didn't enjoy the solemn look she shot him, though, because it more than hinted at pity. "Erik -- you have to know. You can't not, not when you spent months with him."

"Know what?"

"Charles loves you," she said. "Probably crazy in love with you unless I'm mistaken."

"And you know this how?" he wanted to know. "You didn't even know we'd had any kind of relationship until after it was long over."

"Because I know my brother," she said. "I saw the way he looked at you back then, I just didn't know what it meant. I thought he was just fascinated with meeting a fellow mutant. You were the first he met after me." She looked down and smoothed her crumpled letter across one knee. "And then there's the fact he waited so long to do something about it. Charles doesn't wait when it's casual, which means he usually doesn't wait at all."

"I really don't have time for this," Erik declared. "Keep writing your letters if you must, I ---"

Mystique rarely touched him, but she did then, reaching out to wrap strong, blue fingers around his wrist. "Did you tell you he loved you?" she asked, invasive and sympathetic and dangerously close to having a stray bit of metal thrown in her direction.

"What your brother said is irrelevant," Erik said, shaking off her hand. "Even if he did, we only knew each other a few months and you yourself said that he's --"

"Did you get to know him at all?" she asked with an angry gust of breath. "Or did you just spend your time lusting after him and ignoring everything that came out of his mouth or his head?"

"Raven," he growled in warning, not even noticing his slip-up.

Mystique did, though, and it earned a faint smile. "Jinx," she said with humor, before she sobered. "Once, when I was younger, I asked my brother about love at first sight. You know, like in all the movies? I asked him if he thought it was possible. Do you know what he said?"

"No," he said. "And I'm pretty sure I don't care."

"You do," she insisted. "He told me he wasn't sure about other people, but he knew telepaths could fall in love at first sight. Because with one look, he could know everything about someone and isn't that what you fall in love with? The whole person? Charles always said that if he fell in love he'd do it like that, with someone's mind, instantly." She shook her head. "And he did, I just didn't notice. He felt your mind that night in Florida and seconds later he threw himself off a boat to save your life." She gave a funny little laugh. "My brother wasn't that good of a swimmer to make that look like a good idea."

"Mystique," he began, unsure of what he wanted to say when her conviction was burning in her yellow eyes as much as it did when they spoke of making the world safe for mutants. On those occasions, it made him proud; now that surety just made him uncomfortable.

"And if he said the words?" Her mouth tugged down into a frown. "My brother doesn't lie. Not about things like that. So do you really think that there's anything you could do that he'd really find unforgivable, after he forgave you -- us -- for so much already?"

"He wasn't ever going to tell me about Jean," he reminded her. "And then Sean, with Emma...you heard what he said, the same as I did. Do you think he lied, then?"

"No," she answered. "But I think he overestimated his own ability to hold a grudge, which is pretty close to nonexistent on a good day. Are you really going to let that stop you from trying?"

"Trying what?" he asked. "I spent almost two years not speaking to your brother and I don't plan on changing that now. If circumstances hadn't called for it, I wouldn't have spoken to him then."

Mystique looked away, down at the letter in her hands. "So you still don't think there's any middle ground, huh? Some place where you and Charles don't have to be miserable for the rest of your lives just because you miss each other?"

"That's not how it works," Erik told her. The anger had drained away, leaving only an emptiness in its place. It was one he was familiar with because he'd lived with it for years before he'd met Charles; it had only been after they'd parted ways that Erik realized how much it had eased during their acquaintance.

"Fine," she said, lifting her chin in a sign of stubbornness that had Erik biting back a sigh. "What about Jean? Are you really just going to give up and never be part of her life?"

"She's my daughter," he said, as if it was a real answer to her question.

Mystique nodded, as if satisfied. "Well, unless you're going to kidnap her and raise her while we hop from base to base, mission to mission, you're going to have to work that out with Charles, aren't you?"

"Eventually," he conceded.

"Sooner rather than later, I hope," she told him. "Or don't you think you've missed enough of your daughter's life?"

He thought about the photo he had tucked into his pocket at that very moment, about the questions he wondered if he'd ever have answers to about Jean, but there was nothing on the subject he wanted to say to his daughter's obstinate aunt. "Good night, Mystique," he said, turning away.

"Ball's in your court, Magneto," she called at his retreating back. "Your daughter turns a year old next week. Where are you going to be when everyone else is celebrating it?"

He didn't bother to reply as he slammed the door shut on his way out.

**

End of Part 9

Chapter Text

Even if Charles had wanted to keep Jean's first birthday celebration a low-key event, the rest of his household wouldn't have allowed it, so it was just as well he had other plans. The morning of the big day dawned warm and bright and everyone quickly went to work. Hank and Darwin carried tables and chairs to the designated picnic area and laid out blankets for the kids to sit on while they filled balloons and sorted out sparkly decorations. Meanwhile, Alex and Sean drove into town to pick up the large cake Charles had ordered for the occasion, deciding it was outside of their collective skill set to bake a cake large enough to feed them all.

Jean didn't quite understand what that the hubbub was about, but she picked up on the excitement in the air. She wasn't a moody child, per se, but Charles often noticed that her moods reflected his own and he once again wondered if it was a sign of burgeoning telepathic or empathic skill. That morning, she refused to be separated from the girls who gave her their undivided attention, squealing, babbling and supplying toys for her amusement, so Charles left her with them under Piotr's watchful eye while he went back to the manor to organize the picnic fare he'd help make the evening before. He was loading the last of it into baskets when Alex and Sean appeared, Sean holding the door while Alex carefully balanced the cake in his hands.

"Any trouble?" he asked, watching as they carefully set it on the mostly empty kitchen table.

"Other than Alex getting us lost?" Sean asked. "Not a one."

Alex looked like he wanted to protest Sean's comment violently, but Charles shoved a picnic basket of food at him to forestall any such denial. "I think they're ready for this outside," he said, followed by a shooing gesture. "Don't keep them waiting."

It wasn't long after the cake's arrival that the "party," such as it was, was in full swing, which meant Charles sat by the table and guarded the food while his kids ran wild in the kind of controlled chaos he'd become accustomed to in the years since he'd brought home his first group of students. Jean wanted to be in the thick of the action even though her ambitions overstepped her ability to keep up, but she still gamely toddled along as best she could with several pairs of overprotective eyes on her at all times. Charles hid his grin behind his hand as he watched both Alex and Hank dive to stop a tumble but it was Sean that saved the day with a cushioning gust of his sonic voice that made sure Jean landed on her bottom on a blanket instead of head-first on the ground.

"Don't give yourselves heart attacks," he advised them, humor in his voice. "She's going to take a few of those before she gets her feet under her."

Despite the preparation that had went into the occasion, it was a lazy sort of day, none of them in a rush to end fun they were having. Charles felt the same way, appreciating the summer sun in a way he hadn't been able to a year before, his only signposts in mind for wrapping up the afternoon being Jean's mood and the tell-tale hints of too much sun on her delicate skin. As long as his daughter was still enjoying herself and not in danger of turning lobster-red, he was content to let the festivities fill as many hours as they liked.

Charles had let his guard down with the pleasantness of the day which meant the sudden intrusion of new minds within the vicinity of his reach was like a slap to the face, startling him out of his relaxed position. One of the minds quickly vanished as only a teleporter could, leaving two very familiar minds brushing against Charles's. The fact that one of them was Erik's was the most shocking realization of all.

In the seconds it took Charles to gain his composure, Hank noticed the few arrivals and he made a grab for Jean that she protested with an emphatic "No!" that he ignored to tuck her against his side. Alex started forward, confrontation on his mind, but Darwin laid a gentle hand on his arm which stopped him in his tracks, though he continued to watch Raven and Erik's slow progress toward Charles with hot, angry eyes.

"Charles," Raven said, bounding to Charles's side, leaving Erik to trail behind her. She was distinctly nervous, yellows eyes darting between Hank and her brother as she spoke. "I know things didn't exactly end well the last time we stopped by but we were hoping..." ...that you'd let us come see Jean and celebrate her birthday, she finished in his head."Hank mentioned it in a letter and I just thought maybe..." ...you'd give me and Erik another chance at this.

He noticed that Erik remained a safe distance from them all, his unshielded mind carefully blank. It was a change from the past when Erik's thoughts had rattled so loudly in his own head that Charles couldn't help but hear them. He wasn't in the strange robes that he'd worn the last two times they'd met since Cuba and instead was in casual civilian clothing, a light-colored polo shirt and coordinating slacks. Even his sunglasses had made a reappearance, blocking his eyes from view.

Charles remembered vividly the last painful words they'd exchanged, the anger and threats; but he also remembered the moment of weakness he'd seen pass over Erik's face, when he'd looked as anguished as Charles had felt. And there was the fact that he'd come at all and without his helmet -- a sign of compromise that Charles hadn't thought him capable of, one that made hope squeeze as painfully in Charles's chest as the love he felt for his daughter sometimes did.

"So?" Raven asked, looking more unsure of her welcome. Charles could feel the conflicted reactions in those around him, from Alex's anger to Hank's and Sean's cautious hopefulness and Darwin's anticipation, all the way down to the children who watched the strangers with various degrees of curiosity and bashfulness.

Finally, Charles reached out and took Raven's hand, watching her face light up with a smile as he squeezed it tightly. "I think there's enough cake for two more," he said, eyes drifting to Erik. Even with the sunglasses, Charles knew Erik was looking back at him.

Raven slipped her hand free of his but not before landing a kiss on his cheek with a murmured "Thanks!" in his ear. Then she turned her attention to Hank and Jean, rushing toward them with her hands outstretched. "Jean," she exclaimed, and it was comical to watch his little girl swing her head toward her aunt at the sound of her name. "Do you remember me? It's Aunt Raven!"

Charles watched Hank allow Raven to take Jean from his arms and start off toward the blanket littered with toys even as he felt Erik's presence as he slowly approached, carefully pulling out a chair on Charles's right. "Thank you, Charles," he said as he took a seat, his voice devoid of the cutting tone that had been so prevalent during their last conversation. "It means a great deal that you'd allow us to stay."

"I don't think grudges and hard feelings will help anyone," Charles said, thinking of his conversation with Darwin about fears. "Do you?"

"No," Erik agreed softly after a long moment. "Not between us."

There was another stretch of silence as Charles worked to keep his mind out of Erik's, unsure of how much he'd been allowed before it would break their tentative truce. It was enough, he told himself, that he could feel the edges of it close to him, not separated from him and replaced by the horrible blankness that resulted from the use of the helmet.

Erik was the one that broke it, clearing his throat a little before he spoke. "I assume the school is going well?" he asked. "You have four students already."

"Yes," Charles agreed. "And three more scheduled to start in the fall. It's enough that I've thought about diverting some of my time into finding another adult mutant who wants to help out. Now that Jean's a little older..."

"You've done good here," Erik stated, glancing around at the young mutants assembled before them.

"Thank you," Charles said. He raised an eyebrow, unable to stop himself from adding, "I'm sorry I can't return the compliment since I don't really know what you've been up to."

"And you likely wouldn't approve if you did," Erik returned, but there was no bitterness in it. It was almost...playful, which made Charles smile a little in spite of himself.

"You're very likely correct," he said.

It had been a busy morning, so it didn't surprise Charles that less than half an hour after Erik and Raven's arrival, Jean began to show signs of fussiness, something that left Raven a little flummoxed.

"Charles," she called, alarm in her voice. "She's getting a little cranky."

He quickly checked his wristwatch. "Ah, yes, she's late for her nap. I'll put her down for a few hours." At the comically tragic faces that garnered from the kids, he rolled his eyes. "We'll eat cake as soon as she's up from it. Honestly, the cake isn't going anywhere."

Jean was rubbing at her eyes with her fist as Alex carried her over, which probably wasn't the best idea since she'd spent a good amount of time grubbing in the grass, but Charles supposed it couldn't be helped. She settled a little once Charles had her in the cradle of his arms and Alex took it as his chance to glare at Erik up close. Erik ignored him entirely, which Charles knew only infuriated Alex more.

As Charles settled Jean securely against him so he could turn his wheelchair toward the house, Erik rose from his seat.

"Charles…" he began, trailing off even as Charles glanced up in response."Would it...could I...help?"

Alex's mental reply to that question was loud in Charles's head and he shot the young man a look. It was then that he heard the mental please that Erik had added to his question, and knew there was only one answer he could give to it. "Of course," he said, reaching down to start rolling forward.

"I'll get that," Erik volunteered, stepping up beside him. "You just hold onto her."

Charles nodded and expected to feel Erik's hands on the back of his chair, but instead there was a slight tremor in the metal around him and then he was gliding just above the ground, pacing perfectly with Erik's long strides toward the manor.

"Nice trick," he observed, noticing how much easier it was to traverse the grass under the power of Erik's abilities. Charles's susceptibility to Erik's powers because of his wheelchair was something that worried Hank a great deal whenever he retrofitted it with improvements, but for the moment it was an aid, not a weapon against him. "Very clever."

"You're hardly more difficult to move than a satellite dish," Erik said with a hint of a smile. "Or a submarine."

Erik knew the way to the nursery so there was no more need to talk as they entered the quiet halls of the house. Jean was very tired; she was already starting to nod off in Charles's arms, even without any soothing telepathic help. When they reached the nursery, Charles took a calculated risk and held her out to Erik. "Could you hold her for a moment? I need to fetch a cloth to clean her up."

There was no real words Charles could conjure up to explain the look on Erik's face as he accepted his daughter into his arms for the first time since he'd learned the truth, and Charles had never been more tempted to delve into his mind. Jean was still half-asleep, but she stirred enough to give Erik a deeply suspicious look, as if she didn't remember how well she'd took to him during his last visit, but she didn't cry or fight to get away, which Charles considered a minor victory. When he returned a few moments later with a wet washcloth, that look hadn't left Erik's face, his eyes glued to Jean as if he still couldn't believe it.

Charles hid the strange elation it stirred in him as he quickly wiped at her face and hands despite the flailing protest she waged against it before instructing Erik to settle her in the crib. Charles had never seen Erik be as careful as he was with that task, gently caressing her unruly mop of hair as she curled up, already drifting off once again.

"She's beautiful," Erik said, and Charles wasn't certain if the hushed tone was in deference to the sleeping child or because the wonder in it wouldn't let him speak any louder.

"Yes, she is," he agreed, just as soft.

Erik finally managed to tear his eyes away from her, pale blue eyes intent on Charles's as their gazes met. "Tell me about her?"

"What would like you to know?"

Erik laughed a little, but it was sad. "Everything."

"That would take a very long time," Charles smiled. "Anything in particular?"

"Is she talking yet?" he asked, still quiet as if not to wake her.

"A few words," Charles replied. "But she's rather adept at making her wishes known by impatient gestures, something I'm certain she inherited from you."

Erik laughed at that, something startling and delighted. "What was her first word?"

"Dada," Charles said, unable to resist a quick touch to her foot through the bars of the crib. "Although if you ask Sean, he'll say it was "Sean." There's also "no" and "mine," which I guess isn't all that surprising in a house full of other children."

There was so much emotion in Erik's expression, something fragile and wondrous that reminded Charles of when he'd re-given him the memory of his mother and helped him move a satellite dish with his mind. Just like with Jean, he couldn't stop himself from reaching out, brushing his fingers against the hand Erik had curled around the top of the crib.

"Come on," he said, nodding toward the door. "She'll sleep for a few hours." After Erik silently followed him back into the hall, Charles took a deep breath before he continued. "The kids will be all right by themselves, so I think I'm going to stay inside until Jean wakes up. Would you like to join me?"

It was light, but there was a brush of Erik's hand over his shoulder. "What do you have in mind?"

"It's been a very long time since I've played a game of chess," Charles said. "If you're up to it?"

He could feel Erik's power settle into the metal of his chair. "Always."

**

A week earlier, even in the wake of his conversation with Mystique, Erik had never imagined that he'd find himself where he was at that moment -- sitting in Charles's study with the man himself, a chess board between them.

It was easy to let himself pretend that this was a memory from before Cuba, back when the one thing he hadn't doubted was his relationship with Charles, assured that his friend would always be at his side as they took on the world. Erik had been wrong, of course, but it was still one of the best times in his life; with the exception of his childhood memories from before the war, there were none that were more precious to him.

Except maybe the ones he'd just made, of holding his daughter, of listening to Charles tell him about her in that soft voice of his, sharing that moment between them as only her two parents could.

Now, as they sat in an easy silence and contemplated their moves, the only thing missing from the scene was a martini glass to take Erik back to the days they'd spent at the Xavier mansion training before Cuba had ripped them apart. At the time, Erik hadn't let himself think much about the future past killing Shaw, past how sweet that last strike would be but sometimes, against his better judgment, he'd found himself doing just the opposite, imagining what it would be like to spend the rest of his life as Charles often alluded, building a new world for their fellow mutants, side by side.

"Did you know?" he heard himself ask aloud. Charles looked up from the board, eyebrows raised, so Erik elaborated, "That Hank and your sister were exchanging letters?" When he caught Charles's open gaze, he snorted. "Of course you did. I forgot who I was asking."

"I do give them their privacy, you know," Charles retorted, although there was no heat. "But yes, I knew. Hank cleared it with me before he wrote back after Raven's first letter."

Erik silently marveled that Charles had seemed to instill more compliance in his students than Erik had in his soldiers, although Erik at least knew he took a capable team into each mission. He doubted Charles could say the same.

"I'm happy to leave you with your privacy as well, my friend," Charles told him. "But you really must think less loudly when you think about me if you don't want to broadcast."

"Exactly how much have you picked up?"

"This afternoon? Just your opinion on the battle readiness of my team," Charles assured him. "But I have been actively shielding as best as I can. Though your own shielding has improved."

"A consequence of continued contact with telepaths," he murmured as he made his move, under no doubt that Charles heard him perfectly.

Charles nodded a little. "It's been a long few years."

Apart, Erik could hear as clearly as if Charles had spoken at him telepathically. The regret in his voice was similarly unmistakable. He couldn't help but agree. "Yes, it has."

There were so many things Erik could think to say in the silence between them, all of them true: I've missed you, I still want you by my side, even I'm sorry; but he wasn't sure they'd make it past his throat or, if they did, what meaning they would take on once they were said aloud. It wasn't as if anything had changed in those two years -- Charles still wanted something so different from what Erik knew they needed. For all of Mystique's talk of compromise, Erik didn't see where it could exist between them.

But there were other, more recent transgressions that Erik knew he needed to apologize for, things he'd done that, in retrospect, he knew cut Charles more deeply than the bullet once had.

"Charles," he began, sitting back in little in his seat. When Charles glanced up to meet his eyes again, Erik held the gaze, refusing to let himself look away. "I -- I want you to know I'm sorry about Emma...and Sean. It was wrong of me to ever think to do that."

Charles didn't speak for a full minute, instead watching his hand as it tightened around a captured pawn for a moment before releasing it. "It was my greatest fear come to life," he admitted. "That you'd hurt one of them."

"I didn't mean for Sean to be hurt," Erik told him truthfully. "I know it doesn't change the fact of what Emma did or that I asked it of her. I didn't think..."

"I know. That's what makes you so terrifying," Charles said. "I know that you have it within you to do so much good, but not if it's only anger that you allow yourself to respond to."

"Charles..."

He raised his hand to quiet whatever else Erik wanted to say. "I'm not trying to start a fight, Erik. Not today. But you have to understand that it's the one thing I can't allow. It's why I had planned to keep Jean from you and why I don't think I would've regretted it if I'd been successful. Because the life you've chosen, it's only going to ever be about violence and I can't let that touch them if I can help it."

Erik nodded. "I understand that and I know that I've hurt people I've cared about with my actions, actions that aren't defensible." He let his eyes linger on the shiny metal of Charles's wheelchair. "Of course, I know."

Charles's empty fingers idly stroked down the armrest, as if tracing the path of Erik's eyes. "It would've been harder for me to forgive this if it had happened to anyone else."

Erik wanted to believe what Charles's words implied. "Does that mean that I am forgiven?"

"For the bullet?" At Erik's nod, Charles's face softened. "Yes, Erik. I hadn't meant to leave you with any other impression but during your first visit...Jean was already a concern and I hadn't been prepared to see you."

"And for Sean?"

Charles's expression shuttered a little. "I wasn't sure I'd be as gracious as I've been today when next I saw you," he confessed. "But you came without your armor and I know how difficult that was for you. It wouldn't have been right to send you away in the face of that."

Coming without his helmet had been the most agonizing decision he'd made leading up to the day, even more than the decision to come at all. Charles knew him too well without the advantage of telepathy, without Erik's inner most everything laid bare to him. He knew that the others, including Mystique, thought he feared Charles's powers because Charles could bend him to his will with a glance. Erik, however, feared that Charles might finally see something there that changed his mind about ever seeing goodness in him.

Erik had barely finished the thought to himself before he felt fingers brush against his. "It hasn't," Charles told him. "I see your mistakes, Erik, but I still see you. And I still believe with everything I am that you're good, if only you'd let yourself be."

"I thought you weren't hearing my thoughts," Erik reminded him, using humor to cover the tremor in his voice.

Charles smiled, a simple uncomplicated smile, something Erik hadn't seen in a long time, outside of his memories. "You keep thinking loudly," he said, adding more quietly, "It's almost like there are some things you can't help but want me to know."

Erik was trying to decide how to respond when he noticed Charles had tilted his head a little, bringing his fingers to temple before he rolled his eyes.

"What was that?" he asked.

"Ah, just Hank, checking in on me," Charles admitted, a little sheepishly. "He and Alex, particularly, are -- overprotective." He shook his head, as if he couldn't understand the concept. "I think he wanted to make sure we hadn't escalated to bloodshed."

"Before I found out that they were playing at pen-pals, I would've asked the same about Hank and Mystique -- Raven," Erik said.

"Yes, they've had their moments in the last months," Charles agreed.

"I was surprised that Hank was writing her, given their difficulties." He vividly remembered Mystique's frustration during those few days under that roof, the way she'd ranted and raved about Hank when he'd given her the chance. He should've realized something had changed when those rants didn't follow them to their new base.

"I think it helped that Raven made the first overture," Charles said, finally making his move on the chessboard that had been stalled by their detour into serious conversation. "But Hank doesn't want to be mad at Raven. He wants to understand, I think, and he wants them to find a way to make things right between them." The way Charles made sure he caught Erik's eye as he spoke told Erik that he was talking about more than his sister and McCoy with his words.

"Things can't go back to the way it was before," Erik murmured, ducking his head to stare at the chessboard, even though the match was the furthest thing from his mind.

"I don't think you'll find someone more aware of that than Hank," Charles told him. "But there is such a thing as moving forward -- and changing the things that hold you back from that."

Even though he'd never thought he would, Erik had actually forgotten the intensity of Charles's blue eyes, struck by them now as if he hadn't spent months with their steady warmth cast in his direction. But he did remember how sometimes so much emotion showed on Charles's face that it was painful to look at, especially when it was directed at him, full of soft, pleasant feelings that made his heart stutter in his chest.

He decided a change in subject was in order. "Jean," he said.

"Is fine," Charles assured him.

"No, I..." Erik ran a hand through his hair, a nervous gesture he'd almost abandoned given the time he spent with his head encased in metal. "I hate that I've missed a whole year of her life. I do understand why," he quickly added. "But I've missed so much and it's not like I can ever get it back."

"I am sorry for that, Erik," Charles said. "If it helps, it wasn't a decision I made lightly. And it wasn't as easy as I would've liked it to be."

"And now that I know?" Erik had to ask. "How do you feel about it?"

"I won't lie and say it hasn't worried me in the last few months," Charles told him. "But I hope that you being here like this as opposed to...I hope it's a sign that I don't have to worry anymore."

"I know I...said things when I found out," he admitted slowly. "But, no, I'd never...where on earth would be better for our daughter than here, with you? "

Charles looked distinctively relieved, which made a flash of guilt hit Erik over the fact that Charles had actually worried about that very thing. "I never thought, really, I just...it's been pointed out to me on more than one occasion that I'm too quick to believe the best in people."

Erik knew he'd been the one to say so, but he didn't mind it so much when he was the one reaping the rewards of Charles's blind faith. "I still want to know everything," he told him. "Anything, everything you can think to tell me about her."

Charles leaned back in his chair a little, a measuring, speculative gleam in his eye.

"Charles?"

"I know it's not exactly the same," he began. "But I could..." He raised a hand into the air and wiggled his fingers, a gesture that Erik had long associated with the use of his telepathy. "Well, I could share. My memories of Jean. With you."

Knowing from experience how intimate it was to share memories through Charles's powers, Erik realized he was being offered more than just a chance to gain knowledge about his daughter. It was a sign of trust -- Charles was willing to give him something of himself, even more than he'd given him by tacitly allowing him to spend time with their daughter.

He couldn't imagine turning it down.

"That sounds...fine," he managed to answer. "Yes."

"Right then." Charles shifted again, his face schooling into something very contemplative. He lifted his hand toward his head, then paused. "Are you ready? Now?"

"Whenever you are," Erik told him, settling back in his own chair.

Charles nodded his acceptance and finished the gesture, laying his fingers against his temple. Where Erik watched him, he could see Charles's eyelids flutter, and then Erik didn't see anything of what was in front of him because his mind was exploding with flashes -- of scenes, of emotions, of words that echoed in his ear from somewhere inside his own head. At first they were a jumble, quite unlike the time Charles had presented him with his own buried memory, but then he could hear Charles's quiet voice guiding him through each one in sequence, slotting them into his thoughts until they were a coherent story that answered all his questions.

This was how I found out, Charles explained, and Erik saw Hank's worried blue face.

And this is what it was like to hold her for the first time, and Erik found feel Charles's emotion from that moment bleeding into his own as he looked down as Charles had at the newborn in his arms.

Then there were dozens of Jean's other firsts -- first smile, first laugh, first fever; rolling over, crawling, her first independent steps; and there were glimpses of the things in between, her daily routine through twelve months of living, fussiness and frustration, sweet moments that made every rocky one fade away.

It could've been minutes or hours before Charles pulled back from the telepathic contact, leaving Erik alone with his new knowledge. When the room finally righted itself around him and he found himself facing Charles once again, it didn't surprise Erik that there were tears in Charles's eyes. He was even less surprised that he could feel a matching wetness on his face.

"Jean's awake," Charles said, voice rough as he maneuvered around the chessboard. He paused when he was close to Erik and he reached out, using one of his thumbs to brush away a tear on Erik's face. "I'll give you a moment, yes?"

Erik didn't trust his voice, so he nodded instead.

"Come up to the nursery when you're ready," Charles said softly. "There's still cake to eat."

Erik wanted to laugh at Charles's droll parting shot but he couldn't find it in him to do so, still tremulous and shaken by what Charles had given him by sharing his memories. They hadn't come to Erik like photos in an album or images on a screen; they'd each come attached with every nuance the moments had held for Charles, every thought and feeling he associated with them. What had struck Erik about that was that every moment had been so full of love -- not just for Jean, but for him as well, a quiet background hum that never seemed to leave Charles's thoughts in those years of separation.

But more even more amazing, more earth-shattering, was the thought that had woven itself through those same memories, a coherent shape to the longing entwined around those sure, steady feelings.

I wish Erik were here.

 

**

End of Part 10

Chapter Text

As much as Charles tried not to let himself, he couldn't help the hope that Jean's birthday gave him that perhaps Erik and Raven weren't as lost to him as he'd always feared. After their telepathic transference that afternoon, Erik had eventually joined Charles, Jean, and the rest of those gathered for the promised cake, the highlight of the day for the younger children. Even Jean, who Charles assumed hadn't understood the significance, had enjoyed the chance to smash the vanilla cake and frosting between her fingers to her heart's content, ending up with as much of it on her as had went in her mouth.

Erik had remained close during the proceedings, even as he'd worked on being as unobtrusive as possible, especially given the looks he'd gotten from Alex, Hank and occasionally even Sean. Sean had been more wary than anything while Alex had been overtly hostile, while Hank had vacillated between the two whenever his attention was snatched away from his own cautious hope toward Raven. Still, Charles had tried to make sure Erik had a chance to enjoy more of his daughter's company and he'd even pressed care-taking duties on him at one point, giving him a little alone time while Charles tended to the four other young people under his care.

Although Charles had tried his best to give Erik as much privacy as possible, it had been difficult, especially after how closely their minds had been intertwined earlier in the day, to not catch a few stray thoughts, particularly those that were strongest -- the love, affection and wonder he felt for Jean. Charles had been able to tell from the glimpses he'd picked up that he was somehow part of that equation for Erik as well, but he couldn't be certain to what extent, if what Erik felt for him was just the nostalgia over what they had once had, or fondness given they shared a child or something more. He'd been tempted to look, to find that answer, but he hadn't.

Despite how long Raven and Erik had visited that day, it still had seemed like a blink of time before it was obvious the festivities were over, with no reason for the two outsiders to linger any longer. Alex had made it abundantly apparent with a curt, dismissive nod in their direction as he and Darwin had corralled the girls -- Jean, included -- into the house while Sean and the others had started to clear away the debris from the party. That had left Charles and Hank to make their awkward, stilted goodbyes, which Raven had helped along by throwing herself first at Hank and then at Charles, holding onto him like she'd been afraid she'd never see him again. And maybe, he thought later, she had been.

Erik had not opted for any such overt affection, though he'd favored Charles with a look he'd learned from so many evenings spent together, something warm and teasing to those who knew to look for it, an expression that always managed to draw a smile from Charles.

"Thank you," he'd said simply. "For today. It was...unexpected."

"You're welcome," Charles had said, adding with his mind, And I mean it. You're welcome here, Erik. If you want to be.

Erik had inclined his head a little in acknowledgement but he hadn't said anything else because Azazel had appeared off in the horizon, a foreboding figure even in the rays of the summer sun. Charles had beckoned Hank to turn back to the house with him as Erik and Raven had walked away, refusing to watch them disappear into the air one more time.

Charles knew it was dangerous to have any kind of optimism when it came to Erik, someone whose every reactionary choice seemed to be designed to inflict more damage on those who loved him, but he couldn't stop himself, not when he could remember so clearly every detail of that day, the minute differences he'd been able to detect, the subtle shifts in mood and nuance in Erik's words and looks. He'd come without his helmet and he'd come with little hostility; for Erik, it had been a momentous effort, however much helped along by Raven. And it wasn't as if there wasn't a simple truth that had been exposed by it all -- if Erik truly decided to give up on his campaign against humans and abandoned his plans for violence and revenge, Charles would not have it in him to turn him away.

He wasn't the only one with lingering memories of Jean's birthday; like himself, Hank had found himself with a new-found sense of hope. When Charles touched his mind, he could tell that whatever Raven and Hank had discussed that day and in the letters before and after it, it was helping the young scientist with the same things he'd often brought to Charles when he'd lacked guidance. While Charles missed their conversations, he didn't begrudge Hank the outlet he'd found that seemed to be bringing him actual peace on the matters.

Even Darwin, in his own, quiet way, felt more settled after the low-key interactions of the birthday party, and Sean took the entire thing in stride, leaving Alex as the only one left truly unsettled by Erik's appearance that day. He'd been moody and surly for almost a week afterward and Charles probably wouldn't have needed his telepathy to discern its source, if only from the way he more resolutely dedicated himself to training and his revisions to the manor's defensive systems that he and Hank had begun to implement. Charles wasn't sure how long he could give Alex to sort it out himself but when Darwin started giving him significant looks over Jean's head at breakfast, Charles knew he'd have to step in sooner rather than later because Alex wasn't working through it on his own.

Still even Charles was surprised when it was Alex who approached him first.

Alex chose to corner him in the converted weight room, a room that was unmistakably one that fell into the young man's domain instead of Charles', even though Charles used it several times a week for his own exercises. Charles ignored Alex's hovering presence until he finished his last rep and replaced the weight on the stand.

"Did you want something, Alex?" he asked, flicking his sweaty hair from his eyes as he looked over to where Alex waited near the door.

Alex's face was stern, frowning and determined. "What's up with you and Erik?"

"Meaning?" Charles asked, reaching for the towel he had draped over the back of his wheelchair.

Alex rolled his eyes. "You were kinda chummy back at Jean's party. I'm just wondering what it meant."

"Nothing other than what you saw," Charles said. "Erik decided to come and see Jean. I didn't see the harm in letting him."

"So why are we even bothering with training and defensive alarms and everything if you're just going to let him waltz in through the front door?" he wanted to know.

"He did not come to start something with any of us," Charles pointed out, sighing. "It was a completely different scenario than the one you're talking about."

"But what if one day, it's not?" Alex asked. "Or what about one day when it's not? It's not like anything's changed just because he found out about Jean."

"I know you don't have any experience with this, but finding out something like that changes you, no matter how much you think it won't," Charles told him. "Just because you can't see a change in him doesn't mean there hasn't been one."

"Charles," Alex began and he actually flinched from the pity he could detect beneath the frustration. "It's -- this isn't going to change anything. He's still out there killing people for no reason." And then, he added, more softly. "He still chose killing people over staying with you."

It wasn't anything that Charles hadn't told himself before and he knew, he could feel, that Alex spoke from a place of concern. That didn't make the conversation any easier. "It's not as simple as that, Alex," he settled on. "As much as I don't agree with what Erik is doing, as much as I will never agree with him, it's not that simple."

"It's been years and he hasn't realized how stupid he is," Alex said. "What makes you think it's going to be tomorrow or next week when he finally does?"

Suddenly, Charles wanted Alex to understand. He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "I know what you think of Erik and me, and my past relationship with him," he said. "But love doesn't make me stupid, Alex. Everything you've said, I've thought about, probably more than you can understand. I know what kind of man Erik is, how he thinks. What he is and isn't capable of. But even knowing all of it, I can't give up on him, not if there's a chance he'll change his mind for good. That he'll see."

He could tell Alex couldn't understand, not really, but that he was trying. "Jean doesn't know him, not really," he shot back. "And we're getting along fine without him. Why do we even need him back here? Especially when we can't trust him. Because we can't."

"You're right when you say we don't need him," Charles agreed. He looked down and noticed that he was twisting the towel between his hands, an old nervous habit he had abandoned even before he'd met Raven in his kitchen one dark night. "But the world doesn't need Magneto on the loose either and if it's my faith that can help make that happen, my patience, then I'm willing to give it for as long as it takes."

Alex's eyes searched his face, hard and flinty. Then he sighed, something deep and sad, but a sigh that eased the tension in his shoulders. "But that's not the only reason, though."

Charles could feel Alex's squirming embarrassment, the part of him that didn't like to think too deeply about Charles and Erik, about the deeper truths of their relationship. It was oddly...familial, like he'd noticed children felt about their parents and it reminded him how fond he was of Alex, even in the face of his inquisitive disapproval. Still, Alex was an adult, even if he was a young one, and Charles wouldn't lie to him. "Of course it's not," he admitted. "We may not need Erik here, but I'd like him here. I want him here."

"I know," Alex said with another sigh. He rolled his eyes again. "That's what Darwin said you'd say."

"Did you think I'd lie?" Charles asked, humor creeping into his voice.

Alex...flushed a little. "No, not exactly but I thought maybe you'd try to dress it up more. You know, more about how it's better for everyone, blah, blah."

"It is," Charles reminded him. "Erik abandoning his vendetta against humans will only help all mutants, us included."

"Darwin said that, too," Alex admitted a little sheepishly.

"It sounds like you ought to listen to Darwin more, doesn't it?" Charles teased and Alex turned redder. More seriously, Charles continued. "I have as many selfless reasons for wanting to give Erik a chance to change as I do selfish ones. I'm aware of the difference."

Because Charles didn't pry too deeply into Alex's thoughts, he wasn't sure exactly what about their conversation helped Alex but he did settle down after that, although Charles was observant enough to know that Darwin had a hand in that, as well. It was another reason of many that Charles was glad that Darwin had found his way back to them, because he was a steadying influence on Alex where no one else managed it.

Charles didn't ignore Alex's concerns, though, and he gave them serious thought over the next few days. He wasn't unaware that Hank, Alex, Sean and Darwin each had a very different perspective on Erik and he had more than just that quartet to worry about -- he also had Jean and the other children to think about, the students he had now and the ones he'd have in the future. He had to strike a balance between what he wanted and what would be the best for all involved. For all of Alex's points, though, Charles couldn't imagine a better world for mutants than the one where Erik did retreat on his mission against humans, a world where humans wouldn't learn about their mutant cousins in blood and violence, but in charity and peace.

He knew that Erik thought his version of events was a very unlikely future, just as Charles knew in his gut that Erik's way didn't even have a chance in it for harmonious coexistence; Charles would take a long shot over none at all.

Charles was still thinking about his conversation with Alex a few days later as he readied Jean for bed, settling down to read to her as he so often did. At thirteen months she took as much delight in trying to turn the pages as she did in listening to him recite The Cat in the Hat for the nth time, but Charles's joy in the simple act hadn't diminished from the first time he'd done it when she was still a newborn. But, for once, his mind wasn't on the simple but clever words of the story.

"Alex's not wrong, you know," he said aloud, to himself, to Jean. She reacted to his voice but could tell it wasn't the rhythm he used for story-reading, so instead remained focused on grasping the edge of a page where she and the book were settled on his lap. "You may very well be better off never seeing Erik again," he continued, murmuring against her hair. "Why let you get attached when there's no telling what he'll do? If the next dangerous mission he takes Raven off on isn't the last for both of them. Do the boys really think I don't worry about that constantly?"

He smoothed an idle hand over her red curls, watching for a moment as she batted and poked at the bright illustrations on the page. "But I can't give up on him now, can I? It seems rather much like quitting to give in now when I've had my first glimpse of hope in years."

Charles looked down at his watch, noticing the time. He gently tugged the book out of her reach and smoothed the rumpled pages. "What do you think, love? Hmm?" he asked aloud, finally closing the book and setting it aside. "Should I give up?"

Jean's emphatic "No!" as she reached after the book made Charles laugh, in spite of himself. He turned her around in his arms so he could kiss her face, a series of feather-light touches against her skin that made her wrinkle her nose.

"I guess it's decided then," he said, still laughing. "We won't give up on him quite yet."

**

Even if the rest of his soldiers weren't exactly used to living for a cause, Erik was well acquainted with it. He was used to the ebb and flow of time, the startling, jarring transition from action to inaction, the way it sometimes seemed as if they'd never have a rest while others felt like they'd never have anything to do. He'd lived that way most of his life, on the trails of the Nazis and Nazi hypothesizers he'd thought could lead him to Schmidt, until they had led him to Shaw that fateful night in Florida but, more importantly he knew now, to Charles Xavier and a glimpse of a future he'd known he'd never allow himself to have.

And yet...

The first month after his daughter's birthday had been one of almost constant action, as they'd worked to track down a mutant contact they'd made in South America who had gone missing. It had led them to another government's brutal research facility, another government full of humans who had no sympathy for mutants just because of their difference. They hadn't been able to save their contact but none of the humans in the building had survived either. For many years, it was what Erik would've considered an acceptable form of retribution for their crimes.

And yet...

It was a hard mission, harder than some of the earlier ones because they hadn't been prepared to stumble into it. After it was said and done and their tracks had been covered, Erik had ordered them back to their dilapidated Caribbean plantation, the one they'd first used after leaving the Xavier manor months before. He wasn't sure if it was because he hated the place or preferred as to why he chose to keep coming back to it, but something told him it was where he wanted to be at the moment and no one risked an argument with him over the choice.

He watched Mystique unwind by shedding the form she'd worn for advanced intelligence, a pretty olive-skinned mask that had almost proved useless given her rudimentary Spanish. Janos had been especially useful for that skill alone, and Emma's inability to use her telepathy as a translator had frustrated him as well. Erik knew it was a skill open to telepaths since he'd seen Charles use his powers in such a way, but it eluded Emma and, even with the helmet, he'd been sure she'd read that censure in his face, the comparison that left her short. It had been a terse time within the team, but they'd succeeded in ending another threat against mutants, had had further proof that no government in the world was ready to accept mutants, no matter the delusions Charles entertained of peaceful coexistence.

And yet...

The few days Erik had planned to spend in idleness on the island stretched close to a week, and no one asked any questions. There was a pile of reconnaissance on his desk in the mildewed sitting room, dozens of ideas and plans and communiqués, all of which could pan out into viable missions; but Erik found himself ignoring them for time spent in solitude, both with and without the rum Azazel managed to keep around the estate. Sometimes he spent hours just staring at the wall, his mind a-whirl, as he'd done before in countless hotels and hovels across Europe, as he had in cramped cabins on steamers and fishing vessels crisscrossing the world in search of the devil in human form. He wasn't unaware of the lows that sometimes came from it, when he let himself tighten the leash on his emotions so much that he couldn't release it even when he wanted to, walking around for days with an emptiness inside he wanted to fill. It was all part of the militant condition, part of what made him the weapon he'd become, the one that could forge a safe, new world for his people.

And yet...

Erik came across Mystique one morning, loose and languid in her natural form the way she never was when she wore another face, bent over a writing pad, cheap pen scratching furiously across the bleached surface of the paper.

"Another letter to McCoy?" he asked with a raised eyebrow, trying to express his disbelief and mockery in one compact gesture.

It was lost, however, when she didn't look up from her writing. "Yes," she said, finishing her sentence with a flourish before she lifted her head. "And Charles, too," she added. "Since I'm sending something to the mansion anyway."

Mystique was the only one among them who ever said Charles's name aloud, who ever alluded to anything about his life that wasn't being Magneto and leading their missions, even though he was certain they all gossiped about it behind his back. Emma, especially, he thought watched him differently now than she had in the beginning, and even after months of it, her gaze didn't sit well on his shoulders, leaving an itch behind whenever he felt it on his back.

She narrowed her yellow eyes at him when he didn't speak. "Do you want...?" she began, clearing her throat before she continued. "I mean, I could add a hello or something. From you. If you want."

"Write your letter," he said as he walked away. "Just leave me out of it."

A month before, three months before, six months before -- where there had once been only the surety of his purpose, the sweet sting of justice in his blood, there was a dissatisfaction, a gnawing doubt that Erik hadn't experienced since he'd been a very young man, still new to his search for his mother's murderer. It had been from the lips of the first sympathizer he'd killed, who had looked back at him with tears in her eyes as she'd asked if a murderer was what his mother had raised him to be. It had taken weeks to shake those words from his brain, to move on to his next target without them ringing in his ears. And it had been the last time he'd let doubt, real doubt, sway his hand.

Until Charles, of course.

He blamed his recent difficulties on Charles, too, on his soft eyes and apparently-unshakeable faith, on the longing he still heard when Charles said his name. He hadn't been able to forget any of it, not with Charles's memories rattling around in his head, not with both his own and Charles's recollection of Jean's laughter so constant in his ears. They weren't memories he wanted to trade, but they had created a schism in his thoughts, a divide between the man Erik thought he might've been if not for Shaw and the leader that Magneto was destined to be.

After they passed an entire week in the solitude of the retreat, Erik wasn't surprised to see Emma glide into the study, a look on her lovely face that said she had something on her mind. Even dressed in the most current, mod fashions, her snow-white attire coupled with her pale complexion always left Erik with the impression of a ghost, a shade sent to haunt him with her sharp words and shrewder eyes.

She closed and locked the door behind her as she entered, a signal more than anything that she planned for it to be a serious discussion. He glanced toward the helmet where it sat on the edge of the desk and thought about donning it before he decided not to bother. "I want to talk to you," she declared, coming to stand next to him where he looked out across the sandy beach toward the dark, moonlit sea.

"I guessed as much," he said. "What do you want?"

"I just have one question for you," she admitted. "I've tried to figure out the answer for myself but it's not easy, not with you."

"What is it?"

"What's next?"

"Next?"

"For us," she explained. "For your Brotherhood."

Erik glanced back to the pile of papers on his desk. "I haven't decided yet. There are a few..."

She waved an elegant hand to cut him off. "I don't mean like that. I meant in a wider context. We've been foundering for years now and I'm just wondering -- when are you going to be ready to take this to the next level?"

Erik knew his expression darkened as he felt his features knit up to express his displeasure. "Foundering?"

Emma wasn't affected, although she did lift one pale eyebrow in response. "I meant what said, Magneto. Foundering." She glanced around the room, then moved to the table to pour herself a glass of rum from the half-empty bottle. "Say what you want about his methods, but Sebastian always had a plan." She took a long sip, pausing for a moment as if to let it linger on her tongue. "We were always moving forward, toward an end goal."

"And you think I don't?" Erik asked, a cutting look as he watched her move across the room.

She gave him a frigid little smile as she refilled her glass. "Do you know much about chess?"

Erik snorted in disbelief at the question. "You know I do," he said. "Don't act as if you haven't poked around in my head enough to know that."

Emma gave a slight nod, conceding the point. "Yes, it was a pastime you and your other telepath enjoyed," she admitted. "Sebastian was a fan as well -- something else you two had in common."

He narrowed his gaze at her statement. "I'm warning you -- "

She held up a hand. "My point is that he acted on his plans like he played chess," she quickly explained. "Every move he made was calculated, it was all in service toward his end game. Your decisions, while sound, are haphazard at best."

Erik crossed his arms over his chest. "Saving our people from persecution instead of killing everyone in a nuclear winter does involve a different skill set," he told her, still bristling under the Shaw comparison. For all that he might've agreed with some of Shaw's ideas about humans, to hear it painted in such terms unnerved him. Especially the way Emma did it so causally, it focused his attention uncomfortably on the similarities he shared with the man he most believed had deserved to die by his hands.

"If I believed you had a heart, Magneto, I'd say it wasn't in it," Emma said, after a moment, an odd look flickering over her features.

"In what?" he asked.

"This." She raised her arms in a gesture that seemed to encompass the entire room. "The plan, the mission, the crusade -- however you like to think of what we're doing."

"Emma..." he began, but she cut him off.

"The cause for the past few months is obvious: your attention has been split between what we're doing here and...elsewhere." She smiled again, something that seemed to be amusement at herself, for the way she'd hedged the end of her sentence. She continued. "We all know that. But I'm talking about even earlier. It's been almost two years and there's still no movement on what I thought what was your ultimate mission. But I haven't seen any sign that you're ever going to take this past what we are now: a small group of well-trained terrorists." Emma shook her head. "I'm used to bigger things, Magneto. Sebastian wanted to change the world."

To be compared to Shaw and found wanting on any subject made Erik flinch. "If there any way we can have this discussion without mention of him?" he growled.

"No, because you told me you believed in what he said," Emma pointed out. "You didn't want to follow the plans he laid. Fine, find your own way. But you haven't found that, either. Where's the revolution, Magneto? Why haven't we fired a shot heard around the world to let the humans know that the next stage of humans are ready to inherit the Earth?" She mirrored his pose, arms over her chest as she demanded, "What's holding you back?"

"It's not that simple, Emma," Erik told him, irritation creeping into his voice. "Are you ready to face that world? Where the humans are expecting us?"

"The point is, I thought you were."

Erik turned away, to look out over the ocean outside of his window. Despite the heavenly view it afforded, all he could see were memories of the deaths he'd seen at the hands of the Nazis, hear the cries of his people as they'd been murdered around him, reminders that spoke to the absolute certainty he had in how humans would react to mutants. "The war is...coming," he finally said. "I don't know when but the humans will never accept us peacefully, not the way Ch-- the way others think. There will be no avoiding it."

"I agree." Emma's voice was soft, almost emotive, unlike her usual cool tones. "But the war isn't necessarily going to happen tomorrow, not if we don't start it ourselves."

Erik glanced sharply down into her impassive face. "Are you saying you want to leave, Emma? Quit?"

Her expression still had that soft, thoughtful quality that reminded him more of Charles than Emma. "I've spent my entire life fighting someone or something," she told him. "First -- before, then with Sebastian, now with you." She looked up to meet his eyes. "I'm ready for the war, if it comes tomorrow. But I can't abide the tedium of this uncertainty. Either it's war, Magneto, or it's peace."

There was a hint of disapproval coming from Emma, a subtle telepathic emotion that mirrored the irritation in her words. Erik knew she was right when she said the war was not yet upon them, and they had not yet started it. He also knew what it was like to spend a lifetime fighting. Still that didn't mean he was ready to accept what Emma was inferring – that it was reluctance on his part to commit to the cause he'd found facing death on that Cuban beach almost two years before. He hadn't seen any other option at the time, and he still wasn't sure one existed for him.

Into the silence between them, he made his confession quietly. "I'm not made for peace," he told her, as if that was an answer to the question she posed.

"I know," Emma said. "But I think you want to be, probably for the first time in your life." She tapped idly at the glass she still held, one long nail against the cut crystal. "And why fight yourself when you don't have to?"

"So you're suggesting...what?" he asked. "That I pack it up and go hide away until the humans are ready kill us all?"

"I'm not suggesting anything," she said with a roll of her eyes, before continuing. "Well, that's not true -- I am saying that you need to make a decision. Decide where you want to be tomorrow and the next day and the next and what you want to be doing for those days. If that's this, then there's no reason to waste our time waiting any longer. If it's not..." Emma shrugged. "...go do whatever it is."

Erik could still feel the creep of her telepathic powers, the way she flung feelings and images at him to illustrate her words. It wasn't as smooth as Charles's powers or as seamless, but it hinted at what she knew he wanted but feared accepting. "And if what I want is to wait to a little longer before I start that war we both know is coming?"

"Then we'll stay in touch," she said, shifting to deposit her empty glass on a nearby table. "I've...grown rather fond of you, Magneto," she added. "You can go to New York to your telepath and your daughter and teach those boys of his how to really protect themselves for what's coming and I'll do something else."
Emma shrugged again. "I'm not opposed to postponing the war for a decade or two now that I've come to realize it won't be as simple as Sebastian expected. There are things I could be doing that are not this."

He couldn't help it; he laughed. "And what would Emma Frost do with a decade or two on her hands?"

His amusement earned him a measuring look. "Xavier's not the only one interested in shaping young mutants minds," she said, moving away from him and the window, toward the closed door. "Maybe I'll open my own school."

"It's always a contest with you, isn't it, Emma?" he asked, humor still threading through his voice

Emma didn't say anything else, but the sly smile she threw his way before she left said enough.

But Erik's amusement didn't last long because the mark of Emma's words still laid heavy on his mind, the stinging truth of what she'd come to tell him. They had reached that moment -- Erik had reached that moment where decisions needed to be made, perhaps the simplest decision of them all. It was one he'd thought he'd made on that beach, when he'd left Charles behind and taken Mystique by the hand, but Charles was not so easily forgotten, nor were his lessons, despite Erik's best attempts.

Still, he knew Emma was right: one way or another, Erik needed to make up his mind and stop wasting time. Be it his familiar war or the frightening aspect of peace, Erik Lehnsherr had some thinking to do on what came next.

It was with surprise that he realized he actually had time to do just that.

**

End of Part 11

Chapter Text

As fall swept over the manor, Charles found himself even busier than he'd expected. The addition of three new pupils to his small student body was more complicating than he'd realized it would be, with so many different age groups and learning levels now represented among them. It offered a new educational challenge that had Charles dedicating more of his time to teaching the fundamentals than he had in the past semesters. Adding to that complication was Jean who, at close to fifteen months, had taken to walking like a duck to water; keeping up with her, along with the other students, was proving enough to keep all of them busy for quite awhile.

There had been no further communication from Erik, not since Jean's birthday, but Charles tried not to give up hope. He knew that Erik and Raven were well because Hank still received regular letters from Raven, and he'd even received a few himself. His sister didn't mention Erik in her missives and Charles could admit that he was too proud to ask outright. Knowing that he was safe would have to suffice until Erik decided to initiate contact on his own.

Truth be told, life was full enough that Charles seldom had a chance to ponder the problem of Erik, which was a blessing in disguise. The only time he really allowed himself to think about him was in the quiet moments he had with Jean, when she would look at him out of her eyes in a certain way or make a certain face that was so reminiscent of her absent father that Charles couldn't stop himself from thinking of him. Those moments were coming more and more as she grew up, he realized, as her features changed with age. It was a strangely thrilling development to look forward to, getting to see the way she'd continue to change and grow over the coming months and years.

Just like the weather, his boys continue to settle with the change of season, a calm among the group that seemed unique in the years since they'd come to the manor as a group. Hank was coming out of his self-imposed exile, finally becoming confident enough in his new form that he didn't shy away from the looks he received from the new students or from the friendly contact he received from people other than Charles, Alex or Sean. If Charles tried to explain the change in his demeanor, he would say that Hank was enthusiastic again, exhibiting an excitement that had been missing for a long time. Charles knew that this change had a lot to do with his correspondence with Raven and he mentally sent out his gratitude in the vain wish that the miles that separated them wouldn't matter given the connection they'd once shared.

Alex was experiencing a similar blossoming thanks to the dual influence of more authority over the students and the steadying presence of Darwin at his side. All those years ago, Charles hadn't had the time to notice how quickly and resolutely the two of them had bonded, but he'd become aware of it later, first when he'd struggled to help Alex deal with his grief over Darwin's death before the Cuban mission, and then later when Darwin's absence had been another hole in Alex's heart after Raven and Erik had left. His return had not only brought back a valued member of their family but it had helped Alex in ways Charles knew he'd never have been able to without that miracle. In retrospect, their fast friendship reminded him a little of himself and Erik, a parallel that didn't even bring with it the wistfulness it might have at one time.

Sean continued to have a deft hand at dealing with their younger students, at ways of making them all feel at home and welcomed even when they missed their families desperately. It was a knack that Charles had, too, but only thanks to his telepathy, so it was a marvel to watch Sean work his magic without that support. For all they teased the young man for the occasionally unfortunate things that sometimes came out of his mouth, he was showing a maturity beyond his years when it came to role in the academy and he was so amazing with Jean that Charles despaired to think of what they would've done without him. Even if Jean's first words hadn't been "Banshee," it wouldn't surprise Charles if some facsimile of "Sean" wasn't within her first ten.

He just hoped that another sudden and dramatic appearance by their former teammates wouldn't upset the equilibrium they'd all found.

Charles had his answer soon enough, on a late September afternoon when they least expected a visitor to disrupt their schedules. He and Hank were finishing up a session in Cerebro, going over the results from the last few uses to find ways to calibrate its amplification and data recordings to better respond to Charles's needs when a knock came at the door to the room where they housed it. A moment later, Darwin's head appeared, looking serious but apologetic.

"Sorry to interrupt, but I think you're needed upstairs," he said to Charles, not even bothering to step inside.

Charles could sense his urgency, but it wasn't an emergency. He frowned. "What's wrong?"

Darwin looked startled. "You can't sense it?"

"Cerebro leaves him a little...patchy," Hank admitted. "He has to give himself some time to, ah..."

"It's like a high," Charles explained. "The words Hank is dancing around are 'come down,' I believe the vernacular is."

"So you don't know who just stopped by?" Darwin asked.

"No," Charles answered. "Who?"

If possible, Darwin looked even more concerned. "Erik."

Charles immediately understood the sentiment. "By himself?"

Darwin nodded. "And without his helmet," he added, and Charles breathed a sigh of relief. "Not that that matters much if you can't use your powers."

"I'm spotty, not helpless," Charles assured him. "I'll readjust soon enough. And I work better at close range. Is he waiting for me?"

"Yeah, he asked to speak to you," Darwin told him. "I left him and Alex exchanging menacing glares to come look for you."

The thought of Alex and Erik left alone for any length of time without supervision galvanized Charles into movement. Even if Alex had mostly come to terms with his feelings toward Erik, Charles didn't see any reason to test his resolve on the point. "You're right, I am needed upstairs," he said, already pushing himself toward the door that Darwin held open. "Hopefully we'll get there before we have to referee them."

As they moved closer to the pair in question and the residual effects of Cerebro continued to fade, Charles could sense them both, enough to know that they were both whole and intact. Still, it surprised neither he nor Darwin to find the two of them still locked in a glaring match when they reached the foyer. Alex's was more openly hostile, but Erik had had years to perfect his cool, disdainful gaze. It helped keep Erik's so chilling because he was honestly more baffled than irritated by Alex's lingering resentment, which only reminded Charles of how easily Erik still could miss the obvious answer even when it was presented to him.

"Erik," he said aloud once he reached the foyer, watching as two sets of eyes swung his way. "This is a surprise."

Erik's expression was difficult to decipher, which made it even harder for Charles to resist the temptation to skim his mind for deeper meaning. Still, he resisted. "I wanted to talk to you," Erik said, now ignoring Alex and Darwin.

Charles waited a beat, thinking, before he nodded. "Of course, we can go into my study." To Alex, he said, "Thank you, Alex, for keeping Erik company until I made it up here. But don't you have something...?"

Alex's scowl faltered. "Are you sure? I could hang out if you needed me to."

It was Erik's turn to glare at Alex but Charles shook his head. "No, it'll be fine. Go on."

Alex wasn't convinced and it took Darwin gently tugging him away by the arm before he finally headed out, still shooting warning glances at Erik over his shoulder.

Charles shook his head a little, amused. "Come on," he told Erik. "It won't take long for him to double back."

Erik was silent on their way to the study which was fine with Charles because he was still trying to decide how he felt about this unexpected visit. Again, Erik had come without his helmet or the other trappings of Magneto, but he'd come alone without Raven. Did that mean something was wrong? A cursory read of Erik's mental state reminded him much of how Darwin's had been when he'd announced Erik's arrival -- urgent, nervous but not a true emergency. What, then, had brought Erik there after months of silence?

Erik had barely closed the door behind them before Charles was speaking, getting his worst fears out of the way. "It's not Raven, is it?"

"Raven?" Erik echoed.

"She's not hurt or anything?" Charles asked. "She didn't come with you, so I can't help but wonder if..."

"No, nothing like that," Erik assured him, taking a seat in the chair closest to Charles. "She's well. This isn't about her."

Charles relaxed a little. "Thank you," he said, although he wasn't precisely certain what he was thanking him for. "So you came here to see me about something else?"

Erik nodded.

Charles waited for a moment, but Erik didn't say anything else. "You're going to have start," he reminded him. "I can't tell myself why you're here."

That amused Erik, tugging at one corner of his mouth as he relaxed a little, losing some of the militant tension in his shoulders. "I'm actually certain you could, Charles."

Charles smiled back. "Still, conversations work better when I don't have them all by myself," he said. "So tell me what brings you here."

Erik's expression regained the terseness it had lost the moment before. "I meant what I said at Jean's party," he began. "I don't want to miss any more of her life. She's my daughter, too."

"Yes, she is," Charles agreed.

"I know you planned on keeping her from me," Erik continued. "But I was under the impression that we'd come to some kind of agreement against that the last time I came here."

"I think we both know it's too late for me to do such a thing," Charles said. "Now that you know, you'd never let me get away with it."

"No, I wouldn't," he admitted. "It's...important to me. She's important to me."

There was nothing but honesty in Erik as he spoke, a fact that made something in Charles's chest clutch painfully, but in a good way. "I won't keep her from you, Erik," he said. "As long as you come like this, without...everything else, you'll always be allowed to see her. You and Raven are always welcome to visit, although I can't say that I'm willing to extend that privilege to all of your associates. But to you and Raven, our doors will always be open...if you want to come by."

Erik looked down at his hands for a moment, clearly searching for the words he needed to express what he was feeling. Charles let the silence linger and kept his powers close, refusing to violate Erik's trust by searching for them in his mind. After what seemed like an eternity, Erik spoke. "What if I don't just want to visit her? What if I want more than that?"

The question made Charles go icy all over because it was so close to what his fears had been in those first months after Erik had found out, concern that Erik would send Azazel in the middle of the night to abscond with Jean and take her half-way across the world. That sounded like what Erik was suggesting now, that he be able to do more than just visit Jean and, as giving as Charles wanted to be on the point, there was no way he could imagine letting anyone walk out the door with Jean -- not even Erik, not even after the tentative truce they'd forged on the matter of their daughter.

"Erik," he began, already using his mind to reach out to Sean who had Jean with him, to make sure that she was safe and sound and where she was supposed to be. "I...I don't want to be unreasonable but I can't...I can't do that. If you're suggesting that I let you take Jean from here, I can't allow that. I'm sorry, but I can't."

"That's not what I meant," he said, shaking his head a little, frustrated by his own inarticulateness. It was strong enough that Charles could sense it without any extension of his powers.

Erik's eyes met his and Charles could see it there, along with a yearning for something that he couldn't name, something that Erik obviously couldn't put into words. "Then what did you mean?" he asked. "Again, I can't say anything until you tell me what you want me to know."

"I did come to speak to you about Jean, about being part of her life," Erik said. "But that's not the only thing I wanted to talk to you about. There was other matters that I want your opinion on, but there...I've never been one for talking, Charles, you know that. It's difficult."

"I seem to remember we did fine with conversation," Charles teased gently. "I don't think you're as bad at it as you think."

Erik met his eyes again, something lighter in their depths. It eased Charles's concern to see it. "Yes, philosophy, ideology, politics...I'm sure we could still talk all day on those things without trouble. But this -- what I've come to say is more important than that. At least to me and, hopefully, to you."

"I will listen," Charles promised. "I'll listen to every word you have to say, for as long as you need me to. We've shared so much between us, my friend. What are a few more words?"

Erik's eyes were pale and serious, burning with an intensity Charles hadn't seen in a long time, not directed at him without anger as their source. But there was no anger in them at that moment. "Everything," he said. "They may be everything."

**

In all his decision-making, Erik had never given thought to what it would be like to force the words out of his throat, to open his mouth and admit to the thoughts tumbling around in his head. He had things he needed to say that he'd never said to another soul before and he had no experience to fall back on. He grappled with the things he wanted to say, even as they hammered at his skull to be let loose -- words of apology, words that explained the changes to his hopes and dreams, words that admitted that he was willing to accept he might've been wrong, that he was willing to compromise to find out.

As he struggled express it all verbally, Erik wished for a moment that he was willing to just let Charles read it all from his mind, saving him from the frustration he felt in that moment, but he couldn't, both for himself and for Charles. These were words he needed to say and, he was fairly certain, they were words Charles needed to hear if they had any chance.

Erik shifted in his chair, still searching for a place to start. "I don't think we're ever going to agree about the humans," he said, because it was important to make sure Charles understood on this point. "I think when they find out about us, they're going to come after us and they're going to do it with everything they can. I won't watch mutants suffer at their hands."

"I hope you don't think that because I'm not an advocate for mass human genocide that I wouldn't protect my students, my family or any mutant I knew needed my help," Charles replied. "I may have hope that we'll be able to make humans accept us but I'm not going to allow our kind's annihilation either."

Erik knew it intellectually but it was easy to forget the nuance of Charles's philosophies sometimes, when all he could see were the gulfs between them instead of the bridges that connected their worldviews. He acknowledged Charles's words with a quick nod. "I'm just trying to be honest with you. I want you to understand exactly where I'm coming from with what I have to say."

"So this isn't the main event?" Charles said with an echo of humor. "I have to admit I'm glad you didn't come all this way to rehash old arguments."

Erik felt his resolve waver a little faced with Charles's expectant expression. Before he thought about it, he was on his feet, moving across the room to stare out the window, out at rolling lawn. It was almost a shock to look outside and not see the white sands and bright sea; it was also a shock how much more he thought of this view as home when he'd lived there so briefly. "The first time I came here, after we...parted, you asked me if I'd come because I had changed my mind."

"Yes, I did," Charles said.

"Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"It was what I hoped to hear," he answered. "But it wasn't what I expected."

One of the most difficult things about Charles was that he was so infuriatingly honest and yet so controlled at the same time. When Erik felt like he was ready to fly apart with the contradictory feelings battering inside of him, Charles managed to convey his hope and his longing without it ever coming across as weakness. He supposed it was because Charles didn't see his emotion as weakness to begin with. Erik drew a deep breath and asked the question that had brought him to the mansion that day. "What would you have said if I had changed my mind?"

Erik could hear Charles's sharp breath, a sign of surprise that ware rare for the telepath to feel or to express. He kept his eyes trained on the lawn, knowing that his tense stance and fisted hands revealed enough of his stress. He didn't dare risk exposure of his expression to someone so skilled at reading every line of him by turning around, even if he wanted to search Charles's himself.

"I would've..." Charles's voice trailed off, as if he were still thinking about what his response would've been. "I would've said thank god," he finally admitted, the words soft and aching, like it hurt to say them. "I would've said...come home. And I would've worried that I was somehow making you say it, even with Shaw's helmet, because I wanted it so much."

It felt like a vice in his chest to hear Charles speak so plainly, and Erik wasn't sure if that clutch he felt was a good or bad sign. But it compelled him to speak when he still hesitated, because he couldn't stop from answering that longing with a confession of his own. "As much as I felt like I had to leave you, I didn't want to. I wanted you by my side, almost more than anything."

"Yes, almost," Charles said. It was brittle, even a little bitter, especially coming from Charles. He cleared his throat. "What are all these questions in aid of, Erik?" he asked, voice breaking a little on his name.

He finally turned around, away from the window, knowing that as much as he wanted to hide any weakness he might reveal, he couldn't say the rest of it without seeing Charles's face. Charles had turned his wheelchair around to face his back, so their eyes met almost immediately, a familiar moment between them. Erik swallowed once before he finally answered. "And what would you say if that's what I came to tell you today?"

"That you've changed...?" Charles gave up on the question when Erik answered it with a sharp nod. He released a breath that had a sound in it that could've been laughter or disbelief. Charles looked down at his hand where it lay on the armrest of his wheelchair and Erik thought he would choke on his apprehension. "I'd want you to be sure, first and foremost. That you meant it and that you were doing it for the right reasons."

"There are right and wrong reasons for changing your mind?" Erik asked.

"Yes, there is," Charles told him. "It wouldn't be fair to anyone if you weren't sure, if you weren't certain you would really wanted it. To come back, only to leave again the next time we couldn't agree...it wouldn't be fair to anyone, but especially not the children. It would be disruptive and detrimental."

Phrasing it as they had in hypotheticals had made it easier for Erik to shape the words, but it could only carry him so far, especially when he was looking into Charles's wary, worried face. He realized guiltily that, like always, Charles had given all the ground in the conversation while letting Erik remain hidden behind his what ifs. It was particularly unfair when he also had Charles's memories in his head, the surety they brought with them that, if everything else had changed in the almost-two years they'd been apart, Charles's feelings for him hadn't.

"I wouldn't," Erik said after a long moment of silence. "I won't. I...it's what I've been doing these last months. Making sure, thinking about it. It made me realize it's something I haven't done enough of."

That earned a ghost of a smile. "You have wonderful instincts and you rely on them. I understand that."

Erik didn't have to be a telepath to know that that diplomatic reply boiled down to calling him reactionary. "I know what you're really saying, Charles," he told him. "And maybe I agree with you a little. It's a hard habit to break after so many years. Reacting is what kept me alive, focusing on Shaw and my revenge, it's what gave me a reason to wake up every morning. The Brotherhood was a new reason."

"You mean it was a new specter to chase to keep from having to think too deeply about what you were doing and what you might change," Charles said bluntly. Erik couldn't stop the old, cutting look he shot his way, but Charles remained unperturbed. "I'm not wrong."

"I thought a war was coming," Erik explained. "I still do. But I also think I have -- time." He moved back to his original seat at Charles's side, using his power to smoothly angle the wheelchair so that they remained facing each other, so he could watch Charles's expression change and flicker as he thought about his words. "There are better things I could do with these years, Charles, than throw matches at a powderkeg that's primed to blow anyway."

"That's not a very optimistic metaphor, Erik."

Erik determinedly continued speaking. "We both want to help our people, protect them from danger. Lead them into the future. I'm willing to see if there's a place for us to do that together, if you'll let me."

There was a tremor in Charles's hand as he raised it to brush an errant strand of hair from his forehead. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

Yes, Erik thought at him, finally giving up on words. I'm asking, Charles, if you'll let me come home.

Charles's eyes went wide and startled, his mouth rounding in surprise. Erik knew he should've probably delighted more in surprising someone who was so rarely shocked, but he had too many knots inside to appreciate much of anything as he waited for an answer.

"You want to come back and help with the school?" Charles asked, still cautious like he couldn't let himself trust the conversation just yet.

"And Jean," Erik added. "I want that, too."

"Understandable. I...." Charles just kept looking at him, then his lips quirked up in a hint of a smile. "I'm honestly speechless. I'm not sure what to say."

Erik reached over and covered the hand closest to his with his own. "Say you'll let me," Erik told him. "That this is something you want and that you think, really think, that we could find a way to do all the things we want for mutants and we can do it together."

"Do you think I could say no?" Charles asked, his widening smile incongruent with the rough emotion in his voice. "You've come here and...yes, of course. I've always thought so but especially lately. We can find a way."

"I'll have to disband the Brotherhood, as it exists now," Erik told him.

"You didn't tell them about this? Not even Raven?"

"Not even her," he admitted. "Although Emma has some idea of what I was thinking. I think they'll go their own way." He gave Charles a look. "Your sister might even choose to go with them."

"I've come to accept her independence," Charles assured him. "Though I would feel better if she decided to come home as well. But it's her life to live, not mine."

"I'll make sure she knows all of that," Erik said. "I think it will mean a great deal to her."

"You're not the only one who has to make preparations," Charles told him. "I have to tell, well, everyone."

Erik knew that "everyone" consisted mostly of the four young men who made up the remnants of their original team who'd stayed with Charles -- Alex, Hank, Sean and Darwin. And he'd learned enough during his past visits to know it would no easy task to break the news to them when they all had very strong opinions about Erik and his actions for the past two years. Once again, Charles would have to bear the weight of Erik's choices, taking on whatever anger and objections they'd raise at Erik's return.

Charles turned up the hand under Erik's, turning the touch into a clasp of hands. "If we are going to move forward, it can't be with thoughts like those, Erik," he told him. "It can't be about guilt or the past. We'll drive each other mad with it."

"You're already making yourself at home in my head again," Erik pointed out, though it was said lightly, teasingly.

"I only hear what you think too loudly," Charles reminded him. "And your guilt is very loud. It doesn't need to be, not between us."

Erik had no answer to that, not one that wouldn't break Charles's declaration against guilt and wallowing in the past. Instead, he gently broke the touch of their hands, clearing his throat. "I think I'll...go," he said. "Give both of us time to...prepare."

"Do you want to see Jean before you do?" asked Charles, even as he nodded his agreement with Erik's decision. "I can have Sean bring her down."

Erik considered it but decided against it. "The next time I see her, I want to know I'm not leaving her again," he revealed. "It can wait a little longer."

"You'll be in touch, then?" Charles asked, folding his hands in his lap.

He nodded. "Soon." Erik rose to his feet and let his hand linger on Charles's shoulder for a moment before he stepped away. "Until then."

He was almost at the door when Charles's voice stopped him. "Erik?"

Erik paused, trying not to think how much it reminded him of that first visit he'd made here. This time he was leaving secure in his welcome, but the parallels still made him uneasy. "Yes?"

"When you say you want to come back," Charles began slowly, face turned away from Erik and the door. "Did you just mean that you wanted to come back to what we're building here or did you mean you also wanted to come back to...me?"

The obvious uncertainty in the question left Erik truly shocked that Charles didn't just know -- not because he was a telepath but because he thought it had to be obvious. "Charles," he said, the name more than breath and voice. "How can you not know? I have never...that I would never..."

"I saw, in Raven's mind..." he explained. "Something between you."

"There can only be one thing you saw because there was just the once," Erik told him. "It was before we even left here and it was nothing. She was looking for consolation and I gave her what I could even if it wasn't in the way she wanted."

"I know," Charles said, his face still turned away. Erik watched his profile, the blandness of his expression that might fool the children he taught every day, but not him. "But things can change."

Erik was across the room before he thought better of it, proving that even with his newfound appreciation for thinking, he was still reactionary at his core. He slid back into his chair, letting his hand smooth over Charles's cheek, cupping his jaw and forcing him to look into his eyes, to read his sincerity there and in his thoughts. "Not that," he told him firmly. "Never that."

Charles released a long shuddering breath as if he'd held it since the conversation started. He leaned in until his forehead rested against Erik's, until Erik could feel the soft, comforting press of Charles's mind against his own, reminding Erik how bereft he'd felt without it in those last years. "If I didn't love you," Erik admitted aloud, for the first time. "It wouldn't have been so hard."

Charles pulled back a little so his eyes could meet Erik's and, for the first time, Erik didn't care what he might see in them. After a moment, a perfect quiet moment, Erik leaned in and pressed their mouths together, as much a promise as all the words they'd shared. Charles relaxed into the kiss, hands reaching for Erik to clasp into the fabric of his shirt, pulling him as close as they could get with the metal of Charles's wheelchair in between them. Erik had no desire to ever leave the circle of their embrace, even though his reasons for leaving were as sound now as they'd been moments ago. But he ignored them in favor of kissing Charles again and again, arms around him as he'd dreamed about for so long but had never let himself really have, not until that moment.

Oh, my love. Charles's mental voice was soft and dreamy, the way Erik always remembered his eyes from the one night they'd spent together before the world -- and Erik -- had pulled them apart. Welcome home.

**

End of Part 12

**

Chapter Text

Erik had fooled himself into believing that the most difficult part of changing his mind would be asking Charles to compromise with him so they could forge their futures together, but he was quickly disabused of that misconception, almost as soon as he returned to the Brotherhood's base and faced with at least two sets of very curious eyes.

While he hadn't expressly told anyone other than Azazel about his destination when he'd left, Erik knew that Emma probably had her suspicions, ones she probably hadn't hesitated to share with Mystique. As he stood there surrounded by the mutants who made up his team, Erik realized with a pang that that was exactly what they'd become -- his. Perhaps not in the way Charles and Jean were his, or even the way he thought of the young men who had resolutely chosen to side with Charles, but his just as much.

He owed them all an explanation and there was no reason to delay it, he knew.
Of course, there wasn't much to tell when it came to one of his number.

Emma's smile was smug and knowing as she glanced up at him from the magazine she read. "Decisiveness looks good on you, Magneto. You should've tried it before now."

Erik answered with a smirk. "Perhaps you should start planning your curriculum, Professor Frost."

Emma snorted, shaking her head as she set the magazine aside. "I do have things to do," she said as she stood. "And so do you."

He nodded, then glanced at Mystique who had grown increasingly more confused as she'd listened to Erik and Emma's oblique conversation. "Mystique," he said, gesturing for her to follow with a twist of his hand. "A private word."

Mystique trotted along behind him, wary but compliant until they were alone in the room that functioned as Erik's haven in the house.

"What's going on?" she asked immediately, wringing her hands before she caught herself. "What were you and Emma talking about?"

It was easier to explain now that he'd practiced on Charles, but Erik still faltered in some ways, watching as Mystique's yellow eyes widened or narrowed throughout the tale of what he'd decided and what he'd done based on those decisions.

She listened quietly until he was finished, then she burst out with "So you're giving this up?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Charles and I are looking for a -- shared vision," he told her, disagreeing with the opinion that it was giving up. It was change and it would be different, but the things he'd said on the beach remained as true now as they were then. "I thought you were the one who wanted us to find a way to compromise. I believe you were the one who suggested it."

"And you don't see where I might have a hard time believing that the two of you actually figured it out?" she asked. "Six months ago you two could barely carry on a conversation."

"And you and McCoy couldn't open your mouths without it becoming a screaming match," he said. "But now you write him very long letters about what I can only imagine. There is a capacity for change in all of us, Mystique. Even me."

She still looked a little dubious on that point.

"Do you want to return with me?" he asked, getting to the heart of the conversation. "It's your choice, of course. You know that I will accept whatever you decide and your brother has expressed similar sentiments. You'll always be welcome with him, wherever you go now."

Mystique didn't answer, instead asking, "What about the others?"

He shrugged. "Charles could probably be persuaded to accept them as well, but I doubt they'd want it. Emma, I know, already has plans she wants to pursue and I'm almost positive that Azazel and Janos will go with her. They've been together for a very long time."

"But what about Angel?"

It was a valid question, Erik could admit. "I'm sure your brother would let her return if she wanted. We'll ask." Mystique nodded, but he took the chance to remind her. "You still haven't answered the question."

Mystique rolled her yellow eyes. "Like I trust the two of you to try to compromise without me? A week alone and you'd ruin it -- both of you."

Seeing Mystique's genuine smile and pleasure at the thought of the manor, of Charles and his school...it made Erik that much more sure he was making the right choice.

Later, after Erik had told everyone about his change in plans and had seen no hesitation in either Azazel or Janos as they'd immediately looked to Emma for guidance, Erik turned to Angel. "You could come with us," he said, of him and Mystique.

Angel looked at him for a long moment, deliberating. Then, she looked to Emma and, after another long silence, like maybe they'd been speaking mind-to-mind, Angel turned back to Erik and shook her head. "Thanks for the offer, but I'm good where I am." Her dark eyes moved to Mystique, sharing something that Erik didn't understand when Angel added, "I still don't belong there."

Mystique inclined her head as she stepped forward to grasp Angel's hands in her own. "And there's no shame in that."

For all the speed with which Erik had once joined Charles and had once left him, Erik was in no mind to hurry his return, not when he planned it to be the last he'd make. He and Mystique lingered as he wrapped up the pieces of the life he'd lived for the last few years, taking what he could and leaving what he couldn't. They stayed behind at the ramshackle manor long after Emma, Janos and Angel had said their goodbyes and departed, Emma firmly in the lead as she smiled her way through her farewells, already focused on wherever her ambitions were taking her.

"Don't think you and the Professor are rid of me this easily," she'd told him. "I'll be in touch."

"I look forward to it," he had said in return, realizing he meant it. "And Charles, too, I'm sure."

Azazel was the only one they still saw, as he checked in with them every few days to fulfill his final duty to Erik, offering his services one last time when the time came to leave the small Caribbean island behind for Westchester, New York. Erik knew it would be soon, but he wasn't quite ready for it yet.

He and Charles had talked about much on that day, about the hard things that had once drove them apart. They'd talked about the ways in which they'd never agree, and the ones on which they thought they might be likely to find common ground. Erik had told Charles generally of what he'd done with the Brotherhood, the fear and loathing they'd seen in humans who had become aware of mutants, about the facilities where mutants had been held, studied, tortured.

In turn, Charles had told him about the school and about Jean, about the minds he'd felt when he used Cerebro, about the plans they had for the future. They had discussed ways to make Erik's missions into something Charles could support and the ways in which Charles, too, would have to compromise, temper his idealism in the face of the ugly realities. There had been raised voices -- loud enough to bring Darwin to check on them -- and violent disagreement, but, finally, grudging words of compromises. They had survived it unscathed, with no true anger between them and a better understanding of how they might make it work together.

Erik thought about that as he bided his time in the near-empty house, but more than anything, he thought about Charles's entreaty that he not come back unless he was sure. He asked himself hard questions about what he could really live with, if what they'd discussed could be his reality. He knew if he changed his mind at that moment, there would be no recrimination from Charles, just acceptance, and that even Emma would probably accept his return as leader of the Brotherhood. This moment, he knew, was the real point of no return.

Mystique was starting to give him concerned looks once again as the days stacked up, but then one dawned and, when Azazel appeared with the same inquisitive look he'd given him on a succession of visits, Erik's answer was different.

"Get your things, Mystique," he said, nodding at Azazel. "We're leaving."

Mystique smiled, teeth blinding white against her dark blue scales. "All right."

It was dark in New York by the time Azazel bid them goodbye and disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Erik and Mystique to stare up at the foreboding lines of the elegant manor, much as Erik had done when they'd first arrived after fleeing the decimated CIA facility. At his side, he could tell that Mystique was similarly reflective, craning her neck as she took in the sight of her childhood home.

"So, we're doing this," she said, squaring her shoulders a little.

"It seems like it, doesn't it?" Erik replied. He glanced over to see some kind of conflict on her face, and he nudged her gently with his elbow until she was looking at him and not the eaves. "We're not going backward," he told her. "No hiding."

She flashed a grin at him. "Mutant and Proud."

"Always," he declared and felt her relax at her side. Erik gestured toward the mansion. "Come on."

They carried their meager belongings with them as they trudged up the slope, moving closer and closer to the sprawling manor, its dark expanse broken by the soft glow of light in the occasional window, mostly concentrated on the higher floors. Charles and the others had had no warning of his and Mystique's arrival, so Erik wasn't even certain what kind of welcome, if any, they could expect from within the quiet academy.

He had his answer just as they reached the front entrance, as Erik debated with himself if he should knock or simply enter, coming as he was with Mystique who still considered the property her home.

Knocking wouldn't do you any good, Charles's voice in his head explained. It wasn't exactly like hearing Charles speak in person, but Erik could still detect the hint of humor in his words. No one would hear, I think.

Your suggestion? he asked back.

Come inside, Charles suggested. Leave your things in your old room. Then check in on our daughter. I'll be waiting across the hall.

As Charles's voice left his head, he looked over to notice that his companion had her head tilted to one side, much like if she were having a telepathic conversation of her own. After a moment, her eyes came back into focus and she smiled as she turned to Erik. "I guess Charles is the welcoming party," she said.

"Then let's not leave him waiting any longer."

Erik didn't know what Charles had said to Mystique but she dropped her things in the foyer, then hurried off in the direction opposite of her room or Charles's, so Erik assumed she had some other destination in mind. She disappeared with little more than a quick wave at him, and he was amused by how quickly she'd dismissed him. Erik continued in the direction of his old room, as he'd been bid, finding it in the same state it had been in the last two times he'd stayed there, the items in it undisturbed since he'd first thrown his briefcase into the corner upon his first visit. From what he could tell nothing had been touched in the interim, and he was faintly certain that his abandoned clothes still hung in the wardrobe, as if he'd been gone two days instead of two years.

He thought it strange that Charles sent him to another bed when Erik had not changed his entire life to spend even one night away from Charles, but he decided to humor him on the point, if only for the moment. Once his bags had been deposited on the floor of the room much as Mystique had left hers in the foyer, Erik set off on the second of his tasks, one he was eager to fulfill.

The nursery was mostly dark, except for the dim illumination of a small lamp nestled in a corner opposite the crib where Jean lay sleeping. Erik didn't want to wake her but he couldn't stop himself from reaching out to touch her, her skin impossibly soft against his calloused fingers. She took deep, slow breaths that he could feel under his hand, and he could already make out subtle changes she'd undergone since he'd seen her at her birthday, things he'd missed in those days between. Erik promised himself that it would the last things he'd miss.

I'm beginning to think you're trying to avoid me.

With one last glance, Erik left Jean sleeping in the nursery and crossed the hall, not bothering to knock or warn its occupant of his arrival. It would've been superfluous when he could feel Charles lingering in his mind, a warm presence at the edge of his thoughts. The room was almost as dim as the nursery, where Charles sat near the fire, its light and the fire the only sparks of brightness. Just as Erik stepped inside, Charles looked up from his book, closing it without a second glance.

Erik let his eyes slide over the details of the scene -- the room was warm, and Charles was dressed in pajamas, a sharp contrast to his usual formal clothing choices. The curling ends of his hair told Erik he'd bathed before donning them and, instead of being seated in his wheelchair as Erik had seen him every time they'd met since Cuba, Charles had transferred to a small settee near the fire.

"Not anymore," Erik finally said aloud, in reply to Charles's mental comment from the moment before.

"I was beginning to think you had changed your mind entirely," Charles confessed, his voice as quiet aloud as it had been in Erik's head.

"No," Erik told him, still loitering near the door. "I just...needed to be sure."

"I understand," Charles said, and Erik knew he did. "All that matters is that you're here now."

"All?" Erik couldn't help but echo, drawing a real smile from Charles.

"Well, I'd be even more delighted if you weren't across the room," he said. "But you being here is...quite enough for the moment."

Erik didn't need a second invitation. He moved toward Charles, settling beside him on the settee, bodies touching at every point possible from their shoulders to their knees. He knew Charles couldn't feel it, but Erik could, the warmth of Charles's thigh next to his, a solid body he'd missed at his side for so long that it still felt a little like a dream to be so close.

"I had been hoping to spend some time with Jean," Erik told him, leaning into the comfort of Charles's presence.

"Tomorrow," Charles said, like a promise, as he lifted a hand to touch fingers to Erik's cheek. "And all the days after that, it looks like."

The caress was light but like fire to Erik's blood, igniting the desire he'd buried during their separation. His own hand came up to grasp Charles's wrist, in case he had any ideas of pulling away. "Tomorrow," he repeated. But even as he thought about Jean, about the time he had to make up for, other thoughts intruded -- plans and decisions, stray bits of debate he'd been saving for Charles, all the doubts that still crept along the crevices of his mind...

Erik could feel Charles's smile against his mouth as he kissed him back into the reality of the moment, away from all the worries that plagued him. It wasn't hard to ignore those specters as he returned the pressure of the kiss, his hand stroking over the steady thrum of Charles's pulse in his throat.

Charles buried his forehead against Erik's shoulder when they broke away for breath. "I know there's still so much that we need to sort out, but..." There was a huff of breath against his skin, Charles's faint laugh, though the sound was almost too solemn to be given the name. "...but it's been a long two years. For one night, at least, we can leave the war outside, yes?"

Erik closed his eyes, fingers carding through Charles's curling, damp hair. "For tonight," he agreed, and it was really no hardship at all.

**

Charles had once told Erik that killing Shaw wouldn't bring him peace and Erik had answered that peace had never been an option for him.

Erik was slowly learning that they'd both been right and they'd both been wrong.

Killing Shaw might not have brought him the peace Charles wanted him to have, but Erik had known -- and still knew -- that nothing would've been possible for him as long as Shaw had lived. If nothing else, it had offered closure on that part of his life, the death of the ghost that had haunted him, a dagger through the heart of the monster he'd never quite escaped no matter how many miles he'd put between him and that camp. Charles might never understand it, but he'd accepted it like he had so many of the other dark things that had made Erik who he was.

For all the things Charles would accept, however, he refused to entertain the idea that Erik was incapable of knowing peace, and Erik was beginning to see a glimmer of hope that Charles was right in his certainty. He was coming closer to something like it with every day he spent at the manor with Charles, Jean, and the children, learning to cherish each moment that he could that was about family or laughter or love, instead of pain, anger or vengeance.

But Erik was also learning that peace -- or whatever facsimile of it he was capable of -- wasn't easy. It was a battle, not unlike the others he'd waged in his life, a fight that he grappled with everyday, even with Charles there to help him. He didn't see that struggle in Charles, but he saw flashes of it in others -- Hank and his transformation in to Beast, Mystique and her scales, Alex and his anger -- and that was a comfort, to know he wasn't the only one who had to claw his way toward serenity or else be consumed by the rage.

Erik quickly found ways to integrate himself into the academy, into the holes that Charles couldn't fill on his own. He taught classes he felt capable with and, while he left Alex with the younger children, he took over training exercises for the teens and for the members of their original team, which Sean had taken to calling "X-Men" after something that Moira had once said. It usually made Charles roll his eyes whenever Sean said it but the unfortunate name had begun to stick. Charles's pupils were respectful but viewed him with no little awe, probably from whatever tales Sean and Alex had spun for them while they'd had the chance. Still, they slowly came to know him for who he was and not whatever boogeyman his young teammates had created out of his image.

The so-called X-Men's opinion of his return remained largely accepting, with Alex as the lone dissenter from that consensus. While his attitude toward Erik had mellowed considerably since the visit that had revealed Jean's parentage, it was still rife with suspicion and disgruntlement, the source of which Erik could not fathom. Finally, he gave all pretence of knowledge and asked Charles outright.

It wasn't encouraging when Charles laughed at him. "You really have no idea?" he asked.

"No," Erik told him. "Or else I wouldn't be asking."

The look Charles sent his way was both exasperated and fond, and it was something Erik was quite sure he'd never tire of. "Surely...? Well, I guess not if you've come to me to explain it."

"Not all of us are telepaths," Erik reminded him, catching Jean out of the corner of his eye in time to use his power to slide a table clock out of her reach. It hadn't taken her long to figure out that when an object moved on its own, he was usually to blame and she turned her accusing blue eyes on him in response. "No," he told her firmly, making her brow furrow more deeply.

Charles, again, failed to hide his laughter. "She takes being told "no" about as well as her vati, yes?"

Erik ignored the subtle bait for an argument. "Alex?" he asked again.

Charles's expression softened a little. "Alex looked up to you, Erik," he explained. "You were...maybe a little like a father figure to him. He saw himself in you, just as you see some of yourself in him." Charles paused. "He saw what happened in Cuba as abandonment and a betrayal, not just of him but of me and Jean. Of the entire, well, family."

"I can't change that now," Erik pointed out. "So how do I deal with it?"

"Maybe not thinking of him as something to deal with might help," Charles said dryly. "But what do all boys want from their authority figures? Praise, belief, respect, things like that."

"He doesn't get enough of that from you?" Erik asked, even though he could see Charles's point.

"It's been pointed out to me on more than one occasion that I'm more of the nurturer around here," Charles said in his earlier dry tone and Erik couldn't stop his own grin. "And, yes, I'm quite aware you all refer to me as Mom when I'm not around."

Erik knew that Charles had probably wanted him to have some kind of deep discussion with Alex, but Erik saw enough of himself in Alex to know it wouldn't go over well. Instead, he waited until their next training session and pointed out, "You've gotten much better with your power and control. Way better than you were two years ago."

"Thanks?" Alex said, wiping the sweat out of his eyes.

"And Hank showed me the plans you had for the security modifications," Erik continued. "I was...impressed. Especially with your suggestions about security measures that couldn't be foiled by people with metal-bending powers."

Alex's grin was sharp. "Yeah, I bet."

Erik gave him a look. "We won't need those anymore."

Alex sobered a little, but he didn't look away from Erik's gaze. "We might."

"No," Erik told him, and it felt like he was making another promise. "We won't."

With every day that passed, Erik became more confident in that vow, more comfortable with the idea that he could work toward the future he wanted and do it with Charles instead of against him. They still disagreed, often and very passionately, about most topics that had to do with mutants and humans, but compromise wasn't as impossible as he had once thought. When he received intelligence about mutants who were being abused or mistreated, he could still save them, with the help of his new team; but instead of the destruction he wanted to leave in his wake, he kept the strikes surgical and the causalities to a minimum whenever he could. In return, Charles learned to weather the guilt that came with knowing that anyone had died at all.

Erik didn't entertain much guilt over the deaths of humans who tortured and hurt his fellow mutants and he probably never would. The guilt he did deal with was more over the scars he could see that his actions had visited on Charles -- the flashes of worry or panic that the telepath couldn't hide from him, the fear that haunted him that Erik wasn't there to stay. Like with Alex, Erik knew that there was nothing he could do to change the past but he could focus on the future, on making sure he never proved Charles's fears right by leaving again.

He also carried with him the guilt of Charles's paralysis, one burden that had only grown now that he'd witnessed firsthand what his recklessness had cost the man he loved. Everything about Charles's life was markedly different without the use of his legs; the way he took care of himself, the way he navigated the world, the way they made love -- Charles had had to re-learn his life to a degree that Erik found daunting and incredibly humbling. Whenever Charles caught wisps of such thoughts on the edges of Erik's mind, he tried his best to push them away with waves of forgiveness from his own consciousness, only slightly tinged with the melancholy the loss left in him.

But for all of Charles's soft words and understanding, persuasive words and impeccable if idealistic logic, what most successfully stayed Erik's more violent tendencies was Jean. She was a miracle, one that he never wanted to stop appreciating; her mere existence still struck him as extraordinary whenever he stopped to think about it. The fact that his beloved daughter might never manifest any abilities and, instead, turn out to be as human as all of those faceless people he wanted to strike down some days was a reality that remained uncomfortably close to the forefront of his thoughts, no matter how much he tried to ignore it. Although Erik sincerely believed no child of his of Charles's wouldn't be as mutant as her parents, the possibility remained, making it much harder to justify his indiscriminate bloodlust when his beliefs might have been condemning his own daughter to death.

The second anniversary of the mission to Cuba passed without mention or note.

Before Erik had realized it, months had passed since his return to the school and the nip in the air had become a definite frost. It was something new for him, as he'd taken pains to spend the cold months of the year far enough south that he had little experience with the kind of winter that Charles told him to expect in New York. It was on one such cold morning that Mystique handed him a posted letter that had come in his name, a fact that raised eyebrows around the breakfast table. Erik gave in to Charles's mental Well, open it and suddenly had a crisp, white Christmas card in his hand, decorated only with an embossed snowflake and signed only with an elegant, script E.

"She could've at least gotten the holiday right," Charles mused as he looked down at the card in Erik's hands. "Though I suppose the sentiment is what counts."

"I don't think Emma had much sentiment in mind," Erik said, but he smiled as he imagined the humor behind the gesture.

"At least we know she's still alive and kicking," Mystique pointed out, stubbornly oblivious to the fact that none of the others probably cared.

It was just another reminder of how his life had changed, where a letter or an approaching holiday could be the center of excitement, a cheerful hubbub instead of the solemn intensity of a mission to plan. Even the missions they carried out didn't seem to lessen the optimism and faith among the others, Charles's mark indelibly left on their impressionable psyches. Erik knew that he and Mystique would probably continue to be the only realists in the manor for years to come.

And Erik knew he had changed along with everything else when he watched Jean's delight at seeing the snowflakes gently fall around them and couldn't imagine any place he'd rather be than there with her and with Charles.

Something of the complicated mess of emotions he felt as he watched her must've showed on his face or in his mind because he felt Charles's cold fingers press against the sliver of skin exposed between his gloves and the cuff of his coat. He glanced down to where Charles waited beside him, nose bright from the cold. "All right, love?" he asked, since there were no children to overhear and make faces at the sound of the endearment.

"It's nothing," he said, even though he knew Charles didn't exactly believe him. Despite the fact, Charles's powers remained subtle and unobtrusive, the usual warm press he'd become accustomed to.
In his arms, Jean made another lunge for a snowflake and almost managed to throw herself out of his hold. Erik shifted her weight around, pulling her up level so that he could look into her rebellious little face. "Someone's impatient," he chided.

"I think she got it on both sides," Charles said. Across the wintry grounds, the other children basked in the first real snow of the season, running and laughing as the sky dusted them in white. Hank and Mystique were blurry blue shapes far down the swell of the hill, while Alex leaned against a nearby tree talking with Darwin while occasionally shouting insults at Sean as he whooped and chased after the younger kids. "Not much chance in her being otherwise."

Erik realized that whatever changes he did and did not experience over the next few days or months or years, he never wanted to take those moments for granted, ones that had seemed unthinkable six months before. Those months and months of separation already felt like an age ago compared to how right it felt to be with Charles working together for the betterment of their people, but Erik knew it was dangerous to forget the lessons of the past. He couldn't let himself forget again that this was where he belonged.

"You're very strange today," Charles finally said to break the silence, his fingers against Erik's to soothe the bite of the words. "You're looking at me like you've never seen me before."

"Or scared you'll disappear into thin air."

Charles smiled, eyes darting from Erik's to Jean, who was still adamant that she was going to get down and run across the lawn. "You won't be rid of me that easily."

Erik wasn't sure how long they remained like that, locked in another one of those perfect moments, before Jean's displeasure began to ramp up into a full-on tantrum. "Yes, yes, we're going," he told her, finally lowering her to the ground, his fingers tight around one chubby hand. "I don't know who's turned you into such a spoiled little thing."

"It's certainly a mystery to me," came Charles's reply, faintly sarcastic and warm with amusement.

Erik shot him a look that just made Charles laugh at his retreating back as he allowed Jean's momentum to pull him a step forward. "Aren't you joining us?" Erik asked.

Charles looked down at his wheelchair and then at the frosted grass. "I'll just stay here," he said of the patio. "Where's it's warm and dry and flat."

It was Erik's turn to grin. "No, you won't," he said, reaching out with his powers with a casual finesse he'd never known before Charles had first touched him mind. The wheelchair skated just above the ground as smoothly as it did over the polished floors of the manor.

Charles just adjusted the blanket thrown over his legs as he let himself be pulled along at the snail's pace set by their daughter's short little legs. "Keeping me close?" Charles teased.

"Always," Erik informed him, meeting Charles's bright blue gaze long enough to feel the spark of it pass between them.

Erik still wasn't sure if he knew what peace was or if he was capable of it, but what he felt that day and on others like it was close enough that it hardly mattered.

Whatever peace was, it couldn't be better than what he'd already found.

**

The End.

**