“Professor, the mayor would like a word with you,” his assistant warned him. It was enough to make Charles’ eyebrow quirk up and bring a curl to his lips.
“Yes, of course. The mayor. Send him in.” Charles put down his pen and sat back in his chair as though a wonderful show was about to begin. He should have been wearing 3-D glasses and holding a tub of popcorn.
The heavy wooden door to Charles’ office swung wide to allow portly Mayor Lanscroft to amble in. “Quite a lot of books you’ve got here, Professor!” he said, gazing around the room. “Don’t read much myself.” At that, Charles let out a bark of a laugh and signaled his assistant, Penny, to let herself out.
The doorknob clicked and they were alone.
“I’ll have you know that Mayor Lanscroft is surprisingly well read and a very bright man,” Charles said, and with a push of a button, closed the blinds. “Go on, Raven. My office is perfectly secure.”
With a ripple of blue, Mystique shed the mayor’s skin and returned to her natural form. “Not secure enough, apparently. I just walked in here, didn’t I?”
“Did you think I didn’t know it was you?”
She frowned and studied him, both impressed that Charles recognized her and disconcerted to learn of a crack in her armor. Charles could feel the conflict in her mind, but waited for her to speak first: “How did you know it was me?”
“I always know it’s you, whether you’re the mayor or a flight attendant or a hot dog vendor.” He looked away before adding, “Or a reporter at the White House during a Presidential speech on mutant control legislation.” She scoffed, but before she could open the argument, Charles interjected, “It’s good to see you again, Raven.”
He smiled warmly, and she grudgingly smiled back. “Nice to see you, too. You look good. Healthy.” She was only being polite, but it was just the right thing to say. He was nearing forty and looked it: his hair was receding slightly, and sure there were grays in there and wrinkles near his eyes, but his eyes shined bright and blue and clear. He was stronger than he’d ever been and content with his life. He felt great, but all anyone ever seemed to see was his wheelchair. The compliment made him beam.
“Thank you, Raven. I’m doing very well. And you? You’re as beautiful as ever. That tropical climate must suit you.” A nod to Genosha, and another nudge towards a subject Mystique did not want to discuss.
“Then what would you like to discuss?” he said.
Mystique fumed purple at the intrusion into her thoughts while Charles awaited her answer. He was smug and suspicious; sibling niceties would have to wait.
“I’m here to see Magneto,” she told him firmly. “And please understand that I came to you as a courtesy. I will find him here with or without your permission.”
The expression on Charles’ face shifted from gobsmacked to amused. “And what makes you think I have him? Do you think I have him tied up somewhere?” At that, Mystique smirked at him. Charles rolled his eyes. “Oh, grow up.”
“My best intelligence would lead me to believe that he spends his time in the lower, protected levels, perhaps in the labs with Beast. I would prefer it if you’d grant me the security clearance yourself, although I will find other ways if need be.”
Charles was truly perplexed. “He’s really not here and I can’t understand why you would think he would be. I haven’t seen Erik in years. In fact, the last time I saw him three people ended up dead. I’m not all that interested in running into your fearless leader any time soon.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Why in God’s name would you think he was here of all places? Why isn’t he with you? Have you misplaced your commander?”
“Charles, I’m not kidding around.”
“Neither am I! I’m sorry I can’t help you, but I truly have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Mystique let out a deep breath and her shoulders relaxed. “To begin with, he’s not our commander anymore. He’s resigned, I thought because he…” and she drifted off, but Charles caught her meaning. She thought that he and Erik had reconciled and that Erik had come to live with him in Westchester. For a beautiful moment, the images Mystique had concocted of their relationship flickered into his mind: Erik working in the lab, the pair of them training mutants together like they’d done years ago, tender moments passed in private. Mystique had spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility.
“But I haven’t,” Charles spoke. “I’m not going to pretend that those feelings weren’t there at one time, but no, Raven, I haven’t seen him in several years. And from what I can tell, neither have you.”
“It’s been about five years, almost. He left no word as to where he was going, in fact he forbid us from trying to find him or contact him at all outside the channels he set up in order to lead us. No one knew why. His leadership since that time has been… unusual. Unlike him. And that's on the rare occasions we did hear from him, which were few and far between. It sounded like your influence, to be honest, the way he was putting down some of our more… high impact ideas. And then, a few days ago, this came.” She handed him a letter.
As of this letter, I resign the duties required to lead the Brotherhood of Mutants. I trust you will find a suitable replacement.
And beneath that, his signature.
Charles’ face came back around to gobsmacked. “My next question, then, is why search for a man who does not want to be found? Is he not allowed to resign if he chooses?”
“Don’t be so dense, Charles. You know it’s more complicated than that. Do you think it would just be a simple changing of the guard if the Brotherhood knew?” Charles needed only brush the surface of her mind to see that several mutants, each more vile and dangerous than the last, were already vying for control, and that Erik’s abdication would likely lead to bloodshed. “Besides,” she went on, softening a little, “he is also my friend and I would like to know where he’s disappeared to for the last five years. Wouldn’t you?”
Charles conceded that he would. “Well,” he sighed, and pushed his chair away from his desk, “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to look.”
“Where are you going?” Mystique asked, watching Charles push himself towards the door.
“To Cerebro, of course. And, if you don’t mind, I do believe they will be expecting me to exit with the mayor.”
Once again, her skin rippled and stretched and Mayor Lanscroft followed Professor Xavier out of the office and along the corridors. They were surrounded by students of all stripes (in some cases literally), and Mystique the Mayor didn’t know where to look first. The expression of awe and amusement suited her current form; Mayor Lanscroft most often looked like he was sucking a lemon.
They made their way to Charles’s private elevators and down to Cerebro, housed in the lowest levels of the Westchester mansion, now the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning. Again Charles assured her that they had complete privacy and Mystique shed the mayor’s unflattering skin so that they could get down to business.
“So now that we've established that he's not in my bed, do you have any other leads as to where he might be?”
Mystique glared at him. It was so like Charles to make light of their situation and he was plainly pleased that she'd thought they were together.
“I have reason to believe that he's in the United States,” she said.
“Based on what?”
Charles considered poking around in her mind a bit to find the answer, but brushed the impulse aside. It was borne more of a desire to tease his sister than anything else; she'd asked him not to touch her toy and from the bottom of his heart he wanted to hold his finger an inch away from it and taunt, “Not touching! Not touching!” Five minutes in her company and already he was regressing. It made him chuckle.
“I don't see what's so funny,” she grumbled, so Charles raised his fingers to his temple and showed her. She flashed him a sad smile as he set himself up in Cerebro.
“I'll do a scan of the New York area for you, how is that? If you have no more specific ideas, I'm afraid I don't have time to spend the next few weeks probing every mind in the country.”
Before she could protest, Cerebro was activated and Charles was lost to it. All the minds in Manhattan flushed through him. He floated through every thought in the Hudson Valley and swam the imaginations of the boroughs. There were brilliant minds and fascinating mutations pulsing through him, but none was Erik.
“Well, look again. Try Washington. Or California. He always liked San Diego.” There was a panic in her eyes that Charles was not expecting and it softened him. He took her hand in his.
“I'm sorry, Raven, but Erik will not be found if he does not want to be. And anyway, for all I know he's still wearing that damned helmet. Is there any reason to think he's in danger?” Mystique brushed away a tear and shook her head. “Then perhaps the best thing to do is just let him go.”
Mystique resisted Charles' invitations to stay and left the mansion not long after, leaving Charles to his schedule. He still had a class to teach and a staff meeting to lead, plus Hank's research needed review and, as ever, his own manuscript needed work.
But it was hard to concentrate. Erik left the Brotherhood. “It sounded like your influence,” Raven had said. Charles was proud of him. Worried for him. And curious. So very curious.
Perhaps one more attempt at Cerebro wouldn't hurt.
One attempt turned into three, turned into five. At first he only allowed himself to indulge in the curiosity in the evenings, after the day's work was put to rest. After a few days, though, he found himself ducking down there during lunch and between classes just to take a peek. He didn't know what had come over him, honestly he didn't. It was more than likely that Erik would never show up on his radar. As Charles had said himself, if Erik did not want to be found, he had the knowledge and resources to prevent it. So why, then, did Charles keep trying? He flicked through the heads of everyone in New England and Chicagoland, grazed the minds of the Pacific Northwest. The thought of Erik in cowboy boots made him chuckle, so just for fun he cruised through Dallas, Houston, Albuquerque, and Tucson. Raven hadn't specified the Continental United States, so on a particularly chilly morning he tried Honolulu, then Miami, and--
Just for a flash, there he was. Charles's heart lurched and the sensation pulled him out of the moment.
Perhaps he was imagining it. Fort Lauderdale?
He went back in and brushed his mind over South Florida, and there he was. There was no mistaking him. It had been over ten years since he'd pulled on that helmet and excluded Charles from his thoughts, but even after all that time, Charles never found a mind to parallel Erik's. The distance was too great to get a read on what, exactly, was going through his head, but it was definitely him. It could be no one else.
Charles called Raven – she'd left a contact number just in case. “I found him,” he told her.
“What? Where is he?”
She started screaming. “That is not funny, Charles! I came to you! This is Brotherhood business!”
“Raven, let me handle this. I just wanted you to know he's alive and I've located him. I will be back in touch with you when I know more.” And he hung up the phone before she could protest.
The flight to Fort Lauderdale was arranged immediately, before Charles had a chance to change his mind. He gave himself one day to pack and tie up loose ends at the school. He also wanted to give his attending nurse and his assistant some time to prepare themselves for the trip. They didn't often take long journeys, especially not at the last minute, but it was manageable. The trip through security was tedious and they had to bring an inordinate amount of luggage for what was meant to be a weekend away, but the tight schedule and excitement and subtle thrum of ErikErikErikErik in the back of his mind kept Charles too preoccupied to question his decisions.
At least not until they were an hour into their flight and the beverage cart passed by and his assistant, Penny, asked him what he would like to do once they'd arrived in Florida.
What in the hell did he plan to do? Knock on Erik's door and say, “Aha! I see you!” Or, “My sister is looking for you. Why didn't you call her back?” Or, “I hear you left the Brotherhood. Care to join the good guys?”
That was it, wasn't it? He thought he didn't have any motive, really, for tracking Erik down, not anything beyond curiosity and friendly concern for his welfare. Lies. He wanted Erik by his side. He always had. They were great together.
In a completely platonic and businesslike way.
“It's been along winter and I thought we could use some sun,” Charles answered Penny. “And I would like to pay a visit to an old friend.”
They landed in Fort Lauderdale mid-morning and rented a car. Penny had booked them into a five star hotel on the ocean. Their suites were beyond all their expectations, and when Charles rolled his chair onto the balcony and took in the blue sea and salty air, he silently thanked Erik for not settling in Omaha. Charles could think of no better place to nurse his imminent rejection than this.
Speaking of which, Charles was never one to dawdle. “Are we ready to go?” he asked Penny, “I would like to find this friend of mine this afternoon. Then we can treat ourselves to dinner. Any place you choose, just as long as it has a full bar and an ocean view.”
They left Charles' nurse, Ms. Sandy Bronson, to enjoy the private beach and a few mai-tais and went to fetch the rental car. Charles climbed into the passenger side while Penny stowed his chair.
“All right, Professor. Where to?” Penny asked as she set herself up behind the wheel.
“Ah, well.” This was embarrassing. Charles had only a general idea of where Erik was located. The coordinates put him a few miles north of them and further inland. He just planned to figure out the details once they were closer. “Drive, uh, that way,” he directed her, and Penny knew Charles well enough to follow.
Every few miles, Charles checked in and brushed Erik's mind. They were definitely getting closer. He was becoming clearer. He was happy, it seemed. He sensed no danger. He was thinking about... peanut butter?
“Turn here. No, no wait. The next street.”
Penny eyed him. “This friend of yours doesn't know we're coming, does she?”
“He,” Charles corrected her, “And no, he doesn't.” Taking in the look Penny was giving him, Charles added, “And this is not a personal call. This is Xavier Institute business.”
“Then why don't you tell me what we're doing?”
“That's personal,” he frowned. He should just nudge her mind away from questioning him, but he was too preoccupied with Erik's. Charles didn't want to pry too much, so he only kept a tentative, superficial connection to Erik. Enough to direct them past the local elementary school and down a side street. Charles frowned at the potted palms, backyard pools, and manicured lawns.
“Does this look right to you?” he asked, and Penny shrugged. How would she know?
Charles kept his connection with Erik's mind open as they passed a young couple pushing a stroller. He looked for a street sign. Hibiscus Lane? This can't be right.
"Keep going, Charles. You're almost here. Number 21107."
Erik? He must have known Charles was in his mind.
"It's on the right. White mailbox."
Charles was flummoxed, but he repeated the instructions. “Number 21107 on the right. White mailbox.”
They pulled up to a sprawling ranch home. There were decorative flower beds bordering the vibrant green grass. There was a pool in the back: Charles could see the peaked roof of the screened enclosure. There was a big sedan in the driveway, along with two small bikes and a nearly deflated soccer ball. And, standing on the front stoop, there was Erik.
“Is that your friend?” asked Penny.
Charles sighed, more wistfully than he'd intended to. “Yes, that's him.”
“You've got good taste in friends,” she smirked, and Charles smirked back.
Charles hadn't anticipated that tight squeeze in his chest when he finally caught sight of him. But then, he hadn't anticipated the wavy, greying hair, or the way his eyes flashed green, or the slightly larger frame, or the gently weathered look to his face, or the perfectly too-small t-shirt. He looked good, better than the last time Charles saw him. But then, the last time Charles saw him, he was Magneto. Charles hadn't seen Erik in many, many years.
Charles suddenly wished he hadn't worn a tie.
They parked on the street in front of the driveway to allow enough room to pull Charles's wheelchair up to the passenger side. While Penny unloaded the trunk, Charles watched Erik. He'd retracted himself from Erik’s mind when they pulled up and instantly regretted it: Erik's face was inscrutable. He was watching them, studying them, but did not step off the stoop to assist them. Nor did he give them his full attention. He had one eye and ear trained to the inside of the house.
Charles moved himself from the car to the chair as gracefully as possible, imagining Erik's eyes following his every move, but when he turned back, Erik wasn't watching him at all. He was turned toward the inside of the house, speaking firmly to someone. Charles had wheeled himself all the way up the walk to stop at Erik's feet before he turned his attention back to him.
For a moment, Charles was terrified at what he might say.
But Erik just offered a mischievous smile. “Welcome to Florida,” he said.
“You don't seem surprised to see me.”
“Only surprised that it took you so long.” At that, his smile turned warm and inviting. He turned to Penny, who stood at Charles's side, and gave her an appraising look.
“My apologies,” Charles said. “Allow me to introduce my assistant, Miss Penny Malone. Penny, this is my old friend Erik Lehnsherr.”
“Eisenhardt,” he corrected. “Erik Eisenhardt. Nice to meet you, Penny,” said Erik, offering a handshake. “I suppose it's my turn.” He turned inside and waved. A moment later, a boy and a girl stood at his side. “This is my daughter, Wanda, and my son, Pietro. Wanda, Pietro, this is Charles Xavier and his friend Penny.”
Charles tried to say hello but he was having a spot of trouble breathing at the moment, what with his stomach turning to lava, so it came out something like, “Hhha uhlo.” A growing part of his mind was preoccupied with wondering what color his cheeks were.
Fortunately, Penny covered for him. “Hello!” she beamed at them, “It's so nice to meet you!” She shook their hands. They must have liked her because they started babbling. Well, Pietro did:
“Hi! I'm Pietro and that's Wanda. She's my sister. Your name is Penny? Like a penny like the money? Where did you come from?” Erik was smiling down at him.
“Yes, my name is Penny. I'm from New York. How old are you?”
“I'm five. Wanda's five, too, because we're twins. That means we're the same age. Do you have any brothers?”
Erik turned back to a stunned Charles. “Would you like to come in?” Charles must have nodded because Erik gave a cautious glance up and down the block before flicking his wrist and levitating Charles's wheelchair over the steps and into his home.
The house was larger than it seemed and sparsely decorated, giving Pietro enough room to run at full speed across the living room and dive head first into the couch. Erik said something to him in German. Charles turned to Penny, who took the cue and translated telepathically: He said, “Calm down, you little monkey. We have company.” Charles smiled.
“Would you like something to eat?” Erik offered. “A cup of coffee?” He was standing at the entrance to the kitchen, which was filled with gleaming modern appliances. Wanda stood at his side, staring at Charles with a cautious, measuring glare she'd certainly inherited from her father. Erik must have sensed her apprehension because he was petting her pretty head, running his fingers over her light brown hair. “Tea, Charles?”
Charles accepted the offer and Penny agreed, so Erik told them to make themselves at home and ducked into the kitchen, Wanda still at his side.
Pietro ran another lap or two around the living room and stopped in front of Charles.
“My dad says I should call you Professor. What's that?”
“Well, it means I'm a teacher. But you can call me Charles.”
“What kind of teacher?”
“I teach genetics.” Realizing that he was speaking to a kindergartener, he added, “It's about studying what traits children get from their parents. Like how you have your dad's green eyes.”
“Why are you in a wheelchair? What happened to your legs?”
Oh, Christ, how was Charles supposed to answer that? Funny story about your dad...? Fortunately, Erik barked something in German, at which Pietro rolled his eyes and ran back over to the couch next to Penny, who again translated telepathically for Charles: He said, “Pietro! Mind your manners! Please, just sit down and stop moving for five minutes! These people are important to me.”
Erik brought them their tea in the living room and took a seat in an armchair. Wanda climbed into his lap and rested her head against his chest, and once again she was glaring at Charles.
Charles projected into Erik's mind: I don't think your daughter likes me very much.
She's just shy. Plus she's getting over a cold. She gets a little clingy when she's sick. Erik gave her a squeeze and kissed the top of her head.
Charles couldn't stop himself from grinning. “I'm sorry, Erik, I had no idea what I was walking into here. Raven didn't mention you'd had children.”
Erik's expression turned dark at Raven's name and Magneto flashed across his face. “Perhaps we should talk in private.” He lifted Wanda off his lap and stood. “Why don't you kids take Penny out back and show her the swings or something? Go.” They followed his order and dragged Penny towards the back door.
Charles projected to her: I'm so sorry. I had no idea you'd be turned into a babysitter, I swear.
It's all right. I don't mind. They're very sweet.
When they'd gone, Erik ushered Charles down a hallway and into his office. It was the exact opposite of Charles' office, which was all dark woods and heavy books and thick curtains. Erik's was light and airy, with a small desk and a rolling chair, a lazy ceiling fan overhead, and a few paperbacks and newspapers stacked in the corner next to a lonely potted plant. The window looked out into the backyard, which was lush and green. Charles smelled the orange trees before he spotted them. The atmosphere was intoxicating; he would never get any work done here.
Erik sat down in his chair and stared across at Charles, a wry smile creeping slowly across his face. “So, where do we begin?”
Charles laughed. “That's a very good question, Mr. Eisenhardt,” and they sat for a moment, not knowing where to go. “Their mother?” Charles asked.
“Named Magda. She's dead. You never met her.”
“I'm so sorry.” Erik accepted the condolences with a slight nod. They sank into silence again. Charles wanted to know everything. Every last detail of Erik's life. And he wanted to hear Erik tell him; he didn't want to dig it up in his mind. But where to begin?
“Why Florida?” Charles asked.
Erik laughed. “I'd been living in Genosha. Did you think I missed winter in New York?”
“But, from what I was led to believe, I thought you were in hiding. You've been in hiding for years.”
“Have you never heard of hiding in plain sight? Without Cerebro, would you have thought to look for me here? I considered a more... secluded option, but I have two children to care for. It wouldn't be healthy for them to grow up with no contact with anyone but me, besides which, I would go absolutely crazy if I was trapped with them all day every day. Don't misunderstand me: I love them very, very much, but I do need some time to myself every so often. Let them go to school for a few hours a day. Let them go to play groups or whatever. It's better for my sanity and theirs. I couldn't do that if I was holed up in some mountain fortress somewhere, not that I haven't secured that option for us if need be.”
“You know you are always welcome at the Xavier Institute.”
Erik frowned. “Is that why you're here, Charles? To recruit me? I rather hoped this was a personal call.”
“It is, of course, but you know I will never stop inviting you to join me.”
“Well, I'm not interested,” Erik snapped, and Charles held his hands up in a gesture of defeat.
“That's fine. I expected nothing else, but I had to ask. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, as a friend, will you please tell me why you've resigned from the Brotherhood? And why my sister thinks you've fallen off the face of the earth? And why she is so worried about you that she came to me of all people?” Erik's glare was waning. “How about why she didn't tell me you had two adorable children?”
“She doesn't know about them. No one from our world does, and if you don't mind, it has to remain that way. This Penny, is she trustworthy?”
“I trust her completely.”
“She's a mutant, is she?” he asked thoughtfully, and Charles nodded. “Nothing visible, as far as I can tell. What is her power?”
“She was blessed with a rather useful language mutation. She understands any language fluently within mere moments, can read entire texts in seconds with full comprehension, and she also has a wonderful gift for puns.”
Erik laughed. “Leave it to you to find the world's most boring mutation.”
Charles quirked his eyebrow at him. “Leave it to you to find it boring. She usually has more strategic messages to translate and relay telepathically than 'Pietro, mind your manners.'” Erik laughed again, and the sound of it made Charles smile. “And it's awfully nice when she can get a glance at classified documents. Better than a carbon. Besides, she's a wonderful companion. There's no one I'd rather have at my side.” Except you, a small part of him thought. He shook it away and returned to the subject at hand:
“Why do you keep them a secret?”
“I have too many enemies, Charles. Probably more than I know. Probably many of my allies. I tried to keep my relationship with Magda quiet. I thought it was enough that I didn't tell anyone about her. That she lived in San Diego. That I kept her far away from Genosha. I thought I was being careful.” He paused. Swallowed. “She was human, and someone found out about her, and my carelessness cost her her life. It was vengeance against me, and for what? Something stupid. I don't even remember the details. Nothing I wouldn't have given to protect her.
“Wanda and Pietro were only babies. They were eight months old! What was I going to do? Build a nursery in my office in Genosha? How could I live with myself if something happened to them, too?” He shook his head. “Their mother is dead because of who I chose to associate myself with and the choices I made. Their very existence puts them in danger every single day. Puts me in danger every single day. What wouldn't I do if it saved them from harm? I have too many enemies, Charles, I have too many enemies who wouldn't flinch at holding a knife to Wanda's throat to get me to say uncle. That's why Raven doesn't know, and that's why I left the Brotherhood, and that's why I will take a knife to your throat if you let anyone know anything about my life here.”
Charles took a moment to digest everything before he said, “You have my word.”
“Penny is an extension of me. I trust her unreservedly. She allows me complete access to her mind, and if I catch even a whiff of trouble brewing in there, I will not hesitate to remove this weekend from her memory entirely.”
“Thank you, Charles.”
“As for my nurse,” Erik frowned at the mention of a third person, “I will remove this entire trip from her memory as soon as we get back. It's not worth the risk.”
“A nurse? Are you sick?”
Charles smiled. “No, Erik, I'm paralyzed. Sometimes I do need some tending to. Things I wouldn't dream of asking Penny.”
“Have I apologized to you about that, by the way?” asked Erik with a sad smile, which Charles returned.
“Yes, many times. Although it has been a while and after the bill I just paid to have the elevator repaired, I wouldn't mind hearing it again.”
Erik's countenance turned serious. “I'm sorry, Charles. For everything.”
Charles felt Erik's mind pressing at his for attention, so Charles took a peek. He saw the beach, he saw the bullet, he saw the Brotherhood, he saw the skirmishes, he saw the arguments, he saw the deaths, he saw everything. Everything that led him here, and the weight of Erik's regrets.
“I forgave you a long time ago.”
Erik sighed. “Well, I'm happy to see you. I've been hoping you'd come. I've been thinking about you a lot. It gets very lonely around here.”
“I wish you didn't hesitate to contact me. I would have done anything I could to help.”
Erik shook his head. “Couldn't contact you. Too dangerous. It's dangerous enough that I haven't sealed this house to protect from telepaths, but it seemed like a waste. Wouldn't protect me if I left the house, and I couldn't very well pick the kids up from school in a helmet.”
Charles laughed at the image. “That would get the neighbors talking!”
“Can you imagine?” Erik was smiling. “Oh, yes, just the mutant next door, worried about mind readers.” He put his hands over his face, laughing, “Oh, God, what is my life?”
“I think it's sweet.” Charles was grinning. “You probably built that swing set out of an old car with your bare hands, didn't you?”
They heard a wail from outside. Pietro was crying. “Daaaaaaaaaad!” Erik was out of his seat and out the door in a flash, and Charles followed him as fast as he could. By the time he caught up, Erik was knelt on the ground next to Pietro, examining his skinned knee. Penny was apologizing profusely: “I only took my eyes off him for one second! I'm so sorry. He must have tripped.”
“It's all right, Penny. It happens. No harm done,” Erik told her as he scooped Pietro up in his arms and carried him into the bathroom, murmuring to him in German.
It's okay. I know it hurts. Don't worry, we'll get you cleaned up, Penny provided the translation, How many times a day do I tell you to slow down? You need to be more careful. I don't want you getting hurt. They were in the bathroom now, cleaning off the wound, and Charles, Penny, and Wanda gave them their privacy, although Penny continued to listen and relay: This is going to sting a little. Erik must have put peroxide on the cut because Pietro let out a scream. Just for a minute... there, it's stopped, right? Now a Band-Aid. There you go. Good as new. You want a drink of water? A pause. Now when I tell you to stop running you might consider it, right?
The door swung open, but before they stepped out, Erik cupped Pietro's face and wiped away a tear.
Charles was overwhelmed. For years after they’d parted ways, Charles imagined what Erik might have been like if he hadn’t been Magneto. Who he would have been had his good side won out. Charles had imagined them training young mutants and teaching in his school and, sure, maybe he’d imagined them with children once or twice, but this. This was more than Charles could ever have dared to imagine. The sweetness, the tenderness, the pride for his kids that pulsed constantly under the surface of his thoughts: it made Charles’s heart ache.
He looked to his side and found Wanda standing there next to his chair. She put her hands on the armrests. Charles looked down at her and smiled, and to his great surprise, she smiled back. With a big, wide grin filled with tiny teeth: a smile just like Erik’s. It made Charles’s head spin.
Penny is 100% made up by me.
Warning for racism in this chapter.
Erik invited them to stay for dinner, an offer Charles happily accepted. First, though, he wanted to go back to the hotel and freshen up. He'd been expecting to pull up to some shielded shack in the middle of nowhere, be chased away by one of Magneto's minions, then go back and have a pina colada and some key lime pie. He was not dressed for a backyard barbecue with two little kids.
Erik and the twins decided to come along on their trip back to the hotel. The three of them piled into the back seat of the rental while Penny stowed Charles's chair into the trunk.
Wanda finally spoke: “Are we going to the beach?”
Charles turned around from the front and answered, “Yes, we are, but only for a little while. Do you like the ocean?”
She nodded. “I like the ocean I like dolphins and I like whales. Can we go swimming?”
“No,” Erik told her, “Not today. We can swim in the pool when we get home.”
There were a few whines of “I want to swim in the ocean! We never get to swim in the ocean!” from both Wanda and Pietro. Erik scolded them in German and they stopped just as Penny got into the driver's seat.
“Ready to go?” she asked. Charles put away the sloppy grin he was wearing long enough to tell her yes and they were off.
The kids spent the ride back to the hotel with their faces pressed against the windows, pointing and babbling about everything they passed. Penny was playing right along, asking them all the right questions to get them laughing and talking. Charles had always thought of her as a tough cookie and a quick thinker, good with a gun, but good with kids? It was as unexpected as anything he'd seen that day. Charles was starting to feel deficient; he didn't have much experience with small children.
He was lost in that thought when he felt Penny silently asking for his attention. He took a peek into her mind and saw the image she was projecting to him. From the driver's seat, she could see Erik in the rear view mirror, and the warm, lingering look he was giving Charles. Charles turned around, and Erik gave him a shy smile.
The first order of business when they got back to the hotel was to get Erik and the kids onto the beach. Charles and Penny escorted them through the lobby and out the back, where they ran into Sandy, Charles's nurse, at the pool bar. She was half in the bag and having a wonderful time with a man named Marco, so Charles told her to stay. She was entitled to have some fun on her own, especially considering she wouldn't remember any of it come Tuesday.
“Are you footing the bill for this?” Erik asked Charles as Sandy grabbed Marco's ass.
“I am. One of the many perks of working at the Xavier Institute,” he said. Erik ignored the implied invitation and they resumed their walk to the beach.
Charles gave the lifeguard a bit of a nudge to let Erik, Wanda, and Pietro onto the hotel's private beach even though they weren't guests, then he and Penny went back to their rooms. Thank God they didn't have the elevator to themselves, because Penny was eyeing Charles with such amusement and suspicion that it made him blush with embarrassment, and with two elderly couples only inches away from them, their conversation could go no further than that.
When they finally arrived on their floor and made their way to their rooms (Penny had her own room, connected to his), Charles gave in and asked: “Okay, what? What is that look for?”
“Nothing,” she said, suppressing a smile, “I'm just surprised we came all the way down here. I've just never known you to have to go further than the faculty lounge to get laid.” She laughed at Charles’s indignant face and retreated to her room.
Charles made a mess of his suitcase trying to figure out what to wear. Erik was in jeans and a t-shirt. Charles had never been a “jeans and a t-shirt” kind of guy, and even if he was, he never could have pulled it off the way Erik did. His options were limited to the contents of his small suitcase, though, so he pulled on a deep blue polo shirt and some lighter slacks than the suit he'd been wearing earlier. Changing his pants was a bit difficult, but by this point he'd gotten the hang of it. He checked himself in the mirror and ran his fingers through his hair. It was still thick on the top and the sides, but he worried if Erik had noticed that it started an inch further back than it used to. Not that it mattered, he told himself. He still looked good.
Charles spared only one more moment to his vanity and then rolled out onto the balcony. He could see Erik and the kids on the beach. Erik was grabbing them by their wrists and swinging them around in circles. When one was in the air, the other was jumping up and down asking to be next. Their laughter echoed all the way up to the tenth floor.
Erik grabbed Wanda and tickled her until she was rolling around in the sand in a fit of giggles, and suddenly Penny was at Charles's side, laughing at the scene. He hadn't noticed her come in. She looked beautiful. She was dressed in short shorts that showed off her long brown legs and a flowing shirt. A pair of oversized sunglasses rested on her head and a slew of bracelets jangled on her arms. She was sipping at a glass of water.
“How do you know this guy?” she asked, and Charles arched his eyebrows at her.
“I'm surprised at you. I was sure you would recognize him.” She shook her head. “Penny, that's Magneto.”
She choked on her water. “What? What do you mean? Mag-- Him? Hot Dad?”
“You probably didn't recognize him without the helmet.”
“You mean I didn't recognize him without the pile of bodies in his wake and someone in a choke hold begging for mercy!”
“Penny!” he scolded her, and he stopped, not quite knowing what to say.
She spoke first. “It explains a lot. Why you always showed him mercy, gave him the benefit of the doubt. I never understood why you were always so lenient with him. Or, come to think of it, why we haven't seen or heard from him in a few years.”
“I knew Erik a long time ago, before there was such a person as Magneto. I always hoped I'd see Erik again.”
“No more Magneto?”
Charles shrugged. “I hope not. Not right now, anyway. Only time will tell.”
Out on the beach, Erik had Wanda up on his shoulders while Pietro raced up and down the shore line.
Charles took Penny's hand and looked her in the eyes. “You realize then, that this trip, and everything you've seen here, must be held in the strictest confidence. If anyone finds out where he is, you would put him and both of those children in very real, very immediate danger. I am putting an incredible amount of faith in you, and Erik has agreed to trust you because I trust you. Breathe one word of this trip to anyone, and their lives will crumble beneath them. Do you understand?”
“I understand. I won't let you down.”
“I know you won't.” Charles gave her hand a squeeze before letting it go, and together they went down to collect Erik.
As they waited for Erik to gather up the twins, Sandy stumbled over, still with Marco's hands creeping under the waistband of her pants, and apologized. “I haven't had that much to drink, I swear. Do you need me? I can come with you if you want. If you need me to.” But Charles brushed her off and told her to go have fun, and as she stumbled off with Marco's hand in her back pocket, he gave her a little mental push to let loose. He was fine in Penny's and Erik's care. Let Sandy have her wild weekend. She won't have to regret it.
Penny saw what he was doing to Sandy and laughed, a hand affectionately on Charles's shoulder.
Disgusting, he heard someone think at him, and Charles whirled his head around to see an old woman glaring at him. She was looking at the contrast between Penny's skin and his, and wondering about the nature of their relationship. Charles tried to ignore it, tried to focus on the beautiful image of Erik walking towards him, lit by the afternoon sun, Wanda up on his shoulders, smiling brightly. He should be ashamed to be seen in public, he heard the old woman think, She's probably a prostitute.
Not wanting to cause too much of a scene in his revenge, Charles found a spark of attraction to the muscley Cuban busboy deep in her mind and planted a reciprocal seed in his. By the time Erik joined him with the kids, the busboy was shamelessly flirting with old woman, one hand on her shoulder, the other brushing a strand of hair out of her face. She was mortified, and she couldn't get away from him no matter what she tried.
Erik lifted Wanda off of his shoulders with a middle-aged grunt and returned her to the ground. He nodded towards the old lady. “That your doing?”
“You haven't changed, Charles,” he grinned fondly, and Charles returned the expression. Wanda was hugging Erik's leg and his hand wandered affectionately across the top of her head. Penny, on the other hand, was stone faced, and Erik noticed. “You all right?” he asked, and she gave him a stiff nod.
“She just put two and two together,” Charles explained.
Erik's face took on a shit-eating grin. “Scary, huh?” he said to her and winked, and Charles felt some of her tension subside.
It was getting late by the time they got back to Erik’s house. He grilled up some hot dogs and hamburgers, all the while apologizing that he wasn’t a better cook and didn’t have any other ideas. But Charles was thrilled. It was perfect. To see Magneto wearing an apron and flipping burgers? What more could he ask for out of a vacation?
Penny cheerfully joined the twins in any game they threw at her while Charles and Erik watched from the sidelines, stretched out in two chaises longues. They talked a bit: about Charles’s life in Westchester, about Erik’s life in Florida: the surprises of children and the loneliness of cutting himself off from everything and everyone he knew. “I have no one to talk to here,” he said, “I can’t let them know who I am or what I am. How do I know they won’t report me to someone? Set off someone’s radar? I’ll have Emma Frost knocking on my door trying to recruit the new mutant in town.”
“Speaking of mutations, what about Wanda and Pietro?” Charles asked. He’d been dying to ask all day. “Have they shown any unusual abilities at all?”
Erik looked grim. “No. Not yet. They’re still so young, though. I know a lot of people’s powers don’t manifest until puberty. I worry about it, sometimes. Magda was entirely human.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did Magneto come to fall in love with a human?”
“Magneto didn’t,” he said, “I did, and a long time ago, before any of this.” He looked away, and Charles dipped into his mind to catch the rest of his thought: they’d been childhood sweethearts and lost each other in the camps during the war. So many years later, on a Brotherhood mission, he found her again. And something deep within Erik thought, She survived Auschwitz, but she didn't survive me. But Erik crushed that thought as he'd probably done countless times before and returned his focus to Charles. “Some loyalties go back further than Magneto,” he said, “Like you and me.”
Charles took Erik’s hand, and at the touch Erik's mind flooded with hope and lust, having wondered all this time if Charles would still reciprocate his feelings.
Erik tentatively reached a hand to Charles’s face and pressed it against his cheek. It had been almost ten years since Erik had touched him like that, and Charles savored it for but a moment before Erik pulled his hand away.
“I want to show you something,” he said, and brought Charles’ wheelchair over to them.
“Show me what?”
“It’s nothing. Just something I’ve been working on.” He helped Charles into his chair and told Penny and the twins that they’d be back in a few minutes.
Erik was walking at a brisk pace and Charles found it a challenge to try to keep up. They were down a different hallway this time, through the last door and into what must have been Erik’s bedroom. Erik closed the door behind them.
“What did you want to show me?” Charles asked, but the words barely escaped his mouth before Erik lunged for him, kissing him with a ferocity Charles never expected. They parted panting. Erik’s eyes were wide and dark and Charles’s cheeks were flushed pink.
Erik was staring through him, searching him, searching desperately for a sign, and when Charles broke into a grin, Erik groaned in relief and pleasure and picked him up out of his chair and laid him onto his bed. All the while Charles was yanking at Erik’s shirt trying fruitlessly to rip it off. Erik did it himself and pulled Charles’s polo off, too.
“God, I’ve missed you,” Erik growled, and dove in. His hands were everywhere, he was grasping and pawing at him like a desperate man, clawing his back like he was the last life raft, sucking at his tongue like it was the last drop of water. There would be bite marks all over his shoulders and all over his neck, like he’d had a run in with a sloppy vampire, and Charles loved it. The desire radiating from Erik was intoxicating.
Charles groped at Erik’s waist, feeling the new flesh, the stomach of a single dad, and oh, it was lovely, he wanted it all to himself and there was Erik, on top of him and wanting him more than he’d felt from anyone in years, not since... well, not since Erik. He pulled Erik’s face up towards him. He wanted to taste him again, wanted his tongue again, wanted his lips again, and they were lost in each other until they heard a sound.
A screech. Wailing.
They pulled apart. Erik stood and turned his head toward the sound like a cat. It was Wanda crying. Erik sighed and mumbled an apology to Charles as he pulled his shirt back on.
“It’s all right,” Charles said with all the sincerity he could convey. “To be continued. Just please help me up.”
Erik gave Charles a hand into the chair and passed him his shirt with a look of deep regret, which only made Charles pull him down and kiss him square on the lips.
They left the bedroom and moved back down the hallway and out into the backyard.
Wanda was alone.
She was sitting in the middle of the lawn crying hysterically and holding something in her hand. When Erik saw her he broke out into a run, asking, “Where did they go? What happened?”
Wanda sobbed, “He took them! He took them!”
Erik picked her up and held her and rocked her back and forth. “What? Who? Who took what?” But Wanda was crying too hard to answer. All she could do was give him what was in her hand.
It was a note.
Warning for violence in this chapter.
Erik was gone.
Charles felt him disappear in his mind: the man he’d spent such a wonderful day with evaporated right in front of him. His eyes burned and the tendons in his neck pulled taut.
“Who knows?” Magneto growled at Charles.
“What happened? Where is Penny?”
“Who knows, Charles?” he dropped Wanda to the ground and lunged at Charles, curled his fingers around Charles’s neck and squeezed. “Who knows you’re here?”
Charles gagged and choked. “Calm down,” he coughed out, “You’re hurting me. Where is Penny?”
“I’m hurting you?” he sneered, and squeezed a little tighter, “Does this hurt, Charles? I told you not five hours ago that I would slit your throat if you caused them any harm and right now you’d better be hoping that’s all I’ll do to you if we don't find my son. Tell me who knows you're here!”
Charles gagged and gasped for breath. With what energy he could muster, Charles pushed some calm into Erik’s mind and forced him to let go. Charles fell back in his char and regained his breath.
Erik was staring at him, still fuming, but calmer and confused. “Did you do that? Did you make me let go?”
“Yes,” Charles said, and Erik would have lunged for him again, this time for manipulating him, if Charles didn’t still have a hold over his emotions. “Hurting me won’t get us anywhere, and besides, you were terrifying Wanda.”
Erik’s eyes went wide when he realized and he looked down to find her on the ground, hugging her knees, trembling and whimpering. When he reached out to her, she cowered. Charles heard Erik’s heart break.
“What happened, Erik? Where are they? Where is Penny?”
Erik hung his head. “It’s Azazel.” He handed Charles the note, which read:
“Tell your lieutenant you want to make a trade.”
Charles shook his head, confused, although it did explain why he couldn’t feel Penny’s or Pietro’s minds in his considerable range: Azazel could have teleported them to the other side of the world and back in the time it took for him and Erik to put their shirts back on.
Through gritted teeth, Erik snarled, “I’m just guessing, but maybe Mystique had some idea of what you were up to this weekend? Isn’t she the reason you’re here?”
Oh, God. Charles called her when he’d located Erik. He did. And just to gloat - that he’d found him and she hadn’t. It was his fault. It was all his fault. The realization flushed him a deep red and brought tears to his eyes. “Well, give it to him! Whatever it is, just do it!” he burst, “Call her! I’ll call her myself. I’ll get this all straightened out. Where’s your phone?”
“Do not call Mystique from my phone!” Erik roared. “Are you insane? Do you not think this is bad enough? Do you think they can’t trace the call? Do you ever think about anyone but yourself?”
That stung, and Charles let it show. Not that he expected Erik, or right now possibly Magneto, to be worrying about Charles’s hurt feelings.
“Tell me what you want me to do,” he said. “I’m at your command.”
“Don’t. Do. ANYTHING. For once. Just shut up and don’t move.”
Charles stayed where he was as Erik stormed into the house.
Wanda was still sitting in the grass, picking at a leaf and sniffling. Charles wanted to dip into her delicate mind and replace the last few minutes, make her forgive her father, but he just couldn’t. He’d overstepped his bounds too many times already, and look where that had gotten them.
Instead, he spoke to her, softly: “I’m so sorry, Wanda. This is my fault. Your dad didn’t mean to scare you. He is just mad at me because I made a mistake.”
She rubbed at her eyes. “Why was he hurting you? I thought you were friends.”
“We are friends, but sometimes friends fight. I’m sure you fight with your brother sometimes, right? But he’s still your brother.”
She stood up and walked over to his chair. Charles silently congratulated himself: maybe he wasn’t so terrible with children after all. There he was, thinking about his own feelings once again. He winced.
“Where is Pietro?” Wanda sniffled. Charles petted her head like he’d seen Erik do so many times that day, and it seemed to comfort her.
“We’ll find them, sweetheart. Don’t worry. They’ll be home soon.”
Behind them, Erik emerged from the house. “Come on. We’ve got to go.” He was holding Magneto’s helmet in his hand.
“What? Where are we going?” Charles asked, but already they were on the move. Erik marched them through the house, out the front door, and down to the car. Erik didn’t even bother to hide the fact that he was levitating Charles’s chair out to the driveway, or that he opened the trunk, packed it in, and slammed the trunk shut all with a few waves of his finger.
“Whoa!” Wanda was amazed, and she tapped Charles on the shoulder from the back seat. “How did your chair do that?” she asked.
Erik shot him a look, so Charles just winked and told her it was magic.
So not even Erik’s kids knew, Charles thought. He really had been living in complete isolation.
They took off in Erik’s car, driving much too fast. Charles did his part by silencing the minds of any police officers they passed. They didn’t need to worry about it for long, though, because they soon were far out of town, the blinking suburb lights miles behind them. They drove nearly an hour into the Everglades, Wanda whining “Are we there yet?” all the while.
They pulled into a clearing and Erik parked the car next to a small steel shack.
“There’s not room for all three of us at once, so you’ll have to go first,” he said to Charles while summoning the chair.
Once Charles was situated, Erik led him to the door and punched the numbers 9567 (the children’s birthdate, Charles caught from his thoughts) into an electronic keypad. When the door opened, the small shack was revealed to be an elevator.
Charles was pleased. “This is a bit more like what I was expecting from this trip.” He looked up at Erik, but he was too busy keeping an eye on Wanda to share the thought.
“Schatzi, bitte. Es gibt Alligatoren hier. Come over here and stay close to me. I don’t want you to become gator food,” he said, more gently than he felt. He was careful of his tone, still trying to make up for scaring her earlier.
Charles let them be and rolled into the elevator.
He went down. No way to know how far, but certainly more than far enough, and when the doors opened again, he was in some sort of control room. NASA would be jealous, he thought as he sent the elevator back up. He’d suspected that office back at the house looked a little sparse. It was perfect for Erik Eisenhardt, but for Magneto? No, this was Magneto’s office.
A few minutes later, the elevator opened again and there he was: helmet on his head and Wanda’s little hand in his. Both Erik Eisenhardt and Magneto. The contrast was startling.
“What is this place?” breathed Charles.
Erik answered, “You know I only fully resigned a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that, I needed a secure location to conduct business if necessary.”
Erik (or rather Magneto) set himself up in his chair (or rather his throne) and started fiddling with the control panel. “Take Wanda and keep her over there,” he ordered, pointing to a small enclosure at the back of the room. It was clearly meant to be a secure place for the kids - Erik must have had to bring them along now and then - but there was no room for the wheelchair. “I want her neither seen nor heard, do you understand?”
Charles nodded and swallowed the lump in his throat.
A giant screen switched on and caught Mystique in an office somewhere - Genosha, Charles assumed. She was pacing back and forth and shuffling through papers, and when Magneto spoke she nearly jumped out of her blue skin.
“Whatever he wants, give it to him,” he commanded.
She spun around, stunned. “Nice to hear from you, too.”
“Azazel. Make the deal. Whatever it is, give it to him. Let him have what he wants.”
“No?” he roared, and the metal walls vibrated. Magneto was not accustomed to being told no, at least not by anyone over the age of five. “This is not a discussion, Mystique, this is a command and it is to be treated as such.”
“You’re not my commander anymore, pal. I’ve got your resignation right here.”
Off in the corner, Wanda was getting cranky. It had been a long day and it was way past her bedtime. Past Charles’s bedtime, too, but he was marginally better at handling it. Mystique was telling off Magneto for abandoning the Brotherhood when, in the background, a small voice whined, “When are we going home? I have to go to the bathroom.”
“What was that?” asked Mystique.
Magneto panicked. “Hold on,” he barked and slammed his hand against a button. The screen went dark.
“Daddy, can we get Pietro and go home now? Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Charles! Can you? Please?” he pleaded, “There is a bathroom right there.”
Charles turned around, and sure enough, there was a door right behind him which opened to reveal a small bathroom. “Because what would an evil lair be without a clean toilet?” he muttered as he ushered Wanda in and closed the door.
Once she was inside, Magneto leveled him with a glare that made Charles feel like he’d been called into the principal’s office. “Can you keep her quiet, please? That’s all I asked you to do. Just keep her calm until I’m done.”
“Oh,” Charles said, “You mean like…” and he waggled his fingers near his temple: the universal sign for telepathic manipulation.
“No! For Christ sake, Charles, stay the fuck out of her head. Just talk to her! Jesus Christ…”
Wanda came back out from the bathroom, and when they were settled, Magneto turned the video phone back on.
Mystique looked indignant. “Did I just get put on hold? By Magneto? Are you serious?”
“I don’t have time for this shit. Just give Azazel what he wants and let’s get this over with.”
“Don’t you even want to know what he wants?”
“I don’t care what he wants!” he cried, nearing the end of his rope.
“He wants Asteroid M.”
Magneto paused, frowned. “Why?”
“I don’t know, but seeing as how there are two nuclear warheads up there, I thought it best if we didn’t all get nuked. So I told him that you denied his request.”
“Well, I’m approving his request.”
“Well, I’m saying you resigned and no longer have that authority.”
Magneto screamed in frustration and burst, “He has Penny! Charles’s assistant, Penny Malone. He’s holding her hostage.”
Mystique was stone-faced, and Charles suspected she was hiding something. “Charles will be sorry to hear that,” she said, impassive, “I understand they’re very close.”
“He’ll kill her, you know he will,” said Magneto.
“You know, the more you say it, the more this all sounds like Charles’s problem.”
Even with the helmet on, Charles could see that Magneto’s blood was boiling, and he screamed, “He has my son, okay? Is that what you want to hear? Azazel is holding him and Penny hostage, so give him the fucking keys or whatever it is he wants, because my son will not be a casualty to your GODDAMN LOVERS QUARREL!” The words shook the room and the metal instrument panels sang. “Give him Asteroid M. If you do not give him Asteroid M, I will personally tear you limb from limb and send the parts into space to orbit right along with it, do you understand me?”
To say Mystique looked taken aback would be an understatement. Her color drained to the shade of a robin’s egg and her mouth hung open like a fish. “Your son? You have a son? You didn’t tell me…”
“And I regret telling you now. I don’t care that there are nuclear missiles - I don’t care if there’s a whole army up there waiting to strike - give Azazel whatever it takes to bring my son home safe.”
Mystique opened and closed her mouth a few times. “I can’t do that.”
Magneto’s every muscle tensed. “I don’t think you heard me.”
“There is no Asteroid M!” burst Mystique before Magneto could get another word out. “We never completed it. I abandoned the project almost four years ago.”
Magneto sputtered. “You told me it was complete! You told everyone it was complete!”
“Yeah, well, I lied. See, what happened was my leader up and disappeared and left me in charge of a bunch of homicidal maniacs with superpowers, so I thought that if they thought Magneto was actually on a secret base orbiting the Earth and watching them with nuclear missiles poised for attack then they’d be a little less likely to mutiny and cut my head off like Marie Antoinette!”
“Does Azazel know that?”
“He doesn’t know it doesn’t exist. He only figured out that you’re not on it. So he wants to take over Asteroid M, but I told him no.”
“So Penny and Pietro are being held hostage by a demon in exchange for access to something that doesn’t even exist?”
Mystique’s silence was confirmation enough. He slammed his fist against the hold button, and when the screen went dark, he pulled off the helmet and sat with his face in his hands. The sadness flowing from him was near enough to drown Charles. When he looked over towards Wanda, Charles saw all of his forty-something years lined in his face, his eyes red with brewing tears, streaks in his wavy hair nearly as silver as his helmet. He ran his fingers through it once before collecting himself, putting the helmet back on, and taking Mystique off hold.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” she muttered through gritted teeth.
“What does he want with Asteroid M?” Magneto asked. “There must be something else we can offer him.”
“I don’t know why he wants to go up there.”
“Well, as his wife, maybe you can find out?” he snarled.
That was news to Charles, but it made sense. Mystique would never let the Brotherhood know that she’d come to him in search of Magneto, but Raven might let it slip to her husband. Who but her spouse would have been close enough to piece it all together? For all he knew, maybe Azazel had been standing next to her when he’d called.
“He won’t tell me anything. I did manage to steal some of his notes,” she said, holding up the papers she’d been shuffling earlier, “But you know what they look like. It’s all handwritten gibberish. I can’t read his chicken scratch shorthand - it doesn’t even look like English.”
Charles’s eyes went wide and he started waving his arms to get Magneto’s attention.
Magneto sighed and told Mystique to hold on again. “What is it, Charles?”
“Azazel is a millenia-old demon.”
“Yes, thank you, Professor. Will there be a quiz?“
“It’s not chicken scratch shorthand, it’s his native language from thousands of years ago. He writes in, oh, I don’t even remember what it’s called - some obscure dead language.”
“What’s your point?”
“Penny can read it!”
Magneto stared at him. “You’re telling me that if she got a look at Azazel’s notes, she could piece together a language that’s been dead for centuries with no frame of reference?”
“She’s not magic, Erik, but she’d been at it for years. We’ve gotten a hold of many of his papers - he’s not very careful with them because he thinks no one can read them. But Penny’s figured it out. Probably she's more of a code breaker than a linguist, although it comes to the same end either way.” Magneto sat up a little straighter in his chair and arched his eyebrows. He was impressed. “Not such a boring mutation after all?”
“No, perhaps not.”
“Find out if Raven knows where they might be.”
Magneto switched the video phone back on. Mystique had her arms crossed and looked as though she were barely containing her temper. He ignored her scowl.
“Penny Malone can read the notes. She’s learned his language. I need to know where Azazel is keeping them.”
Mystique narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. “Charles is with you, isn’t he?”
From the background: “Hello, Raven.” Magneto sighed into his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“He’s not going to hurt them,” she said, “I will find out where Azazel is. We will work this out. I’ll talk to him. I’ll take care of it. I will.” Magneto clenched his jaw and gave her a stiff nod. “Now go home. Give me a phone number where I can reach you.”
Magneto looked startled. “Go home? What do you mean go home?”
“I don’t know where he is. You have to give me time, and I don’t expect you to sit there in that chair all night. Besides, whoever that other little voice belonged to is going to need some rest.”
Magneto neither confirmed nor denied Mystique’s insinuation, but agreed to give her his phone number and head home.
Erik’s tension subsided somewhat during their drive back to civilization, but still he kept turning, panicked, to look in the backseat, as if he expected Wanda to go missing at any given moment. But she slept the whole way, and Charles suspected that the sight of her at peace brought Erik comfort.
“We’ll swing by the hotel and get your stuff, but you’ll stay at our house tonight,” Erik said.
“Oh, no. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I need--”
“Whatever you need, I’ll take care of it. It’s safer we all stay together, and frankly I don’t want your lush of a nurse involved with this, too.”
“I still don’t think --”
“It’s not up for discussion,” he snapped, and Charles didn’t push. That wasn’t Magneto’s voice; that was Erik’s - a voice he might have used if the children were getting out of hand. They fell back into silence for a few minutes before Erik said, “I’m sorry for trying to choke you to death earlier.”
Charles smirked into the darkness: Magneto just apologized to him. “We will get them back, you know.”
Erik’s eyes flashed at him, with hope or despair Charles wasn’t sure, at least not without some digging. “You seem awfully certain,” Erik said.
“I am. He has no reason to hurt them except to get your attention, and he has that. Besides which, if he loves Raven - and you said they were married - then hurting them would be a betrayal to her, wouldn’t it?”
Erik rolled that over in his mind, but was unconvinced. “And when he can’t get what he’s after? What then?”
“What is Asteroid M, anyway?” asked Charles.
Erik paused to consider whether or not to tell him. Deciding that Brotherhood secrets were no longer his to keep, and that Charles could find it in his mind if he wanted anyway, he explained, “Asteroid M was a terrible idea I had many years ago to build us an orbiting base of operations. It was right after one of the Apollo missions, and I thought it would be cool, you know - take mutants into the final frontier. Mystique was excited about it. Looking back, it was really foolish and a waste of our resources.
“Anyway, I lost interest after Magda got pregnant, and then by the time the kids were born I was with them in San Diego at least three weeks out of four - I was already just a figurehead at that point, only in Genosha when there was something I really couldn’t get out of - and then…” he drifted off, not interested in recounting Magda’s death yet again. “In any case, I withdrew from the whole thing, but Mystique was still really into it and she led us to believe that she had everything rolling up there. Apparently not.”
“She said there were nuclear warheads on board.”
Erik turned back and glanced at Wanda again, his face illuminated by the passing streetlights. “Well, obviously they’re not there.”
“You don’t actually have them or they’re just not on your Asteroid M?”
He frowned at Charles. “You keep referring to me: ‘I have them,’ ‘MY Asteroid M.’ None of these things are me. It’s not me, Charles. Not anymore.”
As the moment passed between them, Charles realized they were both wrong. Erik was naïve to think that Magneto was no longer a part of him, but perhaps Charles hadn’t given enough credit to the new leaf Erik had turned. Charles had been thinking that the suburbs and the bicycles and the hamburger cookouts were a disguise, a shield to protect his children until they were old enough to protect themselves. But by the shape of Erik’s thoughts, Charles realized that Erik didn’t want it to be a ruse; this was who he wanted to be, this was him trying earnestly to be a better man. He wished more than anything that he could shake Magneto, that he could live without the lingering threats of his past life hanging over his head. And a small part of him resented Charles for still looking at him and seeing Magneto.
Charles acknowledged his wishes gently, with just a small enough shift in the thoughts between them that Erik felt it, but couldn’t define what was different.
“You’re right,” Charles said, “The Brotherhood. If they actually have these nukes, then they’re not on Asteroid M. They’re somewhere on Earth. Do you know where?”
Erik shook his head and glanced back at sleeping Wanda, whose pink lips were leaving wet marks on her soft yellow shirt.
Erik waited in the car with Wanda while Charles went into the hotel to tend to himself and collect his things. It all took much longer than he would have liked - without the aid of a nurse, his personal hygiene was a chore. He could take care of himself for one night, though, and staying in Erik’s modern home would hardly count as roughing it. Still, he called a bellman and had him bring down every last piece of luggage, not wanting to be without anything he may need.
Unpacking the car back at the house was a sight to see: Wanda sleeping like a rag doll in Erik’s arms as he carried her, Charles’s luggage floating behind all in a row. Charles himself was the caboose, his chair lifted up and over the threshold by an unseen force, and once the parade was inside, the door closed magically behind him.
Erik put Wanda to bed and then showed Charles to the guestroom. It was surprisingly spacious - more than enough space for his wheelchair - and also contained a private bath. It was all made up, too, with sheets on the bed and soap in the bathroom. Charles couldn’t imagine what guests Erik might have. Perhaps members of Magda’s family might come to see the kids? Doubtful, Charles thought: more than likely her family had met the same fate as Erik’s. Charles decided he didn’t want to think about it, and instead chose to simply be grateful for the accommodations and climb into bed for some much-needed rest.
Charles was not normally a fitful sleeper, in fact he usually slept like a log, but that night he was haunted. Brief catnaps were all he could find, and each one was punctuated with thoughts of Penny, thoughts of Pietro, and guilt and despair and self-loathing and longing and sorrow, and it wasn’t until almost 2:30am that he realized it wasn’t all him: most of it was radiating from Erik. Erik’s melancholy had so engulfed the house, in fact, that Charles hadn’t even realized that the vibrating undercurrent of it all was coming from the record player.
Charles got himself into his chair and followed the sound into the living room.
He came up behind Erik, his broad, still-powerful shoulders slumped over, clothed in the same t-shirt he was wearing earlier. He was sitting in the armchair fingering a cigarette, the smoke curling yellow into the room, lit from behind by a flickering streetlight. An ashtray and a half-drunk glass of scotch sat next to him, and Johnny Cash’s voice reverberated from the turntable across the room. It was his live album at Folsom Prison - even Charles had heard of it.
“I didn’t know you were a country music fan,” Charles said. Erik gestured for Charles to take a seat on the couch.
By way of answering, Erik crooned along with the record:
“When I was just a baby,
My mama told me, 'Son,
Always be a good boy,
Don’t ever play with guns.'
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die.
When I hear that whistle blowin,
I hang my head and cry.”
He tapped his ashes into the tray and took a sip of his whiskey. “What about you? Still listening to ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’?”
Charles indulged him. “Actually, Penny took me to see Wings the last time they were in New York, just a couple of months ago.”
Charles sensed some mild amusement from Erik at the thought, even through his gloom. “I can’t imagine you at a rock concert,” he said.
“I can’t imagine you potty training twins.” He felt Erik flinch and immediately felt guilty. He turned the subject back to music. “I don’t think I will ever understand country music,” he confessed.
And Erik said, “It’s all about pain,” and behind them, Johnny sang:
"Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s as dark as a dungeon way down in the mine"
He took a drag on his cigarette and the smoke drifted lazily out his mouth. When he rubbed at his eyes, Charles noticed how red and sore they looked, and he wondered if Erik had been crying.
“Have you slept at all?” Charles asked.
Erik shook his head, and with that gesture Charles felt a weariness from him that transcended one night’s lost sleep: it belonged to a broken heart.
“I’m so sorry, Erik. I’m sorry for coming here. This is my fault.”
“No,” he said softly, a forlorn smile tugging gently at his lips as he leaned forward, “It’s my fault. I left us vulnerable. I was foolish to think I could get away with all this. Thinking all I had to do was ditch the name Lehnsherr and no one could find me.” He paused. “And I wanted you to come.” He blushed - actually blushed - before adding, “I’d been hoping you’d find me. I don’t think I realized just how alone I’ve been here until I felt you tugging at my mind this morning.”
Charles tentatively flushed a wave of affection toward him, and when Erik responded in kind, Charles felt a knot uncoil inside. He’d been wary of using his telepathy too much around a man who’d spent the better part of a decade with his mind literally walled off, but this Erik wanted Charles inside him - in every which way. Charles let out a shuddering sigh. He was sure Erik would lean over to him, dig his fingers into his hair, press his lips against his mouth - Charles’s tongue flicked over his lips in anticipation.
But Erik sank back into his chair and sipped at his drink. “I don’t know what we’ll do after this,” he murmured. “I don’t know where we’ll go. We’re too vulnerable here.” Erik was imagining castles, fortresses, mountains, guards… and bracing himself for decades of isolation.
“One of the many things we’ve always disagreed on,” Charles said. “Your isolation is precisely your vulnerability. There is strength in numbers. You could have a whole community of people to love and care for you and protect you. You don’t always have to be alone.”
Charles was sure that Erik would be repulsed at the insinuation, but his mind rejected it more in the way it would resist a temptation. Erik rolled the thought around in his mind, feeling it seductive, but dangerous, and he was too stubborn to think any deeper about it than that.
For a brief flash, Erik’s mind betrayed him and he thought, If it’s just me and Wanda, she’ll need someone to play with, and this time he physically, visibly winced and shook the image out of his head. Charles flooded him with sympathy, comfort, and reassurance - the telepathic equivalent of throwing a blanket over his shoulders and holding him, but it didn’t work.
Erik swallowed deeply and looked away. “Don’t do that, Charles, I don’t deserve it.” His abject sorrow broke Charles’s heart.
The song changed on the record and Erik reached for his cigarette. He took a drag and stared at Charles, eyes drifting to his legs, and his thoughts rang out equal parts admiring and regretful, both “look at how beautiful he is” and “look at the destruction I’ve caused.”
A sob echoed through the room and they turned: Wanda was walking over in her nightgown, crying and rubbing at her eyes. Erik quickly blew the smoke out of his lungs and pressed the butt into the ashtray before waving her over to him.
She walked right up between his knees and he moved forward, cupping her flushed, wet cheeks in his hands as she pleaded, through hiccupping sobs, “Where is he? When is he coming back?”
He held her and told her it would be all right; he stroked her hair and kissed her temples as she sobbed into his shoulder. Erik’s thoughts were the deepest blue and they enveloped Wanda like she was the only thing in his world - and only barely below the surface, Erik worried that might be true.
Wanda’s thoughts, on the other hand, were a cacophony and erupted in patterns Charles found clumsy to follow - not used to the brainwaves of distressed children, he supposed.
Then, in a temper, Wanda threw her hand, and inches away from her, the picture frame on the table shattered. Charles was stunned.
Erik didn’t seem to notice. His expression was pained, and he took a moment to stop himself from scolding her for breaking the picture. Instead, sighed and returned his hand to her cheek, speaking gently to her in German. Charles didn’t understand the words, but the unconditional love that radiated from him took Charles’s breath away.
Erik stood up with a lurch and lifted a sniffling Wanda into his arms. Almost as an afterthought, he looked down at Charles and said, “I’ll be back in a bit. Don’t go anywhere,” and with that he carried Wanda back to her room.
With their departure, Charles could breathe again, no longer overwhelmed by their thoughts. He reached over and picked up the broken picture frame. It was a photo of a pretty dark haired woman with bright brown eyes beaming wildly at the two babies in her lap. Magda, Charles realized, and the twins couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks old. He traced his fingers over her smile - how he wished he could have seen the mind that had so changed the course of Erik’s life. How he wished he could have been the one to affect him so.
Next to that photo sat another: this one of Erik and Pietro lighting a menorah, their faces glowing in the candlelight - and this was the photo that really made Charles’s heart catch in his throat.
Charles set the photos back where they were, suddenly feeling intrusive. Erik’s happiest memories were no longer buried in his mind - they were on full display in his living room.
He looked around the room now, taking in the little details of Erik’s new life and new memories. A few more photos: the kids in Halloween costumes, at the beach, one of tiny Wanda asleep on a snoozing Erik’s chest. A few toys in a basket out of the way of Pietro‘s path. Erik’s bottle of scotch was nearly empty and a pack of Marlboros sat next to it. The ashtray was marked as a souvenir - when would Erik have visited Nashville?
The album side came to an abrupt end and the silence was too tense for Charles. He climbed neatly back into his wheelchair and rolled over to thumb through Erik’s record collection. There were a few he knew (Neil Young, Derek and the Dominos, Creedence Clearwater Revival), a few he didn’t (Merle Haggard? Charles still couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the number of country albums Erik owned), a handful of children’s albums. Finally he found an intersection in their tastes and put on Van Morrison. As the needle clicked into place, Charles headed back for the couch.
Erik returned only a couple of tracks later and sighed, “She’s asleep,” before ducking into the kitchen. He emerged with a second glass and filled it with scotch before handing it to Charles.
Charles accepted it gratefully, and as Erik tipped the last of the bottle into his own glass, Charles said, “This probably isn’t the time, but Wanda’s hand did not touch that photo.” Erik arched an eyebrow at him for more information, to which Charles replied, “It broke because she was so upset. I could sense it brewing in her mind. She did not physically touch it at all.”
Erik only smiled ruefully and shook his head. “She’s just clumsy, Charles, she’s always been clumsy.”
Before Charles could contradict him, Erik moved to sit down, but instead of returning to his chair, he sighed into the couch next to Charles. “Cheers,” he said, and clinked their glasses together.
Being so close to Erik in this state was heart wrenching. He was so mournful and so alone, and before Charles could stop himself, he reached up and stroked Erik’s hair as Erik stroked his daughter’s. Erik closed his eyes and melted into the touch, and Charles could feel how he’d longed for someone to sooth him in that way, someone to care for him the way he cared for his children, and how long it had been since he’d had anyone to turn to. He almost purred.
“We’ll get them home safe,” Charles said, and Erik gripped his free hand. His thoughts were colored with shame, to which Charles shook his head. “How can you feel that way? With everything you’ve done here? With all you’ve become? I am so proud of you.”
Erik looked up at him in all astonishment. “I’ve failed them.”
“No, no you haven’t. It‘s not too late,” and Charles didn’t know who moved first, but their lips met, sadly and sweetly this time, Charles’s fingers buried in Erik’s still-thick hair, Erik’s hand stroking gently at the back of Charles’s neck.
Charles’s mouth parted only momentarily for a breath, and Erik pressed into him, his tongue slipping cautiously into the opportunity. Erik’s mind reached out in want of comfort and love and anything save for the dread that was pooled so heavily in his heart.
Charles grasped at Erik’s thin t-shirt and pulled him closer. The space between them was gone, filled now with warmth, and when Charles’s mind flashed to them in their younger years, holding each other in much the same manner, he felt Erik’s mouth smile against his.
Foreheads pressed together, Erik rasped, “Glad to see you haven’t forgotten,” and Charles realized his thoughts must have been projecting.
“How could I?” he answered, and with that Erik pushed forward again, this time moving Charles onto his back, stretching him out against the heavy sofa cushions.
Erik noticed with a tinge of embarrassment that Charles’s legs weren’t going to follow, but Charles only smiled and obligingly arranged himself. Erik smiled down at him from his straddled position and lifted his shirt over his head.
Erik was tan - surprisingly tan - and noticeably larger than the last time Charles had seen him from this angle. Their earlier encounter was too heated and brief for Charles to really take a look at the man Erik had become. He looked broad and powerful - as much a mark of how little he’d been relying on his powers to do the heavy lifting as it was of how much Southern food he’d been eating. Seeing the evidence of Erik’s new life marked all over his torso made Charles’s heart - and his cock - thrum.
Erik must have felt Charles’s excitement beneath him because he grinned and leaned down to nip at Charles’s ear. “So I guess you can still…” he hummed happily, his hands groping under Charles’s shirt.
“It’s not quite the same, but it’s something.”
Erik started to grind his hips against Charles’s. “Can you feel that?”
“Only if I…” and Charles tentatively slipped into Erik’s mind to get a taste of a sensation he’d long missed. Only then did Charles realize that Erik was already becoming hard.
Tufts of soft hair covered Erik’s chest and led a trail down his stomach and under the waistline of his pants. Charles followed it with his hands, and when his fingers reached the trail’s end, Erik gave an unconscious thrust. Charles considered that a green light to undo the fly and pull Erik’s jeans down over his hips, and Erik reached down to do the same to Charles.
They both were exposed now, their cocks slick and alert, and Erik shot a panicked glance in the direction of Wanda’s bedroom.
“I’ll know if she’s awake,” Charles assured him, becoming breathless with want. He couldn’t wait anymore; he took Erik’s penis in hand and ran his thumb in circles over the head before giving it a stroke. Erik hissed and shuddered, and Charles felt him aching at the pleasure of being touched by hands other than his own.
They continued that way, Charles fondling Erik’s cock, Erik caressing Charles, leaning down when he could to plant adoring kisses at his neck, his hands everywhere, until Erik was close.
“Not yet. I need you first,” he hummed and moved down to take Charles in his mouth all at once. He sucked and dragged his lips from base to tip, base to tip, and back again, then drew his tongue up along the underside to finish with a hungry lick around the head.
He looked up at Charles, eyes hooded and dark. “Tell me you can feel that.” He was pleading, wanting to pleasure Charles, wanting to know that he hadn’t taken that pleasure away from him.
The truth was that Charles couldn’t feel it; not really, not fully. Not the way Erik wanted him to. But Charles did the merciful thing and lied.
“Oh, god, yes,” he moaned, enjoying more the sensation of Erik’s warm, soft hands resting on his stomach than the blowjob itself.
“I can’t come quite like I used to,” he warned, hands gripping at Erik’s hair.
Erik looked up with such sad affection and pleasure that Charles felt himself become further aroused only at that. “Just tell me what makes you feel good, Charles. Whatever it takes.”
And Charles groaned and grabbed at Erik’s strong arms and pulled him up closer to him and kissed him solidly, dragged him up to feel his warm skin pressed against his, chest to chest, their cocks aligned and pressing slickly against each other. “My torso,” he panted, “My nipples,” he clawed at Erik’s back, and Erik dove for Charles’s chest, nipping and sucking and teasing. Erik was grinding against him, and a few minutes later, Charles came, with a small shudder and a quick release. His body relaxed, his blood pumping with quiet pleasure. He closed his eyes and exhaled into Erik’s shoulder.
Erik was still hard, his cock screaming for attention. Charles reached back down and finished him off, Erik gasping with surprise and flushed red to the tips of his ears, sweat glistening at his hairline. He fell into Charles, panting and smiling, and they were content to stay that way while they caught their breath.
Eventually Erik stood up, and with an adoring kiss, retreated to the bathroom. He came back all cleaned up and carrying a warm, wet washcloth for Charles.
“I needed that,” Erik confessed, and they both smiled.
They stayed on the couch, Erik’s arm over Charles’s shoulders, talking a bit to keep each other awake, waiting on word from Mystique.
“What do you do?” Charles asked through a yawn.
“What do you mean?”
Charles smiled, his head on Erik’s chest. “I mean do you have a job? You keep talking about the kids, but what have you been doing?”
“Yes, I did get a job, actually. I’m a mailman.”
Charles whipped his head up in shock, but Erik was grinning. “I got you,” Erik said, and Charles elbowed him in the ribs.
“Very funny,” he muttered.
Erik sighed. “No, I am unemployed at the moment. If people ask, I just make something up. Lately I’ve been telling people I work for the FBI.”
“Law enforcement!” Charles marveled. “Glad to know your sense of humor is still in tact.”
“This way, if people start asking me too many questions, I can just tell them it’s classified. Plus it sounds cool.”
Charles sat up a little and smirked at him. “I’ll bet you have a few fans amongst the women at the kindergarten.”
Erik smiled. “I do all right.” Charles saw then that Erik did have more than his fair share of admirers, but only two or three failed attempts at anything more than that.
Charles’s eyes were drooping and, with a mighty yawn, he settled back onto Erik’s chest.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Erik said, mostly to himself, his fingers trailing up and down Charles’s arm. “Job-wise, I mean. I‘ll have to find something to do. I can‘t just sit in this house for the rest of my life. What do dictators do when they retire?”
“Golf, I think. Rot in prison. Write books. Teach.”
“You’d like me to, wouldn’t you?”
Charles feigned insult. “What makes you think I’d want you to golf?” This time Erik elbowed Charles in the ribs.
But before Charles could bring the conversation around to his school once again, the doorbell rang.
Erik was up like a shot, wielding an aluminum baseball bat summoned to him from across the room. He waited for Charles to get into his chair before looking through the peephole to see who was at the door.
“It’s them,” he said, and opened the front door to reveal a very angry Azazel and an even angrier Mystique.
“May we come in?” Azazel sneered, “You wouldn’t want the neighbors to see us.”
Erik’s nostrils flared and his face turned apple red. “Where are they?”
Azazel moved into the house, prodded by Mystique. “They’re perfectly safe,” he said, and his tone was surprisingly condescending, considering who he was speaking to. “I never had any intention of hurting them. You know what I’m here for. Give me Asteroid M and this will all be over.”
Behind him, Charles could see Mystique taking in the room in much the same way as he had earlier. Her thoughts were of a sadder, angrier hue than his had been, though: she was disappointed and frankly insulted that Erik had abandoned the Brotherhood, their work, and their partnership, all for something so common. She wondered why she had been working so hard when all that while, Magneto cared so little for all they’d done. Cared little enough to leave it all and live like a human, and a boring human at that. She was insulted. Charles thought he ought to say something to her, but he didn’t know what.
“What do you mean, ‘give you Asteroid M’?” Erik was saying, and he glared at Mystique. “What does he mean, asking me to give it to him?” Mystique said nothing, so he turned back to Azazel. “It doesn’t exist! She made it up! I don’t have it! I never had it! Look around here - does it look like I have a fucking space station?” He reached down into the basket near his feet and picked up a fistful of blocks. “Legos. That’s what I’ve got, I’ve got Legos. Hey, you want me to build a Lego space station for you? Because that I can do.” He threw down the blocks. “I’m not in charge anymore, and I haven’t been for a long time. And the goddamn thing doesn’t even exist! If you’ve got an issue, take it up with Mystique, because she’s the one running the show. I got out of this mess a long time ago.”
Azazel whipped his head around to Mystique, who shrugged noncommittally.
Erik continued shouting, this time at Mystique. “You didn’t tell him? You brought him here for what? To make me clean up your mess? As usual?”
“Oh, that’s rich!” Mystique countered. “I’ve spent the past five years covering for you while you disappeared to do what? Play house? Who’s been cleaning up whose messes here? If I’d known you’d throw me to the wolves at the first opportunity, I’d have--”
“’Throw you to the wolves’?” Erik interrupted her. “He’s your husband!”
Husband who, in that moment, struck a blow to Mystique that knocked her to the ground, and behind them, Wanda screamed. They all spun around. Wanda was standing there in her pajamas, holding a stuffed bunny, shaking with fear or rage - Charles wasn’t sure which.
“Wanda!” Erik burst, but not before Wanda let out a shot like a firebolt, aimed straight at Azazel, whose whole body jolted. They all stared at the little girl, who was breathing heavily, tears forming in her eyes. Charles expected Erik to run for her, but he didn’t. He was too stunned.
“What the hell was that?” Azazel asked.
Erik answered, “I don’t know,” and tried not to smile.
Mystique recovered herself and took command of the room. “Erik is no longer a member of the Brotherhood,” she said, as much to Erik as to Azazel. “He abandoned us and betrayed us to live amongst humans, and he is no longer welcome in Genosha. I will be taking over Magneto’s role, so if you’ve got an issue, you can take it up with me. Now, give him his kid back.”
“And Penny,” Charles piped up.
Mystique sneered and added, “And Penny.”
Azazel was weighing his options and considering Mystique’s words. He wanted to hit Mystique again, Charles could hear it, could feel it. She’d been keeping him in the dark about everything that was going on within the Brotherhood. But he was also pragmatic - he was fed up and outnumbered, and whatever it was that he wanted from Asteroid M was too urgent to spend the evening trifling with little girls with unknown powers. He needed this business done and done fast. In a flash he was gone from the living room and back again, this time with Penny and Pietro, both with their hands tied behind their backs and secured to wooden chairs, but looking well enough.
Penny’s eyes shined when she caught sight of Charles, and they both smiled. Charles hadn’t realized how worried he’d been until he felt the warm wave of relief flush over him. Are you all right? he asked her silently, though he already knew the answer, and she nodded and sent back, I’m fine. We’re fine.
Pietro was squirming, rocking his chair back and forth, wriggling his arms trying to break free, demanding to be let go. Erik rushed towards him, but Azazel blocked Erik and ordered him to stay back. And to Charles’s surprise, he did.
“Why should I trust you?” Azazel asked Mystique, “What else are you keeping from me? How do I know you have the weapons at all?”
Charles asked Penny, Why does he want the weapons? Did you overhear anything?
He’s been conspiring with some Russians, she responded, I don’t know exactly what the deal was, but they’re threatening war with Genosha if they don’t get the nuclear weapons Azazel promised.
And what are they planning to do with the weapons?
I don‘t know.
Erik wouldn’t care if they were aiming for his head, Charles thought, and panicked.
Mystique spoke before Charles could do anything. “I have them,” she said, calmly and firmly.
But she was lying. Charles could see that she was lying again. Charles scanned over the rest of the room and they all believed her. Even Penny, whose eyes were wide and who, like Charles, was feverishly trying to think of what they could do to prevent disaster.
Mystique had no plan, and maybe she didn’t have the weapons - maybe they didn’t exist at all, just like Asteroid M. But she wanted out of that house. She was still stung with betrayal and more than anything she wanted never to see Magneto again. She’d deal with this problem herself, just as she’d dealt with every other Brotherhood mishap for the past five years.
“As I said, the Brotherhood is under my control now, and so are its weapons. If you want them, you’re going to have to go through me.” How she could be so fearless when faced with a man who’d hit her only moments earlier Charles would never know. She turned to face Erik and added, “And if you ever set foot on Genosha, I will arrest you for treason.”
Azazel glared at her, measuring. Finally he moved to release his hostages, untying Penny’s restraints first. She rushed to Charles’s side and he kissed her and wrapped his arms around her neck, happier than he ever expected he’d be to have her with him once again. And as soon as he recognized it for what it was - sisterly affection - he noticed a hit of jealousy emanating from Raven.
Then Azazel moved to Pietro, who was still writhing and rocking the chair back and forth trying to break free. As soon as the rope came loose he was up and out with superhuman speed, a blur across the living room floor. He crashed into Erik’s knees and fell to the ground. He blinked and looked up, wondering how he’d gotten there so fast and what had happened.
“What? How did I do that?” he asked, and of all the things Erik thought Pietro would say when they were reunited, that was the last thing he’d expected.
Erik was grinning and choking back tears when he knelt down to hug Pietro. “You didn’t know you could do that, did you?” he said as he squeezed the boy tight. “Are you all right? Are you okay?” Erik held him out at arms length and examined him.
Pietro wriggled loose. “I’m fine! I want to do it again!” he said, and resumed his normal runs across the living room, only succeeding in reaching superhuman speed once more.
Mystique and Azazel were already gone.
“Is Mystique going to give him the weapons?” Penny asked Charles.
“I don’t think she even has them,” he replied, all the while watching Erik.
Erik crouched down beside Wanda who, quite frankly, looked terrified. She was trembling and crying and that poor bunny she was holding was going to burst at the seams if she didn’t loosen her grip a little bit. But Erik was smiling - really smiling, in a way that lit him from the inside - and he put his hand on her shoulder.
“What did I do?” she asked.
“I don’t know, schatzi, but it was wonderful,” he beamed and brushed the hair out of her eyes. He thought for a moment, and then said, “Some people have extra special things about them, and that just might be your special thing. And someday you’ll figure out how to use it, okay?” Wanda’s sniffles were slowing. “You saw your brother before, right? It looks like he might be able to go extra fast. So he has something special about him, too, just like you do. You're not the only one.”
Then, of course, Charles had to butt in from across the room. “You should see what your dad can do!”
Erik shot him a dirty look, but Wanda seemed relieved. “You have a special thing, too?” she asked, hopeful, and Erik couldn’t bear to disappoint her. He looked around the room and spotted an Eiffel Tower paperweight on a shelf behind Penny‘s head. With a flick of his hand, the Eiffel Tower floated through the air and over towards him. Wanda looked as delighted as if Tinker Bell herself was flying towards her. Even Pietro stopped (though he was, admittedly, already slowing down from exhaustion) and watched the Tower as it hovered in front of Erik. Then, with another wave of Erik’s fingers, the Eiffel Tower appeared to melt and move and mold until it finally took the shape of a bunny rabbit and landed in Wanda’s open hands.
“Whoa,” Wanda, Pietro, and Penny all said in unison. Charles just smiled; he was so proud of Erik.
“I can control metal,” Erik said, and Wanda rushed into his arms while Pietro ran over begging Erik to do it again.
Charles never felt such happiness as he felt from Erik in that moment.
After a few more demonstrations of what Charles knew to be only a fraction of Erik’s power, everyone was beginning to crash. Even Pietro was slumped against Erik, whining like only a sleepy child can whine. At five a.m., it was finally time to call it a night.
Much to everyone’s delight, Erik used his powers once again to float all of Charles’s luggage out to the rental car, which was still parked in front of the house. The sun was starting to rise, but lucky for them, no one was out in the blue morning light to see the flying suitcases or the self-folding wheelchair.
Before they pulled away, Erik sauntered over to the car and leaned into Charles's window on the passenger side. “It’s been a long night. They probably need to sleep some. I know I do.”
“Me, too," Charles said. "We'll probably just spend the day at the beach. You’re welcome to join us in the afternoon, if you like.”
Erik shook his head. “Not today. When’s your flight?”
“How about breakfast, then? My treat. There’s a pancake house not too far from your hotel.”
Charles smiled. “Sounds delicious, but I insist on paying. You are unemployed, after all,” he teased.
Charles thought Erik was going to lean further into the car and kiss him goodbye. He was thinking about it. He wanted to. But Erik only put a hand on Charles's shoulder and said, "Call me tomorrow when you're up. And hungry."
Charles agreed, and with that, he and Penny pulled away from the house and left Erik standing in the street, arms crossed over his chest, frowning in thought.
They didn't speak during the drive back to the hotel; there was too much to say, and they were both too tired to talk. Charles only silently expressed to Penny how relieved he was to have her back safe, to which Penny replied by squeezing his hand in hers. They didn't need to say any more than that.
They arrived at the hotel right around dawn, and as inviting as the tropical morning air was, Charles and Penny were both too close to tipping over from exhaustion to enjoy it. Charles heard Penny consider leaning over to smell the flowers, but then decide against it: too much effort.
Poor thing, Charles thought with a touch of amusement, and signaled for the bellman to retrieve their luggage.
It was a quick ride back up to their floor and a short few steps back to the rooms, and even though Penny was more than ready to keel over, she still took the time to go to Charles's room first and make sure he had everything he needed.
So it wasn't only Charles who arrived back at his suite, but Charles, Penny, and the bellman, and when Charles pushed the door open, they discovered his nurse, Sandy, half naked, draped across the sofa, one foot on the floor and one over the back of the couch, and a bottle of tequila tipped over on the carpet in front of her.
"Oh, Jesus," Penny muttered, and she shoved a fistful of cash into the bellman's hand and pushed him out the door.
Charles shouted her name and Sandy awoke with a start. She didn't register her state of undress, only that Charles was back. "Charles," she slurred, "Hey, Charles. You're back. The man with the two - the two little - your friend. Did Marco talk to your friend?"
"What?" Charles asked, throwing her a shirt he found hung over the TV.
"Marco wanted to meet your friend. I think he's a fan of yours or something. Kept asking about you. Talked about you all night. I said I didn't know who your friend was, but Marco said he wanted to go talk to you. Or him. Talk to him. But he said he'd come back after but he's not. He didn't come back. Got really pissed when I didn't know where your friend lived. You met Marco, right? He was that guy. The guy from the bar last night. Was that last night? Seems like weeks ago."
Logically, Charles knew it wasn't Sandy's fault that Marco had been following them. Any time Charles left the house in Westchester, there was always a chance that he was being followed. And furthermore, Charles knew that he had pushed Sandy into partying harder that night than she otherwise would have. He was the one who'd compelled her to spend the evening at the bar and see where the night took her.
He did not, however, compel her to talk about him to her companions. She should know better than that, no matter how many drinks she'd had. And if Charles learned anything in the previous twenty-four hours, it was the importance of surrounding yourself with people you trust, people who will protect and defend you no matter the circumstance.
"I'm sorry, Sandy, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to let you go," Charles said, and before she could respond, Charles raised his fingers to his temple.
Sandy shook herself awake and looked around, mortified. "I'm so, so sorry, sir. I don't know how I got into the wrong room. Please, I'm so sorry. I'll be out of your hair in just a sec." A few minutes later, she'd taken her things and left for good.
Penny saw the whole exchange, and stood off in the corner, trying not to imagine how easily Charles could do the same to her.
"But I wouldn't," Charles responded to her silent concern. "Just because I don't have children doesn't mean I don't have a family. You are too important to me. If we ever have an issue, I promise you that we will work it out amongst ourselves. You are the single most important person in my life, and I will never do that to you." Penny smiled and nodded, quietly letting Charles know that she felt the same way. "Sandy was my employee, and only an employee. Besides, I've been considering replacing her anyway. She had cold hands and I didn't care for her bedside manner."
"I'll start looking for a new nurse as soon as we get back."
"Thank you. Someone with warm hands, please."
"Of course. I will examine and rank all candidates' hands personally," Penny smiled, and with Charles's blessing, finally - finally! - returned to her room to sleep.
Charles and Penny actually ended up having quite a nice time, even if they only had that one day to recover from all the adventure of the previous evening. By mid-afternoon, they were stretched out in beach chairs, sipping on fruity drinks with way too much rum in them, listening to the crashing waves, and enjoying the sun.
Well, Penny was enjoying the sun. Charles was already burned, and at Penny's insistence, they had an umbrella brought over so that he wouldn't be completely cooked through. They'd had enough to drink by that point that they ended up spending much of the afternoon laughing themselves silly at poor Charles's delicate British complexion. "I'm roasting like a chicken!" Charles squawked, and Penny nearly shot daiquiri out her nose. That was one of the things Penny liked best about Charles: no matter how powerful he became, he never lost the ability to laugh at himself.
"Ugh, I feel terrible," Penny said later, after the giggles had subsided.
Charles peered at her over the tops of his shades. "I told you not to order that last drink. That looked absolutely vile and probably had enough alcohol in it to take down a polar bear."
Penny laughed. "No, I mean I feel bad about Erik. Magneto. He was so nice and so sweet with his kids, and I just keep thinking about all the terrible things I've said about him and thought about him over the years. I mean, come on. That man is a saint. I spent, what? Eight or nine hours in a room with Pietro and I was ready to climb up the wall." Charles chuckled. "He's a very sweet kid, I mean it, he's got a good heart, but he did not stop moving the entire time! I don't know how Erik does it. And two of them? At the same time? God bless him. I couldn't do it."
"Well, that's Erik, though. Everything could be in chaos around him, but he would still be focused and steady. I mean, even when he lost his temper, it was always very... determined. Calculated. Commanding. It's part of why he was such an effective leader. I'm sure the children could be bouncing off the walls and he would still be him. The steady center in all the chaos.” Charles lost himself in thought for a moment. “He asked me to shoot him in the head once. Did I ever tell you that? He put a gun in my hand and pointed it at his own head - he wanted to see if he could stop the bullet. He is... unflinching." The way he was talking about Erik, Penny could tell that Charles was more than a little bit smitten. He flushed and tried to recover the conversation gracefully. "There are only a few times I've seen him really lose it and today was one of those days. But for the most part, yes, I'm sure he is more than capable of wrangling a pair of five year olds."
"I was totally wrong about him. I feel like I owe him an apology."
"Well, no, you weren't wrong. And you don't owe him an apology," Charles said, pushing his sunglasses back up his nose. "I mean, Magneto really did do all the things you thought he did. Except, of course, I guess maybe the things from the past few years weren't really him. But my point is that he is both of those people. There is good inside everyone."
"I understand that, but what I mean is, all this time I thought he was doing all these horrible things, but that wasn't him at all - he was changing diapers and playing patty-cake. Everything I thought was Magneto was actually Mystique. I've been walking around calling Erik every name under the sun, when really Mystique was the big bad guy all along."
"Well, now, Mystique is not a 'bad guy,' either."
Penny rolled her eyes at him. "Let me guess. You used to date her, too."
"No, she's my sister."
Penny's jaw dropped. "What? No. You're joking."
"I'm serious. Estranged sister, mostly."
"Wha-? I... okay, who else, then? Is Richard Nixon your uncle? Were you roommates with Charles Manson in college?"
"Yes, actually," Charles joked, "We used to stay up late playing Scrabble in the dormitories." Penny threw a beach ball at him for teasing her and he yelped, "Ah! You got me right in the sunburn!"
"You're looking a little crispy, my dear," Erik said when he saw Charles the following morning, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Who let you go out in the sun?"
Penny grinned and confessed, "It was me. I should have known better," while Charles furtively glanced around the restaurant. He was being silly - it was nothing more than a friendly hello kiss, even he knew that. Of the few patrons at the pancake house who saw Erik peck him on the cheek, only one thought anything of it, and he brushed it off with a Pfft. Europeans. And, Charles thought, that's probably all it was.
Wanda walked right up to him with a big smile on her face and waved. "Hi, Charles!" she said.
"Hello, Wanda," Charles replied. He went to say something more, but nothing came out. What does one talk about with a five year old? Politics? By the time he could come up with a winning conversation starter - the ever reliable "How are you?" - she had already run over to the table and taken a seat next to Erik.
He was going to have to learn how to talk to children.
Or perhaps not. Charles would be on a plane back to New York in only a few hours, and for all he knew Erik might relocate tomorrow and not tell a soul. He was no longer a ruler in hiding; he was a fugitive with two children to protect. There was a strong chance that this was the last time they'd see each other. Charles had to invite him to join him in Westchester one more time before they left. He had to.
It was hard to get a word in edgewise, though, with everyone in such high spirits after the events of the weekend. Wanda and Pietro were chattier than ever, and Erik and Penny only encouraged them. The waitress came and they all ordered pancakes (except for Charles, who always preferred waffles) and a pot of coffee. Sugar and caffeine: hardly the ingredients for a serious discussion. Penny started making the syrup dispensers talk, and when Erik joined in with the forks and knives it turned into a Tony-worthy drama. Then the food came and Erik was busy cutting up the kids' pancakes for them, and Charles was halfway done with his waffle, and time was running out, and he had to bring up the Xavier Institute again, he had to.
But Penny beat him to it.
"You should come up to New York!" she said to Erik, mouth full of pancakes. "You should come up and visit sometime."
"Really?" he asked, an eyebrow arched.
"Yeah, it would be fun. We could all go to the Bronx Zoo and see the tigers!" she said, more to the kids than Erik.
That got Pietro excited. "Tigers! I never saw a tiger. Or a lion. I want to see a lion, too!"
Erik shook his head. "I don't think your colleagues would be too happy to have me around."
"Once they met you? And Wanda and Pietro? They would come around. I did, didn't I?"
Erik looked over to Charles, who said, "I've told you countless times. You are always, always welcome. For a short stay or a long one."
Erik smiled. "Well, thank you. I will consider it."
And that, Charles realized, was the best answer he could expect.
After they'd finished their breakfast and settled the bill, Erik walked Charles and Penny back to the car.
"Hey, what happened to your nurse?" asked Erik, only then realizing that there were just two people going back to the airport.
"No longer in my employ, I'm afraid," Charles replied, and sighed. "Well, I suppose it's time to say goodbye."
The kids rushed over and gave them both hugs (although Charles noticed that Penny's hugs were slightly more enthusiastic than his, not that it bothered him).
Erik gave Penny a chaste kiss on the cheek, not unlike the one he gave Charles in the restaurant. He then turned to Charles and asked, "Do you have spring break?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Does the Xavier Institute have time off for spring break? It should be coming up soon, if you do, and I thought perhaps you might want to come back and spend it here. You could stay at my house if you don't want to get a hotel. Both of you. Florida for spring break. You can come back and work on that tan," he smiled. I'm really glad you came. I hope you'll come back soon, he added privately. And then, faintly, I'll miss you. He didn't mean to think it, but Charles caught it. Charles couldn't miss it.
"I'd like that," Charles said. "I hope you'll stay in touch this time."
"I will," Erik said, and gave Charles a kiss goodbye. And this one, this time, could not be confused for friendly.
Over a week later, back in New York, Charles shut his office door and prepared to make a phone call. It took him that long to gather up the nerve, and, just to be sure he wouldn't find any way to avoid it, he had Penny mark the task in his schedule.
So there he sat, at precisely 3:45pm, staring at his telephone. It was a nice telephone, actually: sort of old fashioned-looking, shiny and heavy. The weight of the receiver made all of his phone calls feel terribly important - even when he was only calling Penny to ask if she wanted pizza for dinner - and prevented him from talking too long. Really, he'd probably overpaid for the phone but --
"Oh, hell," Charles muttered to himself, "Now I'm just sitting here admiring my own telephone. For godssake!" and picked up the receiver to call. "I'm being absolutely ridiculous," he told himself while it rang.
"Hello, Raven," Charles said, forcing himself to smile. It's true: you can hear a smile over the telephone. "I understand congratulations are in order. I have the newspaper here in front of me, and it seems the Brotherhood of Mutants now officially has a new leader."
"Yes, the truth is out. And I suppose we are now officially enemies."
"You will never be my enemy," he said, "But that doesn't mean I won't oppose your actions." Charles expected her to respond, but she didn't. Years ago, Raven would have rolled her eyes at a line like that; he wondered if she did now.
He cleared his throat. "That wasn't entirely why I called, though." He'd prepared a speech, but now that the moment to give it had arrived, the words disintegrated on his tongue. He really should have written the speech down. Instead he fumbled, "I know that-- Hm. That night, Azazel-- I'm concerned, is all. If he's hit you... That's not-- You don't deserve to be treated that way. No one deserves to be treated that way, and I'm a piece of shit for not doing anything about it then and there. I'm ashamed of myself for not... And if he ever--"
"I've taken care of it, Charles," she said.
"You've...? What do you mean?"
"Azazel is gone."
"Charles, please. I appreciate your concern, but I've handled it."
For the second time, Charles was sure she'd say more, give him some assurance that she was truly in no further danger from Azazel, but she didn't. He spoke instead: "Well, this may be a security breach at this point, but I was serious when I said that Penny would be able to interpret any writings of his you may find. If you need her help - and only for personal issues, I won't have her inadvertently aiding Brotherhood missions - please, call me and we can work something out."
"Thank you, Charles, but that won't be necessary."
"Raven, whatever you've done, you don't know he won't be back. Nothing is certain in this world, and relationships change, and former friends have an unexpected way of reappearing in one's life, and-"
"CHARLES!" she shouted, startling him. "Do not lecture me. Do not talk down to me. I am the leader of one of the most powerful organizations in the world and have been - unofficially - for the past several years. When I say I have taken care of it, believe me when I say I have taken care of it. You may oppose my actions, but do not belittle them. Do not belittle me."
He sighed. "You're right. I'm sorry. You owe me no explanation. I only want you to be safe." He drummed his fingers on the desk, again waiting for her to speak, and again he broke the silence first. "And I trust you handled that little nuclear issue as well?"
"It's been resolved."
"And no one is going to be bombed?"
"Not without my say-so."
He shouldn't have found that reassuring, but he did. "Why don't you come for Easter? I would love to see you again. I believe this year we're having lamb."
Mystique laughed. "Maybe next year, Charles," she said, and hung up the phone.
Well, Charles thought, at least he made her laugh. It was a start.
He replaced the receiver and sat back in his chair. Outside, the sun was already nearing the horizon. Charles always liked winter; he liked sweaters and fireplaces and warm drinks and lingering evenings. Since he'd gotten back from Florida, though, it seemed like the New York climate was determined to prove him wrong. The skies were perpetually gray and they hadn't had fresh snowfall in weeks, leaving dirty clumps of the stuff lingering in ugly patterns all over the property. The air was dry and the wind was harsh, and any trip outdoors left his cheeks red and raw - hardly an ideal balm for his healing sunburn. Still, he was happy to be home.
The phone rang. Charles wasn't surprised; more than likely it was Penny wanting to discuss the interviews she'd conducted in the search for a new nurse.
But actually, it was Erik.
"Erik! I'm glad you called. I'm sorry I had to hang up so abruptly the last time we spoke. How are you?"
"Not great, actually."
"What's wrong? Is it the children?"
Erik sighed, but with affection. "Isn't it always?" He paused. He sounded nervous. "Apparently there was an incident."
"What kind of incident?"
"Yesterday, one of the little boys in the class was teasing Wanda: calling her names, taking her toys. She got upset and sent a jolt at him - right in front of the whole class."
Charles smiled. "You don't sound all that upset about that."
"Not about that, no. The little brat deserved it, and good for her for standing up for herself. I'm upset because the principal of the school called me and told me to to come and pick them up immediately. Said they frightened the other kids and kindly informed me that Coconut Creek Elementary did not cater to that kind of student, and told me that perhaps I should consider other options, because as of yesterday afternoon, Wanda and Pietro were no longer welcome in her classrooms."
"Oh, my god. Erik, I'm so sorry."
"What kind of person says that to a five year old? Huh? Tells a little girl that she's a monster?"
"She told Wanda she was a monster?"
"Yes, can you believe that? How's that for coexisting with humans, huh, Charles?"
Charles swallowed heavily, not knowing quite what to say, except, "I'm so sorry."
"Then, later on," Erik continued, "I had a knock on my door, and it was Wanda and Pietro's kindergarten teacher, came to apologize. Said she had no idea that the principal would react that way, and she never would have told anyone but me what had happened if she'd known it would turn out like this. She said she was sorry to see them go, that they were two of her favorite students. She even helped me calm Wanda down - Wanda was still crying about the whole thing."
"Well, that was very good of her to do that."
"It was. She also offered to write a letter of recommendation and help me to get them into a new school." Erik's tone turned coy. "She suggested I try to get them into one of those special schools for children with extra abilities. She told me she'd read about a really good one up in New York, said it had a funny name - couldn't remember it offhand, but she'd look it up and mail it to me. Do you have any idea what she was talking about?"
Charles was grinning from ear to ear, and he hoped Erik could hear how happy he was. "You're in luck, my friend. The Xavier Institute happens to have two openings for kindergarten-aged children, available immediately, no letter of recommendation needed. And, if you're interested, a teaching position, ready to be filled."
"Oh, really?" Erik said with mock consideration. "What subject?"
"Pick one!" Charles laughed. "You can teach underwater basketweaving once a week for all I care, just please come. I already know I have a pair of rooms available for you - they're small, but they have a connecting door, and they'll do fine until something else opens up. Tell me you'll come, Erik."
"What about your X-Men?" Erik asked. "Are your students automatically recruited?"
"Absolutely not. Students are in no way required to join the X-Men, and besides, no student under the age of sixteen is allowed to participate in any X-Men-related activity without the written permission of a parent or guardian."
Erik paused to consider. "Make it seventeen and we'll be there in two weeks."