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The Line in the Sand

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It is, for once, quiet.

Erik is unused to the silence. Since he’d been dragged from his home by SS officers, clutching his mother’s hand desperately and screaming as they’d broken his father’s nose for resisting, he has been caught in a constant flurry of action and movement. The years of the concentration camp with Schmidt were harrowing, and he tries hard not to reflect on them. Afterwards, he’d spent every waking moment chasing leads on Herr Doktor and hunting down Nazis through eight countries and three continents. Then had come Charles, then the mutant recruitment quest, then settling in at the CIA facility that was to be their base of operations. There hadn’t been a moment of peace before Charles Xavier came into his life and there hasn’t been a moment of peace since.

But now—now it is quiet, and Erik finds it unnerving.

“Unnerving?” Charles murmurs from the couch. He’s lying on his back, eyes closed and hands folded neatly across his stomach. “Really, Erik? I thought you’d rather enjoy it. The quiet.”

Erik frowns with a disapproval he’s sure Charles can detect from across the room. “Stay out.

Charles’s brow furrows, and he says apologetically, “I’m sorry, my friend. It’s a habit.”

Erik’s frown deepens. Honestly, for a man claiming such high moral ground, Charles is sometimes distressingly casual with his telepathy. “A habit? Of invading people’s minds?”

“Of skimming thoughts,” Charles corrects. “Just touching the surface of their minds.” He opens his eyes and turns his head to meet Erik’s gaze. “You know where all the metal in this room is, don’t you?”

Of course Erik does. He doesn’t go anywhere without a nearly subconscious awareness of the metal in his surroundings. It calls to him, thrums a deep pulse in his mind that is comforting because it reminds him that all he has to do is lift a hand and he will have a dozen weapons at his disposal. He is never helpless, not while his fingertips tingle with the hum of metal.

“Yes,” he answers, concentrating more consciously on the room. The coin in his pocket, Charles’s watch, the pen on the desk, the base of the lamp—he feels them all.

“That’s how it is with me,” Charles explains. “With my telepathy. You touch all the metal around you, whether you mean to or not. It’s instinct. I touch the minds around me in the same way.”

The explanation makes Erik pause. He has reminded Charles—sometimes sharply—to keep out of his thoughts, but he has never really thought of what his order means. If what Charles told him is true…He tries to imagine shutting off his awareness of metal, tries to not feel the watch band around Charles’s wrist, and can’t.

“Oh,” he says, chastised. “I…”

He wants to tell Charles that he understands, but he still doesn’t want to relinquish the privacy of his thoughts. It’s his mind, not Charles’s, and no matter the power of telepathy, Erik wants to keep his thoughts his own.

Fortunately, Charles knows what he means without having to be told. “It’s no imposition on me, asking me to keep out,” he reassures him. “Raven’s been asking me the same for years. It just takes a certain amount of concentration. If I don’t pull out deliberately, I catch stray thoughts, that’s all.”

“All right,” Erik says. He’s glad that Charles will continue to respect his boundaries, but the next time Charles slips, he resolves to be more patient about it.

Charles smiles at him briefly and closes his eyes again. Erik leans back in his armchair and takes the coin from his pocket. He lets it float between his fingers, an exercise he’s found calming when he’s idle.

Suddenly, Charles sits up, so abruptly that Erik starts. “Stay here,” he says, his voice perfectly even. Too even. It makes Erik wary all at once. “I’ll be right back.”

He stands and leaves the room, hands thrust in the pockets of his trousers. Erik doesn’t hesitate; he pockets the coin and heads out after him, wondering at the disturbance. It can’t be serious or else Charles would never look so calm. But it must be something because Charles’s shoulders are tensed slightly and his stride is quick.

“What’s happened?” Erik asks, lengthening his own stride to keep up.

“A small matter, really,” Charles replies without breaking his pace. “But one that must be addressed, nonetheless.”

He leads the way down the hall, takes a left at the corner, and exits the building through the back door. Erik is impressed by Charles’s sense of direction; they’ve been at the facility for less than two days and Charles is already navigating around like he owns the place. Charles strides through the back path, up a flight of stairs, and straight on to the courtyard that is framed by the buildings of the base.

Erik sees the problem immediately.

Raven and the others are standing just outside the room they usually pass their time in, all of them in a line like they’re bracing themselves for attack. All of them are sporting stiff spines and disgruntled expressions. Disgruntled in this case ranges from Hank’s uncomfortable frown to Alex’s murderous scowl. The former looks ready to bolt while the latter looks prepared for a fistfight. They’re wearing a cornered, angry look that Erik knows all-too-well.

He turns to size up the enemy, and there they are: four CIA agents in their impeccable black suits and smug humanness. They’re smiling, eyes cold, superiority worn proudly—Erik’s seen that same look so many times on concentration camp guards, and it makes his hackles rise instantly. He doesn’t need to hear what they’re saying to know that they’re jeering at the children, and he doesn’t need to even raise his hand for the statue in the center of the courtyard to uproot itself with a groan of bending metal.

Before he can even finish solidifying his hold on the statue, Charles’s fingers settle around his wrist warmly, a warning. “Let me handle this please,” Charles says quietly. Erik’s eyes narrow—Charles is too kind, too forgiving, and he will probably ask the agents to stop, he will not give them even half of what they deserve—but he steps back. One of the first things he learned on their recruitment trip was to trust Charles, and besides, the guards are nothing. They are irritating humans, not worth Erik’s time or effort.

Yet.

Charles strides forward, hands still in his pockets, and Erik sighs a little. In his tweed suit and with his perfect formality, Charles does not cut much of an intimidating figure. The agents will laugh at him. Or ignore him. Or both.

Oh well. That’s what Erik is for, he supposes. A few statues leaping around the courtyard, and the agents should shut up or risk death by falling sculpture.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Charles says pleasantly. Erik trails on his heels, glaring at the agents when they turn to look at the new arrivals.

“Ah!” the first one says, his mocking smile widening. “Here to complete the picture: the ringleaders.” He steps forward toward them and claps his hands together. “Wonderful. All right, I have to ask, what’s your superhero power again? I forget.”

Charles’s smile doesn’t falter. “Erik here controls metal. Quite fascinating, actually. And I have telepathy.”

“Telepathy,” the CIA repeats, nodding at his fellows. He makes a show of being impressed, widening his eyes and taking a step closer. “That’s reading minds, isn’t it?”

“Among other things,” Charles agrees. He’s shorter than the agent so he has to tilt his head back slightly so that their eyes meet. “Agent David Pike, isn’t it?”

Pike laughs. “What? Did you read my mind?”

“No, Agent MacTaggert pointed you out earlier. But I could read your mind if I wanted to.”

“Do it then,” Pike urges, his grin a little too wide and too sharp to be genuine. “I don’t—”

“Believe me?” Charles finishes, smiling too. Unlike Pike’s, Charles’s smile looks anything but fake. “Of course you don’t. You’ve never seen mutants before.” He turns and points to the children, who are still so tense Erik is sure they’d summarily explode if someone so much as tapped them on the shoulder. “You’ve already met the children, haven’t you? Aren’t they splendid?”

The CIA agents return their attention to their original targets, and Hank takes a visible step closer to Alex. All of them are wearing some permutation of a look that says, “Why the hell did you turn their focus back on us?” and Erik has to wonder the same thing. But Charles looks like he knows what he’s doing—when does Charles not look confident?—so Erik keeps silent. He doesn’t quite release his hold on the statue to their right, however.

“Raven is incredible, that’s a given,” Charles says, as enthusiastic as if he were presenting his best friends to his parents for approval. “There’s Angel, named appropriately enough. I don’t suppose you’ve seen her fly yet, but you will. And Alex—which, remind me later, we need to discuss some control mechanisms for you—and Sean, who has the voice of—” Charles laughs, almost embarrassed, “—forgive me, but I can’t compliment a voice that can burst my eardrums, literally. Darwin, I can’t even begin to describe properly, and, of course, Hank, a boy after my own heart.”

As he finishes, he smiles brightly at the agents, as if he’s expecting them to share his opinion. All of them are smiling, and not in a particularly friendly way either. Pike turns his gaze back to Charles and says coolly, “We’ve seen all the freaks before. When they were showing off earlier.”

If Erik hadn’t been watching Charles so closely, he would have missed the subtle shift of Charles’s eyes. They have always been warm blue, open and self-assured and amiable. But now they’re filled with uncharacteristic hardness, and when Charles speaks, his voice is frigid in a way that Erik had never believed Charles was capable of.

“Freaks?” he repeats, his smile fading. “I beg your pardon.”

Apparently, Raven recognizes this tone of voice because she takes a tiny step forward. “Charles…”

“No, Raven,” he says, his voice still pleasant but with a sharpness to it that’s unmistakable. He looks over to her briefly before returning his gaze to Pike. “Agent Pike, would you care to revise your choice of words?”

The CIA agent doesn’t flinch. He glances back at his companions and mutters under his breath, “Is this guy for real?”

It’s clear that he’s wondering if Charles—who is five inches shorter and probably forty pounds lighter—is challenging him. Challenging his perceived superiority. Pike snorts and turns to literally look down on Charles, closing the distance between them with a rapid step. He looks huge and imposing in front of Charles, and Erik doesn’t like it. His lip curls in a snarl as he moves between them, forcing Pike back a step with a shove of his shoulder.

Pike’s gaze shifts to him, a derisive sneer appearing on his face. “Did you just assault a CIA agent?”

“You call that an assault?” Erik retorts, his eyes narrowed. His fingers twitch ever-so-slightly, and the statue shifts, ready to come at his bidding. All it would take is a hard yank, and Pike would be crushed into the wall, nothing left of him but an imprint in the concrete.

“Calm,” Charles murmurs. He places a firm hand on Erik’s arm, drawing him back. “We don’t want trouble, Agent Pike.”

The man leers victoriously. “Good, because—”

Charles continues over him, “We would only like you to treat us as you treat any of your friends. We fight for the same cause, after all.”

He crosses his arms and waits expectantly. At that, Pike actually laughs, his eyes widening in surprise. The other agents behind him follow in suit, glancing between the children and Charles with open amusement.

“You want us to treat you normally?” one of the other agents scoff. “You’re anything but normal.”

“You bastard—” Alex snarls, tensing in the stance that Erik recognizes as a precursor to red energy beams slicing everywhere.

“You’re right,” Charles interrupts calmly. “We’re anything but normal. And what is wrong with that?”

Wrong?” Pike echoes incredulously. “What do you think? That kid can shoot lasers out of his body, that one looks like some scaly dinosaur when she’s all blue—blue—and that tall one has feet like some ape. You’re freaks, all of you, you should be caged up or something, rea—”

“I think,” Charles says, and there is something dangerous in his voice that has never been there before, “you ought to choose your next words very carefully.”

Pike snorts. “Or what? You’ll read my mind to death?”

“Something like that,” Charles replies, straight-faced.

It’s the closest Erik has ever heard him come to a threat. Is it even a threat? He isn’t quite sure what telepathy entails—is it possible to kill someone with it? He can’t imagine how; from what he’s seen of Charles’s power, it doesn’t extend beyond reading minds and the occasional projection. But there must be more to it than that because no one is this confident on a bluff, not even Charles Xavier.

“I don’t buy it,” Pike says dismissively. He turns and points straight at Alex. “Why doesn’t that kid cut me in half with his ‘powers?’ He looks like he’s got a temper problem.” His finger travels to Hank. “Why doesn’t he grab me with his feet and, I don’t know, strangle me or something? And her, yeah, you, blue girl, why don’t you morph into a wrestler and beat my head against the wall? You’ve been sending me a killer glare for days now.” He smirks and turns back to Charles. “And you.” He pokes a finger at Charles’s chest, and Erik growls low in his throat. Pike ignores him. “Why haven’t you mind-read me to death then?”

Charles’s expression is patient, and he doesn’t flinch away. If anything, he draws himself up a little taller. “Agent Pike—”

I’ll tell you why,” the man sneers. “It’s because you’re scared. All of you.” He gestures widely, taking them all in with a wave of his hand. “You know I’m CIA, and I’m untouchable. You attack me, you’re attacking the United States government, and no one wants to do that. So I can push you around—” he stabs Charles in the chest with his finger again, “—and call you freak all I want, because this is my country, you freak, and you just happen to live here.”

Erik hasn’t felt a rage like this since he thrust out his hand to catch a submarine that was descending into the ocean depths. His entire body is suffused with fury, and he lets it take over, lets it take lead. Rigidly, he reaches out, fully intending to snap Pike’s finger clean off and show him just how blatantly unafraid he is. Erik fears nothing, especially not a pompous, insufferable human who is worth less than the dirt on the bottom of Erik’s shoe.

Without taking his eyes from the CIA agent, Charles catches Erik’s hand in midair—which halts his retaliation, and Erik snarls, “Really, Charles, this Scheißkerl deserves it”—and says very, very calmly, “Agent Pike, don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been doing these past few days. You’ve been mocking my young friends here, you’ve been disrespecting their truly wonderful gifts, and you’ve been bullying them with impunity. I’m very sorry if you’ve been misled; they are here to help our government fight a common enemy, not for you to torment. You are to treat them with the respect they deserve, as young men and women who are willing to serve their country.”

“Respect,” Pike spits derisively. “For circus animals like—”

Charles’s fingers graze his temple, and Pike goes silent. His mouth works, but nothing comes out, nothing at all. All of them stare for a moment, the CIA agents surprised at the turn of events, Erik and the others more surprised at the fact that Charles would use his power like this.

“Listen to me very carefully,” Charles says, his voice hushed but no less firm. “You say that attacking you is the equivalent of attacking the U.S. government? Then understand me when I say that mocking these children is the same as mocking me, and I don’t lie when I say that I am much more powerful than any of you believe.”

“What—” One of the agents behind Pike takes a menacing step forward, drawing his weapon. “Stop that right now.”

Erik yanks the gun away so forcefully that it spirals away across the courtyard and hits the far wall behind them, smashing into a dozen different pieces. “Point a gun at him again,” he growls, “and see what happens.”

“Erik,” Charles murmurs, and Erik realizes that their hands are still clasped. Charles squeezes his fingers once, clearly a warning. His voice brushes Erik’s mind, quiet and composed even in his head: Allow me to handle this, please.

And Erik agrees, partly because he does trust Charles and partly because he wants to see how far Charles’s telepathy goes. How far Charles is willing to go.

“Agents Rider, Gerry, Carson,” Charles says, nodding to each man as he names him. “This applies to you as well. These six boys and girls are marvelously unique. You ought to appreciate that they’ve chosen to fight against Shaw for this country.”

He touches his temple again, and Pike’s silence breaks with a string of curses. The CIA agent looks more livid than afraid, and he glares furiously at Charles as he clutches his neck. “What,” he snarls. “What the hell did you do to me?”

Charles meets his glower coolly. “I read your mind, among other things.”

“What the fuck—they’re freaks, all of them, even the ones that look normal, fuck—”

The other CIA agents are eyeing Charles in various states of unease and anger on behalf of their comrade. One of them inches his hand closer to his weapon, and Erik forces the gun downward, making it impossible for the man to pull it from his holster. Pike has stumbled back a bit, but he’s still entirely too close to Charles for comfort. Erik shifts just a little closer to the telepath and keeps a firm hold on the agents’ pistols.

Charles steps past the men and smiles at the children. “I’m sorry about this, my friends. I’m sure you were expecting something rather more…civilized. They shouldn’t bother you again, though.”

The six of them exchange looks, and it’s Alex who says incredulously, “Why? Because you had a little talk with them? Really, Mr. Xavier?”

Erik’s inclined to agree. Once again, Charles has let the humans off entirely too easily. He freezes one of them a little, plucks their names from their minds—what does he think that will accomplish? Erik knows better than anyone the hatred of humankind, knows that the only true deterrent is power and strength. A day from now, Agent Pike will forget all this, chalk it up to his mind’s exaggerations, and the jeering will begin again. He will have learned nothing.

Charles turns to Pike. “Agent, I expect you to refrain from speaking to these children again. It will be pleasanter for both parties.”

Pike scowls mutinously but says nothing. The other agents, seemingly content to follow his lead, stand in stiff combat stances, glaring alternatively at the children and Charles.

“Let’s go, my friend,” Charles says, nudging Erik into motion with his shoulder. Erik follows without thought, and it isn’t until they’re out of sight of the courtyard that Erik flexes his hand, wishing he’d stayed a moment longer.

“You should have let me stop them,” he says lowly. “I could have shown them what would happen if they crossed us.”

Charles raises an eyebrow. “What do you think I did?”

“That’s not the same,” Erik insists. “What you did was…” He hesitates because he doesn’t want to say weak, but that’s what it was. As an intimidation tactic, it was too short and too little. Erik doesn’t know exactly what Charles could have done with his telepathy, but surely he could have wrought some damage to ensure that the agents would understand him explicitly. As it stands now, Erik knows that it will only take time for the men to overcome Charles’s veiled threat and forget the incident entirely.

“What I did was what I intended to do,” Charles says. Erik notes that his eyes are that warm blue again, all the coldness gone. Charles looks so friendly again that Erik has to wonder whether he imagined that iciness. Surely a man who looks like this on a regular basis is incapable of such hostility.

“What? Read their minds?”

“Showed them some of my power,” Charles corrects. “Not all of it—no, not nearly all of it—but enough.”

“You should have—”

“What, my friend?” Charles stops and faces him fully. “Hurt them? Fractured their minds? Broken them? Violence is a terrible thing, Erik, you know that.”

“You talk as though you’re capable of such things,” Erik says, his eyes narrowing in consideration.

“You think I’m not?”

“Perhaps. I don’t know what your telepathy allows you to do. But I don’t think you would, even if you could.”

Charles smiles now, a touch sadly. “You think you know me, Erik, but you don’t. Not completely.” He starts down the hall again. “That being said, violence is the last resort, never the first. But enough of that now. There’s a chessboard in my room—would you like to play?”

It is only later, tipping his king in defeat as Charles neatly checkmates him, that Erik realizes that Charles said last resort. Not violence is never an option or there are always other ways—he’d said that violence was the last resort.

Erik looks over at Charles, slightly rumpled from lounging in the chair, his hair flopping boyishly in his eyes, fingers tapping the soft edge of his jaw. He oozes well-mannered, good-natured professor, looking as if he’d be much more comfortable in a library than in a battlefield. There is nothing aggressive about his appearance, nothing particularly impressive. But earlier, Charles had said to Pike, “I am much more powerful than any of you believe.” Any of you. For the first time, Erik realizes that Charles hadn’t meant only the agents but Erik and the others as well. What does that mean?

What violence, exactly, is Charles Xavier capable of?

***

Two days later, Charles stands in the middle of their game, his brow creased in consternation. “Bring the chessboard, will you please?” he asks Erik. He doesn’t even wait for an answer before striding out the door.

Confused and wary, Erik levitates the metal pieces—easier than gathering them up and sliding them back into the case—and picks up the board by hand. He follows Charles out and down the hall. It takes him only a moment to recognize the route back to the courtyard, and understanding settles heavily in his gut.

“They’re back at it, aren’t they?” he asks.

Neither of them needs him to specify. Charles hesitates momentarily before nodding. “Not Pike. Others.”

Others. Of course. This base is filled with CIA agents, not just Pike and his cronies. The mutant hatred must run in all of them. There must be two hundred humans in the complex, making for much more scorn than Pike and his companions accounted for.

“No,” Charles says, “not hatred. Misunderstanding.”

“Reading my mind again,” Erik says irritably. “Stay—please stay out. And none of your euphemisms will change what it is—the humans fear us, and that makes them hate us. It starts as mocking and bullying, and it will escalate. I’ve seen it before.”

Charles gives him an oddly soft look. “I know that, my friend. But not every experience is the same. ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’”

“L.P. Hartley,” Erik acknowledges.

Charles raises an eyebrow. “You’ve read Hartley?”

Ignoring his question, Erik quotes, ‘“You have to know the past to understand the present.’”

“Carl Sagan!” Charles laughs delightedly, his eyes bright. “My friend, you are full of surprises. Come, we’ll sort this out.”

No agents are there when they arrive, but it’s clear that there has been some recent altercation. One of the walls is smoking and charred black and there is a gob of acid sizzling on the lawn. But there are no bodies or blood, so it seems like the humans have escaped unharmed.

Pity, Erik thinks.

“Charles!” Raven exclaims when she spots him. She’s in her blond form, jacket drawn tightly across her body. She stalks across the grass to him, her movements angry and barely restrained. “I hate this place,” she mutters, just loud enough for Erik and Charles to hear. “Let’s just get out of here. Let the CIA deal with this Shaw guy themselves.”

That sounds like a good idea to Erik. Let the CIA go their own way, the mutants don’t need them. Erik has hunted Shaw on his own for years; he has no problem with doing the same now. Even now, the only thing keeping him from walking out the door and never returning is Charles with all his endless optimism in humanity.

Charles pulls Raven into a one-armed hug and kisses her hair lightly. “Go back with the others, all right? Erik and I will stay for a while.”

He goes into the nearby room, stepping right through the window that had shattered the first night the children had been showing off their powers. He passes the others, who are standing with their fists clenched and anger and humiliation dark in their faces. Erik watches as he picks up a small table and carries it back out to the lawn.

“Erik, will you fetch us a couple of chairs?” Charles asks companionably, as if there isn’t a swath of burned concrete barely three feet from his head.

The chessboard. Right. Erik’s eyes narrow as he realizes Charles’s intention, and he leans close, hissing, “You aren’t going after them?”

Charles meets his gaze evenly. “They’re mistaken, Erik, that’s all. You and I sitting here—surely they will know to stay away.”

Sitting here. The children are being harassed and Charles wants to sit here on the lawn playing chess. Erik clenches his teeth at the sheer naiveté Charles displays at times. “How long?” he demands lowly. “Are you planning to sit here all day? All week? Don’t be a fool, Charles.”

He sets the board down onto the table and waves his hand so that the metal pieces clatter into place. Then he turns his back and stalks away.

“Where are you going?” Charles calls.

“Why don’t you read my mind and find out?” Erik snaps back, anger curling in the pit of his stomach. His voice is sharper than he intends—the anger is for the humans, not for Charles—but he doesn’t bother to apologize. Charles probably knows anyway.

I do know, Charles says in his head, and Erik is half-annoyed that Charles took him up on his offer.

Where are you going?

Erik doesn’t bother answering. Charles is already in his head; it must be as easy as breathing to guess where Erik’s headed.

Come back, Charles urges. This won’t solve anything.

What you’re doing won’t solve a thing, Erik returns, pushing the thought clumsily in Charles’s direction. This way—

You’ll what? Rough them up? Prove that you’re stronger than they are? They already know that, Erik.

Then why—

You’re right, they’re afraid. But that fear isn’t hatred. And violence solves nothing.

Violence solves more than Charles knows. It has been Erik’s greatest ally since he was fourteen years old, and it is the only thing he knows. If these humans won’t listen to Charles’s reason, they will listen to Erik’s power.

Do you trust me?

The question is so abrupt that Erik hesitates. What?

Do you trust me to keep us all safe?

The answer should be no. Erik trusts himself to keep them safe, but not Charles, because Charles is soft and yielding and altogether too kind. He is not a warrior, and he will likely never be.

You underestimate me, my friend, Charles sighs. There are so many things about me you don’t know. A gentle current of affection and resolve twines between their minds, and Charles says, Come back.

Erik has obeyed no orders but his own since Klaus Schmidt, but at that moment, he lets out a long, pent-up breath and turns around.

“Thank you,” Charles says when he returns with two chairs. His eyes are warm and proud.

“You can control me,” Erik says irritably. “Congratulations.”

“I merely asked,” Charles replies. “You came back of your own free will.”

Erik scowls and regards the chessboard. Charles has already pushed his white pawn ahead two spaces and is waiting for an answering move.

“What will you do,” Erik asks, still angry, “when they come back?”

“Turn them away.”

Erik scoffs. “And when you can’t be here? We’re to leave for Russia in a week. Surely you don’t believe the agents will leave the others alone just because you’ve given them a stern scolding. They aren’t children.”

“No,” Charles agrees, and something dark flickers in his eyes. “If they don’t treat us as I like, I will stop them.”

“Stop them,” Erik repeats. There are so many possibilities behind that. “Forcefully?”

He expects Charles to say no. He expects Charles to denounce violence in all its forms. Instead, Charles says, “If necessary,” and moves his bishop.

Erik wonders if he knows Charles at all.

***

Erik watches the main room closely over the next few days. It isn’t out of concern for the children, no, not that. Erik doesn’t get concerned over anything, and they don’t need his concern anyway. No, he watches because he wants to prove Charles wrong, because he knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that these humans are not and will never be as morally upright as Charles believes.

He lurks around the corners more than he used to, watching the agents pass, regarding them coldly when they glance at him. None of them bothers him or Charles, but that doesn’t mean anything; Erik with his withering glares looks intimidating without the use of his powers, and Charles is impossible to unsettle. The guards already know this, and they’ve doubtless concluded that the children are easier targets. It makes Erik hot with anger because this is all reminiscent of his past. The stronger picking on the weak, others who don’t actively take part turning a blind eye—Erik has seen it before, and he knows how it ends.

He won’t let that happen. Not again.

Then one afternoon, he’s taking a short nap in his assigned quarters when Hank bursts through the door and shouts, “They’re fighting out there, you’ve got to stop them!”

Erik is up off his bed and out the door in half a second. “Who? What’s happening?” he demands, reaching out to everything metal. “Is it Shaw?”

Hank shakes his head. Erik sees for the first time that the boy is sweaty and panting, and his glasses are cracked. “The CIA agents,” Hank gasps. “Out there—Alex—”

It’s happened. What Charles said he’d stop, it’s happened, and they’d all been fools to hope otherwise, Erik most of all. With a growl, he grabs Hank by the shirtfront and drags him along behind him, heading straight for the courtyard. Even before the open lawn is in sight, he can hear shouts and explosions. He quickens his pace, pulling his awareness of metal into focus, preparing himself to uproot it all. Hank stumbles along behind him and nearly falls flat on his face, saved only by Erik’s hand fisted in his shirt.

He rushes in on the scene seconds later and stops to take in the situation.

There must be at least twenty agents in the courtyard, some of them milling around in confusion, waving their guns as if they’re not sure what to aim at. The children are separated, Sean the closest to Erik and Raven the furthest away. Raven is in her blue form, facing off against two agents with their guns raised. In front of Sean, an agent writhes on the ground, his ears bleeding. Angel has taken to the air and is flitting around uncertainly, clearly agitated but confused. Darwin is in the middle of a brawl with Alex, who is fighting off his friend. It looks as if Alex is trying to get a blast loose, but Darwin is retraining him. The courtyard is already smoking, bullet holes in the walls, another blackened stripe burned into the grass, the windows of all the buildings shattered.

Erik puts out one hand and yanks hard. All the guns in the vicinity rush toward him, and he brings them to a halt by his side, unwilling to release them but unable to aim them without the risk of hitting the children. Behind him, Hank cries, “They’ve gone mad, all of them! We were just sitting, and then the—the agents came around, and Alex just snapped—”

Erik’s eyes zero in on the blood running down Alex’s face, and rage fills him. “That’s enough of this,” he says, and lifts his hand to caress the triggers of each gun. He can bend the bullets so that they find their targets unerringly, there will be no chance of hitting the children…

Across the courtyard, Raven lets out a sharp cry as one of the men grabs her and strikes her hard across the cheek. Erik jerks at the sound of it—it sounds so much like his mother, what he remembers of her before Shaw, before Schmidt—and one of the guns goes off, hitting an agent in the leg.

The agent raises his hand again, Raven flinches back, Erik pulls the trigger of one of the guns and curves the bullet away in the last second because the two of them are too close—

“What is going on here?”

No one’s voice should be that clear. No one should be that audible over the sound of the fight, but the words cut straight through the din, effortless and razor-sharp.

It takes Erik a second to realize that it’s because the voice is both aloud and in their heads, echoing in their minds with a heaviness and power Erik hasn’t felt from Charles before. The telepath is always so subtle on the rare occasions that he enters their heads, never like this. It reminds Erik of Emma Frost, whose presence had felt like a sledgehammer to his gut. Charles’s mind, usually nothing more than a gentle touch, is now a smothering force over his own. It’s like breathing through thick smoke.

Everyone has frozen, he realizes belatedly. All the humans, at least. Charles is standing on the other side of the courtyard near Raven, his expression thunderous, his eyes cold and furious. Erik has never seen him like this. Charles looks almost…frightening.

“Charles,” Raven breathes, extricating herself carefully from the agent’s hold. “Charles—”

The telepath steps to her and extends his hand. “Raven, are you all right?”

She’s holding her cheek. It takes her a couple of tries, but she manages to slide back into her blond form, and even from across the lawn, Erik can see that her face is reddening. “I—yes, but—”

Charles takes her hand and pats it comfortingly. “Good. Please take Alex and the others back to your rooms.”

“I’m not leaving you.”

Charles smiles, and for once, it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Thank you, but I think you know that I am very capable of handling this. Go.”

Raven hesitates, and Hank hurries from behind Erik to her side. He takes her free hand, and Charles lets her go. They pass Darwin, who drags Alex back, and Sean, who shakes his head as if he can’t quite believe what’s happened. Angel lands in a pile of rubble, stumbling a bit as her ankle twists awkwardly. Probably a sprain, Erik notes. All of them look worse for wear, though some of the agents look as if they’ve fared no better.

They withdraw, but only as far as the doorway. Erik expects Charles to wait for them to leave completely, but he merely steps forward, touching his temple with the fingers of his left hand. The CIA agents unfreeze all at once, some of them staggering with the momentum of their motion. They whip around in search of the enemy, confusion apparent on their faces as they spot the children gathered by the door.

“I would like,” Charles says with preternatural calm, “an explanation.”

“What the—” Erik recognizes the voice as Pike’s. “I was just…Oh. Oh. It’s him. It’s the mind-reader, he’s messed us up somehow—”

All of their attention turns to Charles, who looks painfully defenseless standing there amid smoking ruts in the earth and bullets embedded in the walls. None of them is impressed by the figure standing before them, and Erik can’t stand it, can’t stand seeing Charles so helpless.

No, not helpless—Charles has just frozen twenty men in their tracks, after all, he could escape if he wanted. Alone, is what he looks like. Erik can’t stand seeing Charles alone. He crosses the distance between them with quick, sure strides, ignoring every CIA agent he passes. Charles watches him come with a tilt of his head, a small smile tilting his lips up. It is not a happy smile though, and Erik thinks, Finally, Charles, finally you see what happens when the humans find something they fear.

That is not fear, Charles tells him, and there is something dark in Charles’s voice that makes Erik pause in surprise. The telepath reaches out and touches his arm, bringing Erik closer to his side. I will show them fear.

“Agent Pike,” he says aloud. “I should have known. You started this, didn’t you?”

Pike is ten yards from them, and the hatred on his face is clear. He is bleeding from a small cut on his cheek but looks otherwise unharmed. “So what if I did?”

“I told you to stay away,” Charles says, and Erik is the only one close enough to see that Charles’s hands are clenched into fists in his pockets.

“We’re supposed to guard them,” Pike sneers. “Thought we’d get to know them.”

“I can see that.” Charles glances around at the destruction and sighs. “I wish you hadn’t done that.” He kicks a rock across the ground and purses his lips as he eyes the smoking grass to his left. His voice is hard when he says, “Forgive me, but that was remarkably stupid on your part.”

The nearest agent, a big, burly man, takes a step toward, his face creasing in an ugly scowl. “What?”

Charles doesn’t retreat an inch. “You heard me, Agent…Lock. I would like to say that I warned you about disrespecting my friends, but I’m afraid I only told Agent Pike and his companions. Not to worry, I’ll fix that immediately.” He glances briefly at Erik and adds, “And more firmly.”

Pike shoulders his way through the other agents and stops within five feet of Charles. “You keep saying things like that, but I haven’t seen anything real yet,” he says scornfully.

The human is really very good at bravado, Erik muses—that or he’s just painfully oblivious. Even Erik is beginning to realize that there is something uncompromising under Charles’s cold blue eyes. Charles might not be as soft as he appears, and it seems like Pike is one of the only ones failing to grasp that fact.

Charles smiles humorlessly and raises his hand to his temple. “I would say ‘don’t push me,’ Agent Pike, but I’m afraid you crossed that line quite some time ago.” He shuts his eyes for a second, then opens them again. “Terrence.”

Pike’s face drains of all color. “What did you say?” he demands harshly, reaching forward to grab a handful of Charles’s shirt.

“Release me,” Charles says calmly before anyone can react, and Pike lets go as if he’d been burned. Confusion flickers across his features, and he looks down at his hand, as if wondering why he’d obeyed. After a second, he tries to reach forward again, but his fingers freeze in midair. In that moment, it’s as if his arm doesn’t belong to him anymore; he tries obviously to yank his hand back, but it’s stuck where it is, halfway between himself and Charles.

“What the hell—” he hisses.

“I’m correcting your assumption that reading minds is my only gift,” Charles explains. He glances around at all the agents, who are silent as they watch the scene unfold. “All of you. Telepathy is so much more than you know.”

Erik feels a slight chill snake down his spine. Charles’s words were directed at the humans, but Erik gets the feeling that he and the others could stand to learn something as well. He crosses his arms and resolves to watch; it’s about time he fully comprehended the limits of Charles’s power, to see how Charles could be useful in a battle.

“I could make you, you know,” Charles continues, his voice flinty. “I could make you respect us as we deserve.” He taps his temple. “I could make you do anything I wanted.”

“Make us?” one of the nearby agents echoes, and Erik wonders if they’re all this stupid. Honestly, it’s as if they’ve lost all their self-preservation instincts. Even Erik would be hesitant to cross this Charles, and Erik fears no one.

“Dance,” Charles orders, and the man launches instantly into a pirouette. Surprised laughter breaks out among all the agents, and a few of them even jeer at the hapless agent now waltzing his way through their ranks. Charles’s eyes narrow, and he points to Agent Lock, who is mockingly imitating the graceful spins. “You want to dance as well? Then do it.”

And Lock executes a fantastic flying leap and glides his way over to the other dancer. They take hands and waltz together across the courtyard.

“What—stop this—” Lock splutters.

Charles ignores him. Pike, his hand still suspended in the air, snaps, “Let them go. This is—this is an assault on CIA agents. Let them—”

“Be silent,” Charles says without looking at him, and Pike’s voice cuts off. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Agent Pike.”

The dancers continue, and Charles says, “We may be very different from you, but we will not tolerate disrespect. I can break you in more ways than you know.” He waves a hand and all of the humans—all of them sink to their knees. Erik’s eyes widen, and suddenly it feels as if he can’t breathe. He is still standing, but Charles’s presence is oppressive in his head, heavy and layered, a cloud he doesn’t even know how to begin to fight off. He is just as helpless as the humans, he realizes with a sort of awe and panic. He has never been at anyone’s mercy since Shaw, and now…with a single thought…

Charles glances back to him, and for a second, chagrin flickers across his features. He looks almost normal then, and he murmurs, “I’m sorry, my friend. That was not my intention.” The pressure in Erik’s mind lifts, leaving him lightheaded and breathless, and he staggers back a step, out of dizziness and—he hardly wants to admit this—out of a half-instinctive desire to put some distance between himself and this Charles—this predator who regards them all as prey.

“I could make you,” Charles repeats, crouching to meet Pike’s wide, disbelieving eyes. “You would do anything I wanted.”

Pike’s mouth opens, and he says, far too calmly for the situation, “You’re right. Humans and mutants can coexist. We’ve made fools of ourselves, mocking these children for their wonderful gifts.”

It is clearly Charles’s words coming out of Pike’s mouth, and the other agents know it too. Several of them fight to stand, but Charles has them anchored in place with little more than a thought. He looks at them all and rises, his hands returned to his pockets, an unnerving picture of ease.

“It would be simple for me to make you obey,” he says conversationally. “A twist of a thought here, a tweak there, and you’d love mutants as much as I do. I know all of your fears, and I could make you relive them, over and over again.”

Horror washes across their faces, every one. Erik sees nothing, but it is clear that the humans see something, because the blood has drained from their faces, and more than one are whimpering. The two closest to Erik clutch their heads and let out small moans, and Erik doesn’t envy them, doesn’t really want to know what horrors Charles has dredged up in their minds.

Charles’s gaze falls on Pike and he says more lowly, “I could bring Terrence back, you know. Terrence with his belts and broken bottles.”

Terror flashes in Pike’s eyes, and his breath hitches audibly. He looks pitiful then, glassy-eyed and trembling. Charles stares hard at him for a second longer before stepping back. “But I won’t make you do a thing. It’ll have to be your choice for it to mean anything. We are your allies, not your enemy.”

Pike is staring at Charles, seemingly unable to tear his eyes away. Charles looks straight down at him and says, “Many people believe I’m a tolerant man. And I am. But this—” and his voice hardens, every word like steel, “—this is a line you will not cross.”

He touches his temple again, and the agents are free to move. Most of them surge to their feet, looking panicked and doubtful, waving their arms and legs as if they’re trying to determine if they’re truly in control of their own bodies. Several remain kneeling, looking immensely confused. One of them stumbles over to the bushes and retches loudly.

“Let’s go,” Charles murmurs, reaching out to touch Erik’s shoulder. Erik follows him silently through the crowd of agents, who shy away as Charles passes. They fear him, and not in a general way, not simply because he’s different. Charles has given them something concrete to fear; he has given them a dread that will last.

They walk unhindered all the way across the courtyard to where the children are hovering in the doorway. Erik had almost forgotten that they were there. They’ve witnessed the whole thing, and it shows on their expressions. Sean, Darwin, and Hank are eyeing Charles with apprehension and hesitancy; Alex’s gaze is filled with respect; and Angel is almost smiling. Only Raven looks unsurprised. She follows in on Charles’s heels, her expression a mix of exasperation, affection, and pride.

They make it into the inner hallway, and the moment they’re out of sight, Charles sags against the wall, letting out a sharp breath. Alarmed, Erik grabs his arm. “Charles? Charles!”

“Don’t,” he grits out through his teeth. “I’m sorry, my friends, but I have a massive headache right now, and I would be grateful if you’d keep your voices down.”

Raven clicks her tongue in disapproval, though her eyes are amused. “Always pushing yourself, Charles. You never learn, do you?”

Charles manages a pained smile, and just like that, he’s the man Erik knows again. “Sorry, Raven. Please refrain from scolding me until tomorrow, when my head stops trying to split itself apart. Thank you.”

“Stupid,” Raven mutters, but the fondness in her voice negates the sting to her words. She ruffles a hand through his hair and then smoothes it back down neatly. “Stupid.” Then she glances around at their group and laughs softly. “Maybe, ah…we should probably go get cleaned up.”

Yes, they’re bloody and filthy from the fight, and Alex at least looks like he might be requiring some stitches. Hank, who looks the cleanest out of all of them, allows Angel to lean on him so she won’t limp so badly, and together, the children head off. Raven’s hand lingers on Charles’s arm, and Charles smiles reassuringly at her. “Don’t worry, Erik will take impeccable care of me. Promise.”

“All right.” She pats his cheek and follows the others away.

The moment they turn the corner, Charles leans more heavily against the wall and closes his eyes. “That was a bigger strain than I expected.”

“A strain?” Erik repeats.

“Holding twenty minds in place while digging through them for information is a little taxing,” Charles says wryly. “Also, I’m…well, I’ll admit that I’m a bit out of practice. The mind is a muscle too, and I haven’t exercised mine properly in quite some time.”

“Too busy with your thesis,” Erik guesses, levering Charles to his feet. He shoulders most of Charles’s weight and says, “Come on, we’ll get you back to your room.”

“Yes, that would be wonderful,” Charles agrees, leaning a little more heavily on Erik’s shoulder than strictly necessary. He keeps his eyes closed as they make their way, so Erik is forced to navigate awkwardly to avoid banging Charles into doorways or against the walls. They finally make it to Charles’s room, having spotted no agent on the way. Charles’s demonstration must have been effective, Erik muses. It certainly left an impression on Erik.

He carefully helps Charles into bed and waits as Charles pulls the covers up and proceeds to bury his head in his pillow. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” Charles moans into the fabric. “I’ll be sleeping this off all night.”

Erik smiles, a certain fondness swelling in his chest as he looks down at the telepath. Strange, but Charles’s little display of power, which probably should have scared him, has only endeared him in Erik’s eyes. Charles is powerful, and Erik likes power. No, that sounds far too shallow—he likes Charles’s power. The assurance with which he handles it, the unwavering way he dealt with the agents, the unhesitating manner in which he stepped forward to protect the children—Erik understands the value of being able to protect what you love, and Charles is wholly capable of it.

Before, he’d marked Charles down as naïve and far too idealistic for his own good. Erik had already seen that their views were radically different, that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile them. He figured they’d find Shaw, kill him, and go their own ways. Erik the soldier could never stay with Charles the pacifist for long. But now—perhaps there’s a chance.

Perhaps there’s a chance for them.

“Well?”

Erik starts; he’d thought Charles had drifted off. “What?”

Charles opens his eyes. “I apologize, my friend, but my control is a little shot right now, and you’re thinking very loudly. I’m feeling bold at the moment, so I’ll ask you: are you just going to stand there, or will you come here?”

Erik stares at him uncomprehendingly. Surely Charles doesn’t mean—

“Get in bed,” Charles says simply. “I could make you.” He smiles slyly. “But I won’t.”

“It has to be my choice for it to mean anything,” Erik finishes, recalling Charles’s words to the agents. He lets his own smile grow slowly, and he kicks off his shoes and slides in next to Charles. He tucks their bodies close together, marveling at how well Charles fits between his arms. The telepath is very nearly boneless next to him, so trusting that it makes Erik’s heart swell.

“I’m sorry,” Charles says with a yawn, “but with my headache, sex won’t be very pleasant.”

“That’s all right,” Erik whispers. After a moment, he dares to press a kiss to Charles’s forehead, which earns him a blinding smile and a wave of affection.

“For the record,” Erik says, “you won’t ever have to make me.” He will always be willing when it comes to Charles.

“Thank you for that,” Charles murmurs, closing his eyes again. He twines their fingers together and squeezes gently.

So he isn’t so naïve after all. Charles will use his power when pushed far enough, and his abilities can be truly terrifying. He does not advocate force, but he is not averse to it either. He will defend what he loves in every way that matters.

Somehow, the thought comforts Erik. They are together in their struggle against Shaw, against the world. Between the two of them, perhaps he and Charles will be able to finish his decade-long fight once and for all. He is not alone, not with Charles standing by him. Peace was never an option, and given time, maybe Charles will see that too.

Together, united, Charles-and-Erik—that sounds as close to invincible as anything Erik has ever heard.