This is the completed version of the snippet posted here.
Title: Containing Multitudes
Fandom: X-Men First Class
Summary: This is how you win a war.
Author Notes: Okay, the sad part is, I forgot I finished this. I blame work being--well, horrific. And the entire Emma fic taking over my working consciousness. Also, I have a bad feeling that the lack of a title was something of an inhibitor.
Later, he'll think the problem is he recognized it immediately, and that's why he didn't react.
Emma's boneless stroll across the room isn't out of character; Shaw oversaw the travesty of her initial training, and the practiced, contemptuous sexuality she'd been conditioned to flaunt is buried too deeply for her to easily discard. There's a polite fiction between them all that after an attack by a small and surprisingly vicious human militia she'd simply decided to disappear for a time; the truth is both more and less complicated. Charles offered her three months in Westchester to teach her the defenses that until now had been universally handled by a shift of form, a defense he and Charles had already proven could be overcome.
There's never been a way to ask the questions that Erik stores like treasures in a box locked so deeply in his mind that even he can't often find it, but when he looks at her, watches the slowly-evolving changes in the way she uses her body, the ripening certainty in what she is and what she can do, it's easier to admit (though no less frustrating) that Erik can't match Charles as instructor. More than one newly minted Brotherhood operative he's considered sending to Charles. He'd never refuse them, and if the price of education is being preached sweetness and light, those that choose to believe it deserve what they will reap.
Mostly, however, he watches her for those brief glimpses of Charles, the body language that's no longer entirely Shaw's creature and perhaps will never belong to anyone ever again: a tilt of the head, a brush of fingers against her temple when she attempts something new or something difficult, a certain way she smiles; if it were imagination, it would be so much easier to bear.
Even accustomed to her as he is, he's surprised as she settles on the coffee table before him, long legs spread on either side of his thighs, and for a second, he sees Charles' breathtaking smile, the one he gave Erik like a gift a lifetime ago, the glittering seductive warmth of a home that Erik can never accept.
"I never explained to you what I did when I controlled another person's body," she says, the faintest trace of Oxford in her voice; Erik stops breathing. "I'm both and neither; there's no way you could have known. I don't blame you for that. I never did."
Erik thinks of his helmet, of the others just outside this room, of what he knows of what Charles can do and the vastness he still doesn't and perhaps never will.
"I wish to request a meeting," Emma says, no, Charles says with Emma's mouth, Emma's voice, each consonant sharper; Emma's easy sensuality evaporates for the unconscious exercise of Charles' own. "The usual contacts weren't available."
"They're dead," Erik answers numbly as Charles picks curiously at the short hem of the A-line skirt. "They were--"
"No need to elaborate," Charles answers with a pretty wince. "Time and place are your choice, but I ask you only bring one person." Charles smiles ruefully. "For obvious reasons, I rarely have the luxury of traveling alone, so it only seems fair."
All unwitting, Erik's drawn to the impossible length of Emma's legs, the expanse of white leather stretching to mid-thigh and strip of pale golden skin before the edge of the skirt. Charles glances down at himself, mouth quirking. "If there were another way to assure delivery, I would have utilized it."
Standing up, Charles stares down at him; even in this body, Erik would recognize him, and in the end, it's the smile that decides him; in two years, its' the first time Charles has initiated contact with him, not the Brotherhood's leader. Erik is many things, and opportunistic has always been one of them.
"I'll be in touch," Charles says, easing down on the other side of the couch and shutting his eyes. Abruptly, the body goes limp, and when the blue eyes open, Emma looks back, surprisingly calm for what Charles had just done; he locks another question away before it can be formed.
Raising a hand to her face, she lazily rubs her eyes with a faint, unexpected smile before looking at Erik and the expression vanishes. "Charles didn't think secondhand delivery would be as effective."
Charles. Erik doesn't flinch, hearing the name she speaks with such casual ease, that he hasn't heard spoken since a deserted beach two years and two different men away. It's a jarring moment, the sudden, bitter jealousy in the intimacy of it, as if she'd stolen something that was his and his alone.
He should think betrayal; since she returned from Charles, the woman who obeyed without question or interest is seen less and less. Her services are bought and paid for, and he's never fooled himself that a higher bidder would never arrive--
--but this is Charles, and whatever this is, it's nothing so mundane and petty as sending a spy.
"He'll contact me in three days," she says, getting to her feet, hands automatically smoothing the front of her skirt. "Tell me what you-"
Erik answers before he thinks; impulsivity is nothing new. "I want speak to him directly."
Emma hesitates, looking at him with the first flare of actual, personal interest he thinks he's ever earned from her. "As you wish." Turning toward the door, she walks with Erik's memory of Charles' careless, comfortable stride before it melts back into something not quite Shaw and every question he's never asked of those three months floods back again.
It's perhaps preferable that she closed the door; he might have so lost himself as to ask.
He's more prepared--as prepared as he can be, which is not at all--when Emma reaches for her temple, eyes shutting for a moment. The process is so subtle that he doubts if he hadn't been waiting for this moment, he would have noticed at all.
He stops Mystique mid-sentence. "Emma, if you have a moment--"
Mystique blinks up at him, expression ranging from annoyance to amazement. "You're kidding me--"
"Mystique--" he begins, but Charles joins him, one manicured hand drifting up his arm and leaning into his side with a mischievous smile up at him before she begins to pull; there should be nothing amusing about this, but his sense of humor doesn't seem to be aware of it, and Charles was the one that taught him it existed at all.
He notices, however, that Charles never looks at Mystique, and lets him go as soon as the door closes between them. Erik pauses and realizes he'd chosen his bedroom; it had been the closest door, but--
"Don't look so uncomfortable," Charles says, looking around the room briefly; compared to his suite at the mansion, it's prison-cell bare, and Charles is not one to miss symbolism when he's observing it, even from atop six inch stiletto boots. "I'm sorry; Emma has an--unusual sense of humor." Smiling ruefully, Charles perches at the foot of the bed, legs casually crossed; it hurts to look at. "I don't need your pity, Erik."
"I don't--" Erik stops himself. "Two nights from today, at midnight."
Charles grins. "Appropriate. Where?"
"New York. When you arrive in the city, Emma will give you the address."
Charles begins to stand up, and Erik isn't surprise at all by the sound of his own voice when he says, "Don't. Not yet."
For the first time, the confidence cracks; Charles eases back, abruptly more awkward. Whatever the script they were following is broken, and Charles is always one who likes to have a plan.
And Erik was always the one to disarrange Charles' careful plans. "There were other ways to contact me."
"No." The absolute rejection startles Erik silent. Then, "Erik, you have to ask a question for me to give an answer."
Erik swallows. "You could find out yourself."
"I could," Charles answers softly, "but I won't." Charles smiles again, confidence intact; the brief uncertainty is lacquered over like cheap gloss, smooth and without flaw, the man who sat with CIA agents and pretended to be exactly what he was. "And professional courtesy, of course. I am borrowing Emma's body, after all."
"You said I didn't know what it was like…" Erik hesitates, watching Charles draw up one knee, carelessly male and forgetting the body he wears is not equipped with trousers. "What did you mean?"
"I am them, and they are me, here." Charles taps his temple. "Most humans--even many mutants--never notice and never truly realize what has happened. Some know. Some can fight it. Given time, some can even win. But for a time, I am me and I am them and the difference is no difference at all."
Erik's not sure how much time passes; his memory has never failed to replay horror as crystal-clear as the moment of experience. He hadn't know, but that never meant he hadn't suspected, or hadn't chosen not to suspect at all. What he knows of what Charles can do is tiny compared to the vastness of all that he doesn't, and perhaps now he can admit that there were some things he had preferred to leave unknown, to never ask.
"Is that--" Erik swallows. You were him and he was you and you watched me kill you. He can't think about that now. He's not sure he ever can. "Is that what this is about? Revenge--"
"Erik," Charles says, sounding tired, "anything I could have ever done to you can't match what you do to yourself. As if I even would." Charles' faint smile is gone. "Two days."
Swallowing, Erik nods blankly.
Charles touches his temple, then hesitates, looking at Erik. "Thank you."
Erik drives them; Emma, curled in the passenger seat, watches the city go by without expression. "I took on faith that when you returned, it was not to take the role of mole."
"It wasn't faith," she answers, voice as expressionless as her face. "You know Charles better than almost anyone. He's very good at letting go."
Charles. Again. Not just the name, but the man behind it: not Xavier, but Charles. Erik thinks of the CIA, the mansion; Erik had heard only two of them ever use it, Charles, both of them had earned it only to leave it on that deserted beach in rejection of what Xavier had wanted them to be.
Emma had returned, rejecting (it seemed) the philosophy, Dr. Xavier, a fool's impossible ideal; but Charles, Charles, she kept. He wonders if he could hate her for that alone; it's possible he already does.
As they arrive at the old hotel, Emma brushes a finger against her temple and nods, looking at Erik. "I gave them the directions."
The hotel is an old one, shabby with age and wear, but the rooms are clean and neat; Erik's stayed at far worse, though Charles's standards may vary. Emma takes a seat on a faded armchair, long legs crossed, hands folded almost demurely. The minutes tick by impossibly slow, and his mind crowds with too many questions to risk asking one; he isn't sure, will never be sure, what he might give away.
"I wouldn't lie if you asked me."
Erik stills before the window; it's beneath him to pretend ignorance. "You assume I found your activities important enough to feel the need to ask."
"I assume you want me to tell you it's not what you imagine. It is. I am me and he is me and--"
"If I wished to know, I would ask."
"No, you wouldn't." Emma looks away. "This wasn't an exchange of services, Erik. What he gave me was given freely. That's the way it works."
He wouldn't believe it if anyone else said it; he couldn't believe it if she spoke of anyone but Charles. "I never thought you'd stay there."
"Neither did he." Emma smiles faintly; for a moment, her expression softens, rueful and aching and filled with a lifetime of regret. "Erik, you have to ask."
Erik doesn't want to. "Did you want to?"
Once, foolishly, he'd imagined a life in a home he'd never have to leave, with a man who saw a world he could never imagine. It would have been easy and impossible; they would have torn each other apart. He's not sure if he hates her for having the chance that he had never had, or for her choice not to take it if she could. "Then why--"
"A man--" she stops, looking down. "You know him."
"Not," Erik says flatly, "as well as you seem to."
"If it's any consolation," Emma says, looking at him with a dawning smile, "he didn't like that either. Telepaths don't have the luxury of ignorance; he--" She meets his eyes. "You're in a city in the middle of a riot, all the voices screaming and it never stops. It never stops. You try to walk away and there's no where you can go. The crowd traps you and you can't move; you speak and you can't hear your own voice. You open your eyes and you see everything, everything, everything but yourself. Now imagine that as your whole world." She pauses. "I was sixteen when I found myself trapped in there. Shaw saved me; he taught me how to not hear them. But he never taught me how to hear myself. Do you understand?"
No. Perhaps. Erik draws a breath. "And Charles?"
"I remember what it was like to be alone inside my head; Charles found it fascinating, to feel nothing but yourself. He never has, not from the moment of his birth." Emma licks her lips uncertainly. "We're both always there, in that crowd, but it's not millions of voices, it's a multitude. What they say, what they think, what they mean, and what they dream, what they are, all at once, all the time, it never ends, it never ends. You think--it's not words, Erik, it's not feelings; it's everything, from the words you speak to the thoughts you think to the feelings you feel to the muscles that you move to every electrical impulse that runs a body--that's what we can hear.
"I can feel the beat of your heart if I want to." She tilts her head. "But Charles can stop it."
It's too much to understand, but somehow, it's not a surprise at all.
"You have to ask," Emma says. "I won't lie. Ask me why I returned."
No. "The services you perform for me are well compensated. I don't make the mistake of confusing business with personal--"
"Loyalty," Charles says, and Erik turns to see Charles looking out of Emma's eyes. Leaning forward, Charles braces his elbows on leather-coated knees, head tilted up curiously. "Are you sure you know the difference, though?"
"Charles." Erik makes himself stay where he is, refusing to acknowledge the bitter disappointment; he can be as much a fool as Charles, to imagine this would be--different. "What is this about?"
Charles shifts forward in the chair, lacing his fingers together. "In the next room, there's a young man named Mortimer Tonybee. He joined my school a year and a half ago; two weeks ago he turned eighteen. He's achieved laudable control of his abilities; one of the best in his class, honestly."
"Why should I care?"
"Some of his abilities are extremely similar to Mystique," Charles continues with no indication he heard Erik speak. "Enhanced reflexes and speed, greatly enhanced agility--I assembled his file that includes my notes during his training, his initial evaluation and both my and Alex's final evaluation."
Charles hesitates, looking down at the carpet for a long second.
"I met him in York when I was giving a lecture on mutation ratios in controlled populations; he'd abandoned school at thirteen and had become something of a legend among the residents of the city's slums. I think we both know the usual fate of children left to make their own way; the legend was his only protection, as there was nowhere else he could go when his family--"
Erik closes his eyes; let this end, now, before he says something he may very well regret. "I do not see why--"
"They called him Toad."
Erik opens his eyes.
"A cruel schoolyard taunt for a child for whom puberty triggered the manifestation of his abilities, uncontrolled, unfamiliar--"
"And unhidable. Is that what this is about?"
Charles' head jerks up, eyes narrowing. "He doesn't want to hide."
"So you're turning him out?" It's too much, too ridiculous, and perfectly understandable; it's nonetheless a shock. This he wouldn't have expected, not from Charles; from Dr. Xavier's School for the Gifted, however, it seemed as inevitable as war. "Well done, Charles--"
"I'm letting him go." Straightening, Charles stares up at him, and for a brief second, Erik sees something raw like an unhealed wound, unchecked by the control Charles practices like he breathed. He's seen Charles' temper, the bright flares of anger and irritation and astonishment and grief and pain; the difference between that and this is like a candle to a burning sun. It's gone in a breath; Erik wonders, uncertainly, if he saw it at all. "Alex is with him and will give you the file. Will you take him?"
"Why didn't you bring him yourself?" Erik says, ignoring the faint stir of uncertainty. "You send a lackey to hand him off like last week's garbage while you stay safely at home so as to not dirty your hands; your cause grows more attractive by the minute. However did you lose Emma when you could offer such inducement to stay?"
Charles' expression doesn't change. "Will you take him?"
Even under these circumstances, there's only one answer. "Yes."
For a moment, the too-straight back seems to melt, but Charles simply says, "He should awaken in four hours; it should be enough time for you to familiarize yourself with his file. Alex can answer any questions you might have." Charles hesitates. "Thank you."
"I'm not doing this for you; he deserves better than to continue a life as Professor Xavier's dirty secret."
Unexpectedly, Charles nods. "You're right," he says quietly. "He deserves to have what I couldn't give him." Reaching up, Charles touches his temple, eyes closing. "Would you tell him--"
"I doubt," Erik says bitterly, "that there is anything you could say that he needs to hear."
"I know," Charles says, mouth twisting in a faint echo of a smile. "That is the entire point, after all." Barely a breath passes before Emma catches herself with one hand on the arm of the chair; the long blonde hair hides her expression, but her fingernails dig into the faded, threadbare material and tear through it. Almost instantly, she jerks back, straightening, expression oddly still.
"Do you want me to come with you?"
Alex Summers does not qualify as anything more than a necessary annoyance: certainly he could never be a threat. "No."
The Alex he remembers always personified the worst characteristics of careless, arrogant young American men that the world always seemed to adore; rebellious, casual meanness disguised in adolescent taunting far past the age it could ever possibly be excused, lazy, reckless, self-centered and surprised when the world didn't bow to his whim. Erik tolerated him as a brother mutant, but that was the hard limit of his patience.
It surprised him that Charles could bear to be near him at all, much less that he remains at the school; surely the idiot, records scrubbed clean, should have managed to get himself incarcerated again. Hank's steady refusal to join them might still be based on the ridiculous hope that one day he can pass for human again, and Sean's his age, but Alex remaining on that beach had been a genuine shock. But not, Erik admits to himself, an entirely unpleasant one.
He's not surprised at the sullen stare, the paring of their conversation down to simple question and answer, eschewing even the most basic tenants of courtesy--even Charles couldn't teach this arrogant child manners--but when Erik turns away in contemptuous dismissal, he's surprised at the silence that follows, broken only by the closing of the door as Alex leaves. At least the boy has learned respect of power, if nothing else.
Studying the sleeping boy for a moment, Erik skims the file, Charles' copperplate handwriting tracking the child's progress. Belatedly, he checks his watch; if they leave now, the boy won't awaken to the knowledge of his expendability in a cheap hotel, and of all things, Erik needs this night to end.
When he returns to the room, Emma's still seated in the chair, staring out the window. "Bring the car to the front of the building. I'll bring the boy--"
"I believe there will be a war." Emma says quietly. "I don't know if you can win."
Erik stiffens. "If I wished to know--"
"If there's a war, you have to."
Erik turns to look at her. "I don't understand."
For a moment, she doesn't answer. "We hear multitudes," she whispers. "Always. Shaw trained me to hear only him, the single voice that I could find to shut the voices out. Charles taught me how to hear myself; now they can't get in." She blows out a breath. "I can hear them all, but only I choose to. I can hear them. Charles can use them." Abruptly, she gets to her feet; he can feel the anger like heat against his skin. "Erik. Listen to me."
Perhaps, just perhaps, he didn't want to understand.
"That day on the beach, he could find them all, once by one, but there were too many to change all their minds that quickly," she says. "He didn't even realize he was doing it, and he could hear them all; their anger and their fear and their determination to destroy you; he could hear the movements of their hands, the breath in their lungs--"
And the beat of their hearts. Emma stares at him, all her fear and anger rushing over him. He doesn't want to know he can; I do. I felt it. And one day, he will. If this war begins, you have to win. You have to. Or he'll do it for you.
No. "Charles would not--" Erik stops himself short, feeling Emma's certainty like it's his own. "You think he will."
"I know he will. And I know you'll let him." Emma draws a breath. "If you win, he may want to hate you, but he'll also help you, you have to know that. But if he wins it for us, he will never forgive himself. He won’t have time to. We hear multitudes, Erik, and to do that, he would hear them all. He is them and they are him, and the difference is no difference at all."
"Is that why he told me?"
"We told you," she says. "We told you that, but I didn't tell him why. You had to know what will happen if you lose, if we lose." Emma steps closer. "A crowd, Erik, a city the size of a universe. Billions of voices in multitude, screaming out their pain and horror in the blink of an eye, never stopping, never ending; it's different for a telepath, those seconds are forever. He won't survive it. He won't want to."
Erik doesn't move, doesn't think of the helmet, doesn't think of anything at all. He wonders if he could buy the world with Charles' life; how many years of war he could fight before he wouldn't need to wonder at all: he'd know.
She tilts her head, a faint echo of Charles that's also Emma and never Shaw, never Shaw again. He doesn't know her, Erik realizes in surprise. Perhaps it's time he did. Turning away, she curls up in the armchair. "It's thirty minutes to Westchester," Emma says unexpectedly. "Alex is still here."
That jar again--Alex. Not Summers, not Havok: a man, a mutant, a resident of Xavier's school, and a person whose name Emma uses without hesitation or thought. After everything else, it shouldn't be a shock. Erik draws in a breath to answer, then stops. It's a thirty minute drive to Winchester and Alex should have no reason to linger.
The question is, Erik supposes, how brilliantly Charles had learned to never tell a lie. "Why are you telling me this?"
"He won't ask; he thinks he already knows." For a moment, Emma's face crumples. "I don't know what the question is, but you're the answer. He won't lie, not if you ask him."
Erik hesitates. "I don't know the question."
When he opens the door (third floor, room 302), he thinks he may have done something few have ever done; he's surprised Charles Xavier.
Alex is faster than he remembers; he's nearly at Erik's throat before he stops only inches away, a knife from the nearby tray pressed against the skin of his belly, fingers a breath from Erik's throat. Erik remembers the file he'd barely skimmed: not just Charles' notes, but Alex's too.
"It's alright, Alex," Charles says lightly, one hand braced on the pillow beside him, papers spilling from his lap over the neatly made bed; Erik averts his eyes from the long length of black-clad legs. "I'll be fine. Go get something to eat; if the drive here was any indication, starvation is imminent, and I am not well versed on how to dispose of bodies in the city."
Alex staggers back a step, and Erik stares at the quarter inch of blood that decorates the tip. "Next time," Erik says pleasantly, "look before you attack. You almost disemboweled yourself before you saw it, and I understand that is not a pleasant way to die."
"Alex." Alex turns, looking at Charles for a long moment. Something passes between them before Alex relaxes, nodding. "Go," Charles says, softer. "I'll be fine."
That might be debatable.
With another look at Erik, Alex grabs a jacket from the foot of the bed; as he passes Erik, close enough to touch. "I saw it," Alex says softly. "I wasn't going to stop."
The door shuts abruptly; disembowelment is not a pleasant way to die, but it's not a slow way, either. Tonybee's final evaluation had been written by a soldier who knew risk and reward, who understood the rules of war, and it had been in the hand of Alex Summers. Charles may not believe a war is coming, but that doesn't mean he's not training the weapons that might fight in it.
When Erik turns around, Charles is gathering his papers, stacked neatly beside what appears to be elementary textbooks. "I distinctly remember warning you when we found him that he was insane. I think I'm owed that bottle now."
Charles' fingers tighten on the paper, crumpling it, before he carefully sets them aside, smoothing them with a faintly apologetic hand. "Mail tends to go astray when the address is 'Magento, somewhere in America'."
Erik thinks of a beach, of a choice, of a symbol; somehow, it never occurred to him to think also of a man. "I could be more specific if you wished to know."
"Would you?" Charles had always been restless; focus and interest are what brought that impossible stillness. When using his gift, when outmaneuvering the CIA…chess in the study long after midnight, conversations in darkened rooms where secrets were easier to offer, sharing memories when the words were impossible to speak. With Mystique, sometimes, loved fiercely and deeply and so much a part of him that sometimes Erik could hardly tell them apart except in body; with Erik--
"I'm not wearing the helmet."
Charles drops the paper. "You have Emma."
"So, apparently, do you."
Charles smiles faintly, bittersweet and aching, the way you grieve for something lost you can never find again. "Not at all. You should get to know her, Erik. She's--extraordinary." As neatly as a puzzle being assembled, Erik watches Charles rebuilding Xavier, endless compassion and understanding smile and easy warmth like a layer of armor, or perhaps, a helmet. "I apologize if you feel I brought you here on false pretenses. I thought--"
"I thought," Erik says slowly, "that perhaps you wanted me." Charles looks up at him in surprise, armor incomplete and shattering in the quiet. "That perhaps this meant that you had forgiven me."
The automatic denial never comes; Xavier is very kind and would understand and forgive. He's never cared for Xavier's forgiveness; he'd only ever wanted it from Charles. "I did," Charles says slowly. "I understood. You can't control everything, though you do seem determined to try."
"Those words have never been synonymous."
"One hundred and eighty two days." Charles' mouth quirks, amused. "That was when they told me there was nothing more that they could do. That's when I realized I'd been waiting for it to be easier. I thought--I knew when I could walk again, none of it would matter. It never occurred to me that--" Charles stops, blue eyes growing distant. "I suppose I should have started sooner. Maybe then it wouldn't have been quite so hard."
"You don't get to tell me I can hate you for it; I don't need the permission now and I certainly didn't need it then."
Erik swallows. "Every night," Erik breaths, "I stopped that bullet. I've done it through seven hundred and fifty two nights, and every night, I stopped it in a thousand ways."
"Every night," Charles answers, "I stopped her from making a single shot. I walked away from the screams of a thousand dying men. And I left that beach with you." Charles pauses. "Every night, I stopped her, and every night, I walked away with you. I've done it seven hundred and fifty two times and they're always exactly the same. It was three hundred and seventy-five days before I forgave you, Erik; first I had to accept I would never forgive myself for knowing that given a choice--"
"Given a choice," Charles says, meeting Erik's eyes, "that is exactly what I would do."
We hear multitudes, Erik, and to do that, he would hear them all.
Erik isn't sure when he moved, but somehow, he's seated on the bed with Charles close enough to touch: a beach, a choice, a symbol, and a man, and of those four things, only three should have been left behind. "I'm so sorry," Erik whispers. "I never--I never dreamed, not once, of simply letting them go. Of walking away with you." Charles nods. "I never needed to. I thought of it every day. Given a choice, that's exactly what I would do."
Charles doesn't answer. Reaching the short distance between them feels like the length of a universe, or the miles that separate a stretch of sun-hot sand and a hotel in a night-shrouded city; Erik touches him after what feels like a lifetime, warm skin growing wet beneath the stroke of his fingers. "Do you still hate me, Charles?"
"No." Charles takes a breath, soft, like an unheard sob. "I woke up on the three hundred and seventy-sixth day and realized I'd forgotten how."
Reaching up, Charles gently pushes him away. "Even if--it wouldn't have changed anything in the end. Delayed it, maybe, but we would have ended up here anyway."
"In unlikely New York hotels trading mutants?" Erik catches one long fingered hand, lacing their fingers before Charles can pull away. "Really?"
Charles' eyes narrow. "Don't pretend you don't understand."
"Don't pretend there's such a thing as fate. There is choice."
"We both made it."
"And we still are. Here, in this rather revolting--"
"You realize," Charles says incredulously, "that you chose the hotel? Central Park was available."
"But then I couldn't do this." Leaning forward, Erik catches Charles' mouth in a kiss; not their first, no, but also yes; the two men in Charles' bedroom who counted the hours before the end of the world are not the ones in this bed. It couldn't be anything but familiar and brand new; it's Charles, who is both, and neither, and everything in between, and Erik had never not felt the endless, aching loss.
It's a lifetime before Charles pulls away, reluctant, no farther than the space of a breath. "Erik--"
"It's a choice," Erik tells him, threading his fingers more tightly in Charles' hair, silk-smooth strands sliding through his fingers like water. "I'm making it. I'm not your enemy. I never--I never meant to leave you."
"But you did," Charles says, slowly, painfully; Erik wonders if he ever even thought those words before now. "You both did. All of you did."
Erik remembers; Emma's body and Charles' mind and he never looked at her, not at Mystique, not at Raven. Emma downstairs, quiet and still, looking out the window and giving him the opportunity she had been denied. Emma said he was the answer to a question she didn't know; this is the question Charles thought was answered on that beach. Erik had never known there was a question at all.
"Are you sure you know the difference, though?"
The line between the political and the personal; Erik's never drawn that line before, but somehow, he already did. It's Cerebro at the end of the world, and Charles stepping into it. He doesn't know if he would let Charles buy peace with his life, but he can make sure that question never needs an answer. "I would like to see your school."
Charles shuts his eyes. "Erik--"
"I need to know more about where our students will be taught to understand what they are. What they can choose to become." Charles' eyes flicker open. "Would you send children to an unknown place, sight unseen? You shock me, Charles."
"You want to send--" Charles stops, staring at him. "You want to send your--"
"Ours. Our students, in a place where they will be safe, and protected, and taught."
"By the only person who will always accept them for what they are. And who can show them everything they could possibly be." Erik eases closer, foreheads touching. You taught Emma that. I knew you would. Because the first person you taught that was me.
"Oh." Charles catches his breath, the mental shields slipping as Erik opens himself the way he's done for no one else, even Emma; this belongs to Charles, this intimacy that makes sex superfluous. Fucking is physical, a hunger easily sated and forgotten; the bright complexity of Charles' mind, the feel of it when he's in Erik's, when he shows Erik how to enter his, is need and obsession and endless longing that will never ease. There's no world worth having that doesn't have Charles, too. "I thought--" You and Emma were-- Charles cuts it off, radiating embarrassment for the slip; laughing, Erik kisses him, sliding in Charles' mouth like he is within his mind.
Yes, thank you for that. I had a perfectly willing and convenient sex partner who returns to me tasting of you. You were in that bed, in our minds, in every touch, in every breath, in every thought, in every way but one, and that one impossible Erik bites Charles' lip, pulls back. "Celibacy seemed rather attractive after that, considering."
Charles trembles. "You can't know--"
"There's an easy way to find out." Erik tilts Charles' head up, meeting his eyes. "Ask her." Charles, you let us go. We didn't realize you thought that meant you had to give us up. "I didn't know," Erik breathes; Charles had to understand. I was there at the hospital, every night; I sat by your bed and watched you sleep and I listened to you dream. You taught me how to call for you, and you answered me every night. I left before dawn and you never remembered. But you always answered when I came back. "I'll never give you up."
"You can't promise that."
"We can do anything, Charles. You told me that, too."
Charles nods jerkily, almost unwilling. "Every morning--" Charles shakes his head impatiently, wiping at his eyes. "I thought it was the sedatives; I kept--I expected to see you. I thought I imagined--" Shaking himself, Charles straightens, but he doesn't pull away. "You want to visit the school."
"No. I want you." Raising their hands, Erik brushes a slow kiss against Charles' knuckles, pleased with the shiver that's both physical and mental, the thread of want he can still feel from that one night they should have done more than make promises for an uncertain future; Erik won't make the same mistake twice. "I want you, to show me the school and everything you've done, and what you plan for it to become. And after, when I'm about to retire, you to invite me to your room and to your bed." Erik smiles "I assume that mine was--"
"I won't invite you," Charles says, not meeting his eyes. "I mean, yes, the room you used was assigned out, but it wasn't yours, really, it was temporary until you--" Charles looks up. "It'd be rather--you don't need an invitation to--it's not mine, you left so little, and I--"
"You don't need an invitation." Charles takes a breath. "You'll never need to ask."
For a moment, Erik wonders if he's dreaming; stopping that bullet had always seemed so very real, even hours after waking. "I hope you don't mind," Erik says, "but your papers belong on the floor."
Charles stills, cheeks flushing hot. "Erik--I don't know if you--you realize what--the injury--"
"Charles," Erik says, pulling way long enough to sweep the entire mess onto the floor; Alex can worry about it later, "I want you. That's never been about your body." I want to touch you, and taste you, and feel your thoughts just like this. Nothing else matters.
"Mortimer," Charles says a little blankly when Erik straddles his lap. "What about--"
"We'll worry about that," Erik murmurs as Charles reaches for him, feeling the moment that Charles focuses on him and him alone, when he wakes up. "Alex, however--"
We're having dinner, Emma says to them both, sounding amused; Charles starts, pulling back with an expression of surprise and something very close to hope. Alex says he'll take me on a tour of the new observatory. I'm looking forward to it. Think McCoy ever found where we hid all those bottles?
Charles grins. "He never asked me; I certainly have no intention of telling him." Then, careful, not quite looking at Erik. "Raven knows all the constellations. She tried to teach me; I'm afraid I never quite learned."
"I'm sure she'll find the time to try again." He wonders if Mystique's forgiven him for choosing Emma to come along.
No, Emma says, only to him, she hasn't. Then, I chose your side because you're right. He knew that, and now so do you. The less evolved can accept or die, they mean so little, but they aren't worth the price of his life. We have to win.
And he'll understand. It's not entirely a question; understanding, after all, is not the same as forgiveness.
After it's over, you can make him understand. Emma hesitates. Erik, he'll forgive you. He'll forgive you anything.
Does he know that?
Yes, he does. Now you know, too.
Charles licks his lips. "When--" he swallows. "When do you want to--"
"I think," Erik answers as he flicks the lock, "it can wait for a few hours."
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