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Few experience (what you really are)

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“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”

***

The worst thing was, he should have seen it coming. Magneto never forgot that as he saw his brothers and sisters traded like meat. They weren't human and rights were only given to those who fitted into that definition. And he should have known. It was written in his family history, in their lies of "Never Again", which he'd let himself believe. He'd thought it was true. He'd trusted and he'd been blind.

He'd missed the start of the end of his kind. He didn’t know then that the government had begun to collect names and open registrations all over the country. He had thought that he was alone in his own hell, unaware that he wasn’t the only victim. He hadn't realised what was happening while there was still a chance to fight back. By the time he escaped, it had been far too late. The humans had gathered too much information and so it had got to a point of no return. He had lost track of time after years spent in countless labs, going under the knife and in pain, forgetting who he was.

When he finally got out, he was no longer seen as a person. He was no longer human. Rights no longer applied to those who weren't human - those laws weren't for them. The only laws that applied to them were those that prevented them from hurting humans. Those were laws he broke, as soon as he got the opportunity to do so. He wanted his people to fight back, but they'd been overwhelmed. They had gifts, but the humans made them powerless. A collar was fastened around his neck, and the substance that the humans called “the cure” was fed into his veins. It left him weak, his abilities suppressed beyond his reach. A prisoner again, he found himself thrown into another cell.

***

There was a teenager in the next cage. She was young, far too young - they were meant to be considered human until they were eighteen at least. But that girl couldn't be older than sixteen. Her skin was blue though, her hair red, and she never could have passed as human. She was sobbing, her arms around herself.
"Hey," Magneto greeted her, leaning against the bars that separated them. "You... What's your name?"

"R...Raven?"

"Is that your real name?" he asked softly. "I'm Magneto."

"Mystique," she admitted, sobbing to herself.

"How did they catch you?"

"I messed up." She whimpered. "I... I can transform, when I'm not..." Her hands reached up, tugging at the collar around her throat. "I slipped up and..."

"It's going to be alright," Magneto told her, because he had to. She was a child. He knew how this worked - there were mutations that were useful, and mutations that were aesthetic, and she was clearly falling into the latter category, which didn't bode well for her.

"She's not going to be alright," came a voice from the cell on the other side. "Pretty thing like her. She's going to get-"

"Shut it Azazel," Magneto snapped. He understood - they were trapped in hell, or purgatory, and it was easy to fall into dark humour to keep their minds sane. But this was a child, she wouldn't know how to manage it, wouldn't find the amusement they did in the terror of their situation.

"You know I'm right," Azazel answered.

"You're red," Magneto pointed out, glaring over at him. "You don't get to judge her."

"I guess she's not in Frost's league," Azazel snapped, and Magneto flinched, thinking of the woman who had been in the cell beside them before she'd been dragged away. She was a telepath, and that hadn't given any future for her. Most people with powers could hope for a loosening of their collars. Magneto definitely dreamed of the day his restrictions would be turned down, when he would be able to feel the metal around him even if he couldn't use it. He was willing to bide his time, to play at being a pet until they gave him the power to attack.

But a telepath would never be freed. It wouldn't be safe for whoever purchased them. She would always be imprisoned.

Magneto missed Frost. She'd had a dry humour that had made life a little less terrible. She'd been sold off, and she'd gone with promises that she would kill whoever thought they could control her. But she was gone now, and Mystique was here.
"Mystique, are you hurt?"

"Not badly," she admitted. "I just... I was with my brother, and he... I slipped up and he... he handed me over." She sobbed softly. "I miss him. I want to go home."

"He won't ever want you back," Magneto told her. "I'm sorry. But you're not one of them any more."
She whimpered, and he reached through the bars towards her, squeezing her hand. She sobbed, and moved towards him as best as her cage would allow. He gently stroked his fingers through her red hair.
"You need to remember who you are Mystique," he told her.

"I know," she agreed, trying to fight down her sniffling. "Mutant and proud."

"Mutant and proud," Magneto echoed, and that night he sat beside her, talking to her. Azazel seemed to have worked out he should be quiet, which was a relief.

The next morning, Mystique was taken away, and guards with guns took samples of Magneto and Azazel's blood.
"Think you're getting bought by the military?" Azazel asked.

"Hope so," Magneto answered, a shark-like smile on his lips. "Want to take down as many of them as I can."

"Like Warsaw?" Azazel asked. "You know how that ended."

"I know they took some of the bastards out," Magneto shrugged. "So I'm willing to take my chance."

Azazel nodded, and the two of them spent the next few hours exchanging dirty stories and half-forgotten jokes. It was good, to feel like a person for a little while, even if it wouldn't last. It was a relief not to be being tortured for a short time.

Then guards came in, with guns, and they fixed their sights on Magneto. If he had his powers, he would have ripped them to shreds. He didn't.
"There's someone here to see you, Max," the guards told Magneto, and he snarled. One of the officers stepped forwards, and if he had had his powers he could have hurt him, but he didn't have that. He felt weak, as they dragged him up the stairs.

"Remember to bite the bastard," Azazel yelled after him, and Magneto laughed slightly, until he was out of his sight and that confidence fell away. He wondered what it was - if it was the military that had bought him, or a scientist. He dreaded being brought up to find Schmidt there, to be taken back to hell.

It wasn't Schmidt who was sat there. The man was about his age, with waves of brown hair, and a smart suit. Human. Magneto almost snarled, but it wasn't safe to do that. Not when he was surrounded by men with guns.

"Hello," the man greeted him, as one of the guns shoved into Magneto's shoulder, knocking him forwards onto his knees. Magneto glared up, noticing the man was in a wheelchair. Magneto didn't want to hurt someone who was crippled, but he would if he had to.

A look of displeasure passed across the man's face, almost as though he knew what Magneto had thought. A moment later, that displeasure was gone as he turned his gaze to the guards.
"Leave us. I want to talk to him before I buy him."

"He might harm you-" one of them protested, and the human purchaser shook his head.

"He won't. He's collared, if he causes a problem I can shock him. I can defend myself." The human purchaser said, holding up a control for the collar. While the guards looked uncertain, they headed outside.

The human looked over him curiously.
"What's your name?" he asked, waving a folder that Magneto knew was his records, with photographs and information about his life, both before and after the loss of his identity. The records would tell him about Max, about the mother who died protecting him, about the extent of his abilities. Like buying a pedigree bitch.

"Magneto," Magneto answered, and the man laughed at him.

"No. We use proper names in my household. Mine is Charles."

Magneto glared at him, tempted to argue. He knew what the certificates would say on the information in front of him. This human already knew his name was Max. He took a deep breath and he lied, waiting to be struck or shocked.
"Erik."

"Well, Erik, it's good to meet you. I've heard about you for some time." With that, the man looked him up and down. "I think it's best you come with me. I hear that the government is the second highest bidder, and I believe they plan to dissect you. It's your choice, of course-" The human sneered. "But if you want to live, you’d best come with me."

Magneto glared, but nodded once, sharply. He would find a way to fight back, and he couldn't do that if the government had him for dissection.

"I'm glad you aren't a total idiot Erik. I had been worried," Charles said, turning away and pushing a button to summon the guards once more.

***

"Erik, I want you to remember, you chose to come with me," the human reminded him as he signed his paperwork.

Magneto stayed on his knees, because one of the guards had a gun on him, and glared at the man. He knew humans were capable of some surprising mental gymnastics around mutants, but trying to convince Magneto he should be grateful to be bought was sickening. Magneto wondered if he even realised his own hypocrisy, that he was buying a person and pretending that Magneto wanted this.

"You can remove the collar. I have my own at home, and the drugs you have given him should keep him from accessing his powers until I've got him introduced to the rest of the household."

"Your choice," one of the human bastards muttered. "But I mean, this one's pretty wild. I'd be careful he doesn't attack you."

"I can take care of myself, thank you," the buyer told the man he was speaking to. "I've got others, they've not caused a problem."

"This one's got an attitude," a guard muttered, and Charles laughed a little before he spoke.

"Tell me, do you remember Alex Summers? I believe he was calling himself Havok? Ex-military--"

"Yeah. Aggressive little cunt," one of the men snorted, and Charles smiled good naturedly, reaching down to push a button on his watch. A moment later the door opened, and a young man walked in, wearing a suppressant collar. He was blond, a few years younger than Magneto, and he looked unhappy to be there, his hands clenched slightly at his sides. Charles looked at him, and he seemed to relax.

"Thank you for joining us Alex. These men think I can't take Erik to my car alone, so would you accompany me?"

"Yes sir," the mutant, Havok, answered, and Charles carried on filling in the forms. Magneto looked up at Havok, who seemed determined not to look at him at all. Eventually the deal was done, and Magneto felt the collar around his throat fall away. It was meaningless though, when his powers wouldn't come back for a while. Until they did, he was basically useless, and this man knew it.

The human reached out and patted Magneto's hair briefly, ignoring the way his lips drew back in a snarl. "Come on. Car's waiting."

Havok reached out, helping him to his feet, and Magneto stumbled slightly, realising how his legs had gone slightly numb. The younger mutant flashed him the briefest smile, before he pushed Charles's wheelchair, walking with him from the room.

Magneto felt a little sick at the way there was no fight left in the man. He didn't know what had happened to him, but whatever it was, it was clearly a cause for concern. Magneto braced himself for horrors.

As they reached the car, he found that reality was worse than he could have expected. Normally being in a vehicle, surrounded by metal, was comforting, but he was too tense, and with his powers taken from him he couldn't sense it. That wasn't what drew his attention though.

There was a child in the car, a boy who had been reading. He put the book away as they approached. Havok opened the back door for Magneto to get in beside the boy. The boy's hair was shorn short, the stubble not long enough to cover the scars that were across the top of the boy's head - medical incisions. This child was a labrat. He too was wearing a collar, although the lack of a light on it indicated it was turned off.

The boy smiled nervously at him, and Magneto reached out to shake his hand.
"Hello. I'm Magneto," he told the boy beneath his breath. This was bad. This human was experimenting on kids, and he had to make sure he got the boy out. Just killing the bastard wouldn't be enough - he would sacrifice his own life easily, but he wasn't going to sacrifice the lives of mutant children. This kid needed to escape.

"Jimmy," the boy told him softly, glancing out of the window. Magneto wondered if the boy got to see the sun much - he was quite pale.

"Well, it's good to meet you Jimmy," Magneto murmured, and the boy nodded, still gazing out of the window, and the light of the collar turned on.

Charles got into the passenger seat, and Havok stowed away the wheelchair in the trunk of the car before driving them.
"Jimmy, this is Erik," Charles said firmly. "He's going to be staying with us for a while."

"Hi Erik..." Jimmy said, looking concerned, and Magneto nodded. He wasn't going to let the kid get in trouble for calling him the wrong name.

The rest of the car journey passed in uncomfortable silence, the only noise the classical music from the radio. Jimmy stayed curled up in his seat, and Magneto wanted to help him, to reassure him that things would be alright - but he wasn't going to lie. This child couldn't have been older than ten or eleven, although his haircut made it hard to judge precisely.

The boy was far short of the eighteen he should have been to be imprisoned as a mutant. This man was experimenting on him, and that told Magneto all he needed to know about the man who wanted to own him.

"Jimmy, would you be a dear and help Hank with some tests with Alex tomorrow?" Charles asked as they pulled away from the road and towards some kind of castle.
Anger burned within Magneto - the idea that this bastard was the kind of wealthy prick who could afford to break the rules, to experiment on children - and it was Shaw who filled his mind then. He snarled, and stopped only when he heard Jimmy whimper. It wouldn't do to scare the boy. It wasn't his fault.

Charles cleared his throat.
"Erik, if you could stop impersonating some kind of rabid dog, you'll see my home is outside. Jimmy, once we stop could you show Erik inside and then go and find Anne Marie, and Alex could you fetch Hank and Scott? I want everyone to meet our newest resident."

Magneto wondered which of that list was human - Hank, obviously, if he was running tests on Havok, but what about the rest? He could see a few coins in the ashtray, and he tried to pick them up with his powers, but nothing was happening.

"Erik, you can't expect your powers to return already," Charles said, and Magneto was surprised he'd been that obvious in his attempts. But before he could chase that thought any further it slipped away from him like a leaf in a breeze, and the car rolled to a halt.

The boy clambered from the car, pausing and waiting for Magneto to exit the car. He reached for his hand, and Magneto took his hand and squeezed gently, walking with him towards the house because he didn't want to frighten a mutant child.
"What can you do?" Magneto asked, wishing he had his abilities. He'd always thought himself above simple tricks - but he doubted there was much in Jimmy's life to bring him joy.

"I'm not allowed to tell you," Jimmy answered, with the honesty of youth. Magneto could push the point, but there was no reason to. He let Jimmy show him into the house (if you could call it that), and down a long corridor to a kitchen. The boy skipped across the floor, stepping only on white tiles, and grabbed a carton of apple juice. "Do you want orange or apple or lemonade or soda or-"

"Water's fine," Magneto reassured the kid, and accepted the glass that was offered.

"I've got to find Marie, I'll be back soon!" the boy told him, before he rushed away. Magneto stared at the knives, contemplating - a knife would work even if he couldn't use his powers to levitate it. But it wasn't wise, not until he knew what he was facing. He was going to get Havok and Jimmy, and any others, out. If that meant tolerating this a little longer, he could manage that.

He decided to step away from the block as the door opened, and Charles made his way inside.
"I want to speak to you alone, but I thought I should introduce you to everyone first," Charles explained. "I suppose asking for some tea would be out of the question?" As he asked, he wheeled past to grab an electric kettle, taking it to a lowered sink, and then setting it on a table to heat as he placed a teabag and some milk into a cup.

As Charles did that, the others filtered into the room. First to return was a boy around Jimmy's age, wearing dark glasses. His collar, like Jimmy's, was turned off. Then Jimmy returned, with a girl who was probably fourteen or so. Her collar was on. Finally, Havok walked in with a skinny young man who looked at Magneto then away. he wasn't wearing a collar. Magneto sneered to see a scientist there.

"Erik,” Charles began, “this is Hank, Anne Marie and Scott. Jimmy and Alex you have met. Everyone, this is Erik. He was attracting a lot of interest from the military."

Five pairs of eyes stared at Magneto. He wanted to argue about his name but he knew now that getting these mutant kids out was going to take more time. For now, he would have to stay quiet. He crossed his arms, and took a deep breath.
"Hello."

Chapter Text

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

***

Magneto stayed tense after he had greeted the others, glancing around to see how they would respond.

Charles seemed to be satisfied by him saying hello at least, his attention shifting from Magneto to his other pet mutants.
"How was your day today, Anne Marie? And how are your glasses, Scott?"
"Much better, thank you Doctor Xavier," Scott answered, and Magneto's fingers tightened on his own arms, his nails digging into the surface slightly.

He'd known the human that brought him was a bastard, that he saw mutants as lesser, that he had broken Havok. But the realisation that this man was a doctor, that Magneto had fallen back into a world of experimentation and pain, made him feel dizzy. What followed was another realisation. As he looked between Havok and Scott, it was undeniable that the two of them looked very similar.

Magneto wanted to think he was wrong, but his instincts told him that this man had bought Havok from the military, and then taken his little brother to ensure good behaviour. No wonder Havok acted like a trained dog. He had his own priorities, and his attention was spent on keeping Scott safe. Magneto could respect that, even if he felt sorry for him. It was a factor he would have to keep in mind for their escape.

"It was good. Thank you, Doctor Xavier," Anne Marie answered after a moment. "I spent some time reading in the garden, then I did some math."

"Well done." The human praised her. "Hank, did you sort out getting everything ready for Alex tomorrow? Hopefully soon Erik's powers are going to return and he can help with the heavy lifting - he's metallokinetic."

Hank beamed, but immediately fell quiet when Magneto directed a glare towards him. Emboldened by how Hank shrunk back, Magneto turned to the human that had tried to buy him.
"I'm not calling you Doctor Xavier."

"Then don't. Hank and Alex both call me Charles in private. You can do that but around others you should call me doctor, or sir, or if you must then call me Mister Xavier, even if that's a waste of several years of expensive education. If you slip up and forget your place, you could put more lives than your own at risk." There was something in how the human said it that bothered Magneto, left him with the sense that he was missing something vital. But he didn't know what.

Reluctantly, Magneto nodded, lapsing back into silence. He had to work out how he was going to rescue these young mutants. It wouldn't be easy, going somewhere with four children in tow, but he couldn't leave them. He hoped that maybe there would be one of them who was a teleporter or something - he'd have to find out, and go from there.

"Good. Now, Hank, if you could show Erik to his room, then take him to my office? I just need to check a few things in his file. Alex, do accompany them, just in case things get a little out of hand."

"Yes, Charles," Havok agreed, looking at Magneto cautiously. Magneto shook his head a little, trying to reassure the young man that he had no intention of causing his brother to get hurt. It didn't seem like Havok understood.

Hank led the way, with Magneto following behind, and Havok staying close beside him. The younger mutant still looked anxious, and Magneto wished there was some way he could tell him that it was going to be alright.

Magneto's plan for dealing with humans had always been simple. Take out as many of the fuckers as you could on your way out. But the need to protect younger mutants complicated that, threatened his ability to act without care. He would have to make sure that they were safe, that they were provided for. It was an entirely new focus - before, he'd seen mostly adult mutants, and he hadn't been able to spare the energy to worry about them. But after Mystique, and meeting these children, he did care, more than he could explain. These children were mutants, and they had no one in the world. He'd find a way of helping them.

Hank paused outside a fairly ordinary door, one of many in the endless corridors that this mansion seemed to have.
"Just go in, have a shower if you want. I've got to organise some things myself, but Alex here can take you to Charles' office once you're done." With that the human was gone, leaving Magneto alone with Havok.

Magneto relaxed a little when the two of them were alone.
"Is Scott your brother?" he asked, and Havok nodded.

"Yeah. Wasn't expecting to see him again after... well, I fucked up. And he's not..." Havok shook his head, sighing. "He got hurt bad, his brain was damaged. I'm learning to control what I can do, but he can't stop it. Hell, anyone else would have just killed him." There was gratitude burning in Havok's eyes as he spoke, and Magneto swallowed down the anger he felt - Havok was still young himself, and trying to justify the world he'd found himself in.

He nodded, "And it's better he's here?" He tried to push down the rage he felt towards Havok. The kid just wanted to keep his brother alive, he had to justify things to himself somehow.

"Well, he's alive!" Havok pointed out. "Hank's been trying to find some solution to his problem, but at the moment there's not much other than the collar and-" He caught himself, clearing his throat. "Uh, go in, look around, wash up or whatever. I'll wait out here."

Magneto raised an eyebrow, fully aware that there was something Havok hadn't said. He chose not to push for any information yet. Havok would tell him when he was ready. He pushed open the door, frowning when he saw what was inside.

It didn't look much like a cell. There was a single bed against the wall, an empty bookshelf, and a wardrobe, with a door at the far end leading to what he assumed was a bathroom. There was a desk and chair, looking out over a window. He approached, surprised to find there weren't bars across it, and found he had a view out over the grounds. The entire place stank of luxury.

It was only after that he noticed the items on the desk. He frowned down at them. There was a mezuzah, a Tanakh, some candles, and a box of matches. The matches were a surprise - still, he supposed if he had his powers he posed more of a threat than a little fire. He picked up the Tanakh, flicking through its pages then shoving it into the bottom of the wardrobe, out of sight. He hadn't read it for a long time, couldn't understand why he'd been given it now.

He put the candles on the bookshelf, then went to shower.

He hadn't realised until he was standing under the spray how unclean he had felt, covered in dust and sweat. He washed himself quickly, not lingering too long with the knowledge that Havok was waiting outside. He couldn't get the kid in trouble, even if it was tempting to just shove the window open and see how far he could run. He could get away from that scientist easily enough, and Charles could hardly chase him. He was still uncollared, although judging by the children that wouldn't last for long. This was his best chance to make a break for it - but he couldn't leave the kids behind.

He hissed in frustration, grabbing the shampoo and washing his hair.

"Erik? You gonna be long?" Havok shouted through the door, and suddenly the gift made sense. It was a way of Charles showing he'd read Magneto's file, that he knew his name wasn't Erik at all. It was all just some sick fucking power move.

Magneto dried himself off, glancing in the wardrobe to find a couple of changes of clothes - just some shirts and dark trousers, similar to Havok. He pulled on the clothes he had arrived in, and grabbed the mezuzah.

Charles was playing a game with him, but he refused to let it get inside his head. He stepped outside.
"Just a moment Havok," he requested, calming himself. He thought of home, and then pushed those thoughts aside as too painful. But he would make a family here. He murmured the blessing, stumbling a little over words he hadn't thought in a long time, removed the backing of the tape and placed it against the wood. When he got his powers back, he could screw it on properly.

Havok looked at him somewhat curiously, then glanced away at being caught looking.
"Come on. Charles is waiting for us."

Magneto followed Havok to Charles's office, fighting the urge to yell at him for his quiet compliance. He understood. Havok had to protect his brother, and the best way to get him on side would be to prove that Magneto was as capable of protecting Scott as the human was.

He understood it, deep down. Back when he'd been younger, he'd thought he could keep his family safe. He had learned to cooperate and endure the experiments that were done to him. It had all been for nothing, but he remembered that hope. That sense that maybe you weren't powerless, and if that was what was keeping Havok strong, he didn't get to take that away from him.

"Me and Marie are gonna be playing a card game in the kitchen once the kids are in bed, if you want to join us?"

Magneto nodded quickly, not arguing the point that Anne Marie and Havok were children as well.
"Thank you."

Havok knocked on the door to Charles' office.
"Got him!"

"Good, come in now, Erik," Charles' voice rang out, and reluctantly Magneto pushed open the door, crossing his arms. Charles put aside the paper he was writing on to look up at him. "Thank you for joining me Erik. If you could take a seat?"

"I'd rather stand," Magneto muttered, aware he sounded like a sullen child.

"Well, I'd rather you sit." Charles insisted, and Magneto felt like that might be a good idea. He wasn't sure why - a moment ago he had been certain he wanted to stay standing, but now that felt like an unnecessary battle. Once he was sat down, Charles smiled at him.

"I'm glad you could join our household, Erik."

"You bought me."

"You agreed," Charles pointed out, a faint hint of a smile on his lips. "Now, I want to make one thing clear to you before anything else. The most important thing here is that you don't harm anyone else in this household. That means me, but it also means Hank, and the children. Do you understand?"

"I understand," Magneto answered. Understanding wasn't the same as agreeing to be bound by it. Charles raised an eyebrow at him.

"Now you understand that, you have options." Charles glanced down at the desk. "You can have a return to the collar you had before, which cuts off access to your powers at all times, and injects you with a cure which leaves you unable to use your ability for a day or two after it is removed. Or, you wear a collar like the children have. Whilst it does have an override, there is a switch that enables you to turn it on and off, and the effect when it is turned off is almost immediate."

"What's the catch?" Magneto asked, not in the mood for this.

"If you try and attack anyone here," Charles explained, looking him in the eye. "If you even think about it, this collar will stop you."

"That's..." Magneto started, but then fell silent. He understood collars. He knew that it didn't work like that, that they didn't dampen brain waves in that way. But if Charles thought that it did work that way... well, it was something that he could use. Especially combined with the ability to turn it on and off.

"Do all of the children have the ability to turn their collars on and off?" Magneto asked, thinking of the way Anne Marie and Havok had theirs activated.

"Of course," Charles answered calmly. "Unless it's an emergency. I don't dictate what they do with them. So which option do you want, Erik?"

Magneto fought back the urge to shout, to scream, to tell the human that none of this was fair, that he wanted to punch that calm smile off of his face. He licked his lips and made himself speak.
"I choose the second one," he admitted, refusing to say that he wanted it. Charles nodded, pulling open a drawer and wheeling over towards him.

Magneto gripped the side of his own chair to prevent himself from running away, as Charles placed the metal loop around his throat, clicking it into place, and taking with it the vague awareness of metal which was beginning to return to him. Charles took Magneto's hand in his, guiding it to the underside of the collar. "The switch is there. It's on at the moment."

Magneto pushed on the switch, and took a slow breath The collar seemed to still slightly, and he could feel the metal of it around his throat as well as just the weight of it. He took a few deep breaths. He was collared again, but it was an improvement to what he had before. He'd find a way to get out, a saw or some pliers or something to wrench it off.

Charles smiled at him serenely, rolling back to his own side of the table.
"Now that that nastiness is sorted out, I'd like to talk to you."

"Then talk," Magneto told him, and Charles shook his head.

"Look. I understand that you think I'm the enemy. I believe that mutants and humans can live together, you do not. I think you're overly aggressive for thinking that, you think I'm naive for thinking they could. Are we in agreement?"

Slowly, Magneto nodded. If this was just a trap to give Charles a reason to hurt him, well, he could fall into it as planned.

Charles leaned forwards slightly against his desk. "I've brought you here, simply because I don't like the idea of Stryker and the rest of the military getting their hands on you. They already had Alex." Magneto growled low in his throat at that, and Charles raised an eyebrow at him. "If you've quite finished? They already had Alex, and I don't want to see them getting their hands on others if I can avoid it. I can't keep all of you away from them, but I have learned to pick my battles."

"So why me?" Magneto asked.

"Because of reasons that, quite honestly, don't concern you," Charles answered dispassionately. "The whys don’t affect your life in the least. What matters is what is expected here."

"And what is that?" Magneto asked, looking towards the wheelchair. He knew there were a couple of reasons to want mutants - as weapons or bodyguards, and as 'companions'. He wasn't even sure Charles was capable of the second.

Charles coughed slightly, before he began to speak. "I expect everyone to eat together for dinner at seven. Chores are shared in rotation, with Alex, Hank, Anne Marie, me and you sharing the cooking. If you haven't learned, ask Hank to teach you. During dinner, I ask that collars are switched on - if you choose not to, that is permitted, but I would prefer you do as I ask. That's mostly for the benefit of Scott and Anne Marie, who get a little self-conscious about their powers and lack of control."

Magneto nodded, letting the words wash over him. It still wasn't an explanation of why he was here.

"You know where your bedroom is. There isn't a curfew for you or Alex, although there is one for the younger children," Charles explained, and Magneto was momentarily distracted by trying to lift a pen off his desk, before his mind snapped back to focus. Charles looked at him coldly.

"I am sure the children can show you around. I expect them to study, although you may well find such things beneath you. You are allowed to make use of the gym, of the library, and of the grounds. I just ask that you stay out of my study, that you don't go into Hank's lab unless he asks you, and that you don't bother me when I'm working."

"Understood." Magneto waited for more information.

"I know you hate humans, Erik. I promise you, I am not going to treat you as a performing monkey, or take advantage of you sexually, or whatever else is happening in your mind. I saved you."

"I'm not going to thank you for that," Magneto snarled, and Charles rolled his eyes.

"No, I don't suppose you will, and honestly I don't particularly care. But you care about your own kind, even if you don't care about mine. If something happens, I want you to protect my other mutants. That's your purpose. A bodyguard for them."

Magneto nodded. He fully intended to protect the other mutants here, from everyone including Charles. Charles smiled a little.

"Good. I was right then. You can go and play with the others, or go back to your room, or explore the house. Dinner is at seven. I'll see you then." With that, Charles returned his attention to the papers in front of him. Magneto glared at him. None of this was making sense. There was no way some human was taking in mutants out of the goodness of their heart. He shuddered, not wanting to think about it for too long, and instead walked out of the room.

If Charles wanted him to act as a bodyguard, he could at least get an idea of the scale of the place. He doubted Charles meant to include keeping the children safe from experiments as part of his duties, but he would at least try it. He'd get in trouble of course, but it would be worth it if it could show the children they had some support.

He paused, noticing a photograph on the wall. There was Charles, only a year or two ago, a pretty girl of about thirteen perched on his lap, grinning at the camera. There was something familiar about her, but she wasn't Anne Marie. He pushed that aside as a worry for later, and went to explore the building he found himself imprisoned in.

The mansion, and it was a fucking mansion, because this human clearly had far more money than sense, was gigantic. There was a lake he could see before the fence, as he looked out from the third floor window of the library. He heard footsteps shuffling behind him, and turned around to see the boy with scarring on his head - Jimmy, that was it. He'd got his collar turned on, even though he was just alone, walking through the house.

"Hey kid," he greeted him softly, not wanting to startle him. "You looking for me?"

The boy nodded, quiet, approaching him. He went to stand by Magneto's side, and Magneto found himself reaching out to squeeze the kid's shoulders, to let him know it'd be okay. He couldn't believe it himself, but kids didn't need to know how shitty their situation was. Although judging by the medical scarring he could see on Jimmy, he already knew all about how bad this could get.

There were meant to be laws against buying kids. Even for mutants, there were meant to be laws, and the injustice of it stung. He thought about the girl in that photo, hoped she was a human. He hated humans but he didn't want that picture to show another kid that was hurt.

Magneto just stood beside Jimmy for a little while, the boy clearly lost in thought, until eventually he looked up.
"Alex said you were fighting against the humans," he whispered.

"Yeah," Magneto agreed. "So, why were you looking for me?"

"Oh." Jimmy shrugged. "Alex and Hank and Scott were busy in the labs, and Anne Marie's making dinner, so I thought I'd come and keep you company." He hesitated. "I can show you around if you'd like? It's a big place here, it took time to find where things were."

"Sure," Magneto answered. "We can do that." He started to walk with him.

Jimmy was a quiet boy, shy, and Magneto's heart ached because kids weren't meant to be like this. They were meant to be boisterous and chaotic. But Jimmy was hesitant, careful, afraid of Magneto, and Magneto hated every human who had made the boy so scared.

"You're not meant to go in the labs," Jimmy told him as they walked past another door. "You might... break all the metal."

Magneto nodded, not wanting the kid to think that he was in trouble.

"There's a room there where there's games and sofas and things," Jimmy told him, sounding much brighter as he indicated a side door. "We go there most evenings."

"That's good. You want to play?"

"Dominoes is my favourite." Jimmy rushed inside to set up the game, and Magneto followed.

"What's your ability, Jimmy?" Magneto asked.

"I'm not allowed to say. Charles... Doctor Xavier says it's dangerous if I..." The words trailed off, and Magneto sighed but decided not to push any further.

He could feel a coin under the sofa, so he tried to pull it out from under there. As the game progressed, he slowly pulled it closer to him, hovering it in the air. His power was weak, but it was still coming back, and he could feel relief flood through him. Whatever Charles had lied about, and whatever the truth about these collars was, he clearly could still access his powers. He snatched the coin from the air, pocketing it, and let Jimmy win the game.

A bell rang out just before seven, and Jimmy got up.
"I'll show you where the dining room is."

Magneto trailed behind him, and Jimmy paused by the door, looking at him awkwardly.
"We're all meant to have our collars on at dinner."

Magneto bit back swearing. He didn't want to upset the kid, and if Xavier knew he'd been around Jimmy then it might be Jimmy that was in trouble. He couldn't do that to a child. Reluctantly, he clicked the power back on, and Jimmy nodded quickly.

Xavier looked up when they arrived.
“Ah, good. You’re here. Erik, I’ve given you the same as Anne Marie—she’s vegetarian. We can worry more about your diet later.”

Magneto sat down quietly next to the girl, who flashed him a brief smile which didn’t meet her eyes.

Dinner that night was a subdued affair. Hank and Xavier were deep in discussion about their latest tests, and Havok and Scott both looked exhausted.
"Anne Marie?" Magneto whispered to the girl, who was just pushing her food around her plate with her fork. "You need to eat something." He was going to look after these four children, and if that meant persuading them to eat he could do that.

"Sorry." She smiled again, but it still didn't meet her eyes. "I just... I miss Raven."

Magneto's blood ran cold as he realised where he'd seen the girl in the photograph before. Mystique. Her skin had been blue, but her face was the same. He remembered what she'd told him. She'd made a mistake, in front of her brother, and he handed her over .

Xavier turned towards him, and Magneto reached to turn off his collar, to attack, only to find himself frozen in place. He couldn't move, one hand gripping the table, the other frozen in midair, unable to blink. The children hadn't noticed, Anne Marie actually eating a bite of food. After a few seconds, he was released.

He drew a shaky breath, his hand brushing against the collar.

"Erik, you need to eat as well." Xavier told him, his voice steady.

Chapter Text

“There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.”

***

The rest of the meal was a new form of torture for Magneto. He knew he'd chosen to wear this collar, but when he'd made that decision he'd been sure that Xavier had overestimated what it could do. Only now he wasn't so sure, because he'd experienced it first hand.

He kept quiet, watching as the children ate - they were all eating, even if Anne Marie seemed off her food a little. He made himself choke down his food as well - he'd be no good to the children if he was weakened by his own actions. Scott and Havok were particularly ravenous, their energy seeming to increase over the meal. He decided he'd have to find a way of stealing extra food for the two of them. It would be easier once he knew what their abilities were.

Dessert was some kind of chocolate cake, which was surprisingly tasty. Xavier didn’t touch his dessert at all. He seemed distracted, repeatedly raising his hand to his forehead and frowning slightly, ignoring the others. Magneto frowned, but kept quiet.

Scott's attempts at eating the cake led to some getting smeared across his face, and he wriggled and squirmed as Havok tried to wipe it clean with a napkin. Jimmy laughed at the sight, and it made Scott flail harder. He knocked over a glass of water, which would have drenched Anne Marrie had she not jumped out of the way.

It fell off the table, and smashed on the floor, as the water seeped into the carpet. Magneto felt his breath catch in his throat, bile stinging his tongue as he waited to find out what would happen. He'd seen terrible things happen to mutants that damaged property, and for these children to be so careless - it was clear Xavier wanted to play at being a happy family, but the children couldn't afford to forget their place. Magneto wished he had his powers, so he could make a worse mess. Maybe if he was punished Xavier wouldn't take it out on the children. He stared at the broken glass, mind conjuring images of what might happen next, what Xavier would do to teach Scott not to be so clumsy.

Xavier frowned, seeming to flinch at something, then distractedly looking around the table. "Jimmy, Scott, it's getting late, you've got to finish your studies. Moira and the girls will be visiting tomorrow, and she will be bringing a new guest for us, so please try and pretend to be civilised. Alex, can you clear up that mess with a dustpan please? Anne Marie and Erik, could you two tidy up everything else? I'm going to the office to call Moira and I am not to be disturbed." With that, he wheeled away from the table. Hank watched him go, hesitating only for a moment before following him.

"Night, Doctor Xavier! Goodnight, Doctor Hank!" Jimmy called out, and the other children murmured their goodbyes.

Magneto watched them go, then turned his collar off. None of the others followed suit. He looked between them."We can turn them off now?" He addressed his question to Havok, who had already fetched a dustpan and brush.

"We can, yeah," Havok agreed, crouching to sweep up. "Just don't feel like it."

Magneto frowned. The thought that these children had been taught to be afraid of their powers was sickening. He hesitated, then focused on the cutlery, making it jump on the table. It wasn't much - his powers were still weakened. But Jimmy and Havok laughed, and Anne Marie giggled slightly before she went to gather the plates.

"Night, kids," Magneto said to the younger two boys, before he made his way to the kitchen, carrying the cutlery and a stack of plates.

"Wash or dry?" Anne Marie asked. He shrugged, so she picked up a dish towel. He filled the sink with water, and stayed quiet. Before long, she started to speak. "Meals can be chaotic, especially if Moira and her daughters are here. And when Raven was here it was... it was fun. You panicked when the glass broke?"

Magneto considered denying it, but she deserved the truth. He nodded, and she shrugged a little. "He's not bad. He never gets mad at things like that, he says it's fine if we're okay."

"He treats you like slaves," Magneto argued. "He goes to his office and-"

She gestured towards one of the counters, which was lower than the rest and had a sink beside it.
"He cooks, and he does his share of the washing up. But if Moira needs something that means he has to rush off," Anne Marie explained, rationalising it. "Do you still want to play cards after? Alex said he mentioned it."

"I can do that," Magneto replied, noticing that there was an open can in the trash. He reached for it. After earlier, he didn't want to see what would happen if he made weaponry. But he would be able to keep a better eye on the children if they had metal with them - he could make them jewellery, pretend he was showing off his gift, and be able to track where they were.

Feeling a little better now that he had a plan, Magneto focused on washing the plates. Eventually he broke the silence, smiling over at Anne Marie.
"So what is it you can do?"

"I ..." She hesitated, shrugging and gesturing at her hands. "If I touch someone, it takes their energy." She looked down, falling quiet, and glaring at the plate in her hands. Magneto hesitated, not sure what he could say to comfort her, and fairly sure that Anne Marie was too old to be distracted by being splashed.

"What about the others?"

"Alex can shoot out... I don't know. Like, hula hoops of energy. They're really destructive. And Scott has the same thing but out of his eyes, that's why he's got dark glasses," Anne Marie answered.

"What about Jimmy?"

"He doesn't like talking about it," she said firmly, and Magneto nodded. He wasn't going to push for information if they weren't willing to give it freely. Judging by the injuries he had, Jimmy had been cut open and tested on, and that angered him, made him want to hurt Hank and Xavier. He pushed those thoughts down before he could be punished for them, and took a slow breath to calm himself. "Alright. Xavier mentioned a Moira, who is that?"

"She's one of his friends," Anne Marie answered easily. "She's nice. Clever. And she's got the cutest daughters, but they're kind of chaotic."

"He said that she'd be bringing a guest," Magneto said quietly, trying to prompt her for more information without upsetting her. "A mutant?"

"Yeah. Mostly when Charles says it's a guest he means they're just staying for a few days until he finds a better home for them."

"He kept you."

"He kept us because... we're trouble. Broken." She shrugged, staring at the soapy water as she continued to wash up. "He says it'd be worse for us elsewhere."

Magneto wanted to scream, to shake the girl who had internalised all of Xavier's lies, but he couldn't. It wasn't her fault that she'd learned whatever she needed to survive. Xavier hadn't punished Scott immediately for his earlier mistake, and so Magneto wondered if the children were stuck playing a mind game, trying to pretend that everything was normal so that Xavier wouldn't punish them and show them that it wasn't. Stockholm syndrome, that was what it was called.

"Last plate," he told her. She dried it quickly, and then grabbed some cards from in a cupboard. After a few minutes Havok joined them, and they played a few quick games.

The children only knew Snap and Go Fish. Magneto set about teaching them the rules for Rummy, and then explaining Patience, before he turned his attention to the metal can he had found, stripping away the label and starting to use his powers to cut it up, carefully shaping it. The metal was a little stubborn and slow to respond, the last of their drugs still in his system. He wasn't currently in a fit state to do anything complicated, but small trackers would be possible.

He worked on Anne Marie's first - she was the only girl, and probably easier to persuade to wear jewellery. Her ears were pierced, but she didn't have any earrings, so he started by shaping her a pair, and then creating an elegant bracelet with a simple flower on it. The two children kept glancing at him as he worked, but neither of them spoke out loud, so he let them watch. When he looked up again, they both tried to turn their attention back to the cards.

He cleared his throat, and she looked up at him. "Here." He slid the jewellery over to her. "A gift, if you can wear it?" It was only then that he realised he didn't know if she was allowed jewellery. He hoped his gift wouldn't get her in more trouble.

"It's lovely," she praised, trying on the bracelet over her gloves and then reaching for the earrings, wincing a little as she put them in but then smiling. "Thank you so much Erik!"

"You're welcome," Magneto told her, not bothering to correct her about his name. He didn't want to get her hurt; if she was meant to be calling him Erik he would allow it.

"That's a really cool power," Havok told him, and Magneto shrugged, but couldn't help feeling a little smug at his comment.

"I could make you something too?"

"You sure?"

"Sure, what do you want?" Magneto offered. That way there was more chance Havok would keep it.

"Dunno. Guess I'd wear a ring?" Havok said. "Oh! One of those chain bracelets with something on it."

"Sure..." Magneto worked quickly, calling the pieces of metal together and twisting them, aware they were both watching.

"Could you put like, a metal disc for a message on it?" Havok asked, and when Magneto complied he grinned. "Great. Now, if I draw what I want..." He quickly grabbed a pencil from a drawer and sketched out a few dots. "That says Alex in braille."

"I can do that." Magneto made it, then made a second smaller one for Scott. "How do I do his name?" He copied Havok’s drawing. "You can give him that. What do you think Jimmy'd like?"

"Something with a feather," Anne Marie said quickly. "He used to talk about flying away."

"I can do that," Magneto answered, using the last of the metal to create a feather badge. "Havok, can you give Scott his bracelet, and... you think you could give Jimmy this? He seems pretty jumpy, I don't want him to think he owes me."

"Sure." Havok nodded, yawning. "You should call me Alex though. It's getting late."

"Night!" Anne Marie waved and headed off, and Magneto followed the metal of her jewellery through the house, before letting Havok lead him back to his bedroom.
"Night," Havok said as they stood in the doorway.

"Goodnight." He turned and walked into his room, his fingers automatically brushing the mezuzah. There was a note on the wardrobe Clothes in here. He looked, and sure enough there were a small number of clothes. He pulled out the pyjamas and underwear, then put the pyjamas back. He'd sleep in his clothes, that'd make it easier if he needed to run.

He made his way to his bed, kicking off his shoes and sitting down, thinking through everything that had happened in the past day. He had used all of the metal from the can to make the children's trackers, and he could feel them now - Scott and Jimmy's still tangled together, Anne Marie's a few corridors away. Havok's was a few rooms from him - and that was important information to have. He could use that.

He washed again, glad to have hot water, and then pulled on the clothes he would wear the next day and went back to his bed, lying down on it.

He made sure he could still feel Anne Marie and Havok's trackers, and then made himself sleep. It was a technique he had mastered under Schmidt - no matter how frightened he was, or injured or hungry, he could make himself get some rest because otherwise he got clumsy, and slow, and he'd be less able to defend himself. Now it wasn't just himself that needed defending.

He could feel the metal of the house around him, and that was soothing. He was still wearing a collar, but with its power off he wasn't helpless. He needed to plan, but it would take time - and first of all, there was the matter of Xavier's guest. If another mutant was arriving he couldn't leave them helpless to take the punishment for the others' escape.

Chapter Text

“Every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel. He must, however, take care not to misuse this mercifulness”

***

Breakfast, luckily, wasn't another pretend-family-gathering. Magneto headed down early, walking the corridors for exercise and then grabbing some fruit from a bowl in the kitchen. He expected to be in trouble for that, but if Xavier didn't want him eating it then he shouldn't have left it out. He was crunching through an apple when Xavier wheeled in, looking at him curiously.

"Good morning, Erik. Help yourself to whatever you'd like, I should have said yesterday." Charles unfurled a newspaper that he'd tucked beside him and began to read, ignoring Magneto.

Jimmy walked in, nodding. "Morning Charles, morning Erik. When's Moira getting here?"

"Her and the girls should be here just before lunch, but we've got some things to discuss, do you think you and Anne Marie could keep the girls out of trouble?"

Jimmy pulled a face but nodded, grabbing a box of cereal and a bowl.
"I thought I was helping Alex and Hank today?"

"I know, slight change of plan, it's going to be all hands on deck," Charles answered, glancing at Magneto. "Erik, I understand your hatred of humans, but I ask that you don't hurt anyone today. Moira says our latest guest has some problems, and if that's the case I need you to be gentle with her, do you understand?"

Magneto nodded, wandering towards the door as he felt Havok approach, Scott beside him, both wearing their new bracelets.
"Morning," he greeted them. He could go back to his room, and then start a more thorough exploration of the building.

"Oh, Erik, if you're going upstairs would you bring Anne Marie some breakfast - toast with strawberry jam? She's feeling a little under the weather and she's never the best at mornings." Charles sounded almost like he was a friend, and Magneto itched to say no, to scream at Charles with his gentle words, but he couldn't, because Anne Marie needed to eat.

Magneto made her breakfast, and brought it upstairs, knocking on the door of Anne Marie's room.
"I brought breakfast!"

She opened the door, wrapped in a fluffy blue dressing gown, her hair sticking out at all angles.
"Thanks." She took the plate and retreated inside.

Magneto continued on with his exploration, until he felt a car approaching. He headed downstairs again, finding that Alex and Scott were sat on the stairs together.
"Thanks for the bracelet," Scott said quickly, and Magneto smiled.

"You're welcome. I'd love to see what your power can do at some point, both of you." Magneto wanted to encourage them. It could be useful when they all got out of here.

Charles appeared in the doorway, looking between them as though he knew what Magneto was thinking. His lips pressed into a thin line.
"Alex, Erik, I think I'll need your help. Scott, dear, can you fetch Hank for me?"

The youngest boy got up, heading with surprising confidence off down the corridor. Havok walked to stand by Charles, signalling with his head for Magneto to join him.

Anne Marie emerged, Jimmy beside her, just as there was a knock on the front door. Charles nodded at Magneto.
"You can open it."

Magneto reached out with his powers, familiarising himself with the components of the lock, and pulled on the metal so that the door swung open.

A woman stood there, wearing a smart suit, her face pale. She looked exhausted, although she smiled a little when she saw Charles. Magneto's attention drifted from her to the two girls at her side - one of whom was clearly a mutant, with white hair, dark skin and strange eyes, and the other a copy of her mother. The two girls were wearing dresses with the same cut, although the mutant's was blue and the human's was pink, like little matching dolls.

Magneto narrowed his eyes at the human child, and the little girl stepped backwards, passing through her sister's leg to stand behind her. Both mutants then, and Magneto's gaze softened. He assessed them quickly - both look well fed, healthy, no visible bruising. Aside from being a little shy there was no signs of harm, and he relaxed a little. Maybe this woman really did see them as her daughters - possibly she was infertile, or maybe the younger was her daughter anyway and she'd adopted the other - ideas swirled through his head. He'd have to find a way to talk to the girls and check they were safe but he had heard of adoptions happening. Maybe these girls had got lucky. It would hopefully keep them safe a little longer at least.

The woman with them stepped forwards.
"Charles, thank you so much, I'm sorry it was just-"

"Don't worry about it," Charles told her firmly. "The important thing is the safety of you and your girls."

"Thank you..." Moira hesitated, looking over at the two girls, and then paused. "Perhaps the two of them could go and play?"

"Jimmy's been teaching them chess," Charles agreed. "Jimmy, why don't you and Anne Marie go and ah-" He looked up as Hank appeared with Scott. "There we go, Scott, why don't you join them?"

Jimmy waved the girls over, and the five youngest ones headed off.

"Anne Marie, get the girls some lemonade!" Charles called after her, and Moira watched until they'd disappeared out of sight and then groaned, raising her hands to her face. Charles wheeled closer, reaching up to put his hand on Moira's elbow. Moira leaned into his touch. The two of them looked into each other's eyes for a few moments, before Moira pulled away.

"She's asleep. I'm sorry, I didn't know what else to do..." She sounded near tears. Charles looked between them, and frowned, turning his attention to Magneto.

"Erik, I'm going to ask for your help. We're going to be dealing with a very traumatised little girl. A mutant, who has been trained to be a weapon. She escaped, and she was being hunted down, but Moira here was able to divert... I don't want to go into detail, not now. But suffice it to say she convinced those that she was working with that the girl is dead. So there is a girl no older than Jimmy, who has been tortured, and who needs our help. You accepted your role as a bodyguard for my children. Do you think you can expand that role for one more?"

Magneto looked at him, almost angry that he would ask such a thing. He nodded stiffly.

"Good. Now, the first thing is, I'm going to ask you to remain calm as we bring her into the house. She's asleep at the moment, try not to wake her up." With that, Charles wheeled towards the door. Magneto followed close behind, wondering if the girl was alright left in the car alone.

He hadn't expected to find her trapped in a metal dog crate in the boot, curled up on the floor of it, with her arms around her knees, asleep. He turned to Moira, anger threatening.

"She could have hurt the girls, Erik," Charles interrupted. "She's alright. I just need you to lift the crate out into the house-"

"I can't," Magneto said, disgusted. "I can't treat her like an object. That's…,that's a child in there, Xavier."

"Alright," Charles said. "Open the door and carry her, but be gentle. She needs Hank to examine her."

Magneto hesitated, looking at the scientist.

Charles rolled his eyes. "You are welcome to stay there while she's examined, although I do ask that you don't threaten my staff."

"I won't if he doesn't give me a reason to," Magneto answered, opening the door to the cage and picking up the little girl. There was a collar around her neck, the light glowing an angry red. He held her to his chest, stepped away from the car, and nearly dropped her.

In her small hands and feet, he could feel metal. Blades of it - two in each hand, one in each foot. It didn't feel like it should be there - someone had taken the time to torture this little girl, implanting metal beneath her skin. Some human had treated this child as a science experiment, for their own entertainment and curiosity.

Charles gave him a moment to catch his breath before he spoke.
"She naturally had bone claws. The scientists tried to enhance them - I want Hank to see if the metal can be removed. Then we can get her some food, and she can go to her room. I wondered if you'd like to have her in the room next to you - if she lashes out, you can stop her, and she's going to need a lot of time and care to get her back on the right track."

Magneto held the girl a little tighter, and her eyes flickered, one hand reaching up to grab at the collar of his shirt. Charles watched the two of them closely.

"Good. Erik, go with Hank to the lab, check her over, and Alex, can you fetch her some soup. Erik, would you be alright eating lunch with our new arrival rather than the rest of us?"

Magneto nodded, gazing down at the child who was clinging to him as though he was her only lifeline.
"That sounds fine to me."

"Thank you. I wouldn't ask, only I don't think she can really handle family meal times at the moment, at least not until she's had the chance to get clean and rested."

"I'll stay with her," Magneto promised, carrying her carefully, not wanting to wake her. Part of him felt relieved to get out of the tense meals, although he knew that he was abandoning the children. He reminded himself that they had coped before he arrived, and that this little one needed him more.

He followed Xavier to an elevator, Moira and Hank with them. He stood in a corner of it, looking down at the girl. There was quiet, Moira with her eyes closed. Magneto cleared his throat.
"What's her name?" he asked them.

No one replied, and he held her quietly, making himself stay calm. It would do no good to anyone if he panicked, just because he was in a small space, heading down to a lab. He could do it. He'd done it so many times before, he could manage once more, he could, and there wasn't enough air in the lift, and he had to be careful not to drop the little girl.

Charles's hand rested on his elbow, and he nearly jerked away but he made himself hold still because it was bad to fight and then Charles was speaking but he couldn't hear it above the noise of the blood echoing in his ears and it was bad because if he couldn't get it right then the little girl would get hurt and it would all be his fault-

"Erik." Charles's voice jolted through him. The man had spoken softly, but it felt like he had been shaken, his thoughts clearing. He was in Xavier's house. "There. Better, okay, deep breaths." Charles sounded so much more patient than Magneto deserved, and he nodded, trying to match his breaths with the way Charles's hand squeezed his elbow. It was hard, but he could feel himself relaxing a little, reminding himself he wasn't powerless. His collar was turned off. He couldn't attack anyone, last night's dinner had proven that, but he could still protect them.

The little girl looked up at him, brown eyes wide, and he knew that no matter how afraid he was, she must have been so much more scared.
"Hey," he whispered to her, careful not to bother the humans with taking care of the younger mutant. "You woke up."

She nodded up at him, her eyes uncertain. The elevator doors opened, revealing a room with a couple of sofas and doors leading off.

"Sit down on the sofa Erik, please. There we go," Charles ordered, and Magneto obeyed, keeping the little girl tucked against him. She was still holding onto his shirt, and he longed to show her his powers.

Charles wheeled so that he was in front of them, close enough that his knees almost brushed Magneto's own.
"Hello there. My name is Charles, I'm going to be looking after you for a little while. I know you're frightened, and you've been hurt, but it's safe here." Charles looked like he was about to reach towards her, but paused when Magneto glared at him. He withdrew his hand. "The man behind you is Erik. He's a mutant like you." Charles pulled a handful of coins from his pocket, glancing at Magneto.

He took the hint, calling the coins up into the air, making them twist in circles in front of her before returning them to Charles.

The girl nodded slowly, and Charles continued talking.
"This is my friend Moira, who rescued you, and this is my friend Hank, he's going to help us take a look and see if those claws are hurting you..."

She whimpered, clinging tighter to Magneto. He wrapped his arms around her in response, shushing her softly, wishing he could talk to her alone.

"What's your name?" Charles asked her. She responded by pointing at her wrist, where 'X-23 L' was branded on the skin. Magneto hissed, thinking of the scars he bore, and held her a little tighter.

"We can't call you that," Charles said firmly. "Now, Hank and I need to go and sort out a few things, and Moira can tell us what she knows, and while that happens I want you and Erik to wait out here, and come up with a name-" He looked Magneto in the eye. "A suitable name. We'll call you in when we're ready."

Magneto waited until the humans had gone, then turned his attention to the girl. He didn't want to lie to her, to promise that she was safe and that it'd be okay when he wasn't sure that was the case.

"I'm going to try and protect you," he promised her. "I'll do everything I can to keep you safe, alright?"

She nodded slowly, blinking back tears, and Magneto smiled down at her with a confidence he didn't feel.

"Now, we need to think of a name for you, Kätzchen." Her face split into a smile, and he considered. He hated the fact they'd branded her, but didn't want to rob her of what little identity she had. "Do you want a name that starts with L?"

She nodded, and he considered before he began to list them.

"Louise, Leah, Lizzie, Lily, Laura-"

At the last suggestion, she nodded. Then she looked up at him and licked her lips before repeating it.
"Laura," she whispered, and he nodded.

"Alright Laura. Now, they need to see if you're hurt, okay? It might be scary, but I'm going to stay right with you, the whole time. I'll do what I can to keep you safe. Do you think you can tell Charles your name?"

She nodded, nuzzling against him once more, and he wondered when this little girl had last been cuddled, if she had ever been sung to sleep the way he had been when he was a child. He pressed his face into her hair and blinked back tears.

Havok stepped out of the elevator, handing over two bowls of tomato soup. "Here you go."

"Thank you," Magneto murmured, taking the soup and holding it out to the little girl. She fell on it, devouring it as though she was starving. Havok looked at Magneto.

"Don't worry, okay? I'll look after the other kids for a bit, you focus on her."

Magneto nodded, and Havok slipped away. Magneto poured more of his soup into Laura's bowl, letting her eat as much as she could.

"Erik?" Charles's refined voice called. "If you could bring her in here."

"Be brave," he whispered to Laura as he picked her up. "I'll protect you as much as I can, okay?"

She nodded, and he carried her through the door that the others had gone through.

The room before them was clearly a laboratory, but a lot of things were currently covered by hastily arranged blankets. There were a couple of comfortable looking chairs, Hank sat in one and the other empty, Charles sat beside Hank in his wheelchair. Moira was stood in the corner, her arms around herself, blinking. Magneto thought she'd been crying.

"We thought it'd probably be best to check her over like this," Charles explained, gesturing for Magneto to sit in the empty chair. "She can stay on your lap for most of it, although really we should weigh her and check her height."

Magneto nodded, cuddling Laura against him, already planning what he could make her if he could get another scrap of metal.

"Did you choose a name?"

"Laura," Laura answered quietly, looking at Charles in fear. Magneto held her a little closer against him, and Charles smiled.
“Okay Laura, we’ve just got some things to ask you.”

What followed was a seemingly endless series of questions, leaving Magneto angrier than ever with humans and their cruelty. Laura demonstrated her claws, and he could feel the metal piercing her skin as she did so. He made himself stay calm, because he was beginning to formulate a plan of how he could protect her, and watched as her skin knitted together over the wounds once the claws had retracted.

Eventually, the questions finished, and the little girl was weighed and measured before curling up in his lap again.

Charles looked between them. "Erik, Laura is very tired now. She can have a shower - you can show her her room and wait outside, and then she's having a nap. You're welcome to stay with her while she's asleep, but then I would like a word with you when she showers."

Magneto nodded, carrying her back to the elevator. She smiled at him, yawning and stretching, and he carried her to her bedroom, Charles wheeling along beside them both. He pushed open the door.

She looked around it in delight, and Magneto wondered what kind of prison she'd been used to.

Magneto noticed her window was barred, and her door was lockable from outside. He tensed a little, but helped her inside, putting her down. She ran straight to the bed, wrapping her arms around the teddy bear there. Magneto smiled despite himself, and took another look at the room. It was more comfortable than he had first thought - there were soft blankets, the bear, and a few children's books.

"You'll be okay to wash, won't you?" he asked her, and she nodded. He hugged her briefly. "I'll be right outside, just speaking to Charles." With that, he went back outside, thinking he could put his plan into action.

He knelt before Charles, holding himself up so he could look him in the eye.
"Erik?" Charles asked, a hand resting on Magneto's shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"I want to proxy for Laura. For all of the children."

Charles raised an eyebrow, and Magneto swallowed, thinking through the arguments he'd tried to construct when Charles and Hank had been busy questioning Laura.

"It makes sense. I can take considerably more pain than them, and they'd take longer to heal - or in Laura's case, she heals too fast. You can't teach her, not properly, she'll be healed in an hour or two. If you hurt me instead she'll see the effect of her actions for longer, it'll teach her. I can still work if I'm injured, I-"

"Erik." Charles looked almost angry with him, and he took a few deep breaths, reminding himself that this was a good idea, that Charles should listen because it would work better for him. He didn't think Charles was the kind of sadist who wanted to hurt children, so maybe he would listen.

"It works. It... I've seen it work," Magneto pushed, thinking of his mother, seeing her pain and then her lifeless body and knowing it was his fault. He'd never forget that.

"Go back inside, Erik. I promise you, I'm not going to hurt you or the children." With that, Charles pulled away, then hesitated. He held out a few small coins.
"You can have these."

Magneto floated them closer gratefully, walking back into Laura's room, already beginning to shape the metal into a bracelet, leaving a little for himself.

By the time Laura had showered and dressed again, Magneto had shaped her a little bracelet with butterflies on it, and had ended up with three spheres to practice his abilities with. He showed Laura the bracelet.
"This is for you." He helped her put it on, and she smiled at him brightly, patting his hand with hers.

He wandered to the bookshelf, picking up a simple story, and then sat down on the bed to read to her. Soon she was asleep, and he let her rest, floating the spheres in the air above her head in ever more complex patterns.

Magneto felt his powers flicker slightly, the sense of metal around him fading for a moment. The spheres dropped from the air as Jimmy pushed open the door.

"Charles asked if you both wanted to join us all for dinner?"

Chapter Text

One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.

***

Magneto considered refusing the invite to dinner, sending Jimmy back without them. But he couldn't risk getting the boy in trouble. He couldn't stop thinking about how Charles had reacted to his offer. Charles had seemed sickened by the idea of Magneto taking the children's punishment, but that was just how these things worked.
"Can I just have a moment to wake her?" he asked softly, as Laura burrowed into her blankets, screwing her eyes shut more tightly.

Jimmy nodded, slinking outside.

Magneto gently shook Laura's shoulders.
"Time to get up, Kätzchen," he told her, tugging at her blanket slightly in an attempt to make her emerge from under it. It worried him how exhausted she was. "Food."

"Food?" Laura asked, and she looked so nervous that Magneto wanted to hunt down every person who had ever frightened her, and tear them apart.

"Food," he promised. "You can sit with me, alright? You were so brave earlier, you can be brave a little longer." He made himself smile, squeezing her hand. "After the meal, then you can get some more rest." Magneto hoped that wasn't a lie. Scott and Jimmy had been allowed to rest the night before after the meal, so hopefully the same would apply to her.

She hesitated, looking uncertain about putting her feet down on the floor. She did so, stood up, winced, and sat down again.

"Laura, what's wrong?" Magneto asked, even though he feared he already knew.

"It hurts..." she told him, and he could feel his heart breaking. He could feel the metal claws that were jammed beneath her skin, painfully sharp and ill-suited to supporting her weight.

"I can carry you," Magneto told her, holding out his hands, picking her up. She clung to him, her arms around his neck, and he walked outside. He would be able to ease away some of the metal, he was fairly sure, but he'd need some x-rays or something to work off so that he didn't hurt her. He made up his mind to ask Charles for that, offer whatever he could to get it.

Jimmy was still standing outside the room, the light on his collar now turned on.
"Charles says you should keep your collar turned off at dinner, in case you need your powers." As Jimmy spoke, he looked at Laura, and Magneto shuddered but nodded. He hopefully could hold her still without hurting her, if it was necessary.

He carried her downstairs, finding the others already sat at the table, food on the plates. He kept his head down, placing Laura carefully in the free chair beside Anne Marie, and sat on Laura's other side.

"Good of you to join us, Erik," Charles greeted him. "If any problems erupt during dinner, I expect you to make sure no one gets injured. And little Laura, how are you feeling?"

Laura kept her head down, and Magneto gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, glancing at the others to make sure they were all eating. Across the table, the two little mutant girls were waving at her.

"Go on," Magneto whispered to her. "Wave back."

She did so, then curled up against him, pressing her face into his shoulder. Magneto stroked her back.
"You need to eat," he told her. He didn't want her to get sick. He could feel Charles looking at them, awaiting an answer.

"She's in pain when she stands from the metal claws in her feet," Magneto informed Charles. "I think that I could help lessen the pain, if I could get a better look at her foot, maybe extract some of the metal and smooth the edges... it would make her claws a little weaker but it would help her-"

"I don't intend to enter her in a Battle Royale or anything of that sort," Charles answered. "Reducing her discomfort is my priority. Hank, you and Erik can work on fixing Laura's claws tomorrow, I have work to do."

Hank nodded, glancing at Magneto in something approaching fear. Magneto smirked in return, drawing his lips back to reveal sharp teeth, and revelling in Hank's flinch.

"Yes, Erik, you have a scary smile, we all know that," Charles interrupted, sounding irritated. "You are not to threaten Hank, because he's trying to help you. If you cause him any trouble, then Laura's treatment will have to wait until I've got time to help you, so please behave."

Magneto nodded, and Charles turned to talking to the little girls about books they had been reading. Laura kept her head down, shivering a little. She ate quickly, grabbing at the food, until Magneto nudged her and gently showed her how to hold the cutlery. He slid some of his food onto her plate when Charles was distracted, heart racing at that small act of rebellion.

“If anyone wants more just ask,” Charles said, looking directly at him. He stayed quiet, he could survive on less than was available here. Eventually Havok asked for some more, going to grab another tray of vegetables and roast potatoes. He took some, then placed it in front of Magneto. Looking straight at Charles, who was ignoring him, Magneto added more to his and Laura’s plates.

Once her plate was clear, she started glancing towards the door.

Charles cleared his throat.
"Could you take her back to the room, lock the door, and then go and wait outside my office, Erik? I need to talk to you about what you said earlier."

Magneto swallowed and nodded. Whatever Charles wanted, he could do it to keep Laura safe. If Charles wished to punish him, he would withstand it, and be glad it wasn't one of the children in his place.

"When I say I want to talk, Erik, that's all I mean," Charles's voice cut through his thoughts, making Magneto jump slightly. "Moira and I need to learn more about what happened to you before, and what's been happening with Laura. Do you think you can manage that?"

"Yes, Charles," Magneto answered, gathering Laura up in his arms and carrying her to her room. He let her use the bathroom and brush her teeth, then tucked her into bed, wishing he could sing her a lullaby or something to reassure her. After a few moments, he hummed a tune he half remembered, and stroked her hair.

 

"I'll see you in the morning," he told her. "I have to lock the door now, but Ha-" he caught himself. He couldn't use the wrong name in case it got Laura in trouble. "Alex is a few doors down. In an emergency, yell and he'll come and help you. Goodnight."

Magneto left the little girl on her bed, using his powers to secure the door. He considered making sure no one could get inside, melting the metal, but that was too potentially dangerous.

He took a deep breath, and headed towards Charles's office.

***

Magneto stood outside Charles's office, waiting to be acknowledged after knocking on the wood. He knew he should probably be on his knees, but Charles hadn't specified it so he stayed standing. He had to find out what would happen when he angered the other man, and pushing at the boundaries like that was a good way to do it. He'd be punished, eventually, for his mistakes. It was better for punishment to be provoked rather than merely inflicted.

Once he properly understood this bastard's rules, he could do better at keeping the children safe. Pushing too far would be painful, but it would give him an idea of what the punishment was, what kind of injuries he would need to adapt to. If he could provoke Charles tonight, he'd be better placed to protect the children tomorrow.

"Come in," Charles called out, and Magneto pushed open the door with his powers. His collar was turned off - which could be viewed as a threat, and he was using his abilities without permission. He looked at Charles, challenging him, waiting for him to lash out. Charles was sat at his desk, Moira sat off to one side with a notebook open in her lap.

"Good of you to join us Erik. Sit down, please."

He sat down reluctantly, momentarily forgetting his intention to disobey. Once he was at the same height as Charles, he glared at him.

"Yes, I know Erik, you don't like sitting and having a civilised conversation like equals, but it gives me an awful pain in my neck to look up at you like that," Charles muttered. "First off, tomorrow, you aren't to hurt Hank, okay? I know you don't like him, but I promise you he won't harm Laura. All of us want her to be free from being hurt, and you draining away some of the metal from those claws should help her. A little girl like her should be running around, not unable to walk due to pain."

Magneto couldn't stop his gaze from sliding over to Charles's wheelchair. Charles just raised an eyebrow in response, and it was Magneto who looked away first.

"Thank you," Charles said, slightly terser now. "I wanted to speak to you about your earlier behaviour."

Magneto kept breathing calmly. He'd probably been overly cocky, taking extra food for Laura, but she clearly needed it.

"You offered to proxy," Charles reminded him, and Magneto relaxed a little. Charles was considering his offer. That was good. Havok - no, he had to remember to call him Alex, at least for now - could look after the children if he was hurt too badly to do it himself, and the children would hopefully be spared unnecessary pain. "You said you'd seen it work before. Would you be able to tell us?"

Magneto nodded. If Charles wanted confirmation it would work, he could provide that.
"The human who... was running experiments on me, he had my mother as well. He used to torture her, whenever I didn't do well enough. One day I failed and he..." Images of his mother's death flashed through his mind, and Charles's fingers twitched around the pen he was holding. Magneto swallowed and looked away, towards the window. If he tilted his head slightly, he could just about see the moon. "My mother didn't survive, so I had to handle my own punishments from then on. But it was effective as motivation while she lived."

"Erik, do you know who I am?"

Magneto shuddered, made himself say it. "My owner."

"Aside from that," Charles said, and his voice sounded strange. "I'm from a wealthy family -"

"You don't say," Magneto muttered under his breath, half expecting to be struck. It would at least remove some of the tension from the air.

Charles gave him a rather annoyed look and continued.
"And I devote my time to lobbying. I've been pushing for better protections for young mutants."

Magneto stared at him in disbelief. He thought of the little girl in the next cell. Anne Marie's friend, Mystique, thrown away because she had made a mistake. Because a lobbyist couldn't have someone like her as his sister. He tried to speak, but he couldn't find the right words.

"I have a few more questions, but if you need to pause, Erik, we can."

"I can manage," Magneto replied, and Charles nodded.

"Your mother. What was her ability?"

"She didn't have one," Magneto told him, mentally cataloguing all the metal in the room, finding his attention drawn towards Charles's wheelchair. For a moment he considered how easy it would be to pick it up and throw it against the wall. That thought gave him the strength to withstand Charles's questions, the way he pushed into old wounds. "She was human."

"I see. And how old were you when experiments began?"

"I was eleven," Magneto answered. "I was with Schmidt for a long time. My mother... I lost her when I was fourteen."

"Three years?"

"I'll survive longer," Magneto promised. In his mind, he pictured his mother's smile, the way she'd hold him close and tell the lies he longed to hear, how she'd ruffle his hair and call him her little magnet. How even in that hell, she'd given him pride in who he was. Her loss never left him. But he wouldn't die here, wouldn't leave the children with his grief. He'd survive whatever Charles came up with to do to him.

Charles nodded, reaching for a tissue on the desk and wiping his eyes. "You left him-"

"I was twenty five when I escaped. I got caught again by people who deal in my kind." He thought of the bodies he'd left behind, and shivered before he smiled. He thought of the torture he'd witnessed, those driven mad, the children sold to the highest bidder. He knew that it could have happened to little Ororo, or Kitty. That it had happened to Jimmy, and would again once Charles bored of doing his own tests on him. "And then I was caught again, and you bought me."

"I see. I hadn't... I hadn't realised." Charles sounded almost distant. "It's not right that children are going through those kinds of treatments."

"Not children," Magneto said softly. "Just test subjects. Young mutants."

"I am afraid, my friend, they are children, whether you want them to be or not. I just... I'd thought things like that were..." Charles shook his head. "Did Laura tell you any more about her experiences?"

"No, sir," Magneto answered, feeling exhausted. He was shaking a little, and felt like he'd just been run to exhaustion, but he'd been sat in his chair the whole time. His head was starting to ache.

"You've done very well. I promise, I have no intention of torturing any of you. Go to bed now Erik, and sleep peacefully. I don't think you'll have any nightmares tonight."

Grateful to be dismissed, Magneto stumbled to his feet and headed out of the room. He could hear Moira and Charles talking in low voices behind him, but he was too exhausted to stop and listen.

He could feel Laura in her room, but all was silent, and he didn't want to wake her.

He collapsed down onto his own bed, and slept through until breakfast.

***

"Erik?" Scott called out, waking him.

Magneto's eyes flickered, his brain trying to work out where he was - he was in Charles's house. Stretching out his power, he could feel Scott's bracelet at the door, Laura's claws and bracelet through the wall, Charles's wheelchair beside her.

He was on his feet and rushing to Laura's room before he'd even realised that he was reacting. The door to her room was open, Charles sat beside her bed, his hand brushing her hair.

"Get. Away. From. Her," Magneto ordered, gripping onto the metal of Charles's wheelchair, ready to throw him down the stairs if he got the chance. He knew the collar would kick in soon but he had a few seconds, he could make that count.

"Erik?" Laura's voice was confused, sleepy. Magneto shoved Charles's chair to the side, rushing over to her, checking her for any sign of injury. She yawned, and reached up for him, trying to grab onto him. He reached out, pulled her gently into his arms.

"Did he hurt you?" Magneto asked. The thought that he could have slept as a child he was responsible for had been hurt sickened him. He shouldn't have slept that heavily, he should have sealed her door, he should-

"I'm okay. He was just talking about my operation?" She said the last word carefully, sounding out each syllable in term. "He says you can make my feet stop hurting?"

Magneto nodded, clutching her against his chest, taking a few slow breaths, before he looked up at Charles. Charles looked back at him, one eyebrow raised.
"Good morning to you too, Erik."

Magneto glanced at Scott. He couldn't ask Scott to carry Laura, and she couldn't easily walk, so for now he was trapped. He ducked his head, holding her tighter.

"I'm sorry, Erik. I should have woken you before I spoke to her, but you seemed peaceful and I thought you'd need the rest," Charles told him. "I was just explaining to Laura what would be happening today, because I know she's had some bad experiences with labs before, and I wanted her to know she doesn't need to be afraid. She seems to be alright, as long as she has you with her - I assume you aren't going to leave her?"

"No." Magneto took a deep breath, checking over the wheelchair with his powers. No damage had been done.

"Good. Breakfast first, alright?" Charles said firmly. "Then you and Hank can help Laura, I'm sure she'd appreciate the chance to be walking around a bit more easily."

Magneto looked across at him uncertainly. He'd just thrown Charles a few feet. That was unforgivable.

"Don't look so frightened. You didn't even dent my chair, Erik. I don't think you were lashing out, you were worried about Laura, weren't you?"

"Yes," Magneto answered, cradling her in his arms. "I was just... you were in her room."

"I'm sorry," Charles said, and Magneto could have laughed because Charles was apologising to him. "Now, come on, Erik. Let's get breakfast. I'm sure Laura is hungry."

That was motivation enough for Magneto to pick her up, holding her carefully. He expected at any moment for Charles to call him back, to tell him how big a mistake he had made - but Charles stayed quiet until they reached the breakfast table.

It took a moment for him to work out what was happening - Kitty was running around with the breakfast table up to her ribs, giggling, as Alex and Anne Marie threw pieces of cereal to her and Storm yelled encouragement.

There was a soft laugh from Laura, who was watching. The noise she made seemed to frighten her, and she ducked her head down again.

"Morning, Erik," Moira greeted him, and he sat down at the table where she gestured, reaching for some food for Laura.

Hank waved.
"You want tea? Coffee?"

"C...Coffee?" Magneto answered, his voice shaking, glad he was still sleeping in his clothes and with his shoes on. It felt like armour. He made himself eat, focusing on the little girl in his arms. He had to seem strong for her. He focused on the metal around her claws, knowing that he'd have to remove some of it soon, and determined not to make a mistake and harm her. Feeling how it moved when she did would make that easier he hoped.

His powers flickered, his awareness flickering, and he reached up to his collar, checking it was still turned off. Maybe Charles had a remote, after what he'd done, the way he'd just behaved - he'd be lucky to keep any access to his powers at all. Jimmy reached across, grabbing some strawberry jelly, flashing a smile, and then ducked back.

Magneto felt his powers return, wondered if Charles had just been warning him. They needed him at his best today. It was a surprise to realise, but he didn't actually think that Charles wanted to hurt Laura. Whatever happened to him after, at least he would be allowed to treat her first.

He noticed Scott and Alex were once again eating far more than he'd expect. Anne Marie was just pushing her food around, so Magneto reached out with his foot, nudging her leg gently. She smiled weakly, but did start to eat, so he nodded and left her in peace, focusing on making sure Laura wasn't still hungry.

***

Carrying Laura down to the lab again felt like a betrayal, but Magneto knew he needed to see the structure of the metal if he didn't want to hurt her. He kept himself calm, reminding himself he was here for Laura, that she needed him to take care of her. His own fears came secondary to her comfort.

Hank looked at him nervously, pressed against the far side of the elevator.
"I think some non invasive scans would be good to start with, to try and work out the shape of it, and then I think we'll need to try and siphon some of the metal off - I've been thinking, and I've set up a couple of practice pieces, so that you're not starting with her... I'll help you guide it through to make sure you don't trap a nerve or whatever, does that sound alright?"

Magneto nodded, pressing his face against Laura's hair. She was in pain, and he could do something to help her. They'd get through this.

The lab still had a few of the blankets over equipment, but some of the machinery was exposed. Magneto stared at it, his grip tightening a little on her, images dancing in front of his eyes. Laura squirmed in his arms, and he made himself relax a little.

"If you can sit down there, Erik... thank you. Now, can you hold still please, Laura?" Hank asked her. "We just need to take an x-ray for an initial view-"

"Can you show her on me first?" Magneto asked. He was fairly sure that x-rays weren't painful, but he wanted to make sure she was safe, and him demonstrating it could relax her.

Hank nodded, cleared his throat, showed him where to put his hand. Then Hank stepped back. A moment later he returned, pulling out the sheet of film, and going through to a side room.
"I'll be a few minutes." Hank told him.

Magneto was left holding the little girl against his chest, trying to force back the memories that were bubbling inside of him. She needed him to stay here, with her, not get dragged back to his memories. He rocked her against him.

He could feel metal moving behind him, one of the machines, and it was only when he felt the wheels approach that he understood Charles had come down in the lift.
"Erik?" Charles asked.

"I thought you were working today."

"I decided looking after my newest arrivals was more important," Charles replied, as Hank returned.

The scientist smiled, holding out the x-ray of Magneto's hand, putting it up against the light.
"See, it's like this, Laura..." As he held the x-ray against the light source he frowned, glancing towards Charles. "There are a lot of broken bones there."

"They healed," Magneto answered.

Hank pressed his lips together in a thin line, then began to talk to Laura.
"We just need to take a picture of the inside of your feet, it doesn't hurt at all."

"It doesn't," Magneto confirmed.

"I'd guess two x-rays of each." Charles spoke. "One with the claws out and one with them in, so that we can examine them. Erik, if you can focus on what you can feel, then we can create a plan."

Magneto kept hold of Laura, adjusting her so that her feet could be imaged, feeling the claws. There was a hollow in the metal - he assumed that was where the bone was, and he could feel where it had been pierced by the metal. He took a few deep breaths, reminding himself he was here to help, and conveyed what he could sense to Hank.

"Brilliant," Charles murmured, and the two of them began to plan their next steps. It was easy for Magneto to switch off mentally, to focus on holding Laura, and reaching out through the labs to find out what else was there.

He brushed against a spherical chamber with a chair in the middle, and then moved away, his pulse surging with sudden anxiety. He didn't want to look closer there. He carried on reaching out, until Hank cleared his throat.

"We've got a good idea of how much metal there is compared to the bone itself, and where the weaknesses are. It sounds like she would benefit from a metal casing remaining around the claw to strengthen it, but it can be far thinner..." Hank drew a cross section of the current blade, and the weapon he was picturing. "We just need you to draw through the excess metal, so that we don't have to cut it open. Your abilities should allow us to make this minor surgery rather than several hours under anaesthesia."

"I can do that," Magneto told him.

Hank nodded, and beckoned for Magneto to follow him.
"Put her down for a moment. It's alright, we aren't leaving the lab..." He led Magneto to a table, where he'd set up a couple of tests up. There was a sponge, and a plate of spaghetti.

"I want you to try and draw a wire up through this sponge," Hank explained. "As thin as possible but in a loop. Take three quarters of the metal there. And then see this? Work the metal through without slicing any strands."

Magneto swallowed but nodded, flexing and then reaching out.

He could feel the metal that had been left underneath the sponge, a lump of it. He could feel that there was something in the middle - he didn't know what it was, but it was solid and unresponsive to his abilities.

He began by gathering some of it together, trying to thicken the layer of the metal, then coax it forwards, smoothing it. Once he had a thin wire, he lifted it a little, running the tip of it across the surface of the sponge until he found a hole. He followed the twisting tunnels of it, through the sponge. He kept his eyes closed, focusing entirely on the metal in front of him, guiding it through the labyrinth of pathways, and drawing out more of the metal behind it. He eventually broke it through into the air, placing it down onto the table, and then guiding more of the metal through it, piling it together, then pulling back, guiding the last tail of it.

Hank lifted up the sponge to reveal a marble, covered in metal. He turned it over in his hands.
"Flawless, well done." He held it out for Magneto to look over, and he nodded, pleased with the evenness of the remaining layer.

"Thank you."

"You did it. That was remarkable, do you think you could do it again? This time with the cooked spaghetti. You need to try not to tear it."

Magneto knew it was vaguely ridiculous, standing here guiding some metal through what could have been a pretty decent dinner. But he did it, to more praise.

Charles nodded at him.
"You're doing very well there," Charles told him. "Do you think you're ready to do it for real?"

Magneto glanced at Laura, who was sat on the edge of the medical bed, swinging her feet and looking at him. He thought of the pain she was in, pain he could help with. He nodded slowly.

"I can do this," he told her. "I will need you to sit still, okay? And I'm going to start with your feet. How are the ones in your hands?"

"They don't hurt so much..." Laura admitted.

Hank stepped forwards, taking her arm and examining it, squeezing along the length.
"Her claws retract to the space between her ulna and radius, and they seem to naturally have a degree of sheathing, plus there's less weight placed on them. I'd assume they're safe to leave for now, with regular monitoring." Hank turned his attention to the girl. "If they start to hurt, you can tell me and we can fix it, okay?"

Laura nodded, then looked up at Magneto.
"Ready."

"Okay." He paused, trying to work out what worked best for this. "If you can put your feet up, there we go, now I'll sit beside you..." He sat with her feet on his lap, brushing his fingers against the soles of her feet. "Can you let the claws out?"

She stretched out her claws, and he nodded, beginning by taking away the sharp edge of the metal that was exposed, soothing over it. He reached further back, drawing out a thin wire, and then nodding at her when the claws were no longer blades. "Can you retract those, Kätzchen? Put them in?"

She did, and he hesitated, staring at the injuries on her feet.
"I don't... I can't..." He thought of the anger he always used, as a defence, a sword and a shield, and his mind slipped. Charles moved closer, resting a hand on his elbow.
"Take a deep breath. Focus on my voice. You can do this Erik. I just need you to find peace, find that spot between rage and serenity, and then you can do this."

He took a deep breath, reaching in and feeling a small hooked piece of wire. He carefully shaped the end of it, then guided it out. He continued to pull out the metal, thinning it until he pulled it away.

"Can you show us your new claws?" he asked her, and this time she didn't flinch.

Magneto stared at the pile of metal beside him and took a slow deep breath. He'd done it. Laura would be able to walk without pain.

"Try standing up," he told her, and she did so, starting to walk along, her metal encased claws tapping on the ground.

"Can you put those in again?" he asked, and she did without reacting, until her mouth split open in a smile, and she ran to him, wrapping her arms around him. He pulled her up against him, nuzzling her.

"Better?" he whispered, and she nodded. Charles looked at him proudly.
"Well done. I think the two of you deserve the rest of the day off."

Magneto nodded, guiding Laura to put her feet on the ground.
"Can you try walking over to that wall and back?" Hank asked. "I'd like to take another x-ray or two, if that's okay? Just so we have a record of how much has been removed, and so that if anything alters in the future-"

Magneto nodded, giving Laura an encouraging smile. She walked, and he watched her, sensing the metal that remained, searching for any signs of anything being wrong. She returned to Magneto's side, and he picked her up.
"It hurt?"

She shook her head, looking over at Charles, eyes curious.

Charles nodded at her.
"Well done, both of you. Now, like I said, once Hank has taken some x-rays you have the rest of the day to do as you please. Erik, if you could stick with Laura, then the two of you are allowed out into the grounds - not beyond the first ring of trees, if you don't mind. But it might be good to get some fresh air."

Magneto stayed quiet, but he could recognise an order when he was given one. He held Laura as the rest of the x-rays were take before he accompanied Charles back up from the basement, Laura in his arms.

Charles paused as the lift got to ground level.
"Erik, I need you to look after Laura. She's had a very stressful time being in the lab, and even though her behaviour was flawless then, she might need to let out some emotions. Take care of her, and if you'd rather miss dinner and take food in your rooms this evening that's alright. I'm probably going to only be there for a short while, I'm working on something."

"What?" Magneto asked, grip tightening on Laura as he recognised his rudeness.

"Just some new legislation to do with the care of younger mutants. Reinforcing a barrier to trade below the age of eighteen, and ensuring those that are potentially dangerous are properly controlled. Some of what that might involve might be challenging for you, but I have faith in you, Erik. I won't let harm come to you or the children." With that, Charles wheeled away.

Magneto could feel the hated weight of his collar around his throat. Charles allowed him to keep it turned off, but he was still already controlled, already trapped. He couldn't imagine what more legislation would do. What kind of things could be brought in. All of the mutants here had dangerous mutations, he shuddered to think what further restrictions Charles wanted to impose on them.

He took Laura outside, not because Charles had suggested it, but because she deserved to be out in the fresh air for a short while.

He sat down on the grass, running his hands through the green strands, finding a daisy and placing it carefully behind her ear. She smiled at him, but after a moment her smile faltered, and she started to sob.
"Laura?" he asked.

She howled, her claws jutting out, and he could see the fear and hurt in her eyes. He was sure she wanted to lash out at the world that was hurting her, as tears ran down her face.

"Laura, are you hurt?" he asked, and she turned to him, claws out. Reluctantly he reached out, guiding her claws back inside her, and pulling her into his arms. He wrapped his arms around her, rocking her, and she howled before beginning to sob, pressing her face into his shoulder as she cried.

He wrapped his arms around her.
"I know... I know, you were so brave... so brave my little Kätzchen." He pressed a kiss to her forehead, and let her cry until she exhausted herself.

He looked down at the little girl in his arms, stroking her hair, and thought through what Charles had said. Charles wanted to prevent the trade in mutants under eighteen. If he managed it, he'd have Laura for at least another ten years, probably longer.

Magneto realised that if he could persuade Charles to keep him, he could look after all five of the children. He could keep them safe, for years. It wasn't an escape. But it was a purpose.

He'd have to try and give Charles what he wanted.

Quietly, trying not to wake the little girl in his arms, he lied to himself.
"Hello, my name is Erik."

Chapter Text

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”

***

Erik sat on the edge of his bed, Laura propped up against the pillows and devouring the food Alex had brought for both of them. She had clearly tired herself out from her earlier rage, and all he could do now was sit beside her and make sure she had enough to eat. He would go and steal food from the kitchen later for himself. Of course, he'd have to leave a sign it was him. A note even, or a bent fork, something to ensure no-one else took the blame. He'd have to look for what else there was - he'd noticed how hungry Alex and his brother seemed all the time. He'd have to help with that.

Laura yawned a little, looking at him curiously with those sad eyes.

"You alright, Kätzchen?"

She nodded, and Erik relaxed a little.
"You need to sleep soon, okay?"

There was a knock on the door, and he frowned, reaching out and not feeling any of the children's trackers.
"Come in?" he called, bracing for Hank or Charles. What he hadn't expected was for Kitty to walk straight through the door, Ororo following a moment later after pushing the door open, Moira behind her.

"Hey," Moira greeted him, as Kitty waved enthusiastically. "We're going home for a little while now, but we're going to visit again soon. The girls just wanted to say goodbye to Laura." She paused, glancing at Erik. "You can make sure nothing-"

"I'll make sure no one is hurt. But Laura won't harm them," Erik promised. He didn't particularly care if Laura and her gifts scared this human woman, but he didn't want to worry the girls. He turned to Laura, resting his hand against hers.
"You want to say goodbye?"

Laura nodded, waving quietly.

Kitty leaned over, clearly going for a hug, and Laura cringed backwards. Kitty frowned at her, then turned to Erik.
"Why is she sad?"

"She just had a big operation earlier. She's still resting," Erik answered, picking his words carefully. If the world hadn't been cruel to Kitty and Ororo yet, he wanted to let them keep that innocence. They weren't children he could protect, not like Charles's purchases. But he could try and shelter them as best as he could.

"Oh. Okay." Kitty nodded. "Mister Charles says you can make pretty things out of metal. He said I could ask you to make a butterfly out of a coin?" She held out a coin, eyes shining excitedly.

Erik took it, not allowing himself to think about being a performing monkey, doing tricks on command. It wasn't fair on Kitty to think that way. She didn't know, she was trying to encourage him, and she only acted the way she'd been taught. She was so young. He wondered if she even knew she wasn't human, if she realised what she was and what it would mean for her. He glanced up at the human woman, not wanting to risk getting Kitty in trouble.

The human nodded.

Erik allowed his ability to seep into the metal, twisting and reshaping it into a small butterfly. It wasn't a particularly detailed piece, but when he held it out to Kitty, she smiled.
"Would I be able to make some jewellery for these two when they next visit?" Erik asked the human, and when she nodded he made himself smile in response. He didn't like having to ask permission for things like that, but it would be worth it if he could find a way to reassure the girls, give them hope.

The human woman ushered her two girls away, and Laura curled up, rocking a little.

Erik smiled at her.
"Come on. Bed time." He offered her his hand, which she took. He watched as she stepped barefoot on the wooden floor, heading back to her own room beside his. She didn't seem to be flinching, which was a relief.

He waited outside the room while she used her bathroom, and then settled her down in bed, pulling a blanket over her.
"Goodnight Kätzchen," he whispered. "I'll try and see you tomorrow, alright?"

She nodded, and he walked out, closing the door behind him. He didn't risk securing it, just pulled it to, and then went off in search of food. He had to prioritise finding things that would last. If he could find a few things, create a secret stash of food, then whenever they were sent to bed without eating he could try and ensure no one suffered too much. It was risky, but it would benefit all of the children, and if he made sure it was hidden with hints that it was his, he would be the only one in danger.

If Charles challenged him, he could just say it was for himself. Mind made up, he headed down towards the kitchen.

The kitchen was empty when he arrived, and he could feel that the rest of the children were in the games room. He could sense Charles's wheelchair and Hank's glasses there as well, but he couldn't let it bother him.

The young man was a scientist, but he had been very gentle with Laura earlier, and patient enough to explain what was going on. Compared to what could have happened, her entire operation had gone painlessly.

Erik began to search through the cupboards, digging to the back. There was plentiful food, he just had to hope that there was enough that a couple of cereal bars or pieces of candy going missing wouldn't be noticed. He took what he could, shoving it into pockets, and then heading back to his bedroom, tucking them away on top of the wardrobe.

He returned to the kitchen, having decided to grab a few more things and offer them to Alex. He felt like the food would make a good peace offering, and might give him a chance to ask about their hunger.

He was searching through a cupboard when he became aware of Charles's wheelchair behind him, and it took all of his control not to jump or lash out. He turned around slowly, not sure what he should do. He stared at him, his pulse racing, waiting for the pain to start, already thinking of excuses - the stolen food was in his room, that would mean the children were safe.

"Erik," Charles's voice was sharp. "If you were hungry you could have said, I thought I'd given you enough earlier."

"I'm sorry, it was enough. I was just hungry," Erik lied. He could easily have gone without, would have if he hadn't been trying to build up a future stock, but if he was lucky he could get through this with the supplies he had already hidden intact.

He waited for the shouting to start. For Charles to tell him that he didn't understand hunger, that Charles would teach him. That Charles had been generous, that he was disappointed, and he could picture Schmidt's smile as he looked over at him sadly, telling Erik how much he hated having to do this. His breath was catching in his throat.

Charles's hand rested on his arm, squeezing gently, and he froze.

"I'm sorry," Erik whispered, foolishly. A child trying to avoid a deserved punishment.

"Don't be sorry Erik. If you're hungry, ask, I try and keep track of what food we have-" and that was bad news, because it meant that Charles would notice what was already missing. Charles cleared his throat and continued. "Only roughly, but so that I know when we need to order more."

With that, Charles wheeled back a little, a faint frown creasing his forehead.
"I have been thinking. Laura has probably not been educated much, I wondered if you'd be willing to study with her? A good education will help her later in life."

Erik nodded, fighting his urge to laugh at the way Charles pretended Laura would ever have a normal life. She faced the same future Alex did, being experimented on even as she tried to pretend she had found a home.

Charles continued speaking. "Good. Jimmy can sit with you both in the library tomorrow if you want, he knows the way around. Alex and Scott are training first thing, if you'd like to see that. I think you'd enjoy it more than you think you will."

Charles might not state his orders straight up, but it didn't make it any safer to disobey.

"I will watch their training." He paused. "And Laura?"

"You can take her with you. Take some more food, then go to bed, Erik," Charles instructed as he turned to leave, and Erik nodded.

"Oh, one more thing," Charles called out from the doorway. "I am having a friend visit for dinner tomorrow, his name is William, he's in the army. I'd appreciate you joining us for the meal, for Alex and Jimmy's sake, but Laura will have to be locked up in her room for her own safety. We don't want him finding out she's alive. Just let me know in the morning if you're willing to attend. It's your choice, but I think the children would appreciate you being there."

"I will be," Erik said instantly. He couldn't leave the children to suffer alone, and there was no guarantee Charles wouldn't decide to sell one of them. It would be better Erik was there, to try and stop that happening.

"Good. I want you to be on your best behaviour though, Erik. I know you get angry, and I know you want to fight the world, but if you make a scene it isn't just you that will get affected. If people think I can't control my mutants, they might want to take them away. Your good behaviour will help protect the children as well, do you understand?” He locked eyes with Erik and repeated himself. “If people think I can't control my mutants... They might try and take them."

"I understand," Erik answered. He couldn't let the children get hurt.

"Good. Now get some rest, you need it." Charles left him alone.

Erik stared at the food he had stolen, then shoved it into his pocket and headed upstairs. Laura might need it to eat while the rest of them managed Charles's army friend.

***

The following morning, Erik woke early. He spent some time mentally scanning through the rooms, checking on each of the children in turn, and trying to memorise the layout of the manor. Once he felt a little more confident, he got up, using the bathroom to wash and pulling on fresh clothes before he went for a walk, working out where the children's rooms were in relation to his own.

He turned a corner, and found Hank there. The scientist was holding some papers against his chest, and practically jumped at seeing Erik.

Erik just stared at him coldly, until he stumbled back.

"Um, sorry..." Hank apologised, then cleared his throat. "Charles said you and Laura wanted to see Alex and Scott practising with their abilities later?"

"If Charles said it, it must be true," Erik answered coldly. He wanted to shove past the other man, but being rude was potentially dangerous and he didn't want to get in trouble, not after the previous night.

Hank didn't look at him, scuttling off down the corridor with his notebooks. Erik watched him go, breathing a slow sigh of relief. Hank was younger than him, and obviously easily intimidated. That could work in his favour. He had to hope that he would be able to protect the brothers.

He knocked on Laura's door, and smiled at her as she emerged, her hair sticking up at all angles. "Let me," he murmured, patting her hair down, and then offering her his hand. "Breakfast, then you need to get dressed Kätzchen, alright?"

She nodded, taking his hand, and as she did so he could see the scars that the lab had left on her wrist. He was going to be taking her down to the labs again later, and he hoped she didn't panic. He wondered if he'd be able to just hold her close and stop her seeing it. It wouldn't stop the smell of course. The smell always lingered for hours afterwards. Maybe they'd be allowed to shower.

Erik sighed, lost in thought as he headed down to the kitchen. If he could get Alex on his side, it should be possible for the two of them to overpower Charles and Hank. They could get out of here, or else they could get rid of the humans and work out a longer term plan.

Alex was only obeying because of threats to Scott, so if he could ensure Scott's safety the two of them would have a chance. It wouldn't take much to kill Charles, and if Alex's power was strong enough they could easily get rid of both of them simultaneously.

"Good morning, Erik," Charles greeted him coldly, his eyes full of anger. A moment later he seemed to relax, turning his attention back to his cereal.

Erik found he was once again frozen in place, his pulse racing. This time it lasted a few more seconds, unable to blink or breathe. He wondered if there was any outward sign to warn Charles his collar had just activated again, tried to fight down the threatening panic. After a moment, he regained control of himself, wrapping his arms around himself and taking gasping breaths.

Charles ate another spoonful of cereal, and then looked up at Laura and smiled. "Good morning Laura, did you sleep well?"

She nodded, helping herself to a slice of toast, and then holding one out towards Erik.

He took it from her, patting her hair.
"Thank you." He couldn't help mirroring her grin.

They ate, as the rest of the household joined them, and Erik didn't let his thoughts stray too close to the idea of getting rid of Charles. It was too potentially dangerous right now. When he'd seen the kind of tests the brothers endured, he'd be better placed to work out how to get them out of there.

The brothers as always ate a lot. Hank was last to arrive, as Alex was eating his fifth piece of toast.
"Morning!" Hank said cheerfully. "Laura, how are your feet? Do they hurt?"

The little girl shook her head, waving a greeting to Hank and then walking around the table to demonstrate that she could. Watching her, Erik couldn't help feeling a faint sense of pride. He'd done that. He'd made it so that she could walk without being in pain. In some small way, he'd made her life here a little easier.

"That's good," Charles told her. "You're doing well, and Erik helped a lot. Now, you want to go and watch what Scott and Alex can do?"

Laura nodded, returning to Erik's side.

Erik squeezed her hand.
"You stick close, okay Laura?"

She nodded, swinging their hands together.

***

Hank was at least intimidated enough by Erik and Laura's presence that he didn't try any particularly horrific tests on the boys. He just strapped them to an array of sensors, and had them demonstrate what they could do.

Scott went first, facing a target; a large lump of iron that was bolted to the floor. He turned off his collar, and removed the dark glasses he wore. Then he opened his eyes.

Laura yelped as the iron exploded, clutching Erik. He pulled her up into his arms, watching as the boy closed his eyes again and replaced the glasses.

"Uh..." Hank cleared his throat. "We'd best wait outside while Alex practices, he can be a little… destructive."

Erik walked outside, wondering what was about to happen. Hank was watching through a small window in the door, and Scott was lingering nearby.

There was a loud bang, followed a moment later by the sound of running water. Hank pushed open the door, and Erik stared at Alex, who was surrounded by flames and quite damp from where water was pouring through the ceiling.

Alex started to laugh, and after a few seconds Erik smiled as well.

"Impressive," Erik praised. He refused to let any of them feel bad for their abilities, and Alex obviously had a lot of power, even if it wasn't well controlled.

Hank was jotting something down in his notebook, but he suddenly looked up.
"I don't know whether you two want to try and train as well?"

Laura whimpered in his arms, and Erik shook his head, deciding to risk exaggerating the truth slightly to get them out of there.
"We were meant to be reading with Jimmy later, but I'm sure if you asked Charles he could arrange a day for you to run testing on me." It would give the boys a break, and protect Laura. No matter what was asked of him, he would withstand it. He knew Schmidt had gathered a lot of data over their time but Hank didn't have access to any of it. Hank would have to start from the beginning.

Erik almost dropped Laura, sickness flooding through him at the thought of going through it all again, but he had to. His affection for Laura was clear. All it would take was one bad day for Charles to decide Laura was to answer for his mistakes.

"Erik?" Hank's hand on his shoulder made him jump, and he wanted to lash out, but it wouldn't be safe. "Erik, go upstairs, go to the library. Jimmy's waiting for you."

Erik hesitated, then nodded, glancing at the brothers. He should be protecting them, but if he made a scene Laura might get hurt. He took the coward's option, heading back to the relative safety of the main house.

***

Laura hadn't been educated much, but Erik was happy to spend his time teaching her, showing her how different words could be pronounced. Jimmy watched from a distance, sat in a comfortable armchair and reading a book to himself.

Eventually Laura tired, and he read to her instead, letting her relax against him. When Charles appeared, she was holding onto him, her eyes closed, lost in a doze.

"Hello, Erik," Charles said calmly. "We need to put Laura in her room for now. Alex is bringing a plate of food for her..." He reached towards Laura, then seemed to realise his mistake. "Could you wake her up?"

"Come on, Kätzchen," Erik murmured to her. "Time for bed..."

Laura wiggled slightly but did open her eyes, and Charles spoke softly to her.

"Laura, Erik is going to put you in your room and make sure the door is closed, okay? That means you won't be able to get out tonight, but also no one can get in and hurt you, so you'll be safe." He turned his attention to Erik. "Seal the door. I've put a shirt and some trousers on the bed for you to change into, I want you dressed smartly, same as the boys. Rogue will be in a dress. If you want, give your current shirt to Laura."

The confusion Erik felt must have shown on his face, because Charles shrugged.
"She's got heightened senses. It might be soothing for her to smell you if she feels trapped. Jimmy, you go and get changed for dinner as well." With that, he moved to the side, letting Erik leave.

Erik took Laura up to her room, embracing her gently. He could see Alex had already left a plate of food there, and some water, so at least she wouldn't be hungry. He told her to eat, grabbing a couple of the cereal bars he had stolen.

"Keep these. If I'm not back by tomorrow, you eat one at breakfast, and one at the middle of the day." He hoped he'd be back before she got too hungry. But giving her a routine might help a little. Hopefully, he wouldn't be made to abandon her. "I will come back, Laura. I'll come back, and I'll open the door." He hesitated, then embraced her one last time.

"I'll see you soon, Kätzchen." He took off his shirt, placing it down in the corner, then stepped outside. He fused the lock closed, then went to his own room. The outfit Charles had picked for him was simple - a smart white shirt, cut to expose his collar, dark trousers, and simple black shoes. Given the things some humans made their mutants wear it shouldn't have been an issue, but he hated being dressed up like a doll. He thought of Jimmy, of Scott, of Rogue and of Alex. They were all going to be at the meal. He couldn't abandon them.

Charles had told him last night he had to behave, for Alex and for Jimmy. He could do this. He made himself dress, and then walked downstairs to dinner. He searched for any strange metal, any sign the guest had arrived.

He found Jimmy waiting, tucked out of view, his head bowed and arms around himself. Seeing Erik, the boy raced forwards, wrapping his arms around him and sobbing. Erik could no longer feel the metal around him, but he didn't let himself think on that, cuddling the boy.

"Ah, good." Charles approached. "Yes, please all make sure your collars are turned on for this meal. Jimmy, I promise you, you aren't going back."

Erik stared at Charles, thinking of the scars he could see through Jimmy's short fuzz of hair. He knew Jimmy had been used for experiments before. He wanted to scream, but that wouldn't end well. He turned his collar on.
"Jimmy, sit beside me at dinner," he murmured, and the boy nodded.

Through a window, he could see as a car approached.

Jimmy was shaking in Erik's arms. He held him close, trying to comfort him.
"He can't attend dinner," Erik said quietly, looking towards Charles. He didn't want to argue, but he couldn't have Jimmy this frightened. "Not if he's in this state."

"He'll be fine. Jimmy, it's alright. You sit beside Erik, okay? He'll look after you." Charles was wheeling towards the front door. "We'll have dinner, then I'll speak to him for a little while and make sure that everything is alright. I won't let him have you, he just needs to see you are still here and being looked after. Same as Alex."

The boy nodded, clinging to Erik's hand. Erik waited until Charles was distracted before he crouched down to Jimmy's height.
"What's happening?"

"Colonel Stryker, he... he was in charge of... of the labs," Jimmy told him, and Erik nodded, looking the little boy in the eye. He never wanted to lie to him, to any of the children, but Jimmy was so scared...

Erik hesitated, and then reached out for his shoulder.
"I won't let him hurt you. I won't let him take you away. I promise. If I have to, I'll kill him."

"But you'll..." Jimmy protested, glancing at the collar. Erik shook his head.

"If it comes down to it and he'll take you otherwise, I promise I'll do something." He looked Jimmy in the eyes. "Do you believe me?"

Jimmy nodded nervously, pushing his face into Erik's shoulder. Erik rubbed his back, trying to think of plans. He knew what Charles had said, about putting the children in danger if he made a scene. But he couldn't let Jimmy go back to somewhere he'd be tested on. Jimmy'd be better off dead than trapped again.

The front door opened, and a smartly dressed man with a military haircut walked inside.
"Charles!"

"William, so glad you could make it. Come in, we've got a crown of lamb with fruit stuffing and red wine sauce for dinner, and then some lemon meringue pie for dessert..."

The other man, Stryker, opened the door to the dining room for Charles, and Charles made his way inside, calling for the rest of them to follow. They sat down. Stryker sat between Charles and Hank. Erik positioning himself opposite Alex, next to Hank, with Anne Marie and Scott sheltering behind Alex, and Jimmy clung against his side.

The food was already on the table, and it looked good, but Erik didn't feel particularly hungry.

Stryker looked over at them.
"That one's new," he said as he tilted his head towards Erik. "I heard you'd picked up another runaway."
Erik could feel Jimmy shaking beside him.

"Erik has a rather remarkable gift for metal. He's been working with Hank on developing containment devices for Alex's powers," Charles lied.

"How is Havok?"

"He's not had any outbursts recently. The collar seems to be keeping him fully sealed off from his powers," Charles answered, not looking towards Alex as he spoke.

"And James?"

"He's been helping with Alex and Scott's ability. You were right, he's invaluable."

"I wondered if you had finished the tests you wanted to run," Stryker said, cutting to the chase.

"Not yet. Did you hear of any more for me?" Charles asked, and Erik glanced at the children, trying to encourage them to eat some of the food. None of them seemed particularly hungry. Jimmy in particular looked like he was close to being sick.

"There's a boy being auctioned, I can send you details. Ice powers apparently, his family is getting rid of him. No real military use but I hear he's your type."

Charles glared at Stryker for a moment.
"And what type would that be?" he asked, his voice cold and edged with anger.

Stryker cleared his throat, taking another chunk of the lamb.
"Just saying. I mean, you taking Havok off our hands has been helpful, but ..." His voice trailed off, and he looked over at Jimmy. Erik tried to position himself so he was blocking the boy from Stryker's view.

"I need to discuss the possibility of borrowing James briefly. We're working on ways that have boosted… well, you know. His 'mutation'. So borrowing him-"

Jimmy's hand gripped Erik's, the small fingers clenching around his hand tightly.

Charles looked straight at Erik, his eyes full of emotion. Erik could tell the meaning there, could almost hear Charles's voice in his head look after him.

Erik took that look as the permission he needed, reaching out and pulling Jimmy closer. Charles looked away, refocusing his attention on Stryker, as Jimmy pressed his face against Erik's shoulder. Erik rubbed his back, trying to keep him calm.

"No," Charles said clearly. "No, you don't bring a child here, give me custody, sign the papers, and then demand access because it would be convenient to you. Jimmy is mine now. I have legal ownership of him, and that means it's my choice what happens. I don't want anyone else to run tests on him. He is mine. You don't get to take him back just because he'd be useful."

"Charles, we're only talking a few days-"

"No." Charles glared at him. "You are not going to continue this conversation. You are going to tell everyone that we've spoken, and you've decided it's best for Jimmy to remain here, and for Alex to stay somewhere where he is under control and not a threat. Do you understand?"

Stryker stared at him, but nodded slowly, and Charles seemed to relax a little.

"Legally, these children are mine. They are special to me. William, I appreciate you telling me about other mutants, but I don't want you to think you can have them back. Let's forget this conversation, other than the part where the children are fine where they are, and talk about other things."

The conversation moved on, and Erik focused on gently nudging Jimmy to eat a little. He kept his head down, staying out of discussions over matters that didn't mean anything to him.

***

Erik showered for a long time that evening, wanting to get rid of the cloying feeling that stuck to his skin. He kept replaying Charles's words and actions over and over in his mind, sure that he had missed something, but unsure what it was.

He was exhausted. It had been a while since he'd been expected to make a good impression like that, and he forgot how exhausting it was to just sit there and try not to look angry.

Finally he stepped out of the shower, wrapping a towel around his waist. He could feel metal outside. It took him a few moments to recognise the shape of Jimmy's tracker, as the boy walked backwards and forwards outside his room. He waited a moment, but it was still continuing.

He pulled on some quick clothes, relieved to be able to choose for himself what he wore, at least among the limited options available. Dressed again, he opened his door with his powers, and smiled towards Jimmy.
"Can't sleep?"

"I keep thinking I'll wake up and I'll be back there," Jimmy told him. "I don't want to be an experiment again."

"I won't let that happen," Erik promised, thinking of what would soothe the young boy. He thought again of the scene at dinner. "And nor will Charles. Come on. Let's get back to your room, and I can read you a story or something okay?"

"Will you stay with me?"

"I'll stay until you're asleep at least," Erik offered, reaching for Jimmy's hand. He followed the boy back to his room.

Jimmy curled up under a blanket, a teddy bear squashed against him.
"I'm just scared in case I have a nightmare or... or this isn't real. What if I wake up tomorrow and I'm back there again?"

"It's real," Erik told him firmly, sitting down on the edge of the bed and stroking the boy's hair. "I'll keep you safe, Jimmy. It's okay. We won't let you get sent back." Erik kept repeating those words, trying to convince both of them.

It took a little while, but slowly Jimmy seemed to relax.
"Charles has been reading me the Narnia books. Would you read to me?"

Erik fetched the books the boy indicated, and began to read him. It didn't take long for Jimmy to fall asleep, his arms wrapped around his teddy bear. Erik carefully replaced the book on the shelf, and slipped away, using his powers to silently close the door behind him.

Chapter Text

“There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.”

***

Erik made sure he woke up early the next morning, checking all the children were in their rooms. Scott was in with his brother, which made sense after the amount of times he'd been wandering around his room last night, clearly struggling to sleep. Erik relaxed, unsealing Laura's door, and heading down to breakfast before anyone else was awake. He settled down at the table, eating an apple slowly. Charles still hadn't told him off for eating fruit, even though it was pricier food than most mutants got. He supposed Charles was just wealthy enough for it not to matter.

He did worry that at some point Charles was going to make him pay for everything that had happened so far, all the liberties he had taken, all the meals he had eaten. He couldn't shake the feeling nagging away at the back of his mind that Charles was counting it all, building a tally to use against him at a time he wanted.

He looked up as Charles approached, feeling the bulk of his chair moving towards the kitchen.

Charles smiled at him blandly.
"Good morning, Erik. How are you today?"

"Good," Erik answered quickly. He didn't return the question. Charles sighed softly, setting about making himself breakfast. Erik was almost impressed despite himself by what Charles could achieve, but knew there was no way he could comment on that without sounding rude, so he held his tongue.

After a few moments, he decided to focus on what was important to him - the wellbeing of the children. He cleared his throat.
"Thank you for standing up for Jimmy last night." It had helped the boy a lot, to know that Charles wasn't just going to hand him over.

"I'm not letting anyone take away these children, Erik. They aren't safe anywhere else... And I know you think they should be. You think they should be out in the world, walking along without fear. But the simple truth is Erik, right now that isn't possible. Right now if they try that, they'll end up in jail, or as property, or dead. That's it. That's their options." Charles sighed, looking suddenly very tired. "And so while that's the case, they stay here."

"Why..." Erik hesitated after that first word, aware he shouldn't question a human.

Charles looked up at him and arched an eyebrow, and Erik hesitated then made himself ask.

"Why are the military after Jimmy? I mean, I understand why they'd want Alex, he makes things explode. But Jimmy's just... What is it Jimmy can do?"

"I think you should ask him that," Charles answered calmly. "I am not going to tell you. What matters is the military is after him, and I won't allow them to get him. He knows if they come he's to turn his collar on."

"You mean if he's attacked, you want him powerless?" Erik asked, incredulous. "I thought you... you didn't want them to take him."

"They won't take him. If they tried, you and Alex will try and defend him, no matter what." Charles said, and he sounded angry, but Erik wasn't flinching back. "Look, if you want to know, you can ask him. But if he doesn't want to tell you, then you should just leave him alone, do you understand me?"

"I understand."

"And Erik,” Charles looked up at him. “If you don't like his answer... you can't be angry with him. If you hurt him-"

"I'm not going to hurt a mutant child, Charles." Erik stared at him, then couldn't help feeling startled. He needed to be more careful how he spoke to Charles. Just because Charles acted in their defence against his friend, it didn't mean Charles was someone Erik could trust.

"Alright," Charles said decisively. "Erik, I'd prefer you asked him in front of me. I've told him not to tell you, so I should be there."

Erik nodded, angry that Charles had told Jimmy his ability was something he should hide. He could already sense some of the children moving upstairs. Anne Marie and Alex were still asleep, and so was Scott. Laura was standing near her door, clearly uncertain if she was allowed out or not after the previous night. He used his powers to open the door a little, giving her a gentle pull with his abilities. She started to the stairs, and Jimmy approached her. They made their way downstairs together.

Erik went to greet them, worried how Jimmy would be after the previous night. Laura approached first, wrapping her arms around him and then going to get some toast. Jimmy was a little more hesitant, nodding and then stepping forwards and embracing him.

"Thank you for keeping me company."

"I said I'd keep you safe," Erik reminded him. "I stand by that. Can you tell me what your ability is? If I know, then maybe I can help you."

Uncertainty passed across Jimmy's face, and he glanced towards Charles, who nodded.
"You can tell him if you want, Jimmy."

"He..." Jimmy started, then looked at Erik. "You... You won't be mad with me? You won't... make me go back?"

"I won't ever make you go back." Erik promised, holding out his arms. The boy approached him nervously, clinging to him. Laura wandered over as well, patting Jimmy's stubble.

Charles watched closely, clearly expecting Erik to be angry. That, and the fear in Jimmy's eyes, made Erik determined to manage this. Whatever it was, he'd find a way of supporting the boy, using his gift to their advantage, so all of them would be able to get away.

"I... Only if they're near me," the boy began, drawing his shoulders up and hunching over.

"Only if who is near you?"

"Mutants. I... I... Their powers turn off. Just for a little bit," Jimmy whispered, and there were tears shining in his eyes.

Erik thought of how coins had faltered from his grip, when Jimmy entered a room, how his powers had seemed to be flickering. He remembered when Charles had collected him, Jimmy in the car, a safety net if things went wrong.

He'd heard rumours, of course, that the cure was made from a mutant. That one of their kind was enslaved to enslave them all. He thought of the medical scars he had seen, the way Jimmy was quiet, withdrawn, not really sure how to handle himself. He thought of how terrified he'd been at the meal. How Stryker wanted him for more tests to boost his mutation. This wasn't some mutant selling out their kind. This was a child who had been tortured. His breath caught in his throat at the knowledge of what had been done. Of what Jimmy could do. He made himself take a few slow breaths.

"Are you angry at me?" Jimmy whispered with his head bowed, and Erik crouched so he could look the boy in the eye.

"No," he told him. There was so much more that he could add. That it hadn't been his fault. That he was angry at the humans that had tested on him, and Charles for buying him and treating him as a pet. He was angry Jimmy was ashamed of his gift, because of what had been done with it. But none of that was what the boy needed to hear right now. For now, he just needed to feel safe, and being angry wouldn't help that. "I guess we should talk about it, so I know how to keep you safe. But I meant what I said last night, Jimmy. I'm not letting Stryker get you back. Now come on. Eat your breakfast, Laura's got crumbs in your hair."

Jimmy grinned up at him, and Erik smiled slightly and brushed the crumbs away. He stepped back, giving Jimmy's badge a gentle tug towards the breakfast foods. The boy nodded and went to eat.

Charles caught Erik's eye, and nodded slowly, mouthing 'thank you'.

Erik loaded a plate with food, then shared it amongst the children, trying to encourage each of them to eat at least a little more than they had done. The Summers brothers again seemed to be starving, and it was bothering him.

"Erik, could I have a word with you after breakfast?" Charles asked. "It's Hank and Alex's turn to do the washing up, and I just want to talk with you. Then I wondered if you'd be willing to teach Jimmy and Laura maths today? Alex can help Scott with his studies, I'm not expecting you to know how you teach a visually impaired student."

"If you wanted a tutor you bought the wrong mutant," Erik snapped, reminding himself that he was this man's purchase, not his friend. Charles had surprised him with his determination to protect Jimmy the previous night, but that didn't mean that he was trustworthy.

It wasn't Charles that made him refuse the request, though, it was Schmidt. He'd never felt that Erik needed an education, and while Erik's mother had always done everything she could to teach him, there were limits to what she could do. She'd taught him when he was allowed to spend time with her. That was rare, and often he was too hurt to focus. She'd prioritised reading and writing over maths, because he needed to be able to read and write if he escaped. Other subjects were a luxury that he simply couldn't earn, no matter how hard he tried.

Erik had forgotten the rest of the schooling he'd had, before Schmidt. It was easier not to think of what his life had been like before. Being asked to teach the children was just a further humiliation. Because of his own weakness when he wasn't much older than them, these children would be deprived of the right to learn.

Charles looked at him curiously, seeming to ponder his words.
"You're completely right, Erik. Hank, I want you to help Jimmy, Scott and Laura with their mathematics, Erik too if he wants it."

Erik glared at him, and Charles shrugged.
"You're going to be in there anyway, aren't you? I know you, you aren't going to leave the children unattended with Hank, so you're going to be spending the day in the library. I would like it if you took this opportunity to learn, but I won't force the issue."

"Why do you care?"

"Education allows us to better ourselves, Erik. Understanding what is going on, who others are, who we are... it is how we grow. I won't insist on you learning, there'd be no point, you're too stubborn. But if you learn, you can help them." With that, Charles cleared his throat, and looked Erik in the eye. "If you want the children to trust you, then show them you're willing to work for them."

"You know I am," Erik answered quickly, thinking of the offers he'd made.

Charles sighed, and shook his head.
"Not like that. It's easy to die for someone. What's challenging is to live for them, and that's what you'd be doing if you learn. You've spent so long worrying about survival, Erik. I'd like it if at least for a little while, you could think of something else."

Slowly, Erik nodded. Deep down, he knew being allowed time with the children, the chance to protect them, was only ever going to be temporary. That every time he showed emotion it was giving Charles another reason to hurt him one of these days. But for now that didn't matter. Today he could study with them, and learn a little.

He pictured his mother's smile for a moment, her eyes lighting up as she pressed a kiss to his forehead. He could hear the echo of her voice.

"My brilliant little Magnet, such a clever boy-" None of the sneering that was in Schmidt's mockery. Just genuine awe, by a woman who thought that Erik was someone to be proud of. Until he'd got her killed. He swallowed thickly, trying to force back tears.

"Erik? If you wouldn't mind coming to my study after breakfast?" Charles said, and his voice was a little choked up. He left the table quickly, his eyes watering. Erik watched him leave.

Laura's hand slipped into his, and he found the little girl looking up at him curiously. He reached down and gave her a tight hug.
"I'm going to study with you today. You and Jimmy both." He turned to the boy. "Maybe you can both start by showing me what you're learning about at the moment?" He considered, thinking of the way Jimmy had got him playing dominoes, had spoken of playing chess with Moira's daughters. He could vaguely recall playing it once, in the hazy period of his life that was before Schmidt. "And then after class if I've got time you can teach me chess?"

Jimmy nodded quickly, smiling up at him with a wide grin written on his face. Erik smiled back, and just for a little while, he didn't feel quite so unsure.

***

"Come inside, Erik." Charles's voice reverberated out from his room. It took Erik a couple of moments to find the resolve to push open the door. The last time he'd been here - the only time he'd been allowed in so far - he'd been offering to proxy for the children. That time, he had at least known what was expected of him to some extent. He couldn't be sure this time what it was going to be.

Erik crossed the threshold, and Charles looked up at him and smiled, indicating the chair that was across from him.
"Sit down please."

Erik sat where he was meant to, looking across at Charles curiously. He wasn't in a rush to ask for information about what was going on - it was safer to just leave it, and let Charles explain when he was ready, rather than trying to push for information before Charles wished to share it.

"Erik, I would like your assistance tomorrow. Obviously, it is entirely your choice whether or not you wish to accompany me, and if you choose not to I can ask Alex. However, I felt I should give you the option first of all."

Erik nodded slowly. Both of them knew Erik would always rather suffer himself than have a child hurt, but Charles was dancing around it, treating it like a game. Getting Jimmy to teach him chess would probably help him work better with this man who held life and death over him and the children.

"I'll do it. What is it?"

"Stryker informed me of another young mutant. I've been researching him, making a few calls, and I believe he is the kind of person that I can help."

"The ice powers?" Erik asked, to show he had been listening. Charles nodded slowly.

"Bobby Drake. A sixteen year old boy who can freeze things with his touch. He has a fourteen year old brother, Ronny, who appears to be human. His mother, Madeline, and father, William, apparently feel that they're best off trading their son for a few thousand dollars. I'm guessing it won't go higher than fifteen, but I'll bring thirty to be sure."

"You're... buying him? He's a child." Erik felt vaguely sick, thinking of the other children that Charles had bought and brought here.

"He is a child. And he's far safer with me than at his family home. I've already contacted an agent, I think that they feel that selling their son themselves is a little uncouth. But I'll visit them, and Bobby, who is apparently currently staying in his room and waiting for his fate."

"Where do I come in?" Erik asked, as though the answer to that mattered when Laura and Jimmy were on the line.

"I like bringing a mutant to all of my purchases. It is a sign of trust, of hope. I know you were angry with Alex, but it can be reassuring knowing that you won't be alone. Jimmy stays in the car, and normally Alex helps out but he despises it, so I thought giving him the time off would be better, if you are willing to-"

"I'll do it," Erik repeated.

Charles nodded.
"It's not far from here. We can worry about that in the morning, I just wanted you to know what was going on. Thank you. Go to the library, and try not to worry about it for the rest of the day, the priority is you and the children having some fun and studying maths. I'll see you at dinner."

Erik left, heading straight to the library. He couldn't help feeling concerned about what had happened, but the memories it dredged up were softened by the fact he had to focus on studying with the children. They were his priority.

***

The next morning, he sat in the car, staring out of the window as they drove down a normal suburban street. Laura had been left behind with Alex, Scott and Anne Marie, while Jimmy was in the back of the car, swinging his legs and flicking through a children's book.

Erik tried to distract himself from worrying by thinking about his chess game the previous afternoon. Jimmy had clearly been delighted to beat an adult for once, but it had been interesting. Erik had a strategic mind - he looked at a room and studied the exits, worked out what was useful, what could be weaponised. Chess offered a way to do that without having to worry about any real cost.

Charles's smile looked almost fond as he parked the car in front of the building.
"Would you get my wheelchair out, Erik?"

Erik did as he was told, placing the wheelchair in Charles' reach and watching as the man transferred over. Erik's collar was turned on, so he had to lift it by hand, but that was fine. This entire situation was strange. But he was glad there'd be a mutant there to comfort this poor boy, trapped in his house and sold by the very people he should be able to trust.

The house looked the same as any others on the street. He wasn't quite sure what he'd been expecting - bars on the windows perhaps, or barbed wire. But this looked normal. Erik frowned at that. If you were locked up by humans you had to try and get out. Maybe there were other methods inside - maybe the boy was handcuffed, or there was an electric fence - but without his abilities he could sense none of that.

Charles hesitated by the raised front porch, glancing at Erik. Erik took a deep breath, then flicked his collar off, lifted Charles's chair onto the porch, and flicked his collar back on again.

Charles nodded at him politely, then stared at the doorbell.
"Erik?"

Erik stepped forwards and pushed the doorbell for him, waiting. Charles looked up at him.
"I know this might be stressful Erik, but I need you to remain calm. My aim is to get the boy to safety. We can't do that if you make a scene. Just stay behind me and try not to destroy all their cutlery."

Erik didn't answer that, because the door opened. But he knew he would have to play along, because the alternative was leaving the boy to be sold to someone else, and risk making Alex have to attend more of these sales which he hated. Even if Erik hated it, he would manage.

The woman who opened the door looked normal. Like any other human, and Erik only just remembered not to glare. He kept his head down, focusing on his breathing because anything else would be causing more trouble.

"You must be Mister Xavier." She smiled, then glanced at Erik. "Can't you leave that outside?"

"He's invaluable to me," Charles answered. "I am sure you understand, that for a human in a wheelchair... people tend to make assumptions. It's not that I don't trust you. But if for example I need to use your bathroom - it's upstairs, isn't it?"

The woman frowned, but nodded and moved out of the way. "I'm Madeline, and my husband William is just inside, as is Ronny. Do you want coffee?"

"I don't suppose you have tea?" Charles asked, and made a delighted sound at hearing the type the woman had. Erik's fingers tightened on the handles of the wheelchair. He hated being here. The house looked normal. The kind of idyllic home that was expected.

A boy sat on the sofa, flicking through a comic book he had open on his lap. His mother looked at him.
"Ronny, can you fetch your brother?"

The boy groaned but put aside his reading material and got to his feet.

"If you could give us a few minutes first?" Charles asked, and the boy shrugged and slouched off. Charles sighed, rubbing his forehead.

"You've bought... freaks... before?" Madeline asked as she handed over the tea, making a break from the previous inane small talk. Erik wanted to hit her, to scream in her face, but he thought of Laura and Jimmy, and he held himself back.

"I have. I have a few that live with me, including a pair of brothers. I'm researching mutations, and from what I've heard your son has a remarkable gift."

"He freezes stuff," a man sat in the armchair spoke out. "Nothing remarkable about it. Just a curse for us to deal with until we can get rid of him."

Charles's fingers drummed a pattern against the armrest of his wheelchair.
"And you want to get rid of him?"

"We don't want to be stuck with a dangerous freak," Madeline answered quickly. "We have our other son to think about."

"And why sell him?" Charles asked.

"He might as well be of some use," Bobby’s father argued, just as the boys returned. Ronny looked a little uncertain, almost hiding behind his older brother, who had his head down and was trying to take up less space.

The slightly taller boy flinched at his father's words, and Erik noticed there were no handcuffs, no straitjacket. The boy wasn't even wearing a collar. Charles looked between them.
"Ronny, could you fetch a glass of water. I'd like to see what Bobby can do before I consider buying him."

A look of panic passed across Bobby's face as he looked over at Charles.
"I don't want to," he murmured, his voice shaking a little.

"Bobby, we've been through this," the mutant's father told him. "This is how you can help us. We need you out of here before you harm your brother, the last thing we want is two mutant sons."

"It doesn't work like that-" Bobby whispered, looking down.

"You're a disgrace," his father told him, and for a second it looked like he was about to backhand Bobby across the face, until he seemed to relax, frowning a little in confusion. "This is all that you can do to help us now. We want you out of our lives."

"I know," Bobby answered, and his voice shook slightly. "I mean I don't... I don't want to show my powers."

Erik could feel anger bubbling inside of him. He wanted to scream, to yell, but he couldn't make a scene. For Alex's sake, and for Bobby's, because right now all that mattered was getting the kid away from there.

"You will show them," Bobby's father told him. "We can't have this nice man think we're trying to sell humans, and this is the last thing you can do to actually help us." He gestured for the other son to place down the glass of water.

Bobby looked around, then tapped the glass with his finger. Ice crystals bloomed across it. Charles looked at the glass curiously, tilting it to see the way the light refracted across the surface..
"That's an interesting gift you have there," Charles told him.

"I don't want a gift," Bobby said. "I just want to be normal, and have a family."

"Being a mutant shouldn't stop that. My mother supported my gift." The words were out of Erik's mouth before he could call them back, and he tensed anxiously, not sure what would happen next. He was talking out of turn again.

"Then where is she now? Why did she sell you?" Bobby asked, looking at Erik's collar. Erik took a deep breath, trying to bite back his anger, to find an answer that he could give.

"Erik's mother didn't sell him," Charles began, seeming to pick his words carefully. "She was killed, by a human. Because it's not that all humans are good and all mutants are bad. I wish it was, because if it was it would be easy to know who to trust. But real life never works like fairy tales. No one group is good or bad. Bobby? I'm paying your parents for you. You will be coming with me," Charles said decisively. "How much do you want Mister Drake? Ten thousand?"

"Twenty," the man answered firmly. Erik let the bargaining continue, distracted by the look of terror on Bobby's face, how close he looked to breaking down. A number was reached, and money was exchanged. Charles signed some papers.

"Mister and Mrs Drake, I promise you if your other son develops powers, I would be interested in purchasing him. When mutations run in families, the links between them are interesting." Charles looked up at them. "Selling your son because he doesn't match your idea of what he should be is disgusting. It's also the best thing you could do for him, after how hurt he is. He's your child, and you've forgotten that. Bobby, go and grab a bag."

"I don't want a son who is a freak," Madeline snapped.

"Maybe not, but that's what you've got," Charles answered. "Erik, can you go upstairs and help Bobby with his things?"

Erik nodded, heading towards the stairs.

The upstairs of the house was homely. That was a shock. It looked like any other house, the kind of thing he had only the vaguest of recollections of. There was a bathroom ahead of him, and a main room, and what must have been Ronny’s room with the door open, and then there was Bobby’s room, with a sign on the door saying Knock first Ronny!. He raised his hand and knocked.

“Come in?” Bobby called, and Erik could hear that he was crying. He pushed the door open.

Erik had half-expected Bobby’s room to look like the one he’d had with Schmidt, but it wasn’t. It was just… the room of a teenage boy. Posters covered the walls. Bobby stood beside the bed, a rucksack in front of him, as he stared around at what he had. He looked up at Erik, and Erik pretended he couldn’t see the tears on his face.

“Do you know what I’m allowed to bring?” Bobby asked softly, and he looked so broken that Erik felt a little sick. He was sure that he had never looked that helpless. He’d always known how to fight, not how to break. But then, that was his mother’s influence.

Erik looked the boy over, considering. He was a bit thinner than Alex, but close enough that he’d be able to borrow some of his clothes. “You should be okay for clothes, I’m sure Charles will supply some, he has for me and Laura. Take…” He hesitated. If he told the boy to bring what mattered to him, there was a risk it would just give Charles a hundred different ways to hurt him. Bobby wasn’t strong enough for that.

He thought back over what he had seen in the time since he had been bought. Charles had never taken anything. Charles had given, and he had allowed Erik to make the children jewellery that he hadn’t taken from them. The only cruelty he had witnessed was him sending Raven away.

Erik braced himself, knowing if he misjudged it he could shatter the young mutant in front of him.
“Take what you don’t want to leave behind. He’s got a library he lets us use, and he gives us clothes, but… if there’s anything you’d miss. Take it.” He took a few deep breaths. He couldn’t get overwhelmed with panic as Bobby looked around his room, trying desperately to decide.

Bobby picked up a photograph of him, his brother and his parents, the four of them at the beach. Erik wondered if he should say something, but before he could, the boy had shoved it into his bag decisively. A few other things followed. Bobby hesitated, then grabbed a battered looking toy fox and added it to the pile, covering it quickly with a couple of t-shirts, and a handful of other clothes. He grabbed a child’s drawing from his pinboard.
“Think… Think I’ve got everything.”

“Good,” Erik hesitated. He knew that the younger children were comforted by being embraced, but Bobby was older. He was afraid. He offered him his hand, shaking firmly, and looking Bobby in the eye.
“I’m going to keep you safe, to the best of my ability. There’s another boy, Alex, he’s not much older than you. Then Anne Marie, she’s a couple of years younger. Scott’s eleven, Jimmy’s ten, and Laura’s about eight.”

“Why’s he… What’s he do with us?” Bobby asked, sitting down on the edge of his bed, and Erik shrugged a little. He hadn’t been there long, and mostly he’d been spending time with the younger ones who were studying. He’d seen a few tests from Hank, but it wouldn’t be right to worry Bobby about experiments, not if they might not happen for a while.

“He’s been trying to study our mutations. But he’s also letting the younger mutants learn. I’ve been much worse places.”

“Thank you,” Bobby whispered.

Bobby’s brother stuck his head around the door.
“They say you have to hurry up, the rich guy’s bored.”

“All packed up?” Erik asked, and Bobby looked around again and nodded. Erik picked up the bag. “I’ll carry this downstairs, you join us in a minute.” He headed downstairs, leaving the boy to say goodbye to his brother.

Charles smiled to see him. “Come here, Erik…” He signalled for him to kneel so he could look him in the eye. “Is Bobby packed up and ready?”

Erik thought of the boy upstairs. Bobby was hurting, and he was afraid. But staying here wouldn’t help anything. “I think so.”

“Good. I’ve got these two to agree to contact me if their other child shows any signs of… mutation…” Charles said that last word as if it was something disgusting, and only the knowledge there were other humans around meant Erik held his tongue. He supposed that was good. If the boy did have powers, he’d be better off away from his parents.

“Go and fetch Bobby?” Charles asked, and as he did so he dropped something beside his chair, next to Erik. Erik picked it up, his eyes widening as he realised it was Charles’s business card. “Make sure he’s not bothering his brother,” Charles said, and Erik understood - if he gave Ronny the card then maybe the brothers could stay in contact. He wasn’t sure that they would get on, but at least this way the fact Bobby was being sold wouldn’t be the reason they parted.

Upstairs, Bobby and Ronny were cuddling, whispering to each other. It was clear Bobby was about to start crying again. Erik cleared his throat.
“Ronny?”

The human looked up.
“What?”

Erik held out the card. “Keep in touch. Especially if you think your family might try and get rid of you.”

Ronny grabbed it, and shoved it in his pocket, as Erik offered Bobby his hand.
“Come on.” He helped Bobby to his feet, leading him downstairs, and trying to stay between Bobby and his parents. They didn’t even look at him.

Charles shook hands with the humans, and Erik picked up Bobby’s bag. They were shown out of the door, and Erik turned off his collar to use his power and lift Charles’s chair down to the front drive, before turning it back on. Bobby’s hand kept brushing against his own throat, seemingly deep in thought.

Charles led them to the car, and Erik put the wheelchair away as Bobby climbed into the back of the car. Erik joined him, leaving Charles to drive.

Jimmy put his book down, holding his hand out towards Bobby and trying to look serious.
“Hello!”
“Hey,” Bobby smiled slightly. “Narnia? I used to read those when I was little…”

“Will you read to me?” Jimmy asked, and handed over the book. Bobby began to read, as the car started, and Erik felt himself sigh in relief as they drove away from there. Bobby was with them now, he was safer than he’d been before.

***

Laura came running out to the car as soon as they were parked, Alex watching from the doorway. She waved, bouncing on her feet. Erik immediately jumped out from the back of the car, picked her up, and then went to open the door for Charles, helping him extract his wheelchair. Charles got in, heading to the house, and Erik got the two children out. "Bobby, this is Laura, and Alex is up there. Laura, this is Bobby, Charles just... brought him home." Erik explained, not wanting to talk to a child about their legal status as less than human.

"He's just staying here for a little while." Charles told them as they reached the house. "Bobby, I hope we can help you get a better grasp on your powers, and then we can help you get a new identity and find somewhere you can start again."

"I..."

"You can stay as long as you want, of course," Charles told him quickly. "But I think you'd feel better somewhere you can continue with your schooling, perhaps go to college... Of course, that's a worry for another day." Charles paused. "Alex, would you mind showing Bobby around, give him one of the spare rooms near you, then bring him back so I can give him his collar. Erik, if you could make a start on dinner? I thought perhaps Laura could help with some of the food preparation."

Laura looked confused by that, but Erik smiled down at her. "If you want to you can use your claws to cut up the carrots?"

She nodded quickly, wriggling out of his arms to go and wait by the door to the kitchen.

Erik turned to Bobby. "I'll see you at dinner. It's okay."

Bobby trailed after Alex, his bag clutched to his chest.

Charles watched them leave, then wheeled over to the couch and gestured for Erik to sit down there. "He seems to like you, Erik. I hope I can trust you to make him feel comfortable."

"You're sending him away?"

"Only if he wants to go," Charles spoke carefully. "But he grew up as a human. His parents have been destroying his self belief, but he has expectations of how his life will run. Over the past few months, that's been damaged, and for now the best thing is to start to rebuild it."

"But you bought him," Erik argued, feeling lost. He knew Charles didn't act the way most humans did, but even with that this seemed unbelievable. If he sent Bobby away, he was a waste of money, and trying to rebuild his self-belief would only make him less valuable if Charles wanted to resell him.

"I did buy him," Charles sighed, his forehead creasing. "For a lot of those mutants I find, the best thing is a fresh start with their powers hidden. For those that stay here, that isn't an option, but Bobby was only ever meant to be passing through, ideally only for a few days. Now, go and cook before Laura attempts it on her own."

Charles smiled as he said that, and he looked younger, the fondness softening his features. Erik found himself smiling back before he could think better of it, then went to open the kitchen door.

***

Dinner was more relaxed than the other meals they had all had together. Bobby and Alex seemed to get along, both sharing stories of their younger brothers that made Jimmy and Laura laugh, and Scott flail in embarrassment. Even Charles seemed entertained by listening to it. The children, as always, ate ravenously, and Erik couldn't help feeling a faint glow of pride at the fact they seemed to enjoy what he had cooked for them. Charles looked at him over a glass of wine and nodded his approval. "This was good Erik, you should make it again."

Erik nodded, not wanting to argue or think about it too much. The important thing was that the children had now been fed, and that Bobby seemed to be calmer, even if he was still cowed and mostly quiet. He seemed not to be panicking too much at the presence of the collar, even poking at his glass of water to see that his power had been turned off for a little while.

Erik read Laura a bedtime story, and then played cards with Bobby, Anne Marie and Alex until almost midnight. He headed back to his room, and spent some time toying with scraps of metal, planning on making Bobby a bracelet as well. He fell asleep part way through his work, a half-crafted metal snowflake falling down onto the blanket beside him.

***

Morning came, and Charles was already in the kitchen by the time Erik had checked all the corridors and reassured himself that everything was as it should be. Charles looked up at Erik's approach and nodded. "I'd like to talk to you after breakfast. I'll be in my office." With that, he wheeled away, leaving Erik alone.

Erik made himself breakfast, and made sure there was food ready for the children. He smiled at Anne Marie as she walked in, handing her her toast, and asking how she slept. It felt almost safe, and he could see how the older children had come to view this place as their home even if they should have known better.

"You all get on with your studies, I'll be around to join you later, okay?" he told them, before he headed off to see what it was that Charles needed.

He knocked on the office door, and pushed it open when summoned, only to find Charles sat there, looking a little tense. "Thank you for joining me, Erik."

"You made it clear you expected me," Erik answered, as he took a seat opposite Charles.

"Yes, I did. I'd like to ask a favour of you. You have every right to refuse, of course."

"Of course," Erik echoed, thinking of the children he'd left laughing at the breakfast table. "What is it?"

"I'm going out tonight. To a ...a gathering." Charles looked at him, and it was the same look he'd given Bobby. Assessing, trying to work out if the frightened animal was about to bolt. "I'd like you to accompany me."

"Why?" Erik frowned. He couldn't see why Charles would want him there, unless it was to exhibit his mutant pet. He felt a sudden flood of cold clarity as he realised that was exactly what was happening.

"It's a mutant party. We're expected to bring mutants along. To..."

"To show them off?" Erik asked, and Charles nodded.

"I'm afraid so."

Erik would have argued, would have refused, only he knew now how stupid he'd been, to let himself think of this as somewhere safe. As somewhere he'd be treated like a person. "And if I refuse?"

"I'll ask one of the others," Charles told him. "I want to go, because it will allow me to make some important connections, and hopefully allow some progress on my protection of mutant children bill. I dislike these events, but the potential influence and information is not something I can pass up. Some of the attendees are willing to consider sending me the mutants when they tire of them, if it's only a passing fancy. Even if not, the networking... I believe there will be several senators in attendance."

Erik felt sick. He thought quickly. Alex and Anne Marie didn't have powers that could be shown off easily, and nor did Jimmy or Scott. He couldn't believe, couldn't let himself believe, that Charles would take Laura, she was far too young. That left Bobby. Bobby who was so afraid at leaving his home he had cried only a few hours before when he was purchased.

"Like I said," Xavier repeated. "You have every right to say no. I did tell you, right at the start, that I would never treat you as a performing monkey. But..."

"I'll do it," Erik said. They both knew Xavier wasn't giving him a real choice. "It's better than one of the children going."

"Thank you, Erik. It'll be this evening. We'll need to leave by five. Until then you can spend some time with the children, work on your learning. I'll see you at half four. Your suit from the dinner with Stryker will be fine, and I'll have a different collar for you so it can be on and still give you limited access to your abilities," Xavier told him, and then looked up. "You can go."

Erik didn't need telling twice, practically running out of the room and into the corridor, where he rested his back against the wall, taking slow deep breaths before he headed to the library. He had to help the children study, if they were ever to get a better life than this.

Chapter Text

“A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.”

***

Erik couldn't easily focus on working with the children. Hank had wandered off somewhere, leaving him in the library with Jimmy and Laura. Jimmy was deeply engrossed in a book, occasionally turning from it to a dictionary in order to check words.

Laura seemed to notice that Erik was unhappy, for all that he tried to hide it. She curled up on his lap, patting at his arm and refusing to let go of him. He held her close, the book he was reading to her balanced on her knees. Erik focused on the words, helping her get used to the pages. It was clear that whoever had held Laura before hadn't prioritised teaching her, but that gave Erik a goal. He could help her, and it meant he was able to put what was happening that evening out of his mind for a little while.

Eventually Laura wriggled off of his lap, going to duck under a table and reach under a bookcase.
"Are you alright Kätzchen?"

She nodded, staying focused. He felt her extend her claws beneath the bookcase, and a moment later she shuffled backwards, holding up her prize triumphantly - she had managed to grab a metal bolt that must have rolled under the bookcase during its construction.
"Present for you," she told him. He glanced at it curiously, and she resumed her place on his lap.

Erik pressed his face into her hair, taking slow deep breaths, and reminding himself that the coming evening would be survivable. He was going so the children didn't have to. He allowed the bolt to float up into the air, reshaping it into a small snowflake. It wasn't enough to be a piece of jewellery yet, but if Bobby carried it it would at least give him a talisman to track.

"I have to go out this evening Laura, do you think you could give this to Bobby?"

She nodded, holding out her hand and then pocketing it before her arms wrapped around his shoulders. He held her for a little while, knowing he was showing weakness he couldn't afford, but wanting to comfort her as well.

"I'll come home," he promised both of them, reaching out to squeeze Jimmy's shoulder. Jimmy turned around and hugged him as well, and he concentrated on committing that moment to memory, the idea of looking after both of them. He could do anything if it kept them safe.

***

At half past four Erik was knocking on Xavier's office door, wearing the suit he'd worn for the meal with Stryker, and feeling no more comfortable than he had the last time. He told himself that at least this time the children wouldn't be present.

"Come in," Charles ordered, and Erik walked into the room beyond, staring at the man. Charles hesitated, then held up a collar bulkier than the one Erik was used to.
"This has a dial, so you will still be able to have some access to your powers even when it’s on. I'm afraid I can't let you turn it off tonight."

Erik crouched for Charles to change the collars over. Even with the dampener turned down, he could instantly feel how his metal sense was dulled. He stared at a pen on Charles's desk, and it took a few moments before he could lift it into the air. He felt weakened, unable to use his ability to fight. Just capable of providing entertaining party tricks, like a tame dog - and that was what the humans viewed him as, he realised with a surge of nausea.

"Erik, are you sure you can go?" Charles asked.

Erik could feel Charles's strong arms on his shoulders, rubbing away some of the tension with his fingertips. He imagined saying no. Maybe it was late enough now that Charles would have to cancel - he didn't have anything for Bobby to wear. But that wouldn't last. There'd be other days. Refusing now would mean it fell to Bobby in future.

"I can go," Erik answered, as firmly as he could. The weight of the new collar felt strange around his throat.

***

"Remember, anything you do that makes me look bad reflects badly on us all," Charles reminded Erik, and they both pretended that it wasn't a threat, a silent reminder that if Charles failed to control him, the children would be separated and taken away.

"I know. I'll behave." Erik gritted out the words. He told himself he would manage this, that he'd known worse before. He still felt sick.

The mansion they approached was modern, all white surfaces and sharp angles, a smaller counterpoint to Charles's own palatial home. Erik tried not to think too much, from his position in the passenger seat. The children would be having dinner soon, at Charles's mansion. All six of them were safe, and Alex had promised he'd make sure they were all comfortable that night. Erik focused on that. He could get through this, and get home to the children.

With any luck, Laura and Jimmy would never learn how people looked at mutants, how they were viewed as less. If he could let the two of them keep that innocent belief, anything that was thrown at him would be worth it.

Charles parked, letting Erik get the wheelchair from the trunk, and transferring into it easily. Normally Charles propelled himself, but he'd suggested Erik pushed him for the night. It was useful - it kept Erik's hands busy, and gave him a strong reason to stay close.

Charles hadn't mentioned the other benefit: It did also answer the question of what he did for Charles before anyone could raise more obscene suggestions. Pushing Charles towards the stairs, knowing his collar was visible, Erik felt like little more than a pet dog.

"Charles Xavier," Charles greeted the doorman, and the two of them were shown inside.

The atrium was full of people, but he instantly scanned the crowd for mutants, half-hoping he might see Azazel or Frost there. There was a chance Charles would let them speak briefly. More than that, he just wanted to know that they were alive.

There was no sign of either of his friends. But there were plenty of others, some visibly mutated, others passing for human if not for the weight around their necks. The other mutants looked angry, exhausted, sad, all with their collars on show. Erik breathed through his own anger. He couldn't make a scene. Charles had reminded him of that on the way here.
"Well done," Charles praised, eyeing a table set with champagne. "Could you get me a glass?"

Erik did so, continuing to scan the room for any immediate signs of danger. His heart ached when he saw how young some of the mutants were, how broken they looked. He wanted to destroy this place, and everything it stood for.

For one brief moment he made contact with a mutant with wavy brown hair, whose eyes shone with despair. He wanted to reassure him, but he wasn't allowed over, and even if he was there was nothing to say. Nothing could make this alright. He had no comfort to offer.

He picked up the glass, and tried not to snap the stem in his anger.

By the time he returned, he found that Charles was deep in conversation with a beautiful blonde human teenager, who was wearing a white dress with a dark blue sash. Clutching her hand was another woman, a mutant, wearing a dark blue dress with a white sash. Both were holding glasses of what looked like lemonade. The human seemed vaguely familiar - probably a distant relative of Charles's that he had a photograph of somewhere.Charles was clearly interested in what the human woman had to say.

"Well, that gives us an idea of scale, and with your work on the Stryker lab, you're doing so well-" he was murmuring.

Erik waited, holding the champagne, until Charles noticed his return. He stayed silent, memorising the patterns of metal which he could feel.

"Oh! Good, you're back. Excellent. This is Miss Darkholme, and her mutant Irene."

"Hello," Darkholme greeted him with a smile. "Charles has just been telling me how you've been helping with his children."

"Erik's been doing well," Charles agreed. The mutant beside Darkholme startled, the glass slipping through her fingers, and Erik's pulse was already racing in terror as he remembered how bad it could be to break things. Things couldn't heal. People could, and that meant they had to be hurt more to learn. He dropped to his knees, planning to grab the pieces before they could do any damage. Maybe if he thought fast he could protect her.

Irene's hand fell on his shoulder, pulling him up towards her, and Erik could have sobbed when he saw her eyes were completely white and sightless. Her desperate clinging onto the human's arm made sense. This place was hell even when he could see what was coming, he couldn't imagine what it was like for her.

"Get out of here," she told him, and he knew she'd get punished for that.

He shook his head mutely. He couldn't. The children needed him here and behaving. Her human was only young. Maybe she wouldn't be hurt too badly for speaking out of turn.

"Erik..." Charles was holding out a handkerchief for the broken glass, which Erik took and used to wrap the larger shards. "Erik, are you alright?"

Erik opened his mouth to reply, before freezing. With his ability numbed, he hadn't felt the familiar watch of the man that was now approaching. But at this distance, he couldn't mistake it. He'd made each part of it with bleeding fingers.

His blood ran cold when he heard the voice that haunted his nightmares.
"Little Max Eisenhardt... I had wondered what had become of you."

His first reaction to that voice was to try and stay still, to pretend he hadn't been bad. But the glass was broken, and Irene had dropped it, and she was already blind. He couldn't let her suffer more. There was broken glass and Schmidt was walking closer, and he had to try and do something, had to make a scene and protect the other mutant because she couldn't protect herself.

His terror solidified into a single thought. If he could throw the broken glass at Schmidt, maybe he could injure him. He couldn't get away, not collared, not here surrounded by humans. But he could hurt him. He could make the man who had killed his mother suffer, even if it was only for a moment, and even though he would be punished worse.

There was the other thought, that he wasn't going to go back. Not to Schmidt. Not now. He couldn't.

He went to throw the glass, and he froze, helpless. Watching a bullet travel that short distance through the air, knowing he couldn't overpower the suppressor around his throat, that all of this was his fault. That if he could just break through, he could save her. He couldn't breathe, and he was watching his mother die, and the fact he wasn't wearing Xavier's collar didn't even occur to him because this was Schmidt, and he was going to be in so much trouble. He could hear voices, but he couldn't follow them, there on his knees before Schmidt, frozen and terrified and unable to even straighten up. The smaller pieces of glass glistened on the floor, and scars on his shins ached.

Schmidt's hand was in his hair, and he waited for the fist to tighten, to be slammed forwards into the floor, but the touch was gentle and he could have screamed if air had been possible. There were more words, and he could hear Schmidt laughing. He was guided forwards, his knees shuffling without him moving them. He was still unable to make his lungs take in air, as he was positioned so that his face was pressed against fabric, a hand running down his back.

His lungs filled with air, and he spluttered slightly, opening his eyes enough to realise his forehead was pressing against the arm of Xavier's chair, his back to Schmidt.
Breathe, Erik. Xavier's voice echoed, and it didn't make sense, because the sound was from inside his mind, not outside of it. The hand continued to pet his hair, but it wasn't pulling as hard as he expected - wasn't pulling at all. It drifted to his shoulder, and looked up to find Xavier staring down at him.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mister Shaw," Charles was saying, quiet when Erik's mind was screaming so loudly and every breath was a fight. "But I'm afraid he's not for sale. Erik here is invaluable to me."

"I'd be happy to pay you for him. I've heard the kind of mutants you like, I'm sure I have a couple of test subjects that would make a suitable exchange." Schmidt was saying, and Erik couldn't hear the rest because he knew that meant children. Schmidt had children, young mutants that Erik had abandoned to their fate by trying to escape - and he hadn't even managed that. He'd be brought back in disgrace, made an example of.

Erik. Please. Calm your mind, Charles was saying, and then Schmidt reached for Erik, grabbing his his chin, pulling his head back.

"Let go of him, thank you," Charles said firmly. "That's my property, and I'd rather he wasn't damaged."

Schmidt's hand let go, and Erik pressed his face against Charles's wheelchair again, trying to pretend he wasn't seeking what little comfort there was available while this continued. Charles's hand was on his shoulder, and Charles's voice echoed in his mind again, impossibly.

I'm afraid it's not impossible. I'm a telepath. I was going to tell you but... well, if you had made a scene you'd either have been executed or given to him. I couldn't let that happen. Charles's mental voice sounded so calm. Now, at the moment I'm making you breathe, but if you could take over that it would be helpful. With your permission, I'd like to make you unconscious. You'd still seem awake to other people, but you wouldn't be aware in any way of what was going on, it would be like being asleep. You'd feel quite peaceful.

Nothing made sense, and Erik could feel Schmidt not far behind him. He couldn't sleep around Schmidt, not now, it wasn't safe. He needed to know what happened. If he was asleep, he wouldn't know what new rules there were, what rules he'd broken, what he'd done wrong. He'd get punished again and again and he wouldn't know how to stop it because he missed the start of the game. Erik tried to explain it, but the thoughts weren't clear. He could hear Schmidt's voice outside his mind, but Charles was a distraction, and he needed to focus on Schmidt.

As you wish, Charles replied. In which case I'm sorry, this isn't going to be a very pleasant evening for you. It will be easier if I don't talk to you right now, but later I will explain everything. If you need me to knock you out, just ask. With that, Erik's mind fell silent.

If it hadn't been for Xavier's controlling his body, Erik would probably have been sick, as he thought through everything. How many times had he soothed himself by considering how much he hated Charles? How many times had Charles heard it? And now Schmidt was back, and Charles knew how bad Erik was, and Schmidt would show Charles how to make Erik obey.

The thought of watching Laura punished for his mistakes brought tears to his eyes, and unbidden his hand came up and wiped those tears away. His body lifted him onto his feet, moving to stand beside Charles, so that the wheelchair was between him and Schmidt. Someone had cleared the glass away without his notice.

His hands gripped the metal of the handles without his say so, as his mind raced. He was sure that were things he needed to understand, but with Schmidt there all his adrenaline focused solely on his survival. He couldn't stop thinking of Laura lying dead, the way his mother had, her small body twisted on the floor.

He won't hurt you or the children, Charles said, and it sounded certain. Erik kept his head down, focusing on trying to breathe the way Charles had ordered.

Schmidt sighed slightly.
"You're sure you aren't willing to let me purchase him back off you? We had such fun together, I do miss him."

"Quite sure, Mister Shaw."

"Oh, call me Sebastian," Schmidt answered. "I have been reading about you in the press Charles. You've been pushing for this mutant children bill. I wonder, what would you have me do with dangerous mutants who have outlived their usefulness, if I can't sell them on?"

"Ideally I would like to see them taken to a safe research facility, much like the one I am trying to set up. Somewhere we can ensure they pose no threat to humans," Charles replied. Erik heard champagne glasses clinking, but tried to not look up. Looking up could be seen as insolent, and being insolent showed that you hadn't been raised properly, that you were disrespectful, that you-Erik. Breathe. Please. We will get through this.

"I see," Schmidt sounded interested, and Erik found his head tilted up as the mutant with sad eyes he'd noticed earlier approached. The man was a couple of years younger than him. He walked to Schmidt’s side, folding to his knees and holding up the glass with trembling fingers. Erik could see the way he tried not to cringe when Schmidt's fingers brushed through his hair. The champagne glass was brought to the mutant's lips, and he sipped. Erik risked a glance around, as best as he could, and saw that Irene and Miss Darkholme had left. He was glad. He didn't want Irene to be in trouble, and whatever her human did to her it was bound to be better than what Schmidt would recommend.

"Janos here was thrown away by his previous humans for being deaf, but he's proven valuable. Much less likely to answer back than Max was at points. I blame his mother myself, she was a terrible influence on him..." Schmidt was saying, and Erik couldn't concentrate again on the words. He had to keep breathing, but he couldn't because the metal in his hands was shaking, until his fingers released the metal and lifted up a little without his involvement.

"I see. Well, I would be interested in hearing more of your experiments. Perhaps not tonight, Erik can get a little difficult around some of these issues, and he's been doing so well recently, I really would rather avoid having to punish him again right now."

"Another day," Schmidt agreed and shook Charles's hand, handing him his business card. Charles handed it to Erik.

"Hold onto this for me, Erik."

Erik found he nodded, without wanting to. Charles was controlling him like a puppet. People began to drift towards the tables, and Charles moved away from Schmidt, taking Erik over to the table where Darkholme was. Irene was kneeling on Darkholme's left, and Charles indicated for him to kneel at his right, so he and Irene were beside each other. Erik tried to look out of the corner of his eye, and he could see no obvious blood on her, but he knew that didn't necessarily mean she wasn't hurt.

Erik made himself sit up straight, some of his weight still supported by the control the other man had on him. Irene's hand found his, and gave it a brief squeeze. He was tempted for a moment to cling on, to try and fight Charles's control, but he thought better of it, pulling away. You're okay Erik. You're doing so well. We'll be home soon. He couldn't bring himself to speak, so instead he focused on kneeling, his back straight, hands clasped behind him.

After a short while, he felt his body relax into a more comfortable position, out of his own control. He didn't know which table Schmidt was at, but he was afraid he was going to have seen him be lazy, that he'd be in more trouble somehow. Charles left him alone during the meal, which was a small mercy.

Memories were echoing in his brain, and he knew he wouldn't be able to keep any food down. Charles gave his shoulder a squeeze, and returned to talking to Darkholme, but he couldn't focus on the words, trying to press what little he retained of his ability out towards feeling Schmidt's watch.

***

Charles opened the driver's door, and Erik found that he was putting the wheelchair away, and then sitting in the passenger seat, his body tense. He seemed to slump for a moment, as the grip on him was released. His body was his own again, but he didn't have the strength to move, not knowing Charles had heard every thought.

"You aren't in trouble and nor are the children. I'll get home, you can check they are okay, and then we can talk." Charles told him. Erik gazed out of the window at the night, not knowing what he could say.

He'd made so many mistakes, and he'd always known the time would come when Charles would make him pay for them. He just hadn't expected his own thoughts to form part of the list of his errors.

He stayed silent as they drove. There was nothing he could say to make this better. He tried not to think, and felt himself thinking more, until Charles reached out and turned on the radio.

Erik rested his head against the car window, and with his tears under his own control, he began to cry.

Chapter Text

“How we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather bring about his own ruin than his preservation.”

***

Erik stayed silent the whole way home, staring out of the window at the darkness, trying to empty his thoughts and prevent himself from making too much of a scene. It would benefit no one if he made Charles angry.

He didn't know what would be next, and that made it worse. His mind conjured images: Laura screaming, Jimmy sobbing from hunger, Scott sold - and he tried to push them away. He couldn't give Charles any ideas. He tried to focus on what could happen to him instead, picturing more and more violent images, anything that would cover up his fear for the children. He let himself think of Shaw at his worst, to focus on those memories and not allow his mind to stray towards what he truly feared.

"Stop it." Charles' voice was sharp with the order as he clutched the steering wheel. "I will crash if you don't calm down, it's very hard to concentrate with you doing that."

"I'm sorry," Erik whispered, reminding himself again that Xavier could hear him. He couldn't allow himself to think too much. He tried to count in his head, whispering the numbers in his mind in the hope it wouldn't be too loud and get him in more trouble.

"Don't be. I just don't want to crash, because the children will want us home in one piece." Charles sighed, and Erik tried to focus on him, staying as calm as he could but searching for any sign of tension or anger. He could feel ideas threatening - how he might be punished, how he could try and ease it, and Charles coughed.

"Erik. Please, I don't want to have to send you to sleep for the journey. I promise you I'm not going to harm the children. Do you want me to keep you calm until we get home?"

Erik didn't want that, but Charles clearly did. He made himself nod. A few moments later a sensation of safety and calm enveloped him. He realised this had happened before, when he'd spoken about his mother. He remembered hearing Charles's voice in his mind during the meal with Stryker, remembered the times Charles had answered questions he'd never asked out loud. He wondered how he hadn't noticed this earlier, how he had missed something so vital for keeping the children safe, but the mental sedation Charles was providing dulled his terror into an ache which settled over him. He knew that he was only calm because Charles was causing it.

In a detached way, he pondered whether Charles would just keep him like this. If it explained Alex's quiet docility when he'd been bought. He realised Charles could control him at any moment, if he wanted to. Those thoughts weren't good, even with Charles stopping him from being overwhelmed by panic.

It was almost a relief to pass the gates of the mansion. They parked, and Charles looked at him, lifting away the softening blanket of numbness. He reached out, sliding the key into the collar, and then reaching into his glove box to replace it with the one Erik was used to. Erik didn’t allow himself to consider how that was almost a reassurance. As though everything was still normal.

"Erik, my chair?" Charles asked, and Erik managed to make himself go through the motions of fetching Charles's wheelchair. He knew if he refused and tried to run, Charles would make him. Once he was seated in the chair, Charles rolled forwards, pulling out his keys from a pocket. Erik fell into step behind him.

Once they were through the front door, Charles turned to him.
"Erik, go and see the children. Check on them, satisfy yourself they're safe - I know you'll be worrying if you don't. Take as long as you need. Then come to my office, because I think we need to talk about what happened tonight."

Erik didn't trust himself to speak. He just nodded, and walked to the stairs. He paused only for a moment, until he knew that Charles wasn't about to call him back, and then he clambered up. He headed to Anne Marie's room first, silently opening the door and glancing inside. She was deeply asleep, so he retreated, closing the door behind him.

Jimmy was also asleep, although his door required opening and closing by hand. He looked peaceful, and that helped calm Erik a little. He realised that Jimmy's power would work on Charles's as well - that was why the boy's collar had been on when he'd first been purchased. That meant Erik could think about how to keep the children safe as long as Jimmy was near Charles and using his ability.

Heart hammering in his chest, he tried to push that aside, and went to find Scott. He used his power to open the door, and found himself faced with an empty room. Scott wasn't there, and he could feel himself considering the worst.

He closed his eyes, feeling for Scott's bracelet, trying to fight down the terror until he found it. He was with his brother.

Erik walked on. Bobby was asleep, his little snowflake talisman on the nightstand beside him. At the door opening he rolled over and groaned, burying his face in the pillow. Erik closed the door before the light could disturb him.

The Summers brothers were curled up, the glow from their collars illuminating the room and reflecting off the bracelets they wore. He slipped away before he woke them, glancing in his own room.

Despite the irrationality of the thought, he half expected to find that his bed and desk had disappeared. They were still there. The room looked just the same as it did when he'd got dressed earlier, the t-shirt he'd worn before still discarded on the floor. He picked it up and put it in his pile of washing. He could have laughed at that - he'd dropped that when he'd thought Charles was a human, when he'd expected to merely suffer through an evening of humiliation. He'd had no idea what was coming for him.

He hesitated, glancing at the wall, knowing Laura's room was beyond. He couldn't stop thinking about the idea of her lying dead. It being his fault. His hand shook as he reached for the handle, but he needed to see.

He tried to reach for it. As his fingers brushed the metal, the door opened. Laura looked up at him for a moment, before she walked forwards and put her arms around his waist. He pushed her away for a moment, kneeling down and pulling her back against him, his face resting on her shoulder. He tried to hold back his tears, as she clung to him just as tightly.

Her fingers patted his hair, the way she'd soothed Jimmy, and he bit back a sob.
"You're up late, Kätzchen," he told her, and she shrugged, clinging for a little longer. He stood up, picking her up and carrying her over to the bed. He kissed her forehead, then carefully placed her down and wrapped the blankets around her.

She reached out, grabbing his sleeve, and he let himself sit beside her. Charles had told him to come to the office once he'd checked on the children, but he was already in so much trouble. He could spare a few more minutes.
"You want a story?" He asked. She nodded, and he picked up a book from the shelf, smiling faintly at the colourful pictures, and began to read. "Congratulations! Today is your day, you're off to great places, you're off and away..."

He finished the book, placing it back on the shelf, and making sure the blanket arranged over her would be comfortable. He pressed a kiss to her forehead.
"Sweet dreams," he murmured, and stepped back, keeping quiet until he was sure she was at least dozing, then slipping away. Once he had closed the door he allowed himself to feel the emotions he'd pressed down.

He could still hear the words he'd read to her echoing, and he swallowed down his tears. He'd never meant to be a liar, but now he'd been lying all the time, telling the children that things were okay. He missed Azazel and Frost - they'd understood the truth. They'd laughed together, sharing jokes that would horrify others, and had found strength in their worthless existences. But the children weren't like that. They were like Mystique, fumbling with a memory of being human and trying to negotiate a world that had reclassified them. It was easy to say it would be safe, that they don't need to worry, to tell them lies. He'd always promised he wouldn't lie to other mutants, and now he did it all the time, without even thinking. He told the children they were safe, even when they weren't. He had comforted Bobby as he had tried to pack up the remnants of a human life. He had read Laura books about freedom and adventure when she would be trapped here until she was sold on.

He remembered being Alex’s age. Sixteen or seventeen, and hating his mother for how she’d lied. For her telling him things would be okay, thinking she was naïve. He remembered wanting to scream at her memory, because she was wrong and things didn’t get better. And here he was, ten years later, repeating her lies to the children not because he thought they were true but because he knew they weren’t. Because the world was cruel, and the only comfort he could offer was false. There was no hope for them, not really, but he had to try and give some while he could, and if that meant lying then that was what he’d do. If he died, he had to have given them something to hang on for. He thought of his mother, and the anger he had felt, and prayed for her forgiveness.

He hesitated by the top of the stairs, fear making him slow. He couldn't let it win. He'd go, and he'd accept whatever happened, as long as Xavier wasn't thinking of selling the children to Schmidt. If he was, he'd go in their place. That thought scared him. He'd be leaving his children defenceless, and he wouldn't survive long, might not even survive whatever Schmidt dreamed up to welcome him home - but he would do it. He had to believe that Xavier wasn't cruel enough to send Laura and Jimmy away to a man like Schmidt.

Erik walked down the stairs, fear swirling inside of him. He couldn't help recalling all of the thoughts that he'd had, the tiny acts of rebellion that he was about to pay for. He'd not known, and it wasn't fair, but men like Schmidt and Xavier knew nothing of fairness.

He headed to Charles's office, hesitating outside, trying to bring himself to knock.
"Come in," Charles called out, and Erik knew Charles had felt his mind outside. He pushed open the door, walked in a few steps, and fell to his knees, back straight, hands clasped behind him, head down. He had to try and get this right at least; Had to try and prove he could behave, and could keep his thoughts quiet.

"Erik?" Charles sounded laughably concerned. "Get up, take the chair please..."

He obeyed, but his movements were under his own steam. He sat down at the table.

Charles looked across at him, flicking through some papers.
"I'm sorry, I should have told you earlier," Charles said, and Erik could have laughed at that, especially when a moment later Charles coughed and then clarified. "I'm a telepath."

"I noticed," Erik muttered, and he knew he shouldn't speak out of turn but he could remember all the times he'd thought he was safe. The prayers he'd allowed himself to think from desperation, because even if his room was bugged, it wouldn't pick up thoughts. The times he'd made comments to himself about Charles's actions. He was goading him now - the pain would be coming, and if Charles was focused on him the children were safe.

"I have no interest in punishing the children," Charles said firmly. "I don't want to punish you either, Erik. I wanted to talk about this, like adults. Let's start with questions you have. What do you want to know?"

"Did you know?"

"Know what?"

"That Schmidt would be there. When you... When you asked me to go... did you already know that he'd be there?"

"No. I checked the guest list... I wanted to avoid this exact situation. If I had known he was coming I could have taken Bobby instead."

Erik looked across at Charles, his mind whirling at Charles's words.

"No," Erik said, and his voice shook a little, but he squared his shoulders and gripped the arm of his chair. "You can't." He knew he was being bad now, arguing back, answering when he should stay silent. But he couldn't avoid it, not if Charles was honestly suggesting Bobby anywhere near Schmidt. He couldn't let that happen.

"Erik-"

"No," Erik interrupted, feeling the metal frame of his chair twisting slightly beneath his finger tips. "If you let Schmidt near the children, I will find a way of making you pay." He swallowed his fear, imagining Schmidt getting his hands on Scott, or Jimmy, or even Laura - she was even younger than he had been, and the other two were close to the age he was when it started. He wasn't going to let history repeat himself, not for those children.

He could feel thin strands of his chair peeling away, shaping themselves into potential weapons, but he forced the metal back. Charles had shown he'd be willing to control him if he had to. His blood ran cold as he thought about freezing at dinner, the fact that was Charles's fault. Right from the start, Charles had been puppeting him, and it made his skin crawl. How many times had Charles listened to his prayers? His fears? He thought of times Charles had said things that hadn't quite made sense, as though Charles could hear inside his head.

Charles could hear inside his head. He couldn't stop it if Charles took action, but he'd fight it with everything he had.

Erik's eyes prickled with tears, and he could feel the rest of the metal in the room now. He focused in on Charles's wheelchair with a thought. He could break it if he had to. For now, he wouldn't, but he didn't think the collar would activate from him using his ability on the chair. He could run. He knew he wouldn't get far, but he was trapped and he hated the idea he'd die here. Maybe him disappearing would make it clear to the children that this wasn't safe..

"Erik-" Charles tried again, and he fell silent when Erik looked at him coldly.

"Leave me alone, Charles." Erik spoke, channelling all the anger and bitterness and terror which had kept him alive for so long. "This has all been some sick game to you, hasn't it? Right from the start you've been in my head, watching and recording and learning all my mistakes and dreams and you... you bastard, you..." His voice shook, and the tears were falling now. "You... let me think I was safe and-" He could tell his volume was increasing, desperate terror and anger making him loud, and he knew he was in trouble now.

But it would be better to know. He could survive a few seconds of any punishment, then make himself live another few, and a few more, for as long as it took. He'd do that here for the children's sake.

Trying to pretend everything was normal was killing him. It was exhausting to try and stay brave for the children when he didn't know the rules of the game he was playing. "What do you want?" Erik asked. "Because look, I've already offered you everything. The kids... The kids deserve better. Bobby would hate it there and you-"

"He'd not be traumatised the way-"

"I don't want him traumatised in any way, Charles. You are sending all these signals and it's not... it's not fair. Because we need to know how the game works and you won't tell us and it's... It's fucking cruel, Charles. You treat us like we're people and you keep us collared, you get the kids to learn but you never allow them outside, it's... I can't live like this."

Erik knew his voice was coming out in gasps now, louder than he intended as tears rolled down his face. "At least Schmidt let me know what the fucking rules are. I can't... I never know when I'm going to do something wrong and set you off and then… then you hide this. How am I meant to... I can't..." He sobbed, his shoulders shaking.

Charles reached across the desk, his thumb brushing Erik's hand. Erik tensed for a moment before he moved his hand away, not wanting the contact as his brain buzzed with memories.

"I can't... I need to know what's happening," Erik begged." I need to know where your fucking rules are, Charles. I have to..." The metal in the room was shaking, and he didn't want to stop it. "You lied. You let me think I was… You acted like you were human and all this time, you've known what I've thought and I... I can't live like this." Erik was shaking with rage and fear and pain, and it took him a few moments to realise Charles for once wasn't answering back.

He didn't know what punishment would come next. But at least he'd know. No human, no matter how kind they pretended to be, would allow him to speak the way he'd just spoken. He hesitated, raising his hand to his face and scrubbing back tears.

It was a countdown now, until Charles punished him, and it was going to be bad. He'd never been this bad before, had always tried to behave since he got here, but he'd been pushed over the edge. The thought of Schmidt getting his hands on poor innocent Bobby, the boy who sobbed because he missed his family - that was too much. He'd accept whatever happened to him if it kept the children away from harm.

"Erik?" Charles asked, and Erik looked up, half expecting to see Schmidt there. Charles cleared his throat. "I have a few things I need to sort out. I want you to rest now. We will speak after breakfast."

Erik made no effort to move, too terrified of what would happen. He knew he'd be awake all night dreading what would come next, and his legs didn't feel strong enough to support him. Charles could just take control away in a heartbeat if he wanted, and his body and mind would no longer be his own. It should have remained the stuff of nightmares.

He sobbed and Charles looked at him.
"Go on, get out of my office, Erik. I won't make you, but I think you have a lot to think about. I'll see you tomorrow."

Erik wished he was strong enough to stay, to fight, and argue his case. He was too scared. He stumbled to his feet, and hurried to the door, pausing outside and fighting down the wave of anger within him that wondered if Charles's door was strong enough to resist metal.

He was exhausted and shaking with emotion and being inside made his skin itch. He had to get outside.

He fumbled with the front door until it opened, and he stepped out into the gardens, lit by a bright starlit sky.

Erik stumbled out onto the patio, gasping for air. He fell against the masonry, gripping onto it for a moment, clutching it white knuckled as he tried to breathe. He closed his eyes, let himself focus on the fact he was outside. He stepped back from the barrier, made his way to the steps, sitting down with his back towards the door of the mansion. He drew his arms around his knees, pressing his face down and starting to sob.

It felt as though the dam he'd been keeping his fears behind had burst, and sorrow and anger swept through him. He thought of Schmidt, the way he'd looked at him tonight, the way Charles's voice in his head had sounded so calm, as though everything was going as it should, how he had been acting out the part of the perfect mutant on Charles's whim. He thought of what he'd said. What he'd accused Charles of. The thoughts avalanched, whirling inside of him, and he was so afraid. Not just for the children, of what would happen to them when he was no longer here, but also for himself. He didn't want to leave, didn't want to say goodbye to the kids and return to before - and that showed just how weak he'd become, how he'd fallen for so many of Charles's lies, because Mutants didn't get to say goodbye. Didn't get to pretend that their relationships, the fragile attempts at normality they built, were worth anything.

Charles would be allowed to send him back, or sell him on, or shoot him, and the only reason the law would protest would be if they knew that Charles wasn't what he appeared to be. He sobbed again, the noise ragged, animal. It escaped out into the night, and he hoped it wasn't something any of the children would overhear. He didn't want any of them to hear this, didn't want any of them to know what he'd become when he was this afraid.

He heard the door open, footsteps behind him.
"Hey," Alex called out, and he flinched, trying to work out how he could hide his tears. Before that became possible, the boy sat down beside him, holding out two bottles of beer.

"Aren't you too young?" Erik asked, and even though Alex must have seen how his face was covered in tears, heard how his voice was trembling, the kid said nothing.

"That law only applies to humans," Alex answered, nudging him with a bottle. Erik shrugged, taking one, and carefully removing the bottle caps with a flick of his wrist.

Alex clinked his bottle against Erik's own, and for a moment Erik smiled at him, before he cleared his throat slightly.
"Why are you here, Alex?" he asked. "You should be inside."

"Scottie's asleep," Alex reassured him. "And Charles asked me to come out. Think he wanted to make sure you weren't-"

"I'm not going to run off and leave you kids."

"I don't think that was what he was worried about."

"Like I said, I won't leave you kids," Erik answered, and Alex nodded, resting against his shoulder.

"You found out huh? About the..." He gestured towards his head, wiggling his fingers.

Erik nodded, not sure he could trust himself to speak. He frowned slightly.
"You knew?"

"Yeah." Alex swallowed. "We haven't told Anne Marie or Jimmy or Scott, you know, to keep them safe, but he said I didn't give him much fucking choice."

Erik snorted slightly, and shook his head. He couldn't imagine Charles saying it quite like that.

"I didn't, I guess." Alex took a swig out of his bottle, and gazed up at the stars. "You know... he said before, the military had me, right?"

Erik nodded, reaching out to wrap an arm around Alex for a moment, give him a reassuring squeeze. The kid nodded, and took a deep breath.
"They didn't like me much."

Erik thought of what had been said when they'd met, and nodded his understanding.
"So Charles bought you off them?" he asked, managing to keep his voice steady that time, to focus on what he was saying and listen to what Alex wanted to share. It was a good distraction from how sick he felt.

"Yeah. Well, they'd been running tests on me, all kinds of shit, but it... What I can do, it's not exactly usable unless you need everything blown to hell. And so they were gonna sell me. And like... being tortured by the government, that was hell, but I couldn't face the thought of being some rich guy's pet, you know?" He shrugged, and Erik nodded his understanding.

Alex took a deep breath, stretching and taking another gulp of the beer before he continued. "I'd managed to fuck up my collar. Not much, but I was pretty sure I could get off one good blast. Way I saw it, I had to time it when they opened my door. And I either died in the explosion, or they killed me after. Manage to kill some of those pricks, and it wasn't... It wasn't the worst way to go, you know? Better than spending my sixteenth birthday with some creep." He shuddered, and leaned against Erik's side for a moment.

Erik stayed quiet, impressed by the kid's bravery. A lot of people wouldn't have fought as hard as he had.

"Well, day comes that they got a buyer, and he's come there, and he's outside my room, I can hear them talking, and I'm getting ready because I get one fucking chance, before they know it's off and it all goes to shit and... and I hear his voice in my head. All, 'Hello Alex. My name is Charles. I'm a telepath. I need you to cooperate with me, I want to get you out of here, but I can only do that if you help me. I've got your brother, Scott, right here. So please, just play along.' And well, I could have passed out right then. But... I couldn't hurt Scott, and it was pretty clear the fucker was a telepath, so... I thought I'd try. See what happened, see if I could make sure Scott was safe." He sighed, picking at the label of the beer bottle.
"Threw away what could have been my one chance at getting out on a promise from a man I didn't know."

"You regret it?" Erik asked, looking at him.

"No," Alex answered simply. "I got Scottie somewhere safe. I got... I got somewhere safe. But fuck. It scared me, and that was when it was the first thing I knew. He should have told you."

"I... I don't know how I'd have handled it," Erik admitted. "I mean, I can't see it having been any less terrifying..."

"Maybe not," Alex shrugged. "But sometimes shit's scary and you still deserve to know, you know?"

Erik nodded, swallowing.
"He wants to talk to me about it tomorrow. I... I said some stuff I shouldn't have."

"Was it the truth?" Alex asked, peeling away strips of the label and letting them drop down onto the ground.

"Yes."

"Well if you hadn't said it, he'd have heard it anyway. Look, all of us gave him some shit at some point. That's why he keeps us, because we're too fucked up to let out into the world. Raven and him used to have screaming matches that'd give Jimmy panic attacks."

"I'm sorry," Erik didn't want to remind him of the girl who wasn't here any longer.

Alex shrugged a little, staring at the stars.
"Yeah. But it... he's not so bad. And he's right. I've been here almost a year and I still panic sometimes. Rogue - Anne-Marie, she has days she can't get out of bed. Jimmy... Jimmy doesn't sleep some nights. And Charles has never hurt any of us. He said he hurt you. That's why he wanted me to check you were okay. And to tell you he wanted to talk in the morning. To apologise."

Erik gazed down at the empty bottle in his hands, and bit back a laugh at the thought of Charles apologising to him.
"It... wasn't fun to find out. About..." He lifted his hand, wiggled his fingers the same way Alex had to mention telepathy.

"Yeah. Never is. You met one before?"

"A woman. Frost. She was collared," Erik answered, and Alex nodded.

"Come on. Let's get you back inside. It's getting late, and I'm not carrying you to bed." Alex stood up, offered Erik his hand.

Erik grabbed on and got to his feet, stumbling a little. He still felt sick, but the nausea had receded a little. He could at least make it a few steps now without staggering.

"You should eat something," Alex pestered, and Erik nodded, let the boy lead the way to the kitchen. He found himself sat on one of the chairs as Alex dug through a cupboard, retrieving a box of colourful cereal and then throwing it over to Erik.

"Thanks." Erik opened the packet then paused. "You want some?"

"Sure." Alex sat down beside him, and shoved his hand into the box, grabbing a handful of the cereal. He placed it in front of him, picking at it as Erik shrugged and ate some.

"You and Scott eat a lot."

"Yeah," Alex agreed. "It's fuelling our abilities, according to Hank. He's trying to work out a way of fixing it."

"You want that?" Erik asked, concern for the boys spiking.

Alex shrugged and shoved more cereal in his mouth.
"I don't mind. We're not left hungry here."

Erik didn't have anything to say to that. Alex yawned, and Erik found himself yawning as well, exhaustion from the last few hours swamping him.

"You better get to bed."

"I don't have an alarm clock," Erik mumbled. He felt so exhausted, he feared that given the chance he might sleep too much, and not be awake for his meeting with Charles. It would be better to stay awake all night than risk oversleeping if he was already going to be in trouble.

"I'll wake you up when we go for breakfast," Alex interrupted his concern. "Your room's basically next to mine, it's not a problem."

"Thanks," Erik said softly. For so long he'd been fighting on his own, it was weird to find now he had people at his side. He pushed the remainder of the cereal away, and headed to his room, Alex sticking close by.

"Night." Alex paused by Erik's door. "If you need anything-"

"Yeah." Erik nodded. He could barely stay on his feet, he was so tired. He fumbled open his door, kicked off his shoes, and fell onto the bed.

***

Erik woke at the sound of a knock on his door.

"Breakfast!" Alex's voice called.

"Thank you!" Erik answered, hearing footsteps outside, as he stretched his shoulders. He'd slept awkwardly, the light on his room still on, and he was lying on top of the blankets in the crumpled suit Charles had had him wear. He groaned, and headed to the bathroom.

Looking at his face in the mirror, he could see the dark circles under his eyes, and thought back to the events of the previous night. He was due to meet Charles. Charles, who he'd raised his voice to. Charles, who had heard his thoughts, the entire time he was here.

Reluctantly, he changed into new clothes, and headed towards the stairs.

Jimmy, Scott and Laura were deep in conversation at the table, and Anne Marie was watching as Bobby sat on the floor, his fingertips tracing snowflakes onto the tiles. Hank and Alex were sat side by side, looking at some notes.

"Where's Charles?"

"Oh, he's in his office," Hank answered, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "He said he had some paperwork to deal with.”

Erik nodded slowly.
"What are you two up to?"

"We're pretty sure we can develop a focusing panel for Alex's ability so that it can be a little more… directional."

"He's pretty sure," Alex interrupted. "I'm just willing to give it a go."

Erik nodded, sitting at the table. He'd go and knock on Charles's door in a moment.

Laura waved at him, and he waved back, trying to fake a smile so that she didn't worry. She grabbed an apple from the bowl on the table, and rolled it over towards him.

Erik hesitated for only a moment before he picked it up, nodding at her and taking a bite. He couldn't taste it, too caught up in his thoughts, but he appreciated her trying to look after him.
"You kids going to be alright studying today?" he addressed the trio at the table.

"I'll keep an eye on them," Anne Marie promised, as the younger ones nodded. Erik finished eating his apple, and then stood reluctantly. He could do this. He had to do this. He allowed himself to linger for a few more moments, to embrace each of the children in turn, before he walked away. He would keep them safe.

Alex had said Charles wanted to apologise, which seemed laughable. It was far more likely this was his chance to apologise, to find a way of making up for his behaviour. But he would go and listen to whatever Charles wanted to say, and handle it. He reminded himself that he could survive anything, and that now he had the children to survive for. It was a comfort, of sorts, having a purpose.

He reached Charles's office and knocked smartly. He wouldn't repeat his mistakes of the previous night.

"Come in!" Charles called, looking up as he walked inside and gesturing to the empty chair. "Take a seat, I wanted to talk to you about yesterday."

Erik sat, and waited, fighting down the urge to apologise straight away. It was rude to speak without permission, and the last thing he wanted was to make his situation worse. Charles looked at him, quietly, and Erik realised Charles was probably inside his head, the way he'd been all along. The way he'd been when Erik had thought of hurting him, killing him. The way he'd been when Erik had nightmares about Schmidt. Erik had to do this right. He couldn't leave the children defenceless and that meant he had to live. He had to get out of here.

"Erik? Could you look at me please?" Charles asked, and his voice was soft. Erik obeyed, lifting his head, and saw Charles's expression. It was hard to read, eyes looking almost pained, shimmering slightly. He looked tired, dark circles under his eyes. Charles swallowed, and managed a faint smile before he began.

"I'm sorry about the fear you felt last night. I won't apologise for my actions. It was the only solution I could come up with at the time that would get you out of there alive. I know you're angry, and I know you feel I should have told you, but I couldn't just reveal my telepathy over breakfast. Maybe I should have... Erik, please." Charles looked into his eyes. "I can feel you trying to block your emotions. It won't help either of us if you do that. You're hurting. Let yourself be hurt, if you need to. I'm listening."

"I'm sorry," Erik whispered, startled a little by the way his voice shook. "I... I didn't mean what I said-"

"You did," Charles said firmly. "I know you did. And you don't need to apologise."

"How many of my thoughts have you heard?" Erik asked quietly, glancing back down at the desk. He couldn't help thinking of all the thoughts he'd had which were bad, the kind that could get you into trouble. He couldn't even begin to imagine what Schmidt would have done if he'd known Erik's thoughts. His mind was full of the man's smirk, his voice, the way he'd look at Erik and say he'd disappointed him.

"Stop that. Erik, please." Charles muttered, taking a couple of deep breaths. "I've heard a lot of your thoughts. I needed to monitor you initially, to ensure you wouldn't harm the children. And when you think about me - it's like when someone says your name. I notice it, that's all. I don't hold any of your thoughts against you. I won't punish you for them." Charles shrugged. "Thoughts aren't always what's important. Your actions, not your thoughts, define you."

Erik hesitated, then realised that Charles kept looking down at his desk. He'd written notes. Something about that made Erik bite down a smile, and Charles looked up at him and shrugged.
"I'm not asking you to trust me, Erik. I'd like for you to continue with the children, but if you need to leave I can try and find a friend who can take you in-"

"I don't want to leave the children. Please."

"I know," Charles said quickly. "I won't make you. And I know you'll need some space. But... after what I've seen at the party, I need some time to research that man. I might need to look into your memories more deeply, but only with permission."

"Why?" Erik shuddered. He didn't want Charles in his head, and he couldn't believe he was answering back, but with Charles it almost felt like he could challenge him.

"Because, from what I've seen, we need to get rid of him. I know you don't trust me, Erik. I'd know that even if I wasn't a telepath. But right now, I'm your best bet of making sure that man never destroys someone else the way he hurt you and your mother." Charles looked at him again, and Erik was startled by the intensity of those blue eyes. "I'm going to get rid of him, with or without your assistance. But it would be easier if you'll help me. It's your choice."

Erik looked at him. If Charles was to be believed, this was the first choice in a long time that he'd made knowing all the information. He was still afraid, but Charles hadn't mentioned any punishment for last night, and it didn't feel like he was just waiting to drop it on him later. Alex knew, and Alex trusted him. He'd kept the children safe.

All of that aside, without Charles's help Erik had no chance of destroying Schmidt.

Still meeting Charles's gaze, he nodded.

Chapter Text

“The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.”

***

Erik had expected more questions, at a minimum, after he agreed to help Charles get rid of Schmidt. Instead, Charles looked at him, and tried to hide a yawn.
"Erik, you should go about the day. You've had a shock, and I need some time to do research. My first priority is moving Bobby on, I can make arrangements today, he’ll leave within a week. There's no point in exposing people to unnecessary danger. Then once he's been dealt with, I can start to work against Schmidt."

Erik nodded, not wanting to meet Charles's eye. He wanted Schmidt gone, but he knew there was nothing he could do. Charles had made it clear the previous night just how incapable Erik was of acting against Charles's will.

"Go and study with the children, Erik," Charles said softly.

"You know I..." Erik started, shame at his own ignorance flickering through his mind. He couldn't bring himself to explain, but after all, Charles was in his thoughts. He didn't need to voice it out loud, just to focus on his embarrassment.

Charles looked at him, and shook his head.
"That's on him. Not you. You are an intelligent man, who has managed to stay alive in a near impossible situation. You shouldn't be ashamed of not knowing things you never got the chance to learn. You're studying now, and you're already making progress. I think you're going to surprise yourself with what you are capable of."

Erik didn't have the words to respond to what Charles had said, didn't want to believe he would be able to learn now, because if he let himself believe then it would only hurt worse when he inevitably failed. He shook his head, and looked up towards Charles, trying to be calm.
"Where are you going to send Bobby?" Erik didn't think he'd be sending Bobby somewhere he'd be hurt, but he still felt sick at the thought of losing the younger mutant. When the children were in Charles's house, Erik knew that they were safe aside from tests.

"The tests that happen are done with the children's consent, and with their full understanding," Charles interrupted smoothly. "And Bobby will be going to stay with a friend of mine, a man who had a mutant sister, and is willing to provide rooms for the older mutants I find. He'll stay there for a few weeks, to fully settle into his new identity, and then he'll probably be placed with a second set of foster parents. He'll go to college, and he's going to go on and do well, I'm sure of it. He will still have a mutation, but it won't be what governs his life."

Erik nodded slowly. He didn't like it, but he could see the logic behind Charles's plan, and anyway - he knew Charles was used to doing this. If Charles said it worked, he would have to try and let it happen.

"I believe Laura and Jimmy are in the library," Charles said gently. "I think you should go and check on them, Laura's starting to get bored."

Erik nodded, and walked away. It took a few steps before he felt his shoulders relax, and he allowed himself to sigh in relief. Charles had heard all the thoughts he had, but seemed willing not to hold those against him. Erik was determined to make the most of it for however long that lasted. He could use this time to learn, and to work with the children, and give them strength, and then when one day he messed up too badly for forgiveness, they would all be in a better place than they were before. Once someone had been educated, that couldn't be taken back.

He headed to the library, finding Laura curled up in a comfortable chair. The second she saw him she jumped down, running to him and cuddling him tightly.
"Hey Kätzchen," he greeted her as he picked her up into the air, settling her against his hip and carrying her back to the chair she was on before. "You two hard at work again?"

"Yes," Jimmy nodded. "Hank said he'll be around after lunch, he's just doing some tests with Bobby first."

Erik nodded, trying not to tense too obviously at that comment. It wouldn't do for the children to realise how much he was afraid of testing. Children were quick to pick up on the fears of adults, and he didn't want to be a bad influence. For now, he would focus on educating them. He'd pushed his luck far enough, and he had to trust that Bobby wouldn't get hurt too badly. After lunch, if he found out that Bobby was hurt, could find something to distract Hank from further testing. He knew his own abilities were weaponizable, more than Bobby's were.

For now, what mattered was reading with the children, and encouraging them, and letting them feel safe.

***

Laura really was trying to sit and learn, and to be good the way Jimmy was, but Erik could tell that she was struggling to pay attention. From what he'd learned about her so far, she'd spent a lot of time before she came here locked up in a cage awaiting testing, and that had left her with no real ability to be patient. He could feel her growing restless, the metal in her arms and feet twitching as she wanted to be free.

There was no point in Erik's mind in trying to train her into being good, not when she was bored and they hadn't been told to. The sun was shining, and even though the library was luxurious it wasn't of any interest to her. She was distracted by the pigeons outside.

"Come on, let's go and stretch our legs," he told her, helping her off of his lap and standing up. "You can come too if you want, Jimmy. We can go to the kitchen and get some food, and then..." He smiled. "I'll have a special treat planned." If he could, he'd grab the food and take the children outside to eat it. His own little act of rebellion to enjoy the weather while he was able to.

Jimmy slipped a bookmark into place between his pages, and then he got up as well, following the two of them out from the library and down the corridor until they reached the stairs.

Erik glanced down, and saw something awful, a shape hanging from the light fitting. Sickness caught in his throat. Before his conscious mind could process what he was seeing, he was shoving the children backwards.
"Stay there," he ordered, racing down the stairs, still trying to work it out - Bobby had been stood and staring, and it must have been Alex, free of tests for once. Erik found himself thinking of other mutants he'd known, those that had managed to get away from their life the only way they could. He was almost at the bottom of the stairs, not wanting to look. He didn't know if he would be in time. Alex had been doing so well, had seemed so calm. Erik hadn't known - and there was Scott to think about. Alex had always seemed concerned for his brother, after everything Scott had already suffered. He was almost at the bottom of the stairs, and what he was seeing didn't make sense.

"Get off the bloody chandelier, Hank," Charles snapped, wheeling into view at the end of the corridor.

Erik paused, looking, really looking. Erik, sit down please, there you go... It's alright. Charles's voice echoed in his mind, and he found himself sitting down, staring.

Erik had thought he'd seen a figure hanging from the light. And now he saw that it was true, but that the figure wasn't Alex. It was Hank. And he was hanging by his feet.

As he watched, Hank flipped around in midair, landing barefoot on the wooden floor beneath. Bobby laughed and clapped, and Erik gulped air, trying to understand, thinking of those he'd seen before, what he'd thought he'd seen this time. Hank's feet were strange, and he realised that this man was a mutant. He found himself wondering if anyone he had met here was human.

"Moira is. Human I mean," Charles called as he rolled towards where Erik was sat. "I believe Hank here was discussing adaptation... Hank, there, now once you've put your shoes on, go upstairs and get Jimmy and Laura. Bobby, Scott, Alex and Anne Marie are in the kitchen. Hank, if you can you round everyone up, you should have a picnic to celebrate the fact Bobby should be heading off next Wednesday..."

"So soon?" Erik asked, his mouth dry. That wasn't long. He'd been considering trying to sort things out, to make sure that Bobby had hidden supplies of food and things… He’d have to do that quickly. He'd promised Bobby that this would be somewhere he'd be safe, and now that was gone.

"The sooner he can start afresh, the better." Charles said. He looked across at Erik. "We can talk about it after the picnic. Of course, that's all dependent on Irene's approval."

"Irene..." Erik parroted the name back to him, thinking of the blind woman who had clutched at her human's arm, who had tried to warn him he was in danger. Normally he tried to provide some comfort to other mutants, especially those in need, but he hadn't helped her even though she was vulnerable. He hadn't even considered what she was capable of. He told himself he wanted to encourage his kind, and when he'd been at that party, surrounded by them, he had failed them. He didn't even know her ability.

"She's a precog," Charles answered his unasked question. "Her and Darkholme are coming this evening to discuss things. I'd appreciate it if you can join me, your presence should help Irene's ability when it comes to discussing how we act around Schmidt."

Erik nodded slowly, seeing Hank leading the younger children downstairs, before walking into the kitchen. "I'll be there. You know I will."

"I know Erik. I just wish that you wouldn't always treat every request like I was ordering you to jump off a cliff." Charles snorted, and shook his head. "Here, an order for you. Have a picnic with the children, and enjoy yourself."

Erik hesitated, looking at Charles, and then cleared his throat.
"You should come with us."

Charles looked at him curiously, and then nodded. "I suppose I should."

***

Erik couldn't help feeling a wave of relief when he saw Alex sat with the other children, slicing up some leftover garlic bread and handing it to Scott. He liked the kid, wasn't ready to lose him, and Hank had frightened him then. He sat down next to Laura, Jimmy on his other side, and Charles wheeling up to the blanket.

Laura cuddled up against Erik's side, and he patted her arm gently, looking towards Hank.
"You're a mutant then?" he asked, not willing to keep it a secret from the children. He knew he was being rude, challenging him in public like this, but seeing him hanging from the light had scared him, and he wanted to make it clear he wouldn't just stand by and ignore what had happened.

Charles's lips pressed together into a thin line, but he said nothing. Erik looked at Hank, and after a few moments it was Hank who looked away, nodding.

"I am a mutant. I just choose not to show it," Hank answered. "I don't like being seen as one."

"You have a physical mutation," Erik argued. "You could be noticed at any time and you're here and you don't even wear a collar-"

"Hank's mutation doesn't pose any potential danger to anyone other than himself," Charles interrupted. "He prefers to keep it private, and I permit it, because it allows the children to see that you are able to pass as human. Hank works with me not because he is a mutant, but because he is a scientist who is able to help the young mutants that I find. He helps them control their powers, and get ready for their move- oh, Jimmy, could you pass me a sausage roll, thank you."

Erik glared at Hank for a moment, but he knew he was going to have no luck with the argument there, and he didn't want to cause a scene in front of the children. It bothered him though, how easy Charles seemed to believe it was to hide mutations, as though all you needed to do was wear some shoes or keep people at a distance, and no one would notice anything.

He thought of Azazel, and of Mystique, whose very skin marked them as different, and felt a burst of anger. Charles glanced over towards him, but said nothing, and the meal continued Charles ended up talking to the children about their studies, and to Bobby about his plans for college, promising him that the Miller family would be lovely, and that Bobby would get on with their human son, Judah.

Erik still felt a little sick at the thought of losing Bobby, but he knew that Charles was doing what he thought was best. He continued to eavesdrop, picking at his food.

Alex nudged Erik, and when he looked up he grinned.
"Feeling better?" he whispered.

Erik nodded quickly - things were much calmer today, and while Charles appeared to have abandoned any attempt to conceal his telepathy when they were alone, he hadn't lashed out at Erik for his behaviour. It was hard to believe, but then nothing here had been what he had expected. Charles clearly took taking care of the children seriously, and that gave Erik a sense of security he hadn't felt in a long time.

After lunch, he headed back to the library with the children and Hank, and set about working on his mathematics, Jimmy helping. Erik still felt ashamed he wasn't better at this, but he wanted to try. Charles's words echoed in his head - If he wanted to really take care of the children, he had to find ways to live for them. That wasn't going to be easy, but managing this was a start.

Erik? Just so that you know, Darkholme and Irene should be here soon. Charles reached out to him just as Laura was getting fidgety again.

Do I need to change what I'm wearing?

Stay in what you're comfortable in. This meal is informal, I promise you. We're having... pizza... I just need to remind Hank to put it in the oven.

Hank cleared his throat.
"We're going to have dinner soon, I think we're cooking today Jimmy..." With that, he excused himself. Jimmy waved and followed.

Erik turned to Laura.
"The mutant woman who is coming here, she's called Irene, she can't see anything, okay? So you have to be careful, like with Scott."

Laura nodded obediently, and they headed downstairs, Laura going to play with Scott and Anne Marie as Erik waited awkwardly in the entrance room, determined to thank Irene for her help the previous night. Even though things had quickly moved out of his control, she had tried to help him, and he was grateful for that.

"Can we keep our collars turned off?" he asked Charles, and Charles laughed.

"You'd better."

He could feel the car approaching on the drive, and then it stopped. A few moments later there was a knock on the door, and Miss Darkholme stood there, her mutant clutching her elbow.

Erik frowned. In this lighting, she looked even more familiar. Neither her nor her mutant could have been over eighteen. Today, Darkholme was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and Irene was wearing a blue dress with a red ribbon.

"Close the door, Erik," Charles ordered, his voice a little tense. Erik obeyed, raising his hand to close it with his power, and a moment later Darkholme's skin rippled, blue scales spreading up her arms.

"It's good of you to come Raven, Irene. Thank you."

"My name is Mystique," Darkholme answered, staring up at her brother, and Erik looked between them. There was no denying that this was the same girl that had been imprisoned beside him. But she'd looked afraid then, terrified, and she didn't look scared now. She looked angry.

"Raven, you're in my house-"

"I'm not ashamed of what I am, Charles," Darkholme answered, her voice thick with warning. "I'm not going to hide what I am, isn't that right, Magneto?" She turned towards Erik. "Mutant and proud."

Erik knew he should have echoed it, but he looked away. He couldn't risk going against Charles's wishes, not when there were the children to worry about.

Irene leaned up, pressing a kiss to Darkholme's cheek and whispering. A moment later, the woman nodded.
"Irene says if we want to talk I need to give you something you can use. Is 'Miss Darkholme' human enough for your sensitivities?"

Charles didn't get to answer. Before he could, there was a sudden shout, and then Anne Marie raced across the hall, looking happier than Erik had ever seen her.
"Raven!"

"Anne!" Raven squealed, rushing forwards to hug the other girl tightly, leaving Irene stood there. Irene was smiling though, so Erik tried not to worry.

"Erik, would you mind taking Irene to the sitting room and getting her something to drink?" Charles asked.

Erik quickly obeyed, walking to Irene and offering her his arm.
"Let me get you a drink?"

The blind mutant reached out, her hand grasping his elbow, and he led her away from the chaos of the hallway towards the sitting room.
We can talk business later, for now just keep Irene comfortable. Food won't be long, then we can put the children to bed. Charles's instructions delivered themselves to his mind, and Erik wondered if this woman knew about Charles's abilities.

"What would you like?" he asked as he awkwardly helped her to a seat. "We've got water, tea, coffee, fruit juice, sodas-"

"Some lemonade would be lovely," she said with a smile.

"Alright. I'll... I'll be right back," he told her, and went to get a drink for her. He grabbed himself a lemonade as well. As soon as he reached the doorway he cleared his throat. "I'm back, and I got you a drink." He held it out. "It's right in front of you."

She took the can, opening it with nimble fingers, and took a slow sip of it.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I couldn't tell who you were at first, at the party. By the time I realised it was too late, and he-"

"Do..." Erik hesitated, hating thinking of this girl having an idea of him at his most vulnerable. It was bad enough that Xavier had his thoughts, he didn't want a teenager to have seen as well. "Did you see what he did?"

"Not what he did, no. My gift doesn't work like that, I have no more idea of what comes before than you do. But I can see what's likely to come next. And I could see your terror, clearly. I wished to spare you that... It was so intense..." She shivered, and he looked down.

"I'm sorry I hurt you."

"No, don't be. You didn't. You handled what followed well."

"I didn't have much choice," Erik answered, trying to see if she knew about Charles's ability without asking outright.

She shook her head.
"There was a chance you would have attacked immediately, or you would have run away that evening, or... There were many paths, sparking off from that moment, and you chose one that was not easy. One that required strength, but would lead to the best outcomes."

"You sound like an expert," Erik acknowledged. The girl was young, Alex's age, and yet she seemed more confident than most.

"Mystique says that I have an old soul," Irene answered. "But with my gift.."

"You know what will happen?"

"Not exactly," Irene answered. "I know what might happen, what will probably happen - but aside from the immediate moment - things fracture. There are many paths the future might take, and while I can see them, and try to give advice, guide people I care about down the best routes - too much is changeable to have any certainty."

Erik nodded. The entire idea was strange, but he wanted to try and listen.
"You work with Charles?"

"He tries to get me to guide him. But there are so many ways things can change... there are some things I can tell you, some things I can be certain of - but many more I cannot. I can see the future he wishes playing out, but I see dozens beside it where small mistakes and tiny changes have huge consequences. He dreams of raising mutants to humanity's equal. I see branches that elevate us above that, to their saviours or their destroyers, and others which lead to our extinction. It's a risky game that he chooses to play, and I know the cost more than most." She shook her head. "We'll talk more about it after dinner. I need to speak to Scott about how he's getting on with studying..."

"You see-"

"I don't, and that can help him," she answered with a shake of her head and a fond smile. "Please don't let Mystique's temper get to you. I know you need answers, and you'll get them after the meal. But now, I believe, it's time for us to have dinner. Keep an eye on the little girl with the claws, she might need some time to calm down."

"Thank you," Erik said sincerely, just as Anne Marie stuck her head around the door. She was still smiling to herself.
"Dinner's ready!" she announced.

Erik helped Irene to her feet, leading her through to the dining room where Darkholme immediately was by her side, leading her to sit at the table.

Laura sat down beside Erik, gazing at Darkholme curiously.
"Blue," she mumbled.

"Yes, she's blue," Erik agreed, and Charles looked between them all.

"You should all eat. Jimmy, Hank, thank you for cooking, and Rave-" He caught himself, and sighed "Miss Darkholme, thank you for visiting. It's lovely to see you again, Irene."

"I could hardly not visit after the scene you made yesterday," Darkholme snapped at her brother. "What you did to Magneto - I guess free will is just for when it's convenient to you."

"Not at the dinner table," Charles said firmly. Erik tried to push down feelings of shame at the thought of what the girl he'd once hoped to help had seen, how weak he'd been before her.

Laura whimpered, looking at Erik in concern, then leaning up, looking at his face, pulling at his turtleneck and trying to see his throat, letting out faint noises of distress.

She was looking for injuries, and her eyes were wide with fear.

"I… think we should go outside," Erik mumbled, and when no one stopped him he picked Laura up, grabbed a plate of pizza, and headed out towards the stairs. She looked at him nervously, the metal beneath her skin twitching.

"He didn't hurt me, Laura," Erik promised her, and she pulled him tightly into a hug, almost growling as she clung against his chest. "He didn't hurt me." Maybe if he told her it enough, they'd both believe him.

Laura continued to cling to him, and Erik allowed it, promising her softly that he hadn't been hurt. Gradually, she relaxed, and he took the opportunity to give her some of the pizza.

"It's alright. I'm alright. I just need to have a talk with Charles and his friend, okay?" He looked down at her. "I'm okay, Laura." She cared, and he didn't quite know how to handle the idea that a child was worried for him.

The two of them sat quietly, eating their food, and then Erik led her back inside. She was still nervous, one hand gripping his sleeve and the other across her chest, ready to draw her claws at any moment. But she looked a little calmer than she had before, and he was grateful for that.

Charles wheeled out from the dining room as they approached, smiling a little.
"Hello Laura, I'm sorry that scared you."

She looked down, her grip on Erik's sleeve tightening. Charles looked almost fond.
"I think the children and Irene are playing dominoes in the games room, why don't you join them, and then after your bed time I'm going to talk to Erik, but don't worry, he isn't in trouble. No one is in trouble, not even Raven."

Darkholme pushed past her brother, approaching Laura and crouching down in front of her.
"You're very brave, protecting Magneto like that." She grinned. "Charles tells me you've got claws, can I see?"

Laura showed them, and Darkholme applauded before continuing.
"Very clever. Irene and me are going to make sure no one hurts him, okay?"

Laura nodded nervously, sheathing her claws again and pressing her face against Erik's side. Darkholme giggled, turning into a copy of Laura. Laura blinked, and waved, and the other-Laura waved back.

Laura giggled as well then, and Erik relaxed, leading her through to the games room. The dominoes were laid out on the table, but the children had moved on to a card game. Scott, Irene and Jimmy were playing together, a set of playing cards on the table beside them. Erik frowned, until he got closer and saw that the details on the cards were raised up, along with several dots on them.

"Who is there?" Irene asked.

"Just me and Laura," Erik answered. "Laura, do you want to play?" He hesitated. "I mean, if she can."

"Hmm, of course, but I don't think snap would be a good idea for her, Jimmy needs all his fingers. We can try Go Fish."

Erik watched the four of them playing, Irene patiently explaining the rules to the rest, and Alex close at hand to help Scott when he got stuck. As the game began properly Alex took a step back and smiled.
"She's great," he muttered to Erik. "I know I shouldn't, but I worry about Scotty-"

"What happened?"

"Brain damage," Alex said softly. "He hasn't told me the details, and Charles said I shouldn't ask. But he was... before Charles got him. He used to be... He was fine. And then his powers came in, and... Well, whatever happened fucking happened, and he can't turn the beams off if he's not collared. And when he is, his eyes don't..." Alex sighed. "He's getting better all the time but... sometimes it pisses me off. Hank made glasses that control the beam, but..."

"Alex?" Irene's voice called out. "Why don't you come and play. You too Anne Marie, Erik and I need to go and manage Charles and Mystique."

"Good luck." Alex squeezed Erik's shoulder and walked over, taking Irene's place, and she stood up, feeling for the edge of the table and heading towards Erik.
"Here-" He offered her his arm, and she let him lead her.

"I'm afraid this won't be a very pleasant conversation," Irene admitted. "But whatever happens, I want you to know that you being here has already saved that little girl. That's why-"

"You had him buy me." Erik's blood ran cold. He'd been bought before Laura's appearance, when her abilities meant Charles couldn't control her and he could.

"To help her? Yes. She'd have been... She wouldn't have survived otherwise. We knew she'd get a chance to escape, so then we put the plan into action and hoped."

Erik pushed open the door to the office, and found Charles glaring at Darkholme, who was stood by the window. It felt like they'd just interrupted an argument, but then Darkholme smiled and rushed forwards to cuddle Irene. Erik glanced at Charles, relieved when the other man gestured for him to take a chair.

He looked between them.
"Could... Could someone please tell me what is going on?"

"You haven't told him?" Darkholme's voice was raised, and it shook slightly. She sounded angry, and Erik couldn't help the flinch that escaped him. He wanted to believe that Irene was safe - the woman she was with was another mutant - but he wasn't sure that would be enough to protect her.

"I didn't want him worried about it. And the opportunity didn't come up."

Erik remembered when he'd first heard that Raven was from this household. He'd been angry, and he'd wanted to attack and then he had found himself frozen.
"It... It was you, wasn't it?" he asked Charles. "Not the collar. You."

"Yes," Charles answered, and Erik tried to suppress a shudder. Charles could stop him breathing on a whim if he wanted. He tried not to think about that.

"But... you sold her."

"I did," Charles agreed. "Used some of the money from the sale for Bobby, by the way. He's a nice kid Raven, less of a trouble maker than you."

"You... you sold your sister."

"She made a mistake. Or it was intentional. She was certainly angry and thinking about it, but I can't tell you for certain what it was that made her slip. I don't think she could either. But we'd spoken about it before, how we could help her get away with it-" He sighed. "Raven has always thought my methods are too complicated. She wants to ride in, and rescue people. And that's what she wanted to do there."

"You were scared," Erik said to her, and she nodded.

"I was. It... It had been like a game before. I'd rehearsed my lines." The young woman shivered, leaning against Irene. "And then I was locked in and your friend was joking and..." She looked up at him. "I was scared. It was real. And you helped." Her hand reached out to his, and he took it, remembering how he had held her that night.

"How did you get away?"

She closed her eyes for a moment, and her scales rippled, a collar forming around her throat. A moment later she shifted into Erik's form, and then back into blue without the collar.
"Charles made them think they'd put it on. Just a little nudge, he doesn't believe in using telepathy for anything major, but a nudge, and then it was down to me. Gather information, try and help people, rescue Laura."

"Rescue Laura?" Erik asked, and then Raven changed again, into Laura. But not Laura as he knew her. The skin was too pale, the eyes too dull. The neck was bent at a strange angle, and Erik was retching as his mind tried to process the image standing in front of him. He gripped the sides of his chair, sure that was an image that would haunt him. He couldn't look up, his mind replaying images of his mother's death over and over, her body lying broken, knowing it was his fault, and now he'd got Laura killed as well.

Erik. Look at me. Charles's voice was clear, and he opened his eyes. Charles smiled.
"Laura is fine. She's still playing the card game, you're doing well helping her with numbers. You should be impressed."

Erik nodded slowly, daring to glance over at Raven, finding she was back in her blue form, a faint purple tinge to her face.

"Sorry," she whispered. "I just... yeah. I was a body for them to check, and then Moira claimed me back for the CIA before anyone could cut me open, and Charles did something with the paperwork, and we got her safe."

Erik nodded again, still feeling nauseous. Charles poured a glass of water and handed it over, and he sipped it, feeling his heartbeat slowly returning to its normal rate.
"Thank you for saving her."

"She deserved it," Darkholme answered. "Look, I... I'm sorry about what Charles did to you last night. He shouldn't have."

"I... I understand he was keeping me alive," Erik replied, head down once more, not wanting to cause any trouble.

Irene cleared her throat.
"That's not what we're here to discuss, is it? I think continuing on this is just going to lead to more arguments, and doesn't answer what actually matters."

"Alright," Charles sighed, then turned his attention fully to Erik. "We need to get rid of Schmidt. He's experimenting on some mutants, and he's looking into setting up a research facility. If he does, it'll rival what I have planned, and he has a few associates that would... prefer for him to be the one getting the subjects. If he continues, Irene says that my legislation will be meaningless. We have to stop him. I would like your help to do this."

"What do I need to do?" Erik asked. He'd obey, if it'd get them out.

"I need to meet with Schmidt. You being there gives me a reason to meet him. I have absolutely no plan of allowing him to as much as touch you, but your presence there will keep him distracted, and make the use of my telepathy easier." Charles sounded determined, but there was a sadness in his eyes. "I'm sorry Erik. I wouldn't ask if there was an alternative. But if I am to discover trade secrets and information, I need you there. I'd also like the chance to look through your memories first for key information. You can be asleep for that, or guide me. Either way, it'll be uncomfortable."

"I can take it," Erik said, and his voice only trembled a little.

"Go and get some air if you need to, then come back to the office," Charles instructed, before turning to Irene. "How can I make sure we succeed?"

Erik shook his head, staying seated, listening.
"If this goes wrong, I end up back there?" he whispered.

"It's a very small possibility," Irene told him. "I can't tell you it won't happen. But most of the ways I see this playing out, it goes well. Charles is able to encourage him to back off, and to take possession of the younger mutants he holds."

"And the older ones?"

"In most, they stay. If not with him then with his friends," Irene said, and there was sorrow in her voice. "But we can save lives. Even if we don't get them all. We can save some."

Erik supposed that was all he could hope for. He thought of Laura, and reached out to shake Charles's hand.

Chapter Text

“If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”

***

The rest of the evening's discussions had just been practicalities, ideas bouncing back and forth between Darkholme and Xavier, with Irene stepping in and challenging ideas that she thought would go poorly. Erik allowed the discussion to mostly pass over his head as Charles wanted time to gather information, which Erik couldn't help with. Charles would be speaking with Stryker and other contacts whose names Erik didn't know, trying to turn the tide in their favour and see what he could dig up against Schmidt.

When the day came to confront Schmidt, Charles would have Erik nearby, keeping him standing behind the wheelchair. It was a good idea, Erik knew that. It meant he would have some distance from his past tormentor, whilst still keeping Schmidt’s thoughts focused. Erik just needed to stay calm enough that his thoughts wouldn't drown out Schidt's own.

He could do that. He'd have to.

Whilst Charles had said he'd need to look through Erik's memories, he hadn't done it that night. Eventually everyone headed to bed. Erik did his normal check that all the children were safely in their rooms, and then headed into his own, showering in the en suite. Once he was clean he wrapped a towel around his waist and headed back through to his bedroom.

He stared at the pile of clothes on his bed, and then went to the dresser, opening it and glancing at the pyjamas inside. Every night since he'd got here, he'd ended up sleeping in his clothes, so that he would be ready to go if he needed to, prepared in case something happened. He paused, brushing his fingers against the soft fabric, and checked that his door was locked.

Once he knew it was, he pulled his pyjamas on and got into bed.

***

The next morning, Erik woke up as the sun was rising. He washed, brushed his teeth and changed into another turtleneck and jeans. He'd slept more peacefully than he had in a long time, certainly better than the previous night. Charles was going to get rid of Schmidt, and no other children would have to endure what he had from the man. That was a comfort, even if he was afraid of what would happen. At the party, Charles's ability had been a shock. This time, he knew about it. He pushed away those fears for now, already thinking of breakfast, wondering if Irene could advise him on what he could do to make Scott's life easier. He could check on the children first, and then head to the library, make a start on his studying before anyone else was awake.

He stepped out of his bedroom and immediately found himself faced with himself. He blinked. The copy of himself blinked. He crossed his arms, and his reflection mirrored it, eyes glinting yellow.
"Mystique?" he asked, and the girl swapped into her blue form. Erik took a deep breath. It was too early in the morning for shapeshifters.

"I can go," she informed him.

He looked at her blankly.

"To see Shaw. I can go." She glanced down. "I mean, Irene doesn't like the idea but... it could work. I can copy you, he won't know the difference."

"He will." Erik shook his head. "It wouldn't be safe."

"None of this is safe," she mumbled. Erik looked at her. She was still so young, and she knew what she thought was right, and she was fighting for it.

"No," he said. "It isn't. But... you'd better stay here, where you can protect the kids. If something happened to you, Charles wouldn't take it well." He wasn't sure if that was true - Charles had sold her. But he had to try and reason with her.

"Okay..." She nodded, and he paused.
"If something happens, and I don't... don't come back? Can I ask you something?"

"Sure." She looked up at him. He took a deep breath.
"If I don't come back, can you just... hug Laura sometimes, as me? Let her know that I'm proud of her...Fuck. That I'm proud of all of them."

"Yeah. I can do that. But you should come back." She smiled at him, a little sad. "Thanks. For looking after them. And... you know. Looking after me."

He nodded, and she turned away, muttering her excuse.
"I'd better... I'd better go and check on Irene."

He watched her go, then scanned through the corridors, before heading to the library. Charles had said he wanted him to study, and he was going to make the most of it. The first thing he needed to do was find some information about how to help Scott.

By the time he made his way down to breakfast, he had memorised the braille alphabet. He wasn't expecting any of the children to be up so early, but Jimmy was already heading down, so he waited for him at the bottom of the stairs, feeling the badge. He paused when he could still feel the metal of it when Jimmy sat beside him.

"You've got your collar on?" Erik asked. Out of all of the children here, Jimmy was the most comfortable with his mutation, so him suppressing it unrequested was strange.

"Irene." Jimmy shrugged. "It causes her problems if I don't."

"That's good of you," Erik praised him for his consideration. He didn't like the idea of not using their abilities, but in this case he could see the sense of it. Irene needed him not to have his collar on because she used her ability to get around. He realised, with a sudden flush of annoyance, that part of the reason Charles asked for collars to be turned on at dinner was so that Jimmy didn't interfere with his telepathy. He took a couple of calming breaths, and walked through to the kitchen.
"What do you want for breakfast this morning?"

"Oatmeal please!" Jimmy smiled. "And can we put raisins in it?"

"We can put so many raisins in it," Erik promised, grabbing down two bowls as the boy found the oats and the raisins. For a moment, Erik had a flicker of watching his mother make him breakfast, humming a tune he didn't recognise. The image faded after a second.

"What are you humming?" Jimmy asked, and Erik shook his head, focusing on breakfast for both of them.

***

After dinner, he headed with Charles to his office, taking his normal seat in front of Charles's desk.

"Not tonight, if you don't mind," Charles said carefully, gesturing over at the chessboard that was resting on the side table, a chair in front of it. "Jimmy says you're a natural."

"I won't win."

"Maybe not. But indulge me?" Charles asked, and Erik moved to sit in the armchair, staring at the board.

"Black or white?" Charles asked.

"Black," Erik replied. "Jimmy likes being white because he says you always take it." He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth, not wanting to land the boy in trouble. Charles just nodded, and made his move, and Erik allowed himself to relax slightly. It was hard to sit smartly in the comfortable chair, and he found himself slouching a little.

"Sometimes it's helpful to have a head start, rather than just reacting to the world around you." Charles said. "I want to try and look through your memories for information of Shaw's contacts."

Erik looked up at him fearfully, the metal table the board was on shaking. Charles stayed quiet for a moment.

"We can not do that tonight if you'd rather. But at some point, I would like to."

"What... What will it be like?" Erik asked him.

"You'll pick up fragments," Charles said softly. "I thought about asking if you wanted Laura or Alex here, but-"

Erik shook his head quickly, and Charles nodded. Neither of them wanted one of the children there when that happened.

"I'm going to try and keep the memories from getting overwhelming. That's where the chess comes in. It should help keep you focused on the present. I thought we'd play a game to start with, and then..."

"Then you look through my memories?"

"Yes," Charles admitted. "I'd offer you a drink, but I need the thoughts to be clear. I'm hoping the game will help stop the thoughts becoming too prominent. If at any point you need me to pause, say. I can stop if it becomes too much, although I'd rather not."

"I don't think I'm going to have much worth having. He hardly discussed all his plots in front of his favourite lab rat."

Charles nodded.
"We'll play the first match, then you can decide."

"I've already decided. I'll do it," Erik said.

"Why?" Charles asked, pushing a pawn forwards. "You don't trust me."

"Because I want to rescue the kids he's got. And because if I say no, then you don't look, and they hurt for longer."

Charles nodded, watching Erik closely.

Erik lost the first match quickly, but Charles was smiling at him.
"You hadn't played before Jimmy taught you?"

Erik raised an eyebrow at him before he could think better of it, and Charles laughed and clapped his hands.
"He's right. You are talented. Ready for a rematch?"

Erik nodded, and Charles looked at him a little more seriously.
"And you're ready for-"

"Yes."

Decision made, Charles shuffled slightly, pulling out a notebook from beside him and opening it on a blank page, putting it on the table and gripping a pen which he tapped against his leg.

"It's your move," Erik reminded him when the silence stretched on a little too long.

Charles nodded, then frowned. I can feel you fighting this Erik. Please, try not to. Focus on the game. He slid forwards his pawn, and Erik tried to relax. It was hard, trying to clear his thoughts, to stop himself from fighting against the intrusion. But if this was going to work, he couldn't be trying to stop it. He could feel something in his mind, an unwelcome pressure that he couldn't quite place. It wasn't like when Charles spoke. That was quick, clear, words there rather than sensation.

Erik made his move, remembering how to breathe slowly, having to resist the urge to push away or struggle. After a moment, it settled. Charles made another move, and for a short while they played. He felt his awareness of the other presence in his thoughts fading a little.

There was a flicker as he moved his bishop, Schmidt sneering down at him. His hand trembled.

"Focus on the game, Erik." Charles's voice was firm, and he clung to that reality, on the solidness of the chess piece at his fingertips. He completed the move, and grabbed the one pawn of Charles's he had already taken, turning it over in his fingers, holding onto something that was real as Charles made another move.

The game seemed to last for an eternity. Flickers passed before his eyes, always pushed away before he could get too lost in them. Charles kept jotting down notes, and it felt like the room was spinning, but he never let go of the pawn. The piece was real. Where he was, this armchair and the metal screws of the bookcases and the scent of whatever shampoo Charles used, all of those were real.

The whispers and shouts, the blood and the pain, those weren't real. He couldn't push them back, the way he normally did, but he could breathe through them. He knew there'd be a bruise on his hand from how he gripped the pawn. That bruise was real. He made another move.

Feeling Charles pull back left him a little breathless and unanchored, the room around him swimming. He felt incredibly tired, barely awake. He stared at the board, wondering how Charles still hadn't won, and realised he'd probably intentionally prolonged the game. Charles moved his queen.
"Checkmate."

Erik nodded, reaching up and pressing the base of his hands against his damp eyes.

"You have an exceptionally organised mind, my friend," Charles said softly, and then held out a glass of water towards him. "Drink some of this please... You did very well. You've given me far more than you know." Charles placed the glass down and slid it over.

Erik nodded, uncurling his fingers from the pawn he was still holding. He placed it back on the board.

"Another game?" Charles asked, his voice slightly rough.

Erik slowly shook his head. He felt too tired to be able to concentrate. His thoughts felt fuzzy, bruised. He knew he should agree but he couldn't make sense of it. He sipped the water.

"Another day perhaps. You should rest, and I will give this some thought," Charles said, clearing his throat. "I think that I've got all I need. You did well. Go and sleep."

Erik stumbled upright, taking a couple of gulps of air as the room swam, before he headed towards the door, brushing his fingers on the wooden frame and feeling the metal hinges calling to him.

"... Hang on." Erik said as he paused in the doorway and turned back to look at Charles, who quickly hid the handkerchief he was using to wipe his eyes.

"Yes, Erik?"

Erik knew he was being too bold, exhaustion stealing away his usual silence. But Charles kept insisting on trying to treat him like a person, and tonight's experience, whilst horrific, was gentler than he could have hoped for. Charles was smiling slightly, expectantly. It was a strange expression for a human - but then, Charles had never been human.

"If you were in my head, doesn't..." He looked down. But he'd started to say it, wanted to prove to himself he could. Backing out now would be a failure, and anyway, Charles must have heard what he wanted to say. He just had to voice it out loud. "Doesn't that count as cheating?"

Charles's laugh was a little shaky, but it was real.
"Go to bed, Erik."

Erik obeyed.

***

The next morning, Erik woke up, checked on the children, and went downstairs. His head still ached from the previous night, and concentrating made the pain worse, but he'd survived far more painful things than this.

Charles was already in the kitchen, at the lowered counter top. He looked up when Erik came in.
"Making myself a boiled egg and toast, do you want one?"

Erik hesitated, but he nodded.
"Any way I can help?"

"I can manage to boil an egg, Erik," Charles answered, but there was such fondness in his voice that Erik didn't feel himself tensing. He just watched how Charles prepared the food, impressed by how skillfully he manoeuvred himself.

"Practice," Charles said simply. "I've been using a wheelchair for a long time now."

Erik nodded, not wanting to be rude, and continued to watch.
"You... woke up early?" He asked after a few minutes of silence.

"I thought I could cook breakfast to say thank you for last night," Charles said. "And... I'm going to say something, and I'm a little concerned you'll try to hurt me for it, and I won't let that happen..." Charles looked into his eyes, and Erik nodded, glancing away, bracing himself for whatever would come next, trying not to listen to the voices that suggested what it could be that Charles wanted from him.

Charles cleared his throat.
"No. Erik, I just... I just wanted to say that from what I saw, your mother truly was a remarkable woman. I honestly wish I could have met her."

There was no answer for Erik to give to that, other than to go and make Charles more tea as a distraction.

Before Charles could say much more, Irene and Mystique walked in, holding hands once more.

"Good morning, Magneto!" Mystique greeted.

"Good morning, Mystique," Erik answered, knowing he was disobeying Charles's wishes. He hesitated, his tongue feeling too large for his mouth, and tried to compromise. "But I'd rather you called me Erik for now. For Laura's sake."

He risked a glance at Charles. Charles didn't seem angry.

"We're going to head off again later today," Mystique explained. "But please keep in contact, we're concerned about what will happen with Shaw."

"I will," Charles agreed, and Mystique walked over and embraced him and then waving at Erik.

Irene stepped forwards and hugged Erik a moment later. She whispered in his ear.
"Believe in yourself, okay? When it comes to it, you'll make the right choice."

Erik squeezed her a little tighter, and decided not to point out that was a rather unnerving prophecy to hear. The rest of that morning was taken up with goodbyes, and after lunch Scott and Alex joined the younger two, so that Hank could teach Scott with Alex helping him.

Erik watched curiously, as Scott jotted down a few notes using a metal grid and what looked like a pin.
"He's writing backwards?" he asked Alex.
"That way when he turns the paper it's the right way up." Alex nodded. Erik considered, and made sure he could remember the size of the metal grid.

Erik would have denied, before this, that it was possible to find peace when you knew that things would fall apart. He had assumed that peace wasn't an option, not for mutants, not in the world they had found themselves in. But if what he felt wasn't peace, it was the closest thing to it he had known.

The week passed, Charles made arrangements for their meeting with Shaw and continued to lobby for his act.

Erik made breakfast for the younger children, then studied with them for a few hours, before they had lunch. Then there was more studying, and an evening meal, before playing games for a few hours, and putting the children to bed. After that, some nights he'd go to play chess with Charles, and some nights he wouldn't. Charles would let him know if he could join him for a match, but didn't expect it. Erik still lost all the games, but Charles kept offering the matches. Most days, Erik said yes, but four days in he looked at Charles, and shook his head.
"Sorry, I'm tired."

It wasn't true, and he wondered if the telepath would know that. Either way, he'd disobeyed an implied order, and he waited to see what would happen, how Charles would respond, if he would be in trouble. He braced himself for the worst.

"Of course. Have a good sleep, Erik. I'll see you tomorrow," Charles said, and wheeled away without even a backwards glance.

Erik went to his room, and pulled out some sheets of paper he'd asked Jimmy for, and a few coins which he used to construct a metal grid. He spent some time just practising writing different letters. Only when he was confident, did he turn to his overall plan. He jotted down some notes, before he started to write in earnest.

His idea was simple: To create a short letter for each child, so that if he didn't come back, they knew he hadn't forgotten them. Even if he didn't get the chance in person, he would say goodbye to them. The idea was clear in his mind, but trying to work out what to say was far harder.

First was Anne Marie, where he wrote a few quick lines about how things would get easier and she had to keep her chin up. For Mystique, he wrote thanking her for trying to help mutants. For Alex, he told him simply that he was a good brother, and to keep fighting and not let the humans destroy that. He told Jimmy how impressed he was with how hard he studied, and how he believed that he would go and do well, how he was clearly a clever boy.

Scott and Irene each got quite short messages, only a couple of sentences, because he had to write down the message, then reverse it, then use the grid he formed to write it, with each letter in reverse. Once he'd finished, he wrote on top in pen what it was meant to say - so that way if his plan still hadn't worked, they'd still be able to get it read to them. Last of all, he turned to Laura's letter.

'Laura,
Keep fighting. you are a survivor, and this world needs survivors. Thank you for making me smile again, I was struggling and then one day you arrived. It's not been easy, and I don't know if it will get easier. But I'm proud of you. Stay strong.
Erik.'

He addressed and sealed each letter, and then headed to bed. The next morning, he knocked early on Alex's door.
"Look... Charles and I are going out later. If... If I don't come back, can you get these to the right people?"

"Of course," Alex answered, and hugged him. "Want to talk?"

Erik shook his head, but returned the hug for a moment.
"Maybe afterwards."

Alex nodded.
"After. Okay." He grinned, and if there was any nervousness there, the boy hid it well. He patted Erik's arm. "I'm going to hold you to that."

Erik nodded, and headed down to get breakfast ready. Bobby was already sat at the table, his shoulders drawn up, the picture of dejection.
"Bobby?" Erik asked, feeling Charles's wheelchair approaching down the corridor, the wheels turning slowly. "Are you okay?"

"Nervous," Bobby admitted. "That family's coming to visit this afternoon."

Erik nodded his understanding, not sure what he could say to provide comfort.

"You don't need to be nervous," Charles said as he entered the room. "I'll make sure to call you daily for the first two weeks, and you'll be meeting me in a couple of days, and then in a week, and then we'll stay in contact. At any time you can say no and come back here. I just think being settled somewhere will be good for you." He sighed. "I know it feels like we're trying to get rid of you, but we aren't. You're lovely to have here. I just think that you'd be happier in a family setting."

Bobby nodded, staring down at his water glass, drumming his fingers against the side. He'd got the collar turned off, so ice was blooming at his touch.
"If Ronny calls?"

"If Ronny calls I will let you know immediately," Charles promised him, and glanced at Erik before shaking his head. "Alex could be there when we meet if it'd help?"

"It's okay," Bobby mumbled.

"For what it's worth, Irene seemed sure this would go well," Charles told him. Erik wasn't sure if that was the truth or not, but it certainly seemed hopeful. Bobby managed a fragile smile.

"If you meet them, and you decide you don't like them? Just say. You can stay here. But I can't have you go to school while you're here, and I don't want you to miss out on the kind of things you could have with them."

Bobby nodded again, and looked down.
"Thank you," his voice was quiet. "Could..."

"Hmm?" Charles asked.

"Could Erik be there when I meet them?"

"That's up to him. They should be here by one, and we'll talk for a little while. But Erik and I are going out later, so I don't know if he'll-"

"I want to be there," Erik said quickly. He didn't trust these strange humans who would come in and try to take Bobby away.

I'm a telepath, remember? Charles asked as he poured out his cereal. If I think they have good intentions, I'm right.

Erik could see the sense in that, but he was still cautious. His concern for Bobby meant that he was barely considering his own fears about the evening throughout the morning's classes. They ate lunch together, Alex and Bobby laughing about their joint attempts at making omelettes. After food had been eaten, Erik took the younger children back to the library.

Laura was busy practising writing, the pencil she was using held awkwardly because of the metal in her arm changing how she held her wrist, when he felt the car approach.
"You two carry on," Erik instructed, heading down to the foyer. Bobby was there waiting nervously, but Charles was smiling. Bobby's collar had already been removed, and he was fidgeting.

"I know you're nervous Bobby, but I think you'll get on with them. They've got their own son, and another boy your age that I helped them meet. His name's John, and he's settled in."

Erik opened the door, and found himself faced with a couple of teenage boys, and two smiling human adults. Charles led them through to one of his larger rooms, ensuring everyone had a chair, and then began introductions. Erik just kept an eye on Bobby. To start with the boy looked nervous, but as the conversation continued he seemed to relax, eagerly contributing to discussions about his classwork and interests.

Told you, Charles sent to Erik's mind, but there was a teasing note there, and when Erik looked up Charles was smiling. Erik inclined his head slightly, noticing that Bobby and Judah had already discovered a shared love for playing guitar.

"I'm sorry," Charles said to the human man. "I may have meant that you're going to have music rehearsals at all hours of the day and night."

"Perhaps," he agreed. "Still, at least Judah's having fun."

Eventually, the humans went to wait outside, and Charles turned to Bobby.
"It's your choice," Charles said simply. "I'll call tomorrow."

"I want to go." Bobby's voice shook a little, but he held his head up, and when he looked to Erik, Erik smiled.

Bobby spent a while saying goodbye to the rest of the children, talking to each of them in turn, promising to stay in contact. Erik embraced him, and they all crowded around the doorway, waving as the car he was in drove out of sight.

Charles cleared his throat, ushering the children away, and turned to Erik. "So we should work out what's happening this evening then?"

Erik nodded, feeling nervousness building inside of him once more.

Charles looked at him sympathetically.
"What did you think of the Millers?"

"They seemed patient," Erik said after a moment. "He'll really be sent to school?"

"They're certainly intending it, I can feel it in their minds," Charles said quickly. "Hank has given Bobby a power suppressing wristband, so he doesn't need to worry about his powers coming out to show when he's in class, but it's under his control."

Erik nodded slowly.
"And... the other boy seemed… grouchy." He shook his head fondly.

"Perhaps, but I think that's being a teenager rather than-" Charles started, then frowned. "That wasn't what you meant?"

"If he's able to act like a teenager, that's a sign he feels safer there," Erik reasoned. He certainly would never have had that kind of attitude - anger and outright rebellion yes, on his braver days, but never simple teenage moodiness.

"I suppose we should be glad for teenage mood swings then." Charles smiled a little. "Want another game of chess while we plan?"

"Want to win again?" Erik asked, trying to press down on the fear that still flickered when he spoke out of turn. Their games were good for that. In front of the children, he often felt aware that he was Charles's property, but when the two of them were playing it was easy to forget. He was sure Charles was intentionally trying to relax and distract him with the game, but he couldn't bring himself to mind, not when it didn't seem to be a trick. It didn't feel like Charles was just trying to bait him to find a way to hurt him.

"I always play to win, Erik," Charles answered, wheeling through to his office and holding the door open for Erik, letting him take his normal chair.

"Do we have time for this?" Erik looked up at him curiously as he set up the pieces.

"We're meeting Schmidt for a discussion at eight. We have plenty of time," Charles said thoughtfully. "Don't worry, we're going to his house, and Hank and Alex will remain with the children, I'm not allowing Schmidt to go anywhere near them."

"Thank you." Erik carried on playing, knowing he would lose, but not fearing it.

"I'm going to be scanning his mind for anything we can use against him. You heard what happens if he gets to set up his research facility," Charles began, starting to move the pieces.

Erik nodded. He knew more than most that if Schmidt got to set up a research facility, then his kind would suffer. He was afraid of Schmidt, but he wasn't going to allow that to happen if he could prevent it, no matter what the cost.

Charles looked over at him.
"Erik, I want you to understand that I'm not leaving you with him. He isn't going to ever get control over you again."

"You can't promise that."

"I'm not promising you. I'm telling you," Charles said with a shrug, swiping one of Erik's pawns off the board. "You can wear this collar, but do you think you can keep it turned off?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, if I can't trust you to be in a room with him without trying to stab him with the nearest piece of metal, it might be better to change it out for one you can't turn off. Or at least to go in with it turned on."

"I won't attack him," Erik answered, feeling a slight wave of shame sweep through him. He very much wanted to say that he wasn't going to attack because Charles asked it, but the truth sadly was more simple - he was simply too well conditioned to ever use his powers against Schmidt.

"That's all I ask for. I just need you to stay at my side, and try and remain calm. You don't have to listen to what he says. I don't need you to say anything at all. I just need your presence in the room because I want to challenge him on what happened to your mother, and other things that I found from your memories. Your being there will help."

Erik couldn't quite smile at that.

"Also, Erik, even with my ability, I'd rather not be alone with him. Something about him... unsettles me."

Erik focused on his moves, not knowing what answer to give. It didn't take long for Charles to clear all of his pieces off the board.

"Do you want to say goodnight to the children?" Charles looked at him. "They already know we're going out this evening."

"I'd rather not." Erik felt his insides twist with fear. He didn't want to say goodbye when he couldn't be as sure as Charles was that he would be coming back.

"That's alright. Like I said, Hank and Alex can hold down the fort. Hank will be staying up for our return - if all goes well we might be bringing some new mutants back with us."

Erik hesitated, thinking of the state he'd been in when he first managed to escape from Schmidt, jumping at shadows, unable to feel anything but fear and hatred and anger.
"They might not be... well," he said lamely, glancing down at the floor.

"With what I saw? I'm almost certain they won't be. They will be traumatised and hurting, and it's down to us to try and help them begin to recover." Charles checked his watch, as Erik reached up to awkwardly fidget with his top of his turtleneck, hating the thought of his collar being exposed throughout the meal. "We'd better go now. Don't worry about your suit, I know you're more comfortable in that."

Erik hesitated.
"Thank you."

"You don't need to thank me. You're doing a lot this evening just being there." Charles's hand brushed against his. "We'll finish the game when we get back."

"If we bring mutants with us, it might... not be tonight," Erik said, already feeling guilty for speaking without permission, challenging Charles.

"That's alright. We'll finish it another time," Charles answered, moving back from the board and leading the way to the car. "Could you please just... try to keep your thoughts peaceful on our way there?"

"I'll try," Erik offered. He couldn't be sure he'd manage, but he was willing to try.

"That's all I ask."

***

Erik had promised himself when he had first got away from Schmidt, that there was nothing on earth that could drag him back there. He'd been prepared to die first. But now he found himself sat in the passenger seat of Charles's car as they approached the house. Erik's attempts at calmness slipped between his fingers, his heart starting to race. He'd escaped, he didn't want to be here again. He couldn't. He'd been so sure he wasn't going to be here and now he was in a car, collared, getting closer and closer to the house. He reached out with his ability on instinct, stopping the car in its tracks. No punishment would be worse than returning to that place.

I'm right here, Erik. You won't be alone. Charles's voice startled him, and he turned to find Charles looking straight at him, a sadness in his eyes. "You aren't alone. We can do this. I won't let him touch you."

Erik released his grip on the car, blinking fiercely to stop tears.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"You're afraid," Charles said it so calmly, as though commenting on the weather. "But you're not facing this alone." He continued to drive down the path, as though they had never paused, drawing up in front of the house.

Erik fetched his wheelchair, and kept his hands on the handles as Charles transferred into it, finding it reassuringly solid in his grip. It was metal, and it made him feel less vulnerable, to be able to hold it and know he could move it. Charles settled himself, and then Erik pushed him up to the house, stepping forwards to ring the doorbell before retreating behind the shield of Charles's wheelchair.

There was a brief pause, and Erik almost hoped the door would never open, but it did, and Schmidt was standing there, smartly dressed. Erik looked down so he wouldn't have to meet his eyes.

"Come inside, Doctor Xavier," Schmidt said, all smiles, before his eyes fixed on Erik. "Max, what a pleasure to see you again."

Erik held tightly to the handles of Charles's wheelchair.

Erik, I do need you to push me forwards, Charles spoke softly in his mind. I can't talk to you the entire time that we're here, I have to concentrate on what is happening with Schmidt. But if at any point you need me to talk to you, just call out. I'll be listening.

Erik nodded slightly as he guided the chair up into the house. He knew the layout - the wallpaper hadn't changed in the past three years. Something uncomfortable settled within him, knowing that he was back here. That all his attempts at escape, at changing his life, of helping other mutants and fighting - they all meant nothing. He was back here, and the wallpaper was still the same pale cream that showed every fleck of blood.

Charles seemed relaxed, chatting away to their host, and Erik struggled to listen, before reminding himself that he was meant to be staying calm. They were shown into their host's study, and Erik tried not to look at the bookcases, wondering if everything had been as it was when he last found himself here. He couldn't be sure that looking wouldn't bring back memories, and that wouldn't help either of them. There was something large and metal on the desk, a shape he didn't recognise.

"So to what do I owe the pleasure, Doctor?" Schmidt was asking, settling down on his couch and offering a glass of whisky to Charles.

Don't drink it! Erik warned. He knew Schmidt played with poisons that would weaken a mutant's powers. He wouldn't put it past him to drug a guest.

I won't. Relax. I'm here, you're safe. Charles's voice was gentle, soft. He held the glass, his arm resting on his armrest, and he gazed across at Schmidt.
"Well, like I said, I would be interested in hearing more of your work. There are rumours that you are planning on setting up a research facility, as am I. I wondered about the capacity for cooperation."

"You think I'll work with you while you flaunt what's mine?"

"I've come here to negotiate," Charles said simply. "I brought Erik along, and I thought we could talk."

"We can talk," Schmidt agreed. "I'd be interested in knowing where your interest in researching these mutants began."

"I've always been fascinated by the strange and the different." Charles said, his fingers brushing the glass he was holding. "I was lucky enough to befriend another young scientist, who is more practically minded than myself, and we decided to research the genetic anomalies we found ourselves presented with."

"I haven't heard of anyone else who seems to devour mutants with quite such an appetite. Either your house must be crawling with freaks, or your garden must be getting quite full with graves."

"I have large grounds." Charles shrugged. "What about yourself?"

"They're not human. I was... intrigued." Schmidt considered. "Max proved to be a particularly hardy specimen. But there have been many others that have provided vital information... I have strong reason to believe that the angels and demons we read of once, the monsters of fairy tales, were early formulations of mutants. That they are something apart from the rest, beyond them. I wished to unlock them, to discover what secrets they hold, to learn to create them at a whim."

Charles nodded, as though in understanding, and Erik tried to keep breathing. He could feel the metal of the chair at his fingertips. This would end, and he would go home, and the children would be safe. All he wanted right now was to be outside of this room.

"It's interesting," Charles said calmly. "You might be able to explain some of your tests as curiosity, within the law, but of course, that legal protection could soon be stripped away. Children always do incite protective instincts, even mutant children. I want what you have."

Schmidt stared at him, getting up off of the sofa and walking to his desk, resting a hand on the large metal shape which had been calling to Erik since he arrived in the room.
"Whatever makes you think that I would give you that?"

"Because a mutant testing on his own kind would lead only to public outcry. It would destroy your reputation, your livelihood, your life. I can keep this information to myself."

Schmidt picked up the helmet, placing it on his head.
"You come into my house and accuse me of being a mutant?"

"Erik saw. He saw you get rid of mutants just by touching them, reducing their bodies to ash. He'd forgotten, but when I asked him, it came back-" Charles was explaining, and Erik felt almost sick because Charles still thought that his own rules applied, when he was wrong, when there was nothing here that played by any kind of instructions that Charles was able to comprehend.

Schmidt reached into a drawer, pulled out a gun, and shook his head, the ugly metal helmet he'd picked up shaking slightly from the movement.

Erik, I can't get into his mind. Charles sounded calm, but Erik could barely concentrate on it. Erik tried to move forwards, to step between them, but Charles wouldn't let him move his feet. Schmidt was staring at him, eyes glittering with hatred, and Erik could barely think. His hands were locked around the handles of Charles's chair, and he wasn't sure if it was his fear that was holding him in place, or Charles's power, or a combination of both of them.

Erik, I am so sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen. I'm calling for Hank and Raven, but they won't be here for a while. I'm asking them to fight to get you back. Charles's mental voice shook only for a moment, but it made Erik aware of just how much of this was a lie, how Charles was desperately pretending that he was calm when he didn't feel like that at all. Schmidt was smirking, walking forwards, looking between them.

"You shouldn't have come here to threaten me, Charles. Now, I don't know if my suspicions are correct, but it seems to me from what I've heard you've got a telepath working with you. And that could cause some problems, so this helmet helps keep them out. But any problems you present will be much better once you have been removed." Erik could barely keep breathing, feeling like he was drowning, his throat tight with fear.

Schmidt continued, stalking around them, pausing to the side of Erik. "Of course... it's such a shame, all your little pets left without an owner because you were foolish enough to allow Max to turn off his collar. Don't worry, I'll take good care of all of them. I already have plans for that blind boy of yours. And Max will be home where he belongs." He reached out, the hand that wasn't holding the gun cupping Erik's cheek. "Silly little boy." He positioned himself in front of Charles, the barrel of his gun a foot or so from Charles's forehead. "Do you want to say goodbye, Max?"

His fingers tightened on the trigger, and Max felt like he was fourteen years old again, watching and knowing he'd made a mistake and his mother was going to die. He could feel the bullet inside of the gun, the weight of it solid, final.

Schmidt's lips twisted in a sneer, and he fired the gun.

The bullet passed out of the barrel, and paused for a split second in mid air before it twisted upwards, spiralling through the air, and striking Schmidt between the eyes.

Chapter Text

“Those cruelties we may say are well employed, if it be permitted to speak well of things evil, which are done once for all under the necessity of self-preservation, and are not afterwards persisted in, but so far as possible modified to the advantage of the governed. Ill-employed cruelties, on the other hand, are those which from small beginnings increase rather than diminish with time.”

***

Erik watched as the bullet collided, knocking Schmidt back off his feet. The man scrambled backwards, laughing. He should be dead. But Erik wasn't sure, couldn't be sure. This wasn’t possible but it was happening. Monsters like Schmidt didn't die like normal men. He reached out to the metal of the helmet, crushing it slowly, destroying what was inside. He watched as it crumpled, shattering the skull inside under slow pressure.

Something brushed his wrist and he jumped, wrenching himself away, and then focusing - not on the corpse, but on Charles.
"Erik?" Charles said softly, reaching out again, taking Erik's hand in his own, brushing his thumb over the back of Erik's hand. "Come back to me. There we are..." There we are. Charles's voice felt soft, almost warm in his mind, and Erik took a few tearful breaths before he closed his eyes.

Charles was speaking, but it took a few moments for his words to filter through.
"He's dead. You did it, he's gone, you're safe now-" The words were just a constant flood, and he could hear someone crying, ugly, shaking sobs of pain.

He and Charles were alone in the room, and Charles's face was dry.

"It's alright. I've spoken to Hank and Raven, and told them we're fine... You did it, Erik. You killed him."

"I..." Erik blinked, staring at the corpse. He'd done that, and now he'd probably be killed for it. But at the time all that had mattered was protecting both Charles and himself. It was better to be executed than go back to being Schmidt's favourite little test subject.

"I won't let them kill you," Charles said firmly, holding out a handkerchief so Erik could wipe his face. "I know you think they will, but I won't let that happen." I told you. I won't leave you here.

Erik hesitated as he wiped his eyes. A mutant killing a human was always punished severely, but with his history it would be worse, and the mangled metal around the remains of the skull proved who had attacked him. Unless Charles outed Schmidt's mutation, Erik had broken the law.

"I won't tell the world he's a mutant," Charles said thoughtfully. "It would be too damaging to the cause. But I won't let you hurt for it either. I will simply explain he threatened me, and you acted to protect me."

Erik shook his head. No one would believe that.

I can make sure that they do, Charles’s mental voice was full of determination. "I told you, Erik. You aren't facing this alone."

Erik nodded, attention drawn to the figure in the middle of the room that he had murdered. He shuddered. Even with the body lifeless, there was still fear there. The last corpse he had seen in this room was his mother's, dead from a bullet because of his actions.

"That wasn't your fault," Charles said firmly. "And today, you saved my life." He placed his hands on his wheel rims, making his way out into the corridor. Erik trailed behind, feeling uneasy about leaving the body there.

Erik felt lost, disconnected. He was back here, but Schmidt was gone, and somehow that made everything look different. He was almost tempted to try and find somewhere he could curl up - the gap beneath the boiler perhaps - but he knew he was too tall for that small warm shelter now. He took a few breaths.
"What can I do for you, sir?"

"Erik," Charles said softly. "We use proper names in my household."

Erik nodded slowly, managing to look down and meet Charles's gaze, distracted for a moment by the sheer blue depth of his eyes, so different from any colour he had ever seen here. He looked for a few moments longer, and then stood nearly at parade rest, his eyes downcast.

"Charles, what do we do now?"

"We sweep the building for others... I can feel three minds, but I would feel safer if we examined thoroughly." With that, Charles started off down the corridor.

Erik hesitated a little and followed.

Charles turned to look at him.
"You know this place. Where should we start looking?"

"The basement." Erik took a deep breath before continuing. "If he has anyone down there they might be severely injured. They... They might not have time for us to search the other rooms."

"Lead on," Charles agreed, moving to the side so Erik could get past. It was only as he unlocked the concealed door that he registered a problem. He flinched, trying to work out how to phrase it without causing offence.

"Can't you float me down?" Charles asked.

"The corridors are very narrow, and... I don't know how steady I could be at the moment. It would be better for you to stay up here, and search for other minds in the grounds or something..." Erik cringed as he refused Charles, expecting to be struck for his insolence. Instead, Charles simply gestured with one hand for Erik to continue without him.

Erik went to take a step forwards, and felt a chill run down his spine. He didn't want to go, but he was the only one here who could. Whoever was down there might need him. He had to do this.

"I can stay with you," Charles interrupted his thoughts. "I can see through your eyes, talk to your mind, accompany you that way. If you'd like."

"I can't promise my thoughts will be calm or welcoming."
"Maybe not. But I've seen from your memories what happened in that place. I couldn't ask you to go alone." I'll be with you. The feeling of Charles inside his mind felt almost like an embrace.

He allowed his metal-sense to brush over the frame of the wheelchair, of Charles's watch. He tried to stop the memories, the long-distant echoes of screams, and he descended into the basement.

I'm with you. I can see what you do, and I can help block out the memories. Charles's voice was as calm as it always sounded when it spoke in his mind, a strange counterpoint to the way his own heart was racing. He could feel the air growing colder as he walked down the steps, the lights turning on when he pulled the cord, pale and hostile. He made himself start with the lab, knowing that was what he feared the most.

The children are safely at home and Shaw is dead, Charles told him.

Erik pushed open the door, his gaze frozen for a moment on the metal table, the guttering on the floor, the freezer behind. There was no one there, but he stepped in anyway, his hands shaking. He tried to crush his fear, to focus.

Schmidt's observation book was resting on his desk, and he hesitated by it, before he opened it. This volume was too recent to record his own torment, but he flicked through images and descriptions that made him shudder, never allowing himself to focus for too long. He'd known there were other mutants that had been taken to the labs and hadn't returned, but he hadn't realised it was so many.

Erik. Close that. I'll bring Hank here later before we make the death public, let him gather the information-No. No, Erik, I will not let him experiment on you. Now close that book. There... Thank you Erik. Charles's mental voice sounded strained. But Erik did as he was asked, leaving the book on the desk, and closing the door behind himself. His skin was crawling, and even the reassurance flooding their connection barely kept him on his feet. He wanted to shower.

Later, Charles promised. We get the survivors out, and then you go home, and you can take as long as you need. You're doing so well.

Erik checked a storage room, finding little there other than boxes, and more files. He didn't look this time. He continued down the corridor, his footsteps echoing strangely, feeling almost light headed. He checked in three cells, finding them empty, one still stained. He reached the final one, and raised a hand to unlock the door. I can still feel minds down there. Charles informed him. Erik nodded, and pushed the door open.

There was a little boy, younger even than Laura, stood there dressed in white. He had golden ringlets and beautiful blue eyes, a chain at his ankle and a heavy collar fitted about his throat, the last of which called to Erik's metal sense.

Erik didn't notice any of that at first, distracted by the brilliant white wings which projected from the boy's shoulders, the feathers spreading out. One wing was almost three feet long, the second bent awkwardly so it trailed towards the floor. Several of the feathers had been cut short.

Perhaps some kind of harness could hide those. If not Hank might be able to perform surgery. Charles was already reasoning, and Erik hated it, hated the thought of the boy's mutation being stripped away, but he'd already suffered for it.

Erik crouched down, one hand tugging on his turtleneck to expose his collar. The boy looked at him uncertainly, fighting down a whimper, an odd keening noise escaping him.
"Hello," he murmured. "My name's Erik. I've come to help you. You're safe now."

The boy took a couple of steps backwards, and Erik tried not to flinch.

Shaw did say he thought that mutants were angels. We'll find a way to help him pass as normal, but he's going to need time, Charles explained. Erik nodded, watching the boy, and then blinking slightly. At first, he'd thought the boy had a chain around his ankle. But now, he could see that it wasn't a chain. Something was gripping him. There was another one of those quiet whimpering noises, but it wasn't from this boy.

"Show me?" Erik said, keeping his voice as gentle as possible. "I can help." He reached out with his mind. Charles, about them managing to look human...

The angelic child looked at him for a moment, then stepped to the side, revealing what had hidden behind his damaged wing - a blue-skinned boy of the same age, that could have passed for Azazel's shadow. Even ignoring the boy's hue, he didn't look anything approaching human - his hands were strangely shaped, his eyes glowed yellow in the darkness, and what could be seen of teeth suggested pointed fangs. He was chained, with the metal stained with blood.

Well. Bugger, Charles muttered telepathically. So much for them passing.

Erik noticed the second child had a deep gash on his leg. With a wave of his hand he freed him from the metal around his ankle, staying on his knees so he could look the angel-boy in the eyes.
"I want to help your friend. You need to come with me. It's alright. The monster's gone."

There was a pause, and Erik was almost tempted to call Charles for help, but then the boy moved forwards. Erik gathered the blue-skinned child into his arms, and stood up, guiding the angel-boy to hold his hand. "Come on. Come with me, you're safe now." He headed towards the stairs, getting the angel-boy to walk in front of him to keep him safe. He reached out mentally to Charles.
I'd keep the collar on this one. I think I know his sire.

Oh? Charles sounded confused.

Teleporter, Erik supplied, as the three of them emerged from the clinical light of the cellar into the daylight, the angel-boy staring curiously at the window.

The boy in Erik's arms groaned softly from pain, but looked up at his rescuer.
"Free?"

Erik nodded, glancing towards Charles.
"Yes. Free."

Charles wheeled closer slowly, pausing in front of them.
"Hello," he greeted them.

The angel jumped, scurrying back to Erik's side, and Erik sat down on the floor, the blue boy held against his chest, watching his tail flicking from side to side.
"Hello," Charles's voice was gentle, careful, his words aimed towards the winged child. "What's your name?"

The little boy blinked, opening his mouth, and then shaking his head, glancing down at the floor.

"You can tell me..." Charles said gently, but the boy shook his head again, drawing his shoulders up around his face, half-hiding himself in his own wings. He was afraid.

The child glanced up again, before taking a step closer to Erik, patting his friend's tail.

"What's your name?" Charles continued to ask. He was speaking gently, but he was insisting.

He doesn't want to talk, Erik tried to argue.

We can't let him be silent. It's better he knows that he can talk than not, Charles answered quickly, staring at the boy.

"Varren," the impish boy said, looking across at Charles nervously and flicking his tail from side to side. He was far more expressive with it than Azazel had been. "Varren Vorton. From..." he frowned, glancing at the cherubic boy before continuing. "From New York."
The cherub ducked his head, and the blue skinned boy reached for his hand, squeezing it gently as his tail wrapped around the blond's wrist. "He is Varren. And I am Kurt."

There was a look in Charles's eyes that Erik didn't like. Something almost predatory as he looked at the little boy who was still holding his friend's hand. He tightened his grip on Kurt.

"You..." Charles said, pointing at the angel. "You're that missing Worthington boy..." Erik, this is brilliant. We can use this. We can use him.

"What?" Erik asked, as Charles smiled widely.

His father is... incredibly wealthy. Even by my standards. Charles shook his head. This... this is a remarkable opportunity, Erik. His father is a billionaire, he controls several newspapers...

The boy in Erik's arms snarled softly, his lips drawn back to reveal a mouth full of sharply pointed teeth, his hand gripping Warren's tightly enough that the knuckles had turned pastel.

Charles? Could we discuss this later, you're scaring the children, Erik pointed out, trying to soothe the child in his arms. He didn't understand how someone that wealthy could have given their son to someone like Schmidt. It was one thing if your family was struggling - monstrous, but he didn't expect better of humans. It was another if you had more money than you could dream of.

"Sorry," Charles cleared his throat. "It's good to meet you Warren, Kurt. Erik, do you want to check the other rooms?"

Erik didn't want to stay in this house for another moment. But he thought of that man with sad eyes at the party, and he knew that he had to find him. He couldn't walk away and leave him here, alone in a house with the corpse.

"Kurt, Warren, I have to go and look around, to see if there is anyone else, and help them. I'll come back."

"Janos?" Kurt asked. "He is good to us."

"I'm glad," Erik murmured, then carefully positioned Kurt on the floor, his injured leg in front of him. "Just stay here. This is Charles, he will protect you." He patted both boys on the head, and got to his feet again. "I won't be long." He wasn't sure who he was saying it to, himself or them.

I'll be with you, Charles told him. There's one more mind upstairs, but nothing else. We're quite safe. And there has been no sign of life from Schmidt. He is dead.

Erik continued over to the stairs, climbing them, counting each of the eighteen steps, automatically stepping over the ones that creaked. He paused, unable to stop himself from reaching up under the banister, running his fingers over the heart his mother had scratched in the wood there.

She really was an amazing woman, Charles told him. And I believe she'd be very proud of you.

He carried on up the stairs, checking the attic first, finding the ladder and clambering up. It was empty. He unlocked the chest in the corner, but no one was inside. He climbed back down, his hands shaking a little. He allowed himself to take a couple of slow breaths before he continued. Schmidt's bedroom was empty, so was the library, and the bathroom.

He reached out, unlocking the door of what had once been his room with a twist of his hand. Schmidt hadn't bothered using the plastic lock, so the door swung open.

The man from the party was curled up, barefoot and dressed in black, his back against the wall, under the barred window. His knees were drawn up to his chest, and he was shivering. His hands had been left cuffed together, probably to stop him using his gift. Erik realised, rather late, that he had no idea what this mutant's ability was, but he was wearing a collar.

Erik showed him his own collar, then smiled nervously.
"I know you can't hear me," he said, pronouncing each word slowly and carefully. "But we've come to rescue you."

There was a long pause, before the man shook his head slightly.

"You should come with me. You'll be safe."

He's thinking about the children, Charles supplied, and Erik understood.

"Kurt and Warren are downstairs. They're waiting for you." He removed the cuffs, helping Janos to his feet, supporting his weight as they headed towards the stairs. The other man was severely malnourished, unsteady, and Erik knew he was going to struggle. Janos flinched with every step, so Erik tried to support him. Once they reached the bottom of the stairs, he helped him to sit down again. "Can I see your feet?" he asked, examining the cuts and blisters there.

Charles approached, the two mutant children beside him.
"He's in a bad way?"
"No worse than I was," Erik said, automatically driven to defend him, to make sure he wasn't in trouble for being weak.

Oh Erik, neither of you were weak, Charles told him softly, before he cleared his throat. "Okay, let's get these three into the car, and get out of this place."

"Janos is an adult," Erik said, before thinking to Charles. He should get the chance to see the body.

Charles nodded, and Erik hesitated, trying to talk normally but silently, wanting his meaning to get across without risking the children overhearing.
"Schmidt is dead. Do you want to see the body, or would you rather just leave?"

Janos held up one finger, and nodded.

"Alright," Erik smiled over at the two mutant children. "Janos and I won't be long, we just need to grab a couple of things." He offered Janos his arm, supporting most of the man's slight weight as he took him towards the office. Do you want me to look for their paperwork while I'm there?

I'll get Hank to look later, Charles said firmly. And I'll want to know anything that's of sentimental value to you - if there's anything you want from this place. No questions asked.

Erik nodded, grateful for the offer, considering. He couldn't think of anything here he'd want to keep - he didn't think anything of his mother's remained, and her corpse had been disposed of. He shuddered, and Janos leaned against him, squeezed his hand.

The door to the office opened, and Janos stumbled forwards. He crouched down beside the body, pulling at the helmet to see Schmidt's face. He looked for a long moment, and Erik glanced away, not wanting to disturb something private. He doubted that the man felt anything positive towards that monster - but sometimes it was easier to trust what you knew, to tell yourself that it could be worse. Things could always get worse.

Janos walked back to Erik, resting a hand on his shoulder and managing a faint smile before he nodded.

"Charles is going to help you," Erik told him while they still had relative privacy, not speaking out loud but relying on the other being able to read his lips. "He won't punish the children."

Janos nodded, a hesitant smile on his lips.

Erik could have told him at that moment that Charles was a telepath, but he didn't. He didn't want to worry Janos, who was already far too thin and far too broken.
"We can sit together in the car," he said, speaking out loud this time. "And the children can sit on our laps? Warren can be with you, he's very light..." He didn't mention the injury to Kurt's leg, but when they emerged from the office and Kurt limped towards them, Erik swept the boy up into his arms.

"Charles says ve are to going by car. To a new place. A best place. And Varren and I can share a room and have proper bed."

"Yes..." Erik agreed, glancing at Charles for confirmation. "You can, but we're going to need to get both of you medical treatment. Your leg is hurt, and so is his wing."

"I did not mean to get his ving hurt," Kurt mumbled. "I vas just hungry. I am sorry."

Erik glanced over at the small angel boy, who was looking up shyly at Janos before cuddling up against his side, preening when Janos patted the feathers of his uninjured wing.
"He'll be okay. I promise where we are going, you can eat and no one will be punished for it."

Kurt nodded, his tail reaching out for Warren's hand as Erik carried him to the car, followed by Janos who flinched every time he put weight on his injured feet. Erik tried to help support him. Charles followed.

"I'll drive and put my chair in the passenger seat if you four are alright in the back of the car?" Charles suggested, and Erik helped Janos in before climbing in himself.

Warren's wings took up a surprising amount of space, angled carefully to avoid putting strain on the break, but the boy himself curled up small, his head on Janos's shoulder as his fingers patted Kurt's tail.

"Zat tickles!" Kurt told him.

Charles started the car and Erik resisted the urge to glance back at the house. It was finished with. Warren stayed quiet, but Kurt was excited to be outside, keeping up a quiet monologue to his friend, his voice little more than a whisper. "Zere are flowers, and trees, and buildings and ve are outside Varren."

Janos seemed half asleep, patting at the base of Warren's wings, trembling faintly. Erik couldn't blame him - when he'd left, he'd left to freedom. Janos had no idea what came next.

"Zere is a castle Varren! Look!" The blue-skinned boy jumped slightly in excitement. Erik smiled to himself, waiting as they approached the Manor, and Kurt began to realise it was their destination. "Varren! Look! Ze castle is to be our home!"

The blonde lifted his head to look out at it.

Erik? I can see Raven, would you mind keeping the children back from any trouble?

Of course, Erik answered quickly, even if he doubted it was needed. There was little happening, just two figures (one blue and scaly, the other curled up against her side) sat on the steps to the house. Erik couldn't see why Charles was expecting trouble.

That was, at least, until they had parked, and Charles had got into his wheelchair as Erik helped Janos and Warren from the car without letting go of Kurt. That was when Mystique stormed forwards, gripping Charles's shirt with enough force to momentarily lift him from his chair.

"What were you thinking!" she shouted at him. "I thought you were dead."

"I'm not. Raven, put me down, you're upsetting my guests." Charles said calmly, smoothing his shirt when she did so.

"You bastard. You absolute, utter, fucking bastard!" Mystique yelled, and then she had her arms around Charles's shoulders, half in his lap. She began sobbing.

Charles wrapped his arms around her, whispering softly. Eventually she lifted her head, and nodded, taking a few steps back so that he could wheel back to the car.
"Sorry about that," Charles said, sounding calm and in control, even though Erik could see his eyes were glittering slightly with unshed tears.

"She is blue," Kurt said softly, gazing towards Mystique. "I have before not seen a blue person. She is a mutant, yes?"

"She is," Charles agreed. "She's my adopted sister."

"She yells at you."

"She does that a lot," Charles said with a shrug. "I worried her."

Janos stepped forwards, positioning himself between Kurt and Charles, and Erik understood. He didn't want Kurt to be in trouble for speaking without permission. Charles frowned, but he didn't say anything to that, and a moment later Hank appeared at the door.

"Just the man I was looking for." Charles made his way over to him. "Hank, I've got some new patients for you. If you can just give them an initial check up - Kurt, that's the boy Erik is holding, has a bad injury to his leg. Warren's wing appears to be broken, and Janos has injured feet, impaired hearing, and I don't know what else. I'll get Alex up to prepare some rooms for them."

Erik tried to support Janos's weight while his arms were full of Kurt's small form. Kurt had wrapped his tail around Warren's wrist, which wasn't helping anything, but he could hardly ask the boys to stop it when it was clear the contact brought both of them comfort.

Hank stepped forwards with a kind smile on his face.
"Hello, I'm here to help. I'm a doctor, I can treat those injuries." He reached out towards them, but dropped his hand when Erik shook his head. The small group made their way down to the labs.

Erik was relieved to see that they'd renovated slightly after Laura's trip, and there was now a room that was mostly just comfortable - a sofa, a few chairs, and an examination table against the wall. Hank signalled for them to sit down on the sofa.

"Erik, you could go and shower if you want?" Charles offered. "I can stay with the children, and you can get cleaned up."

"I'd rather stay here," Erik told him honestly, expecting Charles to challenge him. He just moved to sit beside the sofa, watching them.

"What's your name angel?" Hank asked Warren. The boy ducked his head, pressing his face against Janos's chest. Janos held him close, rocking him softly, and Charles frowned, and then relaxed a moment later as Warren calmed. He doesn’t like that nickname. Charles supplied.

Kurt looked up.
"He is Varren."

"Does he talk?" Hank asked, and Kurt twisted his tail around Warren's arm, looking up at Hank.

"Vill he be in trouble?" Kurt asked.

"No one here is in trouble," Charles's voice trembled a little.

"He can talk. He talks with me, and I can tell to you," Kurt said quietly.

"Alright," Charles said. "If that's what works, we can do it for now. When Warren is ready, he can talk."

Erik rubbed Kurt's back, impressed by how quiet he was when Hank examined his leg.
"I'd like to give him a general anaesthetic," Hank murmured. "This infection's pretty bad. It's going to need debriding and he shouldn't be awake for that."

Erik nodded, already feeling sick. If they hadn't gone and found Schmidt's test subjects, Kurt would have ended up as just another one of those mutants who hadn't been strong enough to survive his 'care'. Hank moved on, examining Warren's wing, bandaging it carefully using a splint, and then checking him over for other injuries.

Hank was gentle, but Erik still found himself tensing every time he touched the boy, trying to hide his flinches.

Erik? Charles spoke softly. You can leave if you need to.

Erik shook his head, expecting to be reprimanded for it.
That's alright. I'll be right here with you then. He'll be okay. They all will. We got there in time. Hank's worried, but he's pretty sure he can save Kurt's leg. Just... Can I help at all? I can make you less afraid.

Just talk to me? Please, Erik asked, feeling like he was being selfish.

Of course. How about I try and tell you every argument with Raven I remember while this carries on.

I'll probably take Mystique's side, Erik pointed out, and it felt almost like playing chess again. Charles's words in his mind helped him keep breathing as all three of them were examined and more minor injuries treated. By the time that was done, both Warren and Kurt were asleep, and Erik suspected Charles's hand in that. He felt almost grateful the boys had been spared further pain.

His suspicions were confirmed when Hank picked up Kurt, and neither of the boys so much as opened their eyes. Hank took Kurt to the table to examine him more closely, and Charles handed Erik a pen and paper. He examined it for a moment before he began to write to Janos.

'Kurt's leg is infected. Hank will treat him, but it will be a few hours. In that time you should get some rest.'

Janos nodded, and Erik could see the fear in his eyes. He added to the note. 'He'll be alright. I'll make sure you see him tomorrow. You and Warren need sleep.' He glanced towards Charles, wondering where they would stay.

They can stay on that couch for now. I'll knock Janos out as well, and then when they wake up Kurt's leg will be bandaged and we can sort out their rooms. Go and shower Erik, you deserve it.

Erik hesitated only for a moment, before nodding, moving off from the sofa as Janos once more cuddled Warren close. He picked up a pen.
'I just need to sort out a few things. I won't be long.' He handed him the pen back, and Janos nodded.

Erik headed up to his room to shower, trying to work through what would help the latest arrivals settle in.
Charles, could you get Janos a notebook at some point rather than sheets of paper? Ideally one where torn out pages wouldn't be obvious. Erik asked telepathically. That way if Janos wanted to ask something subtly he could use that and destroy the evidence.

I'll get him something for tomorrow. Good idea, Charles praised, and Erik smiled a little to himself. It was things like that, the privacy to speak without being afraid of what would happen, which would let the newcomers settle in. He stripped and stepped under his shower, letting the water clean off the remaining blood and the grime of Schmidt's house. He shuddered a little.

You won't ever have to step foot in there again, Charles's voice made him jump slightly, but after a moment he relaxed and nodded. Charles seemed to pull away, leaving him some privacy to clean up.

Erik thought of the children, and their injuries, and those files full of names he'd never known. He thought of his mother, and the kindness she had shown him, and wished he'd been strong enough to keep her alive, even though in his heart he knew it would never have been allowed.

He stood under the hot spray for a long time, until the water was turning cold and he'd run out of tears. He dried off, and dressed again, heading back to the labs to find that Janos and Warren were asleep on the sofa, both looking peaceful. Hank and Kurt were nowhere to be seen.

"He's taken him off for surgery, this place isn't sterile," Charles spoke up from beside the sofa, where he was reading. "Thank you for your help today Erik. I would have died otherwise."

Erik shrugged a little, not quite sure what to say to that. There was a time not that long ago that he would have been eager to cause Charles's death. He didn't feel like that any more.

"What now?"

"These two will sleep through until the morning," Charles answered. "They were both exhausted, and if I let them sleep naturally they're going to have nightmares. I can't shelter them from it forever, but they'll be better able to face the next few days if they're rested. I'll stay up until Kurt's surgery is finished, then sleep. You are free to do whatever you wish."

"I'll stay here," Erik answered. "At least until they're all back."

Charles nodded, and Janos's legs curled up slightly to make space on the sofa for Erik to sit down.

Erik sat beside Charles, the arm of the sofa between them.
"Thank you for getting them out of there."

"I could hardly leave them. Anyway, Erik, it was you that got them. I couldn't even get into the basement." Charles looked at him. "You did so well. Really. After everything that man had done... Your bravery amazes me."

Erik shook his head and looked away.
"So what happens next?"

"I'd try and rehome Warren if not for his family connections, but either way he needs time to start speaking again. Kurt is going to be stuck here for now, because he's obviously a mutant. And Janos... I suppose it depends how well he recovers."

"He'll need time," Erik said quietly. "Don't make him feel he'll be kicked out. He's protective of the children." He paused, glancing at the angelic little boy curled up in Janos's arms. "What are your plans for him?"

"I need to reach out to his family, decide if they wanted to give him up or not, and then... go from there. If they wanted to sell him then I'll find a way to persuade them it will look bad if they didn't support me. If they didn't... Well, that would be usable too."

Erik nodded, and the two of them lapsed into silence. Eventually Hank returned, carrying Kurt whose leg was wrapped in bandages. He placed him with the other escapees, and left them to sleep. Erik hesitated, but reluctantly headed to his own room - he was taking up space on the sofa, and he needed to be rested.

***

He woke early, and started designing talismans for the newcomers. There was a knock on his door, and he smiled when he felt Laura's butterfly bracelet just outside. He got up and opened the door.

She held out her arms for a hug, which he gladly provided, pulling her against him.

He allowed himself to take a moment and press his face into her hair, to remind himself that she would never again know the kind of torture that the new arrivals had suffered. She was safe, and knowing that reassured him more than he could express.

She looked up at him and smiled.
"Alex said you were sad," she told him, and Erik shook his head.

"Not sad," he promised her. "We've got some new people living here now, for a little while at least. Maybe you can be friends with them?"

She nodded, and he smiled at her, reaching out for Charles's mind as best as he could. Charles?

Yes? came the reply, and Erik tried not to flinch at the slight sharpness there.

Do you think Laura could meet Warren and Kurt?

If you can manage her meeting them today? I need to talk to Hank about what I want out of that house, and I have to arrange a few things. Jimmy can study on his own and Alex can look after Anne Marie and Scott, but I don't want to leave them alone, Charles explained, and Erik found himself feeling almost tired through the link.

I can do that, he promised, and received a sense of warmth in return.

A moment later, Charles's mind flickered. They're in a room down the hallway. It's a twin, so I'll probably have Kurt and Warren use it, but I put Janos in there last night as well. I'll wake them up if you can get them.

Erik smiled down at Laura.
"It's time to meet some new people, okay? I want you to be nice, they've been through a lot."

The little girl nodded, and Erik led her down, knocking on the right door. It opened after a moment, Kurt gazing up at them. Laura looked at him curiously, before reaching out to pat the soft down that covered his hand.
"Hallo!" he said cheerfully, showing her in. Erik followed close behind, nodding a greeting to Janos, and then seeing how Warren was still curled up in the bed, his uninjured wing wrapped around him as the other stuck out at an odd angle.

"Hello!" Laura waved at him, walking forwards and stopping in front of him, popping out her claws to show them briefly before slipping them away again. She looked at him, considering. "You look like a pigeon!"

Warren's mouth curled up in a smile, and he giggled and nodded, flicking out his wing and flapping it.

Charles? Warren seemed much more comfortable being described as a pigeon than as an angel.

Brilliant, thank you. I'll tell the other children not to call him an angel, Charles replied, and Erik felt himself relax a little as Charles listened to him.

Janos was holding his notebook, and held up a piece of paper saying 'good morning'.

Erik nodded.
"Come on, we should get breakfast."

Janos smiled, and Erik took Laura to wait outside while they got ready. When they emerged, he took them down to the kitchen, handing each of them an apple as he went to warm some brioche. Janos looked nervous as he pocketed his apple. Erik didn't stop him, but did reach for the notebook, writing on a new page 'We're allowed to eat when we're hungry.'

Janos stared at it for a long moment, and then wrote a reply. 'I'm not hungry.'

Erik nodded and smiled. He knew it was a lie, but he wasn't going to call him on it.
"Do you want a drink?" he asked Janos, while Laura got Kurt and Warren glasses of water. Janos nodded, holding his hand out to shake Erik's own. Erik shook, and felt a piece of paper pass between them. He gave no sign of seeing it until he was at the kettle, making coffee for them both. Then he carefully unfolded the note.
'How can I get him to hurt me rather than the children?' the note said, in quick scrawl.

Erik took a pen and wrote his reply as he waited for the kettle to boil. He wanted to reassure Janos, but he knew it would only be a comfort if Janos believed it. After a moment he worked out what to say, what he would have wanted to hear in Janos's position.
'I'll make sure he knows. He generally doesn't punish us, but I promise you he won't hurt the children.' He slipped the note back when he handed Janos his coffee. Janos looked at it for a moment, then looked up and nodded, trusting him at least for now. Erik returned the smile, feeling a faint sense of pride.

He heard a giggle, and turned around to find that Laura was trying to pat Warren's undamaged wing.
"Wriggly pigeon," she muttered, and the boy smiled silently.

Chapter Text

“It is undoubtedly necessary for the ambassador occasionally to mask his game; but it should be done so as not to awaken suspicion and he ought also to be prepared with an answer in case of discovery.”

***

Erik finished reading Laura's bedtime story, making sure she was comfortably wrapped up in her blanket. He kissed her forehead and turned out the light, before heading down to Charles's office. He knocked on the door, pausing only a moment before he pushed it open.

Charles was sat by the chess table in his wheelchair, one of the pawns he had captured during their last game in his hand. He looked tired. But as Erik approached he smiled, trying to stifle a yawn by clearing his throat.
"How was your day?"

"Good," Erik reassured him. "The children are getting along. Janos is a little nervous, but he seems to trust me at least. He's scared, but that's not his fault."

"I would never blame him for that," Charles said softly. "And thank you for letting me know about Warren preferring being called a pigeon. I've had Hank talk to the other children about it. He's still at Schmidt's house. Was there anything you wanted?"

Erik shook his head, wordless. He couldn't imagine there was anything he wanted, other than the heart on the staircase which was part of the fabric of the house itself. He hesitated, then thought of something and nodded.
"If... If he brings Schmidt's watch, could I destroy it?" Erik asked. He knew it was the single most intricate piece of metalwork he'd ever completed, the finest demonstration of his gift. But its construction had been torture.

"Of course," Charles agreed, rubbing his forehead. "Ready to continue our game?"

Erik nodded. He was tired, but not tired enough to want to miss out on the chance to talk to Charles when they were both somewhat distracted, able to say what they wanted without immediate fear of retribution.

"Charles, what I'm about to say, I'm saying because I promised I would, alright?"

Charles nodded slowly, looking confused. Erik focused on the exchange this morning, accompanying the images with his words.
"I know you don't intend to hurt anyone, but if you were to hurt either Kurt or Warren, Janos asks for it to be inflicted on him instead. I ..." I know you won't hurt them. I just had to-

You had to ask. You didn't want to lie to him. That's alright, "I won't hurt anyone, but I promise you I will especially not harm those children," Charles answered, nodding as Erik's rook took his knight off the board.

"I've made contact with Warren's father. He says he didn't know his son was a mutant. But he's eager to at least see him," Charles explained, his pieces pressing forwards into Erik's defences, seeking a gap to enable him to put Erik in check.

"And you'll let him?"

"Under my supervision. I don't know if I can trust him. But he could be useful," Charles answered. "I've arranged a meeting for a couple of days time, to give Warren some time to recover first."

"You think he'll recover that fast?"

"I'm hoping he will at least be able to greet his father. It might not get to that point though, and I am not using my abilities to make him appear in a better state than he is. Did he speak at all?"

"He got Kurt to say thank you at dinner," Erik answered carefully. "He can speak, just... not to us."

"I see," Charles nodded. "I'll try and talk to them tomorrow, if I get the chance. But I've got a lot that I will need to do. Moira and her girls will be visiting in the afternoon, I wondered if you'd mind keeping an eye on all of the little ones? Kitty's sweet, she might be able to get Warren talking at least a little more - even one additional person would be an improvement."

"We can try it," Erik agreed, staring down at the board. He was losing again, but he was still learning, working out his opponent’s tactics. He frowned a little, considering his options. It wouldn't be a victory - he'd end up in check within a few moves. But he moved his rook, capturing Charles's queen. It was only a couple more moves before he was in checkmate, but he smirked down at the captured pieces. He hadn't managed to take this many before.

"You're learning," Charles said - it could have sounded patronising, but when Charles said it, it didn't feel like it was. It was an acknowledgement that he was getting better.

"I'll beat you one of these days."

"I don't doubt it," Charles agreed, yawning slightly. "How is Kurt doing?"

"He's a good kid." Erik shrugged. "He's friendly, and Laura likes him. He's been taking his antibiotics without complaint, and he's loyal to Warren. He's... amazingly resilient."

Charles nodded and sighed. "If he didn't look... He'd be able to find a new home. I'm going to talk to Warren's family, if they want their son back, and see if they'd want to take Kurt as well. But if not... we'll have to work out what can happen." He glanced at Erik. "Do you want a whisky?"

"I'm good thank you," Erik answered.

"Happier sneaking beers with Alex?" Charles asked, and there was a gentleness in his eyes that startled Erik for a moment.

Erik shrugged and parroted the argument Alex had used.
"Those laws only apply to humans."

Charles shook his head and smiled.
"I guess you're right." He hesitated. "The next few days are going to be difficult for me. Nothing that concerns you, not really, but I need to ensure that Schmidt's death is presented in the media in the right way."

"You could tell everyone he was a mutant."

"I already said that I won't do that. People would use that as a reason to move against mutants, to say that they are dangerous. No, it wouldn't be safe. But I can pitch it as him experimenting on mutant children. Hank has found... enough, that even people who don't normally care about our kind would... disapprove." Charles's lips curled in distaste, and Erik understood.

Evidence of experiments who hadn't survived, mutants that had suffered. There was a point at which even humans wouldn't turn their back on the mutant cause and if that had been crossed...
"You'll say you threatened him?"

"That I'd received one of his old experiments, and had seen some things that piqued my interest. That I'd gone to meet him, and he'd been sharing what he had done, a little more than would be… respectable."

"You say that like there's a respectable amount to torture children."

"In the eyes of many humans, there is." Charles sighed. "I'm not your enemy here, Erik. I hate what's happened to Kurt and Warren, and to Janos, and to you. But there's a dead man that we have to pretend is human, and I have to ensure it's presented to the world in a way that will keep you safe. Do you understand?"

Erik nodded, sighing. He moved to begin setting up the pieces for another match. Charles's hand reached out, his fingertips brushing Erik's hand, and Erik looked up at him.

"I know you're hurting. I know that having to go back there was hell for you. But you kept me alive, and I will do the same for you now," Charles said, before seeming to realise they were touching, and moving away. "Go and get some sleep, Erik. You're going to need a rest if you'll be looking after Moira's daughters as well."

"You should sleep too," Erik told him as he stood.

"Perhaps, but I want to keep an eye on Warren and Kurt. I think they're at risk of nightmares, Janos too."

"You could tell Janos about..." Erik hesitated, gesturing towards his head.

"Not yet. I will, if he's staying, but I can't risk it yet. Soon though, there's going to be a lot that I can use." Charles glanced back down at the board, then wheeled out from the table, pausing in front of Erik. "I need to know. If you could choose between leaving, and being free, or staying here with the children-"

"I'd stay with the children," Erik interrupted. His certainty surprised him. But Charles was making something good here, and he wanted to be a part of it.

Charles nodded, making his way out of the door. "Goodnight Erik. Sleep well."

Erik watched him leave, still thinking about that last answer.

***

The following day was exhausting. Erik had never realised quite how much chaos six children could cause. Jimmy was quiet, and normally Laura was content to stay with him and keep out of trouble. Kurt was friendly but polite, and Warren was heartbreakingly hesitant. However, the addition of little Kitty and Ororo seemed to make things a hundred times more chaotic.

He was happy for them, glad to hear the house full of laughter, but it was still tiring. Eventually, he got them all sat down with some orange juice and chocolate biscuits, and sat in an armchair watching them. Kurt and Warren still seemed a little nervous about eating, but they were watching the other children, Kurt holding Warren's cup with his tail as Warren picked at a biscuit.

Erik picked up a scrap of metal, floating it in the air and beginning to shape it, splitting it in half, and then creating matching bracelets, one patterned with feathers, the other with arrows resembling Kurt's tail. He held them out to the boys.

They hesitated for a moment, and then swapped them over, Warren's fingers dancing over the vines as Kurt looked at the feathers. Erik nodded, feeling a little proud at how much his ability with metal had improved, how easy it was to create these frivolous gifts now. Hank was due back later that evening, but for now all Erik needed to worry about was making sure the children didn't cause too much chaos.

Erik? Charles's voice spoke softly in his mind. I hate to bother you, but could you fetch some tea for Moira, Mister Worthington and myself?

I can do that, Erik answered, letting Charles pass on instructions on which teas the guests would prefer.

Would you be able to arrange it so that Warren and Kurt are visible behind you when you open the door? I don't want to cause distress to the boys, but I need to see how he'll react.

Erik went to make the tea, trying to work out how to do that. He supposed the best method would be to ask them if they could carry something for him. That way he'd be able to give a glimpse as he opened the door, and again as he retrieved what he'd asked them for. He just had to ensure he gave them a task they could manage. If they messed up somehow, it was likely it would lead to them panicking, which was the last thing he wanted.

He thought about it as he reshaped a metal tray absent mindedly, smoothing it out and then adding some detailing. His attention returned to the tangle of children. "Warren, Kurt? I know you're too young to help with the cooking, but could one of you carry the sugar bowl for me?"

"I can do zat!" Kurt said quickly, getting to his feet despite his injured leg. Warren followed him. Kurt hesitated, glancing at the angelic boy. "Can Varren come as well?"

"I am sure he can. That's very kind of you." Erik handed over the sugar bowl to Kurt, carefully ensuring it was cupped in those strange fingers, and then led them upstairs, going slowly to compensate for Kurt’s limp. "You two just stay out here, until I come and get the bowl, and then you can go back to playing." He waited until they nodded, before pushing open the doorway with his tray of tea.

Irene was sat there, as was Mystique - the latter in her human form. Mystique looked angry, while Irene seemed to be distressed, her face hidden in Mystique's shoulder as Mystique patted her hair. Moira looked serious, and Charles looked exhausted, his eyes shadowed.

The final man in the room was dressed in a suit, and visibly startled at the door opening. As the door swung closed, he turned to Charles.
"Doctor, what in God's name was that?"

Erik said nothing, only placed the tea on the table and then went to retrieve the sugar bowl. He patted both Warren and Kurt on the head, and then made his way back inside.

The older man frowned.
"I demand you get that monster away from-"

"Are you sure you want to finish that sentence?" Charles asked as he picked up his tea. "I believe Erik got some assistance from two of the younger mutants here. Didn't you, Erik?"

"Yes, Doctor Xavier," Erik answered, a little stiff with formality.

"Thank you Erik, and thank you for the tea. We have a lot to discuss, so don't expect to see me this evening."

"Good night then," Erik answered, heading back to the children. It wasn't long before he felt Charles's thoughts brush his again, an incoherent tangle of rage and fear.

We will protect them, Erik promised, waiting for Charles to calm enough to make his message clear. The message arrived as he led the boys back to the others.

Erik, I'm afraid I won't be in a very good mood later. I understand if you'd rather not play chess tonight. Charles sounded almost shaky, and Erik knew that he didn't like admitting anything that so much as approached an idea of weakness. If Charles was saying that he was finding it hard now, then he must have been exhausted, must have really been struggling.

I'll be there if you want me to be. Erik was determined he would stop Charles from being alone with whatever it was that was bothering him. It was bad to let those things bubble up inside you and anyway, Charles was trying to help the children, he didn't deserve to suffer for it.

Thank you, Charles answered, and then cut off the link completely.

Laura looked up when Erik entered the room, grinning at him. He waved to the children, and they waved back.

"I'm sorry you heard that." Erik said to Kurt and Warren, sitting down beside them.

"Heard vat?" Kurt asked curiously, tilting his head to one side. "Ve did not hear anything."

Erik nodded, trying to fake a smile.
Charles, if you're going to stop the children from hearing things, could you tell me? he asked, and felt a wave of agreement from Charles.
"My mistake. It's been a very long day. Do we want to have some food and then get into bed?"

Laura, luckily, was quick to nod.
"Story?"

"Story," Erik agreed. "You can have a story after we've eaten, and then sleep." He headed to the kitchen, and decided that tonight he could just make something easy. He put some chicken nuggets on a tray, remembering to do some separate vegetable ones for Anne Marie, and added some chips, before the meal was ready. He heated some frozen vegetables in a pan of water. In the end, he created something that wasn't a particularly nutritious meal, but which would at least fulfil the basic needs of the children, and minimised the amount of time he had to leave them on their own.

Alex and Scott joined them for dinner, and Anne Marie arrived as well, sitting with Alex and eating what she was given. Janos wasn't anywhere to be seen.

Charles, sorry to bother you but where's Janos? Erik asked as the children began to eat.

By the lake, Charles answered instantly.

"I'll be back shortly," Erik promised the kids, heading out towards the lake. Janos was indeed sat with his back against a tree, staring up at the sky. He startled slightly when he saw Erik, and held out his notebook and pen.
'Are you alright?' Erik wrote.

'Sorry.' Janos scribbled quickly. Erik smiled at him in a way that he hoped looked reassuring, and Janos continued writing. 'I just wanted to breathe fresh air for a little while.'

'That's fine, don't worry.'

'Am I in trouble?'

'No, but food's ready. You should come in and eat.'

Janos nodded, getting to his feet and stumbling a little, so Erik helped support his weight. Janos smiled faintly, letting Erik guide him inside and sitting down at the kitchen table.

"Is it good?" Kurt asked him, before waving one strange hand in front of Janos's eyes and then held his thumb up. Janos nodded and returned the gesture, and Kurt smiled brightly at him, his eyes sparkling.

Erik made sure everyone had enough food, and that they all had drinks of water, letting the little ones play for a while longer before he reluctantly told them to go to bed, giving them some time to get ready before heading up to check that everyone was okay. Janos had got his own room now, opposite Kurt and Warren's, and he was standing in the doorway, looking at their room nervously.

Erik waved a greeting, then took the notebook when it was offered to him.
'Is everything alright? You look very worried.'

'Just don't want to miss if something is wrong. If they call out I won't know about it. They might have nightmares.' Other concerns went unspoken, but Erik could see it in his eyes.

"I'll ask them if they want you to stay tonight.' Erik wrote out his answer. 'And tomorrow I'll see about finding a way to connect the lights or something, so that if they need you they can turn on your light.' He wrote beneath it 'I can do it in a way Charles won't know about' and then showed it before he ripped off the last part of the message, hiding it in his pocket.

'Thank you.' Janos nodded.

Erik checked, and the boys were happy for Janos to come and stay with them that night, so Erik told him and then went to check on the others, finishing by reading Laura a chapter of 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'. Children all safely within their own spaces, he returned downstairs, picking up a book and flicking through it until he heard doors opening and closing. There was a pause, and he felt Charles's chair making its way from the room he had held his meeting in to his private office.

Erik? Charles's mental voice sounded uncertain, shaky even.
Yes? What is it? Erik put his book aside, and got to his feet. He was already heading towards Charles's office when he got his reply.

Are you able to come here for a little while?

Erik responded by pushing open the office door. The first thing he noticed was that Charles looked exhausted, slumped slightly against the chess board. He walked over, took his seat, and looked at his expression.
"How was it?" Erik asked, as gently as he could.

"Honestly?" Charles smiled a little coldly and shook his head. "Awful. But it was a success."

"When did you last sleep?" Erik asked, looking at him curiously. "Have you slept at all?"

"I have slept," Charles murmured. "Just... maybe not as much as I should have done." He sighed. "I've been trying to keep an eye on our newcomers, all three of them are at risk of rather nasty nightmares, as are you-" He frowned.

"Charles, are you affecting my dreams?" The question escaped before he could stop it.

"Only to try and allow you to sleep," Charles answered. "I'll stop, if you want. I've not had to step in, I'm just-"

"I'd rather you stayed out," Erik said, feeling a little guilty for asking. "I like talking to you. It's... it's strange, but being able to talk to you is good, but I don't want anyone in my dreams." He looked down. He knew he was asking too much, knew he was being rude but he couldn’t face the idea of anyone being that deeply in his thoughts.

Charles nodded.
"I'll stay out then." He paused, glancing over at the alcohol cabinet against the wall. "Would you fetch me a whisky? You can have one yourself if you want."

Erik got up and poured out some whisky into the two glasses, sitting back down opposite Charles.
"Can I ask what happened?"

"He didn't sell him to Schmidt, but he knew the boy was a mutant. He was lying when he said he hadn’t noticed." Charles explained. "He was paying him. Schmidt had promised to cure Warren. And his father paid him to do it. He's concerned for the boy, but he wants to see him 'recover'."

Erik nodded slowly, the thought percolating through his brain, sickening him.

"Through the meeting I was keeping up contact between myself, Moira, Raven and Irene, as well as scanning Mister Worthington's surface thoughts, and monitoring the rest of you. With Irene's guidance and Moira's advice, we've been able to make something approaching a compromise in terms of what will happen now. He wants Warren fixed, and whilst he wants to see the boy he's unwilling to see Kurt or to take Warren home right now - which means he certainly can't be persuaded to take Kurt on as Warren's companion."

Erik nodded again, still thinking about the fact Warren's father had been paying the boy's tormentor.

"For now, Warren will stay here, with us working to 'cure' him. It's not ideal, but it gives us some more time. In exchange, Mister Worthington is willing to spread positive information about our cause." Charles stared down at the board, and took another ship of his whisky. "Like I said, it was a success."

"Charles, you should rest," Erik told him, a little concerned by how blankly Charles was staring down at the table.

"I will soon. I just need to try and organise a few meetings and reschedule-"

"Whoever you need to talk to will be resting. It can wait until the morning," Erik said. He recognised the exhaustion he could see in Charles, when you were tired but couldn't appear weak. He hesitated, wondering if he should offer to stay close by or something, but deciding against it. "You won today, Charles."

"I did," Charles agreed. "And already the next battle is looming. Irene says the war is swinging in our favour, but a single mistake could send it all crumbling down."

"Then you need to rest," Erik pointed out. "If you make a mistake with your telepathy, it's not just yourself at risk. Remember what you told me before the party?"

"Anything you did that made me look bad would reflect badly on all of us," Charles supplied, and nodded "I'll go to sleep. Is there anything I need to know?"

"Not really. Haven't seen Hank."

"He had a lot of files to read through, and they've been bothering him. I'll check up on him in the morning," Charles reasoned. "He won't appreciate the interruption while he's asleep."

Charles shook his head, frowning. "I'm sorry about what you overheard. I had to see how he would react, But I suppose the truth is, Kurt's always going to be faced with reactions like that. No matter what he does in life, people are always going to look at him and the first thing they see won't be that sweet kind boy who wants to help everyone, but his appearance. I don't know how to fix that Erik. Normally I can just pull people away from the trouble they're in. But his trouble is his very skin."

"I guess we make this somewhere he can feel safe. Somewhere he can let himself be seen without having to feel that he's different," Erik suggested. "We're already doing that."

"We can do it more. Go to bed Erik, I'll see you tomorrow."

***

Erik woke up slowly, comfortable in his own bed. He stared up at the ceiling, recognising the pattern in the plaster there - this was his bed, in his room. From where he was lying, he checked the books on the bookshelf, to ensure nothing was out of order, and began to mentally scan through the house, feeling where Charles was - he had at least gone to his bedroom, even if he hadn't slept. Hank was down in the labs, and the others were all in their rooms.

It was reassuring, being able to wake up and know that he was safe, and so were the others. Janos was in with the newcomers still, so Erik spent some time trying to work out how he could set up a signal from the boys' room to Janos's, to give him that security. Hearing other mutants scream had always horrified him, but he found himself considering just how much worse it would be not to know if there was someone calling for him. He had seen his mother tortured, could still remember how she'd cried out, but at least he'd been able to tell himself when the house was quiet that everyone was safe. If he hadn't been able to tell...

He's dead, Erik. Charles cut through the panic that was beginning to build, and Erik sat up, drawing his knees around himself.

Morning, Charles. Did you sleep?

Enough. You?

Enough, Erik agreed, taking a couple of deep breaths to soothe himself. Thank you. He sent back, ashamed that he had panicked.

It's alright. I've been thinking, I'm sure there's an old workshop full of scrap in the grounds. Help yourself to whatever you want, Charles offered. Erik knew that Charles knew about his agreement with Janos - he'd either found it in Janos's thoughts, or picked it up from Erik's panic. But Charles wasn't going to comment on it. He was going to let him keep this secret.

Thank you, he sent back.

I'll be going to breakfast soon, if you'd like to join me. I have to go to some meetings today, but if you're around this evening I have some things I need to talk to you about. Nothing bad. No one is in trouble at all, I just need some assistance with the next steps. I appreciate your help last night. Charles's presence faded from his mind, and Erik showered then went to knock on doors and check the children were alright, before heading down to breakfast.

Irene and Mystique were eating side by side, whispering among themselves. Charles made his way in, and settled by Irene's side, talking to her softly. Erik couldn't hear the details of what was said, aside from catching the occasional word, but whatever it was, Charles looked delighted, and Irene was smiling, if a little nervously.

"Erik, I know you had friends before you came here." Charles glanced towards Kurt as he said it. The little boy had got his tail wrapped around his glass of chocolate milk and was sipping it between spoonfuls of cereal. "What can you tell me about them?"

"Azazel is a teleporter with red skin and a tail. Frost is a telepath, with a secondary mutation that lets her turn to diamond."

Is she a powerful telepath?

I can't be sure. She was collared, Erik answered. He'd known, as soon as he knew her mutation, that she had no real possibility of a future. That a telepath could never be freed. He looked over at Charles, wondering if Charles realised that.

Charles nodded.

She has a great sense of humour, and she's smart.

I'm sure she is. Thank you, Charles responded, and Erik shivered. He'd been a child when his mutation had shown and cost him everything. He'd hit rock bottom young, and found he had nowhere left to fall. Charles had never fallen, but he'd had to hide and be careful. Plenty would have hidden away, kept their distance from mutants. But Charles had sought out his kind. He'd taken risks to protect them, played a game that was dangerous. But this wasn't like Mystique, rushing headlong into danger without a care. Charles knew he was at risk, and he did it anyway.

How often do the children's nightmares disturb you? Erik asked.

Not that much. I can soothe them. Charles smiled as Jimmy appeared, his collar switched on because of Irene's presence. The boy grabbed himself some breakfast.

"Good morning!" Jimmy said brightly. "Will Hank be helping us study today?"

"He will," Charles said quickly. "He's been reading those records for long enough." I'm dealing with Schmidt's discovery later. You are safe, and with Worthington Senior on our side, I'm confident that things will progress well. Charles started talking to the children about their studies, seeming genuinely interested.

Erik smiled fondly across at him.

Hank emerged, blinking, into the kitchen, holding a paper bag which he handed to Charles. Erik could feel the metal of Schmidt's watch within it, his skin crawling at it. The two of them sat in silence, which Erik knew meant a conversation was happening. Laura came down for breakfast, and Erik made her some toast with jelly. Charles looked up.

"Erik, I have to leave for a meeting soon, but first of all I just need to ..." He gestured to the bag, and wheeled out towards his office. Erik followed, patting Laura's hair as he walked past.

Charles paused once they were alone in his office. "I've got these for you. Now. Uh. I hope you don't mind-" He looked almost awkward. "I've got the watch, of course. I promised I'd get you that so you can destroy it, and you can. But I could feel what you wanted..." He reached into the paper bag, withdrawing a perfect circle of wood. He held it out, and Erik almost snatched it from him, turning it over in his hands, seeing the heart that his mother had scratched onto it.

"I hope you don't mind."

Wordless, Erik shook his head, his fingers tracing the shape. He had had nothing from his mother for so long. Only his memories. Now, he felt like he had something tangible, something he could hold onto.

"I've asked Hank to keep an eye on the children this morning. We can deal with the watch later," Charles reassured softly. "I've got to go to some meetings, but I'll be back." He left the room, leaving Erik alone with the reminder of his mother's love.

***

The shed that Charles had mentioned was indeed a treasure trove of metal scrap, old cars and engines. Erik took some of it, returning to Janos's room, and fitting a thin wire under the floor to the lamps, so that if either Warren or Kurt pushed a button it would turn on the lamp in Janos's room. It wasn't a particularly sturdy system, but for now it would provide the three of them with security. He was just finishing it up when Laura came over, wrapping her arms around him for a cuddle. Erik smiled and returned the embrace, kissing her forehead.
"All alright little one?"

"Play?" she asked curiously, and he nodded.

"Just as soon as I've shown Janos this, could you go and get him?"

Laura fetched Janos, who was accompanied by Kurt and Warren. Erik demonstrated the lighting system, and Janos smiled tearfully, flashing him a smile and a thumbs up signal. Kurt grinned and hugged Janos.
"Don't be sad!" the blue boy demanded. "Ve vill look after you."

Janos crouched down to hug him tightly, and Erik led Laura back downstairs, knowing the boys would follow when they were ready. Jimmy was midway through a game of chess with Ororo, and Scott and Kitty were playing dominoes. Erik smiled and sat down with them, feeling calmer now than he had for a long time. He'd helped. He'd given Janos the chance to feel safe, when the world was trying to take that security from him.

Erik spent the day with the children and Janos, watching as the newest residents started to settle into their new home. Little Warren was still silent, keeping his uninjured wing half wrapped around his fragile form, but he was managing the occasional smile, so things could certainly have been worse. Erik promised himself that at least the boy was safer now. It would take time for the scars to heal, but at least they wouldn't be made any worse.

Charles returned late in the evening, just as everyone was finishing dinner, and Moira took her two girls home. Erik watched them leave, leaning against the door to see as the car travelled down the road. It was strange, but he missed them. He hoped that they would visit again soon.

"Good day?" he asked Charles as the other man made his way to the empty space at the head of the table. He placed the food down, thinking for a moment how odd it was that they could all eat without him, that Charles had no problem with being basically served leftovers. Nothing here was what he had expected.

"A wonderful day," Charles agreed. "Thank you for dinner." He turned to the children. "I need to talk to Erik after dinner, if that's alright?"

Hank nodded. "I'll make sure everyone gets to bed. Is there anything you need from me?"

"Not urgently. It passed the first reading," Charles said, and his smile was brilliant. Hank nodded, returning to washing up the dishes.

"What did?"

"The bill. To prevent the public trading of mutants under the age of eighteen. Even better, Stryker has been working with the military to suggest that there should be certain research centres used for the training and rehabilitation of those that emerge early."

Jimmy frowned, a spoonful of ice cream halfway to his mouth.
"How is that a good thing?"

"Because we're going to be one of the centres. A major one," Irene answered. "It won't be enough to save all of them, at least not yet. But with Stryker and a lot of the rest of the military channelling their strays towards us, we're going to be doing well. This is..." She nodded, and kissed Raven's cheek. "This is the best case scenario."

"It still needs to pass the senate," Charles acknowledged. "But it's a chance that otherwise we wouldn't have. Our newest partner has proved to be a strong ally already." Worthington doesn't want anyone to discover the nature of his son, and thinks that with research we might be able to cure him, Charles supplied to Erik, and Erik looked across at the little boy who was once again patting at Kurt's tail, trying to soothe his friend. They both looked happy.

"Well done," Erik said to Charles, and he nodded.

"It's not over. we have a long way to go before we win this war, but we've got a chance of winning this battle at least, and we're going to make the most of it," Charles said. Erik understood - even if Charles could offer temporary sanctuary, it was only for children until they reached eighteen. Their rescue only delayed the inevitable. But it was a start, and given the work that Charles had already managed with Bobby and the like, there was a possibility they'd be able to funnel them out of trouble.

"Will we have to see Stryker?" Jimmy asked quietly, and Charles sighed.

"I'm afraid so. He'll be joining us tomorrow, actually. Not for a meal, but to discuss the finer points of our new policies. I will need him to see you in passing. I'm sorry about that, Jimmy. We'll all be there for you."

"I can do it," Jimmy promised, and his voice shook a little, but Erik didn't draw any attention to that. The boy was being brave, and he was proud of him for that.

"I'll be there."

"We'll need the normal assembly. Not Kurt or Warren, I'm keeping their presence quiet for now. Janos doesn't need to go through that, and Laura obviously has to be concealed," Charles explained, as calm and organised as ever. Erik had no idea how he did it, how he was able to approach this so sensibly, as though everything was normal.

Charles shrugged a little at him. "Irene, I'd appreciate your company, but Raven, you can't be there, unless you are willing to do the Darkholme appearance again."

"I can do that," Mystique answered quickly. She frowned, glancing over at Kurt. "You asked about Erik's friends."

"After the children have gone to bed," Charles said simply. Eventually they said goodnight.

Kurt held onto Warren's hand, leading him upstairs. Erik watched them all troop out, leaving him and Charles alone with Mystique and Irene.

"I want to find some older mutants that will help us. Given their powers, Erik's friends will be useful," Charles reasoned.

"But Azazel-" Mystique began, and Irene shook her head.

"Azazel knew what he was talking about," Erik said softly. "You've met Kurt."

Mystique paled slightly, her scales fluttering as she curled up against Irene.

Irene turned her head towards where Charles was sat.
"Tomorrow should go well. Stryker’s going to be willing to listen, depending on what you have ready to present to him. More than that, he has something to ask you, and if he feels that things are safe he will do it - Warren can't be there, but you can use the mention of others that have been brought there to cure, and it should work out."

"He'll scrutinise us more carefully, won't he?" Charles asked her.

"He will. And I think the centre should be able to withstand it." Irene nodded. "There's nothing more I can tell you right now. There's too many options. At the moment it's unclear, but in a few days things will settle. Whether that's going to be good or bad... Well, it's down to you."

Charles nodded, and looked at the two teenage girls.
"Thank you Irene. I want you to keep trying to decode what you can. I know it won't be easy, but anything you can see is going to give us some strength right now when we need it most." He paused, then nodded. "You can go to your room."

Mystique got to her feet, fumbling for Irene's hand and guiding her out of the room. Erik watched them leave, Charles facing him across the table.
"I hope earlier I didn't-"

"Thank you for it," Erik answered. He'd placed the small circle of wood on his mantelpiece, setting the candles beside it. He hadn't observed a Sabbath since he was a child, but he thought that he might try. He wasn't going to ask Charles for the day off, but he could at least light the candle and remember.

"You can take the day off if I don't need you," Charles said quickly. "I know that's not ideal, but at the moment the situation is too fragile to promise."

"I know," Erik said softly. "Thank you." He'd never been able to even consider his faith, and had given up hope a long time ago. But now he could consider it again. He could try and change how he saw himself, move from survival hour by hour to something longer. And that frightened him.

"You're doing better than you think," Charles said softly. "I wondered if you wanted to destroy that watch now, before we speak about the details of what I have planned."

"Please." Erik nodded. It was odd, to think of wasting that much metal. Normally he'd at least recraft it, unwilling to let it go to waste, but he'd got enough metal to use that he could let this piece rot like the man who had worn it. It was a strange kind of security, but it was one that he was grateful for. It made him feel safe.

Charles led him to the office. He walked to his desk and pulled out the watch, and Erik floated it towards him, starting by loosening the pins, pulling away each cog and tiny screw, floating the plates apart, and then crushing the balance wheel, the escapement twisting angrily in the air. He took some time, dismantling the movement entirely before he set about destroying the frame, leaving it a pile of crumpled metal. This was the finest work he had ever created, a sign of how much control he had over his gift, and watching it shatter to pieces was the most amazing feeling he had ever enjoyed. He watched as it shattered, the glass falling to the floor and rolling away.

Charles stayed silent as the tiny pieces of metal hovered around the room, twisting and writhing in anger. Neither spoke as he called each shattered distorted piece back to his hands, and then cupped them together, before he dropped them into the bin that was beside Charles's desk.

For a few moments, neither of them spoke. Erik focused on breathing, on the fact it was gone. That Schmidt was gone, and would never be able to torment anyone again. That no matter what happened in the future, no matter what came next, he would never have to face that monster again. It was a strange thought, but a good one.

Eventually, Charles approached, pausing, and then reaching out to rest his hand against Erik's elbow.

"It's gone," he said softly, and Erik nodded, not sure he trusted himself to speak at that moment. His voice might have shaken if he had tried, overwhelmed with emotion, not knowing how to respond to that simple fact. It was gone. Schmidt was gone. He would never have to see the man again, never have to think of him again.

He shuddered, and crumpled like one of those scraps of metal, sitting down on the sofa and wrapping his arms around himself. His breaths came in deep gasps, and Charles kept a grip on his arm.
He's gone. You're free. He won't ever hurt you again, I swear it. He's gone. Charles's voice kept up a constant litany in his mind, a recurring promise that everything was going to be alright. For so long things hadn't been alright, but now they were. Erik didn't know how to face that. He thought of what had happened earlier, what Irene had said. So far things were working out. There was a chance that they could win this.

He looked up at Charles.
"You... You think this is going to work?"

"I think we've got a chance," Charles answered. "That's more than we've had before."

That wasn't a yes. But it was the best that he could hope for.

Silence fell between the two of them, for a short while, and Erik allowed himself to close his eyes, to breathe and to forget for a little while. It wouldn't last, but for now Charles was silent beside him, and he was able to think without fear of what would happen next. Charles was right. They were turning a corner, and he would have to be ready for whatever came next.

He wasn't sure how long passed. Eventually he opened his eyes, looked up at Charles.
"What now?"

"I'm going to open a centre," Charles answered. "Like Irene said. We have enough space, and we can create a haven for our kind. The 'Dr. Xavier Mutant Research and Education Centre.'"

Erik shuddered slightly at the name, and Charles managed a wry smile.

"I'm afraid that is rather the point. It has to sound believable. Somewhere the humans would support, which would meet their expectations." Charles hesitated. "Obviously, Hank and I are going to be in charge of research. We can provide some information that will ensure the school can remain open, nothing that will actually be that useful. And we can undertake to understand how these mutations work, how to best help the children-" He paused. "No Erik, not like that. We won't hurt anyone. Simply help our kind. But I can't have everyone know what I am. Even among the students, it won't be safe."

"So you have another plan?"

"I do," Charles answered "We’ll have the 'human' run research wing, with Hank and I handling that. And the education part. The school for young mutants, many of whom will be traumatised, who will have suffered. Who need to have the security to start over."

Erik nodded, frowning. He was sure he was missing something, but he didn't know what it was.

"So we'll have to make it somewhere that they feel safe," Charles continued. "It will have to be somewhere they know that their kind are welcomed, not rejected, and that means it needs to be somewhere for them. For mutants." He hesitated. "Erik, I think you'd be the ideal person to run the school."

"You. What?" Erik stared at him in shock. A million arguments flashed through his head - mostly the fact that he was uneducated, and had no idea how to teach. He was a labrat. He was never going to be able to help the mutant children do well, he'd just be wasting their time. He hadn't been to school himself since he was Jimmy's age, he had no idea how to help teenagers.

"I'll help you of course, and to start with it will be small, not much more than we're doing at the moment. But it will be giving children a chance to learn. I'm happy to help with the details of what they need to learn, and I'm sure that Hank will do the same. Even Alex and Raven and Irene will pitch in. But the school needs a figurehead. Someone for the children to trust. And I can't think of anyone better than you," Charles said firmly. "And Irene agrees that this will work."

Charles moved away from the sofa slightly. "I'm going to bed now, I know you have a lot to think about. But I'll see you at breakfast." He paused. "And Erik? I think you're the right choice for this." With that he left the room.

Erik stared at the crumpled metal in the trash, and then headed to his own bedroom. He wasn't sure that he could do this. This wasn't what he'd been taught to do, and Schmidt would certainly never have thought he was capable of it - it was that realisation that pushed him over the edge. He would find a way to do this. He would help the children, run the school if he had to. He liked looking after the children here. He'd work out the rest.

***

Charles wasn't at breakfast the next day. Erik could feel the solid frame of his chair in the study, so he made his way there, unlocking the door with a wave of his hand and walking inside. Charles was sat at his desk in his wheelchair, a pile of papers stretched out in front of him, and his eyes were closed. He was breathing slowly, deep in sleep.

Erik rolled his eyes, but went over to the cupboard, sure he had seen a blanket in there once. He opened the door with a wave of his hand, and searched inside - and there it was, a pale blue blanket. He pulled it out, walking back over to Charles and draping it over him, trying to ensure he was comfortable. Charles, fool that he was, was exhausting himself, and it fell to Erik to try and pick up the pieces.

He made sure that Charles was still asleep before studying the papers. Much of it was legal language that he couldn't understand, but he could read enough to realise this was about the Centre. Charles was going to do this, to help them.

There were other notes as well, and he shifted some papers to find a photograph of Frost staring up at him. Charles was looking for them, like he said he would. Erik smiled faintly before leaving the room.

Kurt and Warren were colouring in the library, as Laura flicked through a book and Jimmy read. Erik settled down beside Laura, and tried to talk to all of them about what they were doing.

Was this blanket your doing? Charles asked in his mind, sounding almost annoyed, but mostly amused.

You looked cold, Erik answered quickly. I thought it might help.

There was an answering wave of amusement, before the link faded.

Erik took the children to the kitchen to make them lunch, making an extra sandwich for Charles. He knocked on Charles's office door before opening it with his ability, walking inside and settling the plate down in front of the other man.
"Lunch."

"Thank you, Erik." Charles looked up at him and smiled. "Stryker should be coming soon. And thank you for earlier."

"You're welcome," Erik answered. "The children have been busy with their studies, and Jimmy seems a little nervous but he's managing."

"I'll just need the relevant ones lined up when Stryker arrives," Charles advised. "Then take Jimmy to do something nice, maybe go and play in the gardens or something. I'll call you when Stryker is about to leave, and then you can get him out of the way."

Erik accepted Charles's ideas, even if he didn't like the fact they would be putting Jimmy close to Stryker again. Charles was trying to shield him, that was clear now. He couldn't hide him entirely, it wouldn't work. But he could take steps to protect him.

Erik focused on that as he got dressed up, and waited with the relevant children. He nodded and smiled blankly, and pretended not to be listening as Stryker looked them over.

"James is looking healthy. You are sure you still need him?"

"He's vital for my current work I'm afraid," Charles answered, casually keeping up with Stryker as they talked.

Erik reached out and squeezed Jimmy's hand in silent reassurance. There was a pause, before Jimmy squeezed back.

"Congratulations on the bill," Stryker was saying, and Charles nodded.

"I appreciate your support. I wondered if we could perhaps discuss our next steps, I know that the military has been working with some mutants, but I feel they would benefit from having them in a specialist centre."

"Of course you'd say that," Stryker said, and he laughed. Charles laughed as well, and Erik stayed silent, kept his smile blank and placid.

"You really think you can fix them?"

"I feel that research is our best chance. Obviously there are those like Alex and Jimmy that are... useful for research. But there are others that I am being more careful with. That matter."

A look passed between them, and Stryker nodded, heading with Charles to his office.

Erik sighed as the man left, picking Jimmy up into a hug.
"Let's get some fresh air."

***

Charles looked over at him across the chessboard, the pieces still unmoved after his latest victory.
"It worked. He's going to transfer the care of a couple of mutants to us."

Erik was sure that there were things Charles wasn't telling him. But Charles was smiling, and he couldn't bring himself to care. He could feel the warmth and affection radiating from the other man, mirroring his own.

They had a win. It was small, but for once something had gone their way. Charles still looked tired, but he was happy, a soft smile on those red lips and his eyes sparkling. He looked at Erik, and laughed slightly.
“We did it,” he whispered, and Erik found himself laughing as well, smiling back at Charles, gazing into those stunning blue eyes.

Before Erik could think it through he stood up, leaning across the table towards Charles. For a long time, he had denied himself any chance at joy. Now an opportunity presented itself, and for a moment he couldn't think of any reason to refuse it.

Charles leaned towards him, closing the final gap, and just for a moment their lips brushed. Charles’s lips were very soft.

Erik pulled away, his eyes wide, panic flaring inside of him. He felt the reassuring presence of Charles's thoughts slipping away from his mind, leaving him painfully alone. He sat there panting, his heart thundering, watching Charles.

Charles looked at him for a moment in silence, then turned and wheeled away. He didn't speak. Without their telepathic link, Erik couldn't be sure what he was feeling, but it looked a lot like shame.

He was left alone in the study as his heart continued to race, and he wanted to run away back to his room, but he didn't. He wasn't afraid of Charles, he realised. He was afraid of what had just happened, of what it would mean. But he didn't think Charles would punish him for it, or push for more. He could go to his own room, and lock the door, and they could put this behind them. Charles wouldn't be in his mind any more, but that was alright. That had been normal, when they began, and it could be normal again. Charles wouldn't push him to continue down the path he'd started on. He could ignore what had happened, and they would never speak of it again.

He closed his eyes, concentrating on where he could feel the solid shape of Charles's wheelchair in the mansion, and then tried to direct his thoughts there.
Charles?

Chapter Text

“In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.”

***

Erik took a moment to try and work out what he wanted to say, before he reached out again towards Charles's mind.
I'm on my way. We need to talk.

If Charles forbade it, he wouldn't go towards him, he didn't want to risk causing an upset when things were already tense. But there was no instant refusal, and he took a deep breath, calling over a small scrap of metal and shaping it into an X, which could work as a pendant or simply be slipped into a pocket.

He could do this. He was choosing to do this, when he knew that he could simply run away and not worry about what had happened. Charles would let him forget about that if he wanted. But he didn't want to forget. He wanted to decide. He didn't need to be afraid of what came next, because he knew to some extent it was going to work out. Even if Charles could no longer trust him, he wouldn't throw him out or sell him. He wouldn't punish the children or threaten to sell them. That wasn't who Charles was. Whatever came next, they were going to manage. Charles was going to get his bill passed, and they were going to be alright. They were going to help.

Erik wasn't sure he'd ever be able to see things the way Charles did, looking over the huge scale of their decisions and potential impacts and deciding what came next. But that was alright. He could look after this family, look after Charles, and let Charles handle whatever political machinations were necessary to keep their people safe.

He knocked on the door to Charles's bedroom.

"Come in," Charles said softly, and Erik stepped inside. He realised as he did so that he'd been here two weeks, and had not seen it before. It was large, with space to manoeuvre the chair, and rows of bookshelves beside a desk, but it didn't look that different from the rest of the bedrooms in the house. The main difference between this and Erik's own bedroom was the lack of a chair in front of the desk, and the range of books on the shelves.

Erik wasn't sure what he had been expecting, perhaps more opulence, but he certainly hadn't been thinking of this.

Charles was sat on the double bed, his legs stretched out in front of him, and his pyjamas beside him.
"Hello Erik, thank you for coming up, is there something that you need?"

"I wanted to talk to you," Erik said. "You... You ran out on me there."

"I thought you'd probably rather I left you in peace. I'm sorry about what happened, it wasn't appropriate."

"Charles?" Erik hesitated, feeling awkward standing when Charles sat. Charles tilted his head, glancing towards the chair in the corner of the room. Erik waved the chair over, and sat down in it, looking Charles in the eyes.
"That wasn't your fault. I kissed you."

"I should have stopped you," Charles said quietly. "I..."

"Charles?" Erik reached out, taking one of Charles's hands in his own. He understood, of course he did. Why Charles was worried. Why Alex had been willing to risk death to prevent being sold. Why Anne Marie always checked her door during the night. But he hadn't thought of any of that at the point when he'd kissed Charles. He'd just been thinking that Charles's lips looked soft, and he wanted to see if they were.

Charles hesitated, then squeezed slightly in response.

Erik looked at him as he continued.
"I'm not... I'm not sure what I want. I can't tell you with any certainty if I want to do that again. But at that moment, I wanted to kiss you, and I wanted to kiss you for... for reasons that had nothing to do with the children, or the fact this is your house." He hoped that Charles would at least use his telepathy to be able to see that this was the truth.

Charles nodded.
"I... I enjoyed it."

Erik shrugged slightly, feeling almost sick but strangely hopeful.
"I thought that was rather the point. That we were both meant to enjoy it."

"I suppose so." Charles paused. "So what now?"

"I made you this," Erik muttered, holding out the metal token. "It's... It's like I made the children. So that I can track you."

"Erik," Charles said with a smirk. "I'm in a giant metal frame that you track constantly. You were pushing it giving Laura one of these, but there's no way that you struggle to find me."

Erik shrugged.
"Maybe it’s about reassuring myself that I'm with you," he muttered. He'd made his mother jewellery, rings and bracelets from whatever scraps of metal he'd been able to find, screws teased out from book cases and ring pulls carefully salvaged from the waste, so he'd been able to feel where she was. The habit died hard.

Charles took the token, slipping it into the top pocket of his pyjamas, and then reached out for Erik's hand.
"She really would have been proud of you."

"I was lucky to have her," Erik said softly. "But I stopped the bullet for you. How... Why did I fail her?"

"You didn't fail her," Charles said. "He failed both of you. He took advantage when you were vulnerable, and he made you hate yourself to try and stop you from hating him."

"I hate him."

"I know. And you killed him. And you've helped people. You are so much more than what he made you into." Charles seemed to realise their fingers were still resting together, squeezing tightly for a moment before he pulled away. "Thank you for this Erik. I'll keep it safe. You should get some rest, I'm afraid we'll have to deal with Stryker in the morning, and I might have to say some things I would rather not. Just pretend that I don't say them, if you'd be so kind. The safety of two mutants depends on it."

"I'll play along," Erik said carefully. "I know you wouldn't say it if you didn't have a good reason to."

"Thank you." Charles smiled. "Go and get some sleep. I'll see you tomorrow."

***

Erik couldn't help smiling to himself as he returned to his own room. The children were all safe and asleep, and he knew that they would remain safe. Tomorrow, two more would join their number, the start of what would one day be Charles's Research Centre, a chance for hope for their kind. He showered and pulled on his pyjamas, enjoying the feel of the soft fabric against his skin.

He dug the Tanakh from the bottom of his wardrobe, and for a little while sat and read through the book of Esther, remembering reading the story with his parents as a child, eating and laughing and exchanging presents. It was a good memory, faded. He could hardly recall his father's voice. But he held onto that story, the idea of saving one's people from persecution. That was their plan here. He couldn't be sure it would work, but it was nice to allow himself to dream about it.

Irene clearly supported their plan at least somewhat, and that meant they had a chance. He settled down to sleep, not worrying about fusing the lock. There was no one in this house that he didn't want to be able to find him if it was an emergency. There was no one here he wanted to hide from.

He woke up early, wandering past the children's rooms, his metal sense singing as he counted off each talisman in turn before checking that the lighting system for Janos and the other newcomers would still function.

Reassured, he headed down to the kitchen, put the kettle on for tea and began to make some breakfast for everyone. He felt Hank heading down to the labs, and then Charles moving around in his own bedroom. Charles approached, and Erik could feel the metal of the talisman in his pocket.

"Good morning," Erik greeted him, holding out a cup of tea, and sitting down with his own one.

"Morning, but maybe not a good one." Charles sighed. "I have to deal with William before lunch, and Jimmy hardly slept last night. I hate having to ask him to be there." He sighed, rubbing his forehead.

"I'll keep an eye on him," Erik promised. "We can try and minimise the amount of time William's here."

Charles nodded.
"I think that the talisman helped me sleep. No wonder the children keep theirs close."

"It isn't for that," Erik answered, but he knew he was smiling. He felt Laura approach, and picked her up, spinning her around and then settling her at the table.
"Sugar, raisins or chocolate chips with your porridge?"

She grinned at him, then held up three fingers.

"I should have guessed," Erik muttered, grabbing all three. She spooned them onto her food and began eating ravenously.

"I'd say about her teeth, but honestly she's probably going to heal from that," Charles muttered, taking a far more reasonable spoonful of raisins to stir into his own food.

Erik nodded patiently, handing out breakfast to the rest of the children as they trooped in, and trying not to laugh as Kurt practically dragged Warren into the kitchen, his tail looped around Warren's wrist.
"How did you sleep?"

"Ve slept vell thank you!" Kurt said, and Warren nodded, doing a thumbs up in response, and then leaning in to talk to Kurt. "Varren says thank you for ze food. As do I. It looks very good." He took the bowls held out to him, and walked with Warren to the table, Kurt adding chocolate chips to Warren's breakfast and then his own.

Even Anne Marie joined them at the table, still wrapped in her blue dressing gown. She smiled nervously, as Kurt immediately passed over the chocolate chips. She nodded, taking a couple.

Charles waited until most of them had finished eating before he spoke.
"I'm afraid Stryker is joining us briefly today. All being well, there will be another two mutants joining us for dinner. Laura, that means you will need to be absent. Kurt and Warren can hide, and Janos. Alex, I'll need you there if you can spare the time, leave Scott with Raven and Irene. Jimmy, Erik, I'll definitely need the two of you there. I'm sorry. But... from what I've heard, these mutants really do need our help."

"I'll be right with you, Jimmy," Erik promised, still hating that they had to ask the boy to do this. It wasn't fair, pulling Jimmy into danger when it wasn't something that mattered to him.

"I know you'll be there," Jimmy said softly. "I know you will be, and Charles too." He shivered, and then walked over to Charles and hugged him tightly. "You're really going to get them out?"

"I'm going to try," Charles said softly. "But I won't promise it will work."

"Thank you," Jimmy murmured.

Erik stared at him in surprise, and Jimmy shrugged, going back to eating his breakfast.

Jimmy used to be one of Stryker's experiments, Charles explained. He doesn't want Stryker to hurt anyone else.

Erik nodded in understanding, and Hank took those who weren't required to meet Stryker away to study. Erik embraced Laura tightly.
"Stay out of trouble, alright?" he told her. "I'll come and find you later, and if Hank says you have to hide, I want you to do that, okay?"

She nodded, and squeezed her arms around him.
"See you later Erik," she murmured. He kissed her forehead and let her go, before going to change into something that would mean his collar was visible. He went back to the hall, waiting with Jimmy and distracting the boy by telling him all about the chess games he'd been playing with Charles, and the books he was reading. Jimmy hesitantly participated in the conversation, his collar turned on, glancing around a little nervously.

It wasn't long before Erik felt the now familiar sensation of Stryker's car approaching, but this time there was something off about it, something about the weighting that didn't feel right. As the car parked, Charles looked between them.

"This should be fine." He turned to Erik. "If something goes wrong, I want you to step in. Actually, based on who is here, I'd like your collar turned off, if that's alright. There's an override for the light, if you could-"

Erik knelt down to that Charles could reach the collar. A moment later, Charles released him, and he stood up. The light was still on, and he could feel the metal around the room.

"Now, if you could both try and stay calm..." Charles insisted. "I'm going to try and find an excuse to get Jimmy out of the room quickly, but Erik you might need to stay."

Erik could feel a trio of people approaching. There was Stryker, with his metal buttons and familiar watch and belt, and a collared child, and someone else. Someone who was wearing a collar, but that wasn't the most noticeable part about them - their entire outline hummed with metal like Laura's claws.

The door opened, and the image sharpened. Stryker was there, and walked over to shake Charles's hand.
"Thank you. Come in," he called back at the two figures in the doorway.

A man stepped through first, the one with the metal embedded in his very body, and Erik was distracted for a moment by the collar fastened around his throat. He knew what it was. It was one designed to subject the wearer to strong electrical currents. It was the kind of thing which could kill, if used too often or on a mutant that was already weakened. Even unactivated, it sent slight shocks across the skin, a constant reminder of what you were.

Schmidt had had one of those collars for Erik, but tended to use it as a threat more than anything. Erik shuddered, and felt a wave of comfort slip from Charles. Stryker's man looked angry, and Erik was fairly sure that beneath that anger there was fear, certain that the man was trying to hide how afraid he was for both of them.

He glanced past him, and saw a boy stood there, about Jimmy's age. He was half hidden behind the man, shivering. The boy's hair was cropped short, and there was a bruise across half of his face. He was dressed in a t-shirt and grey sweatpants, and even at this distance Erik could feel that the collar around his throat was soldered into place.

"Thank you for your help with these two, Charles," Stryker said, glancing at them, as Jimmy exchanged a look with the other boy. The two of them seemed to recognise each other.

"It's alright. I understand you want me to help Jason."

"I want you to fix him," Stryker agreed. "He's not well. His mutation is... not good for him." He reached out, pulling the boy forwards, and the man snarled a little. Stryker shook his head, glaring, and the man flinched back slightly. "I've asked the Wolverine here to keep an eye on the boy and keep him out of trouble."

"Don't worry on my account. He's not of any interest to me. I've got Erik to help with things like that," Charles said quickly, and Erik looked away when Stryker turned towards him.

"If you say so," Stryker answered. "But yes. I'm trusting you to care for him. To fix him."

"Like I said, we are doing what we can. I think Jimmy might be useful. And he isn't the only one we've got here to help. As we get more, the chance of understanding what causes these... aberrations... becomes more likely. And once we understand it, we have a better chance of helping Jason, and others with the same problems."

"And I'll be able to see how he is getting on?"

"He'll be here whenever you visit," Charles agreed. "Although I know I haven't actually been seeing you that often outside of work. We should meet up for a drink some time, talk about how things are going."

Stryker nodded.
"Sure. Just fix my son."

"I will."

Stryker nodded, and walked over to the boy, crouching down to look him in the eye. Erik noticed his eyes were strange - one green, the other blue.
"I'm sorry about this, son. But you need to get better, and I can't do that. I've tried. We... We both tried. But I can't fix you, and Charles can. Chin up." He ruffled the boy's short hair, and stepped away. The Wolverine was instantly at Jason's side once more.

Stryker passed Charles a small control for the Wolverine's collar.
"Don't let him get out of control."

"I can handle myself, thank you," Charles said firmly, before wheeling closer to the door. Stryker left, pausing to talk to Charles quietly, and hand over some paperwork. Jason hid against the Wolverine's side. The man stroked Jason's hair, pushing the child behind him.

As Charles approached, the man's skeleton shifted, three metal claws emerging from between his knuckles. The man snarled.

Erik frowned, thinking of Laura.

"Erik?" Charles asked. "I need you to remove their collars please." He approached, stopping in front of them. "And please make sure this man doesn't stab me. What's your name? Your real name?" he asked the man.

There was no answer. Charles sighed, looking down at the paperwork.
"Logan," Charles said. The man shrugged. Charles stared for a moment, impatient, but nodded his head. "Alright. Logan. This is Erik, he's loyal to me and can control metal. If you try and attack me, I trust him to stop you, do you understand?"

Logan nodded slowly, sheathing his claws. The wounds didn't close.

"Alright. In which case, I'd like to take that barbaric collar off of you. Erik?" He held up the key. "If you could? I will get these two fitted with my design later, so that they'll be ready if Stryker visits, but for now I want that gone."

Erik took the key, approaching Logan, who reluctantly tilted his head so Erik could get to the lock. Once it was unfastened, it dropped to the floor. Logan glared and kicked it away as the wounds in his hand healed shut.

"Better?" Charles asked, and Logan glared, then reluctantly nodded. "Good." Charles turned to Jason and smiled. "Is it okay if Erik takes your collar off now?"

"I'm not supposed to," Jason mumbled.

"It's okay, kid," Logan muttered. "Anyone gets mad at you, they go through me."

Erik reached out, focusing on the solder, and carefully eased it away, levitating the two halves.

Jason stood there nervously, his head down.

"You can show them, kid."

Jason looked up at them, appearance shifting - clothes changing to a white dress, hair curling in waves around a softer face. The child smiled nervously.

"And what's your name?" Charles asked.

"Is... Is Jason okay?" the child asked. "Am I in trouble? ...I'm sorry... Please... Please don't tell..."

"Don't be sorry," Charles said.

What's his power? Erik asked, confused by the little girl that was stood there, how nervous and afraid he looked.

She's an illusionist, Charles answered him.

"You better not hurt her," Logan growled, his eyes full of anger.

"I won't. I'm impressed, you've been looking after her for a while then?" Charles asked.

"Best as I can," Logan answered, his hand resting on Jason's shoulder.

"It'll be easier here. Jason,I told your father the truth about one thing. I want to help you. And I can't help you if we all act like your father was right. You have an impressive ability, but you need to feel safe so that you can learn to use it and control it."

"I killed my mother. I'm bad."

"No," Charles said softly. "Your notes make it quite clear. She killed herself, and I think part of that was to leave behind your father. You trust Logan, don't you?"

Slowly, Jason nodded, her hand slipping into Logan's own.

"Good." Charles turned to Logan. "Do you think she's bad?"

"I think she's great," Logan muttered, squeezing her hand.

"Well then," Charles smiled, "it appears we are in agreement." He glanced towards Erik. "Do you want to show these two to their rooms? I think some near Anne Marie are available."

If you are sure? Erik asked mentally as he nodded, gesturing for the other two to follow him. Jason was clung on to Logan's hand, skipping a little, clearly happy to have her power back.

"Is... Is she okay?" Erik asked under his breath when they were heading up the stairs.

"She's pretty hurt. But I... If I get to stay with her, I can help."

Erik nodded, flashing him a slight smile.
"Makes sense. She'll settle in here soon I'm sure."

"Do you want me to kill him for you?" Logan muttered as they walked along the corridor, raising a hand.
"No. But thank you," Erik murmured. "I know you... I know he doesn't seem good."

"He likes the bastard that cut me open," Logan answered. "You his bitch or something?"

Erik shook his head, almost angry to be asked.
"He's... He's not like that."

"He's William's friend."

"Actually, I'm pretty sure he hates him. But it meant he could get Jimmy, and Alex, and now the two of you."

"How is Jimmy?" Logan questioned, and there was concern there. Erik remembered what Charles had said - Jimmy had known others among Stryker's experiments. Logan had probably been worried about what could have happened to him since he had come to live with Charles. Seeing the boy collared and afraid beside Charles had probably not been much reassurance.

"He's okay," Erik promised. "Studying hard."

That, at least, seemed to bring some comfort to the other man, as he patted Jason's shoulder.
"You think he'll let her study?"

Erik nodded, and Logan took a couple of breaths.
"I'll give him a chance. He hurts her, I'm destroying him."

Erik understood that. He knew how he'd feel if someone posed a threat to Laura, and he hadn't even known her for that long. If Logan had been looking after Jason for a while, no wonder he was protective of her. He reached Anne Marie's room, and checked the next two along, making sure they were both ready for visitors. Again, they were perfectly normal bedrooms.
"This can be for Jason? And then that one for you." He carefully positioned Logan so that he'd be nearer the main corridor, so if anyone did come along meaning harm they'd reach him first.

Logan nodded, smiling at Jason. "Why don't you go and clean up, kiddo?"

Jason slipped away to do that, and Logan turned to Erik, his eyes serious.
"Seriously, do you want him dead?"

"No. Thank you. But no." Erik frowned. "I... I would have agreed, before I got to know him. But he genuinely wants to help us."

Logan snorted, and Erik shrugged before continuing to speak.
"He's not going to experiment on her. She has her own room, and she can learn to control her abilities. Isn't that enough?"

"I don't trust him," Logan answered bluntly, and Erik nodded.

"No one's asking you to. Least of all Charles. Look, give him some time okay? I don't expect you to like him, just let him try and help." Erik hesitated, wondering what would help most. Logan wasn't broken the way Janos was. He'd been hurt, but he'd come out fighting, and he was protective. He wondered what he'd want to hear if he found himself purchased by a human. "If it's bad here, and you two really can't settle, I'll help you get out. I swear it. But honestly... right now, this is the safest place you could be, and the one place that man can't hurt her."

Logan slowly inclined his head, and Erik breathed a sigh of relief. Things could be worse. Things could definitely be worse, and the girl was safe, and this man was no longer being tortured. That was progress. Even if not everything was alright, that was still progress.

Of course, there was another thing he would need to talk to Logan about.
"Look, I've got to tell you something," Erik muttered. "But..." He hesitated. He didn't want to explain Laura's survival if Logan would report it back to Stryker. Such a mistake could cost them everything. "I need to know you won't tell anyone."

"Sure, whatever." Logan nodded, and Erik realised he believed it. He was sure Logan had been through hell to keep Jason as safe as he could. He wouldn't put anyone in danger.

"We've got a few children here."

"I've heard." Logan snorted. "Havok and his brother, Jimmy, some others. The way Stryker tells it he's got one for each day of the week."

"Havok prefers to be called Alex. And there's one you don't know about. One we've been keeping quiet. Because we didn't want her to end up back with Stryker." Erik began, and Logan looked at him curiously. Erik nodded, clenching his hand into a fist and then gesturing at two of his knuckles, marking out where the blades were. "Do you want to come and see her?"

Logan hesitated.
"She being looked after?"

"As best as we can, I promise."

"Then she's fine. I don't want to fuck up her life. She... She ain't mine, not like Jason is. She's just another experiment that... Yeah."

Erik nodded, smiling slightly as he felt Jimmy's badge approaching, alongside Laura's bracelet.
"She's coming to see you."

"Let her come," Logan agreed, and then his face split in a smile as he saw Jimmy. The boy raced to him, and Logan spun him round in the air before putting him down. "Wow kid, you've put on weight, you're looking healthy."

"Yeah." Jimmy smiled. "I like it here... You're staying, right?"

"Right." Logan nodded. then turned to Laura. She put up her claws, and he returned the gesture.
"23."

"X." She inclined her head, and then moved to stand beside Erik, her claws put away, and gestured for him to pick her up. Erik rolled his eyes but obliged, pulling her into his arms and pressing a kiss to her forehead.

"Logan?" Erik turned to the other man. "This is Laura. Laura, this is Logan."

The two of them stared at each other for a moment, before Jason reappeared, and waved shyly at Jimmy and Laura. Jimmy took a step back as soon as he saw Jason, reaching to turn on his collar, and Erik felt a flush of pride for how considerate the boy was. He was glad that Jason was being accepted by the other children.

"Heard she'd died." Logan stared at the girl in Erik's arms. "Neat trick."

"Like I said. Charles has his methods." Erik shrugged as he put Laura down. "Come on, let's... let's go and get some lunch, and you can meet the rest of them. Jimmy, can you grab Anne Marie?"

"What'm I supposed to do?" Logan asked conversationally as they shepherded the two girls ahead of them down to the kitchen.

"I dunno. What do you want to do? Look after the kids I guess, make them feel safe, let them know that they're somewhere good." Erik hesitated. "I'm still working it out myself. Maybe keep an eye on Anne Marie, she's finding things hard right now."

Logan nodded, frowning a little when they entered the kitchen and he saw Kurt and Warren making sandwiches together under Alex's supervision, Janos sat at the table sipping at a tea.
"Huh," he muttered, staring at the two boys.

"This is Jason!" Laura said excitedly, pulling forwards the other girl.

Warren looked at her and frowned, leaning in to speak to Kurt.

"Is Jason not a boy name?" Kurt asked curiously, tail gripping a jar of marmalade as he spread it on some bread.

"There are girls named Alex," Alex answered quickly. "Hey Jason. And who is-"

"Logan. That’s Warren, with the pigeon wings, and Kurt beside him," Erik answered, quickly listing off names so that everyone knew each other, before sitting down with Laura to eat. Jason was hiding behind Logan again, looking nervously at the others, until Kurt walked over and held out a slightly marmalade-covered hand. There was a pause, and then Jason nodded and shook it.

"Hallo!" Kurt said cheerfully. "Do you want to help cut up ze sandwiches?"

Jason glanced up at Logan.

"Knock yourself out kid." Logan shoved Jason over in Kurt's direction. "Go make friends."

Erik, do you think you could come and spend some time with me after lunch? I need to work out a few things. And we have to give Logan his collar, if you could bring him and a sandwich along, Charles asked, sounding quite tired. Erik sent back a sense of agreement.

"Logan, you'll need one of these?" he gestured to his own collar. "It can be turned off at points."

"You know my claws could rip that to shreds."

Erik considered and nodded.
"He's only wanting you to wear one for if Stryker visits," he explained. "And at dinner times we're all meant to have our powers turned off."

"Why?"

"Guess you'd have to ask him that." Erik considered. "We can go and see him after we've eaten." The two of them lapsed into silence, watching the children starting to talk to each other.

Logan considered for a moment.
"Jason, stick with the other kids okay? I'll be back soon."

Jason nodded, listening to Kurt who was animatedly describing the grounds, and Logan paused.
"She's gonna to be allowed outside?"

"Of course. I can tell when a car's approaching at a distance, I'll be able to warn them to get to safety if they need it."

Logan stretched. "Sure. Let's get this shit over with."

Erik followed him as he walked into Charles's office, standing in front of the desk. Logan looked angry, and Erik reached out to Charles's mind.

We've spoken, just give him some time.

"Heard you wanted to give me a collar," Logan spat.

Charles held it up, unfastened.
"Put it on. You can have it turned off, mostly. Your claws work either way and I see no point stopping you from having a healing factor."

Logan sneered at him, but grabbed it and clicked it into place.

"You can go back to the children. Erik, are they still in the kitchen?"

"Yes." Erik checked the children's talismans. Logan walked away.

Charles rubbed his forehead, sitting forwards against the desk and pointing for Erik to take a seat opposite him. Erik sat down, his leg brushing against Charles's footplate.
"Did you find them rooms?"

"I did, and he's met Laura. He's..." Erik projected his memory of their meeting, and Charles nodded.

"I'm not surprised. Anyway, I've got a lead on where Azazel is, and I have arranged to pick him up tomorrow, if you want to come with me. And I've had a call about Frost. There are some rooms they can have along the East Wing, because I'd rather not have them too close to the children."

"Thank you."

"It's alright. A teleporter at least will help with gathering more children once I get my bill through the Senate," Charles said with a shrug. "It's helpful, that's all."

Erik rolled his eyes, and reached out for Charles's hand.
"You want to talk me through your plans?"

Charles hesitated, then squeezed his hand in return.
"Of course."

Chapter Text

“A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.”

***

Erik listened to Charles's plans, trying to work out which mutants would need his help first. There were so many of their kind, and they would have to move fast once the bill passed, to get their laboratory set up. Charles was particularly concerned with ones that had been held by a man called Trask, who apparently had a habit of killing them once he had finished with his tests.

Charles rubbed his forehead.
"If I can get an agreement from him to get them when he's finished... they'll still have to endure tests. But they'll survive afterwards. And I know he works with Stryker..."

"You have a headache?" Erik asked, seeing the exhaustion behind Charles's eyes. "What's wrong?"

"Jimmy was worried last night about what kind of a state Jason would be in when she got here," Charles answered. Erik nodded, wondering if there was more to it than that. He couldn't begin to guess how tiring it was to sit beside a man like Stryker and pretend to be friends, to laugh and joke about hurting the children that Charles cared for more than life itself. It wasn't fair, that Charles forced himself to endure that.

"Do we have time for a game of chess?" he asked Charles, his ability already reaching out to pull the board towards them.

"You had lunch?" Charles checked, and then nodded. "I don't think Logan means any harm towards the children, and Alex is with them. I have no calls or meetings for another hour. I suppose we could have a quick game."

Erik lifted the board carefully into the air, holding it in place and carefully not allowing it to tilt to ensure that no pieces fell away. Eventually he got it onto the desk, spinning it around so the white pieces faced Charles.

"Your control is amazing," Charles told him. There was simple honesty in his voice, and he shrugged a little, looking away, ashamed that it hadn't been enough earlier.

Charles's hand reached for his.
"You were a child. For those of us who aren't born with our powers... mastering them before we are an adult is almost impossible. Even then, most telekinetics wouldn't show the finesse you did." Charles squeezed Erik's fingers slightly, before they began to play, the pieces easily passing between them. Erik lost, again. Charles smiled.

"You're learning."

"Not fast enough," Erik answered.

"Fast enough. There's no competition here, no punishment for losing." Charles smiled. "It's good to have at least one thing where the stakes don't matter."

Erik nodded, thinking of the evenings, how Charles always ended up alone in the office while the rest of them relaxed after their shared meal. Janos was still afraid of course, but Warren and Kurt were already seeming comfortable, merely delighted that there was food and that they weren't being hurt for eating.

"You should join us in the games room. Irene has been trying to teach the others card games and we need someone to tell if she's cheating," Erik said. Charles hesitated.

"That's your space. You need... You need places where you'll be able to relax, where you don't need to worry about meeting my expectations, merely your own. I couldn't take that from all of you." Charles looked away as he said it. "I still... I still am in control of your lives Erik. As far as the outside world is concerned, I could kill you without committing a crime. I can't take away what little freedom you have found."

"It's not taking our freedom if we want you there," Erik said. "Just for one game. Then you can come here and do what you need to, and I'll put the children to bed and play chess afterwards."

Charles looked at him, and Erik felt the faint brush of Charles's thoughts, watching, ensuring that this was what he actually wanted. Whatever it was that Charles saw, it was clearly enough, because he nodded.
"One game."

Erik nodded, and returned to the children, finding Jason sat beside Anne Marie, watching intently as Anne Marie plaited her own hair.

Logan was stood by the window, and looked at him as he walked in.
"You smell of him you know."

"We were talking," Erik answered. "I'm not surprised. We didn't-"

Logan walked closer, leaning in and sniffing at Erik, then nodding.
"I don't care what you do, long as the kids are okay."

"The kids are fine," Erik answered, before looking Logan in the eye. "We're fine."

Logan shrugged, and turned his back.

Erik went to find Laura, tracking her bracelet to the library, and spent time helping her and reading his own books until dinner time.

***

Laura cuddled Erik tightly as he tucked her into bed, and he leaned in and kissed her forehead.
"You're not mad at me?" she whispered, and Erik shook his head. "Because... I think X is."

"We need to call him Logan now, Laura," Erik reminded her gently. "And he's not, he's just surprised to see you, but he doesn't hate you. And if he did, I'd go and fight him if I had to. No one is going to hurt you."

Laura giggled slightly, but nodded, picking one of the books and holding it out for him. Erik. He opened it and smiled.
"When I was one, I had just begun" he read, showing her the colourful pictures. He made sure she was comfortably tucked into bed, and returned to Charles's office.

"Game room's free now. We could play in there," Erik pointed out, walking over to the chess set and picking it up carefully.

"You're so determined to take me out of my office," Charles muttered, but he wheeled out for Erik to follow. He walked with him down the corridor and into the games room, and set the board down on a low table, sitting on one of the armchairs as Charles settled opposite him.

"Why here?" Charles asked. Erik hesitated, glancing towards the sofa. He projected the idea of them sitting beside each other, rather than being separated by a table.

Charles nodded, starting the game, but concern played in his eyes, and he seemed half distracted. Erik almost won, but there was no victory there, not when Charles looked concerned. Eventually, Charles rallied and Erik was defeated.

When the game was over, Erik moved the table to one side, turning to him.
"What is bothering you?"

"Why are we here?" Charles asked him. "I tell you I've found your friends, and now you're-"

"That isn't why," Erik muttered, frustration bleeding into his voice. "Look. If you want to. Look into my mind, see if that's why we're here, but I promise you it's not. I just..." He hesitated. This whole idea was stupid. He didn't know what he had been thinking. He shook his head, looking down. "Don't worry. I know you can do better than me."

"Erik?" Charles leaned forwards, his hand reaching out for Erik's own. "That isn't..."

Erik took Charles's hand in his, squeezing it, then interlacing their fingers as he tried to welcome Charles into his mind. It was strange, but not bruising this time, not searching for hidden memories but focusing on the thoughts at the front of his mind. That he was fond of Charles. That he'd not had a chance like this, that he wanted to try. That Charles would stop, if he told him to. That Charles worked so hard for all of them, and at times Erik feared that Charles was just as damaged as he was.

Charles pulled away after a moment, their minds disengaging as their hands still clutched each other.
"That's a lot of faith to put in me, Erik."

"Prove to me you're worth it," Erik said, his words bolder than he felt. Charles nodded, and hesitated, glancing towards the sofa.

Erik stepped closer.
"I could lift you."

Charles shook his head, wheeling over to it, and lifting himself across, the movement well-practised. Erik realised that Charles had to do that a lot, and hesitated. Charles took that for reluctance.
"You don't have to do this."

Erik nodded, then sat down beside Charles. Sat together, he was slightly taller. He hesitated, leaning so his head was on Charles's shoulder, just taking a moment to be close, before he realised Charles was almost frozen. Erik reached out, draping Charles's arm over him. Charles brushed his fingers across Erik's shoulders.

"If anything upsets you Erik, you can say, I'll stop."

"I will," Erik promised, licking his lips which felt suddenly dry. "Same to you."

"I will," Charles promised, and then he pressed a kiss to Erik's forehead, very gentle and soft. Erik leaned up, kissing him just as gently, then moving so that he was curled up against him, Charles's arms around him. Erik allowed himself to rest in that embrace, occasionally leaning up to kiss him a little, and Charles kissed him back. There was no rush to do more, simply holding onto each other. Charles's lips were soft. Eventually, he yawned and pulled away, automatically looking up at Charles to check he wasn't angry at Erik for stopping.

"Go to bed, Erik," Charles said, his voice a little shaky.

Erik stood up, leaning in and kissing him for a moment before he pulled away.
"Good night Charles." He headed back to his room, and felt Charles's talisman going to his room.

***

The next morning, Erik woke up feeling contented, almost at peace. As he sent his senses out around the mansion, ensuring that Charles and the children were where they should be, he was smiling. It wasn't just the fact he was somewhere he felt safe, or the comfortable blankets around him that made him feel that way - it was the memory of the previous night's kisses that replayed over and over in his head.

He didn't know when he'd last woken up smiling. He stretched, going to shower before starting the day, senses running through the metal of the mansion. He dressed, and headed downstairs to make breakfast. He thought it would be good for everyone to have some pancakes, and he knew they had the ingredients.

Irene was sat at the table when he got down to the kitchen, her fingers running over a book that she had spread out before her.
"Hello Erik," she greeted him, laughing a little.

"It's still strange you can do that."

"I can recognise your footsteps. Janos is more hesitant, especially if there's someone else in the room. Alex walks like an elephant, Logan is far heavier and Hank's footsteps have... well, a different resonance. The five of you are the only adult men walking around the house."

"I suppose so," Erik conceded, heading over. "Let me guess, you knew I was making pancakes and wanted in?"

"Definitely. I mean, that wasn't why I'm here entirely, but it certainly helped," she admitted. "Nothing serious, not really. Just... Charles might need some support over the next few days."

"I'm there to provide it," Erik reassured her, settling down. "I don't suppose you can give me any hints as to what comes next? I mean, there's... We're trying. But can you see if we manage?"

"I can't give you certainty," she said softly. "I wish I could. There are still ways all of this falls apart. I..." Her voice shook, and she gave a soft whimper. Erik was at her side in an instant, rubbing her shoulders, trying to provide comfort. "I have nightmares, about Trask getting his hands on Mystique. Of... Of what could happen to the children. I've seen a future where Jason is lobotomised, her and Jimmy nothing more than weapons in the hands of humans..." She sobbed, and he held her close.

"Do you want me to get Mystique for you?"

Irene shook her head. "I'll be okay," she whispered. "But... What I mean is...I see good options too. I see a future where it's safe for Mystique and I to have children. We have twins." She laughed nervously. "I can see a school full of children who know that they have a home. Who don't live in fear. I can't be sure we'll get there, but... I can see it. It's still possible."

Erik squeezed her hand. "We'll get there."

"Thank you." She sighed. "But like I said, I just came to get some pancakes, and ask you to keep a watch on Charles. Especially when there's new people around."

Erik could see the wisdom in that, even without having precognition. He knew that Azazel had plans to murder humans given the chance, and he knew how he had initially believed Charles to be particularly vulnerable and human.
"I'll keep an eye," he promised, starting to mix a lot of pancake batter.

***

A few hours later he was sat in the car beside Charles, going to collect Azazel, Jimmy in the back seat. The boy probably wouldn't be needed, as Charles had no intention of returning Azazel's teleportation to him until he was sure he wouldn't try and escape the mansion or murder them all in their beds, but Jimmy still enjoyed the chance to be outside so Charles had taken him along for the ride.

Charles gripped the steering wheel tightly.
"Can I trust you to act the part until we've at least finished the purchase, Erik?" His voice was steady, and his hands didn't shake at all.

"Yes," Erik answered, trying to look calm. It was the truth. He knew Azazel would probably be in a bad way, but the only way to rescue him would be to stay in his role until the purchase was made, and he could do that.

They were waved through into a military base, and Jimmy ducked down in the back seat.

"It's alright, Jimmy. It won't be long. Just going to go in, complete the exchange, then come back. And you can sit in the front seat when we go home."

"Okay," the boy whimpered, pulling a blanket up around him.

Erik got out of the car, bringing Charles his wheelchair. Charles transferred over, and Erik pushed him into the base, feeling the weight of his collar. The light was on but thanks to the override he still had his powers. That didn't stop him feeling sick as he made his way down the hallways as directed.

It's alright Erik. I am here. If needed, I can freeze them and get you out, Charles told him, keeping up a stream of dialogue with the human officer who showed them to the cell.

He knew Azazel would be in a bad way. That didn't prepare him for seeing his friend bruised, deep cuts across what was visible of his body, thick cuffs around his wrists and ankles and a collar at his throat. It took a moment for him to seem to recognise Erik.

Erik stared at him, and tried to keep breathing, as Charles managed small talk with the human officer, eventually with the cuffs being removed. Azazel stumbled, almost falling face first to the ground.

Help him, Charles instructed, and Erik reached out, supporting Azazel's weight. The man was worryingly light. His tail hung limply down, clearly broken.

"Here he is," the human said.

"Excellent. Azazel? Does he have an actual name?"

"Oshibka." The human snorted. Azazel bristled in Erik's arms. The conversation continued, as Azazel leaned against Erik, his breath rattling.

"Did not think I see you again."

"Like a bad penny," Erik muttered back, waiting until Charles signalled for them to follow.

"What happened to Warsaw?" Azazel asked, staring at Erik, and then at the man wheeling along in front of them. "I thought the plan was to kill as many of the fuckers as you can."

"Found a reason to live," Erik said. "Just trust me. Just for a bit. You owe me that."

"I do not owe you anything," Azazel answered, frowning. "But yes. For now."

"All I ask." Erik nodded, his shoulder bumping Azazel's own. "You've got your own room. And he's looking at getting Frost."

"I should have known pretty boy like you would find someone who would wrap around their finger," Azazel teased.

Erik rolled his eyes, pausing when they got to the car.
"The boy is Jimmy. Be nice to him."

"I am always nice."

"I mean it," Erik warned.

Jimmy clambered through to the front of the car, and Erik helped Azazel into the back.
"Human?" Azazel spoke. "I do not answer to name other than Azazel. Understand?"

"I understand, Azazel," Charles answered. "My name is Charles. You should rest."

Azazel reached for Erik's hand.
"It is good to see you again, friend."

"It's good to see you too," Erik agreed, trying not to allow the guilt inside him to build. "I am sorry it took so long."

"It is fine. You here now." Azazel yawned, and Erik guided him close, keeping watch while Azazel slept and Charles drove them home.

Erik? Charles asked, as the car left the compound. Are you alright?

That wasn't easy, Erik admitted, before looking over at Azazel, who was bent over awkwardly to avoid putting his weight on his crushed tail, and yet was deeply asleep. You knocked him out?

Yes. I wanted to talk to you, and he's in a lot of pain. As I have no sedative, it seemed the best option.

Thank you, Erik admitted, gazing out of the window. He wanted to get back now.

"He... looks like Kurt," Jimmy said softly. "I mean, not totally, but the tail-"

"He sired him," Erik said quickly, before seeing the boy's confusion and sighing. He had no idea how to make that palatable to a ten year old.

"Kurt came about because of experiments," Charles stepped in. "And that involved Azazel. But he has never met Kurt, and doesn't know about him yet."

"Oh." Jimmy nodded, and returned to his book.

How do you think he'll take it? Charles asked.

Not pleased. But he'll survive, Erik reassured him, stroking his fingers absent-mindedly through Azazel's hair.

"So what token do you plan to make for him?" Charles asked, and Erik could feel the talisman he'd gifted Charles in his shirt pocket, warmed by the steady beat of his heart.

"I'm not going to make a token for him, or for Frost. I didn't make one for Janos either, or Logan. I track them by their collars." Erik tried to put it into words. "I only make them for people I consider mine to protect."

Charles nodded, and the drive continued in silence, even if Erik was almost certain he could feel Charles thinking.

Eventually they arrived home, and Charles sent Jimmy inside to fetch Hank and Alex. When it was just the two of them, and Azazel's unconscious body, Charles twisted around to look at him.
"Only what you consider yours?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.

"What I consider mine to protect," Erik clarified. "I'm going to make one for Jason, but it's hard to get Logan to allow anyone else close to her right now, I'm giving them more time to settle in."

"That's a good plan. She doesn't know what she'd want." Charles sighed, opening the door. "If you could fetch my wheelchair?"

***

Hank finished with the scans, and they moved Azazel to a recovery room which was less reminiscent of a laboratory. Janos had joined them, passing Erik a note saying he wanted to learn some basic medicine after helping with the wound to Kurt's leg and Warren's broken wing. Charles had been quick to agree to the request, excited to see Janos showing an interest in anything after the man's originally withdrawn behaviour.

Erik stood close by as Charles woke Azazel up, prepared to step in if need be.

The red-skinned man blinked, looking around suspiciously, glancing at Erik.
"They drug me?"

"Transporting you is a danger," Erik said carefully. "Apparently you're a mess."

Hank cleared his throat, muttering about professional terms, and began to explain what was wrong.
"We needed to splint your tail, and you're going to need to put on a lot of weight. I've stitched and cleaned what I can of the wounds, although the dressings will need changing."

"Magneto?" Azazel smirked. "I am sure you want to get your hands on me."

"I go by Erik now."

"That wasn't a no to chance to take care of me."

"This is. No. I don't... not any more Azazel. Janos can take care of your injuries," Erik said with a sigh. "He's deaf. At least he won't have to listen to all your terrible innuendos and flirtations."

Azazel just smirked, looking over at the brunet with ill disguised hunger. "It's alright, I'm good with my hands. I'm sure I find a way."

Janos could obviously lipread that at least, ducking his head and stepping backwards, as Erik shot him a glare.

"Azazel."

Azazel looked up at Janos, waving his hand until the other man stared at him, and then put his hand into a fist and rubbed it against his chest, mouthing 'sorry'.

Janos smiled back at him after a moment.

"You sign?" Charles asked.

"Only a few words. I can apologise in many language. Comes in useful."

"Of course it does." Erik snorted, but Janos at least seemed to have relaxed. Azazel looked up at Erik.

"He looks -"

"He was with Schmidt," Erik interrupted.

Azazel's eyes widened, and he repeated his apology towards Janos. Janos slowly crept closer, and Hank held his hand out for Janos's notebook, jotting down a question. When Janos nodded, he started to write down instructions for how to help whilst telling Azazel.

Charles looked at Erik.
We have to tell him about Kurt.

Erik nodded, offering his hand to Azazel to help him to his feet.
"So, Az," Erik started. "There's someone here you need to meet."

"That sounds like I should worry." Azazel stumbled, still leaning on Erik, but the work already done and the painkillers he had been given seemed to make things a little easier at least. "Tell me what it is, 'Erik'."

Erik tracked the children to what had originally been the ballroom when the mansion was built, Charles beside them. Jason was sat in a corner, leaves and flowers twisting up the walls as she practiced her gift, Laura suggesting colours for the flowers. Logan was sat nearby, watching the two of them. A short distance away were Kurt and Warren, the two of them scribbling with crayons. Both were lying on their stomachs, Kurt's tail twitching as Warren's uninjured wing flapped occasionally.

Azazel froze in the doorway.
"Shit," he muttered, and Jason yelped, her illusion flickering for a moment before she hid behind Logan, who immediately extended his claws.

"Easy," Charles said, wheeling forwards, as Erik sunk his power deep into Logan's body, ready to stop him if it was necessary. "Logan, this is Azazel. He means no harm to you or the children, I simply wanted him to see Kurt."

"Hallo!" Kurt bounded to his feet, stretching and waving his odd hand. He limped slightly as he approached. "Oh! You have a tail also?"

Azazel stared, and then turned his back on the boy, and Erik was sure he wanted to teleport far from here. He reached out, rubbing his friend's shoulder.
"I'm sorry."

"He not my problem," Azazel muttered, his accent thick. "I don't care."

"Okay," Erik looked towards Charles. I'm going to take Azazel out for some air.

Charles didn't object, so Erik guided Azazel outside.

For a few moments, neither of them spoke, and then Azazel laughed, the sound a little hollow.
"You do well for yourself. Have palace."

"I have." Erik sighed, knowing he couldn't out Charles as not-human, even when he was tempted. "He... He genuinely wants to help mutants. He's talking about opening a school. Even getting you to help him find new pupils."

"To gather our kind?"

"To protect them. I'm... Just give it a few days, alright? I can't promise you'll like it here, but..."

"I never thought you roll over, be some human whore," Azazel muttered. "Thought you had too much pride for that."

Erik hesitated. There were things he wanted to say in answer, but they were things he should tell Charles first. Instead, he squeezed Azazel's arm.
"He's been good to us. To all of us. The children as well. Those ones in there, he rescued two from the government's laboratories, and two from Schmidt's. It's a sanctuary. I've seen him rescue mutant children, find them human families where they can hide."

"Not all of us can hide."

"No. You met Kurt and Warren. Both of them are visibly mutants," Erik pointed out. "But they're safe here. At least wait until we can get Frost here."

"Kill the human and take control of the palace."

"You Bolshevik, always with your revolution," Erik teased, and he found he was smiling. He looked at Azazel, saw he was smiling as well. "And anyway, I happen to be ...fond of this human."

"Perhaps you can keep him then."

"I intend to," Erik said, cutting off whatever joke Azazel was about to make. Azazel stared at him for a moment, and then nodded.

"You care for him."

Erik nodded.
"Are you ready to see your room? You have your own space, nowhere near the children."

"Let us go back to the hall first," Azazel said carefully, leading the way.

Kurt and Warren were still colouring, but looked up at his approach, concern clear on their faces. They both cringed back a little.

Azazel walked over.
"Hello Kurt. Warren. It is good to meet you." His voice shook a little, but when both boys held out their hands, he shook them before he pulled away. Warren leaned over to whisper to Kurt, and Kurt looked up.

"Varren says hello. It is good to meet you!" Kurt said, smiling, his tail darting around gripping one of the crayons. Azazel nodded silently.

"This is Laura, my little Kätzchen," Erik pointed towards her with a sense of pride. "I've been taking care of her. And the girl beside her is Jason."

"Hello." Laura waved.

"Laura, this is my friend Azazel."

The girl nodded, standing up and walking over to Erik. She embraced him quickly, and he patted her hair. She grinned, then skipped back to Jason, continuing to suggest flowers for her.

"My room?" Azazel asked, and Erik led him away from the main set of rooms, towards the East Wing, explaining that Azazel had time to relax before dinner.

"You believe this human," Azazel asked, and then looked thoughtful when Erik nodded. "I will… give him some time. To see."

"Thank you," Erik answered. "Frost will be in the room next to you. Janos and Logan sleep in the main wing near their children."

"Janos has children?"

"The boys that came with him from Schmidt's lab," Erik answered. "Warren and Kurt." He hesitated, then reached out to hug Azazel for a moment, before pulling back. "I killed him."

"You should have told me that at start," Azazel pointed out, then hugged him in return. "I am tired. And you have your human to curl up at feet of. But go. And bring back Frost."

Chapter Text

“He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.”
***

Charles didn't pressure Azazel to join them for dinner that night, suggesting that Erik take him food, and Erik did so. He knew that his friend was still reeling from the discovery of his son. He didn't want to ask too many questions, so he busied himself with talking to Azazel about the house and the family he had found, explaining the children's abilities. Eventually he excused himself, heading to Charles's office for a game of chess.

Despite Azazel's many innuendos to the contrary, they actually did get a game of chess played.

"He doesn't trust you," Erik pointed out.

"Nor should he. I'm lying to him about what I am, and I doubt he is the type to trust telepaths. For now I am happy for him to stay mostly out of the way. Does he pose a threat to Kurt?"

"No," Erik said certainly. "He won't hurt him. He's concerned Schmidt had him, but he's not interested in being involved with him at all beyond that."

"Good. And you've spoken to him about the school?"

"Initially. He doesn't trust it."

"I wouldn't expect him to trust it," Charles reassured as he captured Erik's castle. "I just need to know if he'll be willing to work for us when the time comes."

"I believe so," Erik agreed.

Charles nodded thoughtfully, his eyes still fixed on him.
"Can I ask how you feel about last night?"

"Good," Erik said, before shaking his head. "A lot better than good." Charles was still looking at him, so he licked his lips, glancing down. "You?"

"Good too," Charles admitted. Erik got up from his seat, walking around the table and settling on Charles's lap, leaning down to kiss him.

Charles rolled his eyes, but kissed him back.
"Erik, we were playing."

"I can play from here," Erik answered, turning his attention to the board.

Charles paused, a frown settling on his forehead.
"Would you mind trying that?" he asked. "I'd be interested to see if you can."

Erik shrugged, but nodded, continuing to play while perched against Charles, sometimes distracting him with a gentle kiss.

Eventually Charles won the game, and he smiled up at him. Erik risked a smirk in response, and Charles almost laughed.

"You really don't know how smart you are, do you Erik?"

Erik swallowed, his mind starting off down its normal path focused on his own ignorance.

Charles sighed, reaching to tilt his head up and kiss him softly.
"You just managed to play the end of that game with the board backwards..." Charles shook his head, and wrapped his arms around Erik for a moment. "I know you won't believe me if I tell you you're incredible."

"No."

"I'll have to keep telling you. Maybe one day you'll listen." Charles let him go, gently pushing him away.

Erik held his ground, leaning up for another kiss.
"I... guess I can listen to that." He leaned down, his forehead on Charles's shoulder, taking a few deep breaths. "You should sleep."

"I will. I hope your friend doesn't intend to murder me in the night."

Erik shook his head.
"Go to bed, Charles."

"Goodnight Erik," Charles murmured, brushing his lips against Erik's one more time before pulling back. "I might be able to locate Emma Frost tomorrow."

***

"Erik?" Laura asked, looking up from where she was sitting on the floor, her books sprawled out around her. "Help?" She pointed at a book, holding it up towards him. "Please?"

He put aside his own book, letting her settle on his lap and began to read to her, telling her the story and talking to her about the pictures. She was learning all the time, and he was furious at Stryker for not bothering to educate her when she was his prisoner - Jason at least had been given that, but Laura's life before arriving here had been one full of a lot of loneliness and cruelty.

Erik cuddled her close, and continued to read. Telling her stories, helping her learn - those were things he could do to help her put the past behind her. As far as those scientists were concerned, Laura had died, and now she was free to live the kind of existence she should have had from the very beginning.

A short distance away, Jason had stopped her own reading, putting her book down on her desk, and was listening with interest. Logan was stood by the door as always, watching silently. Erik smiled, and continued, speaking a little louder in order to ensure that Jason could hear as well. Slowly the other girl approached, and Laura moved the book so that she could see.

Jimmy sighed and shook his head, focusing on his own book and making some notes. Erik smiled at him.
"You can go and study in another room if that's easier, Jimmy?"

"No," Jimmy said. "I like the company." He smiled at Jason, and tensed when there was a faint growl from the doorway.

"Hey!" Erik warned, his power briefly brushing Logan's skeleton. "He's a good kid."

Logan fell silent, and Jason got up and hugged him. Logan seemed to relax at that, resuming his observations. Occasionally he would sniff the air, looking around.

"You can sit down," Erik promised. "I'll tell you if anyone comes upstairs."

There was a pause, and then Logan moved to stand beside Jason. Erik paused for a moment, before continuing to read.

Erik? Charles asked softly in his mind. When you've finished that story, could you come downstairs to the car. I've just got off of the phone, and I've located Miss Frost.

Erik sent back a quick sense of agreement, before he carried on with the book. Luckily there were only a few pages left, so he finished reading it, and cuddled Laura to him for a moment.
"I need to go out with Charles. But I'm sure Jason can read you a story if you need it. I'll be back by this evening, and I'll finish your story."

She nodded, and hugged him back.

He gently placed her on the floor, turning his attention to Logan.
"Logan, you'll look after them both?"

"Always," the man grunted. "Go."

Erik nodded, slipping away from the library and down to the car, where Charles was already waiting in the driver's seat.

"If you could put the chair in the back?" Charles requested, and once it was done Erik sat beside him.

"You've found her?"

"I have. I can't promise what kind of condition she'll be in." The car started, and Charles began the journey down the drive.

"Would..." Erik hesitated, then swallowed his fear. "Charles, I need you to trust me. Frost told me before that she's comfortable in her diamond form. She can't use telepathy then, but it can't be used on her either. I'd like her to have a chance to turn to that form."

"If she's diamond, I can't defend myself against her," Charles pointed out.

"I can give her metal. Or we can put something in place to keep her in that wing of the house-"

Charles hesitated.
"You ask too much of me, Erik. A telepath who isn't on our side would be too dangerous."

Erik considered.
"What about you letting her turn into that form, and then you re-collar her. She couldn't shift back, couldn't use her telepathy on you. Yes she's diamond, but she's not that strong, and she might... She might not be up to fighting."

"This… This matters?" Charles frowned, his grip on the wheel tightening.

Erik shrugged. "She didn't talk about it much. But it makes her feel safe. Being cut off from it bothered her as much as the telepathy - I understand why Azazel and her can't have full access to their powers yet. But just... No. Sorry." He laughed, the sound hollow. "I forget myself. Don't... Don't worry. She doesn't... We don't need that."

"Erik?" Charles asked carefully. "I can do that. Give her the chance to turn to diamond form, briefly. Once we've got her home, and if you hold her down with metal first so that she can't attack. I can shield myself for that long."

"Thank you," Erik whispered.

Charles's hands remained on the steering wheel, but his mind reached out, wrapping around Erik. The sensation was warm, safe, secure. He closed his eyes, allowing himself to relax in that comfort for a moment, before he took a deep gulp of air.
"Thank you, Charles."

"No. Thank you for asking. For… trusting me with that," Charles said quietly. "If she needs it, we can do that."

For a little while, the journey passed in silence, until Charles spoke up again.
"Laura really likes when you read to her."

"I like it too." Erik shrugged. "I like getting to help her. You do know... Jimmy misses playing chess with you. He isn't sure if he did something wrong."

"I... I know you didn't like me playing with him," Charles said quietly. "I didn't want to upset you."

"I trust you," Erik answered, gazing out of the window. That warm sensation flooded back through him, and he smiled.

***

Charles insisted they stopped for lunch, and for coffee, before they arrived at their destination, a house nearly as grand as Charles's own.
"Stay behind me, stay quiet," Charles instructed, and Erik nodded. "Stay calm, and remember we're getting her out of here. I'm going to tell her she's being drugged, the last thing we need is someone panicking. Better I get her home while asleep."

Erik nodded, and went to fetch the wheelchair.
"Do you want me to knock you out?" Charles offered, and Erik shook his head, pushing the chair up to the steps, keeping his eyes down.

A man welcomed them into the house, glancing disdainfully at Charles's chair.
Ugh, Charles complained. While I didn't mind your initial considerations about my capacity, I do rather hate when strangers insist on thinking loudly about whether or not I can have sex.

Erik tried not to blush, as Charles greeted the man.
"It's a pleasure doing business with you, Mister Essex."

"Call me Nathaniel." The man held out his hand. "I must admit, you're not the only person who showed interest in her, there's a man called John-"

"I want her for my research. Telepaths are rare. Female telepaths rarer."

Nathaniel snorted, but nodded.
"Research. Funny, he says the same thing. And I know he's got a child one. Still, if you have the money-"

"I do." Charles confirmed. "I do want to see her though, check she's still… alive."

Nathaniel rolled his eyes.
"She's along here. You might want to leave your pet. And be careful, she gets violent."

Charles nodded.
"Erik, stay here." I'm sorry, you don't want to see this. With that, he rolled away with the man, leaving Erik there. Erik started to map the house on instinct, trying to work out if there was anyone else there, keeping track of Charles and plotting exit routes.

The wait was no more than five or six minutes, but he felt sick. He regretted agreeing to wait behind. Nothing he saw would be worse than what he imagined. Then he felt Charles returning, and a collar, and then they appeared.

Frost looked healthy, which worried him, but she saw him and nodded.
"Knew I'd see you around."

Charles held out some water, told her to drink it. She looked at Erik for confirmation, and heart breaking he nodded, before Charles eased her a little towards sleep.
"Erik, help her to the car. I just need to say goodbye to this gentleman."

Erik did so, supporting her weight, glad he couldn't drive. If he could, then maybe it would be better to run, but since he couldn't, he had to stay here.

Frost folded up into the back seat, and he noticed how light she was, the bruises that were hidden under makeup.
"You still with us, Frost?"

"Just about," she yawned, and he put her seatbelt on.

"Azazel's waiting."

"Just what I need. A Russian idiot flirting with me, makes a change from the American."

"Charles said you could be diamond form if you want."

"Charles?" She arched an eyebrow, but nodded, and then seemed to fall asleep.

Charles approached, reaching for Erik's hand.
"Let's get out of here. I know what I need to from him. There's a telepath girl that's my next priority rescue."

The journey back was long, and it was past midnight before they parked back at the manor, and Charles woke Frost. Erik helped her out of the car, guiding her inside.
"You must be exhausted," Erik murmured, and she looked at him suspiciously.

"We have a medic-" Charles began to offer.

"Diamond form lets me heal," Frost insisted, and there was a hint of panic in her voice.

"Of course. Erik will make sure you don't attack, and remove the collar for long enough for you to change form," Charles explained. "We can do that now."

Erik nodded, reaching towards her. He didn't need to cuff her down, she could barely stand.

"Thanks," she whispered to him, and Charles passed him the key. He undid the collar.

Her skin rippled, turning into diamond, and Charles nodded to Erik. With a flinch of regret, he refastened the collar and held the key out to Charles.

She panted, holding her hand up in front of her face, and then looked Erik in the eye.
"Thank you."

He shook his head, and she smiled.
"Been missing you sugar," she told him, and he watched the way the light refracted across her form.

He'd not seen her like this before, but she was undeniably beautiful, the light shimmering through her. He understood how she must have missed this, after so long when she had been deprived of this part of herself. She smiled at him, and then nodded at Charles, not speaking to him or acknowledging him otherwise. There was a glint in her eyes which Erik knew was dangerous, but which felt familiar. The two of them and Azazel had always had a reputation for being difficult. Even when so much was different now, it was good to know that some things still hadn't changed.

"Should I go and show her to her room?" he asked Charles, offering his hand to take hers.

"Please, then go and get some rest yourself," Charles agreed. "It might be best if you don't take them both down to breakfast tomorrow, maybe you can bring them some food?"

Erik nodded, and let Frost take his hand, walking with her from the room. Once they were out of Charles's sight, she slumped against him slightly, stumbling.
"Thanks," she muttered. "Been wondering how you were."

"Good," he told her. "I've... I've found a family here. He's helping our kind. He's behind the law to protect mutant children, there's a vote taking place in the Senate within a few days. And he's rescued a lot of us mutants. He..." Erik shook his head, then squeezed her hand gently, startled by the solidity beneath his touch. "Remember how we used to say our kind needed support? He's working out how to provide it. He's talking about a school-"

Erik fell silent at the look Frost shot him, full of annoyance, almost disbelief.
"You'd trust a human?"

"I'd trust Charles," Erik answered carefully. "He's been good to us." He didn't like lying to Frost about this, but he couldn't betray Charles. "Just give it some time, you'll see."

"Honestly, Magneto... I thought you were smarter than that," she murmured.

"You want to see Azazel tonight or just sleep?"

"Might as well see the bastard," she said with a smile, so Erik helped her along to his room, knocking on the door.

Azazel opened the door, and then reached for her, helping her inside to sit on the bed.
"Frost."

"Azazel." She rested her head on his shoulder.

"Want a cuddle?" He smirked at her.

"Don't you start thinking I'm going to make a habit of this," she mumbled, and he nodded, reaching for his blanket and draping it over her shoulders.

"You need some rest now, Ice Queen," he told her, then looked at Erik.
"I keep her safe tonight, don't worry. Go and see him."

"I don't have to," Erik said firmly. But he could see Frost was exhausted. The sooner she could rest, the better. "Your room is a couple of doors down, I can leave the door open, or help you there now."

"I'll stay here tonight," she mumbled. "Azazel remembers I will cut off any body part of his that touches me without my permission."

"I know," Azazel agreed. "I know. You rest now. I keep guard."

Erik smiled at them, before he slipped out of the door. He could hear someone moving around behind him, and a dragging sound. He could feel some nails moving, so assumed the noise was Azazel placing his wooden chair by the door to make sure that no one could get into the room. He made his way back to his own room, exhausted, looking forwards to the chance to get under the shower and then sleep.

He pushed open the door, frowning at the fact his room wasn't empty. He reached for the light, sensing the metal in the room, ready to attack - and then registered the metal of Laura's bracelet and in her hands and feet.

The little girl was curled up on his bed, deeply asleep. He moved his hand away from the switch, approaching her and sitting down beside her. The light from the open door was enough that he could see her. Gently, he shook her shoulder.
"Laura?" he called out softly. "Laura, are you okay?"

She blinked up at him sleepily, yawning widely, and then nodding, looking around in confusion as though she wasn't sure why she was there.

He pulled her into his arms, stroking her hair.
"Let's get you back to your room Kätzchen," he murmured. "You can't sleep here, you need your own bed."

She shook her head, looking up at him sadly, and he felt himself tense.
"What is it Kätzchen?"

"You... You promised!" she whimpered, and he could feel his heart hammering in his chest. She looked so upset, so confused.

"What's wrong?"

"You said you'd finish the story..." She reached around, pulling out the book she was half lying on and waving it at him. "You promised."

"I know, I'm sorry. I was helping... helping Charles, and it took longer than I expected, but I'm here now, I'm..." He pressed his face into her hair, taking a couple of slow breaths. "I'm here. I can... I can read you the story now if you want?" He switched on the lights using his power, cuddling her against him and starting to read.

She fell asleep before the book was finished, and he carried her to bed. He tucked the blanket over her, trying to push down the concern that still filled him. She was just tired, that was all. No harm was done. He hadn't failed her, even if he felt like he had. He just needed to make sure he didn't let her down again.

He sighed, returning to his own room once she was in her bed, and going to shower, before putting on his pyjamas and curling up under the blanket. It was all going to be alright. Just because he was exhausted right now didn't mean things were bad.

He had Frost and Azazel back. Things were going well with Charles, better than he ever could have expected. He was making friends, and learning how to settle in to his life here. There were plans for the school.

But Irene's words bothered him. She obviously knew that trouble was coming. He didn't think he'd ever had life go so well before, and now that it had he was dreading crashing back to what it had been before. He had a lot of people he cared about, and he wasn't sure how he could keep them all safe.

***

Erik used his powers to levitate the tray he was holding as he knocked on Azazel's door.
"Breakfast delivery!"

He heard movement, felt the chair that had been left behind the door being dragged out of the way, and then the door opened as he gripped the tray once more.

"You brought food." Azazel grinned, welcoming him inside.

Frost was sat up on the bed, the blanket still around her. She nodded a greeting.
"Azazel tells me there are lots of children here."

"There are."

"Tell me about them?" she asked, leaning forwards. "He's already told me what he can."

Erik shrugged, and began to explain each of the children, starting with Laura.

Frost listened, nodding along, occasionally exchanging glances with Azazel. He was sure that something was being communicated, but he didn't know what it was that was happening.

"What's Jimmy's power?" she asked eventually. "You've said about the others, but..."

"He has a mild suppressant effect on abilities," Erik explained, not mentioning that the boy was the source of the cure, or the impact that he had. It was easier if things were just kept vague, for all of their sakes.

"I see." She nodded slowly. "You've been looking after them?"

"All of them. Jimmy's a bright boy. An unfortunate power set, but that aside he's quite charming..." Erik started, already knowing that Jimmy's power could turn them against him. "You always said all mutations were valuable."

"Mutant and proud," Azazel muttered.

Frost looked at Erik curiously.
"I wonder if you still remember what that means, Magneto."

"I know it doesn't mean ignoring help when it's offered to us," Erik answered, feeling anger bubbling inside of him. "Like it or not, Charles has done more for our cause than we have. The least we can do is try to help him."

"I... I think I could go out into the main house today, if I'm allowed?" Frost asked, looking at him through her eyelashes. He nodded, watching how rainbows appeared on the wall behind her, the sunbeams shaped by her body. Jimmy had been reading about light the other day - perhaps she would be willing to serve as a demonstration.

"Of course. You both are. Charles and I just thought you might want somewhere a bit quieter, at least while you were recuperating. The children are lovely, but I know you've never been particularly fond of them, and they're not really conducive to healing."

She nodded, looking at him.
"And afterwards?"

"Frost, you're the most sensible person I know. I thought you could help with the school or something, or with working out other rescues - Charles is already trying to track down the telepath girl that was mentioned," Erik explained.

Frost just looked at him, and nodded.
"I best at least meet these children, then. If I might be working with them."

"That would be good. But I can imagine everyone might be a little overwhelming."

"You're close to Laura? Her and Alex then, to start with," Frost answered. "Let's go and talk to the two of them, and then I can see how I am feeling."

Erik nodded, looking at Azazel.
"You joining us?"

"I stay here. Janos should be coming to help later. I promise on my life I will not flirt with him. Much," Azazel said with a grin.

Erik shook his head in mild despair.
"Good. I don't want to have to tidy up whatever mess you create."

"You wound me." Azazel smirked, finishing his breakfast. "Have fun. Good luck, Frost."

Erik helped support her as they headed towards the main part of the mansion. She had already regained some strength, walking a little more confidently. She seemed calmer - being in this form was good for her, and he was glad that he could provide her with that at least.

"Frost?"

"Yes?"

"Be careful with the children. Laura especially, she's been through a lot."

"I'll be careful with your baby," she promised, and Erik felt himself smiling a little at that.

"She was waiting for me last night, because she was upset I hadn't read her a story..." Erik told her.

"You're getting soft, Magneto. Whatever happened to thoughts of escape?"

"The children are thriving here," Erik answered. It was the easy answer to give, much simpler than admitting how much Charles's presence meant to him. He lead Frost through to the room that Alex and Scott often used for studies. Scott was sat at a desk, running his fingers over the pages in front of him, while Alex was flicking through a magazine. He looked up, clearly impressed by Frost's mutation.

"You must be Alex," she practically purred, reaching out to shake his hand. "I wanted to talk to you, if I may."

"Uh. Sure. Scott, I'll be back in a minute?" Alex muttered, squeezing his brother's shoulder before leaving the room.

"Is there somewhere we can talk in private?" Frost asked, and Erik led her through to another side room. He thought absently that one day this place would be a school and the rooms would all be useful, but for now many of them were empty and thick with dust.

Frost cleared her throat.
"We can get out of here. Alex, you can come with us."

"What?" Alex frowned, looking at Erik.

"You're useful. We can leave, we'll find a way to get out of here."

"What do you mean useful?" Alex spat.

"I mean, you and Laura will be useful. I'd say we can take Jason, but we need her to produce the illusion."

"So you'd just take me and Laura?" Alex asked, and Frost nodded.

"What about Scott?"

"Boy like that's dead weight," Frost told him.

Erik could see the anger blossoming on Alex's face, as he lifted his arm, planning to punch her. Erik couldn't imagine that Alex would come out best in that encounter.

Erik seized Alex's wrist with the metal bracelet, taking a few slow deep breaths, as Alex tried to thrash out of his hold.

"No." Erik stared at Frost. "We aren't going. But even if we did, we'd take all of the children, not just those that were convenient." As he spoke, he released Alex from his hold. Alex took a deep breath, stepping back from him.

Frost looked at him sadly, reaching out and taking his hand in her own. He could see it through her clear form.
"I know you want to save them all, Magneto. Your mother raised you with a kind heart." She squeezed his hand. "But that's why she's dead. We can only take the ones that are strong."

Erik tried to fight down the nausea that swamped him with her words.
"Frost, no. Just... Just try. Please."

"I don't know who you are any more, 'Magneto'." She turned and walked away, leaving him standing there.

Alex walked over and hugged him.
"You're going to have to tell Charles."

"I will," Erik promised, hugging Alex, feeling how the boy was shaking. The teenager tried to be tough, but he was still a scared kid, and hearing someone say that about his brother was hard for him.

Erik still felt sick. He'd wanted to help everyone, Frost included. He'd brought her here. And now she was trying to escape. He'd persuaded Charles to give up his ability to control her, for her sake, and he was afraid that it could go wrong.

"I'll talk to him. But I'll talk to Frost first. She's just scared."

"She didn't need to say Scott was useless!" Alex protested, and Erik could see there were tears in the boy's eyes. He wondered how often Alex had worried that he'd lose Scott, that he wouldn't be worth keeping - Charles at least must have reassured him for that.

He reached out and squeezed the boy's hand.
"Scott is wonderful. And so are you. That was brave of you, you know? Absolutely stupid, but brave. Your hand isn't as strong as her diamond skin, and the last thing we need is you stuck in a cast."

"Means you wouldn't have to handle my cooking though."

"I suppose that would be a relief." Erik nodded, smiling at him. "Thank you." He sighed. "I'd better go and find her?"

"Sure."

"You want to keep an eye on Laura? Make sure she's okay? Maybe you can get her and Scott to play some card games, save her from Jimmy's attempts to teach her chess."

"Sounds good." Alex's answering smile was watery. "I'll see what I can do. And thanks."

"I'm not leaving any of you," Erik told him, and tried to ignore the raised eyebrow that Alex offered him.

"Charles really does seem happier you're here," Alex said, and Erik hesitated, not quite sure how he should respond.

"Do you mind?" he asked eventually. The last thing he wanted was to frighten the children, leave them feeling unsafe. They'd already been through so much.

"Hell, I don't care. Not like you're asking me to be in it. And you two look happy." Alex shrugged. "He treat you okay?"

"Better than okay."

"And you treat him okay?"

"As well as I can."

"Then why the fuck would I care?" Alex asked. "There's enough shit in the world, Erik. If this makes the two of you happy, go for it." He shoved him towards the door. "Go sort out your friend, and then talk to Charles.

"Thanks." Erik left the room, reaching out towards Charles's mind. I don't suppose you have any idea where Frost is? I need to speak to her. It was unlikely, but either way he found it soothing to hear Charles's voice.

Well, actually I do. She's currently in my office, rather angry. If you wouldn't mind coming along, I would appreciate it.

Why didn't you tell me? Erik shouted mentally as he rushed along towards Charles's room.

Because I can manage her. She's not posing a threat right now. And you... Alex was angry, you were looking after him.

You still should have told me, Erik insisted, reaching the office door. He pushed it open with his powers, already latching on to the metal of Charles's wheelchair in case he had to pull him out of danger.

Frost was sat down, the opposite side of the table from Charles. She turned around when the door opened.
"Magneto," she greeted him, at the same time as Charles smiled.
"Erik."

"Hello..." He approached cautiously, going to stand beside Frost. "Are... Is everything alright?"

"I just thought I'd have a word with this human." Frost spat the word as though it was an insult.

"Miss Frost here decided she wished to come and shout at me," Charles agreed. "You can take a seat if you wish, or wait outside until we're finished." I don't think she poses a threat, but you might not want to hear this.

I'm not willing to risk you being hurt. I stay, Erik confirmed, staying standing by the desk. He didn't want to go and sit by the chess board, not liking the idea of there being much distance between himself and the others, if something were to go wrong. He trusted Frost to do her best for their kind, but with her not knowing that Charles was a telepath, and unable to read his mind with her collar, she posed a potential threat.

Thank you, Charles's mental voice was soft. His attention shifted towards Frost.
"I'm sorry, Miss Frost, you were saying?"

"I know you have a telepath shielding you," Frost began. "And I can tell... You think you're subtle honey, but you aren't. You want him, and you pretend you can woo him. Treat him special, let him look after the kids, but you don't have to worry about all that act, sweetheart. Magneto isn’t choosy."

Erik tensed, feeling sick at her words, at the implications there which were making his skin crawl. He wasn't helpless, and Charles... Charles wasn't acting. What they had together was real It was the best thing he had ever had, and Frost didn't get to stroll into his life and tell him that it was all just some sick game.

Frost leaned forwards, towards Charles, her clear fingers grasping the edge of the desk.
"You can cut the crap, and just ask him. You don't even need to make it clear you're threatening the kids, just a hint and I'm sure he'll do whatever you want in front of all of us. Bet he'll even fake a smile if that's what you're wanting."

Erik? Charles whispered in his head. Erik, are you alright? Charles's face had stayed impassive at Frost's words, not reacting, letting her speak. Erik felt almost dizzy, promising himself that she was wrong, that this was real.

Frost sat back in her chair, crossing her legs and staring at Charles.
"I'm sure if you ask he can tell you he loves you."

"Stop it," Erik snapped, his voice shaking slightly from where he stood. He couldn't wait here like Charles was and just take it. He wasn't strong enough for that.

"You're defending him, Magneto?"

"No," Erik answered, then shook his head. "Yes. I mean..."

"You sure no one's messing with your mind?"

"You're messing with my mind," Erik hissed, his voice shaking. "Yes, Charles has been good to me, but I'm not with him out of some thought of debt or because of fear. He's never asked anything of me. I've asked things of him, and he's given me them, even things he didn't want to. He let you change form because I asked him to. He... He's not the man you think he is, Frost."

"You're weak. Taking on a human name, pretending you're like them. Whatever happened to ‘mutant and proud’? You used to say you'd fight for our kind, 'Erik'."

"I do." Erik's voice shook. "I fight for our kind every day. As I look after these children that you would have abandoned for not being strong enough, as I help Charles plan his next moves to pass this legislation, as I fight and I make a good life for myself after everything that was done to me. Frost, I'm... I'm doing what I can. But I'm not doing it alone anymore."

"He has me." Charles's voice rang out clearly and steadily. He wheeled out from behind the shelter of his desk, approaching Erik, and reaching for his hand. "He has... As long as he wants me, he has my support." He squeezed Erik's hand, rubbing his thumb across the back of it.

Erik squeezed back, trying to get his breathing steady.

Charles took a breath and continued.
"You have my support as well, Miss Frost, if you want it. From what Erik says, I think you could be a great asset to my school. The children need people they can trust, and I don't doubt that you would always put their priorities first. But for now... I think it would be best if you headed back to your space in the mansion. I don't think you particularly want to be around me right now, and after that outburst, I certainly don't want to be around you."

Frost looked between the two of them, then turned her back and walked from the room.

Charles brought Erik's hand to his lips.
"I'm sorry. For all of that. You do know you don't owe me anything?"

"I owe you a lot," Erik pointed out. "But that isn't... that isn't why I'm doing this. I'm doing this because it's... it's good. Because I enjoy it. Because... I can't remember the last time I had a future that I looked forward to with anything other than fear." He shivered, and moved to sit on Charles's lap, wrapping his arms around him. "Because I want this."

"I want this too," Charles promised, and Erik closed the gap to kiss him for a moment before pulling away and resting his head on Charles's shoulder.

"I'm sorry she said that."

"She has her reasons. She's hurting, and she lashes out." Charles smiled faintly. "I seem to remember someone considering throwing me down the stairs if I hurt a person he cared about."

"You... You did hear all that," Erik muttered, feeling ashamed. "If I'd known what you were like, I wouldn't-"

"You were scared." Charles interrupted him. "And you needed to lash out. If you tried to hurt me I'd stop you, but I wouldn't stop you being angry. You just needed time. Even if it's hard, you have to give Emma the same."

Erik nodded slowly, closing his eyes.
"What now?"

"According to Azazel's thoughts, Emma got back to his room. Alex is with his brother and feels calmer, and we're both safe. I think for now, we can just play some chess, or talk, and then we have lunch. And you should take it to your friends. They wouldn't be this protective if they didn't care about you."

Erik nodded slowly, and Charles squeezed his shoulders reassuringly.

"She's being looked after. She needs some time, and so do you."

Erik hesitated, and then leaned against Charles once more, feeling safe there.

Chapter Text

“Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but few can test by feeling”

***
For the next few days, a kind of peace settled over the mansion - not one that was perfect, not by any means, but there was enough to help stop arguments breaking out. If not for the fact Erik knew that Charles couldn't use his telepathy on Frost, he would have assumed that was the cause.

Erik found himself working out a new routine. Waking up, checking on the children, making breakfast for Azazel and Frost, going to see them, suggesting they joined the rest for a little while, being rebuffed, and then heading back to breakfast with the children. He'd spend time studying with the younger children, Logan watching him and glaring if anyone dared step a little too close to Jason, and then there would be lunch. Then after lunch, there would be more studying. Anne Marie would often join them, sitting at a desk near Logan and working on what she was learning, and then it would be time for some of them to make dinner, and for the rest to relax, before a meal - once again Azazel and Frost would be offered the chance to join them, and they would refuse. And then he'd go and talk to Azazel and Frost for a little while, head back to play with the kids, put Laura and Jimmy to bed and then go to spend his evening with Charles, playing chess.

More often than not, he'd end up losing while sat on Charles's lap, or the game would be abandoned as they ended up distracting each other with discussion of future plans. Erik found he liked sitting beside Charles on the couch, his head on Charles's shoulder as they worked out how to organise the new school. Charles would jot down notes, and sometimes the ideas would start to flow telepathically, the two of them projecting images, correcting each others ideas and coming up with something between them.

"What do we do about getting qualifications?" Erik asked. Because the school was a stopgap. It wasn't a solution to the persecution mutants faced, and once the children left they'd still be exposed to the world at large.

"I can get registered as a centre, and we can ensure they're entered under their new identities - you know I want some human children there."

Erik frowned, but nodded. He didn't like the idea of human children in the class, but Charles was insistent that it would help to integrate the mutants, and to protect the school. It wouldn't be many, mostly human siblings which Charles could argue showed minor hints of mutation for comparative purposes. It would be a risk, but they were already risking a lot.

"So they do exams under new identities, and I make sure that we keep things subtle, get messages out as to what they should say." Charles sighed, cuddling a little closer. "We'll have to do them by post of course, but we can do that."

Erik wrapped an arm around Charles, and took his hand.
"You know if you get found out you'll be in trouble."

"I won't get found out. I have systems. I've got you, and Irene, and Jason is getting stronger by the day..." Charles shook his head. "Please, don't worry about that." He squeezed his hand, and brushed his lips to Erik's forehead,
"You know, Jimmy and Alex are doing some exams soon. Alex is doing his GED, and we're working on Jimmy's maths ACT prep. You could look at doing some as well - maybe not when they do, but..."

Erik hesitated, but nodded.
"Alright. You do know I have no chance of ever being able to use it."

"You can show the children what is possible. If we're going to be working with these children... there's going to be a lot who have suffered. Who don't believe in themselves, who think..." Charles sighed. "Who think they'll never be able to be capable of achieving anything. You being able to tell them what you've achieved... Erik, that's an amazing use of what you have done."

Erik nodded.
"I'll try. But I'll probably fail."

"We'll do practice tests first," Charles said, his eyes already lighting up. "Look, Erik, I don't care whether or not you do this. I know how brilliant you are, I can feel your mind. But you don't see it, and you don't listen to me."

"So you want me to do an exam to prove you are right?"

"Exactly," Charles said, a smug smirk on his face. "That way I get to know that I am right, and do it in a way that helps you."

Erik nodded, laughing a little.
"It's getting late."

"Go to bed, Erik."

"Go to bed, Charles." He kissed him a little longer, before reluctantly pulling away.

***

Erik woke up, checking on the children's locations before showering, then heading down to make breakfast. He could make some toast, he decided. Frost technically didn't need to eat while she was in her diamond form, but it felt rude not to offer it. He was just picking up the tray of breakfast food when Mystique rushed in.

"Irene said someone was coming? I'll take that." She grabbed the tray from him, heading off with it.

Erik blinked, staring at the space that a few moments previously had been occupied by a breakfast tray, and shook his head slightly.
"Morning to you too, Mystique," he muttered, reaching out for Charles. Irene says someone is coming?

There was a pause, and he could practically feel Charles dragging himself from his sleep, his thoughts sluggish and heavy from exhaustion.
I'm not expecting anyone.

Erik projected the scene that had just taken place, and Charles groaned mentally.
I'll be with you briefly Erik. If you could make sure the children stay in their rooms until we know what is going on, that would be most appreciated. Charles seemed to be yawning telepathically, which was a rather strange sensation that made Erik yawn as well.

He wandered over to the kitchen window, looking out above the sink. He could see out across the grounds - there was no one walking there yet. He frowned, closing his eyes and pushing outwards with his ability, following the line of the road, knowing that anyone who approached in a car would have to come from one direction. He hit the junction and pushed out further, searching for any sign of their intruder.

His senses snagged on a vehicle he had felt approaching before, and he withdrew, passing the message to Charles.
Stryker.

Alright. Charles sounded instantly far more awake than he had been. How far out is he?

Approaching the gate, I can see if I can hold him up?

If you could delay him for a few minutes that would be good. I'll sort out Alex to gather everyone, I need him, Scott, Jimmy, Anne Marie, Logan and Jason. You as well, if that's possible. I'll have Alex put Laura in her room, and make sure she's safe. Raven and Irene as well... Charles paused, as Erik reached out with his power, trying to make the car start juddering, just a little, enough to make Stryker slow down but not to link it with Charles's metallokinetic mutant.

Charles's next question felt almost hesitant.
I don't suppose you'd be able to get Miss Frost or Azazel to join us? Janos obviously should stay with the children, I can't imagine Warren will react well to strangers.

Erik hesitated, considering. Even in her diamond form, Frost was an objectively beautiful woman. It certainly wouldn't harm Charles's relationship with Stryker to have her around - but it might make things even more difficult with Frost than they already where.

I can go and ask her, he offered. But if she says no...

I won't ask you to insist. Appeal to her better nature.

Frost doesn't have a better nature.

Appeal to whatever will work then, Charles said, sounding amused. And Erik, during the meal, please keep an eye on Logan. I don't trust him not to lash out if William says anything that upsets him.

I can do that, Erik conceded. He didn't like the idea of it, but he would if he had to.

Thank you. I've got Alex to fetch the children, if you could speak to Miss Frost?

Erik rolled his eyes, but stopped reaching out with his ability. Stryker's car was getting closer now, so he gave it a couple more shakes before he retracted his ability, folding it in around himself, checking on Alex's progress with the children. He could feel him upstairs, gathering them. In the labs he could sense Hank's glasses moving around before heading up towards the main area.

He stretched his power across the mansion. Azazel and Frost's collars were a constant presence in the East Wing, and Mystique was walking back, as Janos made his way in there. Erik smiled at that, impressed by how the deaf mutant was learning to treat Azazel's injuries. Azazel continued to flirt, but Janos was proving able to handle himself, shutting Azazel down with glares and gestures. He never left his children for long, but his presence at least meant Azazel and Frost weren't simply locked up unattended for hours each day.

That didn't mean that Frost would be happy when he explained why he was there.

Bracing for a confrontation, he headed to find his friends, knocking on Azazel's door.

There was a pause before Frost opened it, her smile sharp enough to cut.
"About time. After you missed breakfast I thought I would be left with this ridiculous flirt all day." She sighed, moving aside, and he saw Azazel stood by a table, which was covered in bandages, Janos carefully examining the deeper wounds.

"He is cute, isn't he?" Azazel asked above Janos's head. Erik rolled his eyes, making his way over to the bed and sitting down.

"You need to stop flirting with someone who isn't interested."

"I don't flirt with people who aren't interested."

"You flirt with me," Erik pointed out with a smirk.

"I know. And you were interested, until your little human come along. And now you have him, and I flirt elsewhere."

"Oh for goodness sake boys." Frost's voice cut through their discussion. "We are not having this conversation right now. What's bothering you?"

Erik hesitated, seeing that Janos had left his notebook next to the desk. He grabbed a plain sheet, writing out a quick explanation.
'You have to hide in your room with Kurt and Warren for a short while, as soon as you can. We'll tell you when it's safe.' He held the sheet out to Janos, and got a thumbs up in response, before he finished the bandage he was replacing, packed way the waste and stood up, waving at Azazel and nodding to Frost and Erik.

"Ridiculous," Frost muttered. "You see what I have to put up with?"

"Normally, this is where I'd point out you could join the rest of us," Erik answered, hearing the ring of the front door bell echoing throughout the mansion. "Unfortunately we really could use the presence of at least one of you today. One of Charles's friends is visiting."

"I've already got one kid, apparently." Azazel smirked.

Erik cleared his throat, glaring at him.
"He's Jason's father. He just wants to see that Jason and Logan are..." Erik looked across at Frost. "That they're both settling in well, and that Charles is trying to fix him. I know. It's not ideal, but it's what we've got to work with."

"I can be there," Frost answered, sighing. "I'm not changing form. And I'm not-"

"No one expects you to." Erik offered her his hand. "You really are helping the children a lot, they'll appreciate it."

She snorted, but took his hand.
"Sugar, I don't care about the children. I'm doing this because you asked me to."

"Thank you, then," Erik said, leading her to the main house. It took some time to get used to Frost's crystal form, but he could tell she was happier like that.
Frost is coming with me, we'll be here soon.

"So what should I expect?" she asked, as casually as she could manage.

"Extremely awkward family dinner. Like, incredibly awkward," Erik supplied. "He wants Charles to fix Jason. Jason is quite comfortable as she is, but obviously any attempt to acknowledge that could lead to problems. Stryker is-"

"In the military. I know. So why don't I just kill him now and go from there?" she asked.

"Because if you do that, then we'll get in trouble. And by we I mean all of us. A lot of the children won't be able to escape, you know that. So we'd be handing them back to the scientists. And Charles... he is setting up the school. Stryker is an important ally to him."

"Whatever happened to killing all the humans, Magneto?"

"I decided I'd rather save mutants," Erik answered. "Please, just... just try."

"I am doing this for you," Frost told him.

"I know. I know, I owe you," Erik agreed, smiling at her, and turning the corner, pausing only for a second as he saw how the children were all stood together, Logan with a hand on Jason's shoulder. Jason looked utterly miserable, her collar cutting her off from her power. Her hair was once again short, and her eyes downcast, bruising still visible on her face. Only her unmatched eyes remained the same. Erik took a deep breath as he stepped forwards, ducking his head carefully as he approached Charles, moving to stand behind him in silence.

Charles had been deep in conversation with Stryker, but he broke it off as they approached, the man looking over the two of them, his eyes lingering on Frost. Erik could feel her bristling beside him.

Erik reached out with his mind.
Charles? Is everything alright?

Thank you for getting Miss Frost. Things could certainly be worse, Charles reassured, before clearing his throat.
"William, this is Erik who you know, and Emma, who is my newest. I can ask her and Anne Marie to make us some breakfast, so we can discuss how Jason is settling in..."

Stryker nodded, and Charles waved the two of them away. Anne Marie walked over to Frost, ushering her away, and Erik sent Charles a quizzical thought.

I thought it might be good for Anne Marie to talk with her and I don't particularly want William around either of them. This way Anne Marie can slip away in the quiet.

You want Frost to talk to Anne Marie?

If we're serious about her working in the school, she needs to talk to the children. And I think she could help her, Charles reassured, talking to Stryker about the act again. Erik had no idea how Charles could keep up a conversation in his head, and talk to Stryker, without ever getting confused or looking out of breath. He was quite impressed.

Thank you, Erik, Charles sounded flattered.

Erik rolled his eyes slightly, keeping his head down when Stryker looked at him curiously.

"Anyway, we're setting things up in the labs so that we can have some research, and I've acquired a couple of physically mutated adults which will provide some interesting test results..." Charles was explaining. "We've even managed to gather a direct genetic line, with the sire of one of our second generation mutants... who isn't able to be here today. He had to have rather major surgery on his leg, and he's still recovering."

"Oh?" Stryker looked interested, and Charles shrugged.

"Quite interesting actually. Both have very unnatural skin tones, one red and the other a dark blue..." Charles paused, as Anne Marie stuck her head around the door.

"Breakfast is ready," she mumbled, before ducking back out of sight.

Charles nodded, leading the way, mentioning words about genetics that Erik lacked the ability to understand.

Don't worry. William doesn't understand it either, I'm just letting him think that the research is going well.

And does he?

He seems to. Charles agreed, indicating seating. He had arranged it so that Jason was safely tucked between Jimmy and Logan. She was holding Jimmy's hand, her head down.

"And how has Jason been doing?"

"Well. We've been looking at Jason's powers, and getting demonstrations," Charles said quickly. "The illusions are rather advanced for someone of Jason's age."

"You've been being careful with him?" Stryker asked, glaring towards his child. "He can be a little… fanciful, in terms of what he chooses to demonstrate."

"Jason knows the rules. No confusing people's perceptions, no pushing for illusions that could put anyone in danger. Nothing… inappropriate."

"Good." Stryker sighed. "I just... I don't know what to do with him, Charles. You're my last chance at fixing him."

"I want to help all of these children," Charles promised, and Erik could feel the conviction behind those words, the truth of it. Everything Charles was doing was for their kind, and it meant betraying them in a dozen different ways every day.

"Well, hopefully you'll find something that stops others from murdering their mothers." Stryker shot a glare towards Jason, who shivered. Logan almost snarled, falling silent at a look from Charles.

Frost and Anne Marie passed out the meals, Frost ensuring he got food that he could eat. For a short while, silence fell. Both Jimmy and Jason seemed very subdued, and Logan wasn't eating, keeping his gaze towards Stryker.

"You swapped out his collar?" Stryker asked. "That's brave of you."

"I prefer it. It gives a greater degree of control while also avoiding pain." Charles shrugged slightly. "It interferes with my test results. Of course, if these prove effective... there's still a few problems that I have to solve, but they're manageable," Charles answered, and Erik wondered how he had ever missed the tension in Charles's frame as he said these things, the way he kept looking over at everyone, the fact his blinks always lasted a little too long, as though he was scanning every mind for problems.

Looking at the room, Anne Marie looked calmer than she often did, and Scott was quietly eating. At a slight remove from the main discussion, he was half-hidden behind his brother, Alex looking across the table with one hand protectively on Scott's shoulder.

"What does it do?" Stryker asked.
"It enables me to stop them if I wish." Charles paused, glancing at Erik. Are you alright with it?

Erik sent back a faint sense of affirmation. He didn't exactly like it when Charles used his ability to freeze him, but he could see the logic of it being him. "Erik, if you wouldn't mind standing up and walking across the room?"

Erik stood up silently, sensing the worried eyes of the others on him. Logan snarled softly. Erik started to walk.

I'm sorry, Charles said softly, freezing him between one step and the next. Erik had forgotten quite how horrific the sensation was, to find himself suddenly unable to breathe, or move at all, his weight unevenly balanced but unable to correct his balance.
"See?" Charles asked. "We're hoping we can use this, we just need to perfect it." There was a faint noise, the clicker of a button being pushed, and then Erik's body was his own again.

Well done, Charles comforted, as Erik returned to his seat beside Jimmy. The boy reached out for Erik's hand, and squeezed it, and Erik tried to keep breathing, slow deep breaths that filled his lungs. He could get through this, and then the children would be safe, and once he knew that they were okay he could go and rest if he needed to.

You can rest as much as you need to, Charles reassured, before carrying on the conversation with Stryker, trying to keep things general as he discussed funding for his Research Centre. He was particularly pressing to try and get the mutants Trask had been working with.

"Some of them will be adults," Stryker pointed out.

"Perhaps. But that can be useful. Obviously I'm particularly interested in those with psionic powers, it could help with Jason's case. When I acquired Frost there was talk of a man called John having a mutant telepath girl."

"Oh. That one is far past useful," Stryker answered. "He... rather overdid the dissection."

Erik could see that Charles had turned rather pale, his fingers gripping the cutlery tightly as he took a couple of deep breaths.
Charles? he called out.

It's fine Erik. That... was just a rather vivid image, Charles replied, faking a smile. "That's a shame, I think that psionics could really help with diagnosing and treating Jason."

"He's arranged to purchase another one. She killed her mother too. He should have her soon, and I can let him know you're interested once he's finished. Permanently or?"

"Permanently," Charles agreed. "If we're going to try and work out how psionic gifts affect young minds... well, some damage might need to be done."

"Well see what you can do. I'd rather not lobotomise my only son."

"I am sure we can avoid that," Charles reassured, and the conversation moved on to some sports game. Erik had no particular interest in that. He just looked at Jason, who was shaking, visibly struggling to sit up straight. Eventually, Jason seemed to give in, moving to lean against Logan, who instantly rubbed her shoulder, frowning down at her.

"Stop that," Stryker snapped. "Jason. I said you could have the Wolverine, but you can't treat it like some coddled pet. It's here to defend you."

Jason flinched away slightly, and Erik wanted to speak up, but he knew he had to let Charles handle it. The meal dragged onwards, until eventually they retired to Charles's office.

As soon as they were alone, Jimmy threw his arms around Jason's shoulders.
"Erik?" the boy asked. "Can you tell me if he's coming back?"

Erik nodded, and Jimmy turned off her collar. Instantly Jason transformed, and she stood there with her head bowed, shaking visibly.

"Come on," Erik said softly. "Let's get you out of there."

"He said I killed my mom..." Jason whispered.

Logan reached for her hand, guiding her away from the office.

"What's a lobotomy?"

"Nothing you have to worry about," Logan muttered, crouching down. "Look at me, kid. I am not gonna let that man hurt you, not ever again. I'll work out how to keep you safe."

"Thank you," Jason whispered.

"You don't have to thank me," Logan almost snarled the words, reaching to pull the little girl closer to him, picking her up into his arms and hugging her tightly. "You did good, kid. Now, we can go and play, and you can forget all about that bastard, alright?"

"He doesn't love me," Jason said, and there was heartbreak in her eyes.

"No, he doesn't," Logan agreed. "And you know what? It doesn't matter. You're a great kid. And if he doesn't want you? That's fine. I'm not giving my girl up anyway, okay?"

She nodded nervously, and Logan patted her hair. "Come on, lets get some cookies. You come too Jimmy, don't want him seeing you around." Logan looked up at Erik. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Erik nodded. "Thanks."

Frost walked over, resting her hand on Erik's arm. "You looked... pretty scared back then."

"It's fine," Erik reassured her. "I was mostly worried for Jason."

"Your human sure has a way with words, doesn't he, sugar? Really convincing."

"I ..." Erik rubbed his forehead. "I'm gonna check on the kids upstairs." He sunk his awareness into Charles's wheelchair and ring so he'd know when he moved, and headed upstairs. The children were fine, as was Janos - Kurt, Warren, Janos and Laura were all in Janos's room, clearly comforted by not being alone.

He headed back down as Charles left the office to say goodbye to Striker. Erik approached, standing behind Charles as the car drove away.

"That... was unpleasant." Charles sighed. "And I'm sure that he will be visiting again soon. How is Jason?"

"Being looked after by Logan."

"At least that's dealt with for now," Charles muttered, wheeling back towards his office.

Frost stepped in front of him.
"You're a telepath," she told him calmly. "I'm sure of it. The way you spoke to him, the way you got him agreeing, and then the way you froze Erik. You're a telepath. A powerful one."

"And if I was?" Charles looked up at her. "You know that I offer these children sanctuary. That I have given both you and your friend somewhere to stay. That I am providing them with a chance to escape the brutality that awaits them elsewhere. And that if I were a mutant, and it was discovered - well, Miss Frost, you're a telepath. I can't imagine I'd be treated quite the same, given my condition, but-"

"Magneto-" Frost turned to him, and Erik shook his head.

"Charles is... the best thing that’s happened to us for a long time." He reached for Charles's hand and squeezed it. "That's what matters."

"That and rescuing this telepath girl. It might require Azazel. Frost, can I ask you to get Azazel on our side?"

"Will I get my powers back?"

"Not yet," Charles said simply. "It isn't safe yet."

"I could tell-"

"If you leave," Charles was firmer now, "you are back in the position you were in before. You don't get to threaten me Miss Frost. Not when I have only been calm and kind to you. I want you to get Azazel on board to rescue a telepath. That's all."

Frost looked at him for another few moments, before she nodded, turned and walked away.

Charles sighed.
"It's not even lunch time, and I'm already exhausted."

Erik paused, managing a smile.
"Chess?"

"You're just trying to take advantage of the fact I am tired," Charles complained, and Erik nodded at him.

"Perhaps." Erik walked with him to his office, setting up the board. “And you looked... you looked a little shaken back there. What did you see?" He reached out, his fingertips brushing against Charles's temple. Charles flinched away from the touch.

I can't show you that Erik. Suffice it to say that... there is a popular theory with mutants, that cutting them off from other senses makes their ability stronger. I suspect that was why Janos was deafened. It appears... the man who had that girl succeeded in cutting her off totally from her senses, and it... it was not survivable. Not at all. Charles trembled, and Erik tried to smile. He didn't want to worry, didn't want to think about it too much and make Charles panic.

He remembered being trapped, what Schmidt had called sensory deprivation, to allow his powers to focus, to be stronger, more useful, better, and he remembered the way his chest had ached in terror and the darkness had been so loud, with nothing but the distant feel of metal and the faint sound of screams that might have been his mother's. He trembled.

"Erik?" Erik Charles's voice in his head was a strange echo of itself, and he was shaking, but Charles's hands were holding his, massaging circles into the skin there until he took a slow breath and opened his eyes.

"Sorry," he muttered, and Charles shook his head.

"You don't need to be sorry Erik, not for what he did. It wasn't your fault. None of it..." Charles smiled at him a little sadly. "Chess, right?"

"Chess," Erik agreed, sitting down beside him. "We can talk, if you want or..."

"I have to work," Charles said softly. "Just one game, okay? And then I've got to work, and maybe you can help the children with their studies."

Erik nodded, his fingers tapping against the tabletop.
"And then later?"

"I suppose after work. Perhaps you can see if Emma might want to cooperate."

"Frost will only help you if it's good for her," Erik said simply, almost smug.

Charles rolled his eyes.
"You've got a thing for difficult telepaths, don't you Erik?"

"Only one," Erik answered, indicating for Charles to make the first move.

***

I need to talk to your friend, Charles let Erik know, prior to dinner. Find out how she's getting on with talking to Azazel.

Erik sent back a wave of affirmation, going to visit his friends as he sent the children to wash up for dinner. He knocked on Azazel's door.

"Come in, sugar," Frost purred, and Erik walked inside, seeing how Azazel had been banished to his chair so that she could relax on the bed. Azazel seemed to notice him staring, and shrugged, his tail wiggling slightly.

"Has Frost spoken to you about-"

"About rescue this telepath girl? Yes. She has. We are considering."

"We talk about helping our kind. Our children aren't chess pieces."

"You know that's exactly what he thinks of us, sugar," Frost pointed out.

"Are we leaving her there to be experimented on, or not?" Erik asked her. "This isn't about scoring points, Frost, please."

"Of course we aren't leaving a telepath there if we can help them." Frost shrugged. "But your 'human' doesn't know that, and we might as well see what we can get from him. Don't you think?"

Erik shrugged, and Frost pulled back and looked at him, a calculating look in her eyes.

"This isn't just some fun to you, Magneto, is it? You... Oh sweetie." her voice was almost pitying. "You've got it bad."

"Charles wanted to speak to you, Frost. About what was discussed earlier."

"I suppose I'd best humour our generous host," Frost muttered, getting to her feet. "You better come with me, and Azazel... go and flirt with your little pet."

"He's not my pet," Azazel protested. "And.... I don't want to. Not in the main house."

"Kurt's a good kid," Erik said softly. "The boy he's friends with, Warren... After what happened to them, Kurt is the only one he is able to speak to. And Kurt passes on messages, encourages him... he keeps smiling, no matter what. You should be proud of him."

"He is nothing to do with me," Azazel snarled, his tail twitching.

"Well then, you shouldn't have a problem with flirting with Janos near him," Erik pointed out. "You like him. And you're the only real thing that makes Janos smile, without him being afraid of what comes next. He's been through enough. Just..."

"Fine." Azazel snorted. "But the brat isn't my problem."

"No one said he was," Erik promised him. "It's good though. For you to get out of this room."

Azazel snorted, but got to his feet.
"As you wish."

Erik nodded, leading the two of them along to the main rooms of the mansion. He embraced Azazel briefly.
"Warren and Kurt are in the dining room. Janos is probably with them."

The demonic man nodded, leaning against him for a moment before he walked off.

Erik knocked on the door to Charles's office, then let himself in when he felt Charles's mind brush his own.

"Miss Frost, Erik, thank you for coming. It's very appreciated. Now..." He gestured. "Take a seat."

Erik sat down, and Frost echoed it after a moment.

"Did Azazel agree?"

"He's considering it. And I have been thinking about what you said earlier, about the fact you aren't a telepath, that being a telepath is... dangerous." She smirked over at him. "But of course, having a telepath under your control... one under your employ... well, it would explain things, and it would give you an excuse if… anyone got suspicious."

Charles looked at her, curious.
"And I suppose nothing I could say to you about loyalty to your own kind would work?"

"No." She shook her head. "There isn't an our kind. If a war is coming against the humans, then the very mutants you choose to protect - the weakest, the most fragile - they're the ones that will hold us up. Slow us down."

"That's why I need your help," Charles said simply. "But not yet. Not until the school is properly established. I can't have a telepath in play until we've got it established. I plan to keep the girl's powers suppressed when we rescue her as well. It isn't just you."

"But you'll give us back our powers?"

"In time. Once Azazel upholds his end of our bargain, and we get the school set up."

Erik could feel the irritation from Charles at that, the slight leak of emotion that he probably didn't even register.
"I believe dinner is ready now. Go ahead, Miss Frost. I don't want to hold you up."

***

Erik looked across the table at Charles, watching him closely, before looking back down.

Charles was frowning, his attention focused on the board. It wasn't possible that Charles had missed the threat Erik's remaining knight posed. But when Charles moved, it was to block the advancing bishop instead.

He hesitated, just for a moment. There was a part of him that was afraid, that felt like winning would be disobedience. But he had to try it. He reached out, and moved his knight into place.

There was nowhere for Charles's king to move that wouldn't trap it once more.

Erik licked his lips, his pulse racing nervously. Checkmate?

"Indeed." Charles smiled at him. "Well done, Erik. You should say it though." He settled back in his chair, looking across at him.

Erik glanced down, a little anxious.
"Checkmate."

"Exactly," Charles agreed. I'm so proud of you. I know that wasn't easy.

"Winning? I tried for long enough-"

"Not winning the game. But making that final move. There was no way I could block both of your options, but... I could feel that you were afraid. And you still managed... you know," Charles smiled fondly. "Given your ability, I wondered if you'd mind making the sign for the school. I... would like that, a great deal. To have that evidence of your work."

"I can do that." Erik reached out, squeezed his hand. "You should head to bed Charles, it's late and you've been exhausted the last few days."

Charles nodded, squeezing Erik's hand for a moment, then pulled away.

Erik headed towards the door, when he felt a faint wave of sadness. He spun back around, to see Charles watching him.
I'd rather not be alone... Could you stay, just a little longer?

Erik hesitated. Laura was already in her bed, and he had made no plans to see Azazel or Frost. All he had been intending to do was to shower, to maybe read, and then to sleep. Staying with Charles instead seemed like a better plan.
A little longer, he promised, crossing back over towards him, sitting down beside him on the sofa.

Charles yawned, his eyes closing for a moment, and Erik hesitated.
"You really should go to bed. I can come with you... sit beside you, or-"

"It's up to you," Charles told him, but he looked relieved at the thought of going to bed.

Erik nodded.
"I know it is, Charles. If it wasn't, I'd be fighting this." He followed Charles to his bedroom.

He'd been here before, after their first kiss, but this was different.
"I can sit on a chair if you want-"

"Erik, I want you comfortable. Do you want to shower?"

"Please," Erik agreed.

Charles nodded. "You can use the bathroom while I get changed, and then I'll use it."

Erik nodded, leaning down and kissing him for a moment, before he stepped away, going to wash. Once he felt clean, he returned, wrapped in a towel, sitting on the edge of the bed, surprised to see that a pair of his pyjamas was waiting there.

Charles smiled at him.
"I'll be a little while I'm afraid. You can get into bed, or... or leave if you would rather, that's up to you."

"I'll wait," Erik told him. Charles wheeled away.

Erik hesitated slightly, pulling on his pyjamas before turning his attention to the bed and realising a potential problem.
Charles? he asked hesitantly. I don't want you between me and the door. It was frightening, admitting that, even if he knew in his heart that Charles wouldn't refuse him something like that. Asking for something he needed was still hard.

That's fine, Erik. Thank you. But yes, you sleep on the side closer. You can leave whenever you want during the night. With that, things fell silent other than the running of the water.

Erik sat on the edge of the bed, nervous. This was just to keep Charles company, nothing more. He knew that. He knew he could leave, and Charles would never blame him. The problem was, he didn't particularly want to leave.

That left him with only one option, which was to stay.

He laid down on the bed, frozen like a statue under a blanket, aware of the lock on the door, that would open at a wave of his hand.
Erik? Charles's voice was soft. Would it be alright if I look in your mind? Not deeply. Just to ensure I don't overstep.

If you will do the same for me, Erik answered, and felt the warmth of Charles's embrace, his thoughts brushing Erik's own.

He lay in soft sheets, counting his breaths, until the wheelchair returned. He watched as Charles transferred his weight into his bed, and then settled under his blanket. His hand reached for Erik's own, and Erik used his power to turn off the lamp.

"Would a goodnight kiss be acceptable?"

Erik nodded slowly, leaning over to brush their lips together, then let Charles drift off to sleep. He stayed awake for a little while, watching how the faint light that snuck under the doorway played across his skin.

Slowly, he allowed himself to drift off as well. Charles's exhaustion bled into him, and the other man’s hand reached for his own.

Chapter Text

“Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great”

***

Erik woke instantly, realising he wasn't alone in the room. He kept his breathing steady, scanning around, his eyes closed and body limp. He felt the wheelchair, and Charles's talisman on the bedside cabinet, and the weight on the bed beside him had a small spark of metal buried deep within. He was in Charles's bed. Charles's bed, where he had been willingly the previous night, and they had slept, because Charles was exhausted. This was where he expected to be. He tried to remind himself of that. He'd woken up in the same bed he had fallen asleep in, beside the same person he had fallen asleep next to. That was normal. That was fine.

Erik, if you could possibly reassure yourself slightly more quietly. Charles's voice cut through his thoughts, and dragged him out of the spiral of panic that was threatening. He opened his eyes, to glare at the other man, who looked at him sleepily and smiled.

"You stayed," Charles said softly. "I wouldn't blame you, if you had left." Charles propped himself up on one elbow, looking him over. "And you managed some sleep, even if it wasn't of particularly good quality."

Erik nodded, not pointing out he was an expert at getting whatever sleep was available. The tiny downwards flicker of Charles's mouth, soon replaced by a serene smile, made it clear that he'd heard it anyway.

"You don't need to ever repeat this experiment again Erik," Charles said softly. "If you were uncomfortable, I won't ask-"

"I... I don't mind," Erik muttered, stroking a hand through his hair. It was too early for this. "I mean. I don't... I wanted to stay. Did I wake you?"

"Yes," Charles admitted. "You felt afraid. I wanted to help you, but I doubted sudden telepathy would be reassuring."

"Actually, from you, I think it would be," Erik answered, before beginning his mental scan of the house, re-orientating himself to check how everything lined up with this bedroom. It was early, he could tell that, and a glance at the clock revealed how early it was.

"You could go..."

"Do..." Erik hesitated, reminding himself Charles would have already heard his unspoken request. "Do you mind if I go and walk around for a bit? I'll... I'll come back."

"Of course." Charles shifted slightly, making sure that his legs weren't pressing against Erik's at all. "Don't feel you need to. I'll probably be asleep."

Erik nodded, and slipped away, locking the door behind him with his powers.

He headed back to his room to wash to start with, needing to feel clean, the water a soothing temperature. He closed his eyes, tried to concentrate. It was easier to shower in this room than in Charles's own, with the bench taking up much of the shower. He stood under the water until his heartbeat calmed down, and then he pulled on his pyjamas - the ones from his room, not Charles's. He paced the corridors, lingering outside each child's room. He could feel Logan moving in his room, next to Jason's, and for a moment he considered walking inside to talk to him, but he pushed that thought aside. He didn't want to face the other man's mockery or comments, and so he carried on, eventually ending up outside Charles's bedroom once more. He hesitated, then pushed open the door.

He stepped inside, the door closing silently behind him. Charles was dozing now, one arm out across the space Erik had occupied earlier. He could go and sit in the chair, or read, or leave. Instead, he cautiously approached, feeling almost like a cat edging towards a mouse.

Charles looked almost vulnerable, lost in sleep. Erik knew he could back away, or attack him, but he didn't want to. Instead, he climbed awkwardly in the bed, twisting his spine so that he wouldn't lay on Charles's arm. He took a few slow breaths, and closed his eyes, reminding himself he wanted to be here. There was at least two hours before people started waking up, and he would benefit from a little more sleep.

He dozed, in the end, lying there beside Charles. He felt Charles shifting slightly, and while the movement stopped him sleeping, he at least felt safe enough to close his eyes when he wanted to, although at times he ended up watching the light playing across Charles's form. There was a pause, for a little while, just the two of them together, Charles's chest rising and falling rhythmically with sleep as he stayed awake, watching every breath that cycled through him.

Eventually, he felt Charles begin to wake, and he squeezed his hand.
"Do you want me to get you some coffee?"

"Tea," Charles said firmly. Thank you for coming back. You didn't have to.

"I know," Erik answered, heading to the kitchen. He could make tea for them both, and then worry about breakfast for the others.

He could feel Logan in the kitchen as he got close, the metal in his bones a siren to Erik's senses. He pushed open the door, and the other man looked up at him, positioning himself between Erik and the taps.
"Erik."

"Logan." Erik greeted, trying not to see the way the other man sniffed the air, before stepping forwards with a sneer.

"Thought you said you weren't his bitch. You stink of him."

Erik tried not to let his thoughts fall down that path, of the idea that Charles's scent was somehow staining him, obvious to everyone.
"It's none of your business. How is Jason?"

"She's okay. Look. The girl, the crystal one-"

"Frost," Erik insisted.

"Yeah. Her, well, she says that you're going to be getting more kids. And I want in on that. I know some places. Places that aren't fit for mutant kids, and they're there. So, I want to get them out."

Erik looked at him, and nodded.
"I can talk to Azazel."

"I don't need the teleporter spoken to. I can do that myself. But you're the boss's favourite, you can ask him, you understand?"

"I can ask him," Erik agreed, making himself smile. "No problem."

"Thanks." Logan sighed, moving out of Erik's way so he could get to the tea ready. "While I'm away, can you keep an eye on Jason for me? She's pretty jumpy right now."

"Course," Erik agreed. "If anything happens to me, you'd look after Laura?"

The man nodded, and for a second he frowned.
"Course. Got to look after the kids."

"I'll talk to Charles about you going. I can't tell you which way he'll agree, but I hope he's at least willing to consider it. That's all I can offer you I'm afraid." Erik shrugged, and Logan nodded, before getting up and walking closer. He leaned in, grabbed Erik's shirt to pull him down, and whispered in his Erik's ear.
"If you need out, you tell me. We can probably get one good shot at the bastard."

"Thanks." Erik said, and he meant it. He knew the bravery in offering that. "But... I'm good. Honestly."

"Your funeral, bub." With that, Logan walked past.

Erik watched him go, smiling slightly. If he'd asked for help, then Logan would have tried. He didn't have to face stuff alone.
"Wait!" he called out, then smiled at Logan. "I appreciate it. But he didn't... and I think the school... we're gonna make something good."

Logan shrugged and walked away, leaving Erik to make tea for Charles and coffee for himself, before returning to Charles's room.

"Logan planning to murder me again?"

"He's considering not doing it," Erik joked, and he didn't feel afraid of getting Logan in trouble when he said that.

"That's a relief to hear. I would rather hate to be murdered," Charles muttered, but he smiled as he said it.

"Exactly. He's interested though - if Azazel is going to retrieve our kind, he wants in on it as well., Erik said. "I think he'd be good for it. He's strong and he's fiercely protective, and that's got to be a good sign. Especially for those children. It's not like we need to worry that he'll be hurt, with his healing abilities..." He looked up at Charles curiously. "It's up to you of course. I'm not going to insist, I don't... I know it doesn't work like that. But Azazel could do with the help."

"That sounds like a good idea." Charles nodded, and Erik smiled as he sat down beside him on the bed, taking a sip from coffee as he levitated the tea over to Charles.

"He ... might seem off with you," Erik said softly, looking down.

Charles's eyes flickered closed for a moment, and Erik felt a gentle prod of thoughts against his. He knew that Charles could do this subtly, but he was asking permission, and that was a sign of respect. He responded by pushing forwards the memory, and Charles sighed.
"I'm sorry. I... hadn't considered he'd smell that."

Erik shrugged.
"There are worse things that could have happened. Assuming he doesn't have any reason to worry about the kids he's not going to interfere."

Charles took a sip of tea, looking towards the window.
"Thank you for last night, Erik. You don't have to do that again."

"I... might." Erik didn't want to make a promise that he couldn't keep, but he did want to do this. He leaned in, and kissed Charles softly on the lips.

Charles returned the kiss, pulling back slightly and looking up at him.
"You know, I'm amazed by you."

Erik snorted slightly, looking away, until he felt his head shift slightly. He rolled his eyes at Charles's use of his ability, but looked towards him.

"I am," Charles explained. "You are so brave, and you can't even see it. So maybe I can't show you. But what I can tell you, which is no less amazing, is that the children trust you. All of them. Even Warren, he might not talk to you, but he knows he and Kurt are safe if he can see you or Janos." Charles squeezed his hand. "We'll find out soon if the bill passes. And if it does, we're going to be one step closer to everything that we've been planning falling into place."

Erik nodded, wrapping an arm around Charles. One good thing about being sat on the bed was that it became far easier to hold each other close than it was when Charles was in his chair. The smile on Charles's lips implied he might well have heard that thought.

"So what now?"

"I'm going to give Azazel details for a few cases that I need him to investigate. No retrievals yet," Charles said firmly. "A sudden spate of disappearing mutant children could cause the bill to be blocked. But we can gather the research now, and then when it's time..." He looked up at Erik. "Can I trust him to follow my instructions?"

"He won't want to end up having to take care of the kids. If you won't accept them yet... As long as their lives aren't in danger," Erik answered, hating the thought of having to leave anyone in hell for longer than necessary. But this was necessary, even if he didn't want it to be, because causing problems could cost them everything.

Charles nodded.
"I've got a lot that I need to sort out today. But I'll speak to Azazel after dinner, if you can get him there."

"I'll try," Erik promised, then headed to make breakfast, spending time with the children, and nodding a greeting to Janos when he emerged, Kurt holding his hand and Warren holding onto Kurt's tail.

It wasn't long before Azazel and Frost walked in. Warren stared at the two of them in wide eyed wonder, and Kurt waved enthusiastically. Azazel frowned at him, and cleared his throat.
"Thought we should come join you. Logan said you might need us."

"Thank you," Erik said, feeling slightly choked up. He sat down to breakfast with them, talking quietly.

"So how does that even… work?" Azazel asked, his tail flicking up at his hip in a rather obscene gesture. "I mean, does it..."

"We are not discussing my sex life," Erik said firmly.

"Fine, we'll discuss mine," Azazel said with a cheerful smirk.

Erik felt Charles's chair and talisman approaching, as Azazel was busy discussing the progress he had made with Janos.
"He likes me," Azazel said smugly.

"Only because he doesn't have to listen to your innuendo," Frost pointed out, doing a fairly good job of ignoring the fact that Warren and Kurt were both playing in her shadow, holding up their hands in the rainbows of refracted light.

"Well, there must be some reason he likes me," Azazel argued, raising an eyebrow and smirking. "Something big enough to draw his attention."

"Maybe he just isn't used to much," Erik muttered, as Charles cleared his throat.

"Not in front of the children, please," Charles said, glaring across at them. "Honestly. I expected better of you, Erik." Those words were accompanied by a soft brush of thought against Erik's mind. Please try and stay appropriate. But it is good to see you smile. "Oh, Azazel, since you're here now if I could have a word after we've eaten."

"If you wish," Azazel answered, smiling over at Janos, and then reaching for his notebook. The two of them sat beside each other, passing notes, and Erik felt a sense of warmth. Because Azazel was right about one thing - Janos did look happy talking to him. A little shy, but not afraid. For all that Azazel was a ridiculous flirt, he wouldn't push Janos too far.

That's good. If he did, he'd answer to me, Charles murmured in his mind, and Erik rolled his eyes slightly, thinking pointedly about asking Frost to teach him to shield. Charles's response was simply another warm and amused smile.

The rest of the breakfast passed without incident, and Frost seemed relieved when the children decided to leave her in peace, finding pancakes more interesting. Anne Marie joined them, settling down with Logan, and managing a faint smile at Jason. Erik noticed with some relief that she'd actually got changed out of pyjamas today, wearing a t-shirt and some jeans, along with a pair of long gloves. She looked a little brighter. After the meal, Logan took her and Jason off to practice some self-defence moves in the garden.

Erik went to study, taking some time to check on how Jimmy was getting on, then reading to Laura. He was fairly sure that his books were a bit advanced for her, but he was still enjoying the chance to work with her, and it was fun to try and explain things at her level. He kept looking out of the window, watching as Jason and Anne Marie were practising. After a while Janos joined them, sitting on a low branch of a tree as Kurt and Warren tried to learn.

Clearing his throat, Erik turned to Jimmy and Laura.
"We're going to go downstairs and train outside for a bit, because Logan's teaching the others self-defence."

He led them downstairs, and spent the next hour being thrown around and dropped by people half his size. But they were learning, and he knew that these skills might one day save them.

He paused, and looked at Logan.
"You know about the centre Charles is building here."

"What of it?"

"You should teach the children to defend themselves," Erik said quietly. "You're good at it."

Logan snorted, but he nodded.
"Sure."

"Thank you."

***

The bill passed, and that in itself was a minor miracle. Even more miraculous was the fact that Charles's centre got approved, and even before the ink was dry on the bill, arrangements were being made for the first children to be transferred.

Erik searched through the storage sheds until he found a suitable piece of metal, then set about shaping it, carving the letters into it.
"Dr. Xavier Mutant Research and Education Centre" Once it was done, he hovered the metal over to float outside the window of Charles's office.

Very good. Charles seemed delighted. It can go on the front gate. If you don't mind, I'd like to join you for that.

It wasn't long until he did join him, making their way along the path as Erik floated the sign through the air, his hand brushing Charles's as the other man wheeled beside him.

Erik stopped by the stone pillar of the main gate, positioning the sign.

"Perfect," Charles told him, and at that Erik got to work, sending sharp spikes of metal back into the body of the pillar, to burrow deep within it and secure it. He ran his hands over it, checking for weakness or mistakes, and finding none.

Charles sent him the mental image of Erik straddling Charles's lap, kissing him deeply, and Erik complied, sitting on him to kiss him again.
You are incredible, Charles's voice murmured in his mind, and Erik sent back a soft wave of affection.

Eventually, he needed to breathe so he pulled away, Charles's fingers brushing against his hair.

"What happens now?"

"We will have our first students soon," Charles promised. "It's still not a long term solution, especially for those that look… different. But it's a start."

Erik nodded, and yawned slightly, managing a faint smile.
"I... meant in the shorter term." It was early afternoon. The children were all off with Janos and Logan, and Charles had said he wasn't doing anything urgent today.

In the past two weeks, after that first night in Charles's bed, he'd ended up there again a handful of times, always leaving in the middle of the night, but always returning as well once he felt clean. He still didn't find it easy to sleep with Charles so close. But he liked being near him. He cared about him a great deal.

Charles was looking at him, and Erik knew that Charles was aware of his thoughts. But he also knew, with certainty, that Charles would never take the next step. He was leaving that step for Erik to take, if and when he wanted to.

He wanted to.

He leaned in, and kissed Charles gently.
"We could... go to your room." It had to be Charles's room. Erik's space was his own.

Charles nodded slowly, reaching up and pulling him down for another kiss.
"We won't do anything you're not comfortable with."

"I know," Erik promised. "I know you won't."

Charles reached up for Erik's hand as the two of them headed back inside. Erik used his power to keep the chair beside him, heading over to Charles's bedroom. Once they were through the door, he hesitated.

"You don't have to do this," Charles said softly. "I don't mind."

"I mind," Erik said, kicking off his shoes and flopping down onto Charles's ridiculously large bed, gazing over at him curiously. "How does this even... I mean..."

"How do you want it to?" Charles asked, manoeuvring so that he was sat in his chair beside the bed, reaching out to gently brush a strand of hair behind Erik's ear.

"You've done this before?" Erik asked, then felt faintly ashamed at the question. It wasn't that he didn't think Charles was capable, it was more the distance he tended to keep from others.

"Not with someone who knows about my mutation," Charles said carefully, staying in his chair, and Erik realised if he wanted to he could push Charles back. Charles nodded, and Erik rolled his eyes.

"I'm not made of glass," he muttered. "I won't... I can do this."

"I know. I just want to do this right, and if that means not now, or not ever, that's okay. I like what we have. Anything else is a bonus."

Erik looked up at him, seeing the tension in Charles's eyes, and nodded.

"If you want, I could be in your mind. I could feel things, and if… anything went wrong, I'd know," Charles offered, looking away to take off his shoes and socks.

"I'd prefer you stay out," Erik said carefully. "It isn't... It isn't a trust thing, I just… really would rather not have a telepath in my mind right now."

Charles smiled a little sadly, but he reached out and nodded.
"You realise I'll still be able to hear loud emotion. If you panic-"

"I know," Erik agreed, leaning in to kiss him softly. "I know, and that's... I wouldn't ask you to give up your power, Charles." He paused. "You should get up here..." He moved to one side, letting Charles transfer into the bed, and kissing him softly.

Charles paused, looking at him.
"Do... Do you need something? Like, you could have metal you drop if you - no. Sorry, bad idea. Erik, look at me. This isn't a test." He reached out, one hand cupping Erik's chin, pulling him in for a gentle kiss. We don't have to do this.

I want to do this, Erik answered. He'd wanted this for a while now, and he knew Charles knew that. He wasn't going to let his own fears take this from him. He hesitated, glancing over at Charles, trying to work out how to phrase the question without causing offence.

"I have drugs I can take," Charles explained. "But... well, given I can't feel it either way, that'd be up to you."

Erik shrugged, a little tense, and Charles's arm slipped around his waist. He shivered slightly as he felt Charles's fingers brush against his ribs.

"You can stop me at any point, Erik."

"I know," Erik promised, moving so that he was straddling Charles, kissing him again So how do we?

I think we're wearing rather too many clothes, Charles teased, hand going to his own shirt.

"I can do that." Erik batted Charles's hands away, reaching for his buttons, and leaning in to cover Charles's face with kisses. He pushed it back, fingers stroking over Charles's soft skin, frowning a little at the faint lines of old scars there, his fingertips tracing over them.

Charles shivered slightly, a soft moan escaping him.
"That feels good," he murmured, looking up at him. "Could I help you take off your shirt?"

Erik nodded, letting Charles lift the fabric up, the air cold against his skin. The warm brush of Charles's kisses left tingling paths across his chest. He moved to lay down, reaching to unbutton Charles's pants.

I probably won't get hard, Charles explained, looking at him a little cautiously.

"I still want to see you," Erik answered, trying to sound more confident than he felt. Charles nodded, fumbling with his zip, and Erik took over, gliding the fabric down Charles's legs, before Charles propped himself up a little, letting Erik finish undressing him.

Erik took a moment to examine Charles's body, a fond smile on his lips. He leaned in and kissed him.
"Perfection."

A wave of embarrassment flooded him, and he knew it was from Charles, but Charles returned the kiss, his fingers slipping up Erik's sides.
"I'd like to touch you, if that's alright?"

Erik nodded, and Charles moved to lay beside him, facing each other, his fingers brushing against Erik's chest. Erik copied the actions, watching closely, seeing what could tease noises from the other man.

Charles hesitated, his fingers brushing the line of Erik's pants.
"Can I?"

Erik nodded, arching up slightly to help as Charles pushed his pants and underwear down, before he slid out of them, lying naked beside Charles.

"Are you okay?" Charles asked, hesitant now.

Erik nodded, moving to tangle their legs together, kissing him softly, his fingers tracing down Charles's spine, working out what he would be able to feel. Charles nodded, smiling. "Up to there..." He gestured.

Erik rocked forwards slightly, his hand brushing against Charles's cock, feeling how he had begun to get hard. Getting no response, he looked at Charles curiously.
"You're hard."

"It doesn't mean I can feel it, I'm afraid," Charles answered, then moaned deeply as Erik leaned to kiss at his neck. Erik took his time, tasting Charles's skin, kissing patterns against the strong lines of his shoulders, before Charles pulled away slightly.

"Could you pass me the lube? It's in the cabinet, metal tube."

Erik summoned it over without thinking, then paused.
"I thought you said you couldn't-"

"I thought, if I was touching you for now?" Charles asked, looking a little cautious. Erik nodded, and watched as Charles slicked his hand, before reaching out and wrapping around him.

Kiss? Charles asked telepathically, before looking almost guilty about it. Erik leaned in and kissed him softly, thrusting up against his hand, feeling Charles's cock rubbing against his own.

Charles moaned against his lips, gasping as Erik's fingers brushed against his nipples. Erik allowed himself to enjoy what felt good, rocking into Charles's hand. This was different from the few brief moments he and Azazel had spent together. This wasn't just physical. This was Charles, and he wanted this with him. Charles pressed kisses to his neck just above his collar, their breath speeding up before Erik felt himself tip over the edge, coming hot against Charles's fingers.

Charles moaned, his eyes closing, and Erik felt him shuddering in his grasp, before he looked up, breathless.
"Thank you," Charles whispered, bringing his hand to his mouth. Erik looked away, and levitated over Charles's ridiculous box of tissues, passing him one in silence.

"You want to go clean up?" Charles offered.

Erik hesitated, considering, and then sent the mental image of him carrying Charles into the bathroom to shower together.

Charles nodded, reaching out to wrap his arms around Erik's neck, his fingers brushing the collar. Erik lifted him carefully, carrying him through and positioning him under the spray, his own legs still a little shaky. He showered quickly under the water, until Charles sent an image of Erik sat with his back against Charles's legs, so Charles could wash his hair.

He sat down, pressing back against the warmth of Charles's skin, and Charles's fingers brushed through his hair.
"If we are careful with the sheets, we could cuddle for a little after this."

Erik nodded, the movement sharp and determined. Charles squeezed his shoulder.

"Was that okay?" Charles asked.

"Yes," Erik said softly. "Really."

"That's good." Charles smiled, fingers brushing through Erik's hair again. The two of them sat together in silence, exchanging gentle touches before they dried, pulling on pyjama pants before they returned to the bed.

Charles moved into the bed first, lying with his back towards the door, so that Erik could lay beside him.

Erik kissed him softly.
"You know Logan will have smelled that."

"Well, then hopefully he has the sense to stay out of the house for a while," Charles countered. "I know when we first met, you were thinking about if I was capable-"

Erik laughed softly.
"You were more than capable." He yawned, and wrapped his arms around Charles, cuddling him close.

Charles smiled, a little smug, and Erik prodded him in the rib.

***

Erik managed to cuddle up beside Charles for almost another hour, before he decided to go and get dressed, returning to sit on the edge of the bed as Charles fussed about his hair and tried to button his shirt.

Erik rolled his eyes, leaning over to carefully button it for him.
"Ready to go back out?"

"I suppose so." Charles transferred to the chair easily. "And you don't need to worry about them all knowing what we did. They already think it."

Erik nodded.
"Tell me if Janos is too concerned?" he asked quietly.

"Of course... Do you think you could have a word with Azazel about Kurt?"

"I can try."

"Thank you. It's bothering him and Warren that Azazel dislikes him. I'm not saying he has to like him, just... as long as he knows Janos isn't leaving them."

"I'm sure he knows that." Erik squeezed Charles's hand. "But I'll talk to him."

The two of them made their way downstairs, Erik unable to stop himself smiling slightly. He paused.
"Can we go to your office?" he said quickly, before he mentally began to hum an annoying tune that Scott had been listening to.

Charles laughed, and nodded, going there. Erik sunk into his usual armchair, the board between them, and smiled. This was where they'd had their first kiss. He reached out, squeezed Charles's hand.
"I'm not going anywhere. Whatever happens with your Institute, I'll be at your side."

"Good." Charles smiled slightly. "I can't... I am surprised, how quickly you've... become fundamental, to everything I want to do. You...stopped it just being about going through the motions and telling myself I was doing what was right..." He squeezed Erik's hand "You know the next few weeks will be difficult?"

"I know." Erik wasn't stupid. Opening the institute brought risks, and it would require Charles to do things he'd rather not. But they'd make their sanctuary.

"I just need to catch up on a few things," Charles murmured. Erik knew that it was a lie - Charles wanted to give him some privacy with his friends. But Charles knew that he knew it was a lie, and wasn't exactly lying to him. He headed over to the entertainment room, where he could hear the children laughing, and feel their talismans.

As he approached, Laura raced up for a hug, arms up towards him. He picked her up, swinging her up onto his hip and she laughed and clung to him, her nose wrinkling slightly.
"Logan said you might be hurt," she said bluntly.

"I'm not hurt," Erik promised, walking with her back to the room. Logan looked up at him, and Janos waved, his hands flicking, first pointing at Erik, then flashing the letters O and K. Erik nodded once.

There was a sudden burst of laughter from Irene, who was curled up against Mystique’s side, the two of them scheming together in a corner. Mystique laughed, and pulled Irene closer against her.

A second later, a cushion came flying through the air, hitting him in the side. He caught it, glaring at Azazel, who just smirked and shrugged at him. Erik threw the cushion back.

Kurt giggled, reaching for the cushion beside him, and gently throwing it towards Warren. Warren smiled nervously, then flinched as Scott tried to throw his cushion at Kurt and missed, hitting Warren.

"Careful," Erik muttered, glancing at Kurt to see that the little boy had wrapped protectively around Warren. Laura threw a cushion at Scott, and Azazel laughed, before scooping up a cushion and throwing it at Laura.

Erik lost track after that, launching himself at Azazel, laughing, and he could hear the others laughing too. He'd managed to pin Azazel down while Laura threw cushions at him when he felt Charles's presence approach, the wheelchair pausing in the doorway for a moment before it moved off again.

You look like you are having fun, Charles teased.

Yup, Erik returned, laughing and moving to one side, dodging one of Laura's cushion blows. She flailed slightly, overbalancing, and he caught her, tickling her in retaliation.

Logan snorted from where he sat on the couch.
"Bunch of idiots," he muttered fondly.

Erik nodded, laughing and calling for a truce, watching as Warren flapped his uninjured wing, the other one still bandaged but stronger by the day. Kurt lay out on the floor, moving his hands and legs as though making snow angels. After a pause, Warren and Jason decided to join in.

It's relatively safe for you to return, Erik informed Charles, sitting up and then getting to his feet.

I need to manage a couple of other things first, Charles told him. Take as long as you need.

Erik walked over to sit by Logan, trying to mentally reassure Charles that things were going well.

Logan looked at him curiously.

Erik shrugged.
"I made the other children talismans, so that I can track them through the manor. I'd like to make Jason one, if you think she'd like it?"

"Sure." Logan nodded. "Jewellery sounds good."

"What does she like?" Erik asked curiously.

"Ask her yourself." Logan shrugged. "Not my problem."

Erik nodded, picking up a scrap of metal he'd hidden away a few days ago. It had been a drinks can once, but now it flowed easily at his touch, and he floated it in the air.
"Jason?" he called out to her. "I want to make you a bracelet, or a necklace if you'd like?"

"A bracelet please?"

"That sounds good," Erik agreed, starting by shaping the metal, and then decorating it with flowers. Jason beamed, holding out her arm, and Erik slid it onto her wrist.

"Thank you," Jason said politely, before rushing over to show Logan. Logan's eyes met Erik’s over Jason's head, silently thanking him.

Erik answered with a shrug.

Frost rolled her eyes.
"You still trying to keep everyone safe, sugar?"

"Always." Erik shrugged, looking at her. "But I know what I'm doing."

"It's cute you think that," she told him.

"Just let me try," he insisted.

She sighed, but didn't answer back, and Erik knew that was the closest he was going to get to her agreement. He reached out, and gently tapped his fingers against her diamond arm.
"Thank you, Frost."

"It's nothing," she said coldly, but there was a hint of a smile there.

Would you get everyone for dinner? Charles asked in his mind, and Erik checked his watch before ushering them all off towards the dining room.

Chapter Text

“Dominions thus acquired are either accustomed to live under a prince, or to live in freedom; and are acquired either by the arms of the prince himself, or of others, or else by fortune or by ability.”

***

Erik woke up early, feeling Anne Marie pacing in her room a few corridors above, the way she often did in the early hours. He tracked her carefully, following her route until she returned to the bed. Knowing she was going to be sleeping more, he got himself out of the bed, standing at the edge of it, looking at Charles.

Charles whimpered softly in sleep, his arms reaching out towards him. Erik rolled his eyes, but handed Charles a pillow for him to hold on to, and made sure that the blanket was adequately covering him.

He could walk through the corridors, clear his head a little, clean up, and then decide if he wanted to return to Charles. He probably would. It was soothing, having Charles lying so close to him, being able to hold onto him when he needed it.

He tracked the others in the house as he walked. Jason was in her bed, and Logan was in his next door. Kurt and Warren were sharing Warren's bed. He could feel the watch that Janos had taken to wearing in the room opposite, so that was good - if Janos had too many nightmares, he would sometimes be unable to sleep unless he could see the two boys. He walked through, past the other rooms, before he reached his own. He showered quickly, then emerged in his pyjamas, and went to check on Laura.

She was asleep, her blanket sprawled across her, one foot poking out from under the sheets. There was a torch on the floor, and a book beside her, left open.

Erik shook his head, using his power to lift the torch and place it down on her bedside table, then stepping in to adjust the blanket and place the book out of her reach. She wrinkled her nose a little in her sleep, her eyes closed still.
"Night night, Erik," she mumbled, her voice addled by sleep.

"Goodnight, Kätzchen. Sleep well." He turned and walked away, a fond smile on his lips. His family were doing well, all of them. He returned to Charles's room, and the bed they shared, carefully moving Charles so that he wouldn't end up with pressure sores. Charles blinked awake, sent a wave of warmth and affection up at him, and immediately went back to sleep. Erik snorted under his breath, and curled up beside him. He allowed himself to drift back off. This was where he wanted to be.

The following morning, Erik was awake first, but he took some time to watch Charles sleeping. The other man looked so peaceful like that. Erik reached out, gently stroking Charles's hair back from his face, and smiling at the soft warmth he was sent in return.

"Good morning, Erik," Charles said sleepily. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, thank you," Erik nodded, leaning in and brushing a kiss to Charles's forehead. "Tea?"

"Tea would be wonderful," Charles agreed, and Erik left him to get ready, heading through to the kitchen.

Logan was already at the stove, making some breakfast for himself and Jason. He nodded to see Erik.

Jason waved, looking happy.
"Charles said he's going to buy me a real dress soon," she told him, and Erik nodded, sitting down with her.

"He is," Erik agreed, feeling guilt about the situation. The dress had been Logan's idea, and he'd agreed, but it was still a cheap attempt at distracting Jason from the stress of the next couple of days.

"Do you think I could have a purple dress?" she asked shyly, concentrating and changing the colour of the dress she was projecting to purple.

"I'm sure he will do his best," Erik reassured her, as Logan grunted and served up food. Jason nodded, sitting down and eating.

Logan stood next to her, watching her protectively. He looked at Erik.
"You think the boss can pull this off?"

"I don't know," Erik said. "But Irene thinks he can. And if anyone can manage it, it's Charles."

Logan nodded slowly, and looked up as Charles arrived in the kitchen.
"Ah, Logan. Brilliant, just the man I was looking for. I wondered if I'd be able to talk to you later?"

Logan nodded, and Charles stopped by Erik, smiling when he saw the tea sat on the table.
"Thank you, Erik." He squeezed Erik's hand gently. Erik crouched down to let Charles kiss his cheek.

"Ugh," Logan muttered, and Jason laughed into her breakfast. Charles rolled his eyes but let go of Erik, so Erik stood up straight again.
What do you need to tell Logan?

We're going to need him on our side to deal with Stryker, Charles answered quickly. That means he's going to need to know what's going on.

Erik looked at him curiously, but nodded.
Azazel and Frost?

They suspect. And they wouldn't care either way if they knew. They're aware of the problems with mutantkind as well. Sadly, I don't think knowing about my ability would make Azazel think any more quietly

Erik raised an eyebrow at that, but nodded, deciding he probably didn't want to know what Azazel was thinking about.

Charles smirked into his teacup, and Erik set about making extra breakfast with Logan's help, as the others slowly trickled through to grab their own meals.

Erik found himself wondering how they would handle the logistics of the school once it was set up, how they could ensure everyone got food.
I don't doubt that you'll manage to organise things, Charles reassured, finishing his own food and heading off to his office. Erik glanced after him.

Logan stood by Janos, signalling for his book, and writing out a message before he handed it back. Janos nodded, and Logan wandered over to Erik.
"You coming with?"

Erik nodded. There was a small chance that Logan was going to panic and lash out with his claws, and if he did that then Erik needed to be there to keep Charles safe. He headed to the other man's office.

"You're worried," Logan muttered, sniffing him.

"Only because I want it to work out," Erik promised, knocking on the door.

Charles called them in, indicating for Logan to take the seat opposite him. Erik hesitated, before reaching out with his power and calling over his chair from the chessboard. He sat down as well, looking between them, seeing the tenseness in Logan's shoulders, the way his eyes darted around the room like a cornered animal.

Over the time he'd known him, Erik had come to regard Logan as a friend. He was fiercely protective and had been brutally hurt before, and now his goal was to try and ensure that no one suffered. His fondness for his adoptive daughter was endearing, and Erik appreciated the gruff man's attempts at help. If Charles was going to trust anyone with his secret, Logan would be a good choice.

"Thank you for coming to talk to me, Logan. I had a rather delicate issue I wanted to talk to you about."

"Look, if you're gonna ask me for a threesome I'm not gonna be happy about it," Logan groused.

"No!" Charles said, looking rather horrified, and then shaking his head. "I mean, not that you're not attractive, but I tend to prefer men who aren't likely to stab me through the chest with pieces of metal."

"You fuck Erik."

"I get along with Erik," Charles pointed out. "But no. Trust me, I have zero desire to see you in any form of undress, so if you could please stop thinking about it and focus-"

"What did you just say?" Logan's eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"The delicate issue in question," Charles answered. "I'm a telepath."

"What? Since when?" Logan asked, turning towards Erik, who nodded, confirming he was aware of this situation, and that it was the truth.

"Since childhood, actually. I manifested rather early for a non-physical mutation."

"And what, you hid it? How the fuck did you get away with that?"

"I'm a telepath. People tend to listen when I tell them there's nothing to worry about," Charles answered, and then fell silent, although the change in Logan's expression suggested that they were probably still talking.

Erik reached out with his power, just in case Logan reacted badly and lashed out.

After almost a minute of silence, Logan shuddered, rubbing at his head.
"A telepath, huh?" He stared, then nodded. "Okay. Guessing Stryker doesn't know."

"The only people who know are you, Erik, Moira, Alex, Hank, Raven and Irene. Emma suspects, but officially I haven't confirmed it."

"Not many."

"Only those I trust," Charles answered, and again Erik got the sense that Charles was playing a game of chess, only this time against an opponent who was likely to cut up the board.

"Nah. That's not it. You don't trust me at all, so don't lie, Bub." Logan stared at him. "You want something. Now, you made it clear it ain't sex. So what is it?"

Erik could feel the slight change in the angle of Logan's claws that meant he was ready to use them if he had to. He felt a little sick at the thought of that, of the idea of the blades shredding Charles - logically he knew he could stop him before it came to that, but it was still an unpleasant thought.

"I want you to help with the opening of the school. I know I've already said I need most of you there, but you have an important role. And I need you to manage Jason."

"Stryker gonna be there?"

"Stryker, Trask, a few others. They're celebrating. At least it should be fairly refined, a few drinks, a tour of the facilities. Nothing inappropriate. But..."

"But you've lied to them?"

"Not exactly. I've let them know I'm setting up the groundwork for a mutant research and education centre, I've merely misled them on where the… emphasis is."

"They're expecting labs?" Logan asked and Erik could see the terror in his eyes that he was trying to hide. He wished he could comfort him.

"They're expecting labs. Now, we have some, of course. But Jason's illusions would be helpful, if you could speak to her. I know from what I've seen of her memories that she's witnessed a number of experiments, and-"

"You're asking her to go through that again?"

"Yes," Charles said simply. "I don't like that I'm doing it, and I am willing to give Emma her abilities to try and keep Jason calm, but she is the only one who can do this. I can't, not on the scale needed, and not while monitoring everyone's thoughts. But Jason can, I've seen her playing with Laura in the ballroom and covering everything in flowers. It comes naturally to her. She can simulate entire environments. I've looked at it, and trust me when I say she is the only one who can do this. I have Raven already to hand to provide... injuries. She can feign them. But I will need Jason to help."

"And you're telling me this why?"

"Because I know you've been in those labs," Charles said softly. "And I'm asking you for a really terrible thing. Both of you. I wish I could spare you it, but if I do there are going to be dozens more children who go through what you and Jason have. Even if this works we aren't going to be able to save all of them. But this is the best chance we've got to save some. And it only works if Jason is on board."

Logan looked at him and Erik could see how much it was hurting him, but eventually he nodded once, sharply.
"Alright. Look, if you need anything particularly awful, you know I heal."

"I know. I'm going to try and avoid it," Charles said, offering Logan his hand.

Logan shook it.
"This doesn't mean I like you."

"I know. And I'm sorry. But I will try and make it up to Jason," Charles said honestly. "I... hate to ask it, but with William there-"

"You want her to have short hair?" Logan practically snarled it.

"It would definitely be better. And I can't have her collar on if she's going to be making the illusion. So she needs to drop that projection and focus on the rest."

"I'll talk to her," Logan muttered, before he got up and walked out of the room.

Charles sighed, collapsing forwards to rest his head on his hands.
"I got him on board," he muttered, his hand against his temple.

"You did," Erik agreed, walking around the desk to rest his hand on Charles's shoulder, guiding his chair back so that he could sit on his lap and look him in the eye. "Now we just need to survive the opening, and-"

"And we keep fighting. Erik, this doesn't... This doesn't go away. Not really. It's not like I open the school and everything is perfect, even Irene's best predictions don't allow for that. I open the school, and try and negotiate for our rights, and our people are still tortured and dying. I can't..." There was a look of despair in Charles's eyes that left Erik feeling almost shaky.

"Selbst einem Einzelnen zu helfen, zählt," Erik murmured, hearing the words in his head in his mother's voice, remembering her holding him close and stroking his hair. "Selbst einem Einzelnen zu helfen, zählt, kleiner Magnet," she would tell him, whenever he wanted to give up because he was scared and he knew that Schmidt would one day kill them both, that no matter what he did.

"Hmm?" Charles murmured, and there were tears in his eyes now. "She really did love you, you realise that?"

"I know," Erik murmured. His mother's love was one thing he had never doubted. Helping even an individual counts. Maybe you can't save everyone Charles. But you're doing what you can to help as many people as possible.

"What if it's not enough?" Charles whispered.

"Then we keep fighting," Erik murmured. "You've changed the law. It's going to be harder for parents to just sell mutant children now. That's a start." He leaned in, pressing his forehead against Charles's, sending forwards affection and care and determination. "We keep fighting. But you don't need to do it alone."

Slowly, Charles nodded.
"I need to plan."

"Let me help. If nothing else I can make encouraging noises."

We've already established that, Charles shot back, with a sense of fondness which made Erik smirk, brushing his lips against Charles's.

"Focus."

***

In the end, it was only Laura, Warren and Janos who were able to hide away when it was time for the institute's official opening. Warren because of the potential upset revealing him could cause for his father, Laura because she was officially deceased, and Janos because it was decided an adult had best stay with the two of them, and there was too high a risk of him panicking.

Erik hugged Laura tightly, smiling when he saw Kurt hug Warren.

"Be good, Varren," the blue-skinned boy instructed, his tail wrapping around the other boy's waist. "Vill not be long."

Warren nodded, leaning in and whispering, and Kurt nodded sincerely, before turning to Janos.
"Thank you for looking after us," Kurt said, speaking slowly and indicating thank you with a hand to his mouth. Janos pulled the boy into an embrace for a moment, patting his hair fondly and then stepping away.

Erik wrote a note in Janos's notebook.
'I will keep him safe. He won't leave my sight unless I know he's with someone I trust.'

Janos nodded, and patted Kurt again. The boy reached for Erik's hand, but his tail flicked around Warren's wrist for another moment, as though he didn't want to let him go.

Erik guided him out.
"Remember what you need to do?"

"Not smile too much!" Kurt said, ticking off the points on his strange fingers, folding his thumb over first. "Stay quiet and give people canape. And if something go bad, take off bracelet and drop it."

"Perfect," Erik encouraged. "You're going to do brilliantly, I'm sure of it."

"I try." Kurt nodded, fidgeting slightly. "And Varren is... It von't be too long? I don't know if Varren can sleep if I'm not zere."

"It won't be too long," Erik promised. They were planning to have the younger mutants only there at the start, aside from Jason and Jimmy, who Stryker would be expecting to see. "When we tell you you can go to bed, you need to take Scott straight back up to where Warren is waiting, and then the four of you can have a sleepover."

Kurt nodded, and took a deep breath. "Okay. I do this."

Erik nodded, ruffling his hair fondly. "You can do it."

"And Azazel is not angry at me?" Kurt whispered, his tail flicking slightly from nervousness. "I do not know vhat I did to hurt-"

"Look at me, Kurt," Erik insisted, crouching down so he was the boy's height. "Azazel isn't angry with you. He's angry, and he's hurt. But it isn't your fault. He can't be your friend right now, and maybe he can't ever be your friend. But that doesn't mean you did something bad."

"Oh." Kurt nodded, his tail wriggling its way into his own hand, his fingers brushing the tip of it to comfort himself, like a baby sucking on their thumb.

Erik patted him. "We'll be fine. You have to stick close to him okay, but if something goes wrong-"

"If something go wrong I drop ze bracelet. I know zis," Kurt promised, and Erik squeezed his shoulder, before walking him over to Azazel. Azazel stared at the boy for a moment, before he nodded.
"Stick close," he ordered, and Kurt nodded, his tail still curled up against him for reassurance. Erik longed to say something to comfort the boy, but there wasn't much he could do.

Frost strode past - in her diamond form now, but with the collar she was wearing temporarily turned off. Erik didn't know the precise details of that element of Charles's negotiations, only that an agreement had been reached to ensure that she would stay diamond form unless Jason panicked, at which point her telepathy might be vital.

Irene was sat on the sofa, holding Mystique’s hand before the other girl left for the labs. Alex and Scott were stood together, dressed smartly, as was Anne Marie, who already looked like she was close to tears. Logan was stood beside her, his hand on Jason's shoulder. The little girl had dropped her projection, and was wearing a smart shirt and black trousers. Jimmy was holding Jason's hand.

Hank was looking frankly uncomfortable, glancing down at his notes, and Erik curled his lip slightly in annoyance, wanting to tell him to calm down, that no matter how much he didn't want to socialise at least he got to do so as a person. But he held his tongue.

The cost was worth it. Charles believed that, otherwise he would never have asked for this. Being afraid was awful, but if tonight went well there was more chance this wouldn't need to be repeated.

How is everyone? Charles asked, his voice crisp and clear in Erik's head.

Erik showed him the image of how they all looked, the tension that was there, the expression in their eyes. We'll survive. You?

There was a pause.
I'll survive too. Get Kurt and Scott out as soon as you can, Alex knows this. Food's all ready. If you can stay upstairs when we go to the lab, keep an eye on everything? If you think anyone needs to duck out, I'm giving you the authority to find an excuse. With that, Charles wheeled into the room, looking over all of them.

"Thank you for tonight. I'm sorry. I know that this is not something that any of you will enjoy, but I believe for your kind it is the best thing we can do. If we can get through a few hours of discomfort, then we will be in a much stronger position. I've spoken to each of you about what is acceptable behaviour, and I know you have arranged signals among yourselves. Keep those in mind. I'm going to be busy hosting, so I won't have much time to look after you. That means you have to look after each other."

Erik nodded, walking over and kissing his forehead. Thank you.

Charles smiled up at him, pulling him down for a brief brush of lips, then moving away. "Emma has the use of her telepathy tonight, if she's in her human form. If anyone needs help, they are to reach out to her, and she will contact me.Tomorrow will be the start of a new stage of progress for our students. This place will be able to fulfil its potential for mutantkind, but that is dependent upon your behaviour today. I know that you can do this. Not for me, but for yourselves." He hesitated. "The first guests will be arriving soon. Help yourself to some canapes if you need to. Just behave in front of them."

There were ripples of agreement, and then they waited, Charles disappearing once more. Erik followed him.
"You ready?" Erik asked.

"I think so. Or at least, I don't think I can get more ready," Charles admitted, as the doorbell rang.

***

The next few hours were an exercise in patience and in humiliation, keeping his head bowed, constantly scanning the children's talismans, watching as humans stood a little too close to his family.

At one point he saw a man grab Scott's shoulder, reaching for his glasses. Alex almost swung at him, but Erik caught the metal of his bracelet, calling for Charles. In a moment, Charles was at Scott's side, talking to the man who had grabbed him about the ongoing work he was putting in to understanding the nature of Scott and his brother's mutations. He calmed and distracted him, and by the end Scott was at a safer distance.

Azazel was wandering through the crowd, glaring, and Erik could tell how much he itched to stab out with his claws and tail, but he simply handed out champagne. He kept Kurt close. Hank was busy explaining about gene lines, gesturing towards them. Erik stepped a little closer, ready to speak up, until he heard one of the men speak up.

"One of my girls is pregnant. I was planning on just selling her off but-"

"That sounds like it would be extremely helpful to my research," Hank said quickly. "Human or mutant sire?"

Erik walked away from the conversation before he punched the man, hearing laughter breaking out.
The important thing is that she'll be here before she gives birth, Charles reassured. It's not perfect. But we can do this. We can get through tonight, and tomorrow we start.

Erik didn't think he was imagining the edge of desperation in Charles's voice.

Eventually Charles and Hank led most of the guests down to the labs, and Erik was able to send Kurt and Scott away.

Azazel hesitated, then patted Kurt's shoulder.
"You were good tonight. Tell Janos I say hello."

Kurt nodded, grabbing Scott's hand and leading him away.

Azazel shook his head.
"I don't know how you stand it."

"I don't know how Charles does," Erik admitted. "At least we're allowed to be honest that we hate this."

Azazel squeezed his hand, and Erik nodded, grateful for his friend's trust. He knew Azazel was only playing along for his sake, because he was trusting him. Erik wouldn't let him down.

He circulated the room, fetching drinks and standing close to Charles, Charles guiding him close and stroking his fingers through Erik's hair, even kissing him at one point to the amusement of some of the humans. I'm sorry. But I would like it clear my interest lies in you alone, Charles said in his mind.

Erik had no answer to give to that, but sent back a sense of warmth.

The drinks continued, Erik fetching Charles's each time - always juice rather than wine, so he stayed sober and able to focus. Logan looked concerned, holding Jason close whenever he got the chance.

Eventually, their guests departed, several leaving with promises to send along their mutants. The first of which would be arriving in a day or two. Charles smiled and thanked each guest politely, shaking their hands and accepting their compliments. Erik stood close behind him, a silent shadow, sending forwards a sense of reassurance.

Finally they were alone, and Charles took a deep, shuddering breath, looking around at the mutants clustered around the room - Jason half asleep in her adoptive father's arms, Anne Marie beside Logan, and Alex beside her. Azazel was stood near the fireplace, his body tense, and Frost was stood in diamond form, calm as ever. Charles met the eyes of each of them in turn.
"You did well. Go and rest now." He looked at Erik. "You can leave too."

"I'll stay."

Charles looked up at him, and nodded slowly, closing his eyes.
"Just need to talk to Irene," he explained, before lapsing into silence, slumped a little in his chair. Erik moved to stand behind him, his fingers rubbing at Charles's shoulders, easing away some of the tension there. Charles moaned softly, before ducking his head.

"It worked," Charles said quietly. "She says the most probable futures are looking positive. Still a lot of ways it could fall apart but... But we've got a chance."

"That's good," Erik muttered. He wanted to have certainty, but he knew that the world Charles moved in didn't work like that.

"I'm sorry about kissing you," Charles said quietly. "I should have checked first."

"I... I understood." Erik didn't want to say he hadn't minded. It was humiliating, being seen as a toy by all those humans. But he understood it. That was the point of this. To be overlooked and ignored so that Charles could succeed. He moved to sit on Charles's lap, leaning in to kiss him softly. "But I prefer kissing in private."

"Me too," Charles agreed, a faint smile appearing for a moment. "You know this isn't... I'm sorry I involved you in all this."

"I'm not. If you forgot, I was probably going to end up as one of Stryker's projects, or worse. Might even have-" Ended back with Schmidt. Erik didn't want to say that out loud.

"Being less bad than that monster is an extremely low requirement," Charles pointed out. Even if you did, I believe you'd have escaped.

Erik leaned his head on Charles's shoulder. Thank you. For everything.

Charles's fingers stroked through his hair, and it was his turn to gasp softly.

"You should go to bed," Charles muttered, and Erik shook his head.

"I want to share with you tonight. Just sharing," Erik told him, feeling a sense of pride from Charles as he set out where his limits were and explained what he wanted from him.

Charles nodded, and kissed him, and then laughed slightly as Erik used his ability to levitate the chair a little and guide it towards Charles's room, still sat on his lap.

He frowned to find that Frost was already there, leaning against the doorway, light sparkling through her, her eyes cold. Erik lowered the chair to the ground.
"Hello Magneto."

"Frost," Erik greeted.

"Emma." Charles smiled benignly. "You appear to have gotten lost."

"I saw in your minds at that party," Frost answered, standing up straight. "Which, I'm sure, was a part of your plan. Have me look at it, see things through your eyes, and then I'll be able to know what was going on. And it worked. I could see the affection you hold for each other. But, Doctor Xavier, if you hurt him, if you ever give him a cause to regret allowing you close, you answer to me. I'm not afraid of you."

With that, she sauntered off, leaving Charles sat there, his arms around Erik.
"Is she always like that?"

"Only when she cares. and if you ask her, she'll tell you she only cares about herself," Erik warned, using his ability to open Charles's door.

You mean she's like that constantly. Charles leaned across to steal another kiss, before they went to get ready for bed. Erik felt exhausted. Trying to play his role was hard, but he knew he'd given it all that he could.

Charles curled up beside him, and Erik pulled him close, soothing away the shivers that ran through him.

***

After breakfast the following morning, there was a knock on the door, and Charles went to answer it. Erik lingered in the shadows, watching as Charles spoke to a man there, glancing past him at the small figure that was crying where she stood, her arms around herself and head down, red hair covering her face. She was visibly shaking. The air seemed thick with fear. Erik tried to breath as horror raced down his spine.

"Erik?" Charles commanded, gesturing for Erik to kneel so that he could speak to him more easily. Erik did so, and Charles looked at him. "Fetch Emma, I feel this is one for her." We've got a little telepath. Powerful too. Going to need Emma to help her shield.

"Yes, sir," Erik muttered. He couldn't bring himself to call the other man 'Doctor.'.

I'd rather you didn't, given the associations you have, Charles insisted, pushing Erik away mentally. Erik stood up carefully, knowing how to do so with a kind of grace he didn't actually feel. He made his way to Frost's door, knocking.

She looked up at him, but saw his expression and flicked to human form. Rather than try and explain, he simply thought of the little girl. "A telepath."

"That explains the headache," Frost muttered, striding down the hall with him. When they arrived, she flickered back to diamond, standing awkwardly.
"We've got a telepath girl for you," Charles instructed. Erik could see him frowning, and wondered if the telepath was causing him pain.

Frost nodded, stepping forwards and bowing slightly to the human, before she extended her hand to the girl, crouching down beside her.
"Hello, I'm Emma. What's your name?"

"I don't suppose I could borrow that woman? Normally my interest lies in telepaths, but-"

"Oh, Emma here isn't available I'm afraid," Charles said firmly. "Now, what's the girl's name?"

"Jean." The man shrugged, gazing at Frost hungrily. "Change it if you want. Her father doesn't want her after what she's done."

"Come along Jean." Emma smiled at her. "Let's see what we can do."

Erik watched as Emma led the girl away, and once they were out of sight heard her voice in his head. I've told her she's safe now.

Thank you, Erik reassured, listening to the conversation that was going on, tightening his grip on Charles's shoulders when it became too sickening, as the man detailed experiments carried out on other telepaths. She is safe. We all are.

Chapter Text

“A prince ought to have two fears, one from within, on account of his subjects, the other from without, on account of external powers. From the latter he is defended by being well armed and having good allies, and if he is well armed he will have good friends, and affairs will always remain quiet within when they are quiet without, unless they should have been already disturbed by conspiracy; and even should affairs outside be disturbed, if he has carried out his preparations and has lived as I have said, as long as he does not despair, he will resist every attack.”

***

The school had been open two weeks, and there were already fifteen students of varying ages, not counting those that had already lived in the mansion. Many of them had never been educated before, and two were pregnant. Erik was working on creating a nursery for the two girls, who at least were comforted by the knowledge that their children would be growing up in a sense of safety and security that had been missing in their own lives.

Organising meals was a challenge, with ongoing chaos, as was trying to structure a curriculum. But the children were safe, and learning to control their powers, and the rest could come later.

"I've got some post!" Charles called out as he wheeled into the dining room, carrying two envelopes. He set them down on the table. "Alex, this is yours-" He handed it over, and Erik waited patiently as the boy tore into it, and then smiled brightly, running to hug Scott.

"I passed!" he shouted, to much whooping and laughing, even if not everyone knew what he was celebrating. "I got my GED." He was almost laughing in relief, hugging Scott to his chest.

"And yours, Erik." Charles held out the envelope. Don't worry. I'm sure you've done well.

"Laura?" Erik asked, holding it open. She obligingly extended a claw, cutting the envelope open.

Erik hesitated, thinking of all the times Schmidt had struck him, told him he was stupid, worthless. If he'd failed, he would just have proved the man right, and let down the children, and -

He was wrong. Charles's voice was determined. And if you have failed, that just shows the children that sometimes things take more than one attempt. Charles moved to beside him, and Erik nodded, pulling the paper from the envelope. His hands shook as he unfolded it, and slowly he nodded.

"I passed," he whispered, and felt Charles's hand squeeze his own. Laura leaned over and hugged him, and Jimmy flashed him a thumbs up, as Erik sat down on a nearby chair. He hesitated, closing his eyes, and picturing his mother's face.
I did it, Mama. He could feel the tears running down his face. Charles's hand rubbed his shoulder, the movement reassuring. He leaned into the touch, feeling Laura settling on his lap, and for a moment they were just quiet.

You did well, Charles told him. "Well done."

Laura nodded, and then Kurt looked across at them, and poked Warren.
"Varren..."

Warren reached into the splint that secured his broken wing - almost healed, but still in need of immobilisation to ensure it gained back its full strength. He pulled out two folded pieces of paper, one with 'ALEX' written on the front, and the other one with 'ERIC'.

Laura frowned, grabbing a crayon out of the pot in the middle of the table, and adding a line so it said 'ERIK'. Erik laughed and kissed her head, opening it.
'Congratulations!' the card said, and then inside everyone had signed their names. Erik pressed the piece of paper to his chest, blinking back fresh tears. as Charles smiled at him, pride radiating from him.

Erik cleared his throat.

"We should… uh. Get on with classes."

"Of course," Charles agreed. "I promised Jimmy I'd play a match with him this morning, if you can spare him."

Erik nodded, and Jimmy grinned, skipping off towards the door. Charles followed a few moments later, a faint smile on his face. Erik sent the children to go and get their books for class.

Mystique watched them go, and then smiled at Erik.
"You did well."

Erik shrugged, and nodded.
"Couldn't have done it without your brother."

She nodded, thoughtful.
"Irene and I… we've spoken to Charles, and we've decided I'm going to stay for a bit, while you're gathering emergency rescues. Azazel can take me somewhere, then rescue the individual, and I can give them a foolproof alibi for another day or two."

"That's dangerous," Erik reminded. He knew she knew and that she was still choosing to do it, but he hated the thought of what could happen to her if someone found out that she was there, or what might happen if they didn't know and thought she was still the mutant she was pretending to be.

"It is. But I have to try." She shrugged, looking at him. "If you had my abilities, you'd do the same."

"You a mindreader now as well?" he asked.

"I don't have to be. I know the kind of person Charles would like, and I know you." She squeezed his hand. "I'll be as careful as I can be."

"I know." He sighed, realising that was all she could offer. "I better go and help the kids."

"Put your card up on the fridge!" Mystique insisted, digging through a drawer until she found a magnet for him. "That's what you're meant to do, isn't it. If someone does something good..."

Erik opened his mouth to point out that he had hardly enjoyed the most normal of childhoods, but he could remember it vaguely, a fridge in a home covered in colourful drawings and early school reports, and brightly coloured magnets. He remembered Charles had offered to help him remember more of his life before Schmidt. He thought it would soon be time to take him up on that offer.

He looked at Mystique, wondered why it mattered so much to her, then decided that didn't matter. What was important was that she wanted him to put the card on display, and he could do it. He stuck it up, then headed to teach the children.

He did a quick headcount.
"Where's Kurt and Warren?"

"Warren went with Kurt," Jason answered quickly, fidgeting with the hem of her dress, and gesturing towards the door where Logan was sat watching.

"Okay, and where did Kurt go?" Erik asked, careful to remain calm and not show any concern. He was sure the boys couldn't have gone far.

"Azazel's teaching him to teleport," Logan answered. "He isn't pleased about it, but he doesn't want the kid to end up in a wall or some shi-thing like that." Logan's voice rose slightly in pitch at the end of the sentence, as he registered how many children there were in the room.

Erik nodded, and then went to try and teach them.

Charles and Hank were helping, as was Emma, but so far he was dealing with much of the pastoral care of the school. After all, they knew he was a mutant, and that he was respected by the Doctor. That was enough to get them to come to him with problems.

Erik found himself almost grateful that his time with Schmidt had left him hard to shock, as child after child came to him for help with problems far bigger than anyone should have had to endure, even as an adult. He listened, and he did what he could, even if that was simply holding them as they cried, and promising things would be better now, reminding them that they were safe, again and again.

Today though, he sat with them and helped the students study, breaking for lunch and then returning to trying to learn, until it was three o'clock. Logan had been working on teaching the children some self-defence, so after study some would train and others would play, while others still would do their share of the chores. After a while, chores would be done, and they'd all be playing. Tonight, it was Azazel and Janos's turn to cook, so Erik made his way to a sofa that he'd positioned in the hall that gave a view out over the expanse beyond.

He felt Charles's talisman approach before he reached them, transferring up beside him onto the sofa.
"Good day?" he asked.

"Good, yeah." Charles yawned. "Think that I'm making some progress on protecting families who want to keep their mutant children." He paused, and squeezed Erik's hand. I might need you to testify in front of Congress. A first hand account of the kind of things that you witnessed will sway some of them.

Erik shuddered, but nodded.

"I'll be right there beside you," Charles promised. "And if you are able to testify, I'm... I was wondering about trying to get it known as 'Edie's law'. Having a figurehead will make it more likely people approve. With your permission, of course?"

Erik nodded.
"I'll need you there."

"I'll be there." Charles leaned against him, watching the children playing in the grounds, as Logan taught the teenagers how to fight. Erik smiled to himself, his fingers tangling with Charles's own.

It wasn't perfect. They were still at risk, and there would be more mutants arriving all the time. If they were going to work out how to help their kind, they couldn't stay still. They had to keep on struggling, against a world that would see what they had built torn to rubble.

"You worry too much," Charles whispered, leaning in to kiss Erik. Yes, we're at risk. But we aren't handling it alone. We can defend ourselves. We are safe here.

Erik nodded, leaning against Charles.
I suppose so.

Charles nodded, wrapping an arm around Erik's shoulders, watching as Scott fired a beam of energy towards a target, and Anne Marie successfully knocked Alex down onto the ground.
I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul that comes to our school looking for trouble.