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Divergence

Chapter Text

Every now and then universes collide.

It's not a very effective system, this whole multiverse thing; let's be honest, if there are an infinite number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, someone's going to spill someone's drink. A universe is marching along with purpose, drinks in hand. Maybe it's going to join its friend on the dancefloor. Maybe it's lost in thought of the nebulae in its partner's eyes. It's hoping there'll be a supernova or two tonight.

And then some clumsy fool goes and collides with it (or in this case two fools). Drinks are spilled. Rude words are said. Aspersions are cast on the gravitational well of someone's supermassive black holes. A lovely white dress is absolutely ruined, and you will be footing the dry cleaning bill for this, you idiot.

Life moves on.

In an infinity of infinities, anything that can happen must, by definition, happen somewhere. So as the three universes movie apart once more, grumbling, it's not so hard to believe that a tiny fragment from each of them - a single fleck of a speck of a particle - is left behind in the folds of that first universe.

Chapter Text

It was Sean who stumbled on 6 year old Charles Xavier. He was sitting on a chair in the lab, his head bowed and his little shoulders hunched. His legs kicked listlessly.

"Uh... hello?" Sean said, looking around for possible sources of small children. A mother, he supposed. Surely couldn't be Hank's.

The little boy looked up, blue eyes dull with what could be exhaustion.

"Are you OK?" Sean asked.

"Yes sir," said the little boy. "Are you going to be testing me today?"

"Umm, I don't..."

"Father said someone new was coming and I had to show him--" He pressed his hands to his face with a wince, and a sudden spike of pain blotted out all sight and sound, and nearly made Sean throw up.

“--sorry! Sorry, sir, I’m so sorry, I can do better, I promise! Please don’t tell Father, I promise I’ll be good, I--”

“Hey, hey, kid, it’s OK.” Sean pushed himself to his feet - had he really fallen to his knees? The little boy was crumpled up on the chair, his hands up around his ears, his knees up under his chin, staring at him in absolute terror. Sean held out his hands in front of him and thought, painfully, of his little cousins. “I’m not mad,” he said. “And… I’m not a scientist, either. I was just looking for Hank, to tell him dinner’s ready.” He snapped his fingers with a friendly grin. “Hey, I bet you’re hungry. Do you want dinner? We’ve got tacos.”

The little boy looked up at him with wide blue eyes. “I don’t think I’ve ever had tacos,” he said cautiously.

“What? Never had tacos? That’s just wrong. C’mon, time for me to educate you, little dude. What’s your name?”

“Charles,” said the little boy.

Sean did a double take. He bent down in front of him again. It couldn’t be… but those eyes! “Charles what?”

“Charles Francis Xavier, sir,” he said, suddenly formal again.

Sean frowned and shook his head. Whatever time travelling age regression bullshit was happening here would have to work itself out - he still had a hungry little boy on his hands. He stood up and held out his hand. Charles (maybe he was Charles Junior? Though that was almost as weird…) looked at it blankly. “Well, c’mon, Charles. Aren’t you hungry?”

“Oh… yes,” he said, and jumped down. He winced as he landed, and rubbed his eye socket. Sean felt a dull ache start up in his own head, and pushed that nugget of information to the back of his mind to join the rest of it. Charles walked beside him, and Sean tried to slow his speed for the little boy. Not that the kid ever complained at all.

In the kitchen, Charles went straight to a low cupboard and fetched a dusty white bowl and a mug. He frowned at them, then climbed up to the counter beside the sink. “Hey, woah, what are you doing up there?” Sean yelped, rushing forward to stop him from falling.

“I need to wash these,” he said, in that same, distinctive English accent. “They’re dirty - I promise I washed them yesterday, sir, but they’re really dusty again.”

“I’m just Sean,” he said. “And I’ll wash them, you go sit down.”

Charles looked at him in confusion. “I can do it myself. I’m a big boy.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t like you being up so high. You’re not that big, huh?”

Charles shrugged. “The cook usually leaves a step out for me but it’s not here. Sometimes someone moves it. If they don’t know.”

Sean frowned down at his hands as he ran the crockery under hot water. What the hell was a little kid like that doing washing up his own plates? Aunt Mary would never have allowed her Jimmy to mess with scalding hot water when he was only five or six.

He heard a sigh from behind him and turned to see that Charles had slipped down from the counter, and was looking into an empty cupboard. “They’ve moved the bread and butter,” Charles said, almost under his breath. He put his little head into his hands and rubbed wearily, then started opening other cupboards and the fridge.

“Charles,” said Sean. “What are you doing?”

“I’m making dinner,” he said, surprised.

“I told you, kid, we’re having tacos.”

Charles bit his lip and looked down. “I don’t know how to make those. I’m sorry, sir.”

Sean wiped his hands and bent down in front of the boy. There was a picture starting to form in his mind of the sort of life Charles was used to, and a guilty, selfish part of him hoped that this quiet, neglected little child wasn’t a shade or… some sort of ghost of the professor’s past. He took Charles’ hands in his and smiled when Charles looked up to meet his eyes. “Don’t worry, buddy. I’m making dinner tonight. You don’t have to make food for yourself any more, OK?”

Chapter Text

It was Erik who found sixteen-year-old Charles. And unlike Sean, he recognised him immediately. The bruise swelling one eye shut, and the cut marring that perfect cupid’s bow notwithstanding, Charles Xavier was impossible to miss.

“Good grief, Charles, what happened?” Erik blurted. He put his hand up to Charles’ face, and Charles flinched.

Erik took a step back, and looked properly. Charles was smaller, thinner, and dressed in different clothes to what he’d been wearing this morning. Black trousers, a blood-flecked white shirt, and a school blazer.

“You look just like him,” he murmured, then shook his head. “Sorry. I’m Erik Lehnsherr. Are you Charles’… brother?”

The boy frowned up at him, peering warily out of the corner of his uninjured eye. “No, sir… I’m Charles.”

Erik blinked at him.

“Excuse me, but… what are you doing here?” the boy continued. “Are you lost? If you’re looking for Kurt…” He swallowed visibly. “Uh… I could take you…”

Erik narrowed his eyes. “Why don’t you read my mind, Charles?”

His head snapped up, abject terror slackening his face. “I wouldn’t… sir, I swear, I wasn’t, please don’t--”

“Charles… no, wait, scheisse.” Erik reached out and Charles’ arms flew up, covering both sides of his face. “No, listen! God, what happened to you?”

All of a sudden, Charles disappeared completely. Erik gaped at the space in front of him, empty of--

No, not quite empty. Not to all of Erik’s senses. Erik reached out a hand and all the metal on Charles’ body - watch, buttons, zipper - came to a halt against the invisible boy trying to sneak away.

Young Charles squeaked and appeared again, partway down the corridor. He stared at his hand, held aloft by his watch, and then at Erik.

Erik’s heart ached to see the boy’s painful hope. “You’re not alone, Charles,” he said softly.

Chapter Text

When twenty-six-year-old Charles walked into the dining room and saw his younger selves sitting at the table, talking to the others, he nearly fell to his knees. Like water flowing downhill, his mind reached out and tangled with little Charles, and teenage Charles, and the two of them jumped up immediately.

The youngest ran forward and stopped, and it ached when Charles recognised the child’s yearning, the way he remembered looking up to his mother and father with hope already starting to fade into wistfulness.

Teenage Charles put his hand on the little boy’s shoulder, and everything about him made Charles want to cry, his eyes prickling more from the will he remember? Will he be kind? than the battered face.

Charles knelt down and opened his arms for his own child self. The little boy jumped into the comfort with a burst of joy. Charles picked him up and pulled his teenage self close, gently tucking the boy’s aching face into the crook of his neck.

You remember, teenage Charles whispered into his mind.

Charles closed his eyes and remembered being fourteen, curled on his side, his face throbbing from another of Kurt’s vicious backhands. “Really, Charles,” his mother had said as he wept. “You’ve got to grow out of this sensitivity at some point. People are going to think you’re an invert.”

He remembered thinking, fiercely under his grief and hurt, I’ll never do that. I’ll never stop caring. I’ll never be like them. Hope, more than certainty, a child’s desperate cry into the rushing stream of time.

He could see the memory echoing in his teenage mind. With a little shift, he projected his current self onto their shared memory, sat on their four-poster bed, and stroked the memory-boy’s hair.

I won’t forget, he promised fiercely. You were never weak. Never.

Chapter Text

They gathered together in one of the living rooms, all eyes on the three Charleses (Charlesen? What plural could possibly work here?) together on the couch. Raven in particular couldn’t stop staring at the two newcomers.

“Where do you think they came from, Professor?” Alex asked.

“Hopefully Hank will be able to answer that,” Charles said, forcing a smile.

Hank pushed his glasses up on his nose and peered down at the readout on his device. “It’s fascinating, they both seem to have slightly different isotopic balances. Almost like they’ve come from different universes.”

Sean shook his head. “Woah. Time travelling from a different universe, man.”

“I should be able to work out a way to send them back soon enough,” said Hank, smiling up at the Charlesen, who all nodded sagely.

“Send them back?” demanded Erik. “Why on Earth would you do that?”

The room was silent for a moment. Hank cleared his throat. “Well, they are children. They’ve got to be sent back to their parents.”

“So they can be treated like that?” Erik gestured sharply at teenage Charles’ face. “No. Absolutely not.”

“Erik,” said Charles softly, looking up at him.

Why didn’t you tell me? Erik asked, directly into Charles’ mind. You let me mock you for growing up here when you had to endure… this!

“Really, Erik?” Charles said aloud, glaring at him. “You expect me to bother you, of all people, with the… the insignificant hurts of my childhood?”

Erik huffed and gestured to the teenager’s face again. “You call this insignificant?”

Charles turned to his younger self, his brow crinkling up in distress. “No, I…! Oh, I’m sorry, I never...” He sighed and closed his eyes, biting his lip.

“It’s OK,” said young Charles softly.

“No… no, it’s not,” said Charles, cupping the boy’s cheek and looking at the mess of his face. “It’s not OK at all.” He huffed something like a laugh. “It’s… easier to be compassionate with you than with myself. I’m sorry.”

“I’m with Erik here,” said Sean, and Erik raised his eyebrows in surprise. “But if you two stay, we’re gonna have to think of new names for all of you. I’ve been calling you Baby Charles and Young Charles in my head and it’s not working out for me.”

Erik rolled his eyes, but everyone else laughed, clinging to anything to relieve the tension. “And what are you calling me, dare I ask?” Charles said.

“Professor,” replied Sean promptly.

Charles laughed again. “Well, I’m fine with that.”

“I’m not calling you Professor,” Erik said. The others laughed once more, and Erik let them, but he was serious. He wasn’t happy about calling either of the children Charles either, not when that name had come to mean the only good part of the world to him, encompassing frustration and debate, admiration and the deepest, yearning love.

He heard the slight gasp and looked up to see the teenager staring at him, wide eyed and pink cheeked.

Shit. Obviously Charles developed his morals a little older than that.

The boy hunched slightly, and Charles - Erik’s Charles (even if he never truly would be Erik’s…) took the boy’s hand with a worried glance.

“N-nothing,” the boy said, then gulped and flushed again as he realised he’d answered a telepathic question out loud. He looked around at the roomful of people. “Uh, I don’t mind being called Francis. It’s my - our - middle name.”

“Can I be Arthur?” asked the smallest Charles, jumping up and down in his seat. “Like in the Sword in the Stone, he--” Then he froze, and looked around warily. “That is… if I’m allowed?” He hunched his shoulders. “I suppose I wouldn’t be a very good king, not like Arthur.”

“You’d be an amazing King Arthur,” said Raven firmly. Her voice sounded strangled.

Little Charles - Arthur - sat up straight again and beamed at her. Charles smiled down at him fondly, and Erik looked away from him before he started projecting his emotions to anyone else. He cleared his throat and caught Francis’ eye. “Come on,” he said, jerking his head to the side. “I’ll teach you to throw a punch.”

“Erik, no!” Charles cried. “He’s only a boy!”

“A boy who’s having the crap beaten out of him on a regular basis, by the look of it,” Erik said. He started walking out, and Charles scrambled to catch him.

“Erik, please. Look, if he is going to be staying here, he won’t have to worry about Kurt, so you don’t need to--”

“There’s more than one bastard in the world,” Erik said. He stopped suddenly and glared down at Charles, trying to forget that he wanted nothing more than to gather this impossible, beautiful man up, with his ridiculous hair and stupid hidden hurts, and fold him close. Pretend Erik could be soft for him. Lovable.

He swallowed it all down. “You know, at a certain point, pacifism isn’t a moral stance, Charles. It’s just a word a battered boy uses to fool himself into thinking he’s got a choice. Turning the other cheek doesn’t count if someone’s holding your face.”

Charles looked broken for an instant before his face closed off. Immediately, Erik regretted all of it. “Charles,” he said, reaching for him, but Charles pushed past.

And there, right behind him, cowering close to the wall, was Francis.

“Did you hear all of that?”

Francis’ eyes darted here and there, but he nodded once, sharply.

Erik sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel Francis’ distress rolling off him in waves, and for a moment he seriously considered walking away, letting someone more qualified than him find the boy and fix the mess he’d made. “Come on,” he said at last. “I promised you a lesson.”

Francis hesitated, then trotted after Erik. In the gym, he turned to the boy and strapped a pair of knuckle gloves on his hands. “Right. Let’s see you throw a punch.” He gestured to the nearest punch bag.

Francis glanced up at him, took a couple of shallow breaths, then swung wildly at the bag, his floppy brown hair falling over his scrunched up eyes.

“Hurts, hmm?” Erik said, raising an eyebrow.

Francis hunched slightly. “N-no, sir.”

“The way you just hit the bag, I’m amazed you haven’t broken a thumb. Here.” He pulled Francis’ glove back off. “Bend your knuckles one, then two, then put your thumb on the outside. No, not there, those big knuckles are the part you hit with. Down across the second knuckles, that’s it.” He held Francis’ wrist and slapped the flat of his fist. “Remember that, yes?”

“One, two, three,” said Francis, opening and closing his hand.

Erik replaced the glove and held out his hand, forming a fist as he’d just shown the boy. “Remember - one, two, three. No more loose fists. Now, try again.”

Francis punched the bag. “Good,” said Erik. “Again. And again. Again.”

Francis threw punch after punch at the bag, until his hair was lying lank and sweaty against his forehead. “We’ll leave it there for today,” Erik said, unwrapping Francis’ gloves again. The boy sagged in relief, and Erik chuckled. “Go get a drink and a shower.”

Francis turned to the door, then hesitated. “Do you really feel that way about him? About us, I suppose?”

Erik gritted his teeth and looked at Francis. Why couldn’t he just let it go? Francis hunched again. “Sorry, sorry, I’ll just…”

“Just him,” Erik said gruffly. “You’re from a different world. You’re not him. And more than that, you’re sixteen, you’re a child. Whatever you overhear of my feelings for him, they’re no threat to you.” He frowned. “Or him, of course, but--”

“I didn’t think that! I just…” he swallowed and wrung the blazer in his hands. “I was just… is he? Homosexual?”

“I don’t--”

“Because I think I…” Francis sniffed and looked down, then visibly steeled himself. “I think… there’s a boy in my school and I--”

Erik groaned. He was not made for these kinds of conversations! “I don’t know, Francis, you’d have to ask him.”

“But what if… what if we’re different? That way? What if I’m just a… a freak, and he’s disgusted by me - or what if he’s ashamed of the way I think - the way he was?”

Erik put both hands on Francis’ shoulders. “No, Charles is nothing like that. He would never make you feel that way.”

Francis bit his lip and his chin wobbled. Erik sighed. “If you like, I’ll have a word with him first. Let him know how much it means to you, that he accepts you?”

Francis shook his head violently. “Then he’ll know… he might be sick of me because I’m so pathetic and needy… and--”

“Hey, hey!” Erik squeezed his shoulders, embarrassment and exasperation with the conversation fading away to concern. “You’re none of those things, you hear me? Now, would you say those things - or even think them - about your younger self? About Arthur?”

Francis shook his head, tears sliding down his cheeks. Erik tugged him into a hug. “Then you have nothing to worry about from Charles. You won’t have changed that much in ten years.”

He held Francis as he wept quietly, and wondered if the same could be said of him. If his sixteen-year-old self would recognise him, or if he’d be terrified of him. If he’d be proud of all he’d achieved, or still wish he’d died in the camps.

Chapter Text

Charles pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, took a deep breath and paced. He had to get his anger under control. Anger was never the answer.

Erik’s sneering face came back to him with a jolt and he slumped, tears prickling behind his eyes. He’d always secretly known he was pathetic and weak. He’d fooled himself so well for the past few years, acting like he’d been strong enough to break away from his hateful family, when in reality he’d just waited for freedom to come to him.

“Charles?” said Raven softly.

Charles spun around, boxing up his anger and embarrassment and covering it up with a smile. Raven stood in the doorway, little Arthur on her hip. He had his face pressed into her shoulder, one little hand up to his eye, ad Charles winced, feeling Arthur’s pounding headache.

“Sean gave him a quarter of an asprin when he found him this morning, but it looks like his headache has flared up again,” she said.

Charles stroked Arthur’s back and brushed his fingers through his hair. “Poor boy,” Charles said. “Would you like me to help build your shields back up? Father and Kurt were testing them this morning, weren’t they?”

Arthur nodded. Raven’s eyes widened. “Your father?”

Charles just took Arthur from Raven, carrying him over to the bed. “You lie down here, snuggle up in my blankets, that’s right.” He brushed Arthur’s hair back and touched his temple, grimacing to see the mess they’d made of this little boy’s mental landscape.

His own mental landscape. Because this was him, twenty years ago.

He stroked Arthur’s curls over and over as he drifted off to sleep. It was strange, seeing him in that huge four poster bed. Like looking at an optical illusion - ‘this is a child to care for’, and at the same time, ‘this is me.’

Raven leaned on the footboard of the bed. “Why didn’t you ever say?” she asked.

“Say what?”

She nodded towards Arthur. “That your dad was experimenting on you like that.”

Charles smiled tiredly. “I honestly wanted to forget about it by then. Father had just died when I met you. I didn’t want to think of the bad times.”

Raven nodded, crossing her arms. “And… the beatings?” she said, her voice breaking.

Charles looked down. Raven’s breath shuddered. “When I saw Francis all bruised up like that, I thought for sure he couldn’t be the same Charles Xavier. Because I was living with you at that age and I never… were you hiding it from me?”

Charles swallowed. “I didn’t want to… I knew it would upset you.”

She nodded. “Yeah, damn right it upsets me. Did you ever trust me? With anything?”

“Raven,” he said, but she was already out of the door, wiping her cheeks as she flickered blue.

***

Charles woke up with a jolt when he felt the outline of Erik’s mind approach. Erik leaned over the arm of the chair, and Charles reeled his telepathy back quickly.

“You really shouldn’t fall asleep like that, Charles,” Erik said, looking down at him with an impassive face.

Charles sighed and sat up. “What time is it?”

“Coming up to 1am. You should go to bed.” He sat in the chair opposite him and leaned back, a panther in repose as always.

Charles gestured over to his bed. “Arthur needed somewhere to sleep.”

“And that monstrosity of a bed can’t fit both of you? I imagine your child self wouldn’t mind some human contact.”

Charles grimaced and turned away. “Yes, I know. I’ve always been clingy and touch-starved.”

“Charles,” Erik said, sitting forward to catch his eye. “I didn’t mean…” he sighed. “I was out of line earlier. Cruel. I’m sorry.”

Charles breathed very carefully, hoping it would somehow push his tears back. “But not,” he said to his own clasped hands, “exactly untrue.”

Erik shook his head with a frown. “No, it was disrespectful. Your morals are your own, no matter why you have them, and I shouldn’t have insulted your experiences either.”

Charles swallowed again and again, trying to force down the treacherous tears. But of course Erik had to look at him, see him losing this battle yet again. So weak and weepy, so pathetic. Charles couldn’t handle the compassion and worry in his gaze. He stood suddenly and turned away, bowing his shoulders. Maybe Erik would leave now, awkward from having to witness Charles’ pathetic emotions first-hand.

He jumped when he felt Erik’s hand on his shoulder, but his body leaned towards Erik like a flower to the sun. “Charles,” said Erik softly.

“I’m sorry, my friend. I’ve always been like this, I’m afraid,” Charles admitted, his voice forcibly light.

Erik didn’t say anything. Instead he slowly, uncertainly, drew Charles into an embrace, long arms wrapping around Charles’ back, pressing his face into Erik’s firm chest. Charles’ breath shuddered out of him and he leaned into it, desperate, expecting every moment to be pushed away in disgust. Erik smelled of lemon soap and leather jackets and warm skin, and Charles wanted to stay in his arms forever, close and known and loved.

Loved. If only.

He forced himself to pull away from Erik, disentangling himself gently before Erik got fed up of him. He wiped his eyes and took a deep breath before looking up with a careful smile. “I’m sorry, my friend.”

“Don’t apologise, Charles,” said Erik.

Charles smiled at him and tried not to project his absolute, unwavering devotion for Erik further than his own mind.

Chapter Text

Charles woke up with a jolt as he usually did, and lay very still in bed, listening out for any noises or minds that could warn of Kurt and Cain.

And then the memories of the day before resurfaced, and he rolled over onto his back, staring up at the roof with a long exhale. He was in the wrong universe. He’d been due to start at Harvard that autumn, he’d put all his hopes and dreams on the thought of leaving, and now he’d travelled so much further while standing still.

It should have been terrifying, but instead he’d never felt so free.

He reached out further with his mind, immediately drawn to the two other Charleses. Or rather, Charles and Arthur. He had to start thinking of himself as Francis here - it wasn’t too much of a hardship. He’d always been Xavier at school, and ignored at home. Or called Boy. The only person who ever called him Charles was Raven.

He rolled onto his side, the twinge of guilt tugging under his ribs. He wondered what she’d do without him there. She’d be fine, of course. She had to be, surely. Didn’t she?

He shook his worry off as best as he could and climbed out of bed, searching in the dusty wardrobes for any of Charles’ old clothes from ten years ago. They smelled musty and stale, but they fit. He inspected the bruises on his face and sighed. His eye was swollen almost shut, and ached, a dull throb humming right down to his skull.

He was nervous, trotting down the stairs towards the hum of voices and minds in the kitchen, even though they’d all been nothing but kind to him the day before. But Francis knew that people could be unpredictable and their tempers dangerous. What if he said something they didn’t like? What if he broke something precious?

What if Erik had told Charles Francis’ secret, and Charles was angry? He hadn’t sensed any anger from Charles this morning, but what if seeing Francis’ face triggered it off? Charles had had to go through Kurt and Cain’s beatings for an extra ten years, what if he’d picked up on some of their habits?

Francis froze in the corridor just outside the kitchen, his heart beating so hard he could feel it in the back of his throat. The light from the kitchen spilled out into the dark hallway, warm and inviting, but Francis couldn’t take another step.

Charles’ head popped around the doorway, and Francis startled. “Good morning, Francis,” said Charles. Then he frowned and stepped out into the shadows. “Oh, Francis,” he said, his voice painfully soft. “You know, I won’t pry without your permission, but I can feel your distress. Is it anything I can help you with?”

Francis felt his body trembling, like that time Cain had locked him out in the snow. He tried to speak. Then tried again. Finally, with a desperate cry, he pushed the memories at Charles. The way he felt when he saw Jacob Petersen at school, the butterflies, the panic, trying so hard to look at girls that way instead.

Charles staggered back, throwing up his shields with his hand pressed to his eye socket. “I’m sorry,” gasped Francis, tears falling steadily down his cheeks. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Charles wrapped him up tight, hushing him and stroking his hair the way he’d always wanted someone to do, and Francis clung to him, pouring all his fear and guilt out straight into Charles.

“It’s OK,” said Charles, and Francis could hear the lump in his throat. “It’s all OK, I promise. It’s hard, but it’s fine. It’s all fine. Love is love, and I’m so sorry you’re forced to feel this way.”

“So… are you…?”

Charles chuckled. “You do realise I am you?”

“I thought maybe… maybe I was just a freak. Everyone says it’s wrong and--”

“And people said women’s sufferage was wrong too, and they said slavery was right.” Charles cupped Francis’ cheeks and held his gaze firmly. “Sometimes society is wrong.”

Francis pressed closer, buried his face in Charles’ shoulder and wondered if Erik had been serious about letting him and Arthur stay. If he could live with the guilt of leaving Raven behind.

Chapter Text

After Charles had coaxed Francis to breakfast and fed him waffles and orange juice, Hank took the two of them, along with Arthur and Erik, down to the lab. Arthur dragged his heels, his telepathy firmly shut off, but misery in every movement. Francis grimaced in sympathy and picked his younger self up. “I don’t think they’re going to get you to do tests today,” he said.

“Oh, no, Arthur, I’m sorry,” Charles said. “The only person having his telepathy stretched today is me.”

Erik turned and stared between Charles and Francis. “Tests?”

Charles glanced at him and stroked Arthur’s hair, focusing on the little boy. “I promise you don’t have to do any stretching, or any of those things that Father did to work on your powers, not as long as you’re with us. I’ll help you control it. Hank just wants to find out a little more about where you and Francis came from in case there are any problems with you being in the wrong universe.”

Erik glared at Charles. “That’s why you have these labs, Charles? Your own father was torturing you as a child?”

Francis flinched as memories of grief and pain and an evil, grinning man bombarded all three telepaths minds. “Erik!” snapped Charles. He put his hands on Francis and Arthur’s heads and cast a muffling blanket between them and the horrific thoughts.

Erik looked at the two boys and swallowed hard. Charles sighed. “It’s not their fault they’re catching your thoughts,” he promised. “I only learned to shield effectively when I was in my late teens. Father was always more interested in pushing my powers out than reining them in.”

Erik’s face seemed to crumple momentarily before he turned and marched after Hank, stiff-backed. “Make it so these children can stay,” he snarled.

Francis hunched at Erik’s tone, but Hank just held Erik’s gaze and nodded. Charles rubbed Francis’ back. “He’s not angry with you,” he said softly. “He’s just… had a lot of injustice in his life. He doesn’t like to see others suffer.” He patted his shoulder and jerked his head forward to get them moving again. “I’ve put a muffler on Arthur’s telepathy to stop him getting those headaches - would you like me to do the same for you? It’ll be like what I did just now, only more long term.”

Francis glanced away. “Umm…”

“You can say no,” said Charles gently. “It’s entirely your choice, this is not one of those gifts you can’t refuse.”

Francis bit his lip. “I… I think I’d rather not,” he said cautiously.

Charles smiled. “Of course - like I said, it’s all your choice.”

“It’s just… my telepathy makes me feel safe. It would have been perfect when I was younger, but I’m used to it now.”

“I understand completely - if you like I can give you a few lessons in how to shield, then you don’t have to hear everyone else’s thoughts all the time.”

Francis nodded. “I’d like that.”

“Great,” grinned Charles. “But for now, will you look after Arthur and allow Hank to take his samples? I’ve got to use Cerebro to learn as much as I can about Shaw and his people.”

“Shaw?” Francis said, glancing at Erik.

Charles hesitated, then nodded. “Yes. He was Schmidt in Erik’s memories.”

Francis’ eyes widened and he looked at Erik in horror. Erik glared at Charles.

“Why are you telling him about Shaw?” Erik growled as they walked to the new Cerebro, leaving the boys talking to Hank. “Francis is just a child.”

“A child who’s already seen Shaw’s atrocities in your memories,” Charles reminded him. “Anyway, I know myself. At that age, if I’d been aware of a secret, I’d have gone looking for all of it. Why do you think Raven banned me from her mind?”

“I should have had better control over my memories,” Erik muttered. “Those thoughts were never meant for one so young.”

Charles stopped him with a hand on his arm, his brow crinkling in distress for Erik. “Those memories were given to a child younger than Francis. Don’t be so hard on yourself, my friend.”

Erik turned his face away. “Come on. Let’s see if we can find any more on Shaw’s men.”

Charles followed him across the lawn to the basic dome Erik and Hank had put together for a makeshift Cerebro. His thoughts went back to the boys they’d left with Hank, two children that Charles found hard to think of as younger versions of himself. He looked back on his childhood as a marathon, something he’d pushed himself through until, at last, he’d burst free into adulthood. Well, university at least - he’d still been a child in the eyes of the law when he left the mansion the last time, smuggling Raven along with him. He’d never thought of himself as a child.

But now, thinking of Arthur, afraid of labs and electrodes and headaches, and Francis, bruised, wide-eyed and flinching, he was angry.

His father, mother, stepfather, stepbrother - people he should have been able to rely on for safety - had failed him. And while Charles had always known that, somehow seeing the effects on a child right in front of him was viscerally different.

Charles stood on the podium in Cerebro and grasped the railing as Erik flicked the switches and lowered the electrodes with his power. Charles had never really thought of Erik as a child either. He’d known what had happened to him right from the start, in diving into his mind with no qualms, all to find something, some switch, some combination of words with which to save a stranger. He’d seen the raw grief and pain and impotent fury of his mother being taken away from him so cruelly. But now he thought of that happening to a boy, a child younger than Francis. Starved and beaten, and so, so afraid, just wanting his mother. The mother who’d loved him and held him and been everything a mother should be to a child.

Shaw had done that to a child. Not to the powerful, fierce man Charles had fallen in love with, not the confident, angry man before Charles now, but to a child.

“Charles?” said Erik.

Charles wiped the tears away from his eyes. “Yes? Sorry, I’m ready.”

Erik looked up at him with so much concern, oh God, how had he managed to keep that compassion in him even with all he’d survived? Charles swallowed hard and made an effort to smile. “It’s nothing, my friend,” he said.

Erik put his hand over Charles’ on the railing, calloused fingers rough on the back of Charles’ hand. “OK, then,” he said softly, and turned away. Charles took the opportunity to press his thumbs under his eyes and force back the tears.

“You’re looking for the teleporter, Azazel, and Janos Quested, who can control air currents. Shaw and Angel too, of course,” Erik reminded him.

Charles took a deep breath, compartmentalised, and nodded.

Chapter Text

Erik poured Charles and himself a glass of scotch, added some ice cubes, and brought them back over to the fireplace. Charles barely reacted when Erik placed the glass down in front of him, beyond the flicker of a distracted smile.

“Do you think you’ll be able to keep hold of the teleporter with practice?” Erik asked after a moment of silence.

Charles took a mouthful of whiskey and swallowed. “I’m not sure. Connecting with him was like trying to grip mercury, and I don’t know if that’s just a property of his mental structure, or if I’ll be able to improve.” He frowned into the fire. “I don’t know how I’d practice, though.”

Silence fell again. “What about the other man?” Erik asked. “Janos Quested.”

“I don’t know,” said Charles slowly. “I was able to connect with his mind, but…” He sat up properly and leaned his elbows on his knees, looking at Erik for the first time. “The thing is that Cerebro was always different to the way I usually use my telepathy. And this version of Cerebro is still a work in progress.”

“You got his location, though,” Erik frowned. “That’s what we wanted, after all.”

Charles grimaced. “For all the good that does us when he works with a teleporter. And what I saw of his thoughts was…” He shook his head. “I can’t really sort out anything clear, just… there’s loyalty there. But also a deep rage, and fear.”

Erik shrugged. “None of that contradicts what we already know about the Hellfire Club. They hate humans.”

Charles studied Erik for a moment. “I’m not sure… we know that Emma Frost believes in Shaw’s vision of the future, and that’s why she’s with him. But… I can’t imagine Shaw’s changed so much over the past decade that he’s recruiting by words alone.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m saying that Janos’ rage felt… personal. It didn’t feel like that of a man who wants to destroy half of the world. It felt…”

Erik narrowed his eyes at him. Charles squirmed under his gaze. “It felt like yours, my friend. Janos Quested has been through something like you, and his fear and fury feels like yours.”

Erik’s fingers tightened around his glass. “So what?” he asked roughly, drinking the rest of the whiskey and standing sharply, busying his hands with the decanter. “What does it matter if we can empathise with the enemy? This changes nothing.”

“I only mean that we might not be facing a united front. Quested may not be our enemy.”

“He was never my enemy,” scoffed Erik. “I never cared a damn about him or any of the others, you know this, Charles! My target is Shaw, and I will kill him.”

He braced himself, spine tight for the gentle, patronising remonstrations. How killing Shaw could never bring him peace, how they must rise above, be better. All those things his father said about the sneering boys who spat on him in the street, and where had that got him?

But Charles was silent. Erik turned with a frown. “What? No moral imprecations today?”

Charles bit his lip, and to Erik’s horror he saw tears glistening in his eyes. “Charles… I’m sorry, I didn’t…” Shit, he’d been teasing, nothing more! He’d never thought it would hurt Charles, he’d never meant to hurt him!

“You were younger than Francis,” Charles whispered, and he looked up to meet Erik’s eyes as the tears fell. “How could he… how could anyone?”

Erik knelt in front of Charles, hands hovering above an arm, a knee, so un-used to giving comfort. “It was a long time ago,” he said. “I’ve grown- I’m strong enough now. It’ll never happen again.”

“It should never have happened in the first place,” Charles said, clasping Erik’s hands between both of his own. “All he’s taken from you, when you were so young. And he’s going to take this from you too, your mercy--”

“I’ve killed before, Charles, many times. My soul is already broken.” He gave a crooked smile, trying to joke it away.

“And now you feel like you have to kill him, but you don’t. He’s already taken so many choices from you, don’t let him take one more.”

“I can’t let him live. I won’t.”

“Then let me help,” said Charles, so soft it was almost a whisper. “Let me… if I can get to his mind, I believe I can shut him away from his power. Let him live in the depths of a CIA prison, knowing what he used to be, what he can never be again. Let him see you turn your back on him and his murderous life, and let him know he failed.”

Erik stared at Charles. The room crackled with the force of Charles’ ferocity, the viciousness on his face. “You realise that’s not mercy,” Erik said slowly, his heart racing. He had never thought to be afraid of Charles before.

Charles nodded. “I know,” he whispered. “I thought… you were right. I’ve been so afraid, I’ve been running for so long I thought it was the same as standing up for myself, but… I see Francis and Arthur and I’m angry. I’m so angry that anyone dared lay a hand on them! And then I remember that was me. And it was you, and oh, God, Erik, you must have been so small, so afraid, and I am angry.”

Erik leaned up, straightening his body so he could reach Charles’ lips and kiss him, his free hand sinking into Charles’ soft hair so he could worship him. Charles froze for a moment, and then he was kissing him back, sliding forward on the chair to press their bodies together, tangling his fingers in Erik’s turtleneck and moaning into the kiss.

Like a sucker punch, Erik was swamped by a wave of emotions and thoughts, a storm of wanted him so long, so perfect, so beautiful, so powerful, of every touch Charles had ever stolen, every late night, every debate, every chess game. Every sensation right now, razor sharp, the wool under his skin, the taste of his lips, and just as Erik thought he’d faint from it, it receded.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry, Erik, please, please say something, oh God, what have I--”

“Charles,” Erik croaked, wrapping his hands around Charles’ wrists where they clung to his jumper. “It’s fine, I’m fine, just--”

“I’m so sorry,” Charles said. “I didn’t mean… I just…”

Erik smiled and stroked Charles’ cheek with his thumb. “I mean it - it was overwhelming but… is that how you feel? All of that?”

Charles bit his lip and looked up at him in a way that must surely be designed to melt Erik to the core. “Always, when I’m with you, my friend,” he said, and Erik kissed him once again.

Chapter Text

“Good!” said Erik. “Twenty more.”

Francis slumped, breathless, and Erik tugged him up sharply by the eyelets on his boxing gloves. “You need stamina,” Erik said. His voice was sharp and hard, but Francis could feel the steady hum of affection underneath that made Francis feel safe, the way he never had even with the honeyed words of Father’s friends and colleagues.

He was also devastatingly attractive for an older man. Francis set his teeth and threw punch after punch at the bag until it swayed and jerked.

“Well done,” Erik said, when he’d counted down from twenty. He beckoned and started unlacing Francis’ gloves. “Flex your hands. Fine. Looks good. Go and have a shower and tell me if they start hurting or anything - you want to get stronger, not damage yourself. Tomorrow we’ll do some more on reactions and sparring.”

The sense of satisfaction and pride from Erik that Francis was basking in suddenly flared into something almost overwhelming, bone-deep and infinite, when Erik looked past Francis to the doorway. There was nothing more than a faint smile to betray the love pouring off him.

“Charles,” said Erik. “Finally decided to take me up on my offer of training, have you?”

Charles smiled. “Only if you’re prepared to be beaten at your own game.”

Erik laughed and threw Francis’ gloves at Charles and walked towards him. Francis was all but forgotten as Erik started to lace Charles up.

Charles had much better shields than Erik, of course. But even so, as Erik brushed his thumbs over Charles’ wrist, Francis caught the blast of emotion from Charles, a flash of intense love, a connection that bound the two men together.

Francis turned away, half envious, half embarrassed. He wondered, for the first time, about the Erik Lehnsherr back in his own universe, whether it was possibly for someone to love him as much as this Erik and Charles loved each other.

He was lost in thought on the walk back, so almost didn’t notice Arthur. “Hi, Francis,” he said quietly.

Francis jumped and blinked at his younger self, sitting like a pixie on a stone window seat. “Hi,” he said cautiously. “Are you OK?”

Arthur nodded, his chin still pressed against his knees.

Francis licked his lips. He had no idea how to deal with children, but he could feel the vague, cautious tendrils leaking out from the little boy. “Did Charles block your telepathy off?” he asked.

Arthur nodded. “He’s been teaching me how to build my shields myself, but I’m not good enough to do it on my own yet.” He looked down, twisting his lips.

“Well, that’s OK,” Francis said quickly. He had a sudden vivid memory of sitting outside his father’s room for hours, kicking his heels and singing quietly, hoping for even the smallest scrap of attention. “Hey… I’ve got to have a shower, but do you want to do some drawing afterwards, or something?”

“Really?” said Arthur, hope sparkling through his emotions.

“Sure,” Francis smiled. “Come on, you can wait in my room until I’m ready.”

Arthur scrambled down from his perch and practically skipped along beside Francis. He smiled down at him, amused and suddenly quite aware that he was feeling the same warmth he got when Raven asked him a question, or followed him, or flopped onto the seat next to him and snuggled up.

Raven, he thought, the warmth fading. What would she be doing right now? What would she do without him there?

Not that Raven couldn’t take care of herself – she’d been doing so for years before he met her, but she shouldn’t have to! That was the point! Francis loved looking after her… if he was honest with himself, it gave him purpose, and now…

He glanced down at Arthur, who smiled up at him, open and hopeful and still trusting. That trust hadn’t quite been beaten out of him yet.

But it wouldn’t be this time, would it? He was surrounded by people who actually cared about him, and who wanted to look after him.

He closed the bathroom door behind him, leaving Arthur in his room, and poked at the fading bruises on his ribs. All these people… they wanted to look after Francis, too, he could tell even without reading their minds. But it didn’t feel right when he imagined himself coddled and cared for and protected – that was his job. He was the protector. He was the one who took the punches and worked out how to hide Raven’s mutation and what lies to tell to people who asked too many questions or pushed himself to get the data his father had wanted.

He wasn’t a kid any more, after all, not like Arthur.

But then… he wasn’t an adult either, not like Charles.

He showered quickly, trying not to think of Raven and the life he’d left behind. Did he want to go back there, getting punched every time he moved wrong, every time he said something annoying? Of course not! But… wasn’t it the right thing to do?

He didn’t have the answer by the time he came out of the steaming bathroom, drying his hair roughly on a towel. Arthur was sitting on the very edge of his bed, completely still and formal, and Francis stopped, his throat suddenly aching. He remembered doing the same in his mother’s room, hoping that maybe this time he’d be good enough and neat enough and perfect and well-behaved enough to gain her affection – even just her attention.

He pushed it away, folded it up in a box like those he’d glimpsed from time to time in Erik’s mind. Put it aside and didn’t let himself think too hard as he walked over to Arthur and ruffled his hair. “What do you want to draw first, then?”

Arthur’s face split into a brilliant smile. “I’ve been thinking about that! I want to draw everyone. I want to draw you and me and Charles first, and then Erik and Moira and Alex. And Sean and me together making tacos! And Raven and Hank and then maybe I’ll draw another picture of Alex shooting those lights out of his chest and you fighting with Erik.”

He sucked in a breath suddenly, as if he’d forgotten that was a thing a person has to do in between sentences, and Francis laughed. “Well, we’d better get busy then, hadn’t we? I’m afraid I don’t have any colours, but there’s plenty of paper in a drawer over here, and pens and pencils too. Why don’t you get started while I get dressed?”

Arthur nodded and slipped off the bed, finding his supplies and kneeling on the chair to get a good view of his paper as he bent over it and started to draw big circle heads. Francis took his pieces of paper over to the window seat and crossed his legs, propping the paper on a textbook he’d found gathering dust under the bed.

“Francis,” said Arthur, still looking at his drawing. “Do you remember being me?”

Francis put his doodle to one side and leaned back. “Yes, I suppose. Some parts of it more than others, of course, but yes.”

“So I’m really going to turn into you?”

Francis considered this for a moment. “Partly? But remember you’re in a different world now. You’ll grow up differently – our timelines have diverged, I suppose.”

Arthur bit his lip and hesitated, then put his pen down. He still didn’t look at Francis. “Can you tell me…”

Francis waited a moment, but Arthur seemed to be struggling for words. “What’s on your mind?” he asked. “Would you like me to look?”

He slumped slightly and nodded. “Yes please.”

Francis lifted his fingertips to his temple and slipped into Arthur’s thoughts much easier than any other mind he’d ever been into. It was still like flowing downstream, like two water droplets merging, though now he had to move a little more deliberately, take a certain path, since Charles had built walls around him to block out noise.

He saw himself in Arthur’s mind, his eye swollen shut like it had been the day they both arrived, and arranged around him in every direction was every fear Arthur had about it, ever possible way he thought Francis had misbehaved to earn the punch.

“You want to avoid being hurt,” Francis said, and swallowed hard.

Arthur nodded and bit his lip. “Please?”

He laughed dryly. “I’m not very good at it, as you can tell.” Arthur’s face dropped, and Francis frowned, hurrying to reassure him. “But I’m sure you’ll be fine here – none of them seem the type to hit a child.”

“Yes, but I’ll be grown up soon, and then if I do something wrong they might hit me too. What did you do to get hit?”

Francis thought back and tried to stop himself flinching from the memories. “This time… I can’t quite… oh yes! I’d worn a hole in one of my shoes, that was it.”

Arthur cocked his head. “Don’t you have much money anymore?”

“No, it’s not like that, it’s… well, Kurt Marko – he’s the man who married Mother after Father died – he’s…” A bastard. “He doesn’t like spending money on me. He says I waste it.” He snorted to himself. He knew very well what Marko thought good use of the money would be. He also knew how frustrated he was that Francis’ mother wasn’t hurrying up and dying of liver failure from all the drinking. Francis stared out of the window, his mood darkening.

“So… I shouldn’t ask for things, and then I’ll be safe?”

Francis frowned and turned back to Arthur, swinging his feet down off the seat and leaning forward. “No, that’s not…”

He had a thought in that moment, a mental image of Kurt grabbing Arthur and throwing him into the wall. Only it wasn’t just a thought, it was a memory. Francis had only been eight, still grieving his father, still hoping that this new man in his life would care for him in some way, and Kurt had picked him up by his arm and thrown him. He couldn't even remember why.

Francis saw that happening to Arthur.

“Listen,” he said, holding Arthur’s gaze very seriously. “Anyone who hits you is wrong and bad. They don’t do it for any good reason, there’s nothing you can do or change about yourself that will keep you safe because it’s not your fault, you hear? It’s them. It’s anyone who wants to hurt you.”

“But…”

“You’ve got to let Charles take care of you. And Erik, and Sean and… probably everyone in this house, I think. But you have to hold onto that, Arthur. Anyone who hurts you is doing something very bad.”

Arthur nodded his head, uncertainty clear in his mind and his body language. Francis sighed and walked over to him, holding out his arms for a hug. Arthur snuggled in, his head just up to Francis’ ribs.

He’d been that small once. He’d wondered what he’d done wrong, and it had never been him at all.

For the first time, Francis considered going back to his own universe angry.

Chapter Text

“Did you get the teddy bear?” Sean asked Moira as they walked out of the shops back to the car.

Moira rolled her eyes. “Yes, Sean, and the colouring books, and the marbles. Anyone would think Arthur’s lived a deprived childhood the way you treat him!”

“He has,” Sean said indignantly.

“Oh, come on, you’ve seen that place! It’s not exactly living in penury, is it?”

“Well, no,” he frowned. He took a moment to try and find the right words. “It’s not about the stuff,” he said at last. “Maybe he had all the toys and books he ever wanted, but he’s been deprived, that’s for sure.”

“Of what?”

Sean jutted his chin out stubbornly. “Hugs.”

Moira laughed and popped the trunk of the car. “Hugs? Really? Aww, Sean, I didn’t know you were such a softie.”

Sean could feel his ears flaming, and knew his cheeks were clashing with his hair. “Shut up.” He was right, he knew it. He also knew all the others would think he was talking rubbish, that little kids should be seen and not heard, and Arthur was the perfect child. Well, Sean would just have to solve that problem quietly by himself.

He helped Moira unpack the bags in the kitchen, then took the stairs two at a time to Arthur’s room. “Hey, kid?” He peered in. Nothing. Sean shrugged and started the long task of searching the freaking castle they were now living in.

He found Arthur and Francis in the library, and smiled to himself. Arthur was sitting on Francis’ lap, listening with an open mouth as Francis read one of the Sword in the Stone books, putting on voices for all the characters.

Francis glanced up and pinked slightly as he acknowledged Sean there. All of a sudden, it was like a door had been opened. Sean found himself surrounded by a vast medieval forest, ancient oaks soaring up to the sky while an old wizard and a young boy walked and talked. Butterflies drifted past on the intangible breeze, just transparent enough to show the bookshelves behind through their wings.

“Woah… are you doing this?” Sean asked, staring around.

Francis nodded shyly. “I hope you don’t mind? I’ve been projecting the story into Arthur’s mind as I read for him, and I thought…”

“Yeah, this is amazing!” He walked over to the boys on the sofa and dropped himself onto the chair opposite. “Moira and I got you some stuff from the shops,” he said, waving the plastic bag at them.

Arthur jumped down off Francis’ lap and stood, his eyes huge in his little pixie face. “Did you really get me peanut butter? Nobody ever buys peanut butter!”

Sean’s heart clenched. “Uh, yeah, but that’s downstairs. I got you raspberry jelly as well, Moira tried to say strawberry was the best, but what does she know? She’s old!” The boys giggled and glanced at each other. Sean felt proud. “Nah, what I really wanted to show you was this.”

He pulled the teddy bear out of the bag and held it up to his face, pinching at the sides to make its arm move. “Hi, Arthur. I’m gonna be your best friend!” he said in a squeaky voice.

Arthur blinked at the toy and his face went a little slack. Instead of rushing to grab it like any other kid Sean knew, he just leaned ever so slightly forward and clasped his hands together in front of him, rubbing his fingers against each other like he was imagining how soft it was. “It’s lovely,” he said wistfully. “Thank you.”

“Go ahead, give it a cuddle.”

“I can… really?”

“Well, yeah, what else would you do with a teddy?” he asked, reaching out to hand it to Arthur.

He took it in both hands as if it was a precious glass sculpture and stared into its eyes, hypnotised. Sean darted a quick look at Francis. Francis shrugged. “We had a few teddies as children, but they were all heirlooms or collector’s items. They were never things for children to play with.”

“I had some on a shelf in my room,” said Arthur, gently stroking the plush on the cheap teddy bear’s ears. “I used to talk to them, but I couldn’t reach to give them a cuddle.”

Sean swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “Well, this little guy’s made just for cuddling and squishing and getting covered in PB and J. He doesn’t mind a bit of rough treatment.”

“I would never,” said Arthur, looking so earnest that Sean nearly did some cuddling and squishing of his own. “I’ll look after him and keep him safe.”

“You know what you should do?” Raven said from the doorway, smirking as all three boys jumped in surprise and turned to look at her. “You should teach him how to read. Charles was always doing that to me.”

“I can teach him stuff?” Arthur said in awe, looking back down at his toy.

Francis laughed at Raven. “Well, you could always mimic our classmates so well!

Raven smiled at him, a tentative thing that grew slightly as he held her gaze. “I could have mimicked our teachers better than you, doofus,” she said.

Sean clapped his hands and stood up. “Well, playing teacher is all well and good, but now there’s a few more of us, you know what would be even better?”

“What?” asked Arthur, and Sean remembered how much he’d always enjoyed having his little cousins look up at him like he was the arbiter of cool. Once they got to Francis’ age they were usually a bit too superior for that.

He bent down as if to whisper to Arthur in confidence. “We gotta play hide and seek,” he said. “Raven’s seeker!” And with that, he grabbed Arthur’s hand and tugged him, breathless and giggling, down the corridor.

He heard Francis tearing out of the library behind him, and Raven yelling “No telepathy, you cheaters!”

“What the hell?” Alex said, as Sean and Arthur thundered past.

“Hide and seek, man, Raven’s counting to twenty!”

Alex shook his head in disgust as Sean shoved Arthur behind a thick curtain and then scooted into a cupboard.

“Ready or not, here I come!” yelled Raven from down the hall.

Alex looked around, and jumped into a window seat at the last minute. Sean snickered.

“Shut up, Cassidy,” Alex grumbled.

***

It wasn’t like Sean had been a vital part of the war effort, or whatever they were calling this preparation. Sometimes Hank called him into the labs and tried out a new costume on him.

“Suit,” said Hank snippily. “It’s a highly advanced flight suit.”

Sometimes Erik pushed him out a window or off a satellite dish, and Charles pretended like he disapproved.

Sometimes Sean got to fly.

But most of the time, he kept himself busy. It was a tough job teaching a little kid how to be a little kid, but he was dedicated to his task. Someone had to teach Arthur to be a bit naughty and find all the nooks and crannies of the mansion – he was way too well behaved to be real. It made Sean uncomfortable.

“You’re just making trouble for yourself,” Moira said, smirking as she saw him unpack a set of finger paints from the next shopping trip he went on, with Alex this time. “You know I’m not cleaning that up.”

“As if you clean,” he snorted, because Moira had made her opinion clear on men telling her what to do. She just grinned and left him to his new treasures.

“Arthur,” Sean yelled.

“Goddamn, Sean,” Moira yelled back from the other room. “Go find the kid before you shout the mansion down!”

He found him in the labs, of all places. He frowned as he saw Charles and Hank both bustling around Arthur. Francis was sitting beside him, holding his hand as well, talking quietly. Charles put his hand on Arthur’s cheek. “Now, I know it’s scary being back here, Arthur,” he said, looking into Arthur’s eyes. “Hank just wants to find out more about the universe where you came from.”

Arthur swallowed hard and set his jaw. “I can be brave,” he said.

Charles smiled and patted him. They placed some electrodes on his head, and Arthur took a deep, shuddering breath.

“Stop!” said Sean.

Everyone looked up at him. It was Sean’s turn to swallow and look around. “I mean,” he said. “Is this really… necessary?”

“Welll... we’ve only got a sample size of two, we’re just trying to gather all the data we possibly can,” said Hank, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “We can’t be sure of anything.”

“But you don’t need this for anything important, do you?” Sean said, looking between Charles and Hank. “You’re not trying to send them back, are you?” Francis looked away, suddenly shifty. Sean narrowed his eyes.

“Well, no, we’re not,” said Charles. “We just need to work out the differences between their world and ours, to make sure they’re safe and healthy.”

Sean bit his lip, then set his chin. “Well, I don’t think you need to do any more. Not brain stuff, anyway.”

“He’s fine,” said Francis. “He said he is.”

“No offence,” said Sean, aiming it at Charles mostly. “But he’s been used to telling adults he’s fine.”

“He knows he doesn’t have to lie to us,” Charles said, but he glanced at Arthur warily.

“He’s not lying. But he’s pushing himself for you. You do it too, both you and Francis. Raven and Moira keep teasing you about how you blacked out in Cerebro the first time. I don’t…” He plucked up his courage again. “I don’t… think you’re the best judge of what he can handle.”

Charles winced and looked down. “C’mon, Sean,” Hank laughed. “He is Arthur, he knows what he can do better than any of us.”

“No, Sean’s right,” said Charles, and now Sean felt even worse about it, because Charles looked distraught. “Arthur, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s OK,” said Arthur, shaking his head and looking up at Charles.

Charles gently took the electrodes off and squeezed his little hand. “It’s not OK. I’m sorry I didn’t notice that before.”

He lifted Arthur down off the lab bench and looked up at Sean. “Thank you,” he said.

“I didn’t…”

“No, really,” he said, patting Sean on the shoulder. “Thank you.”

As he passed, Sean caught the tail end of one of Charles’ thoughts – or rather, a memory, projected accidentally in its strong emotion. A kindly man, who hurt him and hurt him, and then patted him on the head and sent him away. The man’s face changed, and became Charles’ own.

Sean closed his eyes and concentrated, sending a thought back along that line towards Charles. You’re not him. Just learn and you’ll be better.

Thank you, Charles said softly.

Francis looked up at Sean and smiled. “I really am OK,” he said as Sean picked Arthur up. “I want to help Hank with his research.”

“Sure?” Sean said. Francis nodded. Sean made an I’m watching you face at Hank, who blinked at him and turned away, disconcerted.

“I’m fine,” Francis laughed. “But… thank you for looking after us.”

Sean quirked a grin and turned, jogging Arthur on his hip. “You want to do some painting, kid?”

Arthur nodded, a bright smile splitting his cheeks, and Sean squeezed him close, blowing a raspberry on his neck.

Chapter Text

It was less than a week later when they gathered in the TV room to watch the president’s address. Francis held Arthur on his hip and berated himself for thinking he’d found a home. Almost two weeks of smiles and banter over the dinner table, people greeting him, checking up on him. Playing with Arthur. Training with Erik. Working with Hank and thinking maybe…

Seeing his own future, or at least the future he could have had if he struggled through that loveless void of a childhood. Acceptance and respect, and most of all, that warm, powerful love with Erik.

Now Arthur snuggled in against Francis. Charles had been working hard enough with Arthur’s defences that he usually left him in charge of his own shielding, so Francis knew he could probably feel the rising hum of tension in the room, interspersed with individual voices. Flares of blind panic from Sean, Alex counting his breaths, and Erik’s mind almost howling with anticipation and fear.

Charles switched the TV off and turned to look between them all, the silence palpable. “Get ready - we’ll need a good nights’ sleep,” he said, making sure to catch the gaze of each person there. “We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

The room cleared, more quietly than usual. Charles’ eyes followed Erik as he left, his back rigid, but Charles didn’t go with him. Instead, he walked over to Francis and Arthur, his hands deep in his pockets.

“I’m going to need you to stay with Arthur when we leave tomorrow,” he said.

“Where are you going?” Arthur asked, his voice loud with worry.

“Cuba,” said Charles, holding his hands out for Arthur, who reached for him and tucked his face into his neck. Charles never lied to them, he knew there was no point. He would tell them if it was anything they were too young to hear, or that he wasn’t prepared to tell them, but he wouldn’t outright lie. “We have to fight some people to make sure they don’t start another war.”

Arthur tightened his arms around Charles’ neck, silenced by the seriousness that hung in the air, still as a pall.

I can fight, Francis said directly into Charles’ mind. It was a token and they both knew it. I can be useful.

Charles touched his cheek and dropped the thought in like an apology, a blessing and a curse. They may not come back. They may fail, and then Francis would be the only thing between Arthur and the ensuing war. I’m sorry, said Charles, his voice a whisper in Francis’ mind. I should have sent you both back. I should have known this time would come.

Send us back to what? Francis asked. This is in our future too.

He meant it to be stoic and reassuring, but Charles’ countenance dropped. “I wish I could have made your future better, though.”

“You have!” said Arthur immediately, sitting straight in Charles’ arms and looking at him. “We’ve been really happy here, please don’t…” he hunched all of a sudden and his voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Please don’t send us back?”

Charles’ eyebrows rose. “Send you… no, of course not! I told you, if Hank ever works out that device of his, you return to your own universes when and if you want to, it’s up to you.”

Arthur smiled and settled again. Charles sighed. “I’ll get some dinner started. We should all eat something, though we may not want to.”

***

Francis couldn’t sleep. He tried to calm his mind – even tried projecting calm over the rest of the house. But after most of the mansion fell into sleep, still he lay awake.

He gave up just before 11pm, drifting through the dark down to the kitchen, planning to make himself a cup of tea. Usually, though Charles (and Erik, and Moira, and even Raven for that matter) insisted Arthur went to bed at 7 and Francis at 9, the others would be awake until the early hours, scattered across the mansion in intimate groups, talking. Today, though, there was nothing left to say. They’d be facing Shaw the next day.

Or at least, for most there was nothing to say. Francis didn’t notice the whisper of conscious minds against his own until he was at the library door, so tightly were they focused on each other.

“Stay with me, Erik,” Charles said, one hand on Erik’s face, the other holding him close around his waist. “We want the same things, you and I.”

“Charles,” said Erik, his voice hoarse, his fingers almost trembling with the desire to hold him closer, but the knowledge that if he did, it would hurt. “I want you by my side.”

“Yes,” breathed Charles, pulling him down for a kiss.

Francis averted his eyes and retreated, embarrassed. Charles was him, but he was separate as well, and such intimacy was for no-one else. Instead, he slunk back to his room and curled up in his bed once more. He stared out at the moon, and thought of his own Erik, surely still weakened by the camps back in their universe. He wondered if he would want someone by his side. If he’d find anyone else.

Chapter Text

Erik pressed himself tight to Charles as the plane fell, the whole team screaming, panic roaring in his mind. What if he failed? What if Shaw, in the end, won the day? What if Charles…

No, Erik thought. He refocused, dragged his mind kicking and screaming under control, and brought the plane onto the beach, skidding over trees and sand and coral, holding the integrity of the fuselage as best he could.

At last the jet creaked to a halt, and Erik lowered himself and Charles to the ground. Charles was worryingly limp and dazed, but he met his gaze. “I’m fine,” he nodded. “I’m fine, go!”

Erik, Hank and Alex scrambled out, staring up at the sub, lying incongruously on her side on the beach. And inside…

He set his jaw and raced to the sub, ripping a panel out and flattening Quested with it, almost deaf to the sounds of Hank and Alex engaging Azazel in battle behind him.

Keep going, Erik, said Charles into his mind, his calm presence a comfort and a threat. There’s a void in the centre of the sub, I can’t sense anything – there! You’re there.

Erik stared around the empty room, panic rising like gorge in his throat. “He’s not here,” he shouted. “He’s not here, he must have got off, he—”

What? He can’t have, he’s not out here—

“Erik,” said Shaw from behind him. Erik turned, his heartbeat so fast in his ears he could barely hear. “What a pleasant surprise.”

Erik felt his legs moving. He could hear Charles for just a moment, under the screaming, howling panic, so familiar. When Charles’ voice cut off it was almost a relief. This was how it should be, just him and his greatest demons, no room for love in this room of endless reflections. Love could be murdered right in front of him.

Schmidt was talking, and Erik was thirteen years old and terrified, but no! He clenched his fists, felt his muscles – he was a grown man! He wasn’t weak and helpless anymore. He could stop, this, stop him! He punched the Doctor in the face, the sting of it grounding him.

Reminding him.

Shaw was a mutant too. He took Erik’s punch and hurled him back against the glass, and Erik battled against the hurt and the memories, and then Charles’ voice rang in his mind again, bright and clear, an anchor. Erik, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.

Erik looked up at the crack and almost smiled. Get beaten up? He could do that.

But Shaw talked as he hurt him, and it sang to the memories sunk bone deep, the pain and the gentle words, the paternal tone and the bruises and Erik wanted to cry like a little boy, wanted to do something, anything to stop the pain and hear that he’d done enough. He tore the metal down around Schmidt, striking him, desperate, terrified, and Schmidt just pushed, pushed, so much stronger than he ever could be. He had never had a hope.

Hope. He felt Charles’ warm presence in his mind with him, heard him murmuring something, he couldn’t hear, couldn’t reach the words. He had hoped for Charles. Thought it was a vain hope, thought for sure he could never deserve someone as gentle and kind as him, but…

--rik, please, love, come back to me, you’re doing so well, I’m coming for you, let me help you—

Charles. Charles was coming here, he mustn’t, he should never have to come up against Shaw. Shaw was Erik’s monster, his to deal with. Erik refocused, held onto the world. Grounded himself in the metal of the sub.

“Everything you did made me stronger. Made me the weapon I am today, it’s the truth. I’ve known it all along. You are my creator.”

He could see the triumph in Schmidt’s eyes as he leaned forward, the grin widening, his entire being focused on Erik. Perfekt.

Erik didn’t allow himself to look at the cables as they gripped Shaw’s helmet and ripped it off. “Now, Charles!”

Shaw froze. Charles’ presence in Erik’s mind flickered, his attention focused on holding Shaw immobile.

The helmet floated down into Erik’s hands, dropped by the cables. Erik stared at it for a moment.

“Erik, please,” said Charles’ voice. Strained. Afraid.

He saw the truth then, as if he was the telepath. Charles wouldn’t stop him. He could stop Erik from killing Shaw, he could invade his mind and hold it the way he had Shaw’s, but he hadn’t even accepted it as an option. He limited himself. Erik could use that. Charles wouldn’t stop him from killing Shaw. He’d even hold him still while Erik drove the coin through his head.

Charles would throw away all his morals for Erik.

“Do it, Charles,” he said roughly. He tightened the cables around the helmet, crushing it to nothing. “I’m sorry, Mama,” he whispered.

He closed his eyes as Shaw fell at his feet. He’d failed her.

He felt warm hands on his cheek, looked up into the memory of his mother’s eyes. She wiped the mud off his cheek and murmured words of patience and forbearance. And that she would always love him.

He opened his eyes to warm hands on his cheeks, concerned blue blurring in his tears. “Erik!” said Charles. “Erik, it’s over, he can’t access his mutation. You’ve done it! He’ll never hurt anyone again, love.”

Chapter Text

The moment Erik gave Charles his permission, he dived further into Shaw’s mind, leaning on the nearest piece of the jet. He shuddered at the sharp, suffocating, antiseptic evil of that mind. He followed the bright traces, the mental aspect of his mutation, and cauterised them, snipping nerve after nerve. Without the ability to redistribute energy, redirect it into muscle and sinew, Shaw was effectively human.

Charles left him unconscious, pulling out of his mind. He felt the urge to wipe his hands, spit, get the feel of him out. But Erik was still in there, in that room with him.

I’m sorry, Mama, Erik said, and Charles broke into a run across the sand. He raced into the sub, through the tangle of metal in the mirrored room, and fell to his knees in front of Erik, touching his cheeks, his terrifyingly blank mind.

“Erik? Oh God, Erik, open your eyes, love, please?”

Erik’s eyes fluttered under his lids and tears leaked out. Charles whimpered, stroking them away gently, trying to lift Erik’s mind back from its catatonia with his powers. “Erik… Erik, it’s over. He can’t access his mutation.”

Erik’s eyes opened and Charles smiled at him. “You’ve done it,” he said softly. “He’ll never hurt anyone again, love.”

Erik fell forward into his arms, clutching at him and shaking with sobs. They staggered to their feet and Erik wiped his face. Charles squeezed his hand. Erik nodded once, then wrapped some cables around Shaw to levitate him out of the sub. They walked out side by side, Charles calling out to the rest of the team.

Erik threw Shaw face down on the beach. “It’s over,” he roared, and Charles was sure he was the only one who could sense the tinge of hysteria. “Your leader is powerless.” He glare around at Quested, struggling to his feet, and then Angel and Azazel limping towards them.

Charles and Erik felt the change at the same time. “Charles… the guns,” Erik breathed, his mind a growing whirl of panic.

“What?” asked Moira, frowning.

Charles and Erik stumbled to the shoreline. “They’re aiming at us,” Charles said. “They’re going to fire on us, both navies!”

Moira raced back into the jet, every neurone focused desperately on getting a message through the radio. Charles heard every mind behind him cry out like desperate children. He could hear the distant commands, fire, he felt Erik’s mind whirl with panic even as he flung his arm out and grabbed every single shell, lifting them all.

How dare they? Erik’s mind screamed. After all we did for them, to turn on us after we saved them, how could they betray us?

The fury built in Erik’s mind, and in that moment, Charles could see the day spiralling out of his control, bombs and death smearing blood over history. He felt the fear of all these people he loved build in the back of his mind, the horror of so many of the sailors, this is wrong, they’re our allies, they saved us. He felt Erik’s sheer panic, thought of Francis and Arthur back home…

The rage he’d kept locked away for so long swelled in his gut and flooded his veins with cold fire, and Charles held one hand up to Erik, one to his temple. “No,” he said, and his voice reverberated in the minds of everyone within a mile, two miles. His range pushed outwards, doubling with only the force of his molten fury.

Erik, hold them there, he said, and Erik obeyed, the missiles drifting above their heads. Charles had no need to make him do anything, Erik’s entire being turned to him like the one light in a cavern.

Listen very carefully, Charles said, and every mind on every ship cowered before him. We are not your dogs, to test and use and put down at the first sign of danger. We have helped you, put ourselves in harm’s way to protect this world for all of us, but no more! Turn to your leaders and have them tell you why those with gifts conceal themselves from you, why we work to keep ourselves safe first – and know it is because you were our first threat. We stood in between you and certain death, and you stabbed us in the back.

His body trembled, and he closed his eyes as if it would help to contain the power he felt growing in his skull along with the fury. Then, as he stood on the brink of cruelty, he felt Erik’s hand take his, cool against his heated skin. Rage and serenity, said Erik softly.

Charles took a shaking breath and lifted the pressure he was exerting, every sailor on his knees. Go home, he commanded. As one, they turned to their posts, setting a course for home port, mindless and at peace.

The people on the beach watched the ships turn, smoke pouring from them as they set off at full speed in opposite directions. Charles held onto the traces of his command until they passed over the horizon. Then he slumped against Erik, black spots dancing in his vision.

“Charles!” Erik gasped, lowering him to the sand.

“I’m alright,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut. Raven and Moira sprang forward to him, but he pressed his face into Erik’s shoulder, the rough straps of his flight suit digging into Charles’ forehead and grounding him.

He pushed himself to his feet. Raven tugged an arm over her shoulder and Erik left his hand on Charles’ hip, both of them almost battering him with mental concern. “I’m fine,” he said, looking around at the gathered mutants, and Moira. “Shaw is defeated. The crisis is over.” He glanced over at Moira, then at Azazel, Quested and Angel. “We can continue to fight, or we can put aside our differences and work together to get back to our own homes.”

He straightened up as Shaw’s people stepped forward warily. If they were to look at him as a leader, he would have to look strong enough to lead them.

Janos slowed as he approached Shaw’s limp form, his mind a whirl of senses and emotions. “He can’t use his powers?” he asked.

“No,” Charles assured him. “I’ve cut him off from them.”

Janos walked closer, standing over Shaw, his long black hair almost obscuring his face. Charles frowned, and sent out a stream of aching telepathy. “Janos?” Charles said.

His face was so still. Charles, of all people, shouldn’t have been surprised, but when his telepathy brushed beneath the surface of Janos’ thoughts, he almost fell to his knees again, torn away from himself by the whirlwind of memory.

Shaw finding Janos in Buenos Aires, his little brother’s hand in his, the promises Shaw made to care for his family. Then, the first time he failed, the way Shaw had started with the little boy. The way Azazel’s hand felt on his shoulder when Shaw ordered him to teleport them away. The last glimpse he had of his mother, cradling his little brother’s body as she wailed.

“Janos, no!” Charles cried, but the moment the thought formed, it was enacted, Janos too used to hiding his thoughts around a hostile telepath.

It was like moving through tar, reaching out and begging, trying to hold his mind when something inside him rebelled and said let him. Janos reached out, bent down, and twisted, snapping Shaw’s neck with a triumphant cry that echoed around the beach as mind after shocked mind understood.

The red smoky thoughts of the teleporter flickered, too fast to be understood except in retrospect. The fear, the care, the loyalty that Charles had mistaken. Not loyalty for Shaw, but loyalty for the man Shaw had tortured and warped. In the split second before he disappeared, Azazel met Charles’ gaze over Janos’ head. His arms wrapped protectively around Janos’ back before he disappeared. Charles understood everything about Azazel in that moment.

It seemed like sound returned as Azazel and Janos winked out of existence. Erik shouted and rushed forward as if he could follow, Raven and Hank both cried out, and Alex gaped at Shaw’s now dead body. Angel’s thoughts echoed loudest through Charles’ mind, shit, shit, shit.

Erik turned to Charles, his hands balling into fists at his sides. “You couldn’t have stopped him?”

“Erik—”

“You let him kill Shaw, but not me? Why? Did you not trust me?”

“Of course—”

“Or didn’t you think I could handle it? Am I that pathetic to you that you—”

“I don’t care about him!” Charles yelled.

The beach fell silent again, the world hanging onto an inhale. Charles pressed his face into his hands, shaking his head. He was too tired to know what to say to make this all right. “I didn’t mean that – I just… I care about you, Erik. I care what that would have done to you. And Janos… I didn’t know him well enough for him to be my first priority.” He dragged his hands through his hair and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry. I should have noticed his intentions sooner, I should have… should have stopped him. I’m sorry.”

Erik sighed like he’d been deflated, and turned to stare out to sea. “Why did he do it?” he asked softly.

“Shaw killed his little brother,” Charles said. “When he failed. He threatened to take his sister next, then his mother, if Janos didn’t get it right the next time.”

Erik rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Of course he did,” he said with a mirthless chuckle.

“Shaw knew,” Angel said. Charles saw her flinch almost visibly as all eyes turned to her. “He knew Janos wanted him dead. He mentioned it all the time, he just didn’t think it was a threat.”

“And that’s the guy you traded Darwin for, huh?” said Alex, voice low with grief and malice.

“Fuck you, Havok,” she said, and Charles was surprised to feel the deep guilt and horror there, and genuine grief.

“You’re a fucking traitor—”

“Alex, enough,” Charles said. He grunted and rubbed his temples, his head throbbing. “Listen, we all have a long walk ahead of us to the nearest village, and then a long journey back to New York. You can spend that journey being civil with each other, or I can close off the nerves to your vocal cords, it’s really up to you.”

Erik huffed. “No need to be so drastic, Charles. We could just go our separate ways now,” he said with a tired grin.

Charles’ head snapped up, fear coursing through him. Had he screwed it up that badly?

“Not me,” Erik said, walking back over to him and putting a warm hand on his shoulder. “I was talking about Angel. You’re stuck with me now, I’m afraid.”

Charles sagged in relief. Without a thought to the audience they had, he leaned forward and pressed his face against Erik’s shoulder, letting out a long breath. “Let’s go home,” he said softly.