The chess set was made of metal and glass.
It sat on the table, sunlight catching through the glass and bouncing off the metal. Every piece was immaculate, in its proper place and perfectly centered on glass and metal squares. He could hear them humming now, a small sign that he need not touch them for them to move. It was a pretty sight, and Erik hated that he had to ruin it.
He slid the glass king’s pawn forward two squares.
Charles laughed at him and matched the movie, the metal pawn looking heavy in his scarred hands.
“What are we doing?”
“Playing chess, I thought you knew that,” The telepath replied without speaking, instead his voice echoing inside the corners of his mind.
Erik sighed and moved his knight. “I know, but why?”
“Well, it’s simple. You need something normal.”
“I’m sitting on an antique armchair on the third floor of a mansion I woke up in only a few hours ago, and I was bleeding out of a head wound. Oh, and the world might be ending. Does anything about this seem normal to you?”
“No,” Charles slid over one of his pieces, but Erik was hardly paying attention. “No, you’re right. This seems like the prelude to a murder mystery, minus the world’s end.”
“Being so damn calm about all of this. Like it’s just another day.”
“It might just be.”
Erik sulked in silence for a moment before moving his piece, countering Charles. There wasn’t some great move for the other man to make, he was in a stalemate.
“Okay. Fine. Answer me this: Why didn’t you leave me?”
Charles lifted his gaze from the board, “Because you were going to die.”
“But you didn’t have to help me. I mean you probably lost ground or supplies on me. You didn’t have to.”
“I really didn’t. I think you’ll find I’m better at controlling the hoards then I look.”
Erik scoffed, and watched as the other man’s fingers slid his rook’s pawn forward. “You can’t control the hoards.”
“You don’t believe me?” Charles’s eyebrows were raised, perfect incredulous arches.
“I-” Erik wondered where that stammer came from. He opened and closed his mouth, then crosse his arms. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
“I think it is,” Charles said, “Let me prove it to you?”
Charles placed his fingers on his temples, and Erik winced. It wasn’t painful, merely just unwelcome and unexpected.
“Do you believe me now?” Charles was speaking, and yet his lips did not move. If Erik lived an infinite amount of lifetimes, he would likely relive this moment over and over again and it would always be exactly the same.
“I- So that’s literally what you do then? Go in their heads and make them die, or run away or whatever it is you do.”
“Yes. I find it’s a lot more effective then flinging metal bits. Don’t you?”
Erik took pride in his flinging metal bits, but he found himself nodding anyway. “But how does it work?’
He ended up nodding even if he wasn’t completely sure what that meant. “Is it similar to how I control metal?”
“I believe so.”
“Is this mutation unlimited?”
“And it works on the zombies?”
“How? Aren’t they brainless?”
“No, they are merely human.”
Erik raised an eyebrow but said nothing. His headache and he raised a hand, finding a thin bandage across a wound on his forehead.
“Can I- Can I leave this place.”
“If you wish.”
“Could I stay here, if you’ll have me?”
“I’d be delighted.”
Erik nodded. “I’d have to get some of my things. My bag, and all that.”
“Already got it.”
“You were out for a few hours. I’m a mind reader, and not an idiot. I knew you would need it.”
Erik nodded. “I’m going to stay. Can we put the game on hold?” He was already standing and pacing, not wanting to make his headache worse by thinking or doing anything. Too much had happened today. He was also sure that the reason he wanted to stop was the head wound.
“Of course. You’ll find your things in a room down the hall.”
ERik nodded and opened the door. A mildly delirious part of his brain was expecting it to be locked, like this was some sort of horror movie. He walked down the hall and found his beat up bags and knives sitting on an antique bed with a yellow duvet.
The scene was almost as jarring as sunlight reflecting off a glass chess set in the middle of the world.
The ongoing apocalypse had conditioned him to expect having to hide fast, be prepared to sleep in high up places with one eye open.
As a result he was pleasantly surprised to find himself laying on a soft duvet that he was sure was either freshly laundered or was still in a perfect state three months later.
He dreamed about the telepath, his mind trying to guess who he was in the life before this. Before people, before neighbors became mindless hordes, who was he?
Erik ended up guess he was was either a teacher or a scientist, and that the mansions was probably generational. He woke up, still in his clothes, laying on the yellow duvet. He was certain this was all a dream, and his head wound throbbed enough to remind him it was not.
He stood up, and opened the door. It was a strange experience, because he had never heard a door creak open then swear at him before.
There was a boy on the floor, who probably just fell there.
“Who are you?’
“Who are you?”
“You were spying on me, you first.”
“You might have broken in here and be planning to kill me. You first.”
“Erik Lehnsherr. Charles found me.”
“Charles found me too. Alex Summers”
They stood there in silence.
“You’re bleeding,” Alex pointed out, “Let me get you to Charles.”
He ended up following him into a room downstairs, on what seemed like a second floor. He realized that he was unsure just how many floors there were. He knew that, of course, there would be no going to the first floor. He had a feeling what it would be. It would be something with either no escape or some sort of maze. He had a similar set up back in the city.
There was a moment or two when he heard Alex explain what was happening to Charles, who made him sit down on an armchair. He removed the bandage and cursed softly.
“It needs sutures,” Charles mumbled, “Alex, get Hank, please.”
Alex nodded and ran off, his footsteps thudding heavily on the wood floors. Meanwhile, Charles was reaching up onto a metal shelf, pulling down a small sponge and wetting it in the sink.
Erik glanced around, noticing that this seemed to be a lab of sorts. It looked like one, anyway.
Charles was sitting in front of him, daubing the sponge on the wound.
“You’ve reopened it, or at least aggravated it somehow.”
“How many of us are there?”
“Mutants, or in this mansion.”
“I don’t know and seven, excluding ourselves.”
Charles frowned and grabbed a wad of gauge, sighing. “It’s bleeding. Why is it bleeding?” He mumbled, then cursed as he mopped up the blood that was flowing faster now, somehow managing to catch it before it could blind Erik.
There was caught in the corner, which Erik stumbled too. It was no small feat, since they had to move in sync in order to get there without too much blood. The light from the ceiling was too bright, and his eyes slid shut.
“Don’t do that. Stay with me. You might be concussed.”
“We need it, I’m sorry. I know it hurts.”
Erik nodded and sighed.
“Am I going to die?”
“How are you so sure?”
“I’m not. But you won’t. This isn’t a terrible wound.”
“I got scratched by one of them right? Shouldn’t I be worried about becoming one of them?”
“This isn’t the night of the living dead. I believe that we are made to survive, one way or another.”
“Genetic mutation- sorry.”
Erik was about to ask what he was sorry for when a boy walked in who didn’t look older than twenty. He cursed his luck that this was the closest thing they had to a doctor and then stopped thinking because the boy was peering over him.
“I’ll have to numb the area. Alex, there should be a dose of lidocaine in the drawer. Charles, monitor his heartbeat and keep him stable. Make sure it doesn’t skip or anything like that.”
Erik realized that Hank was his best bet. If Charles, who seemed like some sort of genetic genius was able to think that this was all okay, then it must be.
He closed his eyes and felt his mind slip away, even if he hadn’t been put to sleep.
This, he realized, was Charles holding him in a nondeadly state of unconsciousness.
“Is it at all possible for me to wake up?”
“You’re holding me hostage in my own mind. This is amazing.”
“I guess so.”
Erik sighed and stayed there, unsure of what to say.
“Who else is here?”
“Myself, you, Alex and Hank, three other kids, my sister and her partner.”
“It should be.”
Erik stayed silent, or at least he didn’t reply. He was sure that his every tumultuous thought he had was being broadcast live, so he was sure that he wouldn’t exactly ever be silent anymore.
“You won’t be, but I tune it out anyway, unless I have to listen.”
Erik stayed as silent as he could be, in this new world where silent was still speaking and still speaking was just focusing noise.
Eventually, he was sure that Chalres must have grown bored with him. Because he was allowed to dream and he no longer felt the scrutiny of another presence in his mind.
When he awoke, there was a different boy staring at him with bright eyes. Ice stuck to his hair, and Erik assumed he just went outside.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Bobby, I’m making sure you don’t have a fever or heatstroke. Charles thinks your head wound is infected.”
“Great. Can I go back to sleep?”
“You were never really asleep and I’m not supposed to let you. Beast- er, Hank has you under concussion protocol.”
The boy nodded, “Any thing I can get for you? I have nothing to do except look after you and Destiny, and I think she’s either asleep or avoiding talking by pretending to be asleep.”
Erik rubbed his head, gingerly avoiding the bandages on his forehead and sighing. “I understand the sentiment.”
He just shrugged, not quite getting Erik’s sarcasm, and simply walking out after about ten minutes of Erik sitting in silence. He was back in his room, yellow duvet and all. Sun was coming through his third story window, and in the distance he swore he could see over treetops. He had no idea where he was.
“Where am I?”
“The Xavier Mansion. It’s pretty far outside of town, but also a safe distance. You know, from the walking death and all that.”
“You’re just a kid, aren’t you?”
“I’m seventeen, yeah.”
“I’d rather not know. Charles took me in.”
Charles poked his head in, looking like the world was perfect and not at all ending. “Dinner will be ready in about half an hour. Erik, do you think you are well enough to eat?”
It felt like a dream. There was food, and vegetables that weren’t canned, and meat, and honest to god sparkling water. The glass looked out of place in his hand.
He knew he looked out of place, at least in this group of people. There were the boys he had met earlier, a teenage girl, a girl and a boy who couldn’t have been older than four, another little girl, a young woman with azure skin and scales, a young woman beside her, who was able to eat but was obviously blind.
“Everyone, this is Erik. He has a head wound and is staying with us.”
“Hello, Erik.” It had to have been rehearsed.
They sat around and talked and ate like a family.
It was after dinner when Erik began to be sure that this was all too good to be true and that he had to leave. There was no reason for there to stay, really. His head wound would heal on its own, and it wasn't like there was a reason to stay.
He would leave soon. All he needed was information. And he knew that Charles would give it to him soon enough.
“Charles, would you mind if we talked after dinner?”
“Stranger, pass the bread please.”
Erik had to blink hard to avoid going into shock at passing a full dish of fluffy white rolls to a girl who came to about his knee. It was all so bizarre, like a dream he might have had while he was hiding out in a hotel room or camping on a rooftop. It was even stranger to be able to eat food without looking over his shoulder.
“Are you going to stay with us forever?” The girl didn’t seem that traumatised. She probably didn't have a family anymore.
“I don’t know.”
“Bobby told Kitty that Alex told him that you control metal,” The girl said softly, “Could you show me?”
“If you tell me everyone’s names.”
“Who don’t you know?”
“Well, practically everyone.”
“There’s Charles, Hank, Alex, Bobby, Kitty, Irene, Raven, Scott and Warren. And I’m Ororo,” The girl said, blowing her white hair out of her eyes. She smiled and tapped a glass, letting it freeze, frost spreading from her fingertips. It smelled like ozone, and Erik grinned.
He couldn’t help but show off a little, and he glanced at the silverware. He raised a finger, and his utensils floated in the air a moment before turning into smooth metal balls that fused back into silverware.
“Ah,” one of the boys said, “That’s nothing.” He peeled off his shirt and unfolded angelic white wings, and promptly flew around the room with a lazy sort of grace.
In response, the other boy Erik guess was Scott grinned and reached for the arms of his ruby sunglasses. Before he could take them off, Charles put his fingers to his temple and the room froze. His voice boomed through all of their heads, loudly.
“Stop it, all of you. You know that it’s not safe during dinner.”
Erik’s headache, and he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t Charles.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll be in my room.”
“I’ll join you.”
Charles had a light step. “Do the dishes, you animals.”
They were sitting beside each other on the duvet and Erik wanted to leave. It was awkward, yes, but there wasn’t much of a choice. He couldn’t stay here. Even if it was warm and felt safe, he knew that he would never really belong. And besides, he’d have to learn to join this family and it simply wouldn’t feel natural to him. He had always been the type of person who likes to be alone, rather than in a family that was pretending the world isn't dying.
“Explain to me how zombies work.”
“I will if you don’t leave yet. Wait until you’re healed.”
That would be a mistake. There would be a chance for him to get soft in that time, and he wouldn’t be able to leave on his own. He would just stay, and at that point it would be too late.
“Fine. How do I kill them?”
“The way you’d kill anything. They’re humans. I have a theory that humans were programmed with a self destruct button. I think that as we, mutants, became more numerous their DNA redesigned itself so they would no longer live. Like a bizarre inhering of the earth.”
“But if we were supposed to inherit, why turn into undead hordes?”
“They’re alive. Just in a pre-dead state of decomposition.”
“Alright. But why?”
“Perhaps to make sure we were ready. Or that we’ll survive. If we don’t, then the earth will get overrun by zombies. But if we can live through it, adapt or whatever, they’ll go extinct.”
“Why not just kill them all now?”
“Too many of them.”
“I can leave, right? I’m not a hostage and you didn’t, y’know, drug me, right?”
“You are free to leave.”
Erik nodded and pulled his camp bag onto his bed, fiddling with the straps.
“I could use someone like you.”
“You seem to be getting on fine.”
“They’re kids, and I know they’re scared. Another adult never hurt.”
“We’re living in dystopia. I think the whole idea of the dystopia is adults are at a deep fault.”
Charles’s laugh was lower than he expected it to be. It was a nice sound, and a part of Erik wanted to hear it again and again. It occurred to him, that had the world not been ending, that he would have considered Charles attractive.
He suddenly thought very hard about brick walls.
Charles had a small smile, “You don’t have to stay.”
It was around two weeks later. He had stockpiled food from the dinners and they sat in his bag, with bottles of water and soda. He hummed and shoved the last of his things in, and waited for everyone to fall asleep.
He slipped out of room, about to leave. He had no reason to feel guilty, either. Charles had said that there was no need for him to stay, and it wasn't like he was being held hostage at all.
So, a week after he had his stitches removed, he was sitting on the yellow duvet. He packed his supplies back up and slung his bag over his shoulders. He was relatively sure that his head wound would be fine. Granted, his mind felt like there was a thin layer of fog over it, but he was sure he would be fine.
Erik slipped downstairs, switching on a flashlight.
The first floor of the mansion was a maze, like he's originally thought. It was crowded with furniture that looked like relics, and he was sure that there were traps of some kind. He didn't know what they were, and he was sure that they would either be deadly.
Of course, he had never seen a zombie completely dead before. But if anyone could kill them, he had a strange feeling that Charles or hank or alex could make it happen.
He took his first step into the maze, and tried very carefully to think. There would be a million turns, if he was the one who had designed it. Yes, a million turns and only a single way out.
He reached out, feeling every bit of metal in that room. All at once, every screw, bar, and staple felt like it was buzzing with electricity.
In between, he was also able to feel the places where there was not metal. Vague, trailing gaps that lit a path for him.
He stepped forward, and did not die.
Erik made his way through the maze, every step echoing through the furniture. He knew that no one would come for him.
Ororo was asleep, and if he had to guess Alex, Hank, and Bobby would be in the labs or even in the tunnels under the house. Raven was out looking for supplies. And while Irene probably knew in advance that he was leaving, he was sure that she would not say a word.
Eventually he was standing in front of a locked door. And even that was barely a problem. The doorknob was putty in his hands, and he was standing in the cold night air.
He started walking, deadly silent in spite of the frozen ground. He had no idea where he was going, or why he felt the pressing need to get away from these perfectly all right people.
There was a crunch of frost shattering behind him.
He wheeled around, knife out and the very ground seemed to vibrate underneath him. The earth rippled slightly under his feet, and Charles stumbled and fell.
"You're not going to stay?"
"I've always been on my own."
"..." Charles was skimming through his mind, erik knew. He could feel the warm, if slightly unwelcome tendrils of the telepath twisting among the storm of his mind.
"From what I've seen then, I'm surprised you've managed to stay this long."
"What do you know about me?"
"You were only in there a second. But then you should know that I don't need your help or big house where everyone pretends everything is alright!"
"Fine, then. Leave."
Charles turned around, a smirk flying over his shoulder.
"You're welcome anytime, of course."
Erik shook his head and took another step forward.
"Wait for me, Charles."
He walked slowly toward the smaller man. "What do I have to do?"
"You'll have to get supplies for us every now and then. I'm pretty sure that we can find a way to use your mutation. Defend the house."
They fell into step like they had simply gone for an evening stroll and not a confrontation of sorts.
There was another crunch behind them, and Charles turned around before erik. Standing there were two zombies.
Their eyes were blank, skin stretched over protruding bones and milky eyes. They looked every bit the movie zombie.
The moved forward like regular people, but Erik knew that they would kill him faster than he could comprehend. One would jerk his head back, and the other would deliver a death bite to his throat.
He had seen it happen, once.
Of course, they never had a chance.
Charles put his fingers to his temples and they froze, collapsed to the ground before standing back up and shuffling away.
"What did you do?"
"Were not here. There is nothing here. They'll go back."
"How do you do it?"
"Not that. How do you act like everything is just fine?"
"Because I know we will win."
Erik was exhausted, and Charles helped him to his room. He collapsed on the picture perfect yellow duvet and sighed.
"How did you stay alone?"
"Because I saw my friend get killed by one. I was convinced I was."
"I'm sorry about your friend."
"How do you do it?"
"Live in this mansion like the world isn't going to hell."
"I have hope."
"That can't be all it is."
Erik knew it wasn't all there was.
"Nevermind. I'm going to bed."
The lab was brighter than he expected it to be.
It was in the tunnels, and Hank was dissecting the head of a zombie. Erik had no idea how he had gotten it, and he would have to know. However, everytime he asked the kid would dodge the question or go silent.
It had been a month, his head wound was healed, and he was sure that the worst of the end of the world was over. A mistake, because Charles was walking in, looking worried.
"I need your help Erik."
"What do you need?"
"Well, you know how Raven left for supplies a week ago-"
"A search party?"
"Let me get my bag."
A supply run usually lasted, at most, three days. a week was unusual. Irene was silent most of the time, and when asked about the future she shrugged and sighed: "I cannot see her."
Charles had a bag with him. It was comical, the man who could easily pass for a college professor dressed like a majrader. But, one look on the bag showed that the telepath was more than capable of handling himself, and that Erik was merely extra insurance.
"I'm a telepath."
"You've made that clear," Erik said softly.
"What I'm trying to say is I can hear your every thought. I'm not helpless."
Erik sighed. He supposed it was a little presumptuous of him to guess that he couldn't take care of himself. And besides, he had lived this long. It only made sense that he would have some survival skills.
They walked toward the city. Something that Erik knew would probably take a day, and then they'd camp out in an alleyway, make a fire and one would keep watch while the other slept. Of course, neither of them would sleep at all, too busy worrying about death to care.
Charles offered to take the first watch. Erik agreed, if only because it made no difference in his sleep, since he wouldn't.
He did, somehow sleep all the way until two in the morning.
"You didn't wake me."
"I didn't have to. I'm pushing away all the zombies in a couple miles' radius."
"I'm not as weak as I look."
"It's not like that. I'm just naturally drawn to you, even if only as protection. Probably like the way a really nice bodyguard would feel about his charge."
"I can handle myself."
"I know. But don't you ever get that compulsion?"
"Protect, be around someone." Erik shrugged, "Doesn't matter. It's stupid. I don't know why I said that."
"I guess I-"
A crack of a branch. Six or seven zombies lumbered towards them, emaciated bodies covered in a thin layer of frost.
Erik stood up, the ground rippling, his trick with the metals of the earth again. Metal flung out, which only served to make them mad, and Charles froze them again as they all were about to reach for Erik.
As they retreated, Erik looked at Charles.
The man was panicked, running a hand through his hair.
"We need to hurry up and find Raven."
"Alright. Where could she be?" Erik's voice was mechanical. He was rattled by the zombies, but couldn't exactly show it.
"She'd be nearby where she goes for supplies. Maybe still in the store, just somewhere high up."
"Why wouldn't she be back?"
"She wasn't able to leave. If she was dead, I would know. She's my sister, so I'd feel it. That sounds stupid."
"It makes as much sense as anything."
Charles sat down beside Erik and half leaned against him. "We can't start yet. It's too dark, well miss something. We start in the morning."
"You can't possibly sleep like this."
"Watch me," Charles said, sprawling half on the ground and half on Erik's legs.
"How'd the zombies get past the shields?"
"They're not shields, really. they're more like blankets. They probably just..... the more I push away at once, the weaker it is. They just needed to push."
"Shit. How do you-"
"Deal with it? Worrying that I'm not strong enough or consistent enough?"
"I wouldn't say that-"
"I have the compulsion, I guess. To protect you, to protect the children, my family."
"Am I not one of the family?" Erik was smiling slightly.
"It's different with you."
"If the world wasn't ending, you mean? You'd feel different if the world wasn't ending."
Charles's eyes were blue and nervous, like he was afraid to not be sarcastic. Honestly, Erik was sure they had reached some Golden Moment where everything made sense.
"I'm compelled to be near you. But not in the protective way. God, I hate-"
"Read my mind. I know what you mean."
"I know. Let's change the subject. Where did Hank get a dead zombie head when I've never seen a dead zombie?"
"Oh, because the rest of the body is severed from the neurons. He did all the amputating, I just suppressed its neurofunctions so it's dead."
"What does he need it for?"
"He's trying to design a cure for the zombies."
"If anyone could, it would be him."
Charles was quiet before piping up again, "I'm gonna sleep. Wake me if you... just wake me."
The walk into town started just before sunrise and they were on a walmart rooftop to see the sunrise.
"She would probably be at a surplus or hunting store," Charles said. The Walmart had been a mistake, crawling with zombies.
Charles was still holding down most of them, an act Erik couldn't not admire. A few were lined the walls and ground by long metal stakes and twisted cages.
"Let's go there."
Both were dead ends.
"She's not dead."
"Give me a moment. I'll.... I'll look for her." He closed his eyes, searching the area and hoping, looking about to shatter.
"Rooftop. Tall. Someone's there. Riverside."
"Let's go then."
Raven was there, camped out with a bleeding calf and a child on her side.
"Charles I'm fine I swear."
"You didn't come back and you're wounded- who's this?"
"His name's Kurt."
The boy was blue, with a tail, and curled fingers, every bit the cartoon demon.
Erik picked him up but he wasn't there. There was a brief smell of ozone and then the boy rematerialized in Raven's arms.
"Can you walk?" Charles said, grinning slightly at the boy.
"I can't- teleport- us. One at a time, I think."
Charles frowned. "Can you?"
"I can take one at a time."
"Where can you take us?"
"Anywhere. A place I know or have seen."
"If I give you a picture of a place can you go there?"
"Take Miss Raven here."
The boy closed his eyes and nodded. He grinned mischievously at Erik before grabbing Raven's hand and disappearing.
"Did he make it?"
"I don't know if it's out of my range."
"Will he come back?"
"I told him not to. He might hurt himself."
And now they walked back, a little closer to each other, perhaps. The telepaths eyes might flit up for a second to try and catch Erik's and then flit away.
They made camp in their old spot.
"You were a professor?"
"At Oxford. I was visiting family for the summer when the world ends."
"I was working with some EMTs in the city."
"I was going to be. Right now they'd just let me drive the truck and maybe hold the hose."
"You wanted to help people?"
"I've been told I want to play the hero."
Charles laughed, still a sound that was lower than he thought it would be.
Erik hesitantly twined their fingers together, something that made him so nervous. Charles squeezed his hand lightly as they watched the embers of the fire flicker and glow.
“If the world was ending and I was the last man alive-”
Charles leaned against him. There was no need to say anything else.
The walk back was silent. There was no discussion, no arguing. Another Golden Moment had passed, and they were both ready for it to pass. It never did. And when they walked into the mansion alive and well and everyone was glad, they barely spoke to each other.
Later, they would speak in darkened corners of the mansion. And their lips might meet, and they’d watch the world turn, even if that world was supposed to be ending. Hank worked at his cure, Alex teasing him along the way. The children played, perhaps already forgetting the end of the world and assuming it had always been this way.
The world ended and the world turned.