Category: AU, dark, dystopian, canon divergence
Summary: There is an infinite number of timelines.
In one of these - they lose Charles on the beach and Erik goes on to create the school in Charles' name.
In another, Erik dies on the beach - they still win, but only manage to postpone nuclear war for a few years.
By chance, an opportunity is created to at least right one of these timelines.
Series: Fic-A-Week Project 2014 - Week 24
Notes: When I say major character deaths, it's not shown, but mentioned in either thought or by characters in a past tense. And yes, there'll probably be more in this universe as well *sighs* - there's nothing like a dystopian plot bunny with teeth dripping with venom to sit on your chest after you've switched off the lights. Makes for such a good night's sleep...
Word count: 2,271
Sean's scream is what alerts them all, taking out a few windows in the process.
Erik frowns and squashes the urge to track the kid down and give him a row. There has to be a reason for the outburst, because since Cuba, Sean's become so much better at controlling his powers. Not for the first time since that day, five years earlier, Erik misses Charles. Not just because he was always better at dealing with the kids (which they're really not anymore), but he'd have been able to check the parameter more easily. Quicker.
Instead, Erik reaches out to feel the metal he's made all of them wear. Even the youngest students of the school have been given the 'for your own safety' speech. There's movement all over the place, but more than a few of them are at the main gate and there's a small amount of unknown metal ahead of them. Erik tugs on the metal of his students to let them know he's on his way. They've been blissfully lucky since the school opened, but Erik still considers his paranoia more of an asset than a hindrance.
He throws the doors to the outside open, using the Earth's magnetic field to pull himself up and forward to where his students are making a united front against someone who stands like a stiff breeze would blow them over.
There doesn't seem to be any obvious danger, but when Alex turns to him, he's white as a sheet and stumbles a little, knocking his shoulder against Darwin's. Darwin doesn't seem to notice, though, he and Sean staring at their 'guest'.
Then Erik gets a good look and instantly the gates vibrates, ready to be refashioned into any weapon he might possibly imagine.
"Please, my friend, I mean you no harm", the man says, lifting impossibly familiar blue eyes to look at Erik. He stares at Erik like he can't believe his eyes.
"You're dead," is all Erik manages to say, voice more steady than he'd expected.
The man makes a raspy noise that Erik wonders, for a moment, is supposed to be a laugh. "I know it may sound strange," he replies, "but i could say the same of you." This... ghost looks from Erik to Sean, to Alex, stares a little longer at Darwin. Then he looks at Erik again, drinking him in.
Erik suddenly has an urge to get this... impostor off the property. Especially before Raven returns. He... he almost looks like Charles. Thinner, scrawny body, sunken eyes like he he hasn't eaten well in a very long time and pale like he's not seen sunlight for even longer.
Torn between turning this apparition away, and the school's policy to help any mutant in need, Erik just stares. For the first time in a long while, he is at a loss, having no idea how to proceed.
Their ghostly visitor sways on his feet and Darwin moves fast, catching him before he hits the ground. He turns with the man in his arms, spooked but determined. "Hank?"
Erik nods. "Try to avoid the students seeing you," he says, running a hand tiredly down over his face. He feels cold, inside out, the late morning sun doing nothing to warm him up.
"We've seen stranger," McCoy says, pinching the bridge of his nose. His gaze drifts from their unconscious guest to Darwin, who shoots him a quick, reassuring smile.
Erik wants to argue this, yell until he's hoarse. Or something. He still feels cold, the pit of his stomach tied into a painful icy ball.
On the examination table, still down and out for the count, it's ... Erik shies away for a moment - it looks so much like Charles, but they'd buried him? Erik had sat on that beach, Charles in his arms, light of his life leaving his eyes, while he stared unseeingly up at Erik.
And yet there is no denying it. Malnourished as McCoy's verdict is, body worn in the extreme. Signs of radiation poisoning in the cells, though to McCoy's surprise, the cells seem to be mending themselves.
Erik doesn't understand half of what McCoy says, worry twisting his gut when radiation poisoning is mentioned. For a stranger. This isn't Charles. Can't be.
"Let me know when he wakes up," Erik says, turning abruptly and leaving the infirmary. This stranger with a familiar face is throwing Erik for a loop. Of course, apart from worrying if it might be a conspiracy, Erik has to wonder if this... Charles has the same power. There is little Erik can do to keep him from stripping secrets from their minds.
Eventually, Erik finds himself returning to the infirmary, sitting in the quiet room, listening to the quiet whispers and beeps of the machines, watching over the man's vitals. He sits for a few hours every day, just staring at their ...guest. Raven has finally returned and he's witnessed all the same emotions flashing over her face that had hit himself. Fear, mistrust, pain ...hope.
He's heard Hank try to comfort her, and while their resident scientist has a good heart, he tends towards a bumbling fool at times, and this is how, sometimes, Raven will join Erik in his silent vigil.
Erik is on his own in the infirmary on the 9th day when their patient finally stirs, opening his eyes. Erik knows a few seconds before it happens though, as he feels the brush of a mind against his own. Not invasive, just... it's like it's checking to see if he's real. He can't explain how he knows this, he just knows that's the feeling he's getting.
"I... I'm terribly sorry," Charles says, or tries to say, his voice barely louder than a rasping breath.
Erik stands and goes to pour a glass of water, offering it to him, helping him sit up so he won't choke on the liquid. It's an automatic reaction from Erik, wanting to make it easier for Charles. It's shit that's gone through his head since he lost him on the beach. Wanting to take care of Charles if he'd been alive. Erik is well aware of how fucked up that ideas is, because one: Charles didn't need a babysitter and two: it was a moot point as Charles was dead. Or... well, that was what they'd all thought. What they all knew.
Charles... radiates gratitude as he drinks and this time Erik is sure that he feels the brush against his mind.
"I'm sorry," Charles rasps, "but it's been so long since I've talked to anyone or felt a mind that wasn't.... dying."
Erik stares at him. "You're not Charles," is all he can say. And it's like letting go of a burden he's carried around since this stranger came through their gates. Then he realizes what the man just said. "Dying minds?" he manages to ask.
"I'm... not the Charles you knew, granted," he explains haltingly. "What I can tell you is that there is a myriad of timelines and in some I don't exist and in some you don't exist." He pauses, making a frustrated noise. "I'm not doing this right," he mumbles then silently asks for a little more water. "I think to make you understand I have to ask - did we.... you, stop Shaw on the beach?"
Erik swallows hard, but nods. He's so far out of his depth, but he has to know this. Even though it means ripping up barely healed wounds.
"Did... your Charles die?"
Erik curls his hand into a fist, but nods again. Simultaneously he doesn't want to think about that day yet it's always there, just at the back of his mind.
"In my timeline you died on the beach," Charles continues. "One of Moira's bullets severed an artery and you weren't paying attention. I wanted to stop you, from turning those missiles on the ships, but not like that." He looks up at Erik and sighs deeply. "I know it sounds a little farfetched-"
Erik scoffed. "Really, parallel timelines seem farfetched?" Shaking his head, he feels a little more at ease. "I have a student out there who can manipulate the weather, you can read minds and I can manipulate metal - I think our definition of farfetched would take more than a sci-fi plot."
Charles stares at him for a moment, then smiles a small smile. "You always were the more accepting of us," he mumbles. "Wait, you said you have students? Did you set up the school, or-"
Shaking his head, Erik finally makes himself sit down. "We'd talked about it before going after Shaw, and I owed it to you, well to Charles." Because Erik isn't one to hide behind lies, he lets Charles see what happened on the beach, with all his regrets.
Charles winces. "I'm sorry."
Erik shrugs. He'd done it, he is going to forever pay for it by making sure Charles' dream of a school happens. "What about you? Did you stop Shaw?"
Charles nods and winces. "Our Erik died on the beach, bled out -- we barely made it out alive, but I managed to blur the minds of the people on the ships - not that it mattered about two years later."
"What happened?" Erik asks curiously. He almost doesn't want to know, because there's so much pain in those blue eyes.
"I don't think anyone knows," Charles says quietly. "But the bombs fell - Who shot first is a moot question - retaliation happened and the world burned." He pauses for a moment. "Most of us were at the school when it happened, stayed in the shelter under the school - Hank had rebuilt Cerebro and we reached out, trying to find out what had happened. Hank theorized that there'd been something in the bombs apart from the nuclear warheads, because people who survived the initial impact were dying far too fast. We had an atomic winter as well, radiation levels were higher than expected. People died."
"The students?" Erik doesn't say their names - to do so would make it all too real.
"If you mean Sean, Alex, Raven and Hank," Charles says slowly, "Sean was visiting his family when the missiles hit. He was too near to ground zero of one of the missiles to survive. The others became sick, one by one. We took in one of the mutants we'd met on our search - Logan - had high regenerative powers. He stayed with us for a while and Hank started working on a serum using Logan's blood to counter the radiation sickness - the illness of whatever else had been in those missiles. Logan left and went... I don't know where. By then Raven and Alex had succumbed to the illness and Hank was ill as well - said he was too far gone to use the serum on himself and gave it to me - died before he could create more."
"It worked?" Erik asks, remembering that their Hank had mentioned something about signs of radiation sickness in his initial check.
"It did - but if I'd known what came after, I think I might have chosen to die as well," Charles admits.
Erik stares. "Why?"
"We had rebuilt Cerebro, and I locked myself in, down in the basement, where it was just me and the machine - and searched. Reached out further and further to find someone, anyone still alive. All I found were..."
"Dying minds," Erik finishes for him. He can't even begin to understand what that must have been like. But he can tell from the look of agony on Charles' face that feeling a world around him dying wasn't something you just got over.
"I... have no idea for how long I was down there," Charles admits. "At first I tried to keep the sessions short - because Hank had warned me about overuse - but eventually, I just didn't come out. Sometimes I'd touch the minds of mutants - the more resilient ones - and that last time, it was a young woman - she noticed - she was dying too, but she grabbed me, somehow, and pushed me out of time itself. She told me that there was nothing left for me to do in a dying world and.."
Erik offers him more water to drink and it gets him a grateful look. He knows this isn't Charles, or at least not the Charles that he did know. Or that this will in any way make him forgive himself for causing his own Charles' death. Not to mention it will take time to get the oldest students to accept this Charles, but he can't very well turn him away, now can he?
It will make Erik a hypocrite if he does. Mutant and proud indeed. But trying to understand what this man has been through, makes Erik hurt for him. And he knows the compassion of the students will be given to this Charles as well. He knows them well enough to foresee this.
He doesn't want to look too closely at why, deep down, he's known since Darwin picked up this Charles as his legs gave way, that it was never a question if he'd be allowed to stay.
Erik has lost one Charles - he won't be able to look at himself in the mirror if he loses another. This time around he'll do it right. This time he'll fight for what he wants. He can't have the Charles he wants, but maybe he can have the one he's offered.
And no, he doesn't want to think about how fucked up that is as he smiles softly at Charles and offers him more water to drink.