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Metal Stress
Thanks to Livia for audiencing.

The day always arrives when they don't come home.

That Friday, Erik tried, without much success, not to be irritated at himself for noticing when Charles was seventeen minutes later than he usually was in returning from the city. It was undignified; it was clingy; and it was ridiculous. They were living in Westchester County, not Warsaw, and it wasn't wartime. Charles could be tied up in traffic, or having coffee with an old friend he'd run into on the street, or simply stopped for a cigarette at the side of the road. There were millions of ordinary reasons that people were late. He knew this by now.

So he shook off the voice that whispered that Charles would have reached out to him, he always did, he understood, brewed himself a pot of Charles's tea, and settled himself firmly at his desk with a pile of physics off-prints. He wanted to be as prepared as possible when he explained to Charles that he was going to have to convert yet more of the mansion's basement into part of the physics lab. Charles always looked vaguely mournful when Erik proposed ripping out some more of the foundation. He clutched his cup and began turning pages.

By nine-thirty p.m., three hours later, the cup of tea had been replaced with a glass of brandy from the bottle stashed in their armoire, and the articles were scattered across the floor. Erik paced over them, rehearsing logic in his mind. Charles would have called or contacted him by now. Anyone would have. It was normal to be worried at this point. It didn't matter that what he was imagining was different from what anyone else would have in the same situation. When Charles turned up, they could laugh at it, or at least try to.

He tried to reach Charles's office, then the psychology department; there was no answer at either. He rummaged through bookcases until he found the phone book and dialed the police's regular line. When a woman answered, he realized that he didn't know how to make his request.

"Ah--yes," he said, "I'm trying to find out if a--if a friend has been involved in any sort of incident. He's more than three hours late."

"What's your name, please?" the receptionist asked, her voice full of cool, pleasant efficiency.

"It's--"

The words stuck in his throat and he hung up violently. If they had Charles, he was just calling attention to himself for no reason. If they had Charles--

He remembered to snatch his hat from the stand as he went out, but ten minutes later, as he streaked through the air, he realized that he'd forgotten his coat.

He only just remembered to land out of sight of the hospital. Large flakes of snow were falling all around him, quickly accumulating on his hat and shoulders. He pushed his way into the emergency room and fidgeted in line behind a woman with two small, whining children to be seen at the main desk. The nurse gave him a startled look as he finally approached her, and he realized that he must appear like some sort of accident victim himself. He belatedly took off his hat and tried to smile.

"I'm trying to find out if a friend has been admitted here recently."

"A family member?" she asked, reaching for a clipboard.

He opened his mouth to say yes, then closed it, then opened it again. "No. A friend. We were supposed to meet, and he's quite late, and in this weather--"

Her fingers idled on the clipboard. "I'm not really supposed to--"

"Please," he said, and was mortified to hear his older accent shading the word. But the sound seemed to touch something in the woman, and she looked at the clipboard.

"All right. What's his name?"

"Charles. Charles Xavier."

She scanned the list, and he held his breath. She finally shook her head. "No. He wasn't brought in here."

They would have their own doctors, he thought. Someone pushed a cart loaded with syringes, small medical tools, and vials of medicines past him; when he glanced at it, it rattled as though an earthquake had just struck underneath.

"Are you all right?" the nurse said. He knew he had gone pale. His hands felt like ice.

"I'm fine," he said, as the cart bucked and the woman who had been pushing it backed away with a cry. "Excuse me."

Outside, the snow had grown still heavier. He found a phone booth, pulled the book off its chain, and flipped through it a safe ten feet away from the booth.

The morgue was not far away. He didn't even know if it was open late in the evening, and was relieved to see lights in the windows as he hurried up.

The guard was apparently used to distraught people bursting in on him; he waved Erik down a hallway before he could even finish formulating the sentence. Erik was three-quarters of the way to the swinging double doors before he realized the air was full of the reek of formaldehyde. His stomach heaved, but he didn't stop.

The coroner's assistant, Jim, was a surprisingly young-looking man with floppy blond hair. He listened to Erik's hasty story and checked his own clipboard. Erik waited, forcing his eyes to focus on Jim rather than on the room he was in, until he shook his head. "No Xavier here."

Erik started to turn away.

"But--there is one body, brought in two hours ago, no ID. It's a man, about the right age. Do you want to see if you can identify it?"

He turned back. "Yes."

"This way, then." Jim turned and led him through a series of what Erik quickly realized were gurneys, draped with sheets. He refused to allow his eyes to rest on them long enough to identify shapes beneath them. At the back of the room, one gurney was pushed a little apart from the rest. "Here."

Erik took a deep breath of the air, trying to ignore the way it tasted of memories and death.

"Ready?"

"Yes."

Jim pulled back the sheet to reveal a man with thick features and a full head of black hair, and the hope Erik had been clinging to slipped away. He cursed himself for not mentioning that Charles was bald, unlike this man. This body, and he was in a confined space full of bodies, leeringly familar, being cut open--he could see scoops and trays and a small hacksaw--

"Hey, hey." Jim put a hand on his arm. "I think you'd better sit down."

He shook his head wordlessly. He needed to get out of there.

"Some people react this way, it's nothing to be ashamed of." His fingers tightened on Erik's sleeve. "Come on, I'll get you a cup of coff--"

It was a small miracle that he shoved only with his other hand, and not his powers. Everything went to a confused blur until he was standing outside, in the cold clean air, vomiting into a trash can. As he stared down stupidly into the can, he felt the streetlights around him tremble. Charles was gone and he had no idea what he should do next. He might be marked for collection next himself. They might already be at the mansion; it might not be safe to go back. He could hardly call Charles's friends, the polite and excruciatingly bourgeois academics at Columbia who pretended not to notice so many things, to ask whether they'd happened to see his lover being kidnapped by the government. There was no one he could turn to for this, and he didn't know what to do--

Erik?

The voice in his head was so weak that for a moment he thought he was imagining it. "Charles? Charles, are you there?"

Erik, I'm somewhere...off the side of the road, past Exit 15. There was an accident...I was knocked unconscious...I don't...

The sense of Charles's wooziness, unfiltered, was almost enough to make him vomit again, but he held the sides of the trash can in a white-knuckled grip until he could fight it down. "I'm coming right now, Charles. Just hold on. I'll be there soon."

Another phone booth, another call to the police to report the accident. In this weather, he would easily beat them there, but he suspected Charles might need medical attention as quickly as possible. This time, he didn't even bother to get out of town before taking to the air.

Charles's presence drifted in and out of his mind as he flew to the scene. The stretch of road Charles was near was wooded; the crumpled form of the car was visible to Erik from the sky, but it was probably not immediately obvious from the road. Charles lay still but with his eyes open, entangled in the metal, and Erik felt a blind rush of gratitude to uncaring God.

Charles smiled faintly as he landed. There was blood in the corner of his mouth.

"What's so funny?" Erik said as he studied the wreck, trying to figure out the gentlest way to pry him free.

"You're lit up like a Christmas tree," Charles said dreamily. "You looked like an avenging angel swooping down from the sky."

He glanced down at himself; he was coruscating. He took a deep breath, and the crackles of blue light faded. "Have you tried to move?"

He frowned slowly. "I can't feel my legs, Erik."

"Hmmm." Erik kept his face blank as he concentrated harder, straining until he could pick up, just at the edge of his senses, the faint electrochemical discharges of Charles's nervous system. He had no idea how to interpret the mass of signals that pulsed above, but the sight of the blackness in Charles's lower back chilled him. There was no way he would dare to move him now. They would have to wait for the ambulance. "I'm sure it's temporary," he said, pulling off his sweater and draping it over Charles's exposed chest and arms, then crouching down next to him.

"Of course..."

"Just try to rest for now, Charles. I reported the accident. The ambulance should be here any minute."

"Good." He closed his eyes and reached out silently with one hand.

Erik caught it between his own and stroked the knuckles tenderly, trying to project as much love and calm as he could summon in case Charles had any energy to listen. Terrible as the situation was, it was surprisingly easy to radiate those feelings. They only had to wait five minutes before the wail of the siren came.

"Charles," he said. "They can't find me here. I obviously wasn't in the accident, and I can't explain--"

"I know," Charles nodded. "Go."

"Make them call me. I'm not your next of kin, you know."

"I will."

"Promise me."

"I promise, Erik."

He kissed Charles's hand before gently replacing it across his chest. He chose a tree a few hundred yards away for a perch to observe from. The crew seemed competent; they got Charles free more quickly than he would have expected. Erik's breath caught to see the angle at which his body was bent as they strapped him to a board.

He didn't need a doctor to know that that their lives had changed forever. Charles would never be the same, there would be a great struggle ahead for both of them--but he could not grieve. Not yet. There were worse things than paralysis. There were worse things than simply losing Charles to death.

He waited only til the ambulance pulled back onto the road before taking off. It was time that they started to prepare for them.


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