The reception Erik gets when he returns to the mansion in Westchester can only be described as "icy." He stands in the ridiculously ostentatious foyer, shaking snow from his cape, as Charles's current students, new and old, watch him with guarded expressions. Hank's harder to read with his new face. Alex looks like he would blast a hole through Erik's chest if he were given half a chance. Sean looks the way he does before they pushed him off the satellite dish, hesitant and uncertain. The smaller children hide on the second level that circles the foyer, peeking down through the wooden bars of the guardrail.
"Well?" Erik says. He's waiting for something to happen, one way or another. He didn't imagine a celebration, but he didn't have much time to plan his arrival otherwise.
"What are you doing here?" Hank says, the de facto leader. "The professor wasn't dead enough the last time we met, and you've come here to finish the job?"
"If I were here to finish the job, I'd have finished it already," Erik says. The metal in the room sings to him. It wouldn't take much to use it, to force the children out of the way, shove them aside, bend the world to his will. It would be so easy, so natural.
Of course, Charles would toss him out on his ass after a stunt like that, and Erik has come too far to risk it.
Hank looks as though he's about to say more, defend their honor as the eldest of the house, but then Erik feels the smooth glide of a metal chair moving towards them. The belt buckle is more familiar, worn down over the years that Erik has been away. Charles is finally making an appearance.
"Erik," Charles says. "I would say this is a pleasant surprise, but we both know I'd be lying." His voice is as smooth as ever, but the temperature of the room seems to drop all the same.
Erik refuses to look away from Charles, from the wheelchair, from the cool expression on Charles's face, from the consequences of his actions. Erik says, "I'd like to stay." He left his helmet with the Brotherhood, and he feels raw and exposed. But it had been necessary just for this, this moment right here, right now.
Charles's eyes go unfocused for a moment -- not even bothering with his fingers at his temple -- before he nods. "All right," he says. "Let's talk."
He must say something to the kids telepathically, because they start clearing out, disappearing back into their rooms without another word. Erik watches them as they go. They're all so young.
Charles leads them through the hallways to his study. "It must have been difficult, losing them," he says. There's no pity in his voice.
Erik shifts, uncertain on his feet. "They were right. I had become a liability. Emma-- Emma made a convincing argument." It had been reckless, stupid, but when they'd found the labs, Erik couldn't stop himself. Without Shaw, his rage had been unfocused, uncontrolled, and he'd put his team in unnecessary danger. He can still feel it, the way the building had crumpled underneath his power, killing all the humans inside. He couldn't destroy it quickly enough. They all took heavy damage when the Red Army had shown up, new injuries, new bruises, new breaks. The Blob had been in the center of it. He didn't make it out alive.
Emma had been furious. Mystique had looked at him with huge, betrayed eyes, and Azazel had flashed him his sharp, dangerous teeth. Angel never liked him overmuch anyway. Erik still wasn't used to working with a team. He'd spent too many years by himself.
"And you decided to come here," Charles says, a cold amusement coloring his voice. "I won't lie. It'll be difficult. The older ones are still angry at you for what you did, and the younger ones have heard all the stories of the older ones."
Erik hadn't expected anything better. "And you?" he asks.
Charles shakes his head. "You wouldn't have come here if you didn't already know the answer."
Erik is used to winters, to deep snows and chilly nights. There's enough firewood to keep his room warm enough. He's never needed much in the way of physical comfort. His responsibilities around the house are mostly unarticulated. Charles is too busy teaching and training the children to find work for Erik to do, and the students are still not speaking to him, treating him like he's some kind of malevolent ghost that just happens to be haunting the hallways.
It's probably not far from the truth.
Some mornings, Erik wakes up, confused and panicking. He didn't spend a lot of time around the Brotherhood's main base, but it was small enough that the metal walls vibrate the sounds of activity, and he could always feel the electrical generator grinding away at all hours of the day.
Compared to that, the mansion feels dead. The hallways are too wooden, and the building is too large and spacious. There are too many empty rooms.
He tries to adjust to it, tries not to remember the bitter taste of rejection, of his anger, of all the things he's been judged unworthy of. He tries not to think about it, tries to push it away. He has his work. He has the silences that Charles gives him.
And Charles is quieter. He is still alive with his old energy, his old enthusiasm, but it's been grounded somehow. He's gotten older, perhaps, learned the weight of responsibility, learned the value of patience and caution. He was always grasping for that when they worked together before, reaching for an authority that didn't sit comfortably on his shoulders.
He wields it easily now, with a gentleness Erik wouldn't have expected, and even Erik-- even Erik feels its pull.
There's plenty that needs to be done around the mansion, so Erik can make work for himself easily enough. He needs to keep himself busy, keep himself moving or else he'll think of-- he'll remember-- things he doesn't want to dwell on. He puts his mind to bolstering the mansion's defenses. The fences and gates had fallen into disrepair while Charles and Mystique were in Oxford, and it seems as though no one has come back to fix them. Erik repairs the back gates first, smoothing out the rusted hinges, strengthening the lock. It only takes a few hours, learning the composition of the old iron, bending it to his will. The walls that surround the grounds are mostly stone. Erik has to fix the run down patches by hand, trudging out to the edges of the property in old snow boots and a wheelbarrow, trying not to slip on the ice.
The physical labor is a new-old sensation. He's honed his body into a weapon, day after day after day. He's exerted himself to his limits before when it came to his powers, gone to bed exhausted and wrung out from the mental energy. This is different. He feels the soreness along his back and in his arms for days after. There are new callouses on his palms.
"Are you sure you can't wait until spring?" Charles asks, mildly, when he sees Erik bundling himself up for the day. Charles is still polite to Erik, still unflinchingly kind. They play chess against each other on Thursdays and don't say anything to one another. Once, Charles tried to start a conversation about the war in Vietnam, but Erik shut it down before it could really begin, and now Charles stays silent.
Apparently, Charles has learned how to take "no" for an answer.
"They might not wait until it's spring," Erik says. He pulls a scarf around his neck.
"I hardly think those walls will manage to keep anyone but teenage delinquents out," Charles says. He starts to roll himself towards the main classroom, and the metal his wheelchair feels like a persistent itch underneath Erik's fingernails. Charles shouldn't be this unassuming, this vulnerable. He should be standing tall. He should look every bit as dangerous as he actually is.
Erik nods. He designs some tripwires the very next day.
Hank has plans for the bunkers underneath the mansion. He never talks about them while Erik is around, but there are pieces of it scattered about the house, new blueprints tucked under Hank's arm, new metals coming in and out of his makeshift workroom in the garage.
Erik doesn't comment, though he wants to. He wonders who will build the tunnels underground, who will shape the rock, who will put up new hallways, elevators, stairs. Erik doesn't talk much to anyone anymore, and most of the children give him a wide berth when they run into each other. They communicate with clipped utilitarian phrases, sizing each other up out of the corners of their eyes.
Charles doesn't say anything about it to Erik, and Erik doesn't ask.
"They don't trust you because you didn't choose this," Charles says, one morning before any of the children are up. He looks tired. He always looks tired these days. He still smiles, often and freely, but never at Erik. He studies Erik like a specimen under a microscope, and Erik sometimes wonders what he sees.
"I did choose this," Erik says. There was always an option to split off by himself again, to find another solitary mission to drive him. But he finds he's spent too much time alone, and he'd much rather be here, surrounded by his own kind.
Charles moves around the kitchen with a familiar ease. Many of the shelves have been rearranged from the time Erik was last here. A lot of the food and silverware has migrated downwards. "If it were an option, would you still be with the Brotherhood?"
The question feels like a cage, trapping Erik in. "Yes," he says. He can't lie to Charles, not without the helmet. Charles is still refusing to see the truth, the simple fact that mutants must clear their own way in the world first or else the humans will clear it for them. If their freedom needs to be paid in blood -- human blood -- then so be it.
Charles sighs, and all Erik can see is Charles bleeding all over the Cuban sand, Charles saying, Oh, my friend, but we do not. There is a chasm between them that cannot be crossed. Erik doesn't know why Charles lets him stay.
"I would never turn away another mutant in need," Charles says. He reads Erik's mind blatantly and without shame these days. Erik supposes he deserves it. "And you, my friend, are needier than most."
There's a new girl in the school. Erik hasn't seen her, but he can feel the necklace around her neck, drifting around the school right next to Sean's watch and Hank's glasses. Charles mentions that her name is Ororo, but he doesn't offer up any other details. Erik supposes that Charles doesn't want Erik to get any ideas about recruiting.
Which is why he doesn't expect her to find him while he's working on the front gate, but she creeps up on him, peering at him with curious eyes. She's skinnier than he expected, dark skinned with shockingly white hair. No other visible mutations. Her necklace is even lovelier in the sunlight than Erik imagined it.
"Hello," she says with accented English.
Erik gives her a cold look. "Hello." The snow has been melting over the past few weeks, exposing patches of green underneath, and the children have filled the hallways with their shrieks of laughter. It's much quieter out here, just the sound of early spring birds and the crunch of gravel underneath his feet.
"You're Magneto," the girl -- Ororo -- says.
"Yes," Erik says.
"Warren says that you're the reason why the Professor needs a wheelchair." She says it with a child's curiosity, unaware of the emotional undercurrents. He wonders what else the children say about him, what sort of stories they tell to each other late at night when they don't think Charles can hear them.
Erik goes back to painting the gate. "Warren is telling the truth," he says.
"The Professor says that he doesn't blame you, and that we should give you space if you want it." Ororo sounds so serious when she says it, wise beyond her years.
"The Professor isn't always right," Erik says. He takes a deep breath and calms himself, trying not to accidentally warp the metal of the gate. Charles forgives so easily. Erik will never understand that.
"Do you want space?" Ororo asks. She tucks her hands underneath her armpits, a surprisingly childish gesture. Her clothes don't fit quite right. The dress hangs awkwardly on her body, too big around the shoulders, and the style is at least ten years out of date. Mystique's leftover clothes, then. Erik wonders where Charles found her.
Before Erik can answer, Ororo tilts her head up, her eyes going distant. She and Charles have an entire conversation Erik isn't privy to.
After they're done, Ororo turns around, spinning easily on the ball of her foot. "The Professor says that class is about to start. Sorry," she says, before running off.
Erik turns back to the gate and tries not to dwell on it, but it feels like something has broken open inside him. He's not sure what it is.
That night while they're playing chess, Erik says, "I don't think the American army can stay in Vietnam much longer. The Viet Cong have been striking back, and new draft the government is implementing is too little too late." before he takes Charles's bishop with his rook. "The war effort is becoming too unpopular too quickly."
Charles smiles at that, and for a moment, Erik feels like he's been thrown backwards in time. Charles says, "Why yes, I think you might be right about that."
In the spring, Erik plants saplings at the edge of the property. When they're fully grown, they'll better hide the tripwires, and they'll slow down anyone trying to scale the walls. The weather is warm, unseasonably so, and he finds he enjoys the spring sun at his back while he works. It feels good, using his powers to work the soil with the shovels, getting his gloves dirty when he sets the roots into the ground.
"You should join us for dinner," Charles says. The snow and ice have melted, and he spends his free time traveling to the distant corners of the property that he couldn't reach in the winter, to the corners of the property where Erik works. "Ororo doesn't think you're scary at all." The sun is particularly bright this afternoon, and Charles tilts his head up to face it. He almost looks happy. The metal of his chair gleams in the sun.
"The others--" Erik says. The new ones probably think of him as a mystery to be solved, but the older ones remember. They know exactly who and what he is.
"Hank thinks you've done an excellent job with the new defences," Charles says, "and the others are willing to trust our judgement." In the sun, his eyes are very blue, and his skin is very pale.
"They probably shouldn't," Erik says. Charles is only biding time, waiting for the inevitable in his little fortress here. After that incident in Cuba, they won't stop at just the Brotherhood. They'll be after every mutant they can find, and in the end, even Charles's telepathy won't be enough. Erik doesn't want to be here when the mansion burns.
"That won't be happening for a while yet," Charles says, reading Erik's mind again. "And in the meantime, I'd much rather not provoke them into a fight we can't win." It's a pretty lie. Charles doesn't believe in fighting at all. He believes they won't have to, if he pushes all the right pieces into the right places. He hasn't seen the inevitability of fear and hatred, seen how even the most innocent can be corrupted. Charles will lead them like lambs to the slaughter.
"I'll come to dinner," Erik says.
Dinner is less awkward than Erik might have thought. After the introductions, most of the younger children pretend he isn't there and instead, pepper Charles with facts they've learned from Hank's classes, eager for his attention. Charles takes it all in stride, awarding each one of the students with a smile and assurances that he think their accomplishments are impressive. Alex and Sean have been working with them on their powers when they have the time. Ororo has been learning how to control the wind and Warren has beautiful wings and Jean can now spin pebbles in the air. Scott fiddles with his hands and doesn't talk about his mutation. They are all so very young, far younger than the ones Charles and Erik recruited together, years ago. Charles always did play chess with an eye on the long game.
The youngest finish their dinner first, and they run off, eager to play outside in the remaining daylight.
Charles says, "Hank has some more ideas about fortifying the house." He beams with a fatherly pride.
Hank blushes slightly, though it's hard to tell underneath the blue fur. "We need a CCTV system to monitor the gates and all major entrances to the house," Hank says. "We'll also need a place to store equipment away from the younger students and I'm going to need a decent lab if we want to continue the Professor's research into genetic mutation."
"The bunkers," Erik says. They've told him one of their secrets. It feels like they've given him a gift.
"Precisely," Charles says.
A few days later, they play chess again, and Charles talks about writing biology lessons. It's one of those nights where Erik doesn't want to have another argument with Charles, because Erik will just get angrier and angrier and Charles will only get calmer and more understanding. So they stick to safer subjects, like the work Erik has been doing around the mansion, and the possible ways Scott could learn to see his powers as a gift and not a curse.
"You seem more settled, my friend," Charles says when he finally tips his king over. He smiles, radiating contentment.
"Perhaps I am," Erik says. Considering how much time Charles spends inside his head, he probably knows Erik better than Erik knows himself.
"But will you stay?" Charles' voice is smooth and even. He already knows the answer.
Erik looks away so he won't have to lie.
They were lovers, before.
The word feels like it means too little and too much to encompass what they were. Charles was the one to pull Erik out of the water, and Erik was the one who put a bullet in Charles's back.
They fucked their way through tiny motel rooms across America, through the empty rooms in the mansion. Charles had the most filthy mind of anyone Erik had ever met, and his mouth could do things that would drive a priest to sin. It had been so easy that first time to let Charles kiss him, to let Charles lead him to bed, because Charles didn't doubt himself. It wasn't Charles who was on unfamiliar territory.
Erik hardly remembers the man he was back then, so young and so raw and so single-minded, so willing to cling to anyone who lent him a kind hand. Charles had been the first person who had let Erik go without demanding something from him in return. Of course Erik came back. Of course Erik kept coming back.
There had always been a low shiver of shame every time Charles took him to bed, for wanting so much, so deeply, and for wanting another man, at that. Charles had seemed beyond embarrassment, taking delight in everything they did together. That had made things simpler. He was a rock that Erik could anchor himself to when everything else had felt like too much.
Now he and Charles have been enemies far longer than they'd ever been friends. The rough edges of Charles's personality have been sanded down into something smoother. His arrogance is tempered by his experience, and his naivete is backed by a certain amount of pragmatism. He used to preach peace while he was roiling mass of contradictions himself, still finding his place in this world. He's not that boy anymore. He's something else entirely more terrifying.
Maybe once it would have been easy to want this Charles, who is new and strange and unfamiliar, but Erik isn't sure he understands what it means to want anything anymore.
Erik dreams of the ocean, dark and beautiful and deep. He dreams of drowning. He sinks below the surface, and the water begins to fill his lungs, choking him. The water tastes salty and bitter. He would thrash, fight against it if he were able, but he's not. It's too heavy. His body won't obey his commands, but he can feel the panic rise up in him. He can't, he can't, he can't --
The spring is sliding into summer when Hank comes to Erik with a request.
"We could get an outside contractor," he says, fidgeting outside Erik's bedroom door, "but then the Professor would have to erase their minds afterwards, and it would take them a lot longer than it would take you." Hank has grown into a measure of confidence, but he still seems uncertain around Erik.
Erik flexes a hand and feels the metal of the underground bunker call out to him. He hasn't gotten a chance to use powers on that level recently. He's been doing small things, unsqueaking hinges, unlocking hidden doors, doing stupid coin tricks for Ororo's amusement. He's been keeping himself in check. Erik looks at Hank's wide, yellow eyes, still so earnest despite all he's seen. No wonder he's one of Charles's favorites.
"I'll help," Erik says.
Hank smiles, all sharp, pointed teeth. "Excellent!" he says, and Erik doesn't need Charles's telepathy to see the gears turning in his head.
Robert Kennedy gets shot on a Wednesday in the kitchen of a hotel. He dies soon afterwards. He had no official mutant policy, Erik remembers. He'd probably let the agencies run wild, do whatever they want to the mutants they find. Without someone like Charles to hold them back, without someone as truly uncontrollable as Charles, he expects that it will be far uglier, far more malicious than the CIA's tentative initial attempts as identification and recruitment.
The Brotherhood had discovered that the Soviet Union had started up their own training camps, their own recruitment programs. They only found one of the labs dedicated to the medical examination of the weaker mutations, the ones that are harder to weaponize. They'd found a girl with green skin, capable of mild photosynthesis, a boy who could shoot weak sparks from his hands, barely stronger than a static shock. There were dozens more just like them around the facility. They weren't being starved or beaten or otherwise tortured when the Brotherhood found them, but Erik knew it was just the first step. He razed that building to the ground.
Erik's fingers tingle with the desire to tear the world down, to break it into pieces.
When it's properly summer, Charles stops wearing sweater vests and tweed jackets. The mansion gets stuffy, even with all of the windows open, and the New York humidity lingers in every room. Charles switches to simple white button-downs with the top two buttons unbuttoned and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, exposing patches of his chest and his pale forearms. His legs presumably don't feel the heat. Erik always has clothes for every sort of weather, and after his time in Argentina, this is easy.
Even then, he still reaches for the ice tray every time he's in the kitchen, still runs the water cold in the shower, still has to use a towel to mop the sticky sweat off the back of his neck after a day's worth of work outside.
"I used to love summers when I was younger," Charles says one night. He leans back in his chair, the light breeze from the window ruffles his hair. He looks a little rumpled for once, more like the careless young man Erik remembers.
"Why?" Erik asks. It feels silly to want to understand how pampered and spoiled Charles was, but it's a piece of Charles that Erik doesn't know.
Charles shrugs. His eyes are somewhere far away. "It was freedom, I suppose. The school years were always so oppressive. I-- my stepfather and I never got along, but it was easy enough to avoid him while he was at work. And it was more peaceful here. There were always too many people while I was away at boarding school. Too many thoughts and adolescent hormones. It could get quite crowded. I was young, and my control wasn't what it should have been." He blinks a few times, coming out of it. "My apologies. I'm sure my childhood must bore you."
Erik tries to imagine Charles that young, so lonely with all those voices in his head. Twenty years ago, he might have been sitting here with a book in his lap, talking to Mystique about the intricacies of the cutting-edge research on molecular biology. She used to talk about Charles at times, when Erik was in one of his darker moods, about their childhood games and secrets. Erik can remember what they were like when he first met them, the way she would clutch at Charles like he was a lifeline, like she was terrified of letting go. She stands on her own now, graceful, proud, and she is far more beautiful with her head held high than she ever was in Charles' shadow.
"I did ask," Erik says.
"Yes," Charles says, and Erik can't read this expression at all. "I suppose you did."
Alex carves out the new tunnels under the mansion, showing a truly impressive level of control over his powers. He's not a child, not anymore, and Erik would do well to remember that.
Hank watches over things, making sure that the house's foundations are still stable. Sean takes over more classes, though he seems to be unsuited for it, and he looks more and more like an utter wreck every day. Charles beams at everyone with pride and tells them what great work they're doing.
Erik just watches as the trucks bring in sheets and sheets of metal, new lab equipment, new electronics he's never even heard of. They feel like an itch, a muscle he needs to stretch.
"I think you should take over Sean's training sessions with Warren and Ororo," Charles says. They're having one of their rare trips away from the mansion together; Charles had extended an invitation to lunch, and Erik had accepted out of boredom as much as anything else. It's nothing fancy, just a diner in North Salem that makes the best milkshakes in New York State, Charles swears. The place reminds Erik of the countless diners they visited on their first recruitment missions, sleek chrome and worn in seats, late nights deep in conversation with Charles about the new mutations they'd uncovered, the new people they'd found.
"You want me to train your students," Erik says. He stares at Charles, who is cheerfully slurping on his milkshake like a teenager, oblivious to Erik's discomfort or pretending to be.
"Yes," Charles says. "I do believe that Warren resists my attempts to work with him out of some sort of teenage rebellion, and Ororo has taken a shine to you, as I'm sure you're well aware."
Erik is about to refuse, to say that it's foolish for Charles to entrust one of his enemies with something this important, but they aren't really enemies anymore, are they? Tentative allies at best. Working on the underground labs or the outer perimeter is one thing -- at least in that case, it's easier to have someone supervising him -- but this is something entirely different. Any damage done to Charles's students would not be so easily fixed.
Before Erik can respond, their waitress stops by their table. "Would you like another one of those, hon?" she says to Charles, hovering over him like a mother hen. She must have twenty years on Charles, and it occurs to Erik that maybe she knew him when he was younger, that maybe Charles used to come here during his lonely summers and chat and flirt badly with the regulars, too young and too bright and too sweet to be turned away. Erik's never been in one place long enough to know what that is like.
"Of course, Martha," Charles says, beaming from ear to ear. His smile takes decades off his age. "So will you do it?" he asks Erik.
"How hard can I train them?" Erik says.
"Try not to leave any lasting scars, mentally or physically," Charles says. His smile softens, and Erik thinks that's there's no reason it should look that fond.
Ororo seems to enjoy working with him, at least. She's serious and focused, and her training focuses on her control over the wind. She knocks over chairs, swirls leaves in miniature tornadoes, and dusts one of the large ballrooms that hasn't been used in decades. Erik watches and gives her pointers from the years he spent working on his own powers. No two mutations are exactly alike, but there are still similarities, and almost all of them require mental discipline of some sort.
Erik gets a better sense of how powerful she is when she sets one of the azalea bushes on fire with a thunderbolt, her eyes going glassy and white as she floats on the air currents, an artificial wind blowing back her hair. Perhaps one day, Erik would have liked to recruit her to the Brotherhood, would have liked to teach her how to use her powers to their fullest extent. He can already imagine Charles's disapproval, a displeased scowl replacing his usual cheerful expression. There might even be a lecture about the advantages of non-violence.
She lands on the ground with a grace that betrays her awkward, adolescent body. Erik has noticed that most of Charles's students have taken on some of Charles's newfound steadiness. Even Alex seems to have turned into something softer and harder than what he was, now an adult filled with wooly headed ideas about peace and love.
"Not bad," Erik says to Ororo. "Now do it again without the rain."
Warren is a different story altogether. He's older, for one, and he already has an impressive amount of control over his wings. His training is mostly swoops and dives in the air while Erik floats in place, keeping his own body steady as he watches Warren fly. Warren is also sixteen and angry. Angry at the world. Angry at his mutation. Angry at Erik. Warren was here a few years ago when Sean ended up on the wrong side of one of Riptide's tornados. After that, he made up his mind about Erik, and he seems unwilling to change it now.
"That was sloppy," Erik tells him, letting an old sharpness leak into his voice. Warren's strong enough and experienced enough that he doesn't need to put much effort into this, but it's obvious that he's only barely humoring Charles's request for the two of them to get along.
"Fuck you," Warren says.
Erik shows him teeth, and Warren rolls his eyes. That's fine. Erik doesn't need Warren to like him. Erik just needs Warren strong enough to stay alive when the humans come for him, for all of them.
It doesn't take long for Erik to be called in to handle the new construction. They've carved out a space large enough for Erik to float everything into the new basement, and with Hank's directions, he gets to work. It's easier to do all of it with his powers, and he loves the stretch and the flex of his power in his hands, reshaping each slab of metal to his own ends.
The effort leaves him tired and aching at night, but in a pleasant, bone-deep way. He considers installing a backdoor to the building, but Hank is always fretting over the new hallways, the new wiring, making sure they're all perfectly positioned. And besides, Erik suspects that Charles will always let him back in, no matter how much Erik hurts him.
August is hot and sticky, and Erik starts rolling his sleeves up to his elbows. He catches Hank staring at his forearms a few times, and Erik remembers that he didn't do this, before. Before, he liked to wear long sleeved shirts, liked tuck away everything that might stand out, everything that might be memorable. He was a fugitive, and he lived like one. Around the Brotherhood, he wore all his battle scars proudly.
Hank doesn't say anything to him, but this might be worse, the way he ducks his head away whenever Erik catches him. It might be out of fear or shame or politeness, but it's annoying all the same.
"Just ask," Erik snarls out after the fifth time it happens. He drops the spool of wire on the ground and clenches his fists. He could start a fight right now, he knows. Hank might even survive it.
To Erik's surprise, Hank doesn't shrink away the way he once would have. He looks Erik in the eye. "There's a reason why you think the Professor's going about this the wrong way," he says. It's not the question he wants to ask.
Erik holds up his arm so that the tattoo is clearly visible in the afternoon sun. "Charles is an idiot for refusing to see what's been in front of him all along," he says. "They don't tolerate difference amongst themselves as it is. When it comes to us, they'll fight us every step of the way. I've been there. I've experienced what they're capable of."
If it were Charles, he'd probably get another lecture, but Hank isn't Charles. "Then why are you still here?" Hank asks instead. His eyes are genuinely curious.
Erik finds himself laughing, a painful bitter thing, but it feels a little like a blood letting, like every ugly painful thing draining out of him at once. "I don't know," he says. "I don't fucking know."
But he finds that he wants-- he wants to stay.
Sean starts talking to him again when the formal school year starts again. They were never particularly close before, but one morning, before Erik has had his coffee, Sean tells him all about his band while Erik is trying to make himself some breakfast on three hours of sleep.
"We're not exactly the Stones yet," he says, "but one day we'll get there. We've got our own sound. Nobody else sounds anything like us." It is far too early for a fully coherent conversation, so Erik mostly responds with grunts. It's probably better that he can't tell Sean that he thinks The Rolling Stones wouldn't know real music if it bit them in the ass.
"We're thinking of putting on a show here for the kids, get a sense for how we'll play for a younger audience," Sean continues.
Erik can only think, oh god, no, before Charles rolls into the kitchen, saving him from the rest of this conversation. Charles distracts Sean by asking him about the syllabus for his English classes, and Erik makes a hasty retreat with Charles's soft mental laughter echoing in his head.
That seems to break something, though, because Alex stops treating Erik like an unfortunate piece of furniture, and Hank starts accompanying Erik on his morning runs.
Erik manages to finish the construction work before October, which delights Hank and pleases Charles. The new labs are sleek, gunmetal gray with harsh fluorescent lighting, covered in wall-to-wall state-of-the-art medical equipment. There's no elevator access down to the basement levels yet, so it's Erik and Hank who are responsible for making sure everything is running as smoothly as expected.
"There's something else I wanted to show you," Hank says, leading them down to one of the dead-end hallways. Erik had wondered why Hank had wanted this hallway to end in bare rock while he was helping to build the damn thing, but now that he can see it again, he knows. Alex has cleared the way through to a large, natural cave. It's huge and dark and deep. Hank's flashlight can only illuminate so much. Erik can hear the trickle of water below their feet.
"A hanger," Erik guesses. That way they'd be able to use the current hanger for something else, training exercises, perhaps?
Hank fidgets. "I think we were hoping to do something else with it," he says. "The Professor wants to rebuild Cerebro."
Cerebro. A way to locate other mutants. If the government ever got their hands on it, got their hands on Charles...
Still, the recruiting potential would be immeasurable. Erik can't stop thinking about all the mutants they could find, all the mutants they could save. Charles would be only be interested in how many more strays he could rescue with a machine like that, but Erik's got his eye on the long game. They could recruit an army with Cerebro. They could wage a war.
"I wish you'd stop thinking that way," Charles says. "We're hardly at war yet, and I'd like to keep it that way." Charles sits back in his chair, tired after a long day in Hank's lab, going over old specs and doing more tests of Charles's telepathy. They've decided to skip their chess game tonight, and so it's just late-night drinks in Charles's study. Erik doesn't know how he always ends up here, having another pointless argument with Charles about the kindness and goodness of the human race, and yet he does. If he didn't know better, he'd swear Charles was using his powers somehow.
"But you agree that war is an inevitability," Erik says. "You're certainly preparing for one." He thinks of the training that Charles is giving his students. He's hardly doing anything that Shaw did, but he's still making weapons out of them, and when they're finished, they'll be dangerous. They'll be powerful.
"Preparing for the worst case doesn't mean you believe it will come to pass," Charles says. He looks tired, a bone-deep exhaustion that seems to hollow out his face. They're not quite friends -- they're barely even allies -- but Erik still finds it troubling to see Charles so tired, so obviously weakened. It's Erik's job to work himself to the bone, give over every pound of flesh to the cause. Charles is a thinker, a dreamer. He shouldn't be the one destroying himself.
"You've always been too good at lying to yourself, Charles," Erik says. He takes another sip of his scotch.
But what of the lies you tell yourself? a voice whispers in his head, so softly that Erik doesn't know if it comes from Charles or himself.
Erik still dreams of drowning, of sinking and sinking and sinking. Sometimes, he keeps his eyes open so that he can feel the salty sting of the ocean, so he can stare out at the inky blue darkness. Sometimes, he can feel the ghost impression of metal hidden away, out of reach.
Sometimes, he closes his eyes and lets himself sink, lets himself sink and--
The designs for the new version of Cerebro are sleek and beautiful and polished. The panels they use are pure vibranium, and they hum when Erik slots them into place. It'll be bigger than the first Cerebro, huge and empty and cavernous. There's an efficiency to the design that the first one lacked. There is only one simple catwalk that reaches into the center of the machine, and Hank wires in a new helmet that sits on a raised platform that can be accessed from a wheelchair. Most of the computers are in another room, recording every minute detail from the sensors wired into the walls. When Erik floats in the middle of the room, he can feel every inch of it, every panel, every wire.
This Cerebro will be beautiful, he knows. When it's finished, Erik will be able to look over it and think, I built this. This was me. I was here.
It takes him a while to realize that he's never thought that about anything before.
"I'm going to make this a proper school, I think," Charles says. "We'll get too big, too suspicious, soon. We need to make sure the children can walk away from here with a diploma that demonstrates what they've accomplished." They're sitting outside on the patio today, and there's an autumn chill in the air. The trees that circle the property are wearing their fall plumage, a golden yellow that glows in the dying afternoon light.
"More strays then?" Erik asks. "At this rate, you're going to need another house."
"I wish you could see them the way they look inside Cerebro," Charles says, and his eyes are alight with something that approaches religious fervor. "They're all so beautiful and they're all so alone. If we can make a better future for them, why shouldn't we? We can make them a world where mutants and humans can live in peace and harmony. The war you fear isn't inevitable. I wish you could see that."
"It's a fool's dream, Charles," Erik says, and he can hear the bitterness in his voice. They killed Martin Luther King Jr. in April, Erik remembers. The children held each other's hands tightly as they watched the nightly news, and Ororo started crying when they announced his death. The man had been fully human. What sort of a chance do any of them have?
"A foolish dream is the only kind worth having, my friend," Charles says, and his grin makes him look so painfully young and so painfully beautiful that Erik can feel his heart lurch in his chest. Charles won't be dissuaded. Pretty soon, it will be Charles out there, Erik knows. It will be Charles giving his speeches and holding his rallies. It will be Charles making himself a target.
Erik turns his head away, and he forces himself to breathe.
Charles is eager to use Cerebro as soon as it's done. He and Hank will have to do more modifications to it in order to get it fully operational, but they're pretty certain that Charles won't fry his own brains out by accident. Erik thinks it's all rather foolish, but it's hard to dissuade two scientists who are feeding each other's worst instincts.
Erik haunts the hallway outside Cerebro as Hank and Charles start up the machine. He can feel it, a steady vibration that gets stronger and stronger until it's humming at a perfect frequency in his chest, and Erik feels it rattle from his head down to his toes.
He closes his eyes. There's a bright flash inside his eyelids, and then there's Charles. He's a bright light, a warmth, more of a sensation than an image. It's still unmistakably Charles.
Oh, hello, Charles says, his mental voice echoing. That's different isn't it? It is so very different in here. So different and so lovely. Would you like to see them? I could show them to you. He feels pleased with himself, all casual, easy arrogance. His emotions are spilling over into Erik's.
Yes, Erik thinks, and he can't hide his affection, not here.
Charles shows him.
They are beautiful, Erik realizes. They are pinpricks of light on a velvety blue sky, each of them shining so brightly that Erik can imagine them as real stars, raw plasma burning into helium. This is what Erik has been fighting for, he knows. They would be snuffed out at the first opportunity by an unforgiving world, and Charles wants to build a school for them. Charles wants to give them a place where they will be safe. Charles, he thinks, but he doesn't have any words to describe what it is that he's feeling.
Charles laughs, his amusement, happiness, joy bleeding through. You're beautiful too, my friend, he says. There's something else there that Charles is feeling, something raw and gentle and aching. The sensation burns itself into Erik's memory and lingers, like a scar.
Erik can't stop the wave of an answering emotion from rising up within himself, pulled out from where it was hidden, laid bare in the face of Charles's power.
When Charles finally comes out of Cerebro, he's flushed and sleepy, worn out and still a little high off of the power. He looks like that after sex, too, Erik remembers. Charles liked to sprawl out over the sheets, his skin still slick with sweat, and he'd project pure delight into Erik's head until Erik felt dizzy with it.
"I think that went better than expected, don't you?" Charles says. His eyes are bright, alive, and Erik can still feel the phantom remnants of Charles's Cerebro-enhanced voice echoing through his head. It's almost a physical sensation, a tingling on the surface of his skin, and he's sure Charles feels it too. Erik feels like a compass needle, orienting himself towards Charles's magnetic north. It used to be like that all the time. Erik had forgotten. He'd forgotten what it was like to want this badly, all of these feelings getting tangled up and confused inside him. Charles always did have a talent for pulling all of Erik's difficult emotions to the surface.
Hank just babbles for a few minutes before running off to inspect the new data they've collected, and Erik feels an odd wave of affection for him that must half-come from Charles.
Erik kisses Charles as soon as Hank is out of sight. It's more awkward now. Erik doesn't know where to put his hands or how to bend his neck or if he's allowed to bite at Charles's lips. Charles lets out a soft sound, tilts his head up, and presses a hand against Erik's cheek. His lips are as soft and as warm as Erik remembers.
I love you so much it hurts, Charles says in Erik's head, with words this time. It still sends Erik reeling, rocking him off balance. Charles has always wielded the truth like a weapon.
Erik grips the back of Charles's neck and kisses him again.
This version of Charles's body is new and unfamiliar, and Erik relearns every inch of it.
He can't press against the back of Charles's knee to make him squirm. There's new a spot near Charles's collarbone, right where his shoulder meets his neck that makes him shiver when Erik bites down on it. Charles can't wrap his legs around Erik's waist. Charles's arms are stronger than they used to be. His nipples are more sensitive now. He still makes the same noises, soft delicate things that hook into Erik's chest, and he still knows how to touch Erik in ways that make Erik bite off curses.
Erik wasn't sure if he could-- if he would want this again. It was easier to think of Charles as the enemy, as something broken. But Charles has always refused to see things the way Erik sees them, and he seems to live to defy Erik's expectations. He's irritating, and he's smug, and he's convinced that he's absolutely right about everything, but he's still too brilliant and too beautiful and too earnest. He's a challenge that Erik doesn't ever want to overcome.
At night, after Charles has fallen asleep, Erik likes to trace the raised skin at the base of his back. It's probably fainter now than it was during those first years, but it's still vivid against Charles's smooth skin. For the most part, Erik is beyond guilt these days, his guilt for leaving Charles on that beach, his guilt over wanting Charles, his guilt over abandoning the cause.
But the scar on Charles's back is still a reminder of what Erik's capable of, a reminder of what Erik still has left to lose.
Mystique returns to the mansion around Thanksgiving.
"You're always welcome here, Raven," Charles says when he invites her in. She's completely blue, with a warm jacket pulled around her shoulders. "It's your home as much as it is mine." He looks happy to see her; the old familial bonds run deep. Erik knows how much she still cares about Charles too. After they left Cuba, she would ask Azazel to sneak out to visit the hospital every once in a while to make sure Charles was alive and recovering.
Mystique accepts the invitation with a nod of her head. She lets Charles kiss her cheek. "I'm actually here to talk to Magneto," she says. "We have business to discuss." Charles gives Erik a strange look before he leaves to go check on Warren, leaving them in the foyer together.
They end up walking outside in the cold, brisk late autumn air. Erik shoves his hands into his pockets.
"Emma's decided to leave," Mystique says, "and Riptide thinks he's had enough. Angel got another offer somewhere. I don't know the details. The Brotherhood as we know it is disbanding for the time being."
"But?" Erik asks. He knows her well enough to hear the empty spaces in her words.
Mystique takes a deep breath. She ages the slowest out of all of them, and for a moment she looks barely older than she was when Erik first met her. "I was angry when you pulled that shit in Siberia, but I know why you did it." She shakes her head. "It would be good to have you back with us. This doesn't have to be the end of what we do."
Erik stares at her. He almost says yes, right then and there, but something catches in his throat. He can see Warren in the distance, flying in loops, and he can hear Sean practicing his atrocious music. He can feel Charles's presence in every inch of this place, every rock, every tree, every brick, like some kind of psychic residue. "I'll have to think about it," he says. "You should stay for Thanksgiving, at least."
Mystique accepts that with a gracious nod of her head. She looks all around her, taking it all back in, and her expression becomes wistful. "Charles and I used to hate Thanksgiving when we were growing up. It was all about pretending that our family loved us and that we were thankful for it. Our step-father always used it as an excuse to be extra cruel about it to Charles when he was feeling particularly resentful."
"Charles seems happy enough about it now," Erik says. Charles has been throwing himself into Thanksgiving planning with a zeal that even makes Hank raise his eyebrows from time to time. Apparently, he does this every year.
Mystique laughs. "He would wouldn't he?" she says, and for the first time in a while, her smile is girlish and sweet. "I'll stay for now. Give me your answer as soon as you can."
"What did my sister want to speak to you about?" Charles asks the next day. His voice is mild, deceptively so. They're clearing the table after dinner as the children go running around through the leaves outside. Mystique has gone back to her old room to gather up some of her things so she can bring them with her when she goes.
Erik considers being evasive, but he knows Charles would pick up on it. "She wants me to rejoin the Brotherhood," he says. Charles doesn't need to know the technical details.
Charles looks down at the stack of dishes in his lap. "I thought that might happen eventually." His expression is blank, his voice leached of its usual expressiveness. It's unsettling, to say the least. Usually, Charles is the worst liar Erik's ever known. He relies too much on his mutation when he wants to nudge things in his favor. Right now, Erik has no idea what he's thinking.
"I haven't made a decision," Erik says. He wonders if Charles knows that already, if Charles can feel all the uncertainty roiling underneath his skin. If they were somewhere more private, Erik would put a hand on Charles's shoulder, would run his fingers through Charles's hair. They've been keeping their relationship a secret from the children, careful not to taint them with it, and for a moment, Erik remembers the anger that used to drive him. The world is far too unfair. Charles is-- Charles has always been too naive, too good to survive it, and Erik wants him to have something better, something new.
Charles takes a deep breath and nods before rolling himself towards the kitchen. "I suppose I've been selfish," he says. "You should do what's best for you, my friend."
"Are you telling me to go?" Erik says. He remembers Charles and Raven on the beach. Charles had made her decision for her then. Maybe he's making Erik's decision for him now.
Charles doesn't look back. "You remember what I said that night, don't you?" he says, and now there's an emotion leaking into his voice that Erik hasn't heard from him before. "I could, but I won't."
In the morning, Erik goes running. It's still early, and the sky is morning pale, blue-gray with a hint of pink on the horizon. The air is brisk and cold, just the way Erik likes it. It clears his lungs with every breath he takes. Erik goes running every morning, and he has yet to develop a particular route that he likes to take. He hates the thought of becoming too settled, too predictable. It could get him killed if he's not too careful.
He pushes himself extra hard today, feeling the strain in his legs, his lungs, his heart. It doesn't take him long to end up near the base of the satellite dish, a blanket of crisp, brown leaves crunching underneath his feet. The dish casts a looming shadow, far more intimidating up close.
Erik shouldn't let himself get distracted by whimsy or errant impulses, but he levitates himself up to the old catwalk all the same. The metal of the dish feels warm and familiar, like it's saying, hello. He pushed Sean off this catwalk once, when he was younger. He remembers the way Charles had looked at him afterwards, more approving than displeased.
From up here, Erik can see the entire Xavier estate. The colors of summer and autumn have faded, leaving everything a dull brown as it waits for the first snow to turn everything white again. It's still impossibly lovely. Erik has seen many beautiful things in his lifetime. He's travelled the world. He's touched the most stunning mutations that evolution has been able to produce. None of those things has ever made him feel like this, a swelling feeling deep in his chest that steals the breath from his lungs.
The mansion seems larger from this vantage point. Charles has been documenting the new mutants they've found through Cerebro. He's working with Sean and Hank on the best way to sell their potential students on the new school while they wait for all the paperwork to go through. All those empty rooms in the mansion will now have occupants. Those hallways will hear new secrets, feel new feet on the floorboards. Erik can't find his usual bitterness at the thought. Charles just might be able to pull this off, out of sheer stubbornness and force of will. Long odds have never stopped him before.
Erik takes a deep breath of air. The view will be more spectacular next autumn, around mid-October. Maybe he could convince Charles to make the trip next year, maybe--
Maybe Erik won't even be here next year. Maybe he's missed his chance to share this with Charles.
Erik wipes the sweat from his brows and floats back down to the ground. He starts to run. He doesn't want to stop.
Ororo is quieter than usual during their Thanksgiving feast. The other children are excited and talkative, eating their way through the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce at an alarming rate. Erik isn't sure they'll have room in their stomachs for dessert. Charles presides over the whole thing like a proud father, sitting at the head of the table, making a quick speech before they eat about what it means to be thankful. Mystique smiles at him for a few moments before catching herself, ducking her head. Her blue form flickers in and out with the blond one. A few people try to talk to her, but no one can seem to start a conversation with her without it falling into awkward silence after a few stilted words.
Erik's attention is focused on Ororo. It's rare for her to be this quiet. She doesn't like to hear her own voice the way Warren and Sean and Charles do, but she's rarely this silent. She stares at Erik all the way through the meal, a dour, serious expression on her face. Erik hasn't told anyone about Mystique's offer, but he supposes that the information must have made its way around the house.
Surprisingly enough, the children have room in their stomachs for dessert, pumpkin pie and apple crisp. Jean and Warren eat an entire pie between them. Ororo barely touches her slice. Scott's apple crisp is more ice cream than apple.
Afterwards, the boys decide to play a game of American football in the back garden -- no powers -- with Hank as the referee. Erik, Charles, and the girls sit on the sidelines, though Erik suspects that Jean would like to play, judging from the way she watches the ball. Alex lets his brother tackle him more often than is strictly necessary. Sean and Warren occasionally cheat by flying over the heads of the other players.
Mystique and Charles are caught up in their own conversation, their voices pitched too low for anyone else to overhear. Ororo sits next to Erik, and she seems to shrink into herself, her knees drawn up to her chin.
"The Professor said you might be leaving," she says. "He said that's why he was feeling sad." She looks at him with solemn eyes.
"Yes," Erik says. "I might be."
"Why?" she asks.
There are too many reasons to count. He's become lazy and complacent. The humans have probably stepped up their recent attacks. It is so easy to feel trapped here. It's a good place to rest and recover, but it's not a long term solution, not for him, not for anyone. Now, more than ever, Erik is convinced that Charles will never be able to see his side of things. Charles believes in things like hope and complacency, and he won't ever do what is necessary. He's not capable of it. Maybe that's why he needs Erik around, to do the things he can't. "Every person must find their own place in the world. I'm not sure mine is here," Erik says. The words taste bitter and false. He's not sure why.
Ororo nods. "Okay," she says, accepting that answer. She gives him a quick hug, and Erik tenses up, uncomfortable, before she pulls away. "You should visit if you decide to go."
Somewhere in the game, Hank lets out a girlish squeal as the other boys pile up on top of him, and Jean laughs so hard she almost cries.
The ocean is there again that night, pulling Erik under, dragging Erik down. He doesn't fight it this time, doesn't panic. He closes his eyes and lets himself sink into the depths. His lungs fill with water, but there's no threat to it, just an utter calm. It's peaceful in its own way, the water holding him in its embrace. He opens his eyes, and it's bright all of a sudden, too bright for Erik to see, but it's still beautiful, and Erik--
He wakes up gasping for breath. His eyes need to adjust for the darkness of the room. His fingers feel cramped, and he looks down. Charles is holding his hand. Their fingers are twined together, as intimate as a kiss.
The next morning, Mystique is ready to leave. They've spent so much time together, Erik knows the signs of her restlessness. While they were both with the Brotherhood, he could always tell when she was desperate to go to the next town, the next mission, the next country. She couldn't stay in one place any longer than Erik could back then. Maybe that's changed now.
"So what's your answer?" she asks. They're the first ones downstairs for breakfast, not that either of them are particularly hungry after having a dinner that big.
Erik looks down at his hands where they're wrapped around a mug of coffee. He isn't good at indecision, and he hates Charles for putting him in this position the same way he hates Charles for making him leave him behind in Cuba. "I can't," he says. He may not believe in Charles's optimism, and they might have the same argument over and over again, but they're building something here. Erik's not sure exactly what it is. On the brightest days, It almost looks like the future.
Mystique looks disappointed, but she shakes it off quickly. "All right," she says. She kisses both of Erik's cheeks. "Tell Charles I love him. Make sure he doesn't get himself killed for one stupid reason or another."
Erik presses a kiss to her forehead, which is still as blue as the day she was born. Mutant and proud. Always. "I will," he says.
When spring comes around again, Erik's trees have grown a foot in height. In a decade, they'll completely hide the high stone walls. Erik finds that he wants to see what they'll look like when they finally dig their roots into the ground. This is something he's started. He needs to see it all the way through.
They've gotten another student, Betsy Braddock. She's another British telepath with telekinetic abilities, and her telekinesis really puts Erik through his paces when they train together. They also find another teacher in the form of Doug Ramsey, who gets along famously with Charles, and they spend hours talking about the nature of mental mutations until Erik can drag him away. Dani Moonstar joins in the winter, part empath, part illusionist. The school's official name becomes the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, a thinly veiled euphemism but a useful one. They're finding new mutants every day. Erik finds that he loves the way he can feel Cerebro hum to life anywhere on the grounds.
In June, Charles mentions something about riots taking place near a well-known homosexual bar in Greenwich Village.
In July, a man lands on the moon.
In August, Sean decides to go to a music festival upstate before he heads off to college.
In September, Erik kisses Charles outside, on the patio while all the children are still inside. He knows how to do this now, how to tilt his head down and to tilt Charles's head up, how to rest his hands on the armrests of Charles's wheelchair, how to slide his tongue into Charles's mouth and taste the inside of Charles's teeth. He feels the soft warmth of Charles's mind setting along his own. The sun is at his back, but he can still see the brightness underneath his eyelids.
Don't think this means you've won the argument, Charles says.
Of course not, Erik thinks. In the morning, he'll have Hank cook up a visored version of Scott's glasses, one that can be used in a fight.
Charles bites into Erik's bottom lip, hard enough to sting, and Erik feels the laughter bubbling up inside his chest. This is everything and nothing he imagined all those years ago, when he was too young to understand what Charles was offering him. He's not sure Charles understood what he was offering any more than Erik did. He closes his eyes and presses in a little closer. Charles lets out a slight nudge of warning; some of the students are going to be passing by the nearby windows.
Let them see, Erik thinks. Let the whole fucking world see. He feels dizzy with the thrill of it. The world is changing, taking on new and different shapes. There's no room for hesitation, for his or Charles's.
They'll make a future together, and whether it looks like Erik's or Charles's remains to be seen. For now, they stand side by side. They have peace, or at least some measure of it.
Erik intends to enjoy it while it lasts.