The Keeper on the Other Side
Charles Xavier is good at compartmentalization. He’d had to be most of his life just to remain relatively sane and cognitive, so it follows that his ability to pigeonhole even the most complicated situations was very, very good indeed. Inside his mind every emotion had its place in the mental landscape, which normally wore the family manor like a suit of clothes.
Exhaustion, neatly severed with scalpel precision from physical sensation, was stuffed haphazardly under his bed like a ratty old pair of slippers, to be met with later.
Fear was the dark of the basement – not the bomb shelter, which was always so vast, but the tiny cellar under the main stairs that was closed in and cramped; once home to bottles of wine, but now opulent only in dust and dead silence that only three feet thick walls could grant. How Charles had hated that tiny, airless pocket in his usually towering family home.
Anger was of course his mother’s now long unused study, where things had been said that really should not have been, and things thrown. The floor was a disaster of mess and shattered glass, and the silence rang loud in there, begging to be filled.
Shame, of course, was in the bottles in that chaotic room, the ones which were not broken, because anger was not a response Charles had ever found gained him anything but hurt and loss. It sloshed around in its glass prisons, contained but achingly visible.
Sadness grew in the tiny little garden outside of the kitchen; the gloom of something once so loved and the source of so much good now forgotten and neglected, the sunlight not reaching it anymore. Weeds and dry, cracked dirt huddled there, trying to parody some joy now long departed.
Pain – oh, so much of it – filled the disused pools on the manor grounds. The waters there had always been dark, murky and frightening. His mother had never been one for swimming, unless it was in her own despair. Charles had only learned to swim as an adult, quietly and in shame at the YMCA pools. The pools were big, Roman grandeur things and they were filling rapidly.
But there was no place reserved for hate there. None reserved for hopelessness. And it was because of this that Charles was able to find his father’s study even after walking through those rapidly filling manor pools, sit down at the antique desk and turn the dial on the old radio – the big, cabinet sized Depression era thing – trying to listen. The voices were hazy and full of static and when Charles looked down at the page on the desk he saw pages written in his own handwriting saying he’s killing you, you’re dying, you should be able to hear.
No matter how much he fiddled with the dial or the volume, the voices didn’t get any clearer. Charles looked back at the desk again, but this time the paper was different. Set to transmit. Ah, yes, there was a transmit button there on the radio. Charles wondered why he hadn’t noticed before. It was certainly a very noticeable button, made of one huge, exquisitely cut diamond.
But what to say, he mused as he turned the diamond switch. He looked at the papers again, but they were unhelpfully blank. Outside, in the window, the satellite dish turned, a huge, head sized diamond on the feed antenna winking and glaring in the fading daylight.
Water was pouring in under the door, black and murky. Before Charles could even rise the gushing flow was lapping at his ankles, pressing up his shins, washing his knees, thighs. Charles knew this was bad. He had to think of something to say.
Oh, of course, thought Charles. He always knew exactly what he needed to say.
He said it, just as night fell.
Charles heard something soft but solid slapping against some unyielding hardness with an unpleasant meaty sound and the sound worried him.
Suddenly, sheer pain blossomed along his spine in ways he didn’t think his crippled body could feel anymore and he realized why the sound had worried him so. It was his own body that had been driven into the concrete.
Charles tried to open his eyes, and only succeeded with one of them. The other was swollen shut and the rest of his face had a tight, uncomfortable hot feeling which suggested the phenomena was not localized.
Vision didn’t serve him well. What he could see was blurry, grey edged and doubled. He took a deep breath and that was another mistake; burning brands of agony were shoved into every rib. Oh God it hurt, hurt in a way Charles had thought he’d forgotten. Nausea roiled in his gut and he was helpless to stop it churning up his throat, burning his windpipe.
He couldn’t bring it up. Panicked, Charles tried to choke the putrid bile from his throat but he was lying on his back and could not move himself onto the side. His legs were useless for leverage and while he could still roll his hips, his entire torso was a torture chamber of pain that made every movement was a symphony of agony. He clawed futilely at flat, featureless concrete with one hand, trying to find any tiny chink with which to hang onto to and haul himself over. His other arm lay still, blinding white hot pain better than any restraint, and Charles knew without looking that it had angles nature never intended at the moment.
His brain screamed for air. He looked to the other person in the room, but there was no mercy to be found there as the other man loomed over him, sniggering like a demon. He felt acids burning as some aspirated into his lungs, as his lungs tried to draw anything at all. The world was greying out, but Charles knew he wouldn’t be going back to the manor this time.
Suddenly his opponent was gone, out of his line of sight. Charles wasn’t sure what was happening, but there was a tremendous screaming and screeching, punctuated by thumps so big they rattled the floor.
“Charles!” a raw voice echoed in his ears and strong, gentle hands mercilessly turned him on his undamaged side. The stabbing pains were nothing compared to the sweet relief of being able to bring up the mess in his throat and stomach, and draw breath after agonizing breath. The world became a hazy fuzz of pain for a few moments while distant orders were bellowed above his head.
Charles tried to focus. His opponent’s yells and curses were still echoing in the big, empty space of the warehouse, and his saviour would need his help to stop it. Helmet, came the dull thought, echoed through Charles’ breathless mouth. “Hel...met....”
“Charles?” gentle, calloused hands brushed only the very fingertips over his face. There was a soft hushing sound that followed. “Shhhhh. Rest. It’s alright. Rest.”
Charles was never one to follow orders. “Helmet...off....no,” he coughed weakly as his saviour misunderstood. “His...off....”
“I’ll take his helmet off when I rip off his fucking head,” was the snarled reply. The hands were gone momentarily and for a few minutes there was nothing bangs, crashes and screaming curses. Charles once fancied he could even feel a spider web of cracks woven under his back at one point. The concrete certainly felt rougher.
But finally there was a horrific metallic screeching, like a tin can the size of the world being crushed, and finally, finally, Charles could sense what he persistently had been trying to find – that twisted up and tortured mind. He gathered his last reserves into the blow, and sent is careening at that broken, disharmonious thing.
The last sounds he heard was a heavy body dropping where it stood and urgent footsteps heading toward him.
Erik, Charles thought, suddenly in his room in the manor, drawing his exhaustion slippers from underneath it. My dear friend.
You never hurt me like Cain hurt me.
When Charles finally came to, it was in much nicer circumstances. The bed was soft and comfortable. There were blankets. He felt clean. And there was morphine.
Lovely, lovely morphine.
Forget milk, morphine was what was really good for you. It was groovier than a MHC3 mutation.
A soft chuckle. “I do hope you’re not teaching the children that.”
Charles mouth opened to frame the name Erik, but then he was gone again.
He woke again, he was more coherent. For example, he thought he was blind for a moment, but then realized his face and eyes were still suffering from swelling. He managed to get them open to slits, but all he could see was light and dark blurs. It must be daytime, and his room had a window because he could feel the sun.
Also, he was strapped down. One arm was immobilized against his own chest. The other was pressed underneath a warm and not actually unpleasant weight. He twitched his fingers experimentally.
The weight shifted. “Go back to sleep, Charles.” A warm hand ran up and down his undamaged arm soothingly. “You’re safe.”
Charles tried to squint at the dark blur that had spoken. It’s voice had been unexpectedly rough, as it if too had been deeply asleep.
“Erik?” his voice was a hiss of air, barely recognizable as human.
“Yes, my friend,” a warm hand carded gently through Charles hair. “I’m here. You are safe. Just rest now.”
Charles gave up, and did as he was told.
After all, he was safe here.
The next time he woke up was the worst. Throbs and aches roused him. His chest felt like someone had run through it with a blunt iron bar. His ribs felt like something was stabbing them from the inside. His arm pulsed, still strapped to his chest like a straight jacket.
Charles grunted under his breath, but forced his eyes open. They came open much easier now, though the room was dark. It must be night. One solitary lamp cast a dim, orange glow on a sparse, small room. By his head a monitor he hadn’t even noticed before was beeping quietly. Along with that lab-grade disinfectant smell, Charles was able to theorize he was in a hospital.
There were tubes running in one arm. There were bandages galore across his other bare midriff. His arm was casted impressively, and tied across his chest. And when he said casted impressively, he meant there were exquisite metal bands, padded with material, clinched expertly around the damaged limb, both setting the bone and immobilizing the appendage. It was neat, pragmatic and effective.
Then he realized he wasn’t the only mind in the room. He looked up from the contemplation of his unique cast and saw the outline of his friend and nemesis, leaning against one blank, featureless wall with his arms crossed over his chest, head tilted down. Charles wished he could see his friend’s face.
“Just tell me you weren’t trying to recruit him,” Erik said in a low voice, as if they’d already been having a conversation and were currently smack dab in the centre of it. Maybe they were, who knows? Charles’ memories were currently a little fuzzy.
Charles opened his mouth, but all he could manage was a dry-throated croak and a dull stab of pain in his diaphragm as he drew breath to speak. Erik strode over to the bedside with a grimace of impatience and administered ice chips from a paper cup by the bed.
The cold wetness was a blessing down his throat and he barely noticed that Erik had retreated back to the wall again, arms crossed as if barring Charles attention. Charles opened his mouth again but was stopped by Erik’s hand jabbing out of the dim corner.
“No talking,” he growled. “You had a day of a respirator not long ago and your throat is a mess. You, luckily, have a genetic advantage so I suggest you start fucking using it before I do something I may or may not regret.” Erik recrossed his arms again and Charles could feel his glare. “Now were you or were you not trying to recruit that killer behemoth? Because if you were trying to recruit him, Charles, I may have to kill you now to save our race from the genetic predisposition to sheer stupidity.”
It was only then that Charles realized the infamous helmet was not anywhere to be seen on Erik. He only realized then that his mind had latched on to Erik’s presence like a limpet and was still hanging on. Charles felt a rush of warmth and gratitude for it. He never thought he would be able to get that again.
I wasn’t trying to recruit him, no, Charles projected gently. Even if he had asked, I probably would have said no.
Even without being able to see Erik’s face, Charles could still feel the quirk of an eyebrow, interest and curiosity turning over in that familiar, forbidden mind. “What is he to you?”
My brother, Charles stopped trying to look at Erik, and let his head fall back so he could stare at the ceiling. An electric zap of shock from Erik prompted him to add. My stepbrother, technically. Cain Marko. Charles frowned at the ceiling as he tried to work out what had bothered him so much before, while he was fighting for his life. It also gave him an excuse not to look at Erik because Erik may not be a telepath, but he could read people like a book nevertheless. Charles didn’t want him to read anything in his eyes.
Erik, predictably, did not allow him this luxury. He detached from the wall and went to the bed, leaning over into Charles’ line of vision, his eyes equal parts curious and utterly, utterly furious. “He called himself Juggernaut. Your family seems to have a predilection for adopting in mutants.”
Charles frowned, because that was what had caught him most off guard. “Cain wasn’t...” he whispered.
A callused hand pressed over his mouth and he looked up into Erik’s unyielding glare. Rolling his eyes, Charles continued. Cain wasn’t a mutant.
Erik’s eyebrows rose as he removed his gagging hand, trailing down off Charles’ chin and letting it settle, seemingly unthinkingly, on his undamaged forearm. “How long has it been since you have seen him, exactly?”
Twelve years. He went to Korea. I thought he was dead, Erik. KIA in ’52 when the cave he was in collapsed. He wasn’t a mutant, though, I am certain of it.
Erik shrugged. “Whatever he was or is hardly matters now. Whatever you did put him into a coma. No brain activity whatsoever. I didn’t know you had it in you, Charles.”
Charles looked away. The fact that Erik didn’t seem particularly happy about that statement did not make it sting any less. Charles wanted to lash out at him, to rail that the great and tortured Erik Lensherr was not the only person in the world with demons to fight and sins to atone for. But he knew his anger was with himself, as always.
A hand carded through his hair and gently turned his face back towards Erik, whose eyes were dark and intense. “You have six broken ribs, three cracked. Your collarbone was snapped in two, your arm was broken in three places. Your jaw was knocked out of alignment and your maxilla bone was cracked. There is a hairline fracture on the back of your skull. Your concussion was on the severe scale and there was talk of putting a hole in your head to drain the pressure. Your spleen was bruised and they’re still checking on kidney damage. The investigators think that someone – namely you – had been pounded repeatedly against the walls and floors.” Erik leaned in so that they were nose to nose, eye to eye. “Don’t you dare be sorry for that bastard or for surviving what he did to you. Don’t you fucking dare, Charles.” Erik’s eyes bored into Charles’ like augers.
Charles closed his eyes first because there was no other way. He leaned in to Erik’s hand where it still cupped his face, thumb tracing soothing circles on his cheek. Charles expected the hand to be taken away, but it remained.
“So, I gather there was some sibling rivalry between you two,” Erik said in a conversational tone that didn’t fool Charles for a second.
Some, Charles conceded neutrally. We weren’t close, even when we were boys. I only saw him at his enlistment because... Charles stopped.
Charles shook his head. Never mind. It’s all in the past.
He feels Erik’s glare, but he isn’t going to give in on this one. It had been like breathing, sharing everything and anything with Erik, but now Charles just isn’t sure that privilege is still invoked, or if he should use it if it is. Whatever Cain’s return and subsequent actions had and would stir up in his heart, Erik may no longer be interested in listening to how those burdens weighed.
“I suppose I should congratulate you on finally showing some sense around an enemy,” came the sardonic murmur.
That sparked a flash of anger. “You’re not my enemy.” He croaked indignantly, heedless of the sharp dagger sliding down his throat at he spoke, only to be gagged again by Erik’s hands.
Erik cursed in German before snapping. “I swear I’ll wrap your IV pole around your head if you do that again! No. Talking.”
But Charles was glaring right back at him now. Do you want me dead?
“What?” Erik scowled. “No.”
Did you save me so you could kill me yourself?
“No. Why are you...?”
Do you want me to do whatever you say, toe the line, be one of your soldiers?
“I can’t deny it would be nice if you listened to what anyone said about your own safety, considering how easily that idiot snatched you off the street and into the warehouse,” Erik snapped back, still bewildered. “I certainly never want you to be a soldier, given your track record of following orders.”
Then I am not your enemy! The mental yell was so loud that Erik nearly backpedalled. Isn’t that all you want for your enemies? To be dead or under your heel? Enemies in your world don’t play chess with you, Erik. You don’t help them or give them advice or make sure their sister calls home every month just to make sure everything is alright. You don’t help your enemies, Erik, you destroy them. So far, you have failed to destroy me.
“Half failed,” was the snarled, bitter reply, before Erik looked away and down to Charles inert legs.
The pain on his face jolts Charles out of his temper. He suddenly remembered that, up until this point, Erik hadn’t known. Sighing, Charles reached out with his unbound hand still stuffed with tubes and brushes Erik’s stony face. The other man flinched like a kicked dog. I don’t blame you.
Erik whirled on him, enraged. “Then you are stupid! You’re soft-hearted and compassionate and forgiving to the point of fucking self destruction and it’s only a matter of time before you and your merry band of children wind up dead!”
But it won’t be you, will it, my friend? Charles replied gently, trying to calm down that furious rage. It will be something else – someone else – and you don’t want to stand and watch, helpless...
Erik slapped his hand away and made to stalk out of the room. He got halfway to the door before Charles quiet plea stopped him.
I am sorry, my dear friend, that I hurt you so.
Erik didn’t turn to face Charles, a strange, raw noise bubbling in his throat. A bitter farce of amused laughter. “You only child, you. It isn’t always you, Charles. It was never...you.”
But without happiness, how do you really know how deep your sadness is?
The thought is so quiet and so utterly weary that Erik found himself turning back towards the bed. “Don’t be melodramatic. Believe it or not, I can plumb the depths of my own misery, thank you very much.”
That startled a quick huff of laughter from Charles, causing him to wince around his ribs. You aren’t my enemy, Erik. Fear is my enemy. Pain is my enemy. Ignorance is my enemy. Everything else is just a product of these. And I have learned the hard way that all the telepathic tricks in the world won’t help me. I have the same power to fight these had I had no mutation at all.
“This has to do with Marko?” Erik asked shrewdly.
Yes. Charles hesitated briefly, but soldiered on. I could tell you about it, if you like.
How much of their communication was in code. Just a few short months ago Charles believed all he’d have had to say to anyone is please stay. But Erik was a cypher, who required an enigma machine level translation for everyday life.
So Charles told him; bottles of shame spilling on the floor. About Kurt Marko’s sudden arrival in their lives after his father’s death, with his son, Cain. How Raven had been sent away because even indifferent mothering skills had given Sharon Xavier enough instinct to know having Raven in the same house as the Marko males would have been bad. About how Charles had been sickly and overwhelmed by telepathic input even then and had suddenly had to hone his skills damn fast to avoid his stepfather and stepbrother’s violent tempers. How his mother had slowly crawled into a bottle and never really emerged again. How Cain had been so pathetically grateful at first, that his father finally had someone else to take his twisted world view out on. How that gratitude had turned to fury and bitter envy, because Kurt had been a scientist too, and had at least respected Charles’ mind if nothing else. How the four of them had bounced and smashed against each other, ripping and eroding each other done to the bone, until there were no defences, no escapes, no expectations or hopes left.
How Charles, ultimately, owed his skill and control to a monster, too.
How that monster had saved his life, from the lab fire he and Cain had unwittingly started, Kurt dying himself in the process.
How much Cain had hated him for that.
How much he had still hated Charles, reappearing years later, after Raven came back, and shaken and shaken and shaken his mother by the throat, until Charles had stopped him, had gone into his mind exposing all the fractures and fault lines, trying to fix him so he would never come back, too young and too confident to yet know that by forcing it, walking all over another mindscape you break the ground beneath your feet into irreparable shards, that you do damage too profound for repair.
But Cain had left, much changed, much more broken, enlisted and died. How bitter and guilty Charles had been, for sending him to that destiny. How he’d tried to atone.
“Well, you succeeded with the children, haven’t you?” Erik said after the flood had receded. He was seated by the bed again, running a hand up and down Charles’ forearm. “Made them stronger by making them make themselves stronger?”
A small, sad smile greeted him. “Half succeeded.” And he squeezed Erik’s hand.
Erik just tilted his head, and squeezed back. “I’d best go and make sure your disciples aren’t going to come running in here to lynch me. It was hard enough convincing them to stay away.”
Thank you for that, Charles said while his mouth yawned.
“Well, that was your message wasn’t it?” Erik stood abruptly, but didn’t take back his hand just yet. “‘Take care of the children for me, Erik. I don’t think I’ll be coming back. Giving you your happiness back was the best part of it all.’” He mimicked sardonically. “It was all tremendously sweet, even coming from Emma Frost’s mouth. She will never forgive you for that, by the way.”
Charles watched the tense set of Erik’s shoulders. You won’t forgive me for it either, will you?
“Never,” was the matter of fact response. Then he pressed dry lips to Charles forehead before turning towards the door. “You’re a horrendously complicated, crazy man, Charles Xavier. Not many men could get an enemy to save their lives.”
Not my enemy, Charles repeated, and sleepiness slid his eyes closed. You are my dear friend. You just happen to be on the other side.
Erik didn’t answer, but a whisper of soft laughter followed Charles into dreams.