The thing about Charles Xavier is that he never loses his hope.
One would think that if you had the power to read minds, to know every malicious thought, every dirty secret that humanity had, you would at the very least develop a certain amount of distrust for the world.
But not Charles.
Even after Cuba, after the wheelchair, after having to send his X-Men to battle week after week, he still hasn’t lost hope.
Hank doesn’t notice it at first, when Charles talks about little things that Erik did or said. The pain is still fresh, the wounds are open and raw and everyone is still hoping that they’ll come back. He thinks that Charles has simply forgotten that Erik and Raven have left them, and he listens to Charles regale the young Ororo Munroe of how he helped his friend explore the depths of his power.
“It’s the place between rage and serenity,” he tells her. “And if you remember this, you’ll be just as powerful as my friend Erik.”
When they have their first skirmish with the brotherhood, Xavier’s mind linking he and Alex and Banshee together, he feels Charles’ momentary shock and dismay at seeing Magneto fight. Erik’s none too gentle with Alex, who he throws back with a wave of his hand, and Hank himself spends a couple of days in the infirmary after trying to stop Azazel. They’re all banged up when they trudge back to the mansion, and Hank says his mental goodbyes to Raven.
The following day, however, Charles tells Scott of the time when he and Erik first tried to teach Sean how to fly.
“You’ll gain control of your powers eventually,” he says. “Of course, it was Erik who really taught Sean to spread his wings, but I daresay I can help you along your path just as well.”
Hank realizes then that Erik will always have his place in the mansion, even though Magneto’s long gone.
He’s become the defacto field leader due to Erik’s absence and Charles’ legs, but this added responsibility doesn’t stop him from tinkering with his toys in the lab.
Hank’s trying to design a better wheelchair for Xavier—perhaps something lighter and more maneuverable. His demeanor hasn’t changed much since the accident, (at least not that Hank can tell), but he knows that no one can go through a change like that and remain unscathed. Xavier’s only human, after all.
Hank isn’t as good with words as Raven was, so he tries to help in the way he knows how.
It takes him a few more days to complete it, and he adds a large “X” as an added flourish to the wheels. He’s actually quite proud of it, and he promptly rolls it out of the lab and searches for Charles.
He tries the dining area, kitchen, and his new room on the ground floor, but Xavier’s absent from all of them. He tries the study as a last resort, and is surprised to find it open. He wheels the chair in quite soundlessly (another small triumph of his design). There is a chess set paused in mid-game in the center table, but Charles isn’t sitting before it.
He’s sitting by the window, and now that Hank’s eyes have adjusted to the semi-darkness, he can just make out his silhouette.
“Professor?” He asks tentatively, and it’s a testament to how far gone Xavier is that he starts at the sound of his voice. It’s almost impossible to sneak up on a telepath, but Hank’s managed it.
Xavier turns to him then, and Hank catches a glimpse of something in his eyes when he sees the new wheelchair. It’s something sharp and angry and painful, and Hank winces. Did he do something wrong? He’s about to retreat when Charles gives himself a mental shake, a smooth mask of pleasantry sliding over his features.
“Hank,” he says, carefully wheeling himself forward. “I see you’ve been busy.”
“I thought you might want something that handles better,” Hank says, pushing the chair forward. “I used as little metal as possible, though I haven’t been able to find a substitute for it in the frame yet.”
Xavier reaches out, touching the armrest. “It’s… it’s very nice, Hank,” he says, cracking a smile at the embellished wheels. “Nice touch.”
They stare awkwardly at the chair before Hank clears his throat. “I can help you—“ he begins, but Charles cuts in just as quickly.
“I can do it—“ he snaps, and there’s that look in his eyes again, and Hank pulls back as if burned.
“I’m sorry, professor,” he says. “I just wanted to see if you wanted help getting into it.”
Charles raises a hand to his temples, shaking his head. “No, I’m sorry, Hank,” he says. “I admit that asking for help is not something I’m accustomed to doing, and these past few months have been trying. The physical rehabilitation, the loss of our… Well. No matter. I know your intentions are good, and I do appreciate the new chair.’
‘If it’s all right with you,” he says. “Perhaps you could leave it at my bedroom? I’ll start using it tomorrow.”
“Of course, professor,” Hank says, taking hold of the chair once more. “Please let me know if there’s anything you need adjusted.”
Charles nods, and Hank holds his breath and tries not to think too loudly. As he leaves, he catches a glimpse of Charles reaching out to touch one of the chess pieces. It’s the black king.
Hank shuts the door behind him.
Time heals all wounds.
It’s autumn now, yellow leaves blanketing the Xavier estate. Alex has almost forgotten about the others—Angel and Raven and maybe even Erik. Charles has been steadily recruiting, new mutants arriving every week. They’re young mostly, scared of their manifestations and looking for friendly faces. The school for the gifted is open to them all.
Alex meets Remy and Marie and Lorna in the foyer, smiling as he leads them to their respective dormitories. They’re young, much younger than he was when he first met Charles and Erik. They’re lucky.
“You’re getting good at that,” a voice behind him remarks, and Alex grins.
He shuts the door behind Lorna (and what interesting green hair she has), and turns to face his brother. “Playing butler?” he jokes.
Scott laughs. “Helping out,” he says. He reaches out, clapping Alex on the shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Alex.”
“Thanks.” It’s been a while since Scott has been here, but Alex still can’t help but marvel at his presence. The professor had located him months ago, blind and alone, and the strides they’d made together had been monumental.
“What’s on your mind, Scotty?” Alex asks. They walk down the hallway together, Scott fidgeting with the ruby visor around his eyes. Another of Hank’s inventions, and come to think of it, he’s been disappearing for longer and longer hours into his lab. Alex wonders if he should worry.
“Well, I guess I just wanted to ask you if…” Scott pauses, as if groping for words. “The professor wants me to join your training sessions.”
“You’ve already been to my training sessions,” Alex says, looking at him in confusion. “Why do you need permission to…?”
“Your /other/ training sessions,” Scott breaks in, and Alex frowns.
“In the danger room?” he asks. “No way, Scott. No way in hell. It’s too dangerous! You’ve been blind for the past five years and suddenly you want to go around playing soldier?”
“Alex, I’m perfectly capable of functioning with my sight restored,” Scott says. “Actually, I think I might even be more observant than most people, considering I had to hone my other senses before I had the visor.”
“Even so,” Alex insists stubbornly. “You could get hurt!”
Scott grins. “You’d think you were the older brother here,” he says. “I’ll be fine, Alex. I just wanted to let you know in advanced… so you aren’t surprised or anything.”
“I don’t like it.” Alex says tightly, but the look on Scott’s face makes him relent, albeit slightly. “I don’t like it, but if both you and the professor want to do it, then I guess I don’t have a say.”
He sighs, reluctantly slinging an arm over Scott’s shoulders. “Just try not to make me look bad in front of Sean and Hank, okay?”
“I’ll try,” Scott replies, a smile tugging on his lips. He ruffles Alex’s hair fondly. “The professor wants Ororo to join us, as well.”
Alex squawks in indignation, pulling away abruptly. “Ororo, too?” he says. “Great, now we’ve got two newbies to watch out for the next time Magneto tries to pull something. You guys better hold your own.”
“We will,” Scott promises.
They continue down the hall in companionable silence, and Scott mulls over the professor’s words prior. He looks at Alex contemplatively for a moment, then asks: “Do you know who Erik Lehnsherr is?”
Alex is so thrown off by the question that he halts mid-step. “Woah, where’d that come from?” he asks.
“The professor mentioned something to me in passing,” Scott replies. “I was just wondering who he was. Professor Xavier seems to think quite highly of his tactical prowess.”
“Oh,” Alex says, tensing minutely before replying. “He was an old friend of the professor’s who… used to train with us. It was a while back; he’s gone now.”
“I see. The professor seems to think that Hank’s interests are better geared for the lab; I think he wants to groom me for field leader,” Scott says. “He was saying that he saw as much potential in me as Erik had.”
At that, Alex rounds on him, grabbing him by the elbows. “You’re nothing like Erik Lehnsherr,” he says sharply. “Don’t ever aspire to be him, Scott!”
Scott frowns. “Alex… are you all right?” he says. “I know you have seniority—I have no idea why the professor said what he said.”
Alex waves him off, sighing. “It’s not that. The prof knows I don’t particularly like responsibility, and Sean’s even worse. I just...” He trails off, looking pained.
“Look , just forget Erik Lehnsherr, okay?” he says. “Maybe the professor likes to talk about him sometimes, but the guy’s bad news. And believe me, Scotty—you’re a way better person then he’ll ever be.”
The distress in his brother’s voice is too obvious to ignore, and Scott forces a grin. “Thanks. I consider that high praise coming from my little brother.'
He slings an arm around Alex, steering him in the direction of the kitchens. "How about we get the cranky kid some juice, eh?” he asks, changing the subject abruptly.
“Aw, shut up,” Alex grumbles, but lets Scott pull him along anyway.
There are worse things than being teased by your big brother, and Alex is just happy that he’s here.
Sean thinks of himself as a pretty easy-going guy. He’s quick to forgive his friends for their endless teasing, the first to shrug and laugh when the latest skirt he’s chasing turns him down… hell, he even forgave Erik for shoving him off of a satellite dish over a year ago. But even he has to draw the line after their latest battle with the brotherhood.
Scott’s broken an arm, Ororo’s still unconscious from getting smashed face-first into concrete, and Hank and Alex are both going to be in recovery for a week. As for Sean? He’s down with two broken two ribs and a mild concussion. He knows he’s lucky to be alive; Angel had been playing to kill, and apparently the X-men had missed the memo saying the kid gloves were now off.
He passes a hand through his hair; swearing softly under his breath as he leans over to pour himself a glass of water. The throbbing in his side won’t let up. He won’t be able to fly for weeks given the state of his ribs, never mind going another round with those guys.
“If the professor needs someone to fight his next battle, he’s going to have to look somewhere else,” he mutters to himself, glaring darkly.
It’s one thing to avoid killing and/or maiming the enemy. It’s another thing entirely to go into each fight with warm, fuzzy feelings about them. If Raven and Angel are going to play for keeps, then Hank and the others need to get their heads out of their asses and hit hard enough to hurt.
They haven’t been a team for well over a year, and Sean’s had it.
He says as much during their next team lesson, two weeks later.
He’s still got a bandage around his torso and Scott’s arm is still in a sling, but the others have more or less recovered. Xavier’s briefing them on an upcoming scenario for the danger room, quizzing them on possible situational responses.
“When a teammate decides to break rank, you’ll need to make a decision on the spot whether to follow or leave,” he says. “I was once faced with the decision myself, when Erik decided to take it upon himself to disobey our CIA liaison and attempt to capture a target himself.”
Scott and Ororo are listening raptly, but the rest of them shift in their seats. Sean listens to the professor go on about their mission in Russia, but he’s heard it before, and from Erik himself. Finally, he’s heard quite enough.
“And everything turned out okay even though Erik broke the rules yet again, right?” he interrupts, crossing his arms over his chest.
The professor pauses, and everyone turns to Sean in varying states of shock. No one had ever been so blatantly disrespectful to the professor, and to have it come from Sean is a bit of a jolt.
“Is there something on your mind, Sean?” Charles asks mildly.
Hank puts a warning hand on Sean’s shoulder, but he shrugs it off. “Yes,” he says, getting to his feet. “Yes, there’s something ‘on my mind’. We almost got ourselves killed during our last run-in with our dear friends in the brotherhood, professor. Angel tore my wings up, Mystique broke Scott’s arm, and your precious Erik made Ororo eat pavement.”
He sees Scott and Ororo draw up in shock from the corner of his eye, finally understanding just who the wonderful person they’d been hearing about is. Normally he’d be sorry for breaking the code of secrecy he and Hank and Alex had agreed upon, but he’s too angry to care right now.
The professor steeples his fingers, looking at Sean calmly. “What would you have me do?” he asks.
“I don’t know, how about act like you give a shit?” Sean asks. “You send us out week after week to stop Magneto and his brotherhood, and week after week, they put us down. We’ve won maybe three skirmishes in the past year, and every time we come back beaten up and bloody, you’re still talking about how Erik’s such a great guy.”
He shakes his head. “He put you in that chair and you forgave him so easily,” he says. “When are you going to realize that he’s beyond saving? When he finally kills one of us?”
“Jesus, Sean, that’s enough,” Alex interrupts, grabbing him by the arm. “He didn’t mean it, professor. He’s just pissed about being out of commission for so long.”
“Get off of me, Alex,” Sean snaps. He takes a step towards the professor, wincing as his ribs twinge a bit. “Well, professor? I think we all deserve an answer.”
The professor is quiet for so long that they all wonder if he’s finally snapped, but when he looks up, his eyes hold only a vague sort of disappointment.
“This school was built on the ideals that humanity will one day come to accept mutantkind,” Charles says quietly. “This is why I send the X-men out, week after week, to thwart the brotherhood’s plans.”
He meets the gaze of each student; lingering, searching. “We fight on the side of people who hate and fear us, in the hopes that we can change their minds through our actions.” He says this without heat, not even a hint of reproach for Sean’s abhorrent behavior. “This school is built on hope, and just as I will never stop fighting Magneto, I will never stop hoping that Erik may someday change his mind.
‘Our doors will always remain open to Raven and Angel and yes, even Erik,” Charles continues. “Because without hope, without forgiveness, we would be no better than the brotherhood that we so strongly fight.”
When he’s finished speaking, Sean can’t bring himself to meet his gaze.
His face is burning with shame, and he thinks ‘I’m sorry, professor’ as hard as he can and hopes that Xavier will read his mind.
Another year passes. Their doors open to new children, extraordinary powers flooding their halls. It’s not an uncommon sight to see his young pupils speeding down the corridor, traversing through walls, or even teleporting from one floor to the other.
Some things change, but others stay the same.
The friendship between Alex and Sean and Hank remain unbroken, the bonds forged between them on the beach in Cuba have grown stronger still. And Charles? Charles still talks about Erik.
The children have grown accustomed to it, having tacked off the name as one of the great legends to have walked through the Westchester estate. They don’t know that he’s the same person they see on the news, the same mutant the older students go off to fight sometimes.
Once, on a whim, they ask Hank if he was in school the same time as the mysterious Erik. Hank was the oldest of the X-Men, and the nicest, but he had shut Remy down like nobody’s business. Charles had had to have a talk with the boy afterwards, kindly telling him that while Charles was happy to talk about Erik, the others would rather not speak of him because they missed him.
“I know what that’s like,” says Remy, nodding solemnly. “When someone’s gone, it's better not to talk about them, because every time you remember, it hurts.”
A pause, then: “Why do you talk about him so much then, professor?”
Charles wheels to a stop. “Because remembering him, even though it hurts, is preferable to forgetting,” he says.
He leaves Remy then, heading back to his office on a chair that has somehow (finally) become an extension of himself. He laughs softly and without mirth when he realizes that simply looking at himself in the mirror every day is reminder enough of Erik.
The curse of having his mind is that he can remember every detail, every moment that day on the beach. He can remember the smoke, the heat rising from the ruins of the plane, the sweat trickling between his shoulder blades. He remembers the guilt, so heavy in Erik’s eyes, and the way his fingers had felt on his cheek. The last time they’d touched.
But Charles can’t bring himself to regret his gift, either. For every detail that he remembers of Cuba, he can just as easily call to mind every other moment before then. He can remember how Erik’s thoughts had felt when he’d let Charles in, allowing him to sift through memories and draw out all that was good in him. He remembers the smoky taste of his mouth, when he kissed him after they made love. He remembers Erik’s low chuckle when he’d told him off for smoking in his bed. He remembers the way sunlight would catch on Erik’s skin in the early morning, painting him in gold. He remembers Erik thinking, quite clearly: “I could grow old with you, just like this.”
And he remembers precisely when Erik realized that Charles wasn’t enough.
It was always Shaw, of course—an old, dead ghost that Charles had never even met but had the displeasure of dying with. A reminder of everything that Erik may have let himself forget, in Charles’ bed.
Not for his people, his new brothers and sisters, and Erik would fight against his oppressors because that was all he knew. Shaw was a symbol of his hatred, and Charles knew he’d lost him the moment he’d pulled out the coin.
When Charles opens his eyes, he’s unsurprised to find that his face is wet. The chair is hard; plastic now, thanks to Hank’s continuous redesigns, but it doesn’t feel any less cold.
He couldn’t forget Erik if he wanted to.
And he doesn’t want to.
There’s nothing quite like the passage of time to make even the most passionate of men irrelevant. Erik has held onto the brotherhood for far longer than he should have; his hair is silver and his bones ache. Charles, he knows, had already passed on the torch to Scott Summers; he’s been leading the X-Men both in the field and at the school for well over a year now.
“Quicksilver,” he says, waving a hand to open his chamber door. “Come in.”
“Mystique said you wanted to see me,” Pietro says. He’s strong and tall and lean, practically vibrating in place. Magneto knows that this world will never contain his son, never break Quicksilver the way they did to him. He’s glad of it.
“I’m leaving,” Erik says without preamble. “The brotherhood, the war. All of it. They’re yours to lead, now, Pietro.”
“Quicksilver.” Pietro corrects him automatically.
They don’t use their slave names here, but just once, to say goodbye, Erik allows himself to think of his son as a boy and not a soldier. “Of course,” he says, smiling faintly. “Quicksilver. You’ve been privy to all my plans for years; you know how important our cause. I know I can trust you to continue it.”
“Yes, father,” Pietro replies. “I admit that I was… expecting this. You haven’t been yourself the past few months.
‘To be honest, though… I didn’t expect your departure. I assumed you would stay on.”
Erik raises a brow. “The brotherhood cannot have two leaders,” he says. “I would only hinder your authority if I were to stay.”
Pietro runs a hand through his hair, and for a moment he looks so much younger than his twenty-five years. “I… I understand,” he says finally. “Where will you go?”
Erik doesn’t reply for a moment, but he hooks his thumbs into his helm and slides it off. He levels a gaze at his son. “To someone I should never have left.”
Pietro frowns. “To the professor, then. You’ve certainly talked about him enough, all these years,” he says. “He’s made you weak, father.”
“Perhaps,” Erik says, passing a hand over his face. He’s tired of this. “Perhaps not. Either way; it’s yours, now, Pietro. You may do with my empire as you wish.”
He steps closer to his son, puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes. “Tell your sister I love her,” he says. “And tell Mystique… tell Mystique that I’m going home.”
“Father…” but whatever else Pietro has to say, Erik doesn’t hear.
He waves a hand and bends the steel wall on the far side of his chamber, causing the metal to ripple and part like water. The steel sings to him, a discordant song that only his blood can decipher. He floats through the gap, leaving cape and helm behind.
Beyond the wall is the ocean.
Beyond the ocean is Charles.
/Can you hear me, old friend?/ he thinks. There’s no reply, but it doesn’t matter.
They found each other in the middle of a roiling sea in the past.
They will again.