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Forget The Present Tense

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The fall is graceless, composed of awe as well as vertiginous exhaustion. When Erik's knees hit the hardwood floor, the pain that blooms is so intense it knocks the air from his lungs, like some explosive release of noxious volcanic fumes. The man himself barely notices. His focus is on the materialization of both desperate dream and guilt laden nightmare-- Charles, in whose ephemeral existence he has invested more implicit belief than the G-d of his childhood.

Before him is his Galahad, the comely youth of bright ideals and un-pierced heart tempered by trials yet deadlier still. Xavier is not precisely as Erik has known him in the murky narrative of his dreams, where they both traveled and argued and sought in some odd modern analog of a knight's quest. 'Don Quixote,' Erik's other, darker expression had sometimes thought. That appellation remained thankfully unuttered, for even he knew the professor was not one to bend his considerable intelligence towards tilting at windmills. Charles' idealism has never been the typical surface lacquer so easily wiped away, and Erik can see it even now. Older, no less handsome, the professor sits regally in his chair-- a posture that lacks the conscious ostentation the word usually implies. Perhaps it is more the tired but squared shoulders of a veteran gladiator. That thought, and the sheer disorganized rhapsody of the comparisons not-quite-forming in his brain, makes Erik color in shame and blanch at the memory of the stadium. Just another garbled mass of symbolism-- hasn't he already proved he's retained way more from his Mythology In Art seminars than anyone ever should? But these unexperienced memories have never seemed less dream-like, and even the frantic make-shift levees his mind has constructed can't disguise that bone deep truth. What is seen cannot be unseen, and the man whose startled gaze is riveted on Lehnsherr's own is a perfect replica of the one he could not aid. Trapped beneath a pylon or wounded on fine-grained tropical sand-- it doesn't matter the order of the visions or when the devastating injury happened, because Erik is clearly too late.

The mute testimony of the wheelchair-- an overwhelming object despite its discrete and elegant design-- is deafening beyond sound. No different from the blast-force of the market place erupting, the echo of three gunshots on a dreamscape beach, or the

(dull, ringing-bone thud of her poor body)

silence of his mother has he called for her in the wreckage of their station wagon.

 

Erik is on his knees but still going down, pulled by gravity and inertia but also pushed by a profound sense of 'not-belonging'. It's as if the stage-props of reality he's always feared are not only flimsy and two-dimensional, but belong in a different play altogether.

'Make sense, goddamn you!' he thinks at the universe in general and its absentee G-d in particular. And then, something from Hebrew school, which probably proves he really _has_ hit his head too hard already; 'the age of miracles is over'.

The loss of spiritual equallibrium and his tenuous grasp on consciousness are about to result in a humiliating TKO. The only thing that saves him from another concussive blow is the nimble intervention of his host. A solid rower's arm-- only made stronger by its added duties-- comes to bar Erik's fall in tandem with a quick, deft pivoting of the wheelchair itself. The firm grasp of another hand on his shoulder follows, ensuring the interloper can brace himself a bit on the equipment without bowling himself and his rescuer over. This leaves the former sergeant and his now solid phantom in what is, by the most basic of definitions, an embrace. If Charles were drawing the taller man up rather than halting his fall, the scene would be an eerie echo of their first encounter amongst the delirious tides of Erik's coma. They both gasp simultaneously, as though time has folded backwards and left them surfacing for air.

 

A thought, which Lehnsherr recognizes as external in the same way one instantly differentiates between their own handwriting and that of a stranger, drifts dazedly through his mind.

'How…?'

The same question would be on his own lips if articulation were an option at this point. As it is, he cannot seem to speak past the throbbing of pain and the swirl of confusion in his mind, nor can he raise his head to look at the man he so foolishly told himself he could protect.

Charles helps him settl as gently as possible in what amounts to a kneeling position, though he shifts most of his weight onto his heels. Thus stabilized, Erik feels sure scholar's fingers brush against his cheek-- and the five o'clock shadow which should not yet be present-- to tilt his chin up. The strong digits exert not the slightest degree of force or pressure, but are impossible to resist all the same. Looking up, he observes once more that Xavier's hair is longer than he's used to. The other man is far too pale beneath his neatly-clipped beard and there's an odd air of defiant perseverance about him, but his eyes are the nameless blue Lehnsherr knows so well. The former soldier has scoffed at dramatic cliches and the 'heart-stopping' encounters in Magda's carefully concealed stash of romance novels-- but here it is. Not just the sense of some monumental pivot turning, but a stirring of possibility and recognition. Affinity that rakes elegant yet ultimately earthy claws ruthlessly across the soul, gutting one in sensual ritual.

There's no mistaking the professor's shock and astonishment. Whatever he expected when he called Erik's name earlier, this cannot possibly have been it. Yet what he says, even as Lehnsherr longs to look away and mask the sense of failure in his own expression, is; "It was a long time ago, my friend. There's nothing you could have done."

 

Shit. While Erik's heard variations on that theme before, he's much more concerned with exactly how much of his garbled and likely insensitive thoughts have escaped via verbal diarrhea. He doesn't remember speaking aloud, but his brain-mouth filter is spotty even when he's completely compos mentis. The communion they experienced earlier was too strange and intimate for him to contemplate, beyond the sense of exposure and frustration at yet another impossibility that refuses to slot into rational space.

His hands fist at his sides in agitation as he stares helplessly up at the man in the wheelchair. Lehnsherr himself served one of his various stints in purgatory stuck in just such a contraption, and he knows the quick, nervous glances that seem to infect certain people despite notions of respect for service and 'honorable sacrifice'. It goes without saying-- or rather, it is said in Charles' expert handling of the equipment and the enhanced musculature of his arms-- that the professor is no such temporary tenant. 'Mobility transition', the Rehab KGB called it, as though eager to add the concept of motion as a carrot for those confined. And still, Erik's host is utterly unbowed, radiating empathy with all the constancy of the sun.

"At the moment," Xavier says gently, "I'm a bit more worried about you, my friend."

 

The faint smile Erik responds with has two sides; dazed gratitude towards Charles, and more than a little chagrin for his own behavior. It doesn't-- or _shouldn't_-- matter what sort of fear-related chemicals his good ol' pal PTSD wants to flood his amygdala with. The syndrome may have carved associative paths in his brain but other, far more important behaviors had been drilled into him long before trauma came home to roost. While one doesn't have to be a soldier to notice the preponderance of discrepancies at play here, he has the responsibility of responding functionally. Alright, okay; some of what he's encountered seems beyond possibility, but none of that matters, and he's still cheering for logic to come through in the clutch.

With an effort, Erik forces his mind back to the old triage system of priorities; find shelter, apply general aid, establish contact with the outside world. Be aware of the variables you can't control or conceive of, but for fuck's sake don't waste energy _worrying_ about them! He waits for that feeling of cold detachment, armor more vital than any kevlar or hazmat suit, trying to sink into the hollow center of 'the mission and only the mission'.
If only he knew what that _was_.

There's a hand in Lehnsherr's non-regulation hair and he discovers, to his eternal mortification, that his body has apparently interpreted 'find shelter' as 'press your face into Charles' thigh'. He takes a couple of long, deep shuddering breaths, and the deft fingers stroke soothingly.

('He makes you weak by offering a safe haven,' whispers a necrotic voice Erik refuses to recognize. Hand-me-down terror; the ghost of someone else's boogeyman. 'You'd never notice the temperature if you weren't given the option of coming in from the cold.')

 

"There's been an accident," he rasps out, throat far more raw from his previous bout of vomiting and continuing nausea than he'd realized. "Out by the billboard and that creek area. Near the hidden drive. There were others, they--"

"You walked all that way?" Charles asks, pulling aside the collar of the injured man's jacket and gingerly inspecting the deep cut on his neck.

Lehnsherr begins to shake his head and stops abruptly. Bad life choice. "No. From the field, somewhere past the satellite dish." Now gritting his teeth, "I didn't see it before. It doesn't make sense!" He starts to look up again, wanting to confirm the conjuration of this unknown yet only long-absent friend, but even that is too ambitious. He has to settle for the solidity of the form beside him and the warmth seeping through Charles' khakis.

"It's alright," the professor says quietly. "I'll help you, I promise. Just a moment more."

Xavier has already helped Erik by not calling the cops, and the obvious follow-up question dies on the intruder's lips. Despite the ringing in his ears, he's suddenly aware of a thunderous collection of thumpings and banging beyond the library doors. It sounds as though some large animal is giving its best go at a solo stampede. He steels himself to stand, having found at last that empty pivot of function through the morass of panic and adrenaline. A vague image from the earlier not-dream flickers in his mind's eye; himself, face immobile as any iron statue, willfully oblivious when Charles needed his help. All he really manages is a pathetic rocking motion, backwards onto heels already aflame with protest. His left ankle is shot, the constant static of discomfort having risen to a pitch beyond qualification-- the swollen aftermath of which has actually left Erik stuck in bed once or twice over the past few years. Xavier's hand exerts just enough pressure to keep him from being stupid despite his body's clear distress signals, and Lehnsherr obeys. There are several military doctors on both sides of the Atlantic who would probably give the professor a medal just for that. In another moment or two, the second of the library's great mahogany doors swings aside to admit a slim figure Erik can just make out past the spokes of his host's wheelchair.

 

The newcomer is a tall young man; pale, dark-haired, with glasses so thick-rimmed and outdated Lehnsherr would classify them as 'vintage hipster' in any other context. He's wearing brown corduroys and a yellow-orange button down shirt, the collar of which comes down in two very retro acute angles. The whole garment looks like it was donned rather hastily but, unless there were twenty of this string-bean out there, Erik doesn't see how he could possibly have been responsible for all that racket. Looking at him, the former sergeant feels a shock of almost-recognition. Like running into someone from high school who has changed just enough to be disconcerting. Some people are practically born with the faces they'll have for life-- his father was one of them. Jakob Lehnsherr looked virtually the same from the age of fourteen onward, growing a beard in college less out of observance than in an attempt to gain some credibility. Not immune to the ravages of time, certainly, but the constancy is potent enough that only the addition of layers seems to occur, rather than actual change. He can picture this man-- who looks more and more like a kid-- in gray track sweats, looking nervously back at Charles as he jogs over to join Erik out on the gravel drive.

As one struggling for the quadratic equation years after regular usage has passed, he thinks, 'I know this. I know this.' Once more, 'Sully' and bizarre notions of a furry hulk tease erroneously at the edges of his thoughts.

Oblivious to Erik's mental hop-scotching, the man glances at the intruder in a manner cursory enough to indicate he too does not feel he's looking at a stranger. It's only the briefest of glances, his concern reserved for the professor whose personal space Lehnsherr is very obviously and thoroughly invading.

 

"Hank," Charles says with warmth, relief, and perhaps a hint of warning. Erik has no time to contemplate the ephemeral strands of steel in those tones as Hank-- not Sully, but Hank-- responds as though already participating in an on-going conversation.

"Professor," a lengthy pause, before narrowed brown eyes begin evaluating the stranger in soaked jeans with unnatural placidity. "Are you certain--?"

"Quite certain," Xavier responds quickly. For all his atypical calm, Hank does seem to regard Erik with the level of hostility appropriate for home-invaders-- injured or no-- and a bit more besides. It's hard to look contrite, defiant, or any combination thereof with his head practically in Charles' lap. Erik is distressingly aware of the exact moment those fingers vanish, like those of a child caught fondling a jewel or fine silk. Reluctant, but burned.

 

(Distant, heard through the thin door to a… cockpit? No, some dingy warehouse storage room, so empty it practically echoes.

"You know he's only playing by your rules because it suits him at the moment, don't you? He hasn't changed. That stunt on the plane--!"

His own lips, quirking in a rueful smile as he eavesdrops, far more interested in Xavier's response than the complaints of a man who not only denies his difference, but enables Charles to do the same.

"He has legitimate grievances. He always has, but his methods…" A pause, a crack in the remnants of Erik's scratch-and-dent heart, but also heart _taken_. A decade of imprisonment and neglect, of willing belief in false accusations, leaves him thoroughly aware he should know better but-- oh! ten years might almost be worth it if Charles would only *see*.

"They did come for us, Hank," the professor continues. "Frost, Azazel, Sean-- none of them deserved that, and they're all proof that he was right. According to Logan, they'll keep coming for us until--"

"Just… don't get your hopes up." Primed from his long draught, Erik exercises considerable restraint in not crumpling the pathetic metal door. His possessiveness-- which anger and resentment have never been able to conquer-- is very much alive and well, and far too expansive for his form. It is not Hank's place to pass judgement, or pretend to understand what the partnership between Erik and Charles should have been. What Charles _promised_. "I hate watching him bite the only person who has always been in his corner."

And how has _Hank's_ mealy-mouthed constancy served the professor? Do they think he can't see, can't read the tremblings, the fine sheen of sweat, and the all-to-easy way Charles knocked back scotch?

"Apparently you've forgotten quite a few drunken diatribes."

Eloquent silence.

"… I'm a big boy, Hank.")

 

Erik blinks rapidly, the muscles in his shoulders and back tightening like a horse trying to throw off a harness-- the intrusion of memories/projections which feel both dated and fresh. Keeping his face expressionless is the other challenge. This 'Hank' evokes a morass of associations in Lehnsherr beyond the kaleidoscopic confusion of dreams. There's that look about him, the raw one Erik encountered on

(Newcomb)

so many fellow recruits in Boot. At almost twenty one, he'd been old for a newly enlisted man. His comrades-- not all, but a fair few-- came fresh out of high school and Bum-Fuck, Nowhere. Even the chips on their shoulders were green.

 

It quickly becomes clear that the latter impression is not at all a fair comparison. Despite his obvious distrust of-- distaste for?-- Erik and the situation, Charles' associate is all poise and professionalism.

"Hank McCoy," he clarifies. Not terse, but a functional introduction, as if the sight of the intruder's vaguely quizzical expression compels him to put things in order.

"Erik Lehnsherr," the former sergeant replies, recognizing also that the social pretense is a touchstone. Comforting ritual yes, but-- more importantly-- an insistence on mundanity. Something is off here, so much so it comforts McCoy to behave otherwise. For his part, it makes Erik equally relieved and suspicious.

 

"Let's get you off the floor," Hank says, pausing only to hand Charles the sort of doctor's satchel Erik has rarely seen outside old films. He proceeds to haul Lehnsherr up with far more strength than the soldier would have ascribed to the lanky form. With one of Erik's arms slung over his shoulder, the skinny Hercules supports his patient for the seven agonizing steps it takes to reach the nearby couch. Settee, really-- its too delicate and well-aged to be called anything else. It doesn't even creak under Erik's buck eighty weight, though, and his tuchas is more than grateful for the plush burgundy cushions.

"Can you tell me where, specifically, you're injured?" Hank asks, taking the bag back as Charles wheels behind the end of the settee upon which Erik's head is resting.

"Concussion is the worst part, probably," Lehnsherr reports. "I tried to ditch the bike but went off the embankment instead." At Hank's somewhat incredulous "I was wearing a helmet, though, and I've got a thick skull to begin with." The snort from the man supposedly treating him sounds incongruously animalistic. Erik watches him pull forth a penlight, unable to stop himself from asking distrustfully, "Are you a doctor? 'Cause, no offense, but I'd card you. Twice."

"I'm not a physician," the other says, shining the damn light anyway. "But I am a doctor. I have the state qualifications necessary to run our infirmary, and several Ph.D.s. Does that improve your confidence?"

"So you're authorized to administer vaccinations or splice recombinant DNA," the prone man jokes bleakly. He'll be the first person to admit he's unnerved and confused, which is always when the prickly spines come out. His natural defense is actually anger; turn that sideways and slap a coating of jocularity on it and you have a slightly more socially acceptable way of dressing up combativeness. Unfortunately, his humor is so dark ('you need a fuckin' flashlight,' his fellow NCOs used to say) and dry he usually comes off as an ass anyway. Luckily, before Hank has a chance to respond, Erik zeros in on something else that doesn't jive.

"Wait-- your house has an infirmary?" he asks, performing the limited contortions his body and the furniture will allow as he tries to get Charles more firmly back in his field of view.

"He has a rather deep cut in his neck, as well," the professor points out, inadvertently easing the patient as he wheels closer still. To Erik he says, with careful factuality, "This was a school."

"It's a flesh wound," Lehnsherr says dismissively when Hank begins peeling away the collar of his jacket and shirt. He protests no further when the doctor reaches for gauze anyway, far too absorbed in those few words from Xavier to summon any more bluster.

 

'Was a school'-- anyone else would have detected only the prosaic in those cultured tones, but he knows that voice. Knows its promise in the wake of lost quarry; its scathing chastisement of suits who saw only freaks, weapons, and other less savory pejoratives instead of people with extraordinary gifts. The tremulous whisper of it, more vibration than sound or breath, which followed the ragged dirge of hoarse cries he himself knew so well-- the kind which chase you from your dreams. This ghost of speech, the countertenor of flute far off, had once supplied for Erik-- after much beseeching and the more dangerous seduction of emotional succor-- a broken narrative of hammer-fisted stepfathers and mothers who might as well have been sleeping. Nothing to the noisy prowling of stitched bones in his own

(no, they are not mine-- I disown them, and the fear stirred in me by suffering trapped on film, frozen chemical processes that took place long before I was born. if I inherit anything, it is logical uneasiness of my people and the horror any true thinking being should feel, but it does not _belong_ to me.)

nightmares, but carrying a strange new element. Familiar discord; old as a folktale, but freshly hideous in the experience of wishing to protect someone from cruelties more banal than the grotesque crimes he'd known.

 

The look on Charles' face now is a brief mirror of nights in pitch-and-neon hotel rooms. A flush of shame at suffering which, in the face of atrocity, might seem woefully beneath mention. And, chasing that, an uncomfortable acknowledgement that the role of teacher-sage he'd chosen left no room for such histories. Then he smiles, smoothing a brush over the mine-riddled past , the most recent annals of which were clearly not included in Lehnsherr's erratically detailed dreams.

("I don't think," says Magda's voice, also in the dark, while Erik contemplates every ounce of the glock's weight in his hands. "I don't think she'd be disappointed in you… or ashamed, or anything like that. It's not a matter of being weak or 'feeling sorry for yourself'." He's shirtless but thickly muffled in the sweat of night-terror and detox. She, unexpected visitor, perches nearby on the mattress with such care she almost seems to hover over the faded quilt. "When you love someone, you don't want them to hurt. You don't start dissecting and measuring their misery. She would never want to see you in pain.")

 

"I'm not seeing any atypical pupil dilation or balance issues," McCoy announces, voice like a fire-bell in the library's native silence. Xavier's eyes are very wide, and Erik colors as he puts an end to the contorted position he's been holding. Looks away.

Having disinfected the gouge on his patient's neck, Hank moves on to taping the gauze. With the bag open, Charles adroitly reaces past him to snag a bottle of mercurochrome. This he daubs carefully on Erik's secondary scrapes, shallow wounds singing while the smell disturbs old-- and thankfully entirely recognizable-- associations in Lehnsherr's brain.

After shooting the professor an indecipherable look, McCoy asks, "Any vomiting?"

"When I first woke up, yeah. I still feel really nauseous at times, but there hasn't been anything for--" With his phone in his back pocket, and rendered untrustworthy besides, the soldier relies on his not-unimpressive internal clock. "Thirty or forty minutes."

"Does anything feel broken?" A standard question and one whose answer, as the tone of his erstwhile nurse implies, doesn't carry much weight.

 

'Aside from basic tenants of logic and my already questionable grip on sanity?' Erik thinks, inwardly rolling his eyes at himself. Factored into this damage report is the likely catastrophic beating taken by the thin, membranous wall he's had erected between Charles as an intellectual concept, versus a emotional one. Just as one may whistle in a graveyard to disturb the still (dead) air and emphasize the difference between traveler and permanent resident, so too had Erik refused to invest that last bit of psychological weight in a man who-- no matter how cherished-- gave no sign of existing beyond the realm of dreams.
Such studious empiricism cannot hold up given the feel of Xavier's fingers and the waking sight of his concern, to say nothing of what Lehnsherr can think of only as the 'touch-which-is-not-touch'.

"About as banged up as usual," is the answer he decides on. "But no specific, overwhelming pain." Which still means little, as Erik knows from both CLS (Combat Life Saver) training and personal experience. Walking on breaks and fractures is an old trick from his lacrosse days. Ah, for youth and marrow that knit back together so readily!

"His left ankle," Charles begins, gesturing, having somehow seen through his guest's soaked jeans and boots. Hank patiently unlaces the combat surplus, rolling a black sock down to reveal a collection of geometrical scars punctuated by the slight extrusion of a few tiny knobs. Erik's little souvenir from Landstuhl. It's hard at work proving it can still swell as impressively, if not more so, than the last time its owner bit off more than he could chew.

 

A vet-sponsored hike in Adirondack Park, that had been. Many creatures-- mongoose, hedgehogs, and moles among them-- can tolerate high levels of snake venom due to sheer evolutionary exposure. In this same way, Erik and his fellows in the genus of 'chronic pain sufferers' are, to some degree, unable to relate to the typical scale of medical discomfort. Not immune to agony by any stretch of the imagination-- just more likely to stumble past their body's limitations, inured to the warning klaxons. It isn't just pride that prompts Lehnsherr to think most civilians in his position would be screaming right now. Just rueful practicality. On the other hand, he knew a guy in rehab-- an Airborne medic with the fractious nickname of 'Archangel'-- who probably could have hissed and spat his way through this bang-up in a manner that would put the EOD sergeant's stoicism to shame. Worthington, it bears mentioning, was also willing to jump out of perfectly good airplanes-- but Erik still knows he doesn't have the market cornered on tough-guy BS.
Based on the bare facts of the accident, they should have been hauling him out of that field in a stretcher.

Hank's semi-quizzical look-- the professional version of nonplussed-- reveals the doctor is well aware of this himself. Slowly, taking care to expose the other ankle for comparison; "There's no discoloration, at least. The swelling on the left--"

"Old injury," Lehnsherr says breezily, "There's a metal plate and five screws in there. It swells if you breath on it the wrong way." If that comes off sounding rote, it should. He's had enough practice. He eschews the gym not out of embarrassment, but to avoid the continual explanations-- most often ilicited by interested parties of either sex trying to 'break the ice'-- he ultimately considers a waste of time. But, curiosity being the nature of the human beast, people always ask. Especially since the rest of his leg, to say nothing of the hip, isn't any prettier. The scars there are just more impressionistic, rather than being the result of a surgeon's cubism. At any rate, solo runs and the punching bag he's strung up in the basement give him a chance to clear his head. Inject a little Zen in his life, or some shit like that.

 

An eyebrow raises over thick-rimmed glasses. "Be that as it may, we should probably take a look at it--" McCoy's gaze flickers over towards Charles, accompanied by a pause both suspiciously lengthy and worrisomely truncated. "-- later. There's the danger of fractured ribs, as well. Any difficulty breathing?"

Erik shakes his head, pondering the implications of that statement: either Hank has access to sophisticated medical equipment, or they intend to wait to call an ambulance or take the intruder to the nearest Urgent Care. Neither option makes much sense. Not that he's in any way eager to shell out copay or waste time filling out forms, but surely even the most compassionate

(too giving, too trusting. suckled on british formalities amongst the self-assured 'logic' of ivory towers. ah, schatz, may you never know-- despite my frequent desire to shake you 'til those clean teeth rattle-- how thin in the veneer of your precious 'civilization')

altruistic person would take the obvious opportunity to hand an unknown variable over to good old 'due process'. Frankly, Lehnsherr thinks McCoy might even be thrilled by such a prospect. Certainly neither he nor even Xavier owe anything to a man who exacerbated his wounds breaking and entering.

"The best thing for now is rest," Hank continues, sounding almost resigned. "Stay off the ankle, keep it elevated. I can give you something for the pain…"

 

"No." The word is not at all impassioned, though Erik himself is surprised by it, not having intended to speak. Inflectionless, factual, it drops from his mouth like a stone ringing on desert glass. The very lack of fervor seems to startle both of his companions. Another lift of McCoy's dark, bushy eyebrow leaves the patient unimpressed, though he feels compelled to diffuse his rudeness with an explanation once Charles wheels back into view. "I'll take an advil or something, if you have it." He gestures vaguely towards his saddle-bag, laying abandoned by the radiator. "Actually, there's some in my pack. But," he looks at Xavier, at those blue eyes which so engender trust. The familiarity and lack of judgement in that gaze are like a finger trailing effortlessly down behind his spine; instinctual knowledge that he has allowed this man to observe or assist during far more dire straights. For a man who hasn't cried in front of anyone since his mother died, the response to such exposure is like a horse rearing before fire. Almost wildly, he finishes, "You don't owe me anything."

Which is the polite way of saying 'I don't want to owe _you_ anything'. Scratch-- okay, gouge-- Erik's more than healthy personal paranoia, and you're still going to find a kid from the 'stranger-danger' generation. Even before fraudulent charities, cat-fishing, and chain-emails from off-shore 'princes', Erik's mom was helping him check his Halloween candy and reminding him not to go off with anyone he didn't know-- even if they said his parents had been hurt or had sent them-- unless they had the family password.

 

"I'm sorry if I basically broke into your house," he continues, even as a large portion of him wishes he'd stop talking right now. "I swear, and I _know_ this sounds crazy, that I was here before and this place was deserted! I wouldn't have tried to come in, otherwise." Swallowing, throat dry with frustration and the anger stirred by that frustration. The thick ball of led lodged behind his Adam's apple seems only to metastasize when the other two men-- especially Hank-- fail to react with surprise or chastise him for feeding them some kind of line. He turns his focus instead to the object of his quest, unable to tell if the professor is aware of the talismanic aura he has acquired. Are visions-- burning wheels, birds given human speech, messengers of the impossible-- embarrassed by their own incongruity? "You act like you know me. You know my name--"

"And you knew mine," Charles replies gently.

"That's just it!" Erik explodes. "I came here trying to make sense of all this s-- stuff," he stumbles, somehow self-conscious about cursing in front of this man. Absurdly, he fears he'll only come off as more uncouth. "I came looking for you." The admission is reluctant, as absurd as the heat prickling behind his eyes. Despite his best efforts, the next words come out sounding betrayed, "And you weren't _here_."

An expression of such tenderness crosses Charles' face that Lehnsherr's breath stops abruptly, chest tightening as though from electric shock. He is vaguely aware of Hank hurriedly looking elsewhere. Like starlight in the desert-- a beauty Erik had conceptualized but never expected, creature of city pollution and industrialization that he was. He had encountered it then quite unexpectedly in a land of gunfire, unholy heat, and all the debris of war; there, the wonder had seemed unreal. Unfair, even.
And G-d knows Erik has never expected life to be fair.

He's hatching one of those deep rages that are the flip side of his earlier anxiety. He probably looks like he's near to frothing at the mouth, and lesser men have occasionally earned a punch or a slap trying to touch him in this state. Xavier reaches over, Moses charming the snake-staffs of the Pharaoh's magicians, and places a hand on Erik's shoulder.

"I'm here now," he says, sweetness heightened to lifeblood because it is so certain, so implacable. A prosaic statement, but also a sentiment similar to one Lehnsherr heard fighting the tide of his own exhaustion.

("You are not alone, Erik.")

Perhaps it is more precious still because, this time, Erik knows it belongs to _him_.

 

"We seem to find ourselves in a bit of an introductory quandary, at the moment." Having dared the shoulder, Charles' hand next brushes against the prone man's forehead-- a sympathetic combination of smoothing away hair and checking for fever. Erik anticipates another press, more intimate and intangible, yet does not feel neglected when it fails to materialize. The professor seems blithely unconcerned that Erik's typical definition of 'personal space' is three times in excess of the average person's. ('And his heart three sizes too small!', the wits in Boot liked to chorus.) The dreams have been full of this physicality, the easy blend of being and camaraderie, but Erik still finds it astonishing here in waking life.

('So young, so very different, yet the same,' some voice the ex-soldier does not yet understand-- perhaps only his imagination-- had murmured earlier.)

Quietly, Xavier finishes with, "It would seem neither of us have all of the necessary pieces."

"Granted," Lehnsherr says, accompanying this with a look that says he is well aware the professor is withholding something. No, he hasn't shown all of his cards himself, but he's pretty sure Charles and his associate have a few more from the dealer than he does.

"Surely now is not the best time, strategically, to consider such things." The scholar certainly knows which side of Erik to appeal to.

"Surely the lengthier the rationale the less likely it is to be true?" It's lazy return shot, and really only a formality. Those fingers-- ink-stained, he can see at this proximity-- have tucked back a lock of Erik's hair, coming to rest with studied inconspicuousness on the cushion beside his elbow. The challenge strikes the patient himself as sounding hazy, like the kind of nonsense you might spout before an intimate argument becomes… something else. A part of him does believe the protest-- a logical explanation should be fairly concise, in most cases. The rest of him just wishes he could summon up more irritation with the scholar's reticence.

His comment provokes only a brief laugh from Charles, which seems to startle the man himself. "Generally, I agree with you-- though I have encountered some unfortunate exceptions."

 

"Like quantum mechanics," Hank opines dryly, and with an irony Erik doesn't get. He lets it go, knowing himself the fluctuating solidity that comes when other people in the room are utterly focused on one another.

"Indeed," Charles agrees, shooting McCoy what is-- for him-- a warning look. "One hesitates to describe any accident as 'typical', but I think we can all recognize that there are anomalies in this one that might require… shall we say, 'less than routine procedures'? Another grudging nod from Erik, whose current view of the mental chessboard is wavering under bone-deep fatigue and the sense his current throbbing headache has developed a catastrophic migraine of its own.

 

"Two questions. For now," Lehnsherr adds warningly.

"Understandable. There are some things I want to check before we have any involved discussion, though." Charles makes no attempt to hide the worry furrowing his brow. The former sergeant remembers, with an agonizing prick, that Xavier had called to him as though expecting

(the other, the masterless and unmastered monster hunter, the one responsible for a single missed bullet he somehow managed to fail at twice…)

someone else.

"When I couldn't find you earlier… Did you do that on purpose?" He'd love it if that would come out less hollow and more confrontational. No such luck, and he knows his eyes are riveted on that face, so open and yet capable of concealing an optimism and hope Erik cannot fathom.

"Oh, my friend," Charles murmurs so low Lehnsherr is surprised he's able to hear it, accompanying this with a squeeze of the hand. "Had I any way of knowing you were searching, I would not purposefully have concealed myself."

"And you're not with some government project?" the patient waves his hand vaguely, to show this last word encompasses any number of black-box shenanigans.

Now both McCoy and the professor laugh-- the sort of rough, nervous bark you direct at yourself. "Far from it," Xavier assures. "In fact, you might say we have a distinct investment in avoiding the government's scrutiny as well."

Erik nods solemnly, recognizing the statement for what it is-- a weakness revealed to encourage good faith. "Then in the interests of full disclosure, I'm ex-Army."

 

"Which army?" Hank asks, as if this is the most puzzling concept he's been presented with thus far. Said former sergeant might not find McCoy objectionable ordinarily, but he also gets the feeling he might never have a ton of patience for the guy, either.

"Why, the army of Gandalf the Gray, of course," Lehnsherr retorts, sarcasm on full parade. When this provokes bemusement rather than annoyance from his intended target, he says, "This army-- of the United States of America, if you can but dig it." Looking over at Charles, he asks far more gently, "That's not a problem, is it?"

The professor shakes his head, fixing each of the other men in turn with a gaze quite worthy of any put-upon elementary teacher. The smile that peeks out forces Erik to master the urge to smile back. "No more than my rather obvious dual citizenship, I trust?"

"Alright," Erik says, sighing heavily. His acquiescence is announced to the unhelpful wood-paneled ceiling as he lies back on the settee, resigning himself to the fact the light at the end of this rabbit hole has been delayed for the time being.

 

This-- he insists to himself, wishing he sounded more grudging even in his own mind-- had better be one hell of an explanation.

 

.