This isn't the first legislative summit Charles has attended.
While anonymity remains his top priority where the school is concerned, he himself has gained a certain amount of notoriety in the increasingly high-profile world of genetic research. Rather than try to slip back beneath the radar, Charles has embraced the publicity. He can more easily campaign for mutant rights from the center of this particular spotlight.
The dance that results is delicate. Charles struggles to keep himself strategically placed without bringing his school or students into the line of fire.
It's an exhausting balance to maintain, and Charles sometimes marvels when he looks at the calendar and realizes he's barely thirty. He feels lifetimes older than that.
The corridor around Charles now is empty, which means no bustle of people making it difficult to maneuver. Nothing but smooth carpet beneath his wheels as he navigates away from the main auditorium. He has no particular destination in mind, but there are empty conference rooms in the next wing. Space for him to collect himself and strengthen his defenses against a tumult of clamoring minds.
It's rude of him to miss the opening remarks, but Charles knows from experience that his absence won't cause a fuss. As long as he's present for his own scheduled panels, and for the unctuous cocktails that follow, no one will even notice his absence.
He rounds a corner at the end of a long, wide corridor—
And stops short at the bright flash of purple and crimson—at the figure standing just in front of him, directly in Charles's path.
Charles clenches his fingers tightly around the metal rims of his wheels, and stares up at Erik, gutted disbelief twisting in his chest.
He gasps Erik's name, and the syllables sound harsh in the silence of the hallway. "What are you doing here?" he asks.
Erik takes a step back and to the side, and for a panicked moment Charles thinks he's going to disappear. Then Erik stretches an arm out, gesturing towards the nearest door, popping it open and swinging it aside without bothering to touch the knob.
He vanishes through, cape swirling behind him, and Charles follows. Takes the time to close and lock the door before facing Erik directly.
"Are you going to answer my question?" Charles asks. The crafty smirk on Erik's face makes it clear he finds the inquiry amusing.
"How long before you're missed?" Erik asks.
Charles considers answering honestly—admitting to Erik that his first panel isn't scheduled until late evening, that until then chances are good no one will even realize Charles has stepped out. But whatever Erik is planning—and Erik is planning something, he wouldn't be here otherwise—Charles knows he can't give away anything that might put him at a tactical disadvantage.
"A few minutes at most," he says. "The opening ceremonies have already begun."
Charles studies Erik's face. Even beneath the concealing lines of his helmet, the years are beginning to show more heavily. There's fatigue, grim purpose, the weight of the world slowly crushing him. The helmet is a new design, offering more visibility, a wider gap through which Charles sees all these things, and his heart aches for his friend.
"Erik," he says softly. "Whatever you're here for… surely there's another way."
"Ever the optimist, Charles," Erik says, stepping towards him. Quiet footfalls, an inexorable approach, so soft in every movement that Charles finds himself holding his breath.
He doesn't know why Erik's approach is suddenly making his pulse speed. Surely Charles is in no danger. Erik may walk dark paths, but no matter how far he lets those paths take him, surely he would never hurt Charles.
They've meant too much to each other for that. Even now there's something between them that Charles has never been able to put into words.
Erik stands before him now, tall and tense, and bright like the dangerous center of a flame.
"You'll always be waiting for me, won't you?" Erik says softly. There's sadness in his eyes now. "You'll never stop hoping for the impossible. For me to prove myself better than I am."
"We can always be better," Charles says.
Erik moves suddenly. Sharp and startling as he leans down and braces one hand on the arm of Charles's chair—as he bends close and cups the nape of Charles's neck with his other hand, fingers slipping through his hair, gentle and warm.
"Erik, what—?" But Charles doesn't get to finish the question. Erik's mouth stops him short, forcing silence with the press of a kiss.
Charles's eyes slip closed, and he gasps against Erik's mouth. His fingers grasp even more tightly at the wheels of his chair as Erik parts his lips and deepens the kiss.
The helmet's edges press awkwardly between them, smooth metal interfering with this unexpected intimacy. Charles already hated the damn thing. He finds his resentment growing even more potent now.
Erik pulls back too soon. He stands in a smooth flourish, and Charles feels chilled, maybe a little bit lost.
"Stay out of my way, Charles," Erik says.
"Erik, wait!" Charles calls, but he can't move fast enough, can't follow as quickly as Erik vanishes out into the corridor.
When Charles reaches the door, the knob refuses to turn in his hands.