I Am Origami
She comes exactly eight months, fifteen days, seven hours and forty-three minutes after Cuba, after the last time Erik had touched him and Erik had left him. (Charles is not counting every passing second.) It's spring now, all the traces of snow are gone — like it's never been there in the first place, like the scent of Raven's perfume or Erik's aftershave — and the fields outside the mansion seem to shine, the droplets of dew on pearly white petals of snowdrops reflecting light. The spring had chased away the cold and the darkness and Charles wishes it could also chase away the old nightmares.
She comes at night. It's raining heavily outside, pouring down on the delicate flowers, crushing them and bringing them down, and essentially killing them before they even had a chance. A lightning strikes across the ink black sky and a doorbell rings. The boys exchange looks and Alex gets up, tenses, prepares for a possible fight. He's not a boy anymore, he's a man now; a man with responsibilities and obligations towards his friends and no amount of long-gone (it's a lie that they all tell themselves every day) affection is going to make him stand down if the Brotherhood comes for them. If they come for them, not when, because Charles believes that it's not certain, that there's something left of Erik in Magneto.
"Is this where Charles Xavier lives?"
Spoken in a soft woman's voice. Alex grunts something and a few minutes later he brings her into the study. Hank and Sean wear stern expressions on their faces, full of distrust and open hostility. Charles just cocks his head to the side and regards the newcomer.
The woman is in her early thirties, not much older than him. She has a round face framed by waves of thick coal black hair and a slightly hooked nose that Chares would have never expected to see on a woman's face, but which somehow fits their guest. Her hazel eyes — neither fully brown nor green, just a perfect combination of both — look much older than her face; they look like they belong to someone who's seen and lost too much, who holds secrets they can't share. That, at least, is something Charles can understand.
"I am looking for Charles Xavier," the woman announces and it's difficult to place her accent. As an afterthought, Charles realizes that's because she has no accent — her pronunciation is perfect, mastered by years of learning and training and it gives away nothing about her. It's what Erik sounded like when he was tense, trying to control himself; usually, around Charles, he's been letting his Polish-German accent slip, colour his words a shade of funny and sweet.
"You found me," Charles tells her and the woman smiles. She comes up to him, offers her hand and says:
"My name is Gabrielle Haller and I'm one of you."
They quickly learn that to everything Gabrielle Haller tells them, there's a whole other layer of things she neglected to mention.
She tells Charles that she would like to offer her services as a teacher and that she is quite good at that. Quite good is the part she stresses and when Charles asks her about subjects she might do, she gives him a list twelve modern languages she's fluent at and tells him that she could do a full history course.
Once Sean catches her outside the mansion, sitting on the grass in a swimsuit only. He stares at her — and so does Alex and, surprisingly, so does Hank, and Charles can't really blame them. Gabrielle Haller is — for now — not only the lone female resident, but she's also... Exactly. She is. She's not beautiful by the standards of the modern world (not like Moira and definitely not like Raven), but the strength of her beauty lies not within being of the classical sense. It's the exotic part; if anything, Gabrielle reminds Charles of an Eastern princess, like Justinian's Theodora or like Mariam-uz-Zamani.
And then Sean asks about the tattoo on Gabrielle's left arm and the woman's usual gentleness and sweetness is in an instant replaced by detached cold. Her hazel eyes become much greener and for a moment Charles thinks of another pair of eyes that turned green under the maelstrom of emotions. He swallows. He doesn't want to think about those eyes, because now they're forever steely blue and ice cold to them.
"It's a reminder," Gabrielle says.
"Of what?" Sean wonders and next to Charles, Hank moans and buries his head in his hands. Charles longs to do the same, because in this moment, Sean's naivety is embarrassing.
But Gabrielle smiles. Not one of her usual delicate smiles, no; she smiles widely, shows all her teeth, and it melts the ice from her eyes and they return to their normal green-brown colour.
"Of what people are capable of doing to one another."
There are layers to Gabrielle, folding marks on the colourful sheet of her personality, different shapes her persona has had throughout the years. There are secrets and quite possibly lies and Charles can't know them because he can't read her. He asks about this, once. Gabrielle just looks at him through half-lidded eyes, from under long lashes, and says:
"You have your tricks, I've learned several of my own."
But overall, she's good to them. She helps out as best as she can — which is often more than Charles could have ever hoped for. She trains with the boys and when children start coming to the school — an African girl named Ororo, a boy named Douglas and a little Amara, whom Sean found unconscious outside the main gate — Gabrielle takes care of them as well, guides them, helps them and loves them.
Charles can't stop thinking that she's trying to replace something with them.
And Gabrielle is good for him as well, he can hear the sentiment loud and clear in the boys' heads whenever they spot him and Gabrielle sitting opposite each other in the study, discussing philosophy or science. Charles smiles a lot more now than he did before she came, a calming presence of someone just there. (He still thinks about Erik, though. Maybe the wound in his heart needs more time than the wound in his back.)
One evening, Gabrielle says she wants to play chess with him. Charles spares a glance at the dusty chess board — frozen in the middle of a game, untouched since Erik left — and Gabrielle notices it, asks whether she can clean out the board or not. Charles closes his eyes and says yes.
She tells them that rapid healing is her power.
That's one thing Charles never thought she might have lied about.
It happens so fast that afterwards no one is able to tell what exactly happened.
Sean and Ororo were outside on the grounds with Gabrielle, practicing together under varying weather conditions. Then Amara stormed outside, angered about something Ororo did. The girls argued and Amara's powers went a little wild. Sensing that something was wrong, Gabrielle stepped in and became the unfortunate victim of a small scale, local earthquake. That was the part everyone agreed on.
Amara accused Ororo of stealing something her mother gave her, and she desperately wanted it back. Gabrielle tried to approach the girl, told her that everything was fine. But Amara lost control over her geokinesis and the more angered she was becoming, the more the ground was shaking. Gabrielle told Ororo and Sean to go back inside and get Charles, and then Amara snapped. The earth shook, Gabrielle fell and she broke her neck. That's Sean's — still so young, now so shaken, but the only reliable one — version, delivered quietly.
Ororo sobs that she only wanted to try on Amara's beautiful gold broche, that she just borrowed it and forgot to give it back. In her memories Charles sees that she refused to say sorry and that's what made Amara give up the shreds of control she had.
Amara doesn't say anything — she just sits on her bed and stares blankly at the opposite wall.
Alex takes Gabrielle's body back to the mansion, down to Hank's lab. They lay her down on a gurney gently and Hank tries to look for a pulse. There isn't one, of course, because even with healing powers at hand, no one has ever recovered from death.
Charles touches Gabrielle's bare left arm with his fingertips — just drags them from elbow to wrist, over that awful number — and he doesn't know why he's doing that, he isn't even sure how he feels about her... Felt. Felt about her. Felt? Still feels?
And then Gabrielle takes one deep, shuddering breath and looks at him with tear-filled eyes so green and so familiar.
"I'm sorry," she says.
"I can't die."
They are sitting in the study, gathered around the fireplace, everyone with a mug full of hot tea. Gabrielle stares into the fire, the dancing flames make her skin look darker and her eyes chestnut brown. She turns the mug in her hands, careful not to spill the tea, but she doesn't drink.
"What do you mean, you can't die?" Sean asks and his voice is still shaking. "That's bullshit, we've seen you die, I've seen you die!"
Gabrielle laughs bitterly.
"Let me rephrase that. I can die, but it never sticks."
"So you're... immortal?" Hank wonders and Gabrielle nods. Hank swallows soundly. "How old that makes you?"
"I don't know." Gabrielle smiles, but it doesn't reach her eyes. They're really dark now. "Very old, I guess."
There's more talking after, there are firm reassurances — that Gabrielle is not leaving them, she's the one who is going to stay — and there are hugs, lots of hugs delivered to Amara, and to Ororo, and even to Sean, who grabs a fistful of Gabrielle's shirt and just holds. Cool aunt, he calls her as they part.
Soon the children go to sleep and Charles and Gabrielle remain alone.
"I wish you trusted me."
Gabrielle sighs and moves to stand behind Charles' chair. She strokes his cheek with her fingertips, then starts playing with his hair.
"This is not something that's easily shared, Charles," she says patiently. "Not even with another mutant."
"Because... because I don't have a shape, Charles. I'm like a blank sheet of paper, constantly being folded and changed. I've lived for so long, I've seen so much. Things I can't tell you. Things you won't like."
"I thought we were friends," he whispers and prays to whomever might be listening that he's not sounding as desperate as he feels. He already lost one friend recently, he doesn't want to find out that the other is not a friend at all.
"We are. But we're not close. I don't want to be close."
"Because I've lived a thousand lifetimes, Charles, and you have only one. Only one is never enough and I don't want to be alone again."
"Being alone is the price of a change," he tells her wistfully and feels the surprise she's projecting.
Much to the amusement of Westchester's inhabitants, Sean gets a girlfriend. Ororo and Amara decide that Maeve is pretty and because Sean is pretty as well, they'll have very pretty babies. Sean blushes furiously and stutters when he asks Charles' permission to borrow one of his father's cars on Friday. Charles agrees, because he knows how much this means to Sean. He's responsible for those children and he genuinely wants them to be happy.
He watches Sean go out on Friday night with bittersweet feelings.
"Why so sad?" Gabrielle asks.
"I used to go out every Friday evening," Charles replies. "Against my sister's good advice, I always tried to flirt with the cutest and the silliest girls in Oxford."
Gabrielle raises her brows.
"Why don't you go out anymore?"
That's a stupid question, and a hurtful one, to be honest, so Charles to laugh it off. He points at his chair.
"I doubt any girl would look at me right now," he answers and tries very hard not to sound resentful. He doesn't blame Moira and he doesn't blame Erik, no, never Erik. He... he doesn't.
Gabrielle steps closer to him and kneels in front of the chair. She puts one hand on his knee — it's strange, knowing that her hand is there and not feeling it at all — and cups his chin with the other. She looks directly at him and her eyes are once again so green.
"I am looking," she whispers and it's an invitation and a promise.
He doesn't love her and she doesn't love him either, so it's fine, this thing between them, it's convenient.
Gabrielle whispers secrets into his neck, draws sigils of protective spells long forgotten onto his skin, writes down affectionate terms used by people who's been alive and who died centuries before. Her hands are always warm against his skin and she touches him like one would a lover.
They're not lovers.
"There is a term to describe what we are to each other in Old Egyptian," Gabrielle tells him one night when they're lying on her bed (always hers, never his, his bed is his and Erik's), "but since you don't know that language, the meaning of the word would be lost to you."
She talks to him in languages that are dead, in languages that were and aren't, in languages that haven't been rediscovered yet. Dausht, eshfeer, she calls him a friend in languages so old that it makes Charles' head spin. She was there to learn them. And yet...
"Gabrielle is not your real name, is it?" Gabrielle shakes her head. Her black locks dance around her face and in the dim moonlight her eyes seem even brighter than usual. "Will you ever tell me?"
"I've had many names," she says as she presses a kiss to his collarbone. "There isn't enough time to tell you about every person I've ever been. I've been a goddess and I've been a peasant. I've been a victim, I've been a lover of poets, a wife of kings, a mother of heroes. I've been many things, Charles."
"Who were you first?" he repeats the question and Gabrielle stops kissing him, gives him a look he's seen somewhere already and it wasn't on her.
"Have you ever heard of origami, Charles?" Gabrielle asks suddenly. Charles nods. "I'm like that folded paper. I've been reshaped so many times, there are so many folding lines that you can't make out what shape came first."
"First came a single sheet of paper," Charles reminds her and Gabrielle chuckles.
She drags her fingertips down his chest and manages to distract him from the question.
In the morning, there's a paper swan sitting on the bedside table and Gabrielle is not in her room. Charles reaches for the swan and unfolds the paper. He smoothes it and reads what's been written.
"Will you stay?"
Gabrielle contemplates it.
"For now," she answers. "But I don't do forever."
A persistent reporter managed to get a decent picture of them and that's how Charles gets to see Erik and Raven on national TV.
"Have you ever been in love?" he asks Gabrielle during a chess game later that day.
"I've been in love many times. That's the easy part. Loving someone is what's difficult."
"Fine. Have you ever loved someone?"
Gabrielle's gaze becomes distant and it's clear that she's not focusing on the game anymore. Charles doubts her thoughts are even here at the moment.
"A few times," she says so quietly that he strains to hear the answer. She starts counting out. "Nefer in Egypt, he was allergic to dates. Cassius in Rome, he had ginger hair. Thomas in thirteenth century, he was a doctor and a very good man. Paolo in seventeenth century Venezia, I still have the locket he made for me. And..." Her hands drops. "And Jakob."
Charles licks his lips.
"Does it ever stop?" Gabrielle furrows her brows, not quite understanding. "Losing... them. The people you loved. Does it stop hurting?"
"No," she answers honestly. "I won't tell you that everything is fine and that you will be fine, because it never stops hurting. You just learn to live with it. And after some time the pain lessens, you hurt just a little bit less. You move on, but it never stops hurting."
"And you never fully forget," Gabrielle carries on, talking more to herself than to Charles now. "Sometimes you remember a face and you can't remember the name, sometimes you remember a name but you can't remember the face, sometimes you..." She stops. "I've buried men I loved. I've seen my children grow old and die and fade into nothingness. Once my daughter had to pretend I was her granddaughter. Once I watched my son's spirit break. Once I haven't even seen my son grow up."
"Usually," Gabrielle tells him as if it was a confession, "I leave them when they are old enough to understand, but when they're still young enough for my age not to attract attention. I fake an accident or an illness, or a murder if I'm feeling mischievous. And they live their lives, and they're happier without me."
"Are you happier?"
"No," she admits. "But it shouldn't be about me. Life's about making sure they are fine and happy and safe."
They discuss baby names.
Charles says he always liked David and Gabrielle agrees.
"Rahma," Gabrielle says suddenly. "That's you."
"Rahma. It's an Aramaic word that means love and friend."
Charles lowers the newspaper he's been reading.
"I don't think I love you," he says slowly. "I may be in love with you, but I don't love you."
"That's fine." Gabrielle reaches for an apple. "I didn't suppose you would."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I know that you still love her," Gabrielle explains, "and that I respect that. A part of you will always love her the same way a part of me will always love Jakob."
"Him," Charles corrects after a moment of silence.
"Him. Love him."
"Him, fine." Gabrielle rolls her eyes and rubs her hand over her stomach. "But loving him doesn't mean you can't move on with your life. He left you. And he didn't come back."
"Sometimes I think he is trying to protect me."
"Protect you from what?"
"From the world." Charles reaches out for his mug and takes a sip of tea. "From himself."
David Max Xavier (Gabrielle wanted his middle name to be Charles and Charles vetoed that) is born on 17th April, a date that didn't go down into history books but suddenly became one of the most important moments of Charles' life.
Hank decrees the baby healthy and the girls decree him cute. Charles just thinks he's sort of perfect and wishes Raven was here with him, could see it as well. The baby boy is tiny and has a dusting of light brown hair, and it's the most beautiful thing Charles has ever seen.
And then David opens his eyes and turns to look at his father and Charles finds himself staring into a pair of wide, greenish-blue eyes that remind him of Erik so fucking much.
It physically hurts him to look at David and that thought alone just adds to Charles' newfound misery.
David is going through a phase Sean describes as terrible twos. He's a lively child with imagination that knows no boundaries, constantly in motion, constantly asking questions, demanding attention. He's dotted upon, loved and cherished, and he talks loudly and fast, way too much and Charles laughs more than is probably healthy.
But sometimes, in the evenings, David cocks his little head to the side and regards his father with those greenish-blue eyes that change colour depending on David's mood, and Charles just... can't. He just can't.
But he does try, because that's David and Charles loves him more than anyone and anything else.
So David is two when Hank first hears about a government-approved Project X. It becomes the it case for them, their to be or not to be.
"So your government is trying to find mutants," Gabrielle says. The fact that she's rubbing her left arm doesn't go unnoticed by Charles. "What are we going to do?"
They all look at each other.
"Find them first?" Sean proposes hesitantly after Alex's plan of just 'blowing 'em all up' is rebuffed.
Hank points out that they'd need a Cerebro in order to do that. But they don't have Cerebro and building one would take them ages. Charles swallows. Hank is right, it would take them ages unless...
"We would need Erik's help," Charles says quietly, but in a voice that bears no disputes. They are going to do this, they are going to forget about their pride for a moment and simply ask for help. And if Erik truly fights for the welfare of mutants, he will help them.
This time Charles doesn't notice the shiver that goes through Gabrielle when he utters that one name.
They come in a puff of red smoke, Erik and Raven and that teleporter, Azazel. It's the first time they see each other since the beach and Raven stops dead in her tracks when she notices him. Erik, on the other hand, is trying to look everywhere but Charles, preferring the openly hostile expressions on the boys' faces.
"Thank you for coming." Charles tries to make it sound casually and fails. He knows that and Erik knows that too, looks at him for the briefest moment with so much regret and longing that it catches Charles' breath.
"Of course," Erik echoes the superficially conversational tone. "Should we start?"
Hank leads them to the part of the cellars they decided to transform into a new Cerebro. Erik takes the blueprints they've prepared, goes over the details, argues with Hank about properties of several kinds of metals. In the end, they agree that building this blasted thing shouldn't take longer than ten days. Charles exhales. Ten days. He has ten days, he will have Erik for a little more than a week. And then they will part again and he will go back to being by himself, but no, that's not true, there are the kids and there's David and there's Gabrielle (and he doesn't love her, probably never will, but wishes he could).
After the consult Hank, Alex and Sean leave the cellar. They aren't happy about it, but Charles tugs at them mentally and tells them that he wishes to speak with Erik alone. When the boys disappear, he turns to face Erik who finally looks right at him.
"Charles..." he starts.
"Erik," Charles says at the same time.
They fall silent for a minute, then Erik takes a deep breath and a step closer to Charles.
"Charles, Sean told me that–oh."
Erik turns around to face Gabrielle so fast that he must have got a bit dizzy. Charles moves a bit to the side in order to see Erik better and that's how he notices that Erik's eyes widened impossibly, that the look on his face transformed from annoyed to complete shock and that he went very pale. His breathing is irregular now and Charles honestly fears that — for whatever reason — Erik is going to be hyperventilating.
He doesn't. He just stares at Gabrielle — who's squirming, uncomfortable and scared, and Charles has a feeling there's something he's missing — and then he murmurs one word, full of disbelief and anger and fright and hope.
David pouts. Ororo, Douglas and Amara don't really know what's going on. Hank, Alex and Sean know what's going on, but they don't know what to think about it. Charles, Gabrielle and Erik are sitting in the kitchen, supposedly talking (though it's really quiet in there). Azazel's gone. Raven just watches her nephew and tries not to over-analyze his parentage.
Three hours later, Charles, Gabrielle and Erik are still sitting in the kitchen and it's still quiet.
"This is way beyond awkward," Alex decides and for once everyone agrees.
They try talking, but it doesn't help anyone. Instead, they just stare at each other in silence.
At least Erik and Gabrielle do. Charles tries to remember that single memory of his mother that Erik shared with him. It's not possible, is it? Surely, if Gabrielle... if she were... he would have noticed, right? He would have recognized her.
Apparently, he wouldn't, he decides once he's found that memory. It's bright with Erik's emotions, but it's blurry when it comes to details and the woman sitting next to Erik is skinny and her hair is short and brown. She looks nothing like Gabrielle and she does at the same time, especially when you know what you're looking for. The shape of her nose and her eyes (and Erik's eyes are of the same shape, and David's too, and oh God), for instance.
They sit in silence for several hours, because no one dares to move. Finally, Gabrielle gets up and out and Charles' gaze immediately wonders off to Erik's face. There are many things that Charles wants to say to him (I love you and I'm sorry and I didn't know are the top three) and many things he wants to hear in return (the top three remains the same though), but Erik gives him an unreadable look that stops Charles mid-breath, and he too leaves the kitchen.
Erik and Raven reclaim their old rooms.
Charles and Erik's bed goes back to being just Charles'.
Charles is the first person in the kitchen in the morning after, per usual. He's making tea for the kids when he hears footsteps behind him. That used to be part of the morning routine, but it hasn't been for a long time now and it shouldn't feel so natural, so comfortable.
So good and pain-free.
"Good morning," Charles says without turning.
"Good morning, Charles," Erik replies and it's impossible to read anything from his tone, which is kept perfectly flat.
Charles makes two cups and is tempted to add brandy to that, but no, no matter how much he wants to get drunk now, he can't. Responsibilities, obligations and role-modelling. Charles pushes one cup towards Erik and Erik peeks inside. He laughs. It's short and sharp, but it's there.
"What, no brandy?"
A little smile tugs at the corner of Charles' mouth.
Charles sips his coffee while Erik empties the cup quickly. Charles watches him play with a spoon; the metal melts and Erik reshapes it, creates a little figurine, but Charles can't make out the shape. Then Erik clears his throat.
Charles worries his lip between his teeth. Of course, Erik would assume that... What exactly did he assume? And what exactly Charles was supposed to tell him? Gabrielle — and dear God, she'll always be Gabrielle and no one else, because thinking of her as anyone else was not a good idea and Charles finally understood why she never wanted to tell him about her life — didn't love him and he didn't love her, and their whole relationship was based on trying to be a substitute of someone you can't have.
"Dada, look!" David bursts into the kitchen, clutching something tightly in his hand. He runs up to Charles and hands it to him. "Dada, look. A swan."
Charles takes the paper swan and unfolds it gently. Smoothes the sheet and reads what Gabrielle has written.
Charles folds the piece of paper in two, adds another line and now it's difficult to tell that there ever was a swan. Now it's something else and if he gives it to one of the girls, it might become a flower or a box, or an elephant. But it's not a swan anymore.
"She's gone," Charles says and isn't surprised when he doesn't feel particularly sad. "I think she's gone."
David doesn't seem to mind either, focused entirely on Erik. They have a staring contest that Erik loses. David seems to understand that and he beams, walks up to Erik and looks up at him. Erik looks back and it's quite possible that in that moment they have an entire silent conversation, because Erik reaches out — tentatively, granted — and picks David up, lets him sit on his lap.
"There," Erik gives David the molten and reshaped former spoon. "As your... daddy destroyed the swan."
"New swan," David says as he takes the metal and he might be right, it does look like a bird. (Charles wonders whether a swan means anything to Erik.) "Nicer swan."
David turns his head and gives Erik the brightest smile he's capable of and his eyes are more green than blue now. Erik hesitantly smiles back and they really look a lot alike, there's no denying that.
Please, Charles thinks. Everyone leaves, no one stays, Erik, Erik please, be the one who stays, rahma, be the one who stays forever.