Charles suspects Erik views the world differently than he does early on.
They’re after yet another mutant, this time in an idyllic-looking suburb outside of the city—perfect houses, in perfect yards, with perfect white-picket fences.
“There,” Charles points to a white clapboard house, as picture-perfect as the rest of the surroundings.
Erik shoves his way through the little gate at the front of the yard as violently as possible when one is dealing with pieces of wood painted with a jaunty “Welcome!”
They’re halfway up the path when it hits them—literally.
A ball of fluff comes barrelling out from the side of the house, barking joyfully.
“Oh!” Charles drops to one knee, reaching out for the creature, a squirming, fuzzy ball of glee. “How cute!”
Erik stands stoically beside him.
“It’s a dog.”
“A puppy!” Charles corrects, letting the creature lick his hand with dedicated enthusiasm. “I love golden retrievers. They’re so precious.”
“Precious?” Erik arches an eyebrow, peering down at him over the rim of his sunglasses, still as a statue even as the dog’s gleefully wagging tail thumps against his trouser-clad leg.
Charles scratches the dog behind the ear, narrowing his eyes at his friend. Surely Erik isn’t questioning the cuteness of the puppy?
“Don’t tell me you’re not a dog person,” Charles chides. He, personally, had always wanted one, but had been told the Xavier mansion was no place for a dirty, drooling mutt. Not even a perfectly purebred one.
“I’m a person. That is a dog. I hardly see the connection,” Erik says flatly, turning away to look at the house. “Do we have a mutant to talk to, or did you just come here to commune with that…animal?”
“Puppy,” Charles sulks, standing reluctantly. “Good boy,” he adds, looking down at the cheerful face of the pup.
“Hmm,” Erik hums sceptically.
“Alright, after you,” Charles gestures towards the front porch, letting Erik stride off ahead of him. All purpose and ambition.
Well, Charles tells himself. Not everyone is a dog person. It’s not Erik’s fault.
They pull into the motel parking lot late in the night. It had been a long day, with yet another rejection. The joy he felt at recruiting Angel was slowly being eroded by the fear and reluctance they’ve found in the mutant population.
He had thought they would be welcomed with open arms, the way he had welcomed Raven and Erik into his life. He remembers the joy of seeing Raven for the first time, of discovering that he wasn’t alone.
That’s the gift he’s bringing to mutants around the country, but on the whole it seems they don’t want it.
Charles pouts, the expression reinforced by the fact that he doesn’t want to be pouting, always denies that he ever does pout when Raven accuses him of it. He is a grown man, and pouting is for small children.
Never mind the way he feels his face settle into the expression.
The motel is run down, like most they’ve stayed at, seedy and a bit ragged around the edges. The parking lot is dark, the bulb in the overhead light smashed in. He weaves his way through the other cars, hearing the siren’s call of the shower in their room—no matter how dingy and grimy it might be.
Erik walks at his side, his eyes alert, scouting out their surroundings even though it’s an empty, silent parking lot, with nothing more threatening than the odour coming from the dumpsters out back.
Erik tenses, his hand gripping Charles’ wrist.
Charles tries not to look too pleased. He knows Erik won’t appreciate it, even if he explains that he’s never had very many people—namely, one—be protective of him.
“Did you hear that?” the man hisses, voice pitched low.
“Mew!” the sound repeats, insistent.
Charles frowns. It sounds like a—
“Oh!” he says, crouching down to peer under the nearest car. “Hello there!”
“Who,” Erik drawls, “are you talking to?”
“There’s a kitten!” Charles exclaims, dropping to all fours to lower his head to pavement level.
“What are you doing?”
Charles merely clucks his tongue, holding out a hand. “Here, kitty, kitty.”
“Charles,” Erik’s voice becomes stern. “Stop that.”
“Here, kitty. Good kitty,” Charles cajoles. He can see bright eyes reflecting the dim light under the car, shining out at him from the blackness.
The cat slinks closer. “There’s a good kitty,” Charles whispers, rubbing his fingers together encouragingly.
“Charles.” Erik sounds exasperated.
The little animal comes just within reach. “There we go!” Charles says triumphantly, scooping it up into his arms.
“Mew!” the kitten responds.
He stands awkwardly, reaching out behind him for a hand from Erik, which is, unfortunately, not forthcoming.
“Look!” he says, when he finally finds his feet. He thrusts the animal—a little orange tabby—under Erik’s nose.
Erik takes a step back, eyes narrowing down at the little ball of fluff. “Charles,” he admonishes. “That thing could have rabies. Put it down right now.”
Charles rolls his eyes, but draws the kitten out of Erik’s direct line of fire. “Does it look like it’s foaming at the mouth to you?” he snorts, pulling the kitten close.
Erik’s eyes narrow even further, into little, sceptical slits. “Fine. It could have any number of diseases. Put it back.”
Charles tsks, giving his friend his best wounded look. “Erik, it’s a baby.”
“It’s a cat,” he responds flatly.
“A baby cat. If I leave it out here, it might die.”
Erik crosses his arms. “You’re not proposing to bring it into our room.” It’s not a question.
Luckily, Charles can be just as stubborn as his friend. Just ask Raven.
Erik maintains his disapproving frown through the run to a convenience store for milk, the kitten’s first bath, and the process of getting it settled for the night, curled on Charles’ pillow.
“If it ends up on my bed, I won’t be held responsible for my actions, “Erik tells him firmly, sliding between his sheets.
Charles frowns, looking at the tiny, purring ball of fur curled up next to his head. Is it possible to be neither a dog nor a cat person?
“This place,” Erik says, lip curling with disgust. “Is full of children.”
“Yes,” Charles agrees, scanning the crowds. “It’s an aquarium.”
“I can see that,” Erik frowns. “Which only tells me that it will be full of fish. I don’t mind fish.”
Charles gives him a speculative look. After the puppy and the kitten, that’s something, at least. “Well, fish are quite popular with children,” he tells him.
“Hmm,” Erik’s frown deepens, and Charles can tell that fish are slipping in Erik’s estimation. His shoulders slump.
“Let’s just find the mutant,” he suggests.
After Erik’s non-stop complaining just because Sunshine had clawed a few of his turtlenecks, Charles wasn’t sure he could handle much more.
Luckily she was settled in at the CIA base, being looked after by Raven and Angel in a doting fashion.
Erik had downright snarled as the girls cooed over the little creature.
“He doesn’t like cats,” Charles had explained helplessly.
They head into the aquarium, Erik stiff at his side, holding his arms close to his body as if he was afraid he’d accidentally touch something. Or someone.
“They’re just children,” Charles admonishes. “They don’t have the plague.”
“You don’t know that,” Erik says, eyeing the little ones suspiciously. A baby reaches out towards him with sticky hands, and Erik practically falls over his own feet in his effort to get away.
“We’re looking for a boy with ginger hair,” Charles says, ignoring Erik’s palpable disgust at his surroundings.
They find Sean Cassidy staring forlornly into an empty tank.
Erik stops short. “No.”
At his side, Charles falters. “What?” he asks, bemused, looking around for some indication of what Erik might be objecting to. Has a kitten managed to sneak in here, too?
“We can’t take him,” Erik gestures to the boy in front of them, still unaware of their presence.
“He’s a child,” Erik says, aghast.
Given his reaction to the aquarium as a whole, Charles suspects this is not Erik’s noble way of saying children have no place in the brewing conflict between humans and mutants.
“He’s sixteen, at least.”
“He’s almost as old as Alex.”
“Alex was in prison,” Erik says, as if that is somehow something to be commended.
“Erik, don’t be absurd. It’s not like we’re recruiting small children.”
A look of horror passes over the other man’s face. “If you even think about it, I’m taking the functional ones and leaving,” he tells him quite seriously.
For a moment, Charles can only gape at the other man.
Erik hates puppies, kittens, and children.
Charles legitimately cannot believe they’re in Canada. And not a real place like Toronto or Montreal, or even Vancouver.
No. They’re in Manitoba.
Winnipeg is, mercifully, such a small town that their hunt for the mutant doesn’t take long. There’s only one bar that’s enough of a dive for the man Charles had seen when using Cerebro, and they head right for it.
The man sitting at the bar is enormous, taller and wider than Erik by far. He hunches over his beer like he’s got a secret to hide—or maybe a couple dozen.
Charles prepares his best ‘we’re here to help you smile,’ and steps forward.
“Hello,” he says, his posh accent out of place in these surroundings, the dirt and plywood floors a terrible contrast to his suit. “I’m Charles Xavier.”
“And I’m Erik Lehnsherr,” Erik steps up beside him, a comforting presence in the foreign surroundings.
“Go fuck yourselves,” the man snarls, not even turning to look their way.
“Oookay then,” Charles agrees, turning on his heels.
“Well,” Erik says with a smirk as they burst back out into the daylight. “That went well.”
“I can’t believe we came all the way to Canada for that,” Charles moans. Beside him, Erik shrugs. Charles knows the other man has gone to the ends of the earth on even the vaguest leads to find Shaw, ending up disappointed more often than not. A little detour to Manitoba is nothing.
They stroll down the semi-deserted street, heading for their motel. At least they got to fly here, Charles figures. The drive would have been atrocious.
A low, whining sound makes him jump, spinning in the street to find the source. The sound escalates into something that’s almost a howl, and finally his eyes alight on an open-air workspace, with a bear—an actual bear—tied up out front. “Oh my god,” he gasps.
He gasps again when he realizes Erik’s changed course, heading right for it.
“Hey!” Erik calls into the shop. A man’s head appears in the loft above them, grimy with dirt and sweat.
“What’re you doing with this cub?”
Charles is wondering the same thing—who keeps a bear?—but not enough to go within striking distance of the creature and ask.
“Hunter shot the mother. Didn’t have the balls to shoot the cub, too.” the man sneers nastily. “Pussy.”
“So you’re going to—?”
“Shoot it,” the man says. “What else would I do with it?”
Erik frowns, the lines of his handsome face deadly serious. His eyes roam the shop.
Furs, he whispers into Charles’ mind.
At a second glance, Charles realizes Erik is right. It’s a tanning shop, and various kinds of pelts hang about the workspace, each at different stages of the preparation process. Erik’s eyes stray back to the cub.
“How much do you want for it?”
“What?” The tanner and Charles ask in tandem.
“For the cub. I’ll take it.”
The man’s eyes narrow as Charles’ widen. “What’re you going to do with a bear cub?”
Charles would very much like to know the same.
“What’s it to you? I’m offering to take it off your hands.”
A speculative look passes over the tanner’s face. “A hundred.”
Erik scoffs, low in his throat. “It’s more of a burden to you than not,” he points out.
The man frowns. “Seventy-five.”
Erik looks at him coolly. “Fifty.”
Ten minutes later they’re leading the bear cub down the street on a makeshift leash.
“Erik, what on earth are you doing?” Charles demands, the moment they’re out of sight of the shop.
“He was going to shoot it,” Erik said calmly, tugging the leash to keep the cub close.
“Bears are very affectionate, intelligent animals,” Erik says. “Much more so than dogs, for instance.”
“Dogs are pets!” Charles protests incredulously. “You just used government funds to purchase a wild animal.”
“She doesn’t seem very wild to me,” Erik says mildly, looking down at the bear.
If Charles didn’t know better, he would say that was a fond smile on Erik’s face.
The arrival back at the Westchester mansion doesn’t go as smoothly as Charles might have hoped. For one, Erik insisted on driving.
‘Which was normally fine, if a little insulting, but Winnie—“it’s a perfectly reasonable name, Charles. We got her in Winnipeg”—didn’t take well to sitting alone in the backseat.
“Oof!” Charles complains.
Silence from the driver’s seat.
“Oh god!” he yelps, as claws dig into his spine.
“Erik,” he pleads. “A little help here?”
The man looks over, smirking behind his aviator sunglasses. “Problem?”
“No,” Charles snaps. “I love having a bear draped over me like a new scarf. Why doesn’t everyone wear a wild animal wrapped around their head?”
His question is muffled by Winnie’s fur, given the way she’s squirming around, curled around his head in a very intricate piece of bear-origami.
“Help!” he adds.
“She’s just a baby,” Erik scoffs, looking back at the road. “You should be able to handle this.”
Really? Charles thinks but doesn’t project. Where in the Grownup Handbook does it say a person should be able to handle having a black bear—cub or not—invading their personal space in such an intimate manner?
The sight of the mansion looming on the horizon has never filled him with such relief.
“Here, Winnie,” Erik says soothingly, the moment the car is parked. The bear immediately untangles herself from Charles’ hair (and if he has bald patches from the way she’s been mauling him, there will be hell to pay), and lunges towards Erik, who catches her with open arms.
“Seriously?” Charles huffs.
“What?” Erik asks, the cub curled up in his arms like an oversized, furry baby, licking enthusiastically at his face.
“Nothing,” Charles sulks.
Sure, a teensy kitten might have rabies, but it’s completely fine to snog a bear.
“What,” Alex stops dead in his tracks as they enter the house. “Is that?”
Erik gives him a sneering, incredulous look. “It’s a bear.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
“Then why did you ask?” Erik breezes past the boy, Winnie right at his heels.
“Erik where are you taking her?” Charles calls pathetically as they bound up the stairs.
“My room, where else?”
What’s with all the idiotic questions around here? Erik’s thought floats back to him.
“Is this some new, twisted kind of punishment?” Alex asks, worry etched on his face. “I swear, I’ll try harder in training!”
Charles wakes to a whining howl echoing through his bedroom.
“W—what?” he sits up, blinking sleepily, trying to figure out what woke him.
The noise repeats.
It is, very distinctly, the sound of a bear cub.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Charles mutters, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
Erik’s room is right across the hall from his—something he had delighted in up until this very moment.
“Erik!” he hisses through the thick wood. “It’s the middle of the night!”
No answer. The whining cry has trailed off, though, replaced by a kind of odd snuffling.
Against his better judgment, Charles swings the door open.
“Oh, hello,” Erik says.
“I—what?” Charles gapes. Winnie is in a makeshift bed right next to Erik’s, padded with the quilts Charles’ grandmother had made—and wasn’t that just great?—her head pillowed on the mattress as she drank happily out of a baby’s bottle.
“Good girl,” Erik praises, stroking her silky black coat.
“I’m going back to bed,” Charles says resolutely, closing the door on the sight his mind can’t quite process.
Erik thought it was disgusting to let a dog lick his hand.
Erik was feeding a small black bear from a baby’s bottle in his bedroom.
Charles shakes his head and dives into bed. It’s best not to think about it.
Charles stands at the railing of the back terrace, watching Erik train the children with unreserved fondness. For all he balked at the idea of being around anyone under the age of eighteen, Erik was undeniably good with them; his brand of stern discipline mixed with dry humour worked well with the kids—particularly the boys—and Charles couldn’t even bring himself to mind when Erik pushed Sean off the satellite dish (although it had taken him nearly an hour to calm the racing of his heart).
Right now, Erik and the boys are lying in the grass, pressed close to the ground in some kind of stealth training.
It’s certainly an area where Charles is relieved to have Erik’s expertise. The only use he had for stealth in the past was figuring out how to sneak out to the bars without Raven finding out.
Despite the purpose of their training, its an idyllic scene, the fresh, clean scent of the long grass filling the air, the warmth of the sun baking down on them. Charles smiles serenely at the sight; the green of the grass highlights Erik’s long, lean body, dressed in gray sweats.
Erik gestures to the horizon, explaining something, when a dark shape bounds past Charles and out onto the grounds.
“Winnie!” he scolds, but she’s already gone.
Erik and the boys move forward in a military crawl, slithering on their bellies in the grass, as Winnie lopes towards them, her little legs moving fast under her bulk.
Charles watches with interest. Erik does not tolerate interruptions well, especially in the midst of mock-battle. Last week Hank had wandered into the bunker with new data to show Charles, and by the time Erik was done with him, he hadn’t come out of his lab for days.
Just as the boys reach their mark, Winnie bounds up, clambering onto Erik’s back without compunction.
The boys yelp in surprise, Sean rolling away from the bear as if his life depends on it.
“Winnie!” Erik chastises.
But there’s no fire in it. Charles frowns. Erik rears up onto all fours as the bear clambers up his back, and the sound of Erik’s deep, booming laughter is unmistakable.
Erik struggles to his feet as Winnie dangles over his shoulder, licking affectionately at his chin.
“I guess we know who wins this battle,” Erik laughs, stroking her head. “Who’s my good little soldier?”
“Really?” Charles wonders to himself. “Really?”
Charles wakes early, even before Hank, who seems to never sleep. He’s on edge these days, with war seeming to loom right on the horizon. Things with Russia are escalating, and they’re no closer to finding—and stopping—Shaw.
He can feel the tension in every part of his body, coiling deep in his muscle. Perhaps a run would help.
The idea is appealing, especially when his brain supplies the image of Erik running at his side, sweat coursing down his handsome face, the sound of his laboured breathing keeping time with Charles’. Charles loves the release running gives him, and no one pushes his as hard as Erik; stretching his body to its limits.
It’s just what he needs, and so Charles creeps silently across the hall, foregoing knocking in favour of pushing the door open and sliding inside.
It’s not the first time he’s come to wake Erik. The man is normally awake before Charles even gets the door closed behind him—Charles jokes that he sleeps with one eye open, but it’s not far from the truth. Even in his sleep Erik is on guard, poised for action.
Except today, apparently.
Erik is out, sleeping the kind of deep sleep that Charles suspects he has foregone since infancy.
And curled next to him in bed, snoring lightly, is Winnie.
Their heads rest on the same pillow, Winnie’s belly exposed to the light, one of Erik’s large hands tangled in the thick black fur there.
Winnie looks like a dog, sprawled happily beside her owner. Or perhaps a teddy bear, curled tightly in the arms of a boy who can’t sleep without her.
It is, Charles has to admit, rather sweet.
He closes the door softly on the way out.
Today, he’ll let Erik sleep in.
“I don’t get it,” Raven’s voice hisses. Charles pauses in his stroll to the kitchen, ears perking. “Erik hates everything.”
“Not that bear,” Sean says, sounding a tad sullen. “Even though it ruined my favorite shirt.”
“You’re just jealous because he’d never push Winnie off a satellite dish,” Alex snickers.
“Maybe.” Charles can practically see the careless shrug that most likely accompanied those words. Sean, unlike most of them, is not afraid to admit his feelings.
“I’ve known men who loved their wives less than Erik loves that bear,” Raven continues.
“Ew,” Sean groans.
“Not like that.”
“Well,” Alex laughs, voice low. “He does sleep with it.”
“I wonder what he’s going to do?” Raven’s voice has turned thoughtful. “You know, after. After Shaw has made his move. After Russia attacks.”
Charles freezes, back up against the corridor wall, letting the voices of his young friends fade away.
What will Erik do?
They can hardly take a bear cub to war, after all.
Charles finds Erik seated at the table, feeding Winnie bits of his lunch. Her large black head rests comfortably across his thighs, snuffling into his pants.
Erik Lehnsherr is always immaculately pulled together, but now there is a puddle of drool on his right thigh.
“Erik,” Charles begins gently, settling down across from the other man.
“Hmm?” Erik smoothes a hand over Winnie’s head, leaning down to smile into her big brown eyes.
Charles frowns. “Erik. Have you thought about what you’re going to do with Winnie when it’s time to go after Shaw?”
“What?” Erik’s brow creases in a frown. “She’ll stay here, of course. We can’t take a bear in a jet!” he laughs, as if that’s any more absurd than anything else he’s done with a bear up to this point.
“No, we can’t,” Charles agrees mildly.
His friend gives him a sharp look. “She can stay here, can’t she? I’ll leave plenty of food and water.”
“You don’t think she should go back to her natural habitat?”
“Winnipeg?” Erik snorts.
“No. We’re not going back to Manitoba.” Of that, Charles is certain. “But there are woods right here in New York State.”
“She’s a baby,” Erik protests, his hand resting protectively on Winnie’s scruff.
“She’s a wild animal.”
“Charles,” Erik frowns. “What brought this on?”
Sighing, Charles shifts in his seat. “What if something happens?” he asks after a moment, unable to meet his friend’s eyes. “With Shaw. What if something happens to you? Or me?”
Erik is already shaking his head, denying the words before they’re out of Charles’ mouth. “No, that won’t happen. We’ll be fine.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No. But I have faith.”
Charles pauses. Erik looks serenely sure of himself, confidence inscribed on every inch of his face. He meets Charles’ gaze unwaveringly, even as he strokes softly over Winnie’s ears. Charles remembers the memory he unlocked for his friend, the lighting of the candles, the chanting of the prayers. Still…
“I never took you for the religious type,” he says.
“No,” Erik shakes his head. I lost that faith a long time ago. “Faith in you.”
Charles can do nothing but gape, feeling his eyes widen as Erik continues to regard him placidly.
Of course, my friend.
The President’s announcement comes, and although Charles doesn’t feel sure, doesn’t feel ready, he tells his troops—a group of teenagers who should never have that name—to pack up and get prepared.
They’re going to war.
Erik slips out the next morning, into the cool air of the dawn. Charles senses him go, and, after a moment’s indecision, follows.
He knows what Erik feels about this mission, what he feels about catching Shaw.
He knows what Erik intends to do today.
He is a man with a single goal. A man who has no time for friends, or relationships, no matter how hard people try to worm their way into his heart. He is a man who can see nothing but hurt and anger in the world.
The joyful affection of a puppy, the big soulful eyes of a kitten, the sweet smile of a baby. These aren’t just distractions; they are nothing in the world of Erik Lehnsherr. They have nothing to do with revenge or retribution, and therefore they don’t exist.
He is a man who is destined to kill Shaw.
Charles knows that Shaw’s death will not bring his friend peace, but he is terribly afraid that Erik doesn’t care. That Erik has forgotten that peace was ever an option.
Charles steps out the back door of the mansion, scanning the horizon for his friend.
He is a man who is tearfully embracing a bear cub.
“Try not to get too lonely,” he tells the bear, curling his hands into her dense fur, pressing his face into her scruff. “We’ll be back in no time, you’ll see. It’ll seem like I was never gone.”
Charles pauses, feeling like he is interrupting, somehow.
“I’m coming back for you, Winnie. Don’t worry.”
And just like that, it’s like Charles can breathe again. Erik is coming back. Back to the mansion. Back to Charles.
He doesn’t plan on running off after the mission is complete, after Shaw is dead.
For weeks, Charles has been sure that when the mission ended he would see Erik walk away from him, never turning back to see how desperately Charles wants him to stay.
Erik is coming back.
Of course, he’s coming back for Winnie.
But Charles will take it.
Erik kneels in front of the bear, catching hold of her snout to look her in the eyes. “You know I love you,” he tells her, laughing as she licks enthusiastically at his lips.
Charles is a man who suddenly knows what it feels like to be jealous of a bear.