"Aimer, ce n'est pas se regarder l'un l'autre, c'est regarder ensemble dans la même direction." – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
When Erik enters Charles' study that evening for their daily chess match – a habit they have been maintaining ever since Charles re-opened the manor – Charles isn't waiting for him, as usual, by the chess board. Instead, he's standing by the window, his back to Erik; he actually seems a bit surprised to see Erik.
No, not surprised, Erik realizes; he's nervous, it's obvious now that he has recognized it in his jittery hands, the way he shifts on the balls of his feet. Most of the time, Charles doesn't seem to realize or care that he's not particularly tall, but right now, he at least subconsciously tries to make himself appear taller.
It's unusual, seeing Charles this self-conscious; most of the time, he at least appears to be confident and completely at ease. Erik really doesn't know what to make of it. For a moment, it makes him hesitate in the doorway, but then he steps into the room and closes the door after himself.
He plans to ask Charles about what's going on in his weird brain this time, but before he can do so, his senses hone in on the metal behind Charles, on the windowsill. It's not that there isn't a lot of metal in the room; people most of the time don't even realize just how much there is, all these tiny mechanisms and applications that are metal or metal alloys. But Erik knows this room – knows most of the rooms in the manor, really, though none of them as well as this one except for his own – and this is new. It's behind Charles, poorly hidden, and when Charles realizes that Erik is looking at it, he gives in with barely noticeable hesitation and steps aside.
Erik's breath catches when he sees and recognizes it – a hanukiah, the Hanukkah menorah. The moment he recognizes it, he realizes something else – today is the twenty-first of December, and from that it doesn't take much calculation to figure out that it's also the twenty-fifth of Kislev. The first day of Hanukkah.
The last time he actually celebrated it is so long ago and buried underneath so many bad memories, he would barely be able to remember if Charles hadn't dug that very memory up for him all those weeks ago. A lot has happened since then too, but that moment he remembers with perfect clarity – both the memory itself and the reawakening of it, the tears in Charles' eyes, how his face had been blurred by Erik's own tears.
Charles shifts, a little awkward, which draws Erik's gaze to him. His eyes are flickering from Erik's face to the ground back up to Erik, like he doesn't dare look at him, but can't bear not knowing his reaction either. At times like these, Erik realizes just how different Charles' mannerisms sometimes are when he's with people whose minds he doesn't read.
"I…" Charles hesitates for a moment, swallows, then continues, "It's Christmas soon and the children are all over it, and I wanted to… do something." For you, he doesn't say, but he doesn't need to; for weeks, ever since that scene on the beach before Cuba, Charles had been all but courting Erik, as if he's worried Erik will leave again if Charles doesn't regularly give him a reason to stay. For that, Erik feels incredibly guilty; he still doesn't think Charles' opinions are anything but naïve and utopian, but if he had to go through everything again, he would at least act differently, in such a way that Charles doesn't feel like it's a choice between Charles and Erik's own opinions. They still don't really agree on each others' fundamental ideas, but it's a misalignment of world views, not of each other, and they're learning to compromise and synchronize, to as a last resort agree to disagree.
Maybe Charles knows how much this means to Erik; he has seen the memory, but that doesn't mean Charles realizes just how significant it is. They've been preparing for Christmas for weeks, decorating and picking presents, and Erik had never felt like there was something missing, but now he sees. "Thank you," he says, voice a little hoarse, looking at the hanukiah. Out of the corners of his eyes, he sees some of the tension seep out of Charles' body.
"It's silver," Erik states the obvious after a moment of silence. Almost pure too – Erik had been surprised at first, but as soon as they had re-opened the manor, Charles had started getting rid of all the expensive antiques and whatnot. Since then, Erik has learned that Charles just doesn't like outward signs of wealth; he likes things tasteful, but understated. So having something so obviously expensive in the house is a surprise to begin with.
"Britannia silver," Charles confirms; even more pure than sterling silver. "I got it for you. It's not the one-" He turns silent, but he doesn't need to say any more – Erik knows what he's not saying. It's not the one that had been in the Lehnsherr family for generations, the one that was taken from them, that had probably been melted down – the one Erik had watched his mother polish lovingly countless times. It's not making up for that one either, but it's… it's something. Something else, something new.
Erik takes a couple of steps further into the room, towards Charles and the windowsill with the hanukiah. Now he can see the packages of candles too, different colors; dark blue, light blue, white, red, yellow. He takes this all in, and he can't help but think that Charles really did his research, and when did he do this, and who did he ask? He wants Charles to have asked him, but on the other hand, he can appreciate that this was supposed to be a surprise – Charles is trying to please him, and this is the most obvious gesture of that manner he has made so far. Erik probably can't get out of acknowledging it anymore, now – and he doesn't really want to, not after this. A tiny part in the back of his mind wants to be angry that Charles is intruding on something that has nothing to do with him, that is none of his business, but he is self-aware enough now to realize that it's childish, and stupid. Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with Charles – the past, that is – but that doesn’t mean it doesn't have anything to do with him now. It has something to do with Erik, and Erik is here, in Charles' home. (Though it's becoming less and less solely Charles' every day.)
"Erik…" Charles sounds insecure, and when Erik looks at him he finds he's biting his lower lip, white teeth digging in. He's staring at Erik, tension in his shoulders again, and Erik closes the rest of the distance between them.
"Thank you," Erik says, and it's not as hard to say as he would have thought – at least not right now, at least not to Charles.
This time, the tension leaves Charles completely, and he smiles. Reaching out, he takes the lighter from the windowsill and holds it out for Erik; it's silver too and Erik takes it with his powers, floats it in front of his face to look at it properly. It's nothing fancy, just plain silver with the initials CFX engraved in the front.
"Would you like to light the first candle?", Charles asks, and it has the air of something that is nothing more but formality, like of course Erik will, while at the same time there's a flicker in Charles' eyes. Erik has been watching Charles' expressions closely from the beginning, at first trying to gauge whether or not he was currently reading Erik's thoughts, later just because he wanted to know, but all those months of watching, and he still can't say that he truly knows Charles.
"Yes," he says, and he takes one candle, the dark blue one, and puts it on the branch furthest on the right. He chooses a white candle as the shamash but doesn't light it yet, just puts it on the middle, higher branch.
Taking a step back, he just looks at the candles for a moment; it doesn't look very impressive yet, but that's not the point anyway. Then he takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and murmurs the first of the three blessings; "Borukh Ato Adoynoy Eloyheynu Melekh Ho-oylom Asher Kiddeshonu Be-mitsvoysov Ve-tsivonu Lehadlik Neyr Shel khanuko." He's surprised he still remembers the words so well, has it been more than a decade since he last heard them, much less spoke them himself, but they flow from his lips flawlessly.
When he's finished, he doesn't pause, just smoothly moves into the second blessing. "Borukh Ato Adoynoy Eloyheynu Melekh Ho-oylom She-oso Nissim La-avoseynu Ba-yyomim Ho-heym Ba-zzman Ha-zze." After he's spoken the first three words, he at first thinks he's hearing an echo, but it's Charles, quietly mumbling along. His pronunciation is terrible, but Erik nevertheless has to dig his fingernails into his palm at how it makes him feel – not just the remembering, but that he's not alone; even if they're not really sharing (Charles isn't Jewish, and Erik doesn't consider himself religious at all either), they still somehow are.
By the time they reach the third blessing – "Borukh Ato Adoynoy Eloyheynu Melekh Ho-oylom She-hekheyonu Ve-kiymonu Ve-higgi'onu La-zzman Ha-zze" – Charles' voice has gotten stronger, if not necessarily more confident, and Erik feels it vibrating between them, the connection. As a child, he remembers he had sometimes been annoyed at having to learn the blessings and speak them along with his parents, but now there are few memories he cherishes more, which is not just due to the fact that he doesn't have all that many memories left of them to cherish.
Once they're finished, they both turn silent; Erik keeps his eyes closed, just breathes for a moment, and then he opens them and looks at the silver hanukiah with its two candles. Reaching out, he takes the white candle, lights it and uses it to light the blue candle before putting it back onto the middle branch. Then he takes a step back and just stares at them both, the two small flames slowly growing stronger as they melt the wax that sustains them.
Charles doesn't say anything, doesn't move; Erik doesn't know how long he stares at them, remembering lighting the candles with his mother, but eventually, he pushes the memory away. It's still wonderful, still hurts, but the pain is getting less strong, and it might never be fine, but it's alright for now. Shaw is dead, she can finally rest – he can finally rest.
Eventually, he takes a breath and steps away. He turns to find Charles looking at him. For a moment he wonders whether Charles has been looking at him this whole time, but it doesn't matter much. Right now, he doesn't mind even if Charles had been watching him – normally, the idea would make him uncomfortable, but for some reason, right now it doesn't.
"Chess?", he asks, and Charles' smile is brilliant.
The next evening, Erik goes to the study with the expectation of lighting three candles this time, and Charles smiles when he immediately strides over to the hanukiah, picking another white candle for the shamash and a light blue for the second branch. They say the first two blessings together, watch the candles for a bit, and then they play chess just like yesterday; no other words exchanged. They keep that new routine over the next couple of days; during the day, they talk about Christmas with the children, try to keep their excitement subdued a bit so nothing gets destroyed, but it's futile; Alex is a complete, excited mess, as is Hank, though he's trying to be more subtle about it. Sean is a little more subdued, which in this context only means he's not bouncing through the halls as if hopped up on something. Angel and Raven try to make a point of being more calm than the boys, but they're not managing very well – and Charles is right behind them, really. Sometimes Erik wonders if Charles is doing this – the whole Christmas party thing – more for them or for himself. He has no idea what growing up in this mansion was like, but he's starting to suspect that his initial sarcastic comment of growing up here having been such a hardship might have a kernel of truth to it.
On actual Christmas Day – a Tuesday – Charles had warned Erik not to expect to be getting much sleep. Erik had responded within the children's range of hearing that if they wake him up early, he's going to bite somebody.
He doesn't get woken up early, but the moment he steps out of his room – showered and dressed and ready for breakfast – he finds himself fixated by two pairs of eyes. Raven and Angel are sitting on the floor close by his door; not close enough to be bothering him, but close enough for him to notice them immediately. He narrows his eyes at them, and they both affect innocent expressions; Raven drops her human disguise and takes on her natural, blue-skinned form, probably because she knows he likes it so much better than her mask.
Erik's not falling for it – not for that, at least. What sways him towards sighing and resigning himself to the fact that he won't get any food in the nearest future is Charles' voice in his head, tinged with amusement. You realize they won't leave you alone until you come into the living room so we can unwrap presents, he says; that is all. But Charles mind-speaks so rarely to him nowadays that that alone softens him up, even though he would never admit it.
So he mentally says good-bye to his breakfast and heads over to the living room (well, the one they mainly use; there's like about twenty more in this house – twenty that aren't attached to suits, that is), where he finds the children sitting in front of the tree with all its presents, staring at him with wide, expectant eyes. Charles is sitting in an armchair, looking amused; he's nursing his usual morning cup of tea. He smiles at Erik and gestures towards the armchair next to his, and bless him, there's a fresh cup of coffee on the side-table, still steaming.
Erik takes a seat and takes the cup. The first sip is heavenly, as is the knowledge that he's being watched avidly by five pairs of eyes.
"Professor…" Alex says after a moment, voice pleading, and Charles repeats serenely what he had told them from the beginning; "Not until everybody's ready."
Five heads swivel to fixate on Erik again. Making a show of ignoring them, Erik raises an eyebrow and tells Charles conversationally, "You know, in Germany, you open presents on the twenty-fourth."
Someone – impossible to tell who – actually whines at that. Charles gives Erik a tranquil smile, saying, "Oh, really? That is entirely fascinating."
Erik gets the feeling he isn't the only one who's enjoying this. They stare at each other for a moment longer, suspended in their game, but eventually, Charles raises an eyebrow. With a sigh, Erik waves his hand like a monarch and says, "Alright, fine, get to it."
The next thirty minutes are complete chaos. There's whooping and a mess of limbs as five teenagers pounce on the presents under the tree, and then there's a lot of ripping of paper and more whooping, showing each other what they got, randomly jumping up to hug Charles and even Erik. The first time it happens – Raven, of course – Erik is completely taken off-guard, but it's obvious she has started a trend, for afterwards, one after the other, the four other children follow her example. After Hank, Erik has to pick blue fur off his black turtleneck, but Charles sends him a look so he doesn't say a word.
He also doesn't say a word about the few presents that are still left under the tree; neither does Charles, but of course, they don't get a reprieve for long – as soon as the children aren't as fixated on their own presents anymore (ranging from clothes over books and music to more personal trinkets), they realize that Charles and Erik haven't unwrapped their own presents yet. Immediately, they see to getting both Erik and Charles their labeled presents, and that's when Erik realizes his mistake – he should have gotten this part over with while they were occupied with their own presents. Instead, he now has to deal with them staring at him and watching his reactions as he unwraps, which is really not his idea of an enjoyable time.
It turns out okay, though. Charles loves his presents – books upon books, because Erik really hadn't known what else to give him, and it looks like the children hadn't been more creative either. Charles doesn't seem to mind at all, though; he acts like they gave him the most wonderful, most thoughtful presents he has ever gotten. It's almost embarrassing, the way Charles sometimes is completely earnest and heartfelt to a degree that would seem overdone and ridiculous on anybody else, but isn't anything but endearing on him.
Erik himself receives a fair number of books from the children – Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann and Das Schloß by Franz Kafka in German, Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in French, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens as well as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells in English – and two black turtlenecks from Charles, one made of merino wool and one made of cashmere. "You are hard to shop for," Charles defends himself when Erik sends him an amused look, and Erik raises his hands in surrender. Then he puts them back on the cashmere, because it's incredibly soft and feels luxurious on his skin.
"You missed one," Sean helpfully points out after a moment, and indeed Erik has gotten a little distracted by the cashmere. He hasn't exactly been deprived after he had gone on his way to murder Nazis, spending their stolen gold without batting an eyelash, but he had never even thought of getting cashmere anything. Obviously, that needs to be remedied sooner rather than later.
Except he has to unwrap his last present first – it's from Charles, again, and Erik shouldn't be surprised because Charles has gone seriously overboard and practically showered the children in gifts as well, but he still is.
This present is a wooden box, and in it there is a four-sided spinning top with one Hebrew letter carved into each side: nun, gimmel, hay and shin. It's a dreidel, and it's resting on top of a lot of gold coins – or rather, chocolate coins, covered by golden tin foil. Erik can't even remember the last time he actually saw gelt, but he recognizes it, so at one point he must have.
"Oooh, what is that?", Sean asks, forever unaware to sensitive moments, for which right now Erik is really rather grateful.
"It's a game," he replies. "Every player gets an equal amount of gelt, and then you bet on which side ends up on top." It's more complicated than that, of course, but Erik doesn't think-
"Groovy!", Sean exclaims. "Can we play it?"
Erik looks at Charles, who affects an innocent expression, and then he looks at Sean and the children, who all look at him eagerly – different degrees, but definitely eager, all of them.
Pretending to be faintly annoyed – and he may be feeling a jumbled up mix of emotions right now, but annoyance is not among them – Erik tells them to pull the big table over, hands each of them, including Charles, ten coins, and then explains the rules.
They play a couple of rounds – they seem to enjoy it, even though Erik keeps winning. Erik has no illusions that it's not because Charles visibly has such a great time; he keeps asking Erik to make the chocolate coins dance, and he practically howls with laughter when Erik makes them strip in the air, slowly peeling the tin away until the chocolate coin falls out.
Hunger gets overwhelming at one point, though; Erik has trouble realizing it at first – he's gotten somewhat used to ignoring hunger in his teenage years, so he still sometimes doesn't realize he's hungry – but Alex' belly grumbles rather loudly, so they collectively decide to have some breakfast first. Though by this point it's more lunch than breakfast, really.
Erik, Charles and Raven end up not participating in the cooking process, and Hank doesn't either because they've since learned that while Hank might be a genius in the lab, in the kitchen he's a complete klutz. Sean, Alex and Angel make breakfast instead, pancakes and waffles and scrambled eggs and bacon.
After they've all eaten, everybody piles outside to do silly things with snow – it had snowed for the first time two weeks ago, so the magic had mostly worn off, but according to Sean you can't not play in the snow on Christmas, if at all possible. Erik doesn't mind the cold, though he's not one for making snow angels or snow men or have snowball fights. He leaves that to the others, preferring to sit by and offer commentary instead – Charles decides to join the fray a couple of times, but for some reason the children immediately join forces and turn on him, so after having been plastered with snowballs for the third time, Charles surrenders and trudges over to Erik instead, wearing a kicked puppy expression.
Erik can't resist, really; before he even knows what he's doing, he's reaching out and running his fingers through Charles' hair, combing the snow out. Charles stills under his fingers, blue eyes wide for a moment. When Erik freezes, hand still tangled in the unruly brown strands, Charles blinks and smiles widely, leaning towards Erik in a silent invitation.
Figuring it doesn't really matter either way, Erik finishes getting the snow out of Charles' hair and then brushes it off his shoulders and coat for good measure. Charles keeps still, just watching Erik, a slight upwards tilt ever-present to his lips. When Erik slowly lets his hands sink, stuffing them back into his pockets, Charles sways on his feet for a moment as if hit by a breeze.
The air is perfectly still, though; right now, it seems like the whole world is perfectly still, except for the children's yelling and laughing echoing around them – and they're not children, not really; they are in their mid to late teens, almost adults by their own rights. But compared to the person Erik was by the time he had reached their age – the things he had done, the things that had been done to him… they're children, really. Especially in this constellation, with no responsibilities on their shoulders except having to learn to control their abilities.
Erik is well-aware that they jokingly tend to call him "dad", and always in conjunction with Charles being the "mom"; Charles tends to fuss and be generous with his affections, and Erik is the one whose approval they strive for. At the beginning it had seemed weird to him, and dysfunctional, but it's not like they aren't all dysfunctional in their own right anyway. He had since ceased feeling like that – not that he now thinks it is entirely appropriate, or true, but he can accept that right now, next to Charles, his is the role of the more father-like figure, at least for them.
If Charles is the mother, though – and he can see where that idea comes from, what with Charles being the nurturing one by what seems like nature – there waiss a part missing to their relationship. Not a very important part in the grand scheme of things, because they have the conversations and the rituals and the discussing difficult topics down to pat, but they haven't ever even gotten anywhere close to sex.
They won't anytime soon either, Erik knows this. They're nowhere near close to the point where they are ready. Maybe they could have, if they had done it early on, before they had all these undercurrents to their relationship – emotions, but more importantly, ideals, ideas, visions of the future. They do, though, and it will be a while yet before they'll be aligned enough so the risk of everything blowing up in their faces is insignificant. It almost had already, once; Erik doesn't really want to risk it again.
So Erik doesn't kiss Charles. He wants to, but he isn't ready to follow through on that promise, not yet. Maybe Charles sees it in his eyes; maybe he doesn't – he's not reading Erik's thoughts, of that Erik is sure – but he smiles again, more subdued this time. He tips Erik on the tip of the nose and says, "Let's go for a walk."
So that's what they do.
After having spent several hours outside, they all make their way back inside again, several degrees of wet and freezing – Erik and Hank not at all, Charles halfway there, and the children completely done in. But they look happy, and Charles tells Erik under his breath that is the best Christmas any of them have had in many years. Erik can't deny the truth of that for himself, either.
Everybody except for Erik and Hank heads off to shower; by virtue of them being the warmest and driest, they're designated to make food while the others warm up and get dry.
Which basically leaves it at Erik to make food for seven people, five of whom hungry teenagers, three of whom hungry teenage boys, one of whom of disproportional size and appetite. Erik solves the problem by making a giant pot of pasta; they can put cheese on top or something. Hank, meanwhile, gets to boil water for tea, and on a whim, Erik also warms up some milk to make hot chocolate.
Charles comes down first; he makes happy noises when he finds the hot chocolate, and then he agonizes over whether to have hot chocolate or tea like he can only have either.
"Charles, you live here," Erik tells him dryly. "I think you can have both."
It earns him a beaming smile like Erik just did something wonderful, which is ridiculous, really. Thankfully, Erik doesn't have to react in any way, because Alex picks that moment to come bouncing into the kitchen, basically saving him from saying something dry and sarcastic and possibly ruining the mood. Pretty soon, the others come too, and nobody dares complain about the lack of pasta sauce.
After everybody's eaten, they all assemble back in the living room for some quiet, though for some reason by the time Erik gets there, Angel and Raven are in his and Charles' usual armchairs. Charles is seated on the settee, looking his usual amused, serene self. With a roll of his eyes, Erik gives in and sits next to him, picking a book at random from his new lot. He doesn't get to do more than open it, however, because that's when Raven asks him to read out loud from one of his foreign books – she had been the one to give him Le Petit Prince, though Erik strongly suspects Charles had his hand in there somehow. Erik is a little taken aback, but he doesn't mind; he picks her gift first because he thinks maybe that's what she wants, to have him read from the one she gave him.
Before he starts to read, he looks around just to check whether the others are fully on board with the idea, but there are no protests, so he clears his throat and starts to read. "Lorsque j'avais six ans j'ai vu, une fois, une magnifique image…"
Some hours later – not all of which Erik spends reading out loud – they all head off for their own rooms. Erik can't shake the slight feeling of relief, because yes, spending time together like they're a family (they are, for all intents and purposes) is nice, but Erik needs some solitude every now and then.
He doesn't want to miss his game of chess with Charles, though, and especially not the lightening of the hanukiah together. Being with Charles is different to being with the others, anyway; they've been meeting up every evening without fail for months now, and it's become an opportunity for Erik to recall the day, to discuss whatever is on his or Charles' mind. He enjoys it.
Charles looks pretty happy to see him. They light five candles plus the shamash – or rather, Charles lights them after they've said the two blessings together. Afterwards, they head towards the chess board, and they make a few moves, but Erik has something else occupying his mind – not one single thing; just the past couple of days, the thoughts he had and the feelings, swirling around in his head, distracting him.
Of course Charles notices, and he lets it go only for a small amount of time, as is usual with him; then he puts his hands in his lap and says, gently, "Erik?"
Erik curls his fingers up and tilts his head. For a moment he stares into the distance, but then he decides that some acknowledgement is due, if nothing else. Looking up, he says earnestly, "Thank you."
Charles blinks, and then he lowers his gaze, cheeks flushing. "You're welcome," he murmurs, knotting his fingers.
Now Erik can let it go, if he wants to; he can let it go, not address any of the other topics that remain open between them for now. He considers it, for a moment, but Charles has been very brave lately – Erik still clearly remembers how nervous Charles had been that first night five days ago, unsure of Erik's reaction to the hanukiah, to the idea of reviving a part of Erik that had been dormant and suppressed for years upon years.
Erik can be brave too. He leans forwards a little, ignoring the chess board between them, fixating Charles with his eyes. "Charles," he says, continuing in that serious tone of voice, "I want you to stop." Charles pales dramatically, and Erik adds hastily, only belatedly realizing how wrong this could come across, "To stop acting like you're worried I'll leave."
Charles blinks once, twice, and then he lowers his gaze hastily. Tension is written in the unnaturally still lines of his body, and for one long moment, they sit in utter silence. Then, Charles whispers, so quiet Erik almost doesn't understand, "You did, before."
Erik narrows his eyes. He hadn't, not really. "I stayed," he disagrees. They had argued on the beach, and Charles had plead with him to come back, to discuss this when they weren't both still reeling from Shaw's death, from narrowly preventing the outbreak of World War III. And Erik had agreed – reluctantly, only after some thought, but he had agreed, and he had come back with Charles. He had taken the helmet off a couple of days later, after Charles had sworn on everything that meant something to him that he wouldn't look into Erik's head, not even by accident, not without permission, never again.
"Just barely." Charles pulls up his shoulders, and he shouldn't look so small, it's wrong. Erik doesn't want him to look like that.
Wiping that away with an impatient motion of his hand, Erik returns firmly, "But I didn't. It doesn't matter what I almost did or didn't do; the only thing that matters – that should matter – is what I did. And I stayed." Yes, he had never come out and said it, but he had thought it had been self-understood, considering how he hadn't left yet. He would have, if he hadn't been able to get Charles to admit that a peaceful living side by side between humans and mutants was at this time nothing but a pipe dream. It didn't change the fact that that was Charles' ultimate goal and what he was working towards, but it had been enough of a compromise for Erik to agree to disagree. There would definitely be arguments to come in the future, as there had been in the past, but Erik is sure that they will be able to work through those too. They had managed the most important, the potentially dividing one, after all.
Charles doesn't look comforted, though; he doesn't look anything at all for a moment, and all of a sudden a suspicion dawns on Erik. And it makes sense; it fits. All the little things Erik hadn't even realized he had noticed at the time, and the big things, the major ones. How Charles seemed to be trying so hard at times to court Erik to stay, how he did the same, if to a lesser degree, with Raven, even though she hadn't even come close to making a decision that time on the beach. Erik hadn't given her a chance, but he had been and still was reasonably sure that she would have chosen his side, if she had to.
"Charles," he says quietly, not really sure he's on the right track, but unable to find a different explanation that fits as well. "Who has left you that you still worry about the people in your life now leaving too?"
It's a moot question, really; it can be related to only one thing to screw a person up to such a degree. Erik would know.
For a long time, it seems like Charles doesn't intend to reply, but they had that talk – about the unfairness of Charles knowing everything about a person and then being unwilling to divulge his own innermost secrets – and Erik trusts that Charles won't leave him hanging. He's right.
Shoulders twitching in something approximating a shrug, Charles says, a trace of bitterness in his voice, "Who do you think?" He answers the rhetorical question immediately. "My father died when I was nine, just shortly after we adopted Raven, and my mother never got over it. She married again, but she spent the rest of her life as an alcoholic alternating between neglect and rage."
The stepfather isn't mentioned, which doesn't bode well, but Erik chooses to let that go for now. Leaning forward even more, completely messing up the chess board and not caring at all, Erik reaches out to put his fingers on Charles' cheek. "But I won't leave. I told you when I intended to last time, and I agreed to talk about it even then – what makes you think I won't at least be just as reasonable next time we have an argument?"
Charles just looks at him, and Erik shakes his head, annoyed. "You're going to have to trust me, Charles. I won't leave without there being insurmountable differences between us, and the last time that happened, we managed to overcome that hurdle rather well, don't you agree?"
The tip of Charles' tongue flicks out, moistening his lower lip, and then Charles bursts out, "The helmet." A moment later he pales, looking like he let something incredibly secret slip out by accident.
Erik's brows furrow. "What about it?"
Charles shakes his head, shakes it again, and Erik doesn't know what the denial is for, but then Charles finds some of his courage. Visibly steeling himself, he tells Erik, "Nothing, nothing has ever hurt me as much as you putting on that helmet, Erik, not even going through Shaw's death myself," he says, and while Erik still reels from that, he continues, "I would have promised you almost anything in exchange for you taking it off. Your mind suddenly being gone like that…" He swallows, and there are actually tears in his eyes.
He doesn't continue, but he doesn't need to; his face says it all. Grief is written all over his mien, and there's a lot of fear there too – something Erik never, never had wanted to see in Charles. And he put it there.
Carelessly pushing the small table out of the way, Erik pulls Charles up and into a hug. They haven't touched like this since that time Charles pulled Erik out of the ocean, not counting Charles tackling Erik down on the beach that day. Other than that, there had if anything been only brief, one-armed hugs, and usually nothing but the occasional pat on the back, the near-accidental brushing of shoulders.
The comparison doesn't really fit – Erik isn't in danger of killing himself, or hundreds of humans – but it still makes Erik swallow. "I won't put it on ever again," he promises hoarsely, rashly, but he means it.
Charles gives a hollow, painful sounding laugh. "Don't make any promises you can't keep."
"I won't put it on ever again," Erik repeats, a little more slowly, but still with the same conviction. "I mean it. You can… you can check." And he means that too, even if the thought makes him swallow again.
For a moment, Charles goes perfectly still, and then he all but slumps into Erik's arms, letting him take his whole weight. "Thank you," he whispers, and Erik readies himself for the intrusion, but it doesn't come; instead, Charles murmurs, "I trust you," and of all the gifts Erik has received over the past five days, this one is surely the greatest, the most precious of them all.