Charles wakes, as he nearly always does, when Erik comes back from his run. It's bad enough in the summer, when there's light streaming in through the windows and birds singing, but it's December now and the thought of being up when it's still pitch black is just depressing.
Charles mumbles something to that effect, but Erik just snorts and continues getting dressed.
"The shower's free," Erik says.
"Bugger the shower," Charles replies, opening one eye just a crack.
"I'd rather bugger other things," Erik says, because he's a right ass, but some of the sharp edges that he'd been composed of five years ago have worn down into something resembling open affection. It makes Charles open his other eye as well and smile as Erik sits on the edge of the bed. It's hours, still, until most of the children will be awake. Alex is probably already in the gym and Hank in the lab, but it's early yet for the students and even the rest of the teachers. Erik's been gone almost a week to recruit overseas and, as much as Charles hates being up before the sun, he's missed this dreadfully. It's the one good thing about Erik's early mornings--it gives them this precious time to themselves, which seems fleeting now that they're constantly pulled in twenty directions. Between teaching and recruiting and all of the day-to-day administrivia of running a school, they're lucky to eek out an hour in the evenings for a game of chess and a drink. In the mornings, they can take their time, share breakfast and the paper and fond looks over the scrubbed wood table of the breakfast nook in the kitchen. They can spend long minutes kissing in bed, Erik's hair damp and curling beneath Charles' fingers.
"If we hurry," Erik murmurs in between light kisses behind Charles' ear, "we might be able to coax some omelets out of Darwin. He was just starting the coffee when I came in."
Charles weighs the need to bathe against the desire for one of Darwin's exceptional omelets.
"You can always shower after breakfast," Erik says, as if he's the mindreader, and Charles has to laugh. "Maybe I'll need another one then, too."
"You've convinced me," Charles says. "Get me my dressing gown."
Erik laughs--it's a good sound and still too rare, even after all these years--and gets up to retrieve Charles' robe, giving the wheelchair a gentle nudge closer to the bed as he does so. He helps Charles into his slippers and tucks an afghan over his lap once he's seated in the chair. It's drafty in the kitchen but really not cold enough for the blanket. Charles allows it, though, because he understands--Erik's been gone, Erik's been lonely, Erik's looking for excuses to be close, even though he doesn't need any.
"I've missed you," Erik murmurs, leaning close to whisper the words in his ear, a secret, even if it's written all over his face, all over his movements, all over the thoughts that so quickly clamored for Charles' the second he was back on the ground in the states.
"I've missed you too, darling," Charles says, and tilts his face up for another kiss.
They get downstairs just as Darwin is scooping the last of four omelets onto plates. He winks at Erik and Charles wonders if he's been played before deciding that he doesn't care if the result is Darwin's perfect omelets and some time alone with Erik. Darwin places two of the plates on the table in the corner and then retrieves the other two.
"Have a nice breakfast," he says. "I'm going to see if I can ply Alex out of the gym with food."
"Good luck," Charles says. "And thank you, Armando, these smell amazing."
"Yes," Erik says, "Thank you."
"Sure thing, boss," Darwin says. "It's good to have you back."
Charles can feel the implied meaning of, Because when you're gone, the Professor freaks out, but he ignores that, too, in order to eat his breakfast in the relative silence of the kitchen with Erik across from him.
Erik reads the paper and grumbles about the war, but his ire is gentler than usual, too grateful to be back to start an argument just yet. Charles is equally grateful--he'd like to spend a few days just being with Erik, as much as he's come to appreciate the spirited debate that's part of their normal repertoire. Charles misses Erik too much when he's away and always likes a few days where they can smile at each other easily, agree and touch and generally act like they've been together five and a half weeks, not five and a half years.
It's still exhaustingly early when they're interrupted. Charles feels the children's approach long before the floor boards squeak, his eyes drifting towards the doorway. The movement isn't lost on Erik, who looks up from the paper and sighs.
"The new children," Charles says quietly. "Piotr and Illyana. You can't blame them. It's a new place--they're frightened."
Moments later, the two children silently and cautiously enter the kitchen. They look exhausted and a cursory sweep of their minds reveals they're suffering from the abrupt shift in timezones.
"Good morning," Charles says and then, realizing the children don't understand English, repeats it in their minds. Piotr looks concerned and then suspicious, but Illyana delights in the projection.
Are you special too? she asks, and Charles can't help but grin.
Yes, he responds. Yes I am. Everyone here is special, my darling.
She claps her hands and starts to babble out loud in Russian. Charles looks beseechingly at Erik who sighs the sigh of the long-suffering and gets up from the table, kneeling in front of Illyana and responding in Russian as well.
Charles could follow the conversation between the three of them mentally, but he rather enjoys the soothing patter of a language he doesn't understand. He keeps sipping his tea as Erik chats with the children. He hears his own name a few times, as well as the names of some of the other students. Erik's little speech ends with Illyana wrapping her arms around his neck in a tight hug.
It's a sweet picture--Illyana's only just six and it reminds Charles of those first few months after they brought Ororo home, the way she clung to Erik, going to him with every new question and new discovery. Ororo's twelve now and feels she's much too mature to be doted on and Charles finds himself glad that a new student has taken to Erik this way. He thinks Erik's missed it, though he'd rather die than admit it out loud.
Erik says one last thing and the children nod and turn around, heading out of the kitchen again. Erik stands up and brushes off the knees of his trousers.
"They're still tired," Erik says. "I told them to get some more rest and find one of us when they're hungry. Piotr knows some rudimentary English, but Illyana will need to be taught."
"Would you rather have Moira do it or--"
"My Russian is better than Moira's," Erik snaps, though it's a lie and they both know it. "Although, I suppose it would put them both at ease, knowing there's at least one other person who speaks their language here."
Charles hides a smile. One of these days, Erik will admit exactly how much he admires Moira and respects their friendship. He'll most likely be intoxicated or under duress, however, so in the mean time, Charles makes due with the begrudging admiration and respect he can read in Erik's mind.
"Azazel will be here next week as well," Charles says. It's a good segue to remind Erik about the upcoming Christmas party in a manner that hopefully won't end in as much swearing and pouting as it normally would. Erik's only been back a day; Charles would like to hold off on the swearing and pouting as long as possible.
He can't escape the grouchy muttering, however, and Erik lets out a few quiet words in German before saying, "I still think this is a bad idea."
"As you've said every year for the past four years," Charles says. "I'll make a note of it, shall I? So if, in the distant future, something tragic happens because Emma and her staff spend one evening enjoying the holidays with us, you'll get credit for having predicted it from the start."
Erik glares at him, but there's no real heat behind it.
"I understand that you and Emma have your--" He makes a complicated gesture that Charles interprets as Little Telepath club where you "train" and gossip about me, "--but I don't understand why she has to bring all of them every time."
"Because there are only two schools to locate and train young mutants in the entire world and thus only two groups of teachers familiar with the unique problems that presents and it's always nice to have a drink with someone you can be candid with," Charles says.
Erik sighs again.
"Now you're just being dramatic," Charles says. "You like Emma."
"I tolerate Emma," Erik corrects. "Besides, isn't it tradition that I overdramaticly disagree with the entire notion of this silly party? I'm just playing my role." There's a hint of a smile on his face and Charles rolls forward to grab Erik's hands and pull him down for a quick kiss.
"I admire your respect for sustaining holiday traditions," he murmurs and Erik gifts him with a real smile, full and sweet and just a little hot. He strokes Charles' hair.
"Anything for you," he says, and though he means it sarcastically, Charles can read the truth of the statement in Erik's warm, fond expression.
Ever since The Christmas Incident of 1964, Raven has been in charge of the vast majority of holiday decorating. She tends to delegate both to the students, who love to help, and her fellow instructors, whom she loves to torture. Charles doesn't much mind watching from the sidelines--he's usually far too busy with the minutiea of running the school to spare the long hours it takes to make sure the entire sprawling estate is suitably festive--but he tries to make sure he's there when they finish decorating the main tree.
Such a huge school has more than one tree, of course--there are smaller ones at the end of each dorm hall that the students on those halls decorate themselves, one in the foyer, and one in the main activity room, just to name a few--but the main attraction is the fifteen foot tree in what has become the assembly room. It's where the students take their meals and where they gather for announcements and festivities. Decorating the tree in that room is a school-wide event over the course of several days, each student adding their favorite ornaments or those they've made themselves.
Charles likes to watch from the very periphery of the action. Back when there were only seven students--their original class of six and Scott--it had felt like a family affair. He thinks Moira, Raven, and Darwin started the whole tradition to make him smile in his slow recuperation after the death of Sebastian Shaw and the unpleasantness that followed, but he can't fault them. He was miserable and lonely and barely able to force a smile for the students. He and Erik were still circling each other, trying to learn how to rekindle what they'd had after all the things that had changed between them. Moira became de facto head of the household for a solid two months as Erik alternated between refusing to leave Charles' side and disappearing for days at a time to brood. It was a terrible environment for a place that was not only a school, but the only home that any of them knew anymore.
The Christmas celebration that year had helped them all find their footing. Charles had laughed for the first time since Cuba watching the boys get tangled up in lights and even Erik had eventually made an appearance, the rigid line of his shoulders relaxed by the end of the night. It was the first time Charles had felt truly present since the day they averted World War III, kissing Erik for the first time in far too long after he quietly and privately inquired as to whether Charles would be interested in celebrating Hanukkah with him for the first time since he lost his parents.
It's different now, of course. Though he still appreciates all of his students and cares for them, there's a very clear line between those he considers his family and those he considers his pupils.
Ororo is family. Charles and Erik (Charles, on paper) are the only parents she's had in the six years since her parents died, and even as she grows up and stops following them around like an exuberant shadow, Charles will never be able to think of her as anything other than a daughter. He smiles as he watches her very carefully fly to the top of the tree, cautious as she attempts to hang ornaments without blowing any down. She touches down again, clearly proud of herself, and Charles rolls himself closer to congratulate her.
"Very good, Ororo," he says. "Your control is remarkable."
"It's getting really easy!" she says. "Last week I kept going too fast and too high, but Angel's been showing me stuff and I'm getting better."
"I can see that," Charles says. "You're a very talented young lady. Before long you'll be all grown up and out in the world."
"Well, maybe not that quickly," Ororo says, and when he opens his arms, she sits on his lap and throws her arms around him. "I'm never going to leave," she says. "I'm going to stay here and teach when I grow up, like Angel and Darwin and everyone else."
"College, I think, first," Charles says, but he squeezes her tightly all the same. She'll be eighteen in the blink of an eye, and she might not be so eager to stay as she transitions into her teenage years.
He feels Erik approaching with Jean, and when he glances over his shoulder, he sees they're floating a metal ladder between them.
"Not everyone can fly," Jean points out to the gaggle of students already decorating. Jean, of course, can fly--or levitate, really--but Jean's the type of girl who's always thinking of others. He'd blame the empathy on her telepathy, but her telepathy is still only just coming into its own after being unlocked slowly over the years. Charles wasn't half as sensitive as she is when he was growing up, and Emma, the only other telepath they know of...well, Emma and empathy don't often meet.
"That's very thoughtful of you, Jean," Charles says. Erik steps back and allows her to manipulate the ladder herself, leaning it against the wall next to the tree. It's immediately swarmed by three students, squabbling over who gets the use it first. Erik moves in to put a stop to it, but Charles raises his hand and Erik pauses and then joins Charles and Ororo.
"They'll work it out amongst themselves," Charles murmurs, touching Erik's wrist, and the three of them watch as the children agree to take turns and stop arguing. "See?"
"You think you know everything," Erik says, smiling a little, and puts a hand on Charles' shoulder fondly. "And you, liebling? How are you today?"
"I have more lessons later," Ororo replies, pulling a face. "Math."
"Math is important," Charles says lightly. "It's invaluable in all aspects of life."
"It's boring," Ororo says. "And Bobby's such a teacher's pet."
"Bobby's just very good at math, dear," Charles says. "Just like I'm sure Bobby gets jealous when Erik dotes on you in English class."
"I do not dote," Erik says, but he reaches over and strokes Ororo's hair. "I treat all my students in the same manner. Ororo is just especially gifted when it comes to literature."
Ororo beams at that and jumps off of Charles' lap.
"Thank you, Erik," she says and hugs him.
"Yes, well," he says. "Go on. Go play with your friends."
Ororo doesn't need to be told twice. She waves at them cheerfully and then joins the growing crowd of students who are clustered around the open boxes of decorations. Erik takes a few steps closer in her absence, once against resting his hand on Charles' shoulder.
"It hardly feels like five years," Erik says quietly. "I remember teaching her how to read. Now she's writing me essays. She's going into town with friends on the weekends. Do you remember how she used to refuse to let go of my hand whenever we left the grounds?"
"We've all come a long way," Charles says. He reaches up and takes Erik's hand from his shoulder, holding it in his own. "It's been good though, hasn't it?"
"It has," Erik agrees. "But not without its challenges."
"We've done well?" Charles means it to be a statement, but he finds himself glancing up to Erik for confirmation.
"You've done well," Erik says. "I've hardly done anything."
"That's nonsense," Charles says. "You've done so much, Erik. You've helped design the curriculum, you've taught, you've recruited. You've kept me sane and put up with me, which I know is difficult on the best of days. You've tempered me. You've kept me realistic. You've been a listening ear when the children have had issues they couldn't bring to me. This is your life too, Erik, this world we've built."
Erik leans over and kisses the back of Charles' hand.
"You're frequently insufferable and occasionally naive, incredibly condescending and presumptuous," he says. "I can't imagine what my life would be like without you in it."
Charles takes a moment to think on that, to imagine a world where he couldn't stay Erik's hand, where war broke out, where Erik left him on that beach.
He chases those thoughts away quickly, shivering and winding his mind through Erik's with a burst of warmth and affection.
"I can't imagine it either," he admits, and they inch closer to each other, silently watching their pupils laughing and working together.
Moira is dancing with Erik.
Erik dancing with anyone is hilarious, but with Moira there's an added level of amusement that makes it impossible for Charles to stop smiling. It looks like they're arguing, even as they move, and Charles wouldn't be surprised if that were true, whether it's about politics, their literature classes, or even who should be leading. He catches Erik's eye and smiles and the argument seems to die on Erik's lip as he smiles back. Moira gives him a peculiar look and asks him something, but when they turn again, she catches sight of Charles and rolls her eyes. She says something that might be "whipped" and the argument begins again.
"You're pathetic," Emma says, but it's conversational and with no real judgement.
"I know," Charles says. "I can't help it."
"God help us all," Emma says.
Emma's perched on a chair and Charles is sitting next to her. They're both sipping champagne and watching their staffs mingle and chat in the ballroom. The students--both the handful of visitors from the Massachusetts Academy and the pupils from the Xavier Institute staying at the school for the holidays--have gone to bed, and the party is starting to pick up as more and more champagne is uncorked. Charles has a feeling the champagne is the real impetus behind Moira and Erik dancing, but he can't say he minds.
Across the room, Raven is talking to Azazel and Angel, telling some story that involves hand gestures and jumping around. Azazel keeps chuckling and Angel just smiles knowingly.
"Has Azazel said anything to you about my sister lately?" Charles asks Emma.
"Just that he thinks she's very charming and quite beautiful," Emma says, and Charles sighs.
"I had a feeling. I'd rather hoped that after the incident with Hank, Raven would decide it would be best to devote herself to her work and forget men all together," he says. Emma pats his hand. It's only slightly patronizing.
"She's a grown woman, sugar," she says. "She's going to make her own choices."
"I know," he says. "I just--she was so hurt. I'd hate for her to go through that again."
"That's life," Emma says. "You get hurt, you scream about it until you're hoarse, you gather yourself back together, and you move on. You of all people should know that, honey."
And he does, of course. He knows from pain and he knows from heartbreak. He spent weeks cursing his broken body, nursing his broken heart, sure that Erik would never want to stay with him, let alone be with him. He spent more than one night in angry tears over the state of his life, over his dreams turning to ash. But he had people who loved him and cared about his well-being to force him out of bed, to help him reclaim his vision for the future. He had Erik to knock some sense back into him.
It's been five years, now, since that day on the beach. Charles still misses many things--his legs, his idealism, the concrete conviction that the world was ready to accept them--but he's gained so much more that it feels silly to mourn. He and Erik still argue loud enough to shake the windows, but they've learned how to compromise and, as it turns out, compromise is the key to everything. Compromise is how the school keeps running, how his friendship with Emma began to blossom. Compromise has settled disputes in curriculum and helped bend hesitant parents just enough to get them to enroll their children. Compromise keeps Moira here with them, keeps the children happy, keeps the staff working with minimum fuss, no matter who's ideals they believe in.
Charles misses being right about things, misses knowing with the cheerful arrogance of youth that his way is the correct way. But willingness to concede has brought him so many wonderful things, that it's an absent sort of missing, a wistful nostalgia that he'd rather not return to, as fondly as he may look back at it.
"Deep in thought?"
Charles hadn't even noticed Erik leaving the dance floor, let alone picked up on his approach.
"I am," he says to Erik. "Just thinking again about how we've changed. How we're still changing the world around us."
"Not as fast as I'd like," Erik mutters.
"Yes," Charles says. "But fast enough. We'll get there eventually. And we've got all of this in the mean time. We don't want it to rush by too quickly, now, do we?"
"I suppose you're right," Erik sighs. He twitches his hand and summons a chair over, placing it behind Charles' wheelchair before he sits, draping his arm over Charles' shoulders and pressing his face into Charles' hair.
"Pathetic," Emma sing-songs. Erik glares at her, but she ignores it, as is her wont. Charles can barely hide his smile.
"Slow down, love," Charles says. "The future will get here when it gets here. For now, I fear there's plenty in the present for us to be concerning ourselves with."
"Arrogant fool," Erik mutters, but he drops his hand to Charles' lap to take his hand, weaving their fingers together.
"I love you too," Charles says.