Charles is sitting on the windowseat with his legs tucked beneath him, bare feet half-covered by the long hems of his trousers, looking out across the grounds with a wistful curl to the corner of his mouth. He knows Erik is there, of course; even if the door were silent, he couldn’t miss the way the steel bracelets around his wrists stop his hands from moving whenever Erik opens the door, holding him in place.
Erik closes the door behind him, the sound of the lock clicking shut loud in the quiet room, here at the top of the house. He takes the excuse of Charles’ inattention to simply look at him, something clenching tight in his chest below the clasp of his cape at the careless curl of the man’s hair across his forehead, a little shaggy and in need of a cut; the pale perfection of his skin, illuminated by the afternoon sun through the one-way glass that sets dust motes to dancing golden between them.
“Are you hungry?” Erik asks eventually, when Charles does not look at him, tugging off his gloves and leaving them on the cabinet, along with his helmet. The cape he hangs in the closet, smoothing out the heavy fabric before turning back towards the window. “I haven’t eaten yet, and I don’t feel like joining the officers tonight.”
“Thank you, no,” Charles says, and finally turns his head to meet Erik’s gaze, though his body still leans towards the world outside, shoulder pressed tight up against the glass. “But you should eat, Erik, you’ve had a long day.”
Erik frowns, stepping quickly across the bare floorboards to look down at him, looming. Charles seems so slight, these days. “You really ought to have something. Let me call the kitchens and we’ll take the meal together.”
“I’m not hungry.”
It is at times like these that Erik finds it hardest to decide what tack to take. Because yes, Charles is his lover, and he goes to sleep beside him and wakes up beside him, and tells him about his day and hears about Charles’ in turn, but Charles is also his prisoner, and Erik is Charles’ jailer, and sometimes the urge to bend the human to his will rises so strongly in Erik’s throat that it’s all he can do to scowl disapprovingly and put a hand on the other man’s shoulder, to squeeze it just shy of too tight. “I’ll not have you waste away to nothing, Charles, when I swore to Raven that I would keep you safe. What would she say if she saw what you’re doing to yourself?”
And Charles winces, face crumpling with the old pain as though Erik’s hand on him had dug into a half-healed wound, and lets Erik lead him to the table, and press a glass of water on him, and when their dinner comes up from the kitchens he eats it, slowly, as though his stomach has forgotten its purpose, as though each mouthful is a meal.
If only he had been a mutant, Erik thinks, then none of this would have been necessary. Although -
Had Charles been a mutant, then he might never have been Erik’s.
That evening Charles digs out some of the old gramophone records from the back of the closet and waits patiently for Erik to lift the machine from its hiding place behind the couch and onto the coffee table, runs his hands over the heavy glass case reverently before lifting it off to lay a record beneath the needle, placing it with delicate care into the first groove. It is easy to flick the little metal switch on for Charles with his power, to sit and wait with him through the first few moments of static hiss before the song starts with a rush of trumpets and brass.
Charles comes to sit beside him on the couch, the well-worn cushions sagging them together towards the middle so that their arms brush against one another from shoulder to elbow. If Erik sits quietly long enough, focuses enough on reading through the reports that came up for him with their dinner, courtesy of Azazel, Charles will slowly lean further and further against Erik’s side until his whole body is pressed close against Erik’s, the soft heave of his chest rising and falling tucked beneath Erik’s arm, warm and perfect. Charles’ hair smells like the shampoo they both use, the top of his head leaning against Erik’s cheek where it is easy to press a kiss against his parting, to hear the long, slow sigh it gains him. When Erik looks over at Charles the human’s eyes have slid shut, fingers twitching against his thighs, conducting some imaginary orchestra.
As a saxophone rises to wail above the rest, Erik says, “I could get you some new records. If you would like.”
Charles does not open his eyes. “That would be lovely. Thank you.”
Erik stops pretending to read and just listens, too, to the far-off beat of the song and the closer beat of his heart, intertwined.
Outside of their room, he is who the cape and the helmet have made him, and Erik is Magneto, leader of the posthuman world, his life one of responsibility and decision making. Once the door is locked behind him, he takes the steps down slowly, pulling on the mindset he needs to be who he is to everyone but Charles. He puts away the memory of pale limbs tangled in the blankets, the slight roughness of morning stubble, the sleepy grumble when he got out of bed and let cold air in under the sheets.
Deliberately, and gritting his teeth, Magneto instead makes himself remember the way Shaw’s head had burst like a rotten melon when he had crushed it slowly, squeezed between two sheets of metal, the way the humans had gaped, horrified, before scrambling for their missiles and guns like the vermin they were, unable to think through the idiocy of turning metal against a master of magnetism before he had taken their weapons away from them and shown them how they could be used, should be used.
The staircase is dark and narrow, but he finds his way with ease, each footstep calm and measured. When he reaches the bottom he is ready to turn his composed expression to Emma Frost where she has draped herself against the wall, a smirk upon her lips.
“Good morning,” she says, curling one long pale lock of her hair around her finger before straightening up to walk alongside him as he heads down the corridor towards his office. Despite the heels she keeps pace easily with his longer stride. “You know, you don’t have to wear that helmet all the time, sweet. I won’t peek. Well, only a little.”
“Exactly,” Magneto says, dryly amused by her constant needling. The thick soft carpet beneath their feet muffles their steps, matches the extravagant fittings of the whole house. It is all decked out in dark wood panelling and elaborate plaster mouldings, the excess of a bygone era; strange to think of Mystique growing up somewhere like this, when she had always preferred to go about in her natural state, naked but for her scales, freed of unnecessary frills and ruffles. It was what he had always liked best about her - the lack of disguises. “Has anything happened overnight?”
Emma rolls her eyes, takes his arm as they turn the corner towards the east wing and sidestep a pair of aides arguing at the water tower over some trivial matter of protocol. One of them puffs up in indignation, spines rising from his skin like an irritated puffer fish, then subsides with a sudden gasp as he notices Magneto walking past. His skin flushes green with embarrassment. The awe on their faces makes Emma scoff even louder. “Yes, dear, as soon as you went to sleep the planet stopped revolving and all the mutants floated off into space. The humans took back the planet without waking you up. The seas boiled and the moon fell from the sky and crushed your favourite car.”
“Not especially. Some civil unrest among the humans in Asia, but Sunfire controlled it quickly enough. They’ll probably need more help controlling the camps for the next few weeks, if it doesn’t stay settled.”
The outer office is full of mutants, desks covered in papers and loud with discussion. The work does not so much as pause as the two of them enter. Magneto nods at those who meet his gaze, holds a finger to Rogue when she seems set to interrupt, report in hand. “I’ll speak to Riptide about sending a team.”
Emma’s eyes are distant for a moment, listening, before refocusing to their usual laserbeam sharpness. “He’s running an inspection this morning, but he will be available at your convenience this afternoon, unless you want him sooner.”
He reaches the door to his inner office and lets the lock loose, flicking his fingers to draw back the thick metal bar that keeps everyone but him from entering. “This afternoon will be fine. Rogue?”
The girl steps up to his side and presents him with the papers she is holding, points at each item with the pen in her hand as she runs down the list. “A request for more water-powered mutants to help with the drought in Ethiopia needs signing off; Nathan Essex is petitioning to be allowed access to the human camps for genetic testing, to which I’ve already sent back a firm no, considering the last time, I hope that’s okay; the Brazilian leadership are looking to meet with you…”
He focuses on what she says as he takes his seat behind the solid steel desk and looks over the papers, and determinedly does not think of Charles at all.
After dinner, he stops by the library to pick up a couple of novels he does not think Charles has read before, and takes them back upstairs with him, tucked in the crook of his arm, a cooling bowl of stew in his other hand, the heavy suet dumplings foundering in the congealing gravy, like ships sinking.
Some nights Charles just wants to be held; they lie side by side together on the bed, or on the couch, or sometimes crumpled on the floor together, skin to skin, touching everywhere they can. Erik does not mind. The closeness keeps Charles calm, helps the trembling in his limbs to soften, slow and seep away for a time. He recognises the touch starvation for what it is, the desperation for human company; he sits in their lone armchair with Charles sprawled sideways across his lap and remembers what it was like to be shut in a tiny cell for days on end, windowless and airless, choosing a corner to use for a toilet by determining which was the lowest and would keep him from having to sleep in his own waste. Sometimes Herr Schmidt liked to put him in a tiny room about three feet by three where the lowest point was in the centre, just to see what he would do. The walls were always metal, taunting him with the promise of escape that eluded his control.
Here, Charles has books and records and the wireless to entertain him, an ensuite bathroom and a small kitchenette when he is hungry and a bed to sleep in. He has windows, although they do not open, and electric light to see by when it grows dim. Erik strokes his callused hand down Charles’ face, soothing him as he shakes and shivers against him, and whispers to him of the embarrassment of riches here in this room, of how lucky Charles is to have a place like this.
Charles does not reply. Later he shakes for a different reason as Erik pushes his way inside, those red-bitten lips gasping against the pillows where he lies pinned beneath Erik’s body, fingers clutching white-knuckled at the bedcovers and his asshole clenching down hard around Erik’s cock. He cries out and begs when Erik touches him, flushes pink and beautiful, and it is impossible not to love him. His shoulders are freckled, as though somebody has been flicking tiny dots of brown paint at him, speckling him with constellations.
When Erik rolls him over after to kiss him, Charles only pauses for a moment this time before kissing him back.
Azazel is waiting for him on the stairs, flicking a knife from hand to hand to tail in ever more complex loops that Magneto is convinced involves teleporting it from one place to another, though never slowly enough for an observer to see it move. The look the teleporter gives him is full of a humour it took Magneto months to notice beneath the craggy brows and scarlet skin that make Azazel seem permanently angry. “Really, comrade, I think the leader of the freed world could have a nicer room, should he wish it, instead of being exiled to the attics.”
“I like my rooms,” Magneto says, stepping down to stand on the stair above his second-in-command, already stretching out a hand toward him. “France today, yes?”
“Oui,” Azazel says, grinning sharply, and takes his hand.
There is a burst of sulphur and smoke, a moment of blackness across his vision before it clears as suddenly as it came, and they are somewhere else.
The camp is vast, stretching off into the distance, rough houses leaning drunkenly against one another between the original buildings and swarming with humans of every creed and colour but mutant. There is a faint smell of garbage wafting on the soft breeze, waiting to be disposed of. It is by no means the largest camp Magneto has been to, but they are all very much the same; built around an existing town, then added to and built upon to accommodate the humans as they were rounded up and marched to their new homes, the same way they would have done the mutants. Magneto helped devise the plans himself, the layout; after all, he had the experience, if not the training. He had made some improvements, kept it humane. It was more than they had done for him.
The mutant guards bow their heads respectfully as they open the inner gates to let Magneto and Azazel pass inside the fence, clapping their hands to their breasts in a salute he is not yet entirely used to.
Inside, the humans stop milling about and stare, each and every one of them recognising his tall, caped figure and the silhouette of the helmet on his head; a child screams, shrinks back against its mother and is clasped tightly to her legs, as though he might reach out and hurt the child for spite. If it is still here, it is not a mutant, and he couldn’t care less what it thinks of him.
Magneto has been making a point of visiting the largest of the human reservations one by one, appearing to the public and making speeches they don’t appreciate, all in the name of an excuse to make a display of power, show them his strength. It is dull and insipid, and never varies; some brainless human will shout an insult at him, others will join them in a rallying cry, and then the instigator will vanish in a flash of fumes and reappear in the open air above the crowd, screaming and begging on the way down before the inevitable crunch. It is fast and brutal and very, very effective; once or twice Erik has made a show of dragging the crowd about by the metal fastenings of their clothes, what little jewellery is left to them and the ration chips in their pockets, but it is rarely necessary. Instead he stands behind some metal podium, imposed against an impressive backdrop, and speaks to the lesser race about their duty to support their own evolution, to hand over their children for testing so that the new mutant race can become stronger, elevate from their human origins to become something more, something better.
After their fellow human - usually male, but sometimes female - meets their precipitous end, the crowd is always silent, and none of them say a word to fight, to disagree.
After the visit to the camp, they take him to the nearest nursery, to see the children at play, watched over by their foster parents and learning to use their powers without fear of prejudice, without any idea that just five years before they would have been ostracised, freaks. Here, they are normal. When the press takes photographs of Magneto smiling at a lizard-tongued boy offering him a crayon, he doesn’t have to fake anything.
He is choking, struggling against the hands on his throat and trying to scream, but there is no air; there are rings on every finger but he can’t get a hold of them, he keeps slipping, and Herr Doktor is laughing so softly in the background that it should have been hard to hear, but the deep cold chuckle is crystal clear, and he longs to turn it into a gurgle, lash out and make it stop, but he can’t, he can’t–
“Erik, wake up! It's just a dream,” and somebody is stroking the hair back from his forehead, kissing his eyelids where they are screwed tight shut, thumbs pressing gently against the crinkled corners, trying to ease out the creases. Erik awakes with a shudder and a gasp, sucking in great lungfuls of air, a horrible rasping noise escaping as he forces his throat to open, open.
“You’re alright, you’re safe,” Charles is murmuring, still running his hands gently across Erik’s face and pressing his lips along the tense line of Erik’s jaw. In the dim light he is little more than a shape, his eyes a dark gleam. Erik loosens his arms from where they had been crushing Charles against him, makes more space for him to lie alongside Erik instead of holding him hard enough to bruise.
“Entschuldige,” Erik says, his voice hoarse and dry. “Ich bin in Ordnung.”
“Go back to sleep,” Charles says, and tugs Erik back down to the bed, pulling his head in to lie against Charles’ narrow shoulder, tucked into the angle between his jaw and his collarbone. “You killed him, Erik. He can't hurt you again.”
“Nein,” Erik says, and lets himself be rearranged to Charles’ liking, the sour sweat starting to wick off his skin and away. “Nein, das ist gut.” He sighs, forcing his muscles to relax. “Danke, Liebling. Ich liebe dich.”
“I know,” Charles says.
He brings Charles fruit, when he can, plucked fresh from the marketplaces of the cities he visits, from the exotic to the banal; dragonfruit, strawberries from a trip to London, grapes, mangoes from India, apples, once, though he has always found them insipid. The day he brings Charles a pomegranate, ripe and splitting with juice and glistening seeds, the human takes it from his hands and laughs and laughs and laughs, his smooth voice cracked and unnerving.
When Erik wakes in the middle of the night Charles is sitting at the windowseat again, the curtain drawn back to show the stars like pinpricks in the pitch black sky, knees hugged to his chest as he stares at the outside world, breath half-fogged in the cold air. When Erik strains to hear he catches Charles’ murmur, but only just, reading his lips more than listening as he mutters, “I count the dismal time by months and years, Since last I felt the green sward under foot, And the great breath of all things summer.”
“What’s that?” Erik asks, but Charles doesn’t reply.
The next day is Sunday, a rare day off for Erik, who has instructed Emma only to bother him with anything that requires his personal and immediate attention. He expects to be called downstairs sometime around midmorning, but the call never comes. So instead he makes breakfast for both himself and Charles in the cramped kitchenette, its ugly Formica cabinets a faded shade of sunshine yellow that he hasn’t quite got around to replacing. When the eggs start to sizzle in the pan he can hear Charles’ stomach rumble from where he has curled up with a book in a nest of blankets, the imprinted creases from the pillowcase still livid on his cheek.
“Tea, Charles?” he asks, using the tinfoil he has wrapped around the block of cheese to hold it upright for the grater.
Erik can feel the corners of his mouth edging up in a smile. “Would you like some tea?”
Charles looks up from his book where it is propped against the slope of his knees. “Oh. Yes, please. White, one sugar please.”
Erik’s smile widens, threatens to show. “I know how you like your tea, Charles.”
The smile he gets in return is wan and self-deprecating. “Yes, of course. What a considerate jailer you are, Erik.”
Erik scowls, turning his back and taking the omelette off the stovetop before it has a chance to burn. “I promised your sister I would look after you, and that’s what I’m doing. Don’t forget, Charles, that you made this bed for yourself. Don’t blame me if you have to lie in it, too.”
Charles reacts like a scalded cat, scrambling to his feet as the blanket slips off his shoulders to tangle around his ankles. When he strides over to stand at Erik’s elbow he sets his hands to his hips, his eyes ablaze and more alive than they’ve been in weeks, burning the fierce blue of late summer. “You’re the one that keeps me here, Erik, not Raven and certainly not me. I’d rather be, be free range, and take my chances, than be kept in a box like some pet you take out to play with when it suits you.”
Without turning, Erik tips the pan to let the omelette slide out onto the plate he’d laid out for Charles, and says, “I made a promise to Raven, Charles, and so did you. And I’ll be damned if I’ll break it now. Eat your damn breakfast before I throw you to the humans after all.”
“Do you really think that after all this time, anybody is going to care what I said anymore? Surely they have bigger things to worry about than me.”
Erik snorts, shaking his head and picking up his fork to rip off a piece of the omelette, chews it slowly while Charles seethes. “If they didn’t hate mutants enough before, they certainly do now, and sympathisers even worse. It would be like tossing a lamb in with a pack of starving wolves.”
It is obvious from Charles’ face that he doesn’t want to believe it; he stands there, fuming and shaking, hands clenched into fists at his sides before eventually he deflates under Erik’s unrelenting gaze, shrinking in on himself and bringing up a hand to wipe across his face before reaching for the fork. “Thank you for breakfast,” he says, but even Charles’ pretty manners can’t make it sound sincere.
He is beautiful even now, when he looks as though he has not slept in weeks, sorrow scrawled across his face, flocks of shadows hiding in the creases where the light doesn’t touch. “I’m sorry,” Erik says, and means it.
“I know,” Charles says, “I know you are, love,” and leans his forehead against Erik’s shoulder, and if Erik feels a spreading wetness darkening his shirt and making it cling uncomfortably close, he doesn’t mention it.
Later, they play chess, sat across from one another in comfortable silence, and when he wins Charles laughs just a little as he takes Erik’s king, and when he smiles up at his captor, the corners of his eyes crinkling with pleasure, Erik thinks, I am the most selfish bastard in the entire world.
The thing is – the thing is, a lot of the time they are happy. Charles will get engrossed in whatever new project he has started and forget about everything else, ramble on about it for hours while Erik sits and listens, tries to understand more than just the sound of his voice. Or they play chess together, sometimes fast and loose, other times long and drawn-out with a sharp strategic focus and an air of competition between them, only looking up from the board to sip at their drinks or watch each other consider the next move, the next gambit. If he’s feeling playful Erik will wait until Charles isn’t looking and switch the pieces around with his powers, knowing full well Charles will turn back to the game and say “You cheat! Put them back,” his voice chiding even if his mouth is trying not to laugh.
Sometimes, they are happy, together. Charles will dance around as he tidies up after the mess he’s made with his studies, humming off-key as he picks up papers and books and tucking them away where he’ll only forget to look the next time he wants them. Erik will tell him about the ridiculous demands some of the delegates make and Charles will shake his head in disbelief, then ask him what he’d done about it, always so sure Erik’s reaction will be worth a laugh. Charles will do some small, insignificant thing and Erik will feel his heart thump hard in his throat, shocked once again to be so ridiculously in love with anyone as he is with Charles.
And then Charles will remember something, a trip to the beach, or a walk he used to take with Raven, or a book he wants to borrow that’s only held at one library and that you can’t check out because it’s too rare, and he will ask again to be let out - you can’t keep me here for the rest of my life, Erik!- and the only thing he can do is refuse, swallow down the lump in his throat and deny Charles his freedom once again.
Erik brings him gifts all the time to try to make up for it, but it’s never quite enough.
Erik thinks about bringing Charles a kitten, something to look after, to cosset and care for, to keep his mind occupied with something other than outside, but the thought of sharing Charles even with a cat is –
He doesn’t get a kitten.