It was all Sean’s fault, really.
Erik was able to keep most of the students from interfering in the fight, thanks to their metal buckles. Alex could still have taken a shot, but his odds of hitting Erik and not Charles would have been vanishingly small even with his aiming plate.
Sean’s voice, however…
The blanket force of the shriek could do little but roll the both of them a few feet across the sand. But it was enough to startle Erik, for one crucial moment. Long enough for Charles — doubtless expecting the shriek, possibly prompting it — to hook his fingers under the helmet’s edge and tear it off.
Erik immediately found himself immobile, simply unable to tell his body to move. He could still see, hear, feel — still feel the missiles, even, now hanging frozen in the air. But he couldn’t move them anymore.
Charles was heavy on his chest, bent over with his forehead pressed to Erik’s, fingertips a hard pressure against the sides of Erik’s face. He could feel Charles’s breath, hard, fast, pained.
Please don’t do this, Erik. Please don’t leave me.
Who said I was going anywhere? It was beyond strange, going through all the mental motions of speech without actually feeling his lips move.
You already have. Places I can’t follow you to, Erik, I can’t. But it’s not too late to come back. Please, Erik. Think about what you’re giving up if you do this. Words and images began to flicker through Erik’s mind — the mansion in Westchester — library — crowded kitchen table — laughter ringing through hallways and staircases — home — faces — Raven — Hank — Alex — Sean — all smiling and proud because of what Charles and Erik had taught them — family — more children, more and more, faces glimpsed through Cerebro — the mansion overflowing with children who could fly, transform, vanish, call the wind — their people, safe and happy — purpose —
One last set of images, offered with shy, terrified, hesitant hope — Charles leaning across the chessboard to kiss him — Charles’s warmth and weight over him, fingers twining against the sheets — and me — Erik, if you want me —
If he wanted. If he wanted — Charles Xavier the telepath wasn’t sure if he wanted— Erik had thought his regard embarrassingly obvious, thought Charles’s pretended ignorance a gentle rejection. Erik felt as if the planet had tilted slightly off balance.
Charles was staring down at him in shock as he felt Erik’s response. His grip on Erik’s mind faltered, and Erik took full advantage of the opportunity to drag Charles down into as thorough an answer to if you want me as he could possibly manage.
Distantly, he felt his powers trickle back into his own control, as if the missiles were settling gently into his hands. The men on those ships had fired on the mutants who saved their lives, simply because they were different and therefore threatening. Erik would not forget that, nor forgive it. But they weren’t worth losing Charles.
With one hard-won fraction of his attention, he sent the missiles careening into each other, showering the ships with bits of flaming wreckage. He even — he’d have to tell Charles this later, and get properly thanked for it — diverted a piece or two to keep them from crushing the men on deck, their guns and metal-buttoned uniforms telegraphing their locations.
He’d made his point. That would do for now.
Eagerly, he devoted his entire attention to kissing Charles.
It wasn’t the sunlight in the window that woke Erik so much as Charles burrowing away from said sunlight, burying his head in Erik’s chest with a sleepy noise somewhere between grumble and whimper.
Erik wouldn’t go back to sleep — he’d too thoroughly trained himself to wake quickly and completely — but that didn’t mean he was getting up. In half an hour or so, the mansion would be overflowing with the sounds of the kids — they were all kids, even the teachers, sometimes especially the teachers — getting dressed, having breakfast, shouting and laughing and running in the halls. But that was half an hour away. Right now, he could wrap his arms tighter around Charles, pull the covers up over their heads, and just enjoy the moment of... peace.
He hadn’t thought this was possible, four months ago. Couldn’t have imagined himself here, happy, putting down roots. It wasn’t that life was perfect — he and Charles still argued constantly about means even if they agreed on ends, and they were beginning to suspect that there were things they would never be able to compromise on. That frightened Erik, as did the restlessness that came over him occasionally, the voice of an instinct he’d always heeded before, telling him You’ve stayed in one place too long, move on, dangerous, move on.
But there was no reason to keep moving now, no Frankenstein to chase. That part of his life, difficult as it was to comprehend, was over. His life now was Charles, the school, their people. It seemed nonsensical to him now that he could have risked losing that.
In four months they’d managed to gather six new students, including Alex’s little brother, each of them with unique physical, emotional, educational, and mutation-training needs. Their first batch of students, in the meantime, were by no means finished products themselves, even as they helped train the younger ones — and there was also the remaining tensions between Azazel and Angel and the rest of the group to consider. Erik found that his days were, at best, full. Generally, full of things he’d never previously imagined himself doing.
Such as teaching an art class.
He’d argued for days that an art class was frivolous, a waste of time, and that furthermore he was the worst possible choice for teacher, and should never have shown Charles his sketchbook. Charles only smiled, babbled on about self-expression and creative outlets for stressed children, and arranged to have some of Erik’s better sketches framed.
Which led to this particular morning, with Erik trying to keep John Allerdyce from setting fire to the paper supply while Ororo wrestled with the pottery wheel and little Jean Grey smeared great handfuls of paint across a canvas taller than she was.
“Mr. Lehnsherr, is this paper red?” said little Scott Summers at his elbow. In most respects the boy was adjusting well — enthusiastically, even — to the visor Hank had designed to control his eye-blasts, but he still had trouble differentiating colors through the ruby-red material.
“Pink, actually,” Erik said, settling John firmly at a table with paper and a pencil.
“Oh, even better.” Scott toddled off happily.
It took Erik a moment for this comment to catch up with him. Scott preferring pink was sufficiently unusual that Erik stepped ever-so-casually after him. “Why is pink better, Scott?”
Scott, seated before a pile of pink, red, and white construction paper, punctuated with glue bottles and was that glitter?, bit his lip and looked around carefully before whispering his answer. “I’m making a valentine for Jean!”
“A valentine! Tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day, didn’t you know?”
“And what exactly is Valentine’s Day?”
Scott stared at him in mingled horror and pity. “It’s the love day. The day you show someone how much you love them.”
“By giving them pink paper?”
“By making them a valentine. They’re red and pink and sparkly and they say ‘I love you.’” He glanced over at Jean, now covered in a wild variety of paint colors, and blushed. “You’re supposed to also give flowers and heart-shaped candy boxes but I don’t have those.”
Erik was not at all certain whether to believe this nonsense, but if any place seemed likely to have such a ridiculous celebration, it was the U.S., and if anyone was likely to go a little silly over it, it was Charles. “Does it have to be flowers and candy boxes?”
Scott thought hard, forehead wrinkling. “Last year Daddy made Mommy dinner!”
Dinner, that he could do. Charles did tend to rave about his cooking, though it didn’t take much for any cooking to be better than Charles’s.
Scott looked down at the mess of badly-cut paper hearts and glue-soaked glitter on the table. “Do you think she’ll like it?” he whispered.
“Considering her appalling taste in art, yes, I’m sure she’ll love it,” Erik said, and left Scott beaming while he put out another fire, ejected John from the room, and pondered where to find more information on this Valentine’s Day foolishness.
"They really don't have Valentine's Day in Germany?" Raven asks, sprawled in the shade of an oak while Hank and Azazel spar on the grass a few feet away.
"Not that I ever noticed," Erik says. "I did have other things on my mind."
"Huh." The dappled sunlight brings spots of Raven's skin to a sapphire glow. When their first underage students arrived, Charles had proposed a compromise on the clothing issue, and Raven agreed to wear clothes until the children went to bed. She abides by this rule meticulously.
She also pushes the definition of "clothes" at every opportunity. Today she's wearing a yellow polka-dot bikini.
"So it is some kind of love celebration?" Erik prompts.
"Oh, yeah. Men give their sweethearts chocolates, flowers, jewelry, take them to expensive restaurants, all that jazz." She grins at Hank and Azazel, whose fight is growing steadily more vicious. It's an interesting thing to watch, snarling blue fur against smooth silent red. They both, Erik notices, keep glancing toward Raven. "So far, according to my household spies, Hank has bought me a card, a box of candy, and a really gigantic blue teddy bear."
"Reservations at a restaurant in Paris. And at a five-star hotel."
"Which do you intend to accept?"
Hank slams Azazel into the ground with a roar, only to find his opponent already on his own shoulders in a cloud of sulphur. Raven smirks.
"I see no reason why it has to be either-or."
Erik considers expressing distaste at the way Raven is letting the two poor boys drive themselves into a frenzy, but frankly, he likes seeing her confident and teasing, and after so long hiding, he can't blame her for enjoying the attention. And at least it means she's finally given up on him.
He might wish she hadn't picked Azazel as his replacement, though. Erik watches the red-skinned Russian mutant with narrow eyes. His decision to join up with them after Cuba had been a surprise to everybody, but Charles wouldn't hear of rejecting him.
"He's dangerous, Charles," Erik had argued.
"Yes. And angry, and violent, with a lot of blood on his hands. And if we cast out every such mutant? Where would we be then?" The words were gentle, but his gaze at Erik was pointed. "Believe me, I'm fully aware of Azazel's character flaws, but he's not interested in destroying the world anymore. He never really was. Shaw had convinced him that a nuclear holocaust was the only way he could ever belong somewhere, be with people who didn't cross themselves every time he walked by. We've already shown him he was wrong about that. It might be enough to save him."
Erik wonders now if Charles would be half so concerned with saving Azazel if he knew about those hotel reservations. Fortunately, Raven is not Erik's problem. Valentine's Day for Charles, that is Erik's problem.
"I'm not sure flowers would go over well with Charles," he mutters. "I don't want to treat him like a girl."
Raven grimaces. "Erik, I am barely coping with the idea that you're sleeping with my brother. I absolutely do not want to think about it long enough to give you romantic advice. You'll figure something out — I'm pretty sure Charles will forgive you for absolutely anything, so it's not like the stakes are very high. Hail the conquering hero!" she shouts suddenly, and runs to congratulate the winner of the sparring contest (Azazel) and comfort the loser.
Not many people at the school trust Azazel, but in some ways Angel's had it worse. Azazel may be psychotic, but he never betrayed them. It doesn't help that Angel held a grudge for quite some time against Alex for burning her wings. They ended up spending a lot of time shouting at each other.
Erik, who has seen the way that kind of energy tends to work itself out, was less surprised than most when the inevitable came to pass. Not to say that the shouting's stopped. At all.
"Screw Valentine's Day and the horse it rode in on!" Alex screams, blasting a piece of furniture that Angel throws at his head.
"You wish, Summers, 'cause then you'd be getting some!" Angel lobs another chair out the window; this one falls short, shattering on the grass a few yards from Alex.
Erik eyes the chair's remains, scattered among other singed and broken bits of furniture. Charles can replace a few chairs. If Erik intervenes to protect the decor, the next thing to fly toward Alex's head might be flaming acid.
"All I said was that I thought Valentine's Day was overrated!"
"You said that love was a crock! Forgive me if that makes it a little hard for me to believe you actually meant anything that you said last night!"
There's more shouting, and crashing, and blasting, and lots of Spanish cursing. Erik sidles quietly away.
Erik doesn't normally spend much time around Sean and Moira. He figures he has enough problems without developing diabetes. But it finally occurs to him, when it comes to romantic advice, he ought to try the only happy, stable relationship thus far established among the students.
He finds them curled up on the couch, supposedly watching an old episode of I Love Lucy, but in actuality much more involved with each other. He leans one hip against the back of the couch and hopes Sean will notice him first. He's much more fun to frighten.
After Cuba, Erik had been surprised to find himself talking Charles into keeping Moira. Yes, it was risky to have a CIA agent aware of their location, but Moira would never willingly give them away, and with Emma Frost in the wind (she'd escaped immediately upon learning of Shaw's death, with an ease that made it clear she'd only stuck around out of courtesy), the CIA had no telepath who might drag the information from her mind. Her worth as an ally far outweighs her danger as a threat.
In the end Charles had asked Moira's permission to blur the knowledge of their location, without actually erasing anything; now she contacts Charles whenever she has information for them or simply wants to come stay a few days.
Which she does a lot.
Erik supposes it's a case of opposites attracting, with her and Sean; he's messy, mellow, harmless and adorable in a lost-puppy way, quite a contrast to Moira's fearless whipcord competence. The age gap is a little strange to Erik, but the kid's eighteen, and he can see how they might each feel they were more complete together.
And there's a thought syrupy enough to gag on. This Valentine idiocy is getting to him.
"Can we help you with something, Erik?" Moira says at last, barely pulling away from Sean's lips far enough to speak. Sean blinks in hazy confusion at the interruption, on his way to a petulant scowl when he notices Erik and squeaks, trying to press himself deeper into the couch and, perhaps, vanish entirely in its depths.
"What are you two doing for Valentine's Day?" Erik asks.
"You're not invited!" Sean bleats, sounding scandalized.
Erik rolls his eyes. "Thanks, but I'd rather have my eyeballs boiled."
"Aww, is widdle Ewik looking for womantic ideas?" Moira says, and Erik heroically suppresses a desire to break her teeth. Moira chuckles at his expression. "What are we doing for Valentine's, Sean?"
"It's a surprise," Sean says sullenly, glaring at Erik.
"There you have it," Moira says. "It's a surprise, we can't tell you, you'll just have to figure something out for yourself."
She and Sean return to their former activity, and Erik, after an awkward moment of feeling both superfluous and perverted, leaves the room.
"You all right?" Charles asks sleepily beside him. "You seem... distracted."
"Just thinking," Erik says, shifting to throw an arm around Charles's chest. "You tell me I should do more of that."
Charles chuckles, and says dryly, "Yes, well, don't overtax yourself, love."
Erik smiles into the back of Charles's neck, burrows in. After a long moment of sleepy, comfortable silence, he can't help saying, "I love you."
"Mm-hmm," Charles replies with his last wisps of consciousness. "You're very good at it, too."
Erik lies awake for hours, trying to think of ways to prove that.
Somehow it hadn't occurred to Erik to wonder what Charles was getting him for Valentine's Day, so he's far more surprised than he should be when he wakes to find Charles standing over him with a breakfast tray.
"Good morning, Erik," he says, practically bouncing with delight. "I'm sorry to wake you early, but I wanted you to have time to appreciate your breakfast before the day begins."
Erik can only blink stupidly as Charles arranges himself in the bed beside him, with the tray over their laps. Two kinds of fruit juice, three kinds of toast, four kinds of eggs, turkey bacon, coffee — it's practically a buffet. Erik wonders how many tries it took him to get the eggs right, and how many hours early he got up to do it.
"And I got you a little something." Charles bites his lip and pulls out a lovely leather-bound copy of T.H. White's The Once and Future King. A book Erik had read over and over from childhood, abandoning copies for various reasons in Dusseldorf, Paris, Rota, Vienna... Erik takes it almost reverently, opens it to find an inscription in Charles's handwriting. He can't actually read it through the blur in his eyes.
"Happy Valentine's Day, love," Charles murmurs, snuggling close and kissing his cheek.
Erik very carefully sets the book and the breakfast tray on the floor, and tackles Charles into the pillows.
Erik gets to his art class nearly half an hour late, Angel glaring as she gladly hands over control of the classroom. To the extent that she had control of the classroom; the children seem to be running entirely wild, but Erik is feeling far too endorphin-washed to care. Nothing's on fire. All is well.
Scott and Jean are holding hands.
It's not until the end of the class period that Erik catches Scott alone for a moment.
"So Jean liked the valentine, I take it?"
"Mm-hmm." Scott blushes furiously. "I know it wasn't actually very pretty. But she said she liked it anyway, 'cause I made it."
He and Jean are holding hands again as they walk down the hall to their next class, and Erik finally knows what to give Charles.
"Erik, what is all this? Can I open my eyes now?" Charles is doing a very poor job of sounding irritated.
"Not yet. Almost there."
"Almost where? We're not even moving!"
Erik grins, taking that as a compliment to his ability to levitate gently and smoothly. The metal plate they're standing on is almost even with the roof of the mansion now.
"Here we are. Nope, eyes closed, just come with me." He takes Charles's hands, leads him off the plate, steadies him when he starts at the feeling of stone instead of grass underfoot.
"Erik, what the devil—"
"You can open your eyes now."
He does, and stares open-mouthed at the lace-draped table Erik has set up on the roof, with covered dishes and flickering candles against the night sky.
"You did breakfast, I figured I could do dinner," Erik says smugly.
"Even if we didn't actually eat breakfast until it was cold. Oh, Erik." Charles squeezes his arm — he's bouncing again — and starts uncovering dishes. "You cooked all this yourself?"
"Of course," even if he'd had to cancel his last class to make time for it. For cooking and for the present. "And…" He holds out a box wrapped in red paper —neatly wrapped, this time, not a repeat of Christmas, he'd learned to do it right since then.
"Oh, Erik, you shouldn't have," Charles says, but his eyes are greedy, and he's tearing at the paper almost before he's done speaking.
Inside is a black velvet box (fetched by Azazel, Erik hadn't asked where or how) and a pile of red and white paper. Wide-eyed, Charles opens the velvet box and stares at the two solid steel rings within. On the inside of each ring is a word, the letters blocky but uniform. CHARLES. ERIK.
"This one, of course, is for me," Erik says, floating the CHARLES ring free of the box and onto his ring finger. "And that one…" He slips the ERIK ring onto Charles's finger manually, goosing it with his power to make it fit perfectly.
Charles just stares. Unnerved, Erik says, "They're not perfect — you know I'm still working with fine control — but I thought you might, um. Like it anyway. Since I made it myself."
Charles gulps and nods.
"I made them from the buckles of our original flightsuits. Hank's upgraded everything since then, of course, but he still had the old ones lying around. Each ring has a bit from your buckle and a bit from mine. Um... there's more in the box?"
Charles peers down into the ripped-open box and pulls out a handful of the paper bits. Little red and white hand-made valentines, each with I love you written in the center.
Erik realizes he's blushing furiously. "Scott seemed to think something like that was necessary for the spirit of the holiday."
He isn't sure he's done things right until Charles bursts into tears and throws himself into Erik's arms, paper hearts fluttering down in all directions.
Once again the food is cold before they get around to eating.