Erik turns 79.
It's the start of August--brutal and sticky in Rio, where they're currently camped out in one of the Brotherhood's larger compounds. Mystique is the only one present who knows the significance of the date, but when she joins him on the porch, he waves her away absently as he stares out into the trees. The sweat is as cleansing as it is oppressive and he finds himself welcoming the heat, the burn.
He's tired. It goes beyond the humidity and the sun and the suffocating warmth.
He writes a letter and leaves it for Mystique. He doesn't pack a bag. There's nothing of this life that he wants to bring with him.
It's not hard getting into the school. He thinks it would be for anyone else, but he knows how Charles' mind works and knows that he's always been Charles' weakness. It's even easier to move through the house, to find Charles' bedroom in the dark and sit in the chair by the window as the sky turn grey, then purple, then pink.
Charles wakes before the sun and looks right at him.
"Are you here to kidnap me or because you're lonely?" Charles asks him.
"Both," Erik admits.
Charles pulls himself up and leans against the headboard. He still sleeps in blue pajamas, but instead of making him look like a child, he looks dignified. He wonders how it's taken him this long to notice that Charles' frumpy wardrobe no longer looks out of place. They really have gotten old. He remembers watching Charles rub the sleep out of his eyes in days long past, remembers that Charles looked like little more than a boy with his unruly hair and too-large pajamas and scrunched up nose. He makes the movement elegant now; he has gravitas even in this.
"Happy Birthday," Charles says. "I did send a card, though Italy obviously wasn't the correct place to send it."
"Brazil," Erik says.
"Brazil in August," Charles says. "You always were a masochist."
There's a softness to his eyes, even now. Whereas Erik has spent fifty years cursing his weakness, wishing he could shake the things that Charles inspires in him, he rather thinks Charles has cultivated his own. Regardless of how many times he and Erik clash on the battlefield, there's always a warmth in his smile when it's just the two of them.
"I have some land upstate," Erik says. "There's a house there. It's not very large."
"Is it accessible?" Charles asks.
Erik gives him a flat look. As if he hadn't kept Charles' chair in mind as he laid every plank of wood, as he painted every wall.
"I'll need to take care of some things," Charles says. "Hank should be able to handle most of it, but I'll need to make some phone calls to make sure he can access all the proper accounts."
Erik hums, sardonically amused. "Should I come back at dinner?"
"You should come here and kiss me," Charles says. "You should give me that ring in your pocket."
"I'll give you that ring when I feel like it, and not a moment sooner," Erik says, but he can't ignore the first request and once he has Charles in his arms, it's very hard to let him go long enough to get his affairs in order.
When they were young men, it was always Charles angling to stay in bed, Charles tugging on Erik's arm to pull him back into the covers, Charles pouting until Erik put down his trousers and leaned over for a kiss, Charles wheedling that they had some more time, they could just stay for a few more minutes, just hold each other a few minutes longer. He'd cling to Erik and hang off of him, all sly, pouty smiles until Erik gave in, feeling a sort of childish delight in their shifting relationship, in the hours they spent smiling at each other and touching and talking and taking up residence in each other's hearts and minds.
It still has been, to some degree--in their weekend trysts, their stolen afternoons, it's always been Charles following Erik's movements with sad, pleading eyes. It's never enough. He never wants their time together to end.
Maybe it doesn't have to, now.
He tries not to hope, tries not to dream. He learned not to dream a long time ago, not about this, at least. He spent six months spinning hopes and dreams, imagining the life he'd build with Erik, and not even the paralysis hurt quite as much as watching those dreams turn to ash on a Cuban beach. He tries not to hope that this means what he wants it to mean, that this is the reward they get for so many years of dedication to mutantkind. He tries not to hope that he's going to live out the rest of his days somewhere private and quiet with Erik by his side.
He doesn't know that he can let himself believe it, not just yet. If it's a trick or a farce or it somehow doesn't take, he doesn't know that he'll recover.
It means he's hesitant to leave, now, no matter how many times Erik promises he's not going anywhere. He glances over his shoulder constantly as he washes and dresses and he pauses at the door, staring. He knows it's foolish to think that this will disappear once he opens the door, but the fear is creeping up anyway and only Erik's hand waving him sleepily away spurs him into movement.
While he's never allowed himself to think of this, to dream of a proper retirement, there are certain contingency plans in place. Charles has been the target of at least eight assassination attempts that they know of and has been injured, threatened, and kidnapped with some frequency. He's able to take care of himself, for the most part--most people who come after him tend to underestimate him--but it means he understands how prudent it is to have a fallback in place should someone else need to take over the school.
It's too early to call the banks, so once he's done changing security protocols, he begins to write letters to Scott and Ororo and Jean and the rest of the staff, and when he's finished, he sends a polite mental request to Hank, awake in his lab.
"Is something wrong?" Hank asks when he arrives, and Charles is struck by how much he's changed in the last fifty years. Of all of that first group of children, Hank has probably changed the most. For the better, Charles thinks, but also so abruptly that it must have been awful, those first few months. Charles wouldn't know; he was too grief-stricken to be much good to any of them between Halloween and Christmas that year.
"Erik's come to see me," Charles says, and Hank tenses, but says nothing. The staff knows that there is history between their Professor X and Magneto. Only Hank is aware of the tragic story of Charles and Erik. "He's...retiring, I suppose."
"You're going with him." It's not a question.
"I am," Charles says.
Hank seems to consider this, and after a moment of somewhat thoughtful silence, he says, "Good. You deserve it."
It's a better answer than Charles expected, and he can't help his smile. "Excellent," he says. "I'm leaving you in charge of everything, like we've discussed in the past. Scott may give you some pushback, but there's a difference between running a school and leading a team. You should still defer to him in the field, but--"
"Wait a second," Hank says, frowning. "How long are you planning on being gone?"
Charles frowns as well. "Hank," he says. "I'm leaving. I'm--you said it. I'm going with Erik."
"I thought you meant--" Hank starts to say and then stops abruptly. He looks down at the desk, at the neatly labelled letters and the piles of papers with clear instructions on them. "I thought you meant for a vacation. I thought you meant for a week or two. Charles, I know he's your--" Hank struggles for a word. It's a different struggle than it would have been all those years ago, when Hank averted his eyes and said "friend" with a certain tone of voice. Now it's simply the inability to sum up their relationship in one word. Charles struggles with it, too. "I know how much you care about him," Hank finally says. "But this is--he's not--He's still Magneto, Charles. He's killed people. He's terrorized people. Everything he touches is destroyed."
"He's not Magneto any longer," Charles insists. "He's tired. He's leaving that behind. He's not even wearing the helmet."
That, at least, throws Hank just slightly.
"It's still a security concern," Hank says, but it's a weak protest. "What if something happens? What if we need to get to you? What if someone finds you out?"
"I'm still a powerful telepath, as it turns out," Charles says. "I'm rather good at protecting myself and I think you'll find Erik is very protective as well. We'll be alone in the middle of nowhere, but we'll still have telephones and email."
"What if," Hank says, and he won't meet Charles' eyes, "you get there and realize that spending six months together fifty years ago wasn't actually adequate grounds to form a relationship? What if you get there and it's not what you think?"
And that, of course, would be someone putting words to Charles' deepest fears. He's loved Erik for more than half his life. He's loved Erik more than twice as long as he's not loved him. But the majority of that love has been hidden away, precariously shielded and steadily growing miles and miles away from the man that inspired it. Aside from those turbulent few months when they first met, they haven't actually spent all that much time together and certainly nothing this long term. They should be starting with a weekend or a trip, not jumping right into cohabitation. There's always a chance that Charles has prescribed more meaning to their time together than Erik has, that they're not compatible, that the easy way they fit together when they were crisscrossing the country has faded and gone with the years.
But no. Erik came to him this morning. Erik came to him without weapons and costumes and helmets and theatrics. Erik came to him in jeans and a crisp linen shirt and not so much as a hat on his head and asked Charles to come with him. Erik came to him with a ring in his pocket and the clear intention to use it. Erik came to him with his mind full of nothing but tired and might need to decorate and kept up on the bills, the electric and plumbing should be on and Charles Charles Charles Charles.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Charles says, "but I honestly don't imagine it will be a problem, Hank."
Hank sighs and rubs his forehead, mussing his fur.
"Fine," he says. "You'll be back to visit, at least?"
Charles pauses. The words of course are on the tip of his tongue, but that doesn't seem entirely fair. Erik is cutting himself off from everything he's built, everyone he's known. He can't imagine Erik would be overly eager to see Charles running back to the school every few weeks. Charles can't imagine he'd be able to turn his mind off and let himself settle if visits and projects and coursework was constantly on his mind.
It will hurt to let the children go, but it won't be forever. Charles has been everything to everyone for a great many years. He'd like to be one thing to one person and see how that role fits.
"Give me a year, Hank," Charles says. "A year on my own with Erik. To prove to him and to all of you and to myself that I can do it." He pauses. "A school year, actually. I'll come back for graduation."
"A year," Hank says flatly.
"Ten months," Charles says. "I'll call and write. When we settle in, I'll give you a contact address."
"Charles," Hank starts to say, but Charles is tired and Erik is waiting in his bed. His glare is, perhaps, sharper than he intends, but it does its job and Hank closes his mouth.
"I'm a grown man, fully capable of making my own decisions, Henry," Charles says. "I'm giving you the explanation out of courtesy because you are my friend and because you've been a part of this saga since the start, but it is just that--a courtesy. I am going with Erik. I wish you the best of luck, and if any school-related matters need my attention, please don't hesitate to call, but I'm leaving, now, on my terms."
Hank's expression hardens, but he nods and quietly listens as Charles quickly goes over the accounts, the details of the east wing renovation, and the various ins and outs of the few aspects of running the school that Hank isn't familiar with. The sun has burned off the dawn when they finish, and Charles' eyes stray to the door. Hank's do, too.
"Be careful," Hank says, and leans forward for a rare hug.
"I will," Charles promises. "I'll call. I'll write. And I'll see you at graduation."
Hank nods stiffly and Charles doesn't look back as he leaves the office and returns to his bedroom, where Erik is dozing peacefully curled up on the side of the bed that Charles normally finds himself sleeping on.
Charles can't bring himself to wake him. He glances at the clock and bites his lip before the realization hits him that he doesn't have to be anywhere. He's just handed Hank his resignation.
He pulls himself back into bed and wraps his arms around Erik, who blinks at him drowsily.
"We should go," Erik mumbles, even as he closes his eyes again and presses his nose against Charles' cheek.
"We have plenty of time," Charles says. "Sleep for a bit. We'll go this afternoon."
"Lazy," Erik says, but he presses his lips against Charles' jaw and doesn't protest further.
Charles unplugs his alarm clock and sleeps as well.
Age is a funny thing.
In his youth, Erik would have died for his cause, for their cause, the cause of all mutantkind. Erik would have gladly given his life in battle, would have considered it noble, even. He was not Erik, after all--he was Magneto. He was the figurehead of all mutants. He carried their burdens and he broadcast their message.
He understands the value of time, now. He's old and his joints creak. He has already given the cause more years of his life than he has left to live. When he looks forward, it seems like such a hassle, all of it. Even if every human bowed before their kind tomorrow, he doesn't think it would bring him the happiness he feels at the prospect of taking time for himself, catching up on his reading, learning to cook new things, and spending his days with Charles. There are others who will gladly take up the helm, who will more effectively step into his place.
Let someone else be Magneto for a time. He's going to be Erik again.
He thinks he'd like to get a cat.
They leave during the noon staff meeting, packing a few essentials into an SUV registered to Charles rather than the school. They squabble only briefly over who will drive--aside from the nap, Charles doesn't think Erik's slept much the past few days, but Erik insists and Charles doesn't want to start their journey off with an argument. He naps, on and off, as the highway rushes past, and wakes for good when road becomes more narrow and the trees become more dense.
"Are we almost there?" he asks.
"Maybe another hour," Erik says.
"Do you want me to drive for a bit?" Charles asks.
"You don't know where we're going," Erik says. Which is reasonable, but they both know he could easily pluck the information out of Erik's head, if needed. No, Charles chalks this up to a good old fashioned surprise. Erik wants it to be special. Erik's counting on Charles not to go snooping.
Charles doesn't snoop. He's learned, over the years, that a bit of patience makes the result that much sweeter.
It's odd, though, trying to wrap his brain around all of this. They're in a car headed towards a house where they'll live, together. A house that will be their home away from everyone else. A home that will contain a life made up of whatever it is retired people do. A life where Charles is only ever pulled in one direction at a time, where there aren't a dozen adults and teenagers scrambling for his attention with their problems, each more important than the last.
It feels a bit absurd, like a dream. He has dreamed about it, in fact. He's had too many dreams to count that ended with him and Erik together and even several lengthy daydreams during their various encounters, both kidnappings and rendezvouses. He's been ready for this for several years, now. He's glad Erik has finally caught up. It will be nice to put aside the fighting and the arguments, the sharp words that always seemed to end their time together on a sour note.
"How do you feel about cats?" Erik asks a few minutes later.
"As a species?" Charles says, blinking.
Erik snorts. "As a pet," he says.
"Why?" Charles asks, and some of his disdain must shine through, because Erik turns to look at him, both eyebrows raised.
"I would think that would be obvious," Erik says.
"Oh, no, Erik," Charles says. "Don't fall into their trap."
Erik says nothing, but his skeptical expression speaks for itself.
"Cats!" Charles clarifies. "And the way they somehow make people think they're desirable as pets. They're stubborn and they hold no loyalty. They constantly look smug. They do what they want, they think they're better than you are, they expect you to wait on them, and they're really just waiting for you to die so they can eat you."
"That's nonsense," Erik says.
"It's true!" Charles insists. "I read it somewhere. I don't understand pets at all, but cats especially. I just don't get the popularity."
Erik shakes his head. "You're a crazy old fool," he says. "You don't like animals because you can't read them."
"That's true," Charles admits. "But my issues with cats still stand. Please tell me there's not a cat waiting at this house." Perhaps Charles was a little hasty in thinking that they'd be living a life free of arguments and debate.
"No," Erik says, sighing. "And now there will never be, I suppose."
Charles feels guilty for a split second before the relief of not having to deal with a pet kicks in.
"I'll get you a plant," Charles says.
"Well, there's no need, really," Erik says. "I mean, I suppose I already have something that's stubborn, smug, thinks it's better than I am, expects me to wait on it, and does what it wants."
Charles glares. "Very funny," he says.
"At least I assume that you won't be waiting for me to die so you can eat me," Erik says.
Charles crosses his arm and frowns out the window. "Good to see your sense of humor hasn't changed in fifty years," he mutters.
Erik laughs, sharp and sudden and whole-heartedly. He laughs like he's surprised at the sound and he keeps laughing until he's out of breath, shaking his head and glancing over at Charles with sly, warm eyes.
Charles smiles just a little, and when Erik rests his elbow on the center console and offers Charles his hand, palm up, Charles takes it without a moment's hesitation.
Charles insists on the internet connection.
"I thought the point was to get away from the world," Erik mutters as the slouching young man installs the wires under the house.
"It is," Charles says. "But I'm in the midst of writing a book. My options are internet connection or driving back and forth between here and the city every few weeks."
Erik scowls, but allows it. As if Charles had doubted even for a second that he'd win the argument.
It's not so bad, though. There are some good recipes out there on the internet, and as long as Erik doesn't let himself get distracted by the news sites, it doesn't bother him much at all. As time passes, those first few weeks disappearing in a haze of decorating and cabinet stocking and making the house feel like home, Erik isn't even tempted by the news sites. His desire to maintain this level of tranquility wins out over the demons of his darker nature as well as his general pessimism. He sticks to some food blogs Charles finds for him, and even those he checks infrequently.
It's just as well, really. They've only got the one computer and Charles is going through a writing phase.
"I go in and out," he admits over breakfast. "I'd like to pretend that I'm dedicated to focusing on the task, but some chapters are easier than others, and there are so many wonderful things to distract me."
Erik rolls his eyes. Charles' lines have not gotten better with age.
He's writing now, though. He's spending hours a day hunched over the table he's set up on the porch, typing frantically at the laptop. There are long pauses, sometimes, and when Erik looks up, Charles is staring absently into the trees, his lips curled down into a thoughtful frown. Erik remembers the way Charles used to pace when he was thinking, wandering around the room, picking things up at random, muttering to himself the whole while. It's been a long time and Erik and Charles have both come to terms with what happened on the beach, but there are still moments when a fresh regret will bloom in Erik's chest.
They're few and far between, mostly because as soon as Charles gets wind of them, he waves them away.
"You're not allowed to feel sorry for yourself if I don't feel sorry for myself," he says.
He doesn't have to say it today. He looks up from his staring and catches sight of Erik in the open doorway between the living room and the porch. He rolls his eyes and shakes his head and beckons Erik forward.
It's too hot, really, for them to be this close in the sun, but Charles doesn't seem to mind. He wraps his arms around Erik's waist and urges him down until he's sitting half on the bench and half on Charles' lap. Charles presses his face against Erik's chest.
They don't talk.
They don't have to.
The nearest town is a half hour drive and "town" is, perhaps, a generous assessment of the size of the area, but Charles quite likes it. It's not exactly a college town--there's a university about two towns over--but it's close enough to have that feeling, minus the actual students. There's a small bookshop that deals mostly in used books and special orders, a diner with fantastic brunch specials, a grocery store, a hardware store, and a handful of other shops. Charles had wanted to explore it immediately, despite Erik's hesitance, but it took them two weeks to drive in and explore on the pretense of picking up groceries.
They drive into town about once every two weeks, after that. Charles likes the change in scenery, likes talking to people in general, but talking to the people in town in particular. Erik would say Charles likes the sound of his own voice, and while that's true, he also likes hearing other people's stories. He likes listening to Amy from the diner talk about her husband and daughter, he likes Sharon from the bookshop's political rants, he likes when Dan from the post office talks about what the town was like twenty-five years ago when he started working there.
There are all sorts of stories in the world. Not all of them are as epic as the tumultuous love story of Charles Francis Xavier and Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, but that doesn't make them any less important.
For his part, Charles keeps most of his stories to himself. He talks about silly domestic follies and vaguely about his work and his field, but by unspoken mutual agreement, neither of them advertise their past lives. Charles has been on television countless times and been both the focus of and the author of several articles in major news publications. There was a very flattering feature on him in Newsweek several years ago. Still, he introduces himself with his first name and without the suit and the entourage, many people don't make the connection.
There are some who do, of course. Sharon from the bookshop recognized him immediately. She didn't make a fuss, but shook his hand and told him she was a great fan of his work. Erik froze, ready to flee, but she launched into a series of questions about a bill that Charles had endorsed last year and Erik relaxed, incrementally, as it became clear she wasn't going to run through the streets shouting Charles' identity. Several of the librarians know as well, as Charles needed to fill out paperwork to obtain a library card, but mostly they use the knowledge to tell him about books that may be of interest and ask him, repeatedly, to do a lecture for their Science Saturday series.
If anyone recognizes Erik, whom, without the theatrical cape and trademark helmet, is slightly more camouflaged in button down shirts and cotton t-shirts with jeans and sneakers, they don't say a word or make a fuss. That, more than anything, leads Charles to believe that they haven't recognized him. Charles Xavier is a noted philanthropist, researcher, teacher, and mutant rights advocate. Magneto is a terrorist. Charles can't help but think that the reaction to Erik might be a bit different.
Some recognize Charles immediately, but for others, it's a longer process. They have a regular waitress at the diner, a sweet young woman named Amy. She talks frequently about her family, the town gossip, and what she's seen on television. She thinks of them, when Charles does a cursory scan of her mind, as a sweet old couple. She knows Charles is a former professor and assumes he retired from the university. She doesn't connect either of them to mutants or mutant rights, right up until one Sunday when there's something just slightly different in her eyes when she seats them at their usual table.
Erik warily meets Charles' eyes over the table. He's seen it too, then.
Charles enters her mind seamlessly as she pours them coffee. If she's going to make a scene, he'd like to know so they can leave now. He can feel the fork under his hand vibrating, just slightly. Erik's prepared too, always one for fight over flight.
should just ask him, do it quietly, no one else has to know, it has to be him, he looks just like the photo, he could help, he hasn't said anything, will it be awkward, he's a telepath does that mean he's reading this right now? no Janie's kid is a telepath he needs to look at you or touch you and--
Not a scene, then. Charles relaxes and catches Erik's eye, shaking his head minutely. The silverware stops vibrating, but Erik doesn't relax.
"You seem distracted this morning, my dear," Charles says, smiling benignly. "Is there something on your mind?"
Amy glances around, but everyone is involved in their own brunch and conversations and a gentle push from Charles guarantees it will stay that way.
"You--how does--how do kids get into that school?" Amy asks quietly. "The one you started downstate. For mutant kids."
Erik actually looks surprised, and Charles files that away for his own future amusement. For the moment, he focuses at smiling kindly at Amy.
"There's an application process," Charles says. "Scholarships are available, if money is an issue. We never turn away a child for financial reasons."
Amy licks her lips and looks around again.
"My niece...my sister's at the end of her rope about it, which is unfair because Nikki's a bright kid and she can't help how she was born and she's funny and sweet and pretty, but my sister's being a bitch about it and my brother-in-law can't keep her in line forever and--well, I was thinking maybe if she went to one of those schools, you know? It would be easier for her to be around other kids like her. And maybe it would give my sister some space to...come to terms with it all." She looks almost embarrassed. "I was looking on the internet last night and I recognized you."
Charles nods and takes out his wallet. He still has some business cards inside and when he holds out his hand for a pen, Erik hands him one. He crosses out his name and writes Hank's in its place, then circles the number.
"Henry McCoy is the current headmaster of the school," he says. "If you call him and tell him that I gave you this card and then tell him what you just told me, I promise he'll help your niece as much as he can."
"Thanks," Amy says. "I--thank you so much."
She won't let them pay for their brunch, waving away the money that Erik tries to put down. Charles still hides a tip under his plate when they leave to pick up tar from the hardware store and their usual groceries.
Erik is quiet for the rest of the afternoon, answering questions about what sort of coffee he'd like for the house and if they need milk, but keeping his words and his thoughts mostly to himself.
It's not until they're leaving the bakery, a warm loaf of bread on Charles' lap, that Erik speaks.
"You do that so easily," he says. "You interact with these people so easily. You offer help."
"Of course I do," Charles says. "I'll always be a teacher at heart, my love. I'll always want to help. Especially children." He glances up at Erik. "You do too, you know. All the rest of...our shared past aside, you've always had the betterment of our kind, especially future children, in your heart. But I think, perhaps, you've spent so much time on the battlefield, you haven't seen what the world is actually like."
Erik hums, staring off into the distance. This isn't something they talk about much. Again, by mutual, wordless understanding, they don't speak on these topics. Charles thinks it's one of the keys to their continued happiness. They may have enjoyed the debate fifty years ago, but the debate has nearly destroyed them and there are less volatile topics for them to argue over if they're craving the spark that conflict brings.
"It's not perfect, not yet," Charles continues. "But it's not a wasteland, either. There's good out there. There's good right here, in a town where the library begs me to do a guest lecture and a high school teacher wants my opinions on her syllabus and a waitress at the diner wants her mutant niece to grow up happy and accepted by her peers."
Erik is absorbed in thought, but Charles doesn't eavesdrop. Erik will come to his own conclusions, over time, and when he wants to share them, he will.
"You should push me for a bit," he says instead.
"What?" Erik asks, blinking back to the conversation and then looking down at Charles. "So you can tear into the bread before we get home?"
"Yes," Charles says. "If I wait until we get home, it won't be warm anymore."
Erik rolls his eyes, but dutifully moves to stand behind the chair.
And then he stops. And very deliberately sweeps his hand forward, propelling the chair with his ability alone. Charles startles, so surprised he nearly drops the bread. Erik hasn't been hiding, exactly, but he's been keeping a low profile. Keeping to himself, keeping quiet, blending in, and all for Charles' sake. All because of how very much he loves Charles.
Charles doesn't know that he's ever loved him more. It breaks his heart.
"Stop," he says, his voice cracking at the end of the word. "Stop and come here and kiss me."
"First you want me to push, now you want me to do this," Erik says. "You're very bossy, you know." He leans over, though, and kisses Charles, then does it again. His hand lingers on Charles' jaw. "Go ahead and eat while it's warm. Are we ready to head home?"
Charles had wanted to stop by the bookshop, but suddenly the need to be somewhere he can kiss every inch of Erik's skin seems more important.
"Yes," he says. "Let's go home."
Erik nods and waves a hand and directs them both back to where the car is waiting.
Erik's forgotten what people are like.
He doesn't mean fundamentally or as a species. For once, he doesn't care to think about how the strangers on the street feel about mutants. No, he's forgotten what it's like to have so many people in one place.
He's been on the run for years. Decades. He's moved from house to house, from derelict compound to grand mansion. He's spent time lying low on every continent in too many countries to count. But he hasn't lived a life like this, a normal life where you go out and you buy groceries and you talk to the man who works at the post office, since he was a very young boy.
It's exhausting, some days.
They have relationships with the people in town, Charles moreso than Erik. Everyone has a smile for them and a kind word.
"They think we're a precious old couple," Charles tells him one day. "I told Miranda at the bakery that we've been in love for nearly fifty years. I think she imagines we had a house in the suburbs prior to retirement."
Erik shakes his head and stops himself from asking Charles to go further into their minds, to see how things would change if all of the people in town knew they were mutants. There are people who know, of course--Charles is--was--a public figure. Scattered here and there throughout the town, Charles is recognized for his writing, his research, his school. All of the reactions have been positive bordering on ecstatic (Erik doesn't think many people have the patience to listen to Sharon from the bookshop pick apart mutant politics), but the law of large numbers means there are bound to be bigots lurking within the population and, for once in his life, Erik doesn't want to encourage them. It's hard to break old habits, but he sternly reminds himself several times a day that he's no longer a figurehead, he's merely an old man trying to live out his last years as happily as he can manage.
Everyone has a smile and a kind word, but some days it's too much. Erik's spent sixty-three years in his own near-solitude, first hunting down Shaw, then closed away with Charles and the children, then with his own followers. Now he spends his days in the near silence of their house, sitting next to Charles while they read, while Charles works on his book, while they play chess, while they live their quiet lives. It's difficult to go into town, to spend forty minutes going up and down the aisles of the bustling grocery store, to wait on line to pick up fresh bread at the bakery, to stop at the post office to get the mail from Charles' PO Box and the package that missed delivery because it needed a signature and they weren't decent to answer the door. It's too much noise, too many people, and by the time he pulls up outside the house, he barely has the strength to bring the bags inside.
"Your headache is so bad you're nearly giving it to me," Charles says. He's reclining on the couch, reading a book. He doesn't look up from the page, even as Erik finishes putting the groceries away and comes back into the living room.
"I apologize," Erik says. "There are days...."
"I know, my love," Charles says. "Come here."
There's much more shifting involved in sharing the couch than there was in their youth, but Erik tugs the ottoman over and helps Charles adjust, then lies on the couch with his head in Charles' lap, dignity be damned. The first brush of cool fingers in his hair is a welcome relief; he has a feeling that Charles is doing some mental soothing as well, but he doesn't mind as the pounding behind his eyes starts to dissipate.
"'I suppose one night hundreds of thousands of years ago in a cave by a night fire when one of those shaggy men wakened to gaze over the banked coals at his woman, his children, and thought of their being cold, dead, gone forever,'" Charles reads. His voice is calm and even, his accent slightly softer after so many years in New York.
"Bradbury, Charles?" Erik asks. He doesn't open his eyes. "Really?"
"Yes," Charles says. "Now be quiet or I won't read to you at all."
Erik hums at that, exhales as Charles' fingers rub his scalp and chase the last remnants of his headache away.
"'Then he must have wept,'" Charles continues. "'And he put out his hand in the night to the woman who must die some day and to the children who must follow her. And for a little bit next morning, he treated them somewhat better, for he saw that they, like himself, had the seed of night in them.'"
Erik falls asleep that way, his head in Charles' lap, the story of a boy who yearned for adulthood and a man who yearned for boyhood twisting through his brain in a soothing accent with a gentle touch.
Charles wakes up to a cold bed and the sound of pots and pans banging together. He sighs and shakes his head and after the usual routine of finding his robe and his socks and his reading glasses, he gets into his chair and makes his way to the kitchen.
The sight of pots and kitchen implements flying through the air is as charming as it was the first time, even if the result is going to make Charles wish they were within range of pizza delivery. He remembers those first days on their cross-country road trip all those years ago, remembers the delight Erik took in using his powers for mundane things, the way he'd smile, so thrilled to have someone for whom to show off. Charles loved it too, loved the obvious joy that Erik was feeling, loved the way Erik smiled. This, though, might be even better. That so many years have passed and Erik's mastery has become so complete that he can do all of this with the flick of his finger as he's reading....
Charles rolls up next to Erik, sitting at the table, pouring over a cookbook, and kisses his shoulder, his cheek, his temple.
"Good morning," Erik murmurs and reaches out a hand to grasp Charles' fingers, his attention not wavering. He raises Charles' hand to his mouth and presses a dry kiss to Charles' knuckles. "I've left you an omelet. It's in the oven to keep warm. I needed the space."
"I see that," Charles says. "Dare I ask?"
"Caramelized mango ravioli with spicy vinaigrette," Erik says.
Charles makes a pained noise. Not even the look Erik gives him over the tops of his glasses can make it better. (Though it helps. Erik glaring at Charles over the tops of his glasses is in the top five looks that get them into bed fastest.)
"Do you have an opinion you'd like to share, Charles?" Erik asks, mildly.
"Erik," Charles says. "My darling. I appreciate your dedication to world cuisine. I do. And I appreciate the lengths you go to both to better yourself through the acquisition of a new skill and to expand my culinary horizons. But, my god, can we please have a dinner that doesn't involve five courses, obscure ingredients, kitchen implements that look like torture devices, six hours of prep time, and anything infused with anything else?"
Erik blinks at Charles. Charles does his very best to hold his ground and not devolve into begging.
"I love you," Charles says. "I miss pizza."
Erik stares at him, unblinkingly, and Charles starts to feel as if he should have just kept his mouth closed and endured cuttlefish with watercress puree and stuffed lasagna that took three days to make and included spices that may have delighted a foodie, but which made Charles remark, Well, it's very good.
"Erik, love--" Charles starts to say, but Erik interrupts him.
"Oh, Charles," Erik says, gasping around his laughter. "For all your class and dignity, you've never had a very refined palate."
"If it makes you happy," Charles says weakly, "I want you to continue, of course, but--"
"There are a great many things here that make me happy," Erik says. "It won't be a bother to focus on some of the others for a time."
He kisses Charles, warm and familiar and tasting of mango.
"I'll make macaroni and cheese for dinner," Erik says, lips sliding against Charles' ear. "But not from a box."
"That's fine," Charles says, and tilts Erik's mouth back towards his.
When Erik was young, he thought Charles might be the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. Objectively, Charles should have been a bit ridiculous looking, really--short and baby-faced and almost impossibly young, with eyes that sometimes seemed too large and bright for his face and floppy dark hair that made him look even younger. All of his features together, though, with that incredible smile and tremendous power, the miles of pale skin and freckles...Erik wanted him from almost the moment they met and he never stopped. He couldn't imagine not wanting Charles, looking at him and not being overcome by the urge to kiss and touch. Even when they were angry, even when they were fighting--sometimes that just made it worse. Sometimes he just wanted to kiss and kiss and kiss until Charles' lips were slick and bruised, as if he could pass his beliefs by touch. He didn't understand how someone so beautiful and so brilliant could be so foolish; he wanted to use his body to say, 'See, if we can work together so well like this, imagine what we could do for the world.'
After the split, he wondered if things would be different when he saw Charles again, if the reality of the injury or their divergent ideals would make Charles somehow repulsive, but the first time he crept into a lecture at Columbia to see Charles speak, the lust was like a punch to the chest. It sucked the air out of his lungs, sucked all the air out of the room altogether. They had dinner together afterwards, an invitation that Charles managed to get out while Erik was lingering for a last look, before he could tear himself away to run back to his followers. Dinner turned into drinks and drinks led back up to Charles' hotel room where Charles warned him, "It's not the same. It's--you might not--"
"You're still the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Erik told him, and it was different, but only half as awkward as it could have been. Stripped bare and holding each other, they weren't two figureheads of battles yet to come, they were just Charles and Erik, dizzy and bowled over with the strength of their love, even then.
It answered the question, of course, of what he would think of Charles in the aftermath of Cuba. And they came together again and again, meeting for chess or dinner or just to shout at each other. They stole weekends when they could, when it was all too much, when the loss felt particularly sharp or the longing became overwhelming. Charles was still beautiful to him, even as his hair began to grey and then fall out, even as his wrinkles multiplied. He traced Charles' receding hairline in the first light of dawn, a morning many years ago. He wondered if Charles would still make his heart beat faster in ten years, in twenty. He wondered if it was possible to love a single person for that long. He wondered if he would have the strength to continue to set aside every other aspect of his life to steal this time with Charles. He wondered if he'd reach a day when it just wasn't worth it.
It's been nearly fifty years. It's been a lifetime. And, yes, Charles still makes his heart beat faster and yes, Erik still loves him just as much as he did in their youth. They didn't, as it turns out, have the strength to set aside their lives to steal time together, but he's rather sure that Erik-at-forty supposed that one day he'd leave Charles to dedicate himself fully to the cause rather than leave the cause to dedicate himself fully to Charles.
Best of all, though, is that Charles feels the same way. Erik's an old man, now. Grey and slower and sagging in places. Wrinkled. Dignified, he's been told, but certainly not as whipcord thin and sharply handsome as he was the night they met. But Charles still looks at him the same way, eyes gone hot and dark, hands eager to touch. Charles still kisses him like he's drowning, like they never left the Atlantic that first night. Charles still whimpers and moans when Erik touches him, still begs and pleads and curses and whispers filthy, hot things in Erik's head.
Charles is still the most beautiful thing that Erik's ever seen, every single day. Beautiful and wicked and impossible in a way that no one else has ever been able to match, if only because no one else can do the sort of things to Erik's heart that Charles Xavier can.
The autumn is warmer and brighter than it has been in years, or maybe it just feels that way. Maybe without the stress of running a school and spearheading a cause, Charles has time to appreciate the brightness of the sky and the way the sun filters through the leaves. He has time to lie in bed for as long as he'd like, listening to the birds singing and feeling the warm breeze curl in through the window that Erik must have left open.
He'll look back at this moment, in the future, and wonder how he didn't know immediately. How he didn't feel different, how he didn't notice the weight. He'll wonder how he didn't sense the pleased warmth emanating from Erik's mind the moment he woke up.
He doesn't notice, though. He doesn't notice any of it, until he raises his hand to rub his eyes, finally embracing the day.
There's a ring on the third finger of his left hand.
It's not just a ring--it's Erik's ring. It's the ring that Erik's had since the morning after his birthday, the morning he showed up in Charles' bedroom at the school and asked Charles to come away with him. It's the ring that's been sitting in the top drawer of Erik's desk for the past two months, right where Charles could see it just for a moment in the evenings when Erik put away his journal and watch.
He swallows against the sudden lump in his throat.
The shock wears off slowly. He can only find one sock. His robe isn't where he left it. He feels scattered and distant and closes his eyes to rein himself in, to breathe and breathe and finally pull himself into the chair and seek out Erik.
Erik is on the porch. He's drinking his coffee and reading the paper and smiling. That bastard.
"Good morning, Charles," Erik says.
Erik looks up at him, still smiling.
"You are..." Charles says again, but he's not any closer to ending the sentence. He's only wearing one sock and he's only half-dressed. He feels entirely out of sorts, and when he sees Erik fold the paper and put it on the table, sees the matching ring on Erik's finger, he gets a bit lightheaded.
This has been coming for fifty years. He shouldn't be surprised at all, except there were days he thought it would never happen, that they would both die bitter and alone and ruined, that everything they had, all of the potential between them, all of the magnificent emotion and overwhelming love would wither, would extinguish. He knows he shouldn't have doubted--he was the optimistic one. He was the one who held out hope. But it's never been easy, not since those first few months when they were buoyed by lust and discovery and pure wonder at all of the time they had in front of them. So much time, spiraling outwards, and they were so damn young.
He remembers putting his arms around Erik in the depths of the Atlantic. If he closes his eyes he can feel it, feel the suffocating heat of the warm water, the way Erik struggled against him, the way Charles' heart nearly stopped with the intensity of the feelings Erik's mind inspired in him. He remembers being so in love that nothing else mattered, remembers spending long afternoons kissing in motel rooms, learning each other's bodies, laughing and talking and making vague plans for the future. It feels like another lifetime, now, one that's been on pause for fifty years, one that they're just sliding back into, a world where he can guarantee a kiss from Erik every morning and night.
Fifty years full of history and suddenly Charles is twenty-four again, his heart in his throat, his eyes wet, his hands trembling.
God, he thought he'd be smug when it finally happened. He's been teasing Erik about it for weeks. He thought it would feel good, but he never imagined it would feel this good.
"You are..." he says for a third time. The words are tremulous and wet and something about Erik's smile softens around the edges. He reaches for Charles' hands and holds them tightly in his own.
"I am going to take you into town this afternoon and marry you, if that's all right," Erik says.
"That's fine," Charles manages to say. "I'd like that very much."
Erik leans forward, a shyness in his movements, a hesitance that belies his easy smile. He's very careful when he bends his head towards Charles, brushes their lips together. The first kiss is gentle and chaste, but it's hard to stay that way, even though they're both shaking with the tempest of emotions brewing between them.
When Erik pulls back, he wipes the tears from Charles' cheeks with his thumbs.
"Best to get the tears out of the way now," he murmurs, as if he's not crying as well. "We wouldn't want to show up at Town Hall like this, a pair of weepy old men."
"We are a pair of weepy old men, my dear," Charles reminds him. "And, frankly, after all that's happened, I believe we've earned the right."
"I suppose you're right," Erik says. He leans over again and kisses Charles' eyelids, just the barest brush of skin on skin, but accompanied by the sort of affection that does little to discourage Charles' tears. "I would have married you then. Fifty years ago. If I could, I would have done it."
"I'm glad you didn't," Charles admits. "It would have made the times in between so much harder." He opens his eyes and smiles at Erik, as old and grey and emotional as he is. "Let's go back to bed," he says. "We have a very limited amount of time to put our engagement to good use."
Erik laughs, but looks at Charles like he's the only thing in the world.
Charles knows that he's looking back the same way.
Charles had poor circulation before his paralysis. He used to press his feet up against Erik's calves at night, always cold, even in Arizona in the summer. Erik made the expected token protests, but he didn't mind it. He misses it now, misses Charles wrapping himself around Erik like an octopus. He does his best to compensate--he makes sure Charles wears socks to bed, he wraps himself around Charles even where Charles can't feel it--but he mostly hates that his precautions are necessary and that they're his fault.
"It's been fifty years," Charles murmurs into his hair one night in November. "I'd honestly appreciate it if you'd stop feeling guilty."
Erik pretends he's asleep, though it's pointless when you share a bed with a telepath.
The winter promises to be cold and snowy, though, and with nothing else to fill his days, Erik finds himself drawn more and more to craft books. To knitting books, in particular.
"It's all about the manipulation of metal," he says to Charles absently. "I can't imagine it's at all difficult."
"It's very charming that you think that," Charles says. "It will still require the same amount of precision as it would take to work by hand."
"I can be precise," Erik says. "I'm not the angry young man I was when we met."
"What I mean," Charles says, looking up from his own book, another pulpy science fiction novel from the used bookstore, "is that your ability to move the needles without touching them won't supersede the need to learn how they're supposed to move in the first place."
Erik rolls his eyes. He's a very intelligent man. He might not have Charles' degrees, but he knows he's bright. His mind is sharp, he learns new skills very quickly, and this is a hobby most frequently taken up by twenty-something girls and grandmothers. It will be simple.
Charles hums and smiles to himself knowingly, but Erik ignores him and fetches the laptop to order supplies.
Three weeks, four skeins of yarn, and five sets of knitting needles later, he has three twisted sculptures of yarn and metal and a long, uneven length of wool that might, charitably, be called a scarf.
He's glaring at it when Charles wheels in with two cups of tea on a tray on his lap.
"I can feel you thinking it," Erik mutters.
"I'm not thinking anything," Charles says. "And even if I were, you're not a telepath, my darling."
Erik glares at the yarn as if it can scare it into forming the shape he was aiming for. It doesn't so much as twitch and Erik sips his tea viciously.
"If I was thinking something," Charles says after a moment, and Erik groans. "Shush. If I was thinking something, I would say that you are a wonderfully talented and incredibly intelligent man and that with a bit of practice, I'm sure you'll get better."
"It's been three weeks and I've yet to master a straight line," Erik says, tossing his mockery of a scarf onto the coffee table. "At this rate it will be summer before I--"
He stops then, screeching to a halt and feeling the sort of embarrassment that may have bloomed into a blush in his youth. Charles is looking at him, eyebrows raised, and Erik realizes he's never actually explained his sudden interest in knitting. He assumed Charles would have rooted around for it ages ago, but apparently not.
"I wanted to knit you socks," he says, not quite meeting Charles' eyes. "It's going to be cold this winter. I thought it might be...prudent."
He's not looking at Charles but Erik can feel the way his expression softens; Charles projects it, gentle and clear and then reaches over and takes Erik's left hand with his right. His thumb rests over Erik's ring.
"I'll still need socks in the summer," he assures Erik. "And the spring and the fall and next winter, too. We're going to have many winters together, love."
"I suppose we are," Erik says, looking up again, still frequently gutted by the depth of affection on Charles' face when he looks at Erik.
"You'll have plenty of time to master knitting," Charles says and leans in for a kiss.
Erik hums in agreement, but he doesn't pick up the knitting again that night.
It's rather remote, their house. Yes, it's an easy half hour into town in the spring and summer and fall, but once the first snow falls, it gets a bit more treacherous. Their driveway alone is half a mile long and while Erik can have it plowed in minutes with a simple flick of his wrist, neither of them see any real need to do so. It's cozy and warm in their little house and there are plenty of books and movies and groceries and chess games to keep them entertained.
At least, that's what Charles keeps telling himself.
"You're bored," Erik murmurs one afternoon as Charles aimlessly clicks around the internet. Some celebrity he doesn't recognize from a movie he's never heard of is apparently campaigning for a cause he's unfamiliar with, even after reading the first three paragraphs of the article on his screen.
"There's plenty to do," Charles says.
"Yes, there is," Erik says. He puts his book down. "That doesn't mean you're not bored."
It's true, though Charles is almost afraid to admit it. He was fine until the snowfall, but now cabin fever is setting in. He knows that if he could go into town, he probably will choose to stay here anyway, but when faced with no choice, he's finding everything around him frightfully dull.
He doesn't know how to say that, though, without implying that Erik is frightfully dull, that this life is frightfully dull. It's not and Charles has no intention of leaving, he's just...restless. Normally he's darting about, teaching and leading and consulting and working. He feels like he's letting his mind atrophy as he watches the snow pile up out the window.
"I get itchy when my mind is at rest," Charles finally says, turning back to Erik with a shrug.
"Well, then," Erik says. "Best to keep your mind sharp, I suppose." He gets to his feet and disappears into the bedroom. When he comes back, he has two battered paperbacks. He hands one to Charles and sits on the couch, resting the other on his lap.
Beginner's Spanish the book reads. It's old and yellowed and torn around the edges.
"You're fluent," Charles says, frowning.
"I am," Erik says. "Over the years, many of my...companions were not. We couldn't always go out in pairs."
"And you still have it?" Charles asks.
"I had a feeling you'd get bored without something new to learn," he says. "I know you knew some French. I thought we'd start with Spanish, as it's similar, and then move on to German. If you're very dedicated, I also know Russian and some Portuguese."
"You enjoy knowing more than I do about something," Charles says. Erik smiles.
"I do," he says. "I always have."
Spanish, as it happens, is not an easy language to learn. Or maybe Charles just isn't trying hard enough. His accent is abysmal, if Erik's half-hidden smiles are anything to go by, and while vocabulary isn't a problem, cases and grammar and sentence construction are more difficult to keep track of. Erik won't allow him to simply pull the answers out of his mind, which is unfair.
"I'm trying to be resourceful," Charles says with a look that's certainly not a pout.
"You're trying to cheat," Erik points out, and thinks loudly in German.
It's not all bad, though. When Charles ends a lesson particularly frustrated or particularly successful, Erik pulls out the other book and sits next to Charles on the couch, close and warm against his side. He lets Charles settle against him, then he reads aloud.
The words are gentle, but strong and almost awed. He doesn't look at Charles, but his thumb strokes Charles' wrist as he speaks.
"Por eso cuando oí que tu voz repetía / "Vendrás conmigo" -- fue como si desataras / dolor, amor, la furia del vino encarcelado // que desde su bodega sumergida subiera / y otra vez en mi boca sentí un sabor de llama, / de sangre y de claveles, de piedra y quemadura.*"
He could slip into Erik's head and read the meaning of the words, but he doesn't. He can feel them in the feelings rolling off of Erik, in the way his eyes soften and in the gentle movement of his thumb. He knows what Erik is saying by the tone of his voice and the sweetness of his recitation.
"Keep at it," Erik says once he's done, leaning over to kiss Charles' temple, "and you'll understand what I'm reading."
"I don't need to," Charles says, and he kisses Erik softly, their lips moving in a language in which they've been long fluent.
That first snow is a silly distraction, a childish boredom. Charles' cabin fever is almost laughable. Still, there's an undercurrent there that makes Erik uneasy. Charles' eyes are a little too sharp when he stares out the window. His listlessness is a little too deep.
He tells himself it's winter. He tells himself they're finally settling in after the rush of starting new lives and then the rush of marriage. He tells himself there's bound to be some adjustment as things finally fall into place, as the wonder of what they've chosen becomes the reality of their day to day existence.
He's not ready to declare failure--it's far too early for that and he still feels the same way about Charles that he always has, dizzy and frustrated and adoring. If anything, Erik holds on to things long past the point that he should and he recognizes that there's nothing wrong. It's a new season, they live in a very remote location, and Charles is used to being around people. It will pass. When Charles seems to drift away, when a frown niggles at the corner of his mouth, when it takes him twice as long as usual to make a move in their chess game, when their conversation dies sooner than usual....
It will pass.
It's only moments. Brief periods of disconnect, barely the length of an hour. Charles drifts, but he always comes back. He always returns with a smile for Erik, with a warm touch of his hand, with a kiss. His eyes refocus and his mind curls through Erik's.
"Sorry, my love, I was miles away," he says. There's just a hint of embarrassment around his eyes, a flicker of shame. And Erik would pay it no mind, but the silences start the same time as the phone calls.
It's not the first time Hank has called and Erik, knowing Hank as he does, knows it won't be the last. He doesn't pry, though he wants to. He sits, though, and listens to Charles' side of the conversation.
"Why yes, Hank, I do remember how to read a calendar, as it happens," Charles says. It's the third call in as many weeks. "I understand, but I believe we had a deal. Graduation, Hank. I don't know that I'd define Christmas as an extenuating circumstance, given that it's clearly marked on the calendar and happens at the same time every--I know. But this is my home too."
'Too' not 'now.' It could mean anything. It's nothing. Erik shouldn't let it bother him. It's beneath him.
He forces himself to focus on the words printed on the page in front of him.
"I know, and I miss them as well, but we have a deal. It's not stubbornness, Hank--"
Charles is stubborn. Certainly not so stubborn that he would stay when he wants to be somewhere else. Not now, not after all they've been through. Charles would at least be honest with him.
"I will keep that in mind, but please don't expect a call, Hank. I'm quite happy here, and I don't plan on--yes, of course. Have a good night, Hank."
When Charles hangs up the phone, he looks tired and drawn. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, breathing deeply. Erik tries not to watch him, tries to focus on his book, but he's been staring at the same page since Charles picked up the phone and he still doesn't know what it says.
"Come here, my love," Charles says, exhaustion seeping out of him.
Erik crosses silently to the couch and sits next to Charles. He resists the urge to ask questions, to make accusations, to beg Charles for validation. He simply sits and waits as Charles leans against him, eyes closed. Charles will tell Erik what he feels is necessary.
"Hank wants me to return for the holidays," Charles finally says.
"And what do you want?" Erik says, voice steady and level. He's not holding Charles against his will. Charles is free to come and go as he pleases. Charles could leave tomorrow and never return and Erik would be fine.
No, that's a lie. Erik wouldn't be fine. Erik would be heartbroken and empty, but he wouldn't stop him.
"I want to stay, of course," Charles says, opening his eyes and looking up at Erik. "I may be a bit stir crazy lately, but I'd still rather be here with you than anywhere else without you. That's always been true, darling."
Erik nods and believes it because he has to.
Charles closes his eyes. "My head hurts," he says. "Will you read to me?"
The phone call interrupted their Spanish lesson and Erik rolls his eyes more for show than out of a real belief that Charles is using it as an excuse to keep from continuing.
"You won't get out of it that easily every night," Erik warns.
"I'm doing no such thing," Charles says, resting his head on Erik's shoulder.
"We'll see," Erik says, but he flips forward several pages, swallowing the last lingering traces of uncertainty and, instead, transferring them into a language that Charles doesn't entirely understand.
"No te vayas por una hora porque entonces / en esa hora se juntan las gotas del desvelo / y tal vez todo el humo que anda buscando casa / venga a matar aún mi corazón perdido*," he reads.
Charles' arms wrap around him as he finishes the poem and then another, but he's oddly quiet before bed and Erik can't shake the feeling that there's something amiss, something fractured, something he doesn't know how to fix.
I love you, he thinks, fiercely. Please, Charles.
Charles kisses him in response, gentle and sure and steady, but it's not the answer Erik was looking for. Erik's not even sure what the answer is.
Hank calls once more, the week before Christmas, and Charles actually snaps at him over the phone before apologizing and hastily moving to the laptop to order Hank something indulgent and overpriced off of Amazon as soon as he's hung up the phone.
"You were right the first time," Erik mutters. "When you yelled at him."
"It's difficult, being headmaster," Charles says. "I think he just needs some guidance and he doesn't have anyone else to turn to."
Erik thinks that it's rather that Hank is sure that Erik is going to murder Charles or kidnap him or do some other horrible thing to him. Erik thinks that Hank doesn't want Charles within ten feet of him.
"He knows you wouldn't murder me," Charles says, dismissively. "Kidnap me, maybe. Not that there's anywhere to kidnap me to now that we live together."
"I don't like it," Erik mutters.
"I don't like it either," Charles says. "That's why I continually tell him to stop. We're in agreement on this, Erik."
It doesn't feel like it, though. Erik knows, of course, that Charles doesn't like it. He can read Charles' irritation clearly, he believes Charles' insistence that he wants to stay, that he's happy, but there's something in the air as the days shorten, something in the way Charles holds himself, something that leaves Erik wary.
He traces Charles' cheekbone in the moonlight, made brighter as it reflects off the snow outside.
"I want you to be happy," he says. It's soft, a confession. Erik has never wanted anything for anyone but himself, save for his dream of a safe haven for mutants which was, in and of itself, selfish. It's a revelation, a quiet one he's been having daily since the morning he woke up and decided he didn't want to be Magneto any longer.
"I know you do," Charles says. "I am. I am, my darling. If you believe nothing else, believe this, please."
Erik believes him. He wants to. He has to. And, when Charles smiles at him like that, warm around the edges, soft in the eyes, bright and affectionate and home, Erik knows it's the truth.
The days blur together for Charles. There's nothing, really, to break up their time together aside from sleeping. Christmas is a bright blur in the constant onslaught of snow, not so much a celebration as a quiet night with a fire and a hearty meal. They don't exchange presents--Charles is well aware that it's not Erik's holiday, even if he chooses not to participate in Jewish celebrations any longer--but it's a day of calm and closeness and the reaffirmation that this was the right choice, that this is where he belongs.
New Year's passes and then on into January and without the school, there's nothing to mark the days. There's nothing to think or do, either, and Charles finds his attention wavering from even the tasks he normally relishes. He writes little. He reads less. He spends too much time staring outside, losing entire days in a blur of lethargy. He can't concentrate on chess or Spanish. The snow piles higher and Erik stops bothering to shovel or plow and one morning, Charles sits at the window and realizes he's trapped.
The thought blindsides him and he's not sure what it means, at first. He turns it over in his head as his eyes skate over the landscape, but there's truth to it. There's no path. If he wanted to leave, he'd never make it far, not in the chair. He needs to rely on Erik to make his way, and he so hates relying on anyone and since when has Erik been reliable? When, in fifty bloody years, has Erik Lehnsherr ever been there when Charles needed him? Erik wasn't there after Cuba, wasn't there when Charles got pneumonia the next winter. He hasn't been there for any of the attacks on the school or any of the attempts on Charles' life. Charles has never looked up from a sick bed or a cot in the infirmary to see the only face he's ever wanted to wake up to. Erik has never put his anger aside to come to Charles when he was most needed.
Erik wore that awful helmet for so many years that it took all of Charles' strength not to weep when he realized Erik had no intention of bringing it to their new home.
"You look pensive," Erik says to him later. There's a wariness to his voice and Charles knows he's been feeling it too. Since the phone calls before Christmas, since the New Year's blizzard. They've been circling each other, and Charles doesn't know why. He loves Erik, he knows he does, he always has. Even in the heat of battle, Charles loved him, even when he was hurting the children, Charles loved him, even when he was attacking the school. It was a betrayal of the worst sort, both fighting against someone who meant so much to him and letting the person out to destroy everything he'd built get away with his heart.
He loves Erik, this is all he's ever wanted, but this week just being around him leaves Charles on edge. He can't even look at Erik right now, can't imagine how he's going to keep this all inside and sleep in the same bed as him. Being in the same house is too much, but he can't even get as far as the porch in all this godforsaken snow.
"I'm fine," Charles says. He doesn't look away from the window. He tries to keep his words soft and gentle, but there's something stiff about them, the same stiffness that keeps Erik's hand from touching his shoulder as he walks past.
It snows again that night.
The house is too stuffy in the morning. It's hot and dry and Charles' nose is dried out and his throat is sore. He sighs and wishes for the humidifier that sits in the closet back at the school, but he's left that behind him, for now. His choice. He can't go back.
He doesn't want to go back. He doesn't.
Charles cracks one of the windows in the living room, just enough to circulate the air. Even the air outside is dry, however, despite the accumulating snow. A steaming cup of tea would be nice, but Erik is in the kitchen making breakfast and...well, it's better that Charles stays out here. It's better to leave Erik to his own devices. Erik is probably sick of him underfoot as it is.
When Erik comes into the living room, his expression is strange and rigid. He hands Charles a plate of eggs without meeting his eyes, and then turns to stare at the window.
"Did you open the window?" he asks, something like incredulity in his voice.
"Yes," Charles says. "It's stuffy."
"Then you turn down the heat, Charles, you don't open the living room to the elements," Erik snaps. He waves a hand and the window crashes down hard enough that Charles is shocked the glass doesn't crack. "You'll freeze to death without even realizing it."
"Oh, yes, thank you," Charles says, stabbing viciously at his eggs. "Because I haven't been able to take care of myself for the past fifty years. However did I manage without you?" He doesn't look up at Erik. Looking at Erik hurts right now and he can't put his finger on why. Maybe he doesn't want to.
"They all think you're a saint, but you can be more unnecessarily cruel than anyone I've ever met," Erik says, evenly. "More selfish. More cutting. I don't know why, for a moment, anyone ever thought you were on the side of the angels."
Maybe Charles doesn't want to look at him because maybe Hank is right. Maybe they can't do this. They were in love for six months when they were in their twenties. Six months, during the turbulent joy of the discovery of the mutant race. Six months that were a perpetual honeymoon, fueled by the knowledge that they were going into battle and might not return. There's no reason to think those feelings should have lasted this long. Maybe Hank is right and this is a mistake.
He drops his plate onto the coffee table.
"You know," he says, still not looking at Erik, "I'm not hungry."
He wheels himself into the bedroom without looking back and he doesn't flinch at the sound of china breaking on the hardwood floor.
It snows all afternoon. Charles lies on the bed and props a book open on his stomach, ready to hide behind it should Erik come in.
Charles doesn't know why his mind is like this, thoughts swirling around like his skull isn't big enough to hold them. He feels itchy, almost, tight and trapped. He wants to run, but he doesn't know where he wants to go. Not back to the school. Not anywhere else. He hasn't wanted to run anywhere but towards Erik since he was twenty-five years old and now that Erik's just a room away, he can't bear to take the first step. He doesn't know that he wants to.
He falls asleep on and off in the grey light of the bedroom. Opening his eyes is a struggle each time, but he feels no more rested than he did when he woke up that morning and the morning before and the morning before that. Winter seems endless. It feels endless, it feels like a bleak Mobius strip, leading them around and around through the same dark days, through the same pale grey light and awkward silences and the piles and piles of snow.
It could be late or it could be early when he wakes next. It's dark--even the strip of light at the bottom of the door is gone and--irrationally--his heart twists at the thought of Erik on the couch, of Erik turning his back on Charles as easily as Charles turned his back on Erik this morning.
It's irrational because Erik is right next to him. He's not touching--he's about as far away as it's possible to get without leaving the bed--but he's there, heavy and solid and warm and Charles is suddenly deeply relieved, deeply grateful that he's not alone.
He studies Erik in sleep, studies the bags under his eyes and the wrinkles and lines that now make up his face. He studies Erik's fine grey hair and the muscles of his arms. He studies the frown that's settled against Erik's lips, the crease on his brow even in sleep. It's so much easier to look at him like this, when Charles knows he's not looking back, so much easier to touch, just gently, and remember that this is his best beloved, the one man he's senselessly loved through war and destruction and carnage and disaster. The man who carries even the deaths of those he deems beneath him, who understands that while he may think his acts of terror are for the greater good, they're still acts of terror.
Charles likes to think he's always been the good in Erik, but he supposes that makes Erik the bad in him. Maybe they're doomed. Maybe they've always been doomed.
Except...no. Because Erik's the good in him, too. Every good thing he's done, he's done to make a world that Erik would be proud of, a world without hate. His love, surely, can't be bad. The love he's inspired in others. The dream he crafted in hotel beds across the country in their very first recruiting trip. None of these things are dark or evil. Erik's not dark or evil, either.
And whatever this is between them, this storm cloud, this blizzard of discontent, it's not evil either. And it's certainly not Erik's doing. It's a misery that Charles can't quantify, can't pin down, can't explain. He wants it off his chest and out of his head, but he's drowning in it and there's no end in sight. He can see the light reflecting off of the snow outside, can see the flakes still falling steadily, and he wants to weep.
They'll be buried for sure. Snowed in forever, drenched in negativity, gasping for breath against this heavy weight of listlessness, of lethargy.
"You're crying," Erik says, very quietly, and Charles startles and looks away from the window. Erik's face is expressionless. His eyes are clear and following the path of a tear down Charles' cheek.
"I'm sorry," Charles says. "I'm sorry." He's not sure what he's sorry for, what specifically. Everything, maybe. All that's happened since Christmas, since before. All the darkness he's brought into their sanctuary.
"There's nothing to be sorry for," Erik says. He raises his hand and brushes the tear away with his thumb.
"I don't know how to survive this," Charles says. "I don't know how we'll get out."
"Oh," Erik says, "mein Schatz." He cups Charles' cheek and slides closer until Charles can feel the heat radiating off of his body, feel his breath curling around Charles' face. He realizes, belatedly, that he's under the covers and undressed, that Erik took the time to do this small thing even when he was angry, even when Charles has been impossible. "We'll get through. The snow will melt eventually. The flowers will come back."
Charles hasn't felt this young in years, this vulnerable. It's terrifying, but there's only Erik to see it, and Erik has kept worse secrets.
"I know," Charles says.
"Do you?" Erik asks.
Charles is a scientist. Charles certainly understands something as rudimentary as the passing of the seasons, but right now he's having trouble remembering what a flower looks like. He says nothing and lays his head on Erik's shoulder, closing his eyes.
"I'll be here when they do," Erik assures him. "I've not wasted five decades of my life for you to get rid of me that easily."
Charles doesn't quite manage a laugh, but his lips curl into a smile, even though his mouth is cracked and sore, even though the movement feels foreign.
He sleeps with his head on Erik's shoulder and with Erik's arms around him. In the morning, when he breathes, his lungs feel full for the first time in weeks.
It's not easy, caring for Charles.
Well, that's not entirely accurate. Parts of it are as easy as breathing. He wants to please Charles. He enjoys making him breakfast every morning and dinner every night. He likes reading to Charles. He's happy to hold him, to kiss him, to murmur his affection in all the languages he knows. He doesn't shy away from telling Charles how much he cares--he's too old to play those games anymore.
The weight of the bleak winter is more than either of them predicted, however, and it's difficult, even after the first breakthrough, to keep Charles present. He does what he can and he tries to be patient. He's aware, distantly, of the correlation between lack of sunlight and black moods. He knows that winter is hard, is harder for a man who's used to having half a dozen things to do to keep his mind occupied. Erik doesn't think Charles has taken so much as a vacation since he started university. He can follow the logical progression, see how Charles' perceived uselessness feeds into the strange new surroundings and any lingering doubts he might have about giving up the life he's known for all these years just because Erik had asked him to.
There's a difference betweening knowing and understanding, though. Erik has always moved from place to place. Erik has always been surrounded by different people. Erik didn't leave anything behind except a dream he was too old to enjoy. Erik can't feel it, not the way Charles does, and there are days he's so frustrated he wants to shout. There are days that he does shout, that he pushes back against Charles' stubbornness and darkness, days that he gives into his own.
He's not proud of those moments, but he's not sorry for them, either. Erik has to live here too.
Some of it is frustration and some of it is anger, but much of it is helplessness as well. Erik's never been a caretaker before. He's been the opposite, really, the one that leaves destruction in his wake, the one that causes nightmares. Charles is good at soothing pain, at offering hope. Charles is the one who knows what to do when someone is hurt and angry and sad. Erik assumes that one has to have spent time not being hurt and angry and sad in order to offer that sort of comfort.
He's learning. He's trying to learn. Charles is worth it, worth the struggle and the uncertainty, worth the not knowing. Erik's smart enough to know he's never had all the answers, but he wishes he could, for Charles' sake. After all they've been through, marriage seems like a paltry thing to fall back on, but the words ring through Erik's mind as he cooks elaborate dishes to distract himself from Charles' struggle. For better and for worse, in sickness and in health. It was a promise he's been waiting to make for fifty years, and not one he intends to break. Not anymore.
He comes up with home projects and tries not to be irritated when Charles gets tired and distracted halfway through. He keeps a steady flow of conversation when Charles looks twitchy, holds back on saying what's on his mind when he looks distant. He plows the driveway and takes them into town, which seems to have the best effect of anything. Charles brightens, smiles, chats with everyone. He holds Erik's hand over lunch and eagerly talks about new books at the library. As he relaxes, Erik relaxes and they go to sleep wound around each other and smiling.
"I'm sorry," Charles says in the morning, running his fingers over the design on his tea mug as they sit at the breakfast table. "I don't know what's gotten into me these past few months. It's been...hard to think."
"It's that time of the year," Erik says. "You've nothing to apologize for. I know I--" He pauses, considers his words. "I know I've taken you from the familiar."
Charles nods, but he still won't look Erik in the eye. "I don't want you to think for even a moment that I don't want to be here. I don't want you to think this is your fault. It's not, Erik. I want this. I want you. To be honest...I think I might always be like this in the winter. I think I've just been too busy to properly realize it." He does look up, finally, and his hand inches across the table. "I'm sorry I've been such a terrible housemate. Such a terrible husband. I appreciate that you're here. I appreciate all you've done to help. And I love you. I do."
Erik takes Charles' hand and squeezes it fiercely. "No," he says quickly. "You are insufferable and irritating and sanctimonious and arrogant and smug and superior, but you could never be terrible. Not a terrible housemate and certainly not a terrible husband." He raises Charles' hand to his lips and kisses his palm. "If marriage was easy, we'd be bored of it by now. Best to keep things interesting, don't you think?"
Charles laughs and then looks startled at the sound, but he curls his fingers around Erik's jaw and shakes his head, smiling at him.
"I suppose we would," he says, and Erik kisses his palm again.
"I love you too, you old fool," Erik says.
It doesn't get better overnight. But the snow stops falling and the silences get shorter and Erik reins in his frustration when it threatens to spill over into words or actions. They get through it. Some days, it feels like it's by the skin of their teeth, like it's harder than those years on the run, harder than fighting against the government, than taking out the enemies of mutantkind. Maybe it's because he could pretend those things were not entirely under his control, when this, this is in his house, in his bed, in his husband and he should be able to do something.
It's exhausting, but they muddle through, and the first week in March, the snow starts to melt.
Not all of it. Patches, really, in areas that are hit by the sun. Still, it's enough that when Charles looks out the window that afternoon, he actually smiles.
"It seems that there's life under all of that snow after all," he says. "Who would have imagined?"
"I told you," Erik says, kissing the top of Charles' head as he passes by to get started on the dishes from breakfast. "You just needed to have faith."
"Mm, I didn't need to have faith, though," Charles says. He tilts his head back and grabs Erik's hand before he can pass by entirely. "You had it for me."
"And I always will," Erik says. He settles behind Charles, leaning against the back of his chair. The dishes can wait.
The crocuses are blooming the morning that Charles gets the phone call from Hank.
"Spring has sprung," he says to Erik when Erik comes out into the garden, holding the phone.
"Indeed," Erik says. He stops, laying a hand at the nape of Charles' neck and looking out into the trees, just beginning to bud. His thumb rubs against the first bump of Charles' spine. He leans over and kisses the top of his head--Erik's lips are warm and dry. "You've a phone call."
A quick sweep of Erik's mind and Charles gleans that it's Hank. He takes the phone and murmurs his thanks.
"Dr. McCoy," Charles says. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I'm going to be up near you next week," Hank says. "I thought maybe I'd visit, if you'd like the company."
"I don't find myself lacking in company," Charles says carefully, "but I'm always happy to see you." He's missed Hank and the rest of the staff, not to mention the children, but he wants to make it clear that he's happy, that he's loved, and that he's not wanting for anything. "When will you be here? There's a lovely diner in town."
He speaks with Hank for a few more minutes, hammering out a time and place, and when he hangs up and returns to the porch, Erik is waiting for him.
"Is young Dr. McCoy sweeping in to rescue you?" he asks dryly.
"Hank's hardly young anymore, my dear," Charles says. "And I assured him that I don't need a rescue, though I would very much enjoy lunch if he's so inclined. He'll be here next Friday. You're welcome to join us if you'd like."
"No thank you," Erik says. "Though I do have some errands to run in town, so I suppose it would make sense to go with you."
Charles lets Erik have his reasoning. They both know that Erik wants to be in shouting distance, but there's no need to acknowledge that out loud if Erik would prefer not to.
The week proceeds as normal. Erik cooks and Charles writes and reads. They wander through the woods, Erik's ability superseding the need for cleared paths. Charles wins three chess matches and Erik wins two. Erik reads poetry to him, perhaps with a little more frequency than he had the week before, another quiet way to show his affection.
It's odd. Touching, almost, to see Erik like this, so unsure of himself, as if Charles will have lunch with Hank and then decide to abandon this life all together. He does what he can to assure Erik, holding his hand and kissing him at every opportunity. He acts the way he acted when they were young men newly in love, and by the time Friday afternoon comes, Erik seems, if not comfortable with Charles and Hank's rendezvous, at least placated.
"We could have dinner in town after, if you'd like," Charles says.
"I'd rather just go home," Erik says, and when Charles waves at Hank, already seated inside the diner, Erik stiffens.
"You could come in and say hello," Charles reminds him.
"I think I'll go to the bookshop," Erik says. He leans down and kisses Charles, and Charles catches his hand, briefly tangling their fingers together.
"I'll let you know when we're through," Charles says. I love you, you ridiculous man, Charles thinks, and Erik kisses his cheek.
"I'll see you this evening, then," he says, and looks, for a moment, like he wants a cape to throw over his shoulder as he stalks away.
Erik always had a flare for the dramatic.
Charles greets the waitresses with a smile and gestures towards Hank when they offer to seat him. A few of the other patrons are doing their best to hide the fact that they're staring out right and it's easy enough to coast through the minds of those in the diner, just in case. The thoughts seem to fall neatly into two categories, I recognize him from television, he's met with the President, right? and Lot of fur, that's weird, weirdest I've ever seen. Nothing hostile and nothing worse than Hank's dealt with before. Hank himself is looking well, sitting tall and smiling politely at Amy, the waitress taking his order.
"Here he is now," Hank says as Charles wheels over. "Good to see you looking well, Charles."
"Oh, of course you're here for Charles," Amy says. She smiles down at him kindly. "I should have known. What'll it be, hon?"
"Roast beef club," Charles says. "And I would appreciate if you didn't mention the red meat to my husband, should you cross his path."
Amy winks at him. "It'll be our secret, sweetie," she says.
Hank's scrutinizing him.
"Apparently too much red meat is bad for me," Charles says, though he's well aware that's not the part of the exchange that caught Hank's attention. As if to highlight it, Hank's eyes drift down to his left hand.
"How are you?" Hank asks, though the question is still very much present in his mind.
"Very well, thank you," Charles says. "It's not been entirely easy, mind you--I'm used to keeping busy and I've found the mind plays tricks when it's not constantly up and moving." He lifts the corner of his mouth in acknowledgement of the irony and sips the coffee that Amy puts down in front of him before disappearing back to the kitchen. The waitresses at the diner usually like to hang around, chatting with Charles and Erik and giving them all the best of the town's gossip. They seem to sense that this is a different sort of meal, and Charles knows that it's his name that will be prominent in the gossip pool this week. "Overall, though, I think I've settled in quite well. I'm very happy."
"I'm glad to hear that," Hank says. "We worry about you, you know. I know that you trust Mag--Erik, but it's been a long time since you spent this much time together."
"Believe me, Hank, I know. I felt Erik's absence every day." He smiles softly to take the edge off of the words. "But, honestly, don't waste your energy worrying about me. I'm sure it would be put to much better use running the school. Tell me, how are things there?"
It's not his smoothest segue, but Hank takes it and runs with it. He keeps regular correspondence with Charles by email and occasionally mails him letters and cards from the rest of the staff and students, but there are plenty of new stories to share and plenty of confessions to make about his struggle with the breadth of his new responsibilities. Charles offers what advice he can, and, over the course of the afternoon, Hank's shoulders gradually relax and he laughs and smiles and seems much less concerned than he was when Charles first arrived.
Four hours pass in the blink of an eye, and Charles is only slightly surprised when Amy swoops in to remove the lunch plate he's insisted she leave so he can continue to pick at his french fries.
"Your hubby's coming down the street," she says. "I thought I should get rid of the evidence."
Charles chuckles and leans out of her way so she can finish cleaning the table with one hand while she refreshes their coffee with the other. She steps away just as Erik stops outside of the diner. He's holding a potted daffodil and clearly weighing the merits of coming in versus waiting on the sidewalk and pouting until Charles takes pity on him.
Come inside, those sad eyes don't work on me, Charles thinks. Erik scowls, but pulls the door open and begrudgingly crosses the diner.
"You gonna stay, sweetie?" Amy asks him.
"I haven't decided," Erik says.
"I'll bring you a coffee while you decide," she says, patting his shoulder as he pulls a chair over to Hank and Charles' table.
"Hank," Erik says, nodding at him.
"Erik," Hank says in response. "I see you're well."
Erik hums in response. He's holding himself rigidly and the stiffness is back in Hank's shoulders as well. Charles sighs. Loudly.
"Honestly, the two of you," he says, shaking his head. "Erik, Hank is not going to whisk me away back to the school. Hank, Erik's as retired as I am. Moreso, even. Most of his energy goes to cooking and indulging my whims." Charles looks at Erik, batting his eyelashes. It has the desired effect. Erik rolls his eyes and relaxes. It's only a slight shift, but it's better than nothing.
"You're a grown man, you look ridiculous and undignified when you do that," Erik says, but he takes Charles' hand and holds it in his own.
"You brought me flowers," Charles says, nodding at the plant on Erik's lap and smiling.
"What makes you think they're for you?" Erik says. "Perhaps I felt the windowsill needed a spot of color." He transfers the pot to Charles' lap, though, and squeezes his fingers. "Narcissus plants are perennials. They'll bloom every year. No faith required, though I'll keep it for you anyway, just in case."
Charles swallows against the swell of emotion in his chest. He links his fingers with Erik's and rolls all of that suffocating affection over into Erik's head. He hopes he doesn't look too lovestruck as he clears his throat and turns his attention back to Hank, who is regarding the two of them curiously.
"Would you like to stay for dinner, Hank?" Charles asks.
There are rules about this, Charles, Erik thinks. The rule is no guests from their old life at the house.
I know, Charles says. But he's going to say no. And if he does, by some chance, say yes, we'll eat in town.
Erik sighs and Hank actually chuckles.
"You used to do that all the time, back then," he explains. "I think you thought you were being subtle, but you were always having conversations that we weren't privy to and it was all over your faces. We knew it was happening, even if we didn't know what you were saying. Raven used to--"
Hank stutters to a stop, but he takes a deep breath and pushes on, determined. "Raven used to make jokes about how you two were in your own little world and we were stuck orbiting around the outside. I guess that's even more true, now."
He doesn't sound angry or accusatory, though he does sound resigned. He offers them a smile and Erik tentatively smiles back.
"It's not a bad world," Erik says, surprisingly frank. "It's not the perfect world I wanted us to have, but it's enough. Now, when I'm old and tired, it's enough." He squeezes Charles' hand. "I have what I need."
Charles beams at him and squeezes right back.
"I'm glad you've found your peace," Hank says. He sounds genuine. "And I'm sorry, I'm needed back at the school tonight, so I'll have to turn down dinner. But I'll have to come visit again."
He doesn't mention Charles visiting the school. That, it seems, has sunken in at least.
"We'd be happy to have you," Erik says, and it actually sounds as if he means it.
Hank settles the check, refusing the money that Erik tries to offer for his and Charles' portion, and walks them out to the car.
"It was lovely to see you, Hank," Charles says.
"Same here," Hank says. "And congratulations." He glances down at their hands and gives them a true smile, showing all his teeth. "It's about time, huh?"
"Thank you," Erik says. "It rather was."
They're quiet on the drive back to the house.
"If you'd like to have dinner at the house when Hank comes back, that would be acceptable," Erik finally says as they turn down their driveway.
Charles hides his smile.
"Thank you," Charles says. "I appreciate that allowance."
"Only Hank, mind you," Erik says. "This house will not become a playground for all the orphaned waifs you have a habit of picking up. And all members of the Summers family are similarly forbidden. If you so much as mention Wolverine's name in this house, consider it grounds for annulment."
Charles doesn't stop laughing until they're back inside.
It's strange how the winter months dragged on and on, how the hours seemed endless even when the daylight only appeared for the blink of an eye. Spring, by contrast, is whipping by so fast Erik is almost afraid to go to sleep at night, convinced that when he next opens his eyes they'll be halfway into July. He finds himself wishing he'd taken pictures, which is absurd--Erik's never taken a photograph in his life--but he wants something concrete to remind him that not long ago there was snow on the ground and last week the trees were only budding and now there are tiny green leaves sprouting out overhead. There are birds singing and the grass is no longer brown. The sunshine spills into the house all day long and there's no need to chase it around the room because they're both confident that it's not going anywhere.
Charles is flying through the last few chapters of his book, rejuvenated by the fresh air and the longer days, working on the porch well past twilight and coming back inside only when Erik insists they eat dinner at the table. He's smiling more, which sparks something in Erik's chest, something that blooms slow and warm, beating in time with his heart. If winter was a test, then they've passed it. They've passed it and they're still here and everything is going to be fine. The next few years--the rest of Erik's life is going to be fine.
"Are you okay?" Charles asks, glancing up from his potatoes. "You look a bit shell-shocked."
"I'm--good," Erik chokes out.
Charles frowns and then there's just a whisper of movement across Erik's consciousness, an unnecessary flutter that Charles only leaves behind as a courtesy, and Charles is smiling at him.
"A few years," he scoffs. "You have many more years in front of you, I'm sure. There's no way you're done bothering me yet."
Erik shakes his head clear and focuses on his dinner, but he rests his hand on the table, his fingers reaching out to just barely brush Charles' fingertips. The spark is still there, something electric between them that's always been there. Erik has had other lovers, but none of them have made him feel like this with just the barest of touches.
The next morning, Charles murmurs, "I think we should start a garden." The words curl on his warm breath, his lips brushing Erik's bare shoulder as his fingers slide further downward, skating across his ribs and settling in at the dip of his waist. "I think it will give me something to do while I'm waiting for my editor to get back to me."
Erik has some other suggestions of things Charles can do while waiting on his editor, but when they eventually roll out of bed in the later morning hours, they head into town to see about gardening tools along with their groceries.
The little trees that line the sidewalks in town are flowering and there are soft pink and white petals covering every available surface. Erik scoffs and glares at the petals that stick to his shoes, but it's mostly for show and to charm that smile out of Charles, the soft, indulgent one that lights up his eyes.
The young man at the hardware store is quite helpful in showing them the best tools for the job and rhapsodizing about what to plant and when, his eyes going a little hazy as he describes the process while smiling fondly.
He's a mutant, Charles tells him. He makes plants grow.
Erik is surprised, but perhaps he shouldn't be. According to the most recent studies, mutants currently make up one in ten of the population. He's sure if he asked Charles, he could get a more complete breakdown. Still, he's the first mutant they've encountered in town and Erik suddenly wants to behave a little more kindly towards him.
But you've already behaved kindly towards him, Charles points out. He's helped us nearly every time we've come in since we moved here. You've never had a harsh word for him.
Because he's never had a harsh word for me, Erik replies.
And that's the very point of it all, my dear.
"Smugness is not attractive, Charles," Erik says aloud, glaring at him. "Particularly when I'm still unclear what it is you have to be smug about."
The young man looks back and forth between them, confused. "I'm sorry, was I interrupting?" he asks.
"Oh, not really," Charles says. "It's an argument we've been having for fifty years. Fifty years this month, actually." He smiles at Erik kindly. Erik hadn't even realized the anniversary of that fateful night in Miami was nearly upon them.
"I'm sure we'll be having it for fifty more," he says.
"Oh, I do hope it's not necessary," Charles says. "Anyway, don't mind us, Matthew. Please, continue. You were saying something about soil."
Fifty years this month. He's been saying "fifty years" for the last two of them, actually. When it's been this long, it seems silly to demand such a precise count. Forty-eight is as good as fifty to some of the younger recruits, children whose parents have yet to reach that age, even. Still, it's certainly an anniversary to remember, a day to take note. Perhaps he'll suggest they go out to eat, not here but to the next town over, to somewhere nice and celebratory. Maybe it's more their style to stay in and keep those memories secure between the two of them.
They pay for their purchases and Erik tries to smile kindly at the young man who assisted them, but the boy just looks even more confused as he helps them bring their bags out to the car.
"You can call the store if you need any help," the boy says. "I'm here most days. And you have my email address, don't you, sir?"
"Please, Matthew, call me Charles," Charles says. "And yes. We'll let you know if anything comes up. Thank you again."
They cross to the grocery store in near silence. Charles has this boy's email address. Charles, for all these months, has been learning and opening himself up to these people. Charles has been building relationships. Erik's been right here and he's hardly noticed.
"Well, maybe if you engaged with the people around you instead of constantly being on alert for the next threat, you could make some friends too," Charles points out. He glances up at Erik, a soft smile easing the sting of his words. "People like you here, Erik. I swear they do."
Erik makes a noise, dismissing the thought, and turns his attention towards choosing a cart with four functional wheels, another little perk of his power that he'd never considered before he began living a normal life. There are lots of strange little perks, things like putting in lightbulbs and adjusting stuck zippers and the effortless way in which he can plow snow and rake leaves. He's had people to do those sort of things for him for years and it's something of a delight to be able to do them by himself, just a casual use of his power to make his day easier.
The squabble over vegetables and milk and bread, the sort of things he imagines all couples squabble over, the sort of things they squabble about every time they go grocery shopping, as if they don't always come to the same conclusion. Charles begs the ingredients for a lemon tart out of him, despite Erik's insistence that a single tart will be much too large for just the two of them.
It's an average trip. It's no different than any other, really, until they get to the check-out line.
Erik's distracted. He's doing math in his head, tallying their order, adding the tax, subtracting the coupons he's clipped from the Sunday paper. They have more than enough money, will always have more than enough, now, but it's hard to forget the habits that became ingrained when he was living hand to mouth. He's nearly finished when he realizes that Charles' attention is elsewhere and readies his lecture on the importance of being aware of your spending.
The lecture dies on his lips when he finally looks up.
Charles is chattering happily to a small girl in the cart in front of them. She can't be more than three or four, smiling and giggling at Charles while her mother loads groceries onto the conveyor belt. It's nothing he hasn't seen a dozen times before--Charles likes everyone, children included, and speaks to anyone who speaks to him. What's different about this little girl is the iridescent sheen to her skin, a physical mutation not unlike scales. It's beautiful, but immediately obvious, immediately apparent to humans, and Erik finds himself glancing at the humans around them, ready to use the cart as a weapon if necessary.
It's not necessary. The mother--human as far as Erik can tell--is talking to the young girl at the register about the rain expected next week. The woman in the next line over is reading a magazine as she waits her turn. She glances up when the girl lets loose a particularly high pitched giggle, but then goes back to the tabloid with a smile on her face.
"They're precious when they're that age, aren't they?" the woman behind him says. She's about his age, maybe a bit older. She has a wedding ring on her hand and a man's ring on a chain around her neck. "My Darcy's youngest is eight now and I can't believe how fast the years went. Do you have grandchildren?"
Erik shakes his head, stunned.
"Oh, that's too bad," she says. "Grandkids keep you young, you know."
Erik nods and turns back to Charles and the girl, who is now demonstrating the camouflage abilities of her skin.
"Oh, that is very nice, Sarah! Look at that! You don't use that to hide from Mummy, do you?"
"No!" the girl giggles.
"Good girl," Charles says. "You should always listen to Mummy. But hide and seek is fun, isn't it?"
"Yes!" she says. "I'm a good hider!"
The whole thing is surreal. Less than a year ago, Erik was leading his followers on missions where humans shot at them and shouted slurs. Now he's standing in a grocery store where a tiny mutant child doesn't even rate looking up from the latest exploits of heiresses and reality teevee stars.
"Erik, if you could load up the groceries?"
Erik blinks and then realizes it's nearly their turn to check out and he's not moved. He pushes the cart forward and loads the belt, his mind overloaded and ringing in his ears. He needs to concentrate on each item in their carriage in order to get it up and moving. He's forgotten his estimated total entirely.
"Oh, you must be Charles," the mother says, and Erik glances over at her, watches her shake Charles' hand. "I'm Eileen. Some of the girls at the library said I should talk to you about Sarah."
"They've mentioned," Charles says. He glances over his shoulder at Erik. "Be a dear and finish up?"
"Of course," Erik says, but he's not paying full attention. There's too much going on in his mind for all of it to process at once.
The cashier is young and bored and zips through their groceries in just a few moments. He pays her and accepts the change and receipt and places the bags back into their cart. He approaches the corner that Charles and the woman and girl--Sarah, the girl was Sarah and the mother Eileen--have retreated to. Charles and Eileen are in deep conversation. Sarah watches them curiously, and then turns her attention to him. Her little hands are the same green color as the plastic handle to the cart that she's clutching.
"Hello, Sarah," he says. His voice isn't as steady as he'd like it to be, but she's a child and will hardly notice. "That's a wonderful thing you can do."
"I'm a good hider," the girl tells him proudly.
"I can see that," he says. He thinks to his own childhood. He thinks to the lives he saw on the road with Charles, the lives he saw over the years while he was following his own agenda. There are things he wants to ask this girl, but he doesn't know how to articulate them, doesn't know if she would even understand what he's asking if he could. "Are you happy, Sarah?"
She nods without even pausing to think. Of course she does. She's four. There's happy and sad and probably very little in between. There are no complexities, not the kind Erik is used to. There's no "happy, but" or "angry, except," there's no fumbling to express the whirl of contradictory emotions that bubble beneath the surface.
"We have a kitty," Sarah says. "And my friend Amir says he can't have a kitty because his sister can't be around kitties like I can't have peanut butter and I have a kitty, so that's good."
"That's very good," Erik says.
"Your buttons are shiny," Sarah says, and she reaches out to touch one of the gold buttons on his jacket. Her finger changes to the same color as the metal.
"I can do things too," he says, and he uses his power to twist the button until it comes off of his jacket and floats across the space between them until Sarah pulls it out of the air with wide, excited eyes. She turns to her mother, holding out the button, and Erik realizes that Eileen and Charles are both watching them.
"Mommy, look!" Sarah says.
"I see, sweetie," Eileen says. To Erik, she adds, "You didn't have to do that."
"I have a spare I can put on in its place," Erik says. "It's no trouble."
"Eileen, this is my husband, Erik," Charles says, and it's maybe the first time Erik has heard himself introduced that way. He leaves the cart and Sarah and stands behind Charles, resting a hand on his shoulder and touching the nape of his neck with the tips of his fingers. He offers the other hand to Eileen, who shakes it in a firm, unflinching grip. She's not afraid of him. And why should she be? To her, he's an old man, a stranger from town with a unique gift, married to a man who has some information for her.
"It's a pleasure," Erik says.
"Eileen is looking for some tips on getting Sarah into a mutant education program as soon as possible," Charles says. "There aren't many early childhood education classes that I know of up here, but I'm going to make some calls, see what I can find out."
"Mutant early childhood education," Erik says, shaking his head. One in ten and the numbers are growing. Powers are manifesting earlier. They live in a world where there are people out there actively concerned about educating these children, shaping their abilities...it's the dream Charles spoke of all those years ago, isn't it? The secret desire he whispered to Erik in hotel rooms, unbelieveable in scale at the time, but not unachievable as they zipped around the country, approaching more of their kind, meeting new children with new gifts.
It only became impossible after. Maybe it only seemed impossible, because here they are. Charles is going to make some calls. This little girl is going to mutant preschool.
"It's incredible, isn't it?" Charles says. Erik doesn't know if Charles has read his mind or if his line of thought is just that obviously read off of his face. "Could we ever have imagined this fifty years ago?"
"Fifty years?" Eileen says. "Wow. I mean--I don't mean--it's just, that was right at the start of the mutant rights movement, right?"
"Something like that," Charles says. He reaches up and pats Erik's hand, his touch lingering. "We've come a long way."
Mutants, yes, but the two of them as well. From mutant schools and acts of public defiance to marriage and a house. A life entirely different from the kind he'd imagined for himself, even at his most optimistic. A life with the brilliant, arrogant, careless love of his life, whom he left broken and alone five decades ago. Erik cooks dinner every night. Charles wants to start a garden.
Oh, my love, don't cry, Charles voice rolls through his mind, the softest of whispers, like a comforting caress.
I'm not, Erik insists, and he blinks past the wetness in his eyes and manages a smile for Charles, keeping hold of his fingers and squeezing them. "It's just," he says out loud, "we really have, haven't we?"
They say goodbye to Eileen, whom Charles promises to call, and Sarah, who still clutches the button from Erik's jacket. They put their groceries in the car with the supplies from the hardware store and wave at Sharon from the bookshop when she passes by them on her lunch break. Then, they get into the car and head back to their little house and the life they live there.