He wasn’t paying attention. Of all the things that he remembered from that night (and he remembers them all), his failure to pay attention was the most egregious and horrifying. He wasn’t watching the meters, wasn’t listening to the sounds of the materials in the device, and he wasn’t paying attention to what his nose was trying to make him understand.
Things were going horribly, horribly wrong, and he missed it.
Missed it to such a degree that the device blew up, taking half the lab with it. Causing a fire, which caused the ceiling to collapse on top of Charles, breaking three vertebra in his back and severing his spinal cord in two places, trapping him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
That, Erik knew, was the price of inattention and he had never made the same mistake again.
Erik sits on the examining table, the steady stream of arctic wind from the air conditioner making the thin paper gown billow around his shoulders. He feels small in a way that he hasn’t in years, tiny and brittle in his gown and black dress socks. He's all alone, in there, waiting with only the whir of the AC to keep him company.
Second set of tests have confirmed the first. Not that he ever doubted the technology or even the science. Reality, now, there was something that he was more than ready to cast aspersions on.
The doctor is waiting in his office, waiting for Erik to get dressed and to follow him. He’s probably sitting tall and healthy behind what Erik is sure is a mahogany desk with an ink blotter and a fancy name plate from some ridiculously expensive place that covers everything in gold. There are probably photographs of kids and grandkids and a wife that has a $200 haircut, and possibly a dog with a collar that costs more than Erik’s car.
The fact that Erik has an office but doesn't have any of those pictures of his own is something he'd prefer to ignore at the moment. This would be a lot easier if he had those things, those people. He ignores that too.
His feet are cold, toes stiff and damp in his sweaty socks. His mouth is dry, tongue sticking to his teeth in a gummy, tacky way. His eyes feel old, like stones, hard and dry in his face. The literature says that it's okay to cry, that he might and possibly should, even.
He hasn't cried in thirty years. He's not sure he's ready to break his streak just yet.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen. This isn’t the way he saw it going.
And yet, here he is. Stalling. Avoiding the man who holds Erik’s fate in his horrible manila folder, behind his horrible mahogany desk, with his horrible kids and his horrible wife and his horrible dog.
It’s been thirty years but Erik wishes Charles was there with him. Wishes he could hold his hand, even for a quick second, just to reassure himself that everything is going to be okay. Charles could make anything okay, Erik remembers, the kind of memory tinted in sepia and reeking of nostalgia and poor choices.
Except he knows it isn’t. Going to be okay. Death comes to us all, he thinks, his inner monologue twisting the words into something Shakespearian, even epic if he wants to go that far. But this isn't epic. It's just life. And death, marching ever forward.
The gown crackles like wood burning, cellophane crumpling in someone’s hand. One leg at a time, he pulls on his pants, taking more than one try to fasten the button. His fingers shake as he slips on his sweater, his favorite sweater, the one that reminds him of Charles. It’s supposed to be good luck.
He feels like a child as he ties his shoes, having to think about loops and rabbits and ears, in and out and over and around.
And then he doesn’t have anything left to put on or tie or button or snap. There is nothing left for him to do in this room, nothing to keep him from the march down the hallway, to where the doctor is waiting. No one to tell him that he needs to get going, that they'll be right here.
There's a space beside him that should be filled and it isn't. That hurts worse than the headaches, than the invisible hat pin through his eye, the pressure on his teeth. There's a space and it's empty and that's not going to change.
Unless. The word seems to hiss over his shoulder, like it was whispered on the wind. Unless, unless what? Things are as they are and that is that. But maybe, he thinks, looking at the back of the door, at the hook for the doctor's coat, empty and waiting. Maybe there is something he can do.
He grabs the door handle and turns it. He takes a step out into the hallway, into his future. A man can only go forward, he thinks, his legs shaky beneath him. What he wouldn’t pay, however, to go back.
Charles has just started on the paper, scanning The Michigan Daily for anything interesting and possibly worth using in his classes, or for knowing during office hours when students try to beg off homework due to the flu, when there was a raging party broken up at the student's frat the night before. The police blotter is brilliant for just that purpose.
"Yes, Hank?" He tries not to sigh, but he just doesn't have it in him this morning. Hank is a lovely young man, if a bit too exuberant. The earlier in the day, the less able Charles is to handle said exuberance. It is, he knows, quite early.
"I wasn't sure what you wanted this morning, so I got you the everything bagel-" Hank buys the everything bagel every day. Every. Single. Day. And he says the same thing when he shows up to work, almost as though he's forgotten the weeks and months that have come before. But Hank is the best assistant Charles has ever had, so he keeps his mouth shut, eats his everything bagel , and reads his paper.
"Thank you, Hank. I do appreciate it."
"Is everything okay, Professor?" Hank is adorably young, much younger than Charles thinks he, himself, ever was. And much more innocent, although that isn't too terribly difficult. Hank's earnestness cloys sometimes, but Charles is used to it by this point.
Totally absorbed in thoughts about the latest volume of Nucleic Acids Research (the article on Sputnik and comparative plant genomics is just fascinating) while half reading the paper, Charles hadn't really taken a good look at Hank's face when he walked in. When he finally does look up, he notices the pale sheen of Hank's skin, his comically wide eyes, bright with what Logan calls "rabbit flight"- that animalistic response that drives human beings to flee when afraid or startled. Logan tends to get that response with Hank fairly regularly.
"What's wrong?," Charles asks, setting down the paper. It flutters down but still lands with a bit of a smack on the bare wood, explosively loud to Charles' ears.
"There's someone waiting to see you in the hallway. I... should I send him in?"
"Who is it?"
"I think it's Professor Lehnsherr." Charles goes cold at that, fear and anger and worry swirling together inside of him to create a tornado of feelings threatening to get away from him, feelings he's been fighting for thirty years.
Concern and love and the desire to wrap an arm around Erik and never let him go. But they're so tightly controlled that they don't force his hand, don't push him to roll his damn chair out into the hallway and find out what's the matter.
Erik doesn't come to this side of campus for anything less than the world ending, and with his research in the magnetic fields of the earth and the universe, Charles wonders if perhaps that's actually the issue. Perhaps Erik has discovered that the world will be ending by the weekend and he wants to mend fences.
It’s more likely (although, really, that's relative) that Erik’s simply lost and sitting outside the wrong professor's office door, although Charles has held the same office for the past thirty years of his tenure at the University.
"Did he say what he wanted, by chance?" Charles tries to keep his voice even but he knows that he has been less than successful. He runs his fingers over his scalp, the smooth skin there warm to the touch, especially to his now cold, shaking fingers.
"He didn't say anything at all. He's just sitting there with his hat on his lap."
The number of times that Erik has come to Charles post-accident are few and far between. It’s odd enough to mention and worrisome enough to force Charles to agree to have an audience with someone before his usual ten am open door policy.
"Please see him in, Hank. Thank you." Charles tries to makes his leaning piles of paperwork and student essays a bit neater. In lieu of being able to pace, he's found that his hands substitute for that output of frazzled energy.
"Hello, Charles." Erik drawls his name out, his accent making the word Charles sound exotic and, quite frankly, sexy. Erik sounds like a man who had enjoyed his fair share of cigars and whiskey, although Charles can't be sure that's the actual cause. They've spent so little time together over the past thirty years that it could have been anything that caused the drop in register, the smoky hum of words.
"Hello Erik. What can I do for you?" Charles, desperate to maintain his professional demeanor, rests fists on his lap and hopes the desk hides the whiteness of his knuckles. It’s a lot easier now than it had been all those years ago and Charles regrets, suddenly, with bone deep surety, that he ever allowed things to get this cold and hostile. He motions with one hand towards the chair on the opposite side of his desk and Erik slides into it with the same grace he’d had as a young man. It just isn’t fair, Charles thinks.
"I’ve never been one for beating around the bush, so I’ll just get to the point. I'm not sure if you heard, through the grapevine as they say, but I am not long for this world."
"What?" Of all the things Charles expects to come from Erik’s mouth, this is not it. Long for this world? Charles is a very intelligent man, more so than most, but his brain is simply incapable of comprehending what he’s hearing.
"They found a tumor." Erik taps a long finger against his temple, that infuriating smile ghosting across his lips.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Charles starts, trying to stretch this out, keep Erik from the moment where he’s going to make it clear as crystal, set the future in stone, cast the die, so to speak, and end it all.
"I am attempting to make amends, Charles." His voice is kind, gentle in a way that Charles doesn’t really associate with Erik. But then, Charles has only really allowed himself to remember the bad things, the anger and disappointment. The fire and the smoke and the sheer pain of everything.
He’s allowed himself to forget the gentle hands, the way Erik’s eyes could go soft, like his lips. He’s allowed himself to paint Erik as the villain in the play that is Charles’ life but it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when it was different. Better. Kinder, sweeter. Charles forgot. But he remembers now, in this moment, in this instant, it all comes back to him in a wave of caring and love and utter heartache of all the time that he hasn’t had with the man sitting in front of him.
And with that, all the anger returns as well. Because it wasn’t just Charles’ fault it all went to hell. He isn’t the only guilty party and remembering that makes it so much easier to steel himself against the tide of regret and lost moments. The anger and the love are tied together, shackled at the ankle, unable to exist without the other.
The smirk never leaves Erik's face but Charles can read the uncertainty in his body language as clearly as the morning paper. Erik's fingers rub the hat's brim gently, a nervous tic.
"Make amends. With me." The words pour out slowly, like honey from the jar but not nearly as sweet. Charles tastes them in his mouth, sharp against his tongue.
"Of all the regrets in my life, very few people are still alive for me to do so.” Erik looks down at his hat, at his hands, still elegant after all this time. “You are, as I am sure you know, the greatest of my mistakes-"
"Mistake?" Oh, that is just it, Charles thinks, steam building up in his chest, ready to blow out the top of his head at any moment. Erik’s head snaps up, face stone, but eyes wide with surprise.
"It was my mistake that hurt you, Charles, and it was my error in calculations that caused the machine to blow. You never should have been there in the first place but I asked you to come. Every step of the way, I was at fault, and it's time that I tried to make things right."
Erik shuts his mouth with a click, his teeth knocking together. His jaw is tight, tense. Waiting for Charles to land the first punch. It’s humbling, he thinks, to know that people assume you hate them when in fact the opposite is true. But you can be angry with those you love He’s had years and years of practice.
"And what if I don't want to forgive you?" Charles is amazed his voice is as steady as it is when he feels like he's shaking apart inside. Erik's face drops a bit, a small detail but one that Charles is intimately familiar with. Erik doesn’t break, doesn’t end the charade but Charles knows. Charles always knows. It’s in the eyes that Charles can see how terrified Erik is of actually being turned away.
"Then I will have to go to my grave knowing that I had committed an unforgivable crime against someone who I... cared for greatly."
It’s the pause that makes Charles stop and think about what he’s going to say. Words pop into his head, from the sickly sweet to the horrifyingly awful, but he bites them back, waiting on his heart to figure things out. "Cared for. Past tense."
"If you are, as you say, trying to make amends, perhaps you can start by being honest with me."
Erik shoots up out of his chair so quickly that it’s as if there's no movement in between sitting and standing, shoulders tight, face drawn. Charles wants to bury his face in his hands, to rub away with willpower alone yet another mistake he's made with Erik.
"I'll take my leave then." And the old Erik is back, the one that Charles has been interacting with for the past thirty years. Cold and stoic, emotionless and clinical. Everything that Erik once said he hated, had feared he would become as he got older. Everything Charles had sworn he’d keep Erik from becoming. There is more than one failure in this room, Charles reminds himself.
"Don't go, Erik. Please. Sit down." Charles waits until Erik does just that, settling in to the chair with the ease of an elephant at a child's tea party. "Tell me about your cancer."
"What's there to tell? It's metastasized and it's untreatable. I've made my peace with it and now I'm trying to make my peace with the rest of the world."
Charles doesn't reach out to Erik, doesn't try to touch him or hold his hand, as he once would have. "And how is that going for you?" Charles could kick himself; it’s such a stupid question. If any of the rest of Erik’s conversations are as awkward as this one, it’s lucky Erik actually made it to the office at all.
"Not as well as you'd think." Erik's grin is small but genuine, one of the few that Charles has seen from his old friend in quite a while. It's refreshingly different from the sharp toothed fake smile that Erik occasionally throws his way at faculty functions or graduation ceremonies.
"That's unfortunate.” Charles fiddles with the edge of the newspaper, focusing on the ad for Pizza House in the upper corner and the weather report just below it.
“What do you need from me?"
"I need to know that you don't hate me. Even, that you forgive me. If," Erik stops, swallowing gently," that is, you actually forgive me."
"Come to dinner with me. Tonight." The invitation slips out without any warning. Charles wishes he could take it back almost as soon as it hits the air. Erik clearly isn't expecting it because he falls back a bit in his seat, genuine bafflement running across his face.
"Have dinner tonight. With me. Unless you're worried about being seen with an old cripple."
"Never," Erik said, eyes gentle. "I'm worried that you won't want to be seen with me."
"I wouldn't have asked if I was."
"If you're sure-"
"Then I'll join you."
"I'll have Hank make reservations and call you with the place and time. Does that work?"
"Yes, Charles. That will be fine." Erik stands, dons his hat, and walks out. Charles leans back in his chair, his heart pounding.
What on earth has he done?
Erik’s in the middle of straightening his desk, making all the corners of his folders and papers even and equidistant from the edge of both the desk and his ink blotter, when she walks in. Dressed in blue from head to toe, Raven enters with a movement that Erik can only describe as a cross between a slink and a forceful stride.
“I take it you told him, right? Because I wasn’t kidding. I’ll geld you like a stallion, don’t think I won’t.” She’s beautiful- long sleek lines, golden hair and skin, but she carries danger with her, wherever she goes. Erik doesn’t doubt for a moment that she’d cause him some sort of physical harm if he failed to follow orders. And orders were what they were. He’s done what she asked but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a bit of fun with her before he reveals all.
“Stallion, eh?” He throws it out to catch her off guard, knowing she's waiting for him to be defensive, angry. Apparently that's all anyone expects. For good reason, he's sure.
"Erik." She doesn't have to say 'enough with the bullshit', not to him, not anymore. He can hear it as clear as day.
"I told him. We're… having dinner."
"Dinner? I don't- is this good? Or is this bad?" She sits on the edge of the chair closest to his desk, knees together, hands resting on top. She looks like she should be wearing white gloves and a box hat, straight out of the 1960’s. She’s uneasy, unhappy, and he hates it.
"I don't know. I assume good. He's not cooking, so he can't possibly be trying to poison me." He’s flip with the line but he’s truly not sure.
"That's not funny, Erik." But she leans back a bit, the anxiety oozing away from her, bit by bit.
"I thought it was rather clever, myself. Honestly, I just don't know. This is more than I've gotten in the last quarter century."
"Don't say it like that. It makes me feel old." She picks up his copy of The Michigan Daily from the newly straightened pile on his desk and swings her legs up and over the arm of the chair. Erik makes a production out of ignoring her, checking his e-mail, frowning at the desperate undergrad e-mails filling up his inbox the closer they get to the first big exam. Erik felt old when he was sixteen, it's not new to him. But he's smart enough to keep that little comment to himself.
"I missed him." The words just come out. Erik doesn't even believe he actually said them out loud until Raven replies.
"I know," she says as she turns the page of her paper. Neither of them say anything else.
Charles gets there early. Ridiculously so. Over an hour. The parking lot is about half full, but he chalks that up to the hotel portion of the facilities, and not the restaurant. He keeps looking for Erik’s car, trying to remember just what he was driving. How long ago was it that Charles even noticed? Erik could change vehicles as often as he changes pants, for all Charles knows.
He asked Logan to drive him. Logan can maneuver the van like it’s a little sports car, zipping in and out of Ann Arbor traffic with an ease that no one else has ever really shown. And Charles doesn’t feel like he’s going to die every five seconds, which is an improvement over Hank’s driving.
He's alone, since Logan’s stepped out for a smoke (hiding behind a pick-up truck over at the corner of the lot, as if being out of Charles’s sight will prevent a lecture on why roasting one’s lungs is a terrible idea). Charles fidgets, picking at lint on his pants that isn’t really there, straightening the cuffs of his jacket, and he has to physically stop himself from texting Raven about twelve times.
There’s a breeze and the fall air is rich with leaves and smoke, But he can’t just appreciate it, too busy waiting, chest tight, skin cold but still sweaty.
His phone rings, vibrating off his lap, sliding between his thigh and the arm of his chair. He scrambles for it, scared to death that it’ll bounce to the floor, stuck until Logan gets back from tarring himself internally.
The number isn’t in one Charles or his phone recognizes. He tries to control his breathing, but still manages to sound like he’s just come back from a run (which is, he knows, hilariously dark to think about): “Charles Xavier.”
“Do you always answer the phone that way, or only when you know it’s me?” Erik. Fantastic. Charles leans back in his chair, trying to take in more air but the van suddenly feels stuffy and hot, despite the open widows and the fine fall breeze.
“I didn’t know it was you.”
“Ah. I see. I hope you haven’t left yet.”
“No. No, not at all. Why?” Charles is a horrible liar.
“I was hoping that we could perhaps change venues. I’m not feeling my best and would prefer to entertain at my home. Are you amenable to that or should I make my way to Weber’s?”
Charles can hear how tired Erik is, so much more so than he had sounded that morning, when he’d braved Charles’ assistant and Charles himself. Charles can’t imagine what it’s been like for Erik- who he’s spoken with, who else he’s told. How he’s dealt with the news himself.
Charles doesn’t want to have this meeting in enemy territory, but then again, he’s not supposed to think about Erik as the enemy in the first place. Erik conceded the first ground this morning, coming to Charles’ office. Perhaps Charles needs to grow up and give a little on his end, too.
“That would be fine. May I get the address from you?”
“Is Logan driving you? He knows the way.”
“He knows, Charles, just trust me, this one time. Ask him, he’ll get you there.”
“Fine. When should I come?”
“Now is fine. I’m ready for you.” The call ends without even a good-bye, although Charles can’t remember a time when Erik was the pleasant greeting kind of person. He’s always had a bit of a rough edge in those matters.
"We heading out?" And Logan's right there, by the open window, grinding out the stub of his cigar with one booted foot.
"Professor Lehnsherr says that you know where he lives."
"Is that a question, Chuck? 'Cause you can come right out and ask it." Logan leans into the window, a forearm resting on the open window, which Charles is certain is hot from the sun, but Logan doesn't seem to notice. He reeks of smoke with an underlying note of soap, skin rich and tanned, although Charles doesn't know how he pulls it off, with all the lab time and teaching he puts in.
"You've been there before." Not a question. He knows the answer, Erik practically told him and much. It feels like a betrayal, although he knows that's simply ridiculous. Logan is a grown man and can do as he pleases. Charles had drawn a line in the sand, at least in his mind, years ago: Erik's side and Charles' side and never the twain shall meet.
But it's starting to seem like Charles is the only person who's obeying those borders. Maybe he's the only one who knew they existed. His stomach churns at the thought, his chest tight. What if he drew the lines and Erik had simply respected his wishes? He needs a Prilosec.
"Sure." Logan's hair whips a bit under his hat, wide brimmed and western looking, although Charles doesn't know if Logan has ever set foot west of the Mississippi. Then again, he never thought Logan would ever end up at Erik's place, so what the hell does he know about anything at this point?
"Why not? Not everybody has a hate on for the Professor like you do. Besides, man throws a good party." Logan pushes himself off of the car, the gravel crunching as he finds his way around the van. It bothers Charles in a way that it never has before, that people think he hates Erik. That people could ever think that he hates Erik.
"I don't hate him." He finds that he's spoken before he can stop himself.
Their eyes meet in the rearview mirror as Logan settles in. "Whatever you say, Chuck. Let's get this thing rolling."
The house isn't up by North Campus, which has Charles twitching a bit. He was sure that Erik would have bought a place that was near his stomping grounds. But Logan doesn't even try to get on the freeway, even though the entrance ramp is right there. He's taking surface streets and they pass the Big House as Charles watches, wide eyed, through the driver's side windows.
The house, it turns out, is on Central Campus, set back from the road in a neighborhood full of houses that look practically the same, surrounded by an even, well maintained sidewalk. It's a one level brick number, white trim making the red of the brick pop.
Logan pulls into the driveway and hops out to help Charles exit the vehicle. Charles can't help but notice the low, sloping ramp up to the porch and the wide sidewalk, more than enough to accommodate the largest of wheelchairs.
He was not expecting this at all.
The door pops and a gust of fresh air slides in, across his skin. He's sweating, he discovers, the damp now cool on his forehead and along his scalp.
"Yup. Let's go."
"I beg your pardon-"
"I'm not going to stand here all day while you figure out if you're brave enough to get out of the van. You're getting out, I'm helping you, then I'm hitting the road."
"You're taking the van?"
"Did I say that? No. I'm leaving it here. But I'll come back and get you when you're ready."
"Why aren't you staying?"
"I'm not gonna be your excuse, Chuck. Not my style." And with that, he lowers the ramp and Charles rolls down to the driveway.
Logan paces Charles, letting him lead, Logan's annoyed huffs of breath pushing Charles forward faster than he'd really like. Charles likes people to like him and despite his ability to ignore the rudeness of just about anyone for any length of time, Logan is able to get to him in ways that few ever have. Charles also likes to take his own sweet time about things but it is clear that Logan thinks Charles has taken more than enough time. Charles let's himself be pushed.
The ramp is the perfect angle. It doesn't take too much energy to roll right up to the front door and before he knows it, Logan is ringing the bell, a new unlit cigar held tight between clenched teeth.
"When did you get that?"
"Honestly, Logan, I can't believe-"
The door cracks open at that moment, scents of cinnamon and vanilla wafting out, surely to give the impression of baking but Charles is fairly certain that Erik had just purchased some candles from Bath & Body Works at the mall.
"Hello, there. Logan. Charles."
"Erik." Logan only grunts, holding out the keys to the van with one hand.
"For me? You shouldn't have." Erik chuckles to himself as though he's suddenly become Johnny Carson or some other such nonsense.
"I can come back, if you need, but you can drive him, I'm sure."
"Logan, I'd prefer-"
"Chuck, don't call me before ten. I'm busy. See you, Prof." He salutes and spins on his heels, heading down the sidewalk.
"Well, then. I guess that's that." Erik pockets the keys as he watches Logan hit the sidewalk and turn left.
"I'd fire him, if I thought it'd do any good. But he's done far too much with my research to let him go."
"More's the pity." Erik smiles down at him, eyes kind and soft. He looks like he looked all those years ago, fuzzy around the edges. It makes Charles think about all those mornings, curled up together in the soft winter light, warm and cozy in their blankets, even the promise of tea not enough to break the magic. "Please, come in."
The door is wider than standard, similar to the door to Charles' own home. Custom design, he knows, especially if the house is as old as the neighborhood implies it is. Early to mid-1970's construction, he's sure, if the neighboring houses are vintage. Made for someone like him- in a chair- to be able to wheel themselves in without trouble.
He doesn't want to believe it but he can't help the growing list of evidence in his head. This house was built for a chair bound person. When did Erik buy the house? Why would he buy it? Thinking of the future? Worried that he, too, would end up like his dear friend Charles?
Or should he listen to the tiny voice in his head, the one that's growing louder and louder, that says that it was built for him. Bought for him. That this house was something that Erik intended Charles to share with him.
"Oh, my. "
Erik mopped earlier, vacuumed and swept as necessary, putting out clean towels and changing all the sheets. He also burned the cookies, but that's neither here nor there. He's since pulled out the scented candles that Raven gave him a few Hanukahs ago, even though the smell's cloying and fake. It's a better atmosphere than burning sugar, so he'll take what he can get.
He's not sure why he's worried, exactly. It's not that he thinks things are going to go anywhere. This isn't a date. And because it's not a date, there won't be any date-like behavior. But he knows Charles and they both tend to drink more than they should when times get tough. While he has tried to steer away from that behavior, he doesn't know if Charles has. And anyway, if he can't get drunk with his friend now, when will he ever again? In any case, Charles may need to stay the night and God forbid Edie Lehnsherr's son show a guest anything less than the best hospitality.
Charles' eyes are wide as Erik gives him the ten cent tour. Erik feels giddy, if he has to be honest, finally having the chance to show the place off to the person it was designed for. He doesn't actually SAY that he designed it for Charles, but Erik knows it.
"There's a basement," he finds himself saying, "but it's just for storage, although there is an emergency ramp, in case of tornadoes."
"Ramp?" Charles chokes out.
"Well, there's also a lift of sorts, but if anything happens and the power or the generator go out, there needs to be another way out, right?"
"Right," Charles says, looking everywhere but at Erik. "May I use your restroom?"
"Just down the hallway, first door on the left."
"Thank you, Erik." Charles speeds off towards the bathroom, arms pumping to get the chair moving. It looks to Erik like he's fleeing the room but he can't be sure. He hasn't had this much sustained close contact with Charles in years.
He suddenly, desperately, needs a drink and heads for the kitchen to wait Charles out.
Charles isn’t sure why he’s surprised. The house was clearly designed with someone in a wheelchair in mind. (He can’t let himself admit that it was designed for him, because that would just let loose a terrible torrent of self-recrimination and sorrow over the time that he’s already lost and he can’t afford to deal with that just yet.) But his eyes still widen at when he rolls into the bathroom to find a lowered counter, just the right height so he could wash his hands.
The whole room is a mix of wheelchair accessible and standard bathroom fixtures. It was, he realizes, built to be shared. The space was designed to be one where people existed together, despite any physical limitation. Charles sees the towels hanging on the rack, used but neatly returned, the shampoo sitting on the short shelf in the extra-large shower.
Hell, there’s even a short ramp into the shower. There are multiple shower heads. Clearly, this was one of Erik’s specific focuses when he designed the place. Charles is under no illusions that anyone other than Erik chose what would and wouldn’t be in his home, probably down to the exact fabric for the curtains and the thread counts of the cloth napkins.
If he looks, he can see the signs of age here, can see the effect of years of steam on the wooden trim, dings and nicks in the cabinet doors. Erik lives here. He uses this place. He has for years. It’s odd, but Charles doesn’t feel as lost as he thinks he probably should.
It grates on him, just a little, that this room is more accommodating to his current situation than his bathroom at home. The ease with which he’s able to relieve himself and clean-up is like a dream, simple and easy.
This could have been his. This could have been his bathroom, that could have been his tooth brush in the holder, his razor by the sink. The only thing he doesn’t really know yet is how he would ever have gotten over everything long enough to let himself have it.
“Would you like a drink?” Erik’s perched on a stool by what most would call a breakfast nook. Charles wants to hear Erik actually SAY ‘breakfast nook’ in his accent because it would, Charles can admit, make him happy and maybe, just maybe, turn him on a little bit. However, he says nothing, because he’s smart enough to realize that an olive branch has been extended but all has not been forgotten. He must roll lightly through this mine field if he wants to see the other side alive.
“Thank you, that would be lovely.” He wheels himself over to a lower version of the counter, hands resting on his lap. Calm, controlled. Worried out of his mind.
Erik putters around, clinking ice and pouring liquids, humming to himself (Charles doesn’t say anything about that, mostly because he doesn’t think that Erik even knows that he’s doing it and far be it for Charles to say anything that will make him stop).
The kitchen area is both what Charles would imagine Erik would choose for himself and exactly the opposite. The whole area is clean, free from clutter, a large, efficient space ready to be used at any time. The appliances are quality machines, used but well cared for, a homeowner's dream.
The long windows let in far more light than Charles has ever associated with Erik. Erik has always been dark wood and heavy fabrics, associated with cold weather and thick suit jackets. The lightness of the wallpaper, the sunlight streaming in, it goes against all of his memories. It is, he’s sure, yet one more design decision that Erik made for him. For Charles. Charles, who always liked the warm spring afternoons, laying on the Diag with the sun on his face, taking in the breeze and the bird song with his sleeves rolled up and his eyes closed.
It hits him then. He’s ashamed. He’s rolled around this house and seen just the tip of what he is assuming a much larger iceberg of caring, concern and love, all perpetrated by a man that Charles had convinced himself was too selfish and self-absorbed to care that Charles’ life had been ripped apart by his mistake.
The reality is, it’s CHARLES that’s self-absorbed. Charles that is selfish and greedy and unable to see the forest for the trees. And that Erik’s life isn’t exactly one of wine and roses either. Doesn’t matter if it was his choice or not, really. Erik clearly hasn’t moved on, hasn’t left any of it behind either. For Charles, it’s a physical reminder every second of every day. Maybe this house does the same thing for Erik. A reminder of what he had and what he’s lost. Not the same, honestly, not even all that close to what Charles lost, but clearly Erik hasn’t forgotten. Hasn’t allowed himself to forget.
Charles is an ass.
Erik sets a tumbler in front of him, the glass clicking on the tile counter. Charles smiles but can’t make any words come out of his mouth. He takes a long draw off his bourbon while Erik settles again on his stool. He looks tired, Charles thinks, dark circles under his eyes and gauntness in his cheeks that Charles didn’t remember being a part of Erik’s countenance. He wasn’t able to eat earlier, too nervous, so he feels the liquor hit his stomach where it settles, warm and curling around his insides like a cat.
“How long do you have?” Charles finds his voice, only realizing it after the words have left his mouth. He clearly isn’t drunk yet, but his brain seems to be behaving as though he is.
“Oh, Charles. Really?”
“I’ve been given a number of answers to that question, none of which are acceptable, but one of them is sure to be the truth.”
“And they are?”
“Anywhere from six months to years, if I try treatments. You know doctors, Charles.”
“Are you looking? At treatments?” Erik runs a long finger around the rim of his glass, his gaze intent on the melting ice inside it, the rest of his drink long gone. There’s a line between his eyes now, wrinkles curling around his forehead as he frowns.
“To what end, Charles? What would be the point? Extend my existence a few months longer? For what?”
“For what- Erik, have you lost your mind?”
“That is exactly what I am losing, Charles, or have you conveniently forgotten? And what, exactly, would I be living for? Tell me what you think I could accomplish in a few more months that I wasn’t able to in the previous seventy years?”
“You could find happiness. Just a bit. Wouldn’t that be worth it?”
"What if I don't want happiness?"
"From whom? You? Raven?"
"I don't know. What about from yourself?"
Erik's scoff was loud and obnoxious, like he was trying extra hard to make sure that Charles knew how ridiculous the idea was. He doth protest too much, Charles thinks. "You've always been so angry. At so many people, yourself included. Maybe, I don't know, it's time to let that go."
Charles expects Erik to fire back with a haughty "You first", or to just get angry. They'd had this conversation forty years ago and Erik had blown up almost exactly like his lab, fiery and hot, the heavy weight of his rage raining down on Charles, almost breaking him.
But now he's just looking at Charles with a pinched expression on his face, lips pursed like he's been sucking lemons.
"I need another drink. Charles?"
Charles isn't sure what to say. Or what to do. He's in brand new territory. This isn't the Erik that he used to know. And maybe that's the point, the point that he keeps missing because he's so stuck in what he knew instead of finding out what he doesn't.
"Yes. Please. "
Erik doesn't say anything about Charles' hand shaking as he holds his glass up to be refilled, so Charles ignores the same with Erik. It's the very least he can do.
"You built this. For me." Not a question Charles' voice has deepened over time, his accent still as clear as it was when they had met all those years before, and always with a touch of humor, unless he's angry. Then, Erik knows, there is no humor at all, just steel cold and blade sharp. He can hear a bit of a smile now, though, and he allows his own lips to curve up slightly, acknowledging the truth that Charles is speaking.
Plus, Charles is drunk.
"I did, as a matter of fact. I had expected you to see it a bit sooner than today, but not everything works out as planned."
"That, my friend, I am completely aware of."
The world spins around him, widdershins, and he has to focus on Charles's face to be sure that he won't fly off the world and lose himself in outer space. They're laughing, both of them, the bottle of bourbon long since gone. A few additional bottles litter the table, some standing, some not. They're down to the last of a bottle he has, a bottle of strawberry Boone's Farm that a graduate student instructor had given him as a gag gift a few years ago. He didn't even know that he still had it until the liquor cabinet was bare and it was the last man standing, covered in dust and cobwebs and poor taste.
"This is terrible."
"Oh, Charles, I know. But I can barely taste it."
"No, us." Charles waves his hand between them, trying to indicate Erik in his ramblings but the hand flops around like a dead fish, fingers pointing everywhere but at Erik.
"Stop waving that thing around, you're going to hurt someone."
"Too late! Isn't that your point? It's too late. You're hurt. I'm hurt. Raven thinks I'm an idiot."
"Yes," Erik agrees. "She does. But she loves you."
"You are her favorite, though, don't think I don't know about you two."
"And what about us, eh, Charles?"
"You and your coffee meetings, blueberry muffins and mocha lattes."
"Raven is my friend. I don't have very many of those." Erik is very, very drunk, he knows, because if he wasn't, he never would have said a word about that. About how very much alone he's been, his whole life if he's being honest, and for the past few decades if he's going to get specific. He has colleagues but he doesn't have confidants, people that he'll invite in for a drink and a heart to heart.
Raven connects him. She grounds him to the world in a way that nothing else does. And she brings Charles with her, in spirit if nothing else. She tells Erik stories, many revolving around how exasperating her brother is, but the love is there. The caring. She shares over a snifter of brandy or a finger or two of scotch, and he lets her, saying nothing, but loving every tiny crumb she manages to toss his way.
"She's my sister."
"I know, Charles."
"Just so we're clear."
"Very." Erik pours the last of the bottle into Charles' glass. They never managed to get the wine classes out, instead drinking it from tumblers. The pale pink of the wine through the cut of the crystal looks funny, lighter than it should and Erik starts laughing.
"What? What's so funny?" Charles' sounds like a drunken cow, Erik thinks, his voice low and bellowing like the animals that Erik remembers from his uncle's farm when he was a small boy. It just makes Erik laugh even harder, coughing a bit, which gets Charles' going even more. "What? Are you alright? Do you need, what, the Heimlich Maneuver or something. I can do it! Erik! Erik!"
Erik falls to the floor, rolling over the shoes he must have removed hours ago, holding his sides. His ribs ache, but it's just so funny.
"Well, now that you're on the floor, you're on your own." Through his tears, Erik can see that Charles looks completely put out, frowning, arms crossed over his chest.
"Oh, Charles," Erik giggles, wheezing just a bit. "It's alright. Really."
"It's never been alright."
That sobers Erik right up. He sits up, pulling a single shoe out from under his ass and tossing it towards the dark space that's usually the living room, wrapping one arm around his knee.
"Perhaps not. But what are we going to do now? No point in leaving things as they are, wouldn't you agree?"
"What are you suggesting?"
"That we start over."
"I don't want to start over. I just want to rewind things a bit. Can't we do that?"
"For God's sake, Charles, don't whine. And no, we can't anymore than we can pretend that everything we said or did never happened. I don't know why I said anything."
Charles has wheeled himself over, it seems, and he's hovering over Erik, his face mere inches away. The floppy hand from before reaches out, much steadier than it was ten minutes earlier, cupping Erik's cheek.
The hand is drier than he remembers it being, the skin taut over bones, clearly the hand of a much older man. But it still feels like coming home, especially when Erik leans into Charles' palm. It's like stepping into a time machine and dropping into one of their slow Sunday mornings, lying in bed, drinking coffee and reading the paper. Making love, slow and sweet, while the snow fell or the rain pelted the window or the sweet breeze blew in with the sunshine.
He surges up, suddenly full of energy and alcohol induced courage. The kiss is an earthquake, rumbling from below, full of danger and promise. Charles' other hand joins the first, curling around Erik's other cheek, pulling him in closer, opening his mouth. Surprised, Erik follows suit until the burn in his legs from his crouch makes him fall back to the floor, breaking the kiss.
"What are we doing?" He asks, touching his lips with his fingers, the tingle there welcome. But Charles doesn't say anything. His eyes are closed and he's slumped to the side of his chair. Erik's pulse jumps, his first assumption that something's happened, that Charles is hurt or sick.
And then Erik remembers the copious amounts of drink they've imbibed, as well as Charles' already low tolerance. Charles' chest is rising and falling slowly, steadily. Erik reaches up and presses two fingers to Charles' neck, feeling for his pulse and finds it slow and steady. Just too drunk then. Better than the alternative.
But Erik wonders what tomorrow will look like. They've changed things tonight. Will Charles remember or will he pretend to forget?
Erik stands, legs wobbly like a faun, and gently pushes Charles back into his chair, making sure the wheels are clear of fingers and shirt tails.
"Come on, old man. Let's get you to bed." The floors are even and smooth, no bumps to push the chair over, no tight turns or narrow hallways to navigate. His initial design works well, but then, he knew it would. He very rarely makes design errors, even fewer since the big one, the one that destroyed everything. That destroyed them. He knew it would work because anything less was unacceptable.
He pushes Charles into the bedroom and sighs. He's too drunk for this, he thinks, and hopes that his drunk arms and drunk legs will hold out long enough to get Charles onto the bed.
Charles is drunk. He's stupid and drunk and he knows it. But not much he can do about it now, right? He feels the cool pillow on his face, the arm blankets up around his shoulders and despite not really knowing where he even is (although he is fairly sure that Erik is involved in some capacity, because he has never, EVER been this drunk in the presence of anyone else) he falls asleep
And dreams of the past, how it was in the before time; in the long, long ago. Back when he was happy and could walk, and could have Erik whenever he wanted. They aren't dreams, more like 8mm footage of his memories, yellowed with age and missing the boring bits, never needing anyone to change the reels.
He sleeps, he dreams, he remembers. It's all coming back to him now.
The new faculty mixer was a headache that Charles knew he had to bumble his way through, a mandatory exercise in awkwardness that he had never quite gotten used to in all his years of post-secondary education. It didn’t matter the university or college, it was all the same- professors, tenured and not, glad-handing and being chummy despite the distinct lack of social graces they all seemed to suffer from, getting a feel for the coming year, who was competition, who was clearly not, who would get the money, who would be the lamb they could sacrifice to get more than their share.
Later in his life, Charles would look back on this particular faculty mixer as the beginning of the end of his world as he knew it. Going into it, he thought he understood where he was going- as a professor, as a person, as a man- and he based all his interactions and choices on that understanding. But meeting Erik Lehnsherr revealed to him that all those assumptions, all those beliefs, were nothing more than cotton floss fantasies he had dreamed up as an undergrad, dreams that melted away at the first hint of rain.
The reality was that Erik changed everything, put Charles on a new course, on a new path, in front of a new train. And the world shifted and tilted and knocked Charles off his feet. He was drawn to Erik like iron filings to a magnet, pulled into his orbit like a planet, trapped and circling until they finally imploded.
He didn’t know Erik’s name, although Moira had mentioned that there was a new professor joining the faculty. There were rumors about him, like all new professors, but the rumors about Professor Lehnsherr were darker than most, dripping with angst and terror and death. He was, according to Moira, a survivor. He managed to make it through the camps in Europe, had made it far enough through school despite all that to be accepted by a university and had earned degree after degree, becoming a professor in about as much time as it took Charles.
A prodigy, they said in circles that talked about those things. The man worked miracles with metals and machines, finding answers that others had deemed impossible. It was like the man could talk with the metal, could ask it questions, demand that it reveal its secrets.
Charles thought it was hilarious.
“You mean to tell me, that people are still equating genius with magic? Like someone couldn’t possibly be that intelligent, so it has to be something mystical and dangerous?”
“Are you saying that intellect isn’t dangerous?” Moira raised a brow at him, blowing smoke out her nostrils like a dragon, tendrils curling around her face like horns.
“Not at all. I’m just saying that it’s dangerous for a different reason. I’d at least like people to admit that, for what it’s worth.”
“You want to meet him.”
“You never want to meet anyone.”
“That’s not true. You’ve been out with me, to pubs and things, so I know you know that’s not true.”
“Professionally, I mean. You never want to meet anyone.”
“And yet, I’ve met everyone. What does that tell you?”
Moira returned to her text book, ignoring him again, and Charles turned to his tea, brain whirring along, thinking about the million questions he had come up with regarding human biology and the variations thereof. He didn’t spend another thought on Erik Lehnsherr until the mixer. And then, it seemed, Erik was all he could think about.
“Charles Xavier,” he said, holding out his hand. The other man simply looked at him, ignoring the outstretched hand, looking only at Charles’s eyes. Hard eyes, was the first thing Charles thought, then, sad. Controlled face, sharp cheek bones that spoke of hunger that had never really gone away. Food first, then knowledge, then a hunger for something else he couldn’t quite place.
Charles left his hand out there, waiting, because it was an interesting experiment and he loved interesting experiments. It took almost a full three minutes for the other man to reach out, glacially slow, and take Charles'.
"Erik. Lehnsherr." He had an accent, Charles noticed, harsher than Charles' own, but gentle in its own way.
"Wonderful to meet you, is it Professor Lehnsherr. Just wonderful. Would you care for a drink?"
"You have no idea." Charles could see the relief spread though Erik's whole body, the tenseness draining off, like rain through a gutter, faster and easier than Charles would have ever guessed. This could be far more interesting than he had initially thought. He tapped the side of his forehead- I'm reading your mind, he hoped to convey, and smiled.
"Actually, I'm pretty sure I do. Come on, then, my friend. The bar is that way."
His mouth tastes like feet.
He remembers this feeling, that taste. He's hung-over. Quite spectacularly, in fact.
And he's in someone else's bed. A quick look at the items on the dresser, at the photographs on the bedside table and hanging on the wall make it clear, fairly quickly, that it's Erik's room.
"Oh, dear." Charles sighs heavily, then cringes as his head rings like the bells of Notre Dame. He has a class, he remembers, a class at ten in the morning. The clock on the way says it’s half past nine and he is running late. There’s no time to get his school work from home, clean up enough to be presentable, and be able to teach a class coherently enough that the students will actually learn something. Plus, Charles is sure that they're going to know that he’s hung over and it will be all over ratemprofessor.com within minutes.
Next to a glass of water and a pile of Advil on the bedside table is his phone. With a shaking hand, he ignores the pills, grabs up the phone, and hits ‘3’- Logan’s speed dial.
Logan is the greatest graduate student instructor Charles has ever had. He’s gruff, sure, and he always smells like he took a detour through a burning cigar factory, but Logan is smart and he knows his bio-chemistry. Charles knows that Logan can take over the lecture, even if he won’t be particularly happy about it.
“You sound like you’re dying, doc. Anything you want to tell me?”
“I’m not feeling well, Logan, so I’ll need you to pick up my ten am lecture. I’m so sorry for the last minute-“
“Sick, huh? Right.”
“No, I got it. Get better. And Chuck, that’s not a request.” Logan ends the call before Charles can say anything else, like he’s the boss or something similarly inaccurate. Charles drops the phone to the comforter and lets his head hit the pillow. He never takes the Advil, which he will regret much, much later in the day.
A shower usually makes Charles feel much less like road kill, plus he knows he might never have another chance to use that bathroom, so he jumps on that opportunity. Erik has set out a pair of sweatpants, some boxers, and a plain cotton t-shirt on the chair by the shower, along with a clean set of towels. All Charles' favorite brands.
He wants to be annoyed but he can't help being grateful that he won't have to wear his suit a second day. There's even a pair of socks, the kind Charles used to buy when he could still feel them on his feet. If he tears up a bit, it's just because he's got soap in his eye.
There's music coming from the kitchen when he exits the bathroom. He's still a bit nauseous and his head is killing him (not as much as Erik's is killing him), the idea of food only making things worse, but he can't put this off forever.
Plus, Logan is covering his lecture. Either he'll have to wait for Logan to get done to drive him home, or he's going to need Erik's assistance. And you can't get someone to drive you home if you can't even face then in their own kitchen.
Charles rolls around the corner, wheels smooth and quiet on the wooden floor, to find Erik sitting at the table in a similar pair of sweatpants, t-shirt, and socks. Erik never liked sweatpants, at least not when they had been together. And yet, here he is. A pair of glasses rest on his nose. Charles wonders when Erik started wearing them, if they were a byproduct of the tumor or just old age.
He clears his throat, hovering as best as one can in a wheelchair in the entryway. Erik's head snaps up from where he was apparently working on the daily crossword.
"It lives." Erik smirks at him, tapping his pen gently on the table.
"Thank you, for the hospitality. It really is appreciated."
"It was my pleasure. Honestly. Care for some tea?"
"I would love some. Thank you."
Erik's removed a chair from the table, leaving a clear space for Charles' wheelchair to pull up to the table. Charles can vaguely remember that they had been forced to work around a number of the kitchen chairs as they were drinking and is glad that Erik was aware enough to think about it this morning.
Tea is served in Corning Ware tea cups, resting on Corning Ware saucers. Erik pours and they both sit, saying nothing, looking everywhere but at each other. The occasional scratching of Erik's pen on the puzzle and the clicking of the clock is loud in Charles' ears.
"What is a six letter word for dwarf leopard?"
Charles remembers doing this, long ago. Sitting together, in silence, Erik with his puzzles and Charles with his books, some part of their bodies touching. Simply existing in the same time and space.
"Ocelot." Erik looks up at him, eyebrow raised. "What? You asked." Charles takes another sip of his tea. This isn't so hard after all.
It's been wonderful but Erik knows it can't last. He's never been able to have nice things, not for long, and even if Charles were to stay, Erik wouldn't. The tumor would take care of that, for certain. So why had he even bothered?
The anger rushes up, like a backed up sink, stubborn and wretched and stinking of the rot and grime. It tugs at his chest, stabs down against his temple, threatening to overwhelm him. He presses a hand to his forehead and closes his eyes, trying to breathe through it, to not puke all over himself in front of Charles, because that would be attractive. Then he wonders why he even cares.
"Erik? Are you alright?"
They've moved from the kitchen to the living room, where Charles is sprawled across the couch, Erik's favorite fuzzy blanket (maize and blue, of course) tucked around his legs, a book from Erik's bookcase resting on his lap. Erik's picked up a book of Sudoku, leaning forward in the arm chair, resting his elbows on his knees as he works. The book's dropped to the floor as the rush of pain and anger hits him, twisting and warping everything.
"I haven't been alright for years, Charles, but thank you for finally asking." Oh, that isn't good. Erik's thought that for years but kept it under his hat with all of the things that he's never said to anyone over the course of his entire life. That particular jar of words rests next to the anger and the hate and the venom he's stored up during all those times when he couldn't say anything, when it might have meant his job, or his home or, when he was very young, his life. He's kept it all bottled up and tucked away, to only get lose when he's drunk or tired or, in this case, sick and old.
"You look like you're in pain. Can I do anything?"
"Now? No. Not now." Erik can't see Charles's face, but he can hear his silence and it's deadly. Long, drawn out, not even the sound of breathing, which makes Erik look up, despite the sharp throbbing in his temple.
"Is it too late, Erik? Have we missed the moment where we could take it back?"
"You tell me, Charles. You're the one in charge."
"Oh, please. You've always been in charge. From the beginning, you've been the ringleader of this little pack, don't you ever think otherwise. I've just followed you, even when I haven't really wanted to."
"So why did you, then? Why did you let me lead us, if I'm so wrong?"
"Because it's my fault that happened!" He gestures wildly at Charles, standing up from his chair, vision graying a bit in the rush. Erik points to Charles' chair, sitting empty and alone near the arm of the couch. "Because the one time I broke the rules and pushed, you ended up there and I ended up completely alone."
Charles doesn't say anything for a minute and Erik tries to control the urge to vomit. He's got a few prescriptions in the bathroom, from the doctor, that should help with the pain and the nausea but he can't leave, not just yet. They're doing what he's wanted to do for thirty years and he isn't leaving until it's done, whatever that means. He sways a bit on his feet and reaches out for the back of the chair to steady himself.
"Sit down, Erik, before you fall down."
"Do you always expect people to do what you tell them or is it just me?"
"You seem to feel the same way," Charles spits out, annoyance dripping from his words.
"Oh, and how's that?"
"We ended up here, didn't we? At your place? I said the restaurant but-" It's like Erik's been stabbing, the words hurt so much. A knife right between the ribs, serrated, with a hook tip.
"Do you regret coming here? To see me, Charles?" He's shaking, his hands trembling, his knees locking so he won't collapse to the carpet and weep. Something dark flits across Charles' face and his eyes close for a minute. When they open again, there's a gentleness there that wasn't present just a moment before.
"I've spent most of my adult life missing you, Erik. But never regretting you. Never that." The relief Erik feels at the words is reflected in Charles' face. Erik lets himself drop back down into his chair.
"It pleases me, greatly, to hear you say that, Charles." Erik clears his throat, trying not to cough, to cry, to puke all over himself. Sorrow and anger and relief and joy are swirling around inside of him and it's disconcerting to say the least. "I can't ever express to you how much-"
"Let's get you some water, eh? I'm sure you have some pills for all this, yes?" It takes Erik a minute to realize that he's blacked out for a few seconds. Charles is in his chair already, blanket crumpled at the foot of the couch. "Come over here and lie down, won't you?"
"Erik. Indulge me."
"That's all I ever do," he mutters, but pushes himself out of his chair and takes to the couch, head resting on the arm of it, facing the back. He hears the wheels of Charles' chair rolling across the floor, heading to the bathroom like he owns the place. He stifles a sob, not wanting to cry, not just yet, because it's all he's ever wanted and now that he has it, he doesn't get to keep it.
Story of his life.
His eyes drift shut. He vaguely remembers Charles coming back, making him sit up to take his pills before he falls asleep and then there's nothing but sweet relief.
"I don't want you to die." Charles Lets the words slip out like a ghost, a faint wisp of breath that barely cools the slick on his lips. Erik chuckles, tightening his arms for a brief second, a squeeze just shy of a hug. He smells like cigars, although Charles knows Erik doesn't smoke them, and brandy, which Charles knows he drinks.
"I don't particularly want to die either, but we all do, in our own time." The sound of his voice is light, the tone like a spring breeze across Charles' cheek, but the words are dark and heavy. Full of dangerous promise and certainty.
Charles doesn't remember the tears starting. He'd gone out for a touch of air, the wide porch perfect to roll out on and look at the stars and the half full moon- light in the darkness, the kind of clichéd metaphor that Charles always seems to be drawn to. He didn't notice them until he felt Erik's cool hand on his face, long fingers wiping the moisture away, pulling out a monogrammed handkerchief to dry Charles completely.
It was the handkerchief that really set him off, that he knows. It was the kindness of the gesture and the old world chivalry that just broke him into pieces, more than he'd ever been broken into before, the old glue no longer holding.
And now they're here, Erik on the porch swing, arms around Charles, still in his chair but it's a close thing. He's seventy years old, for God's sake, and he wants nothing more than to crawl into Erik's lap and hide his face in Erik's neck. Breathe in the scent of him, take in the way his hair feels against Charles' scalp. Make memories to last him long after this is over.
"Your penchant for morbidity is mildly disturbing, Charles. Wherever did it come from?" This time, Erik does hug him, pulling Charles tight against his chest, as tight as he can with Charles still in his chair. Like dreams- some good, some terrifyingly awful- this is what he's been wanting. Missing. And now he knows, more than ever in his long and lonely life, that this is what he wants. Who he wants. And the past doesn't matter, not any more.
"Take me inside."
"Are you cold? I'm sorry, Charles, I didn't realize-" Erik stops talking when Charles rests a long finger across his mouth.
"Take me inside, Erik. Please." Charles can see when the switch flips on, a new light blazes behind Erik's blue, blue eyes. His mouth, still beneath Charles' finger, curves into the kind of grin that always prefaced trouble. Danger.
Charles could use a little danger in his life. It's been far, far too long. Erik kisses Charles' finger, eyes never breaking contact.
"Is this what you want?"
"I have never been more sure of anything in my entire life." And the funny thing is, Charles really means it.