After the second surgery in New York, Charles doesn’t anticipate anyone keeping vigil by his bedside. He’s instructed Alex and Sean to stay with Hank in Westchester. Erik and Raven are likely halfway around the world, and even if they had been nearby, he doesn’t expect either of them to come and hold his hand.
The only person he expects less is the one actually there, folded into the hard chair like he’s completely comfortable, all of his attention on a pad of graphing paper propped up against his knee as he sketches something with precise strokes of a pen.
“Tony?” Charles croaks.
Tony Stark’s eyes flick over, and he smiles at Charles, and oh — it’s the same smile, like they’re still ten and going to sneak off from one of their parents’ parties to do something phenomenally stupid that will probably result in property damage. “Hey there,” Tony says softly. “You don’t call, you don’t write—”
“Lies,” Charles says, and coughs weakly when his dry throat protests. “I sent you a Christmas card.”
Tony considerately takes the cup of water from the side table, and carefully adjusts the straw and holds the cup at the perfect angle to allow Charles to take an awkward pull of water without spilling it all over the bed. “Postmarked from Westchester. I figured it was a sign of the apocalypse.”
“One you didn’t start?”
“Hence my confusion,” Tony says, lips quirking into a smile before it fades from his face. “Charles, you know, right? You know you could have—”
“Oh, Tony,” Charles sighs. He reaches out mentally to find out why Tony is here, but he’s fogged from morphine and doesn’t want to hurt Tony by accident. He does, however, discover someone else waiting outside the door to his room, and he can’t help but tense. He feels so vulnerable right now, lying on his stomach without the use of his legs.
Some part of him is afraid that he will feel this vulnerable, always.
“Why are you here?” Charles asks after a moment.
Tony’s poker face has improved over the years, because none of the discomfort he’s radiating shows on his face. “Can’t a guy visit an old friend who’s laid up in the hospital?”
“Of course,” Charles says, and grips Tony’s hand where it it rests on the bed, and Tony squeezes his fingers back desperately, and this too is painfully familiar; Tony is a well of loneliness who’s never quite known how to show he cares. “But I imagine you put Miss Potts to some trouble to find me.”
The discomfort is back, and this time, it’s written all over Tony in the tightened corners of his mouth, in the furrow of his brow, in the confusing mix of shame and relief and concern that ebbs into the corners of Charles’ mind. “Yeah. Yeah, I did.” His eyes dart toward the door, and then he leans down to put his lips to Charles’ ear, and he whispers, “Are you in trouble?”
Charles tenses again, and even with the morphine, that’s painful. But more painful still is the realization that even though he stole Moira’s memories after she had laid waste to their records at the CIA, even though he secreted the boys back at the mansion in Westchester, he is still worried that it won’t be enough. That he won’t be enough.
The tears that leak from the corner of his eyes are the least of his lapses in dignity since Cuba. He’s tired and he’s afraid and he’s not sure he can do this alone. He chokes out, “Yes.”
“Okay,” Tony breathes. “Okay. I’m going to — I’m going to handle this, okay? Don’t you worry about a thing.” He sounds like he’s convincing himself, but Charles has always known that Tony’s greatest strength is telling himself something can be done, and then finding a way to do it.
Tony goes to the door and has a hushed conversation with whoever is waiting just outside. It starts out hushed, at any rate, although it rapidly escalates to, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Rogers.”
And that’s when a tall man with broad shoulders comes in and puts a vase of flowers on Charles’ bedside, daffodils and tulips that herald the spring beckoning from the hospital window. “Dr. Xavier,” the man says, quiet and respectful.
“They’re lovely, thank you,” Charles says, sheer force of habit taking over.
The man takes a seat, and there’s something rather familiar about him; something about his jawline, maybe. If Raven were here, she’d make a crack about Charles working his way through the rowing team at Columbia and not being able to tell them apart afterward, which is mostly untrue. People’s minds are unique, and Charles never forgets.
“I want to express my thanks for what you’ve done,” the man — Rogers, apparently, if Tony’s shrieking was directed at him.
“For what I’ve done?” Charles asks, confused.
Tony stands next to Rogers, slumped against the window and looking aggravated. “He means the thing in Cuba, Charles.”
Charles grips the starched cotton of the bedsheet under his fingers. “Tony,” he says, and he can’t keep the note of fear out of his voice.
“It’s okay,” Tony says, giving Roger a brief but poignant glare before turning a softer and strangely pleading look at Charles. “I promise, Charles, we’re not — you don’t have to worry about us. But we have to — you can say no. You can absolutely say no, and we’ll walk right out, and nobody’s going to come after you. But we have to ask.”
“Ask me what?”
Rogers leans forward, and says, “Dr. Xavier, your country needs you.”
There’s no expectation that he’ll walk again after he recovers from this surgery — none at all. The surgeon had been quite clear on that point. But since his spinal cord was not completely severed, the surgeon is actually quite hopeful that Charles will continue to regain a moderate amount of sensation in the pelvic region, a pronouncement that Charles finds deeply reassuring since it comes from both the man’s lips and his mind.
Tony returns the next day, and proceeds to blatantly read over Charles’ chart and frown a lot. “They can release you next week, but you have a lot of PT to look forward to.”
“Delightful,” Charles says, and pokes dispiritedly at his meal.
“You know,” Tony says, parking a hip on Charles’ bed, “If you really don’t want to help out, you should have just told Rogers no, flat out. He’s like a dog with a bone — he’ll keep pestering you with those terrible big sad eyes until you commit.”
“And this reminds me of nobody else I know,” Charles says dryly. “I meant it when I said I needed time to think it over. I think I’ve had enough of fighting.” He manages to eat some of his scrambled eggs, and then pins Tony with a look. “And don’t think I’ve forgiven you for letting me meet Captain America while in a hospital gown with my bum up in the air.”
“Yeah, because that reminds me of no other point in our history,” Tony says, grinning.
“Tony,” Charles says reprovingly, but can’t help the smile threatening at the corners of his mouth.
“So I was thinking,” Tony says. “Regardless of whether you say yes to the job offer, I think you should move in with me for awhile.”
“With you?” Charles says faintly, raising his eyebrows.
Tony waves his hands. “Not with me, with us. At the house here in the city. I could get some staff to come do your PT onsite, no having to stay in some rattrap hotel like the Waldorf-Astoria—”
“No having to shuttle back and forth between Westchester and the city — come on, it’s a great plan, what do you think? No pressure.”
Charles has to take a minute to think through his instinct to refuse. The boys are still in Westchester, although Alex may not remain for long — he’s been itching to go find his brother, and Charles can hardly blame him. It hardly seems fair to leave Sean and Hank alone, but then again, Charles isn’t sure it’s fair to put them a second round of recovery and PT. The first had been bad enough.
“You’ve already started renovating the house for a wheelchair, haven’t you?” Charles says suspiciously. He doesn’t even need to read Tony’s mind to guess that — long experience dictates that Tony Stark plans for the future he wants and pushes the world to fall into step.
“Don’t look at me, that was all Rogers, he’s got all these feelings about accessibility back from when polio rates were through the roof,” Tony says breezily, but he’s watching Charles carefully. “And as it happens, we’ve got a guy on the team who’s really good with a hammer.”
“I want to say yes,” Charles begins, and Tony flashes him a brilliant grin. “But — there are three young men I’m responsible for. I don’t think I can, in good conscience, leave them alone in Westchester. Would you have room for a few more?”
“Hell, they can have a wing to themselves,” Tony says, and squeezes Charles’ hand tight.
That evening, the phone at Charles’ bedside rings. The operator asks if he’ll accept the charges, and Charles hastily agrees.
“Charles,” says a voice that he hasn’t heard since Cuba.
“Erik,” he says in reply, then fumbles for what to say next, but the low-grade worry that has plagued him all these months trumps everything else. “Is everything all right?”
There’s a long pause, and then Erik ignores his question entirely. “How long will you be in the hospital?”
Charles winces. Erik must have called the mansion and gotten one of the boys. If Erik didn’t know about his paralysis before, he probably knows now. “Until next week, most likely.”
“But you’ll go back home after that,” Erik says, as if trying to reassure himself.
“Eventually,” Charles says, but there’s something about Erik’s designation of the mansion as home that makes his voice crack a bit.
“What do you mean, eventually?” Erik says, sounding instantly suspicious and protective, and that’s achingly familiar.
Charles sighs. “I’ll be staying in the city for physical therapy. I’ll have the boys with me. If you need — if you ever need a place to stay for a bit, you’re welcome to the mansion while we’re gone.”
“Why would you—” Erik cuts himself off, but Charles heard the vulnerable, bewildered note in his voice, like he honestly can’t imagine why Charles would offer such a thing. “Where are you staying, then?”
Charles hesitates, because, well, he’ll be a guest and it doesn’t really seem like the thing. “A house in Manhattan.”
“Address,” Erik says, and Charles thinks he hears a pen being uncapped.
“Erik, I don’t think—” Charles demures.
“You won’t tell me where to find you?” Erik asks, and he has the gall to sound a little hurt, and that kicks the tripwire of Charles’ temper.
“You knew where to find me for six months,” Charles snaps. “You didn’t seem particularly interested.”
“Charles,” Erik says, and he really does sound hurt this time. “I didn’t know, I swear to you.”
He sighs then, his anger gutted. “There’s nothing you could have done, anyway,” he says. Erik would merely have fretted and hovered and carved himself hollow with guilt. He’d made such a fuss, once, over a few ordinary migraines, like a first-time father confronted with his newborn child — entirely incapable of rational thought.
“If you won’t tell me where you’ll be, tell me you’ll be safe,” Erik says, close to pleading. “Tell me that much.”
“Erik,” Charles says, and inwardly curses himself for letting Erik still twist him up in knots like this, even after everything. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line, and then Erik says in a dangerous rasp, “Are you in trouble?”
“No!” Charles yelps, and then he could kick himself, really, because of course Erik is going to find instant, vigorous denial extremely suspicious. “I’m fine. Perfectly fine. I’ll give you the phone number where you can reach me.”
“Go ahead,” Erik says, and when Charles makes Erik read the number back to him twice, well. If he wants to hear Erik’s voice for just a little longer, it’s his business.
Captain Rogers had assured him that the organization known as SHIELD knew about Charles’ telepathy, but that Moira’s purge at the CIA had been successful. It makes Charles breathe a little easier, although he’s still not entirely sanguine about being associated with an overseeing government body of any sort — after all, look where it had gotten him the first time around.
The mansion is mostly as Charles dimly remembered it — large, showy, taking up more real estate than seems feasible, given that it’s Manhattan. Then again, Howard Stark hadn’t been known for his restraint.
Then again, neither is Tony, because the front steps have already been replaced by a long inclined ramp that looks like it’s been there forever, and Captain Rogers wheels him up and inside, and down the hallway to a suite. “There’s a button that opens the door on both sides,” he tells Charles, and Charles can only think fondly, Oh, Tony. The button looks like it too has been there forever, and if Charles hadn’t just gotten a memory of men working on this around the clock from the good Captain, he might be fooled.
There are more tulips by the bedside in the bedroom, and Tony really has thought of everything — he can see the doorway to the bathroom has been widened to allow his wheelchair to pass, and Tony probably redesigned the entirety of the bathroom itself.
“Is there anything I can get you?” Rogers asks. He’s been scrupulously respectful and polite, not remotely patronizing, letting Charles do what he can but stepping in when he needs help. He is, in fact, every inch the hero that Charles and Tony had grown up idolizing, which makes Tony’s friction with Rogers that much more curious.
“No, thank you. I think I’ll just nap until the boys get here,” Charles says. He eyes the bed, and wonders if he has the strength in his arms to make the transfer when he could barely make it into the backseat of the car that brought him here.
“Would you allow me?” Rogers asks, and Charles looks at him in surprise. “It’s only — surgery takes the stuffing out of anyone. You’ll need time.”
“And incredibly painful physical therapy,” Charles says with a sigh. “If you wouldn’t mind?”
Rogers steps forward then, and Charles lifts his arms up to grip his — very broad shoulders, and then Rogers lifts him out of the wheelchair like he weighs nothing at all, and sets him down on the bed with the utmost care before taking a blanket from the foot of the bed and spreading it over him.
“Thank you,” Charles says sincerely.
Rogers smiles then, still politely but with a shy undercurrent. “Do you want me to wake you up when the boys arrive?”
“No need,” Charles says. “I’ll know when they’re here.”
Rogers’ eyes widen in wonder but not fear, and he gives Charles a slight nod before closing the bedroom door behind him.
Charles knows that he is the latest in a line of people that Tony has gathered to him, and he’s not the only one with some special abilities. Still, there’s knowing something intellectually, and then there’s meeting Dr. Bruce Banner.
“Dr. Xavier,” he says, and he’s genuinely pleased to meet Charles, his mind burbling with flashes of genetics work that Charles has written, twined and shuffled with equations and work on gamma radiation that Charles can’t parse in the burst of excitement that Banner sends him.
“Pleased to meet you,” Charles says, but inwardly he’s reeling because Banner is — well, not alone in his head, exactly. And not like schizophrenics that Charles has felt, either — it’s as though half of Banner’s mind is seething, boiling rage, separate but not disconnected. It makes Charles feel oddly motion sick. “I see you’ve already made Hank’s acquaintance,” he says, and looks at the corner of the lab where Hank is already absorbed in scribbling equations on a chalkboard. All three boys came to the mansion, but only Hank is staying — Alex is off chasing a new lead on his brother, and Sean has elected to visit his family, who have missed him very much, and Charles feels vaguely guilty all over again at having persuaded Sean to come with him.
Banner beams. “Oh, yes. Why, Hank has some ideas for the large-scale arc reactor that Tony and I are working on.”
“How nice,” Charles says politely, because he’s rubbish with mechanical engineering and really never developed the taste for it, despite Tony’s profound disappointment. “Well, I won’t interrupt you further. I’ll see the both of you at dinner?”
“Of course. Pleasure to meet you,” Banner says, already turning away, thoughts zeroing in on Hank’s equations.
Hank waves one hand in Charles’ direction, but doesn’t stop what he’s doing, and Charles doesn’t take offense. He knows what Hank is like when he gets going, and he’s just as glad that Banner is someone who’s clearly interested in what Hank has to offer, and just as clearly, Banner is completely unfazed by Hank’s appearance. Considering the rage constantly simmering in Banner’s mind, and the consequences of not keeping it in check — well, blue and furry must seem tame in comparison.
The first time Charles meets Thor, he attempts to read his mind and promptly faints.
He comes to with a demigod stroking his face gently, peering into his eyes. Thor nods, seemingly satisfied, and says, “There is no harm done, I think. But Midgardian seers and Asgardian minds are not made for meeting, my friend.”
“I figured that out,” Charles croaks. That brief brush with Thor’s mind does more to convince him than all of Tony’s blithe explanations of Thor’s otherworldliness — it’s not like just being unable to read someone, where his mind just scrabbles and can’t find purchase, like with Logan, or is unable to penetrate, like Emma Frost while in diamond form. It’s more that Thor’s mind shines like the sun in his eyes, and he can’t look straight at him.
“But this is a poor greeting for such a warrior as yourself — come, feast with me and recover your strength,” Thor says, and turns to root around in the fridge again, pulling out even more food than was already on the kitchen counter. He points a large knife in the direction of the table, and Charles wheels over to the spot that is always kept free for him now.
Thor comes to the table shortly, bearing two sandwiches that are entirely too large to be feasibly eaten. At least, so he thinks until Thor narrows his eyes at his sandwich, gives it one good squeeze, and then basically seems to unhinge his jaw like a python. There’s no other explanation for how he can fit it in his mouth.
Charles attacks his own with a cunning scheme — namely, disassembling it. He smiles at Thor, though, to show his appreciation. If Thor takes offense, he doesn’t show it. He also doesn’t slow down, which is astonishing. Before Charles has even made it a fourth of a way through his sandwich, Thor is swallowing his last bite.
“I am told that a mighty battle took your legs,” Thor says, and he looks — well, not sympathetic, or pitying, which is different. He looks eager, if anything.
Charles swallows and takes a sip of water. “It was during a — battle, yes. But I did not lose them to an enemy.”
Thor still doesn’t look pitying. “You sacrificed them for a friend?”
Charles looks down at his plate and swallows hard, because no one else, Charles included, has described Cuba that way, but it feels truer than anything else, and it guts him all over again, to think of having lost Erik on that beach, to think of what he has left, and his eyes well up. “He was my friend, yes,” Charles chokes out.
“Then it a cause for pride, not sorrow,” Thor says gently.
They’re interrupted by the shrill ring of the telephone, and Thor bounds to the phone in the kitchen with great enthusiasm. “Greetings!” he booms. “I am Thor Odinson. With whom do you wish to converse?” He listens carefully, and holds out the receiver. “Fair Charles, this man desires to hear your voice.”
Charles wrinkles his nose at being called fair, but wheels over to take the receiver from Thor’s hand. “Hello?”
“Charles,” Erik says, sounding eight kinds of suspicious. “What is — why are you with a man who introduces himself as a Norse god?”
“Haha,” Charles says weakly. “Just a bit of a joke. How are you?”
“I’m calling from the mansion,” Erik says, and Charles thinks he can hear Raven’s voice in the background. “I hope you haven’t changed your mind about opening your home to us.”
“I wouldn’t,” Charles says, gripping the receiver. “Erik, I’ll never.”
The other end of the line is quiet for a moment, and Erik says softly, “Thank you.”
His first meeting with Natasha Romanov happens in the middle of a physical therapy session with the visiting nurse. To say it is not going well is putting it mildly, because Charles can tolerate many things, but being actively in pain and hearing a man think a number of toxically uncomplimentary things about Charles is more than anyone should have to bear.
He feels her enter the room and observe the session silently for a few minutes, her mind remarkably quiet. He catches only bits and pieces from her during repetitions, and her thoughts are analytical, stripped bare of emotion.
“Stop,” she says finally. The nurse looks up, irritated. “You’re fired,” she says calmly.
“You can’t fire me,” the nurse blusters.
Natasha does nothing more than shift her weight, and stares him down. “Get out. Don’t come back.”
To say that the nurse flees is putting it mildly.
She turns to Charles. “I have a proposition for you,” she says calmly. “I’ve come back from more injuries than I can count, and I can help you do the same. In return, I want you to teach me how to block my mind.”
Charles raises his eyebrows. “Do you have cause to worry about interference from telepaths, Miss Romanov?”
“You knew my name without being introduced, and I’d wager that no one described me to you, either,” she points out, and quite correctly. “I’m in the business of being prepared, Dr. Xavier. If there’s a gap in my defense, I want to fix that.”
Charles isn’t entirely certain this is a good idea — should he entrust his body to a spy with no medical qualifications? “And this exchange seems fair to you?” he asks. “I don’t think you’ll need much practice, but I’m told I require months of extensive therapy.”
Natasha tilts her head to the side. “This isn’t complicated. A service for a service. What do you think?”
He cautiously thinks it sounds agreeable, but that’s only until Natasha actually has him in her clutches and will not let Charles do any less than what she knows he is capable of, even if he cries when it’s particularly awful and nothing seems worth this much torment.
The phone rings during one of these sessions, and Natasha actually has mercy and lets Charles up to take the call. He’s still congested and sniffling a little bit when he says hello.
“Charles?” Erik says, sounding thoroughly alarmed. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Charles says miserably. “It’s — nothing, Erik, really. How are you?”
“Where are you?” Erik demands fiercely. “An address, Charles, give me a hint. Have you been a hostage all this time? You stupid man, did you think I wouldn’t come for you?”
“I’m not a hostage!” Charles yelps.
Natasha takes the phone away. “He’s not getting out of this,” she says into the receiver before hanging up.
“Terrific,” Charles says acerbically. “You’ve just ensured that Erik is going to tear apart Manhattan looking for me.”
She just shrugs. “If you’re important to him, he won’t rest until he’s laid eyes on you anyway. He may as well come. Now come back here, you still have twenty reps left.”
Charles entertains the idea of crying more to try and get out of it, but knows that has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.
Tony is the king of never leaving well enough alone, so Charles isn’t surprised when he takes it upon himself to redesign Charles’ wheelchair.
He is, however, surprised when both Dr. Banner and Hank muscle their way into the process, and it seems to involve a lot of spirited yelling, increasingly vile but cheerful aspersions cast upon each other’s mental acumen, and no actual new wheelchair because nobody can agree or stop tinkering long enough to let Charles try it out.
“This is ludicrous,” Charles huffs to Thor. “Honestly.”
Thor offers him some popcorn and continues to watch the intellectual melee with great interest.
Charles spends a good deal of his time in the library, when he’s not under Natasha’s exacting thumb for physical therapy. Steve has taken to keeping him company, working away at a sketchpad in the good light from the south window, and Charles can’t find it in himself to snap at Steve when he’s immediately on his feet when Charles rolls over to a bookshelf, ready to get down anything Charles might want. It’s still a struggle to reorient himself to the new terms of his physical relationship with the world, and it may always be one, but Charles is getting better — albeit very slowly — at asking for help.
“You’ll get there,” Steve says one day, after Charles rolls into the library and spends some quality time brooding and looking out the window.
Charles just looks at him, because after a PT session like today’s, that seems highly unlikely.
“You will,” Steve says, quiet and sincere, and more than anything, the strength of belief that ebbs from his mind is what turns the morning around for Charles.
Of Clint Barton, Charles sees relatively little. He’s a presence at the edge of Charles’ mind, roaming the top floor of the mansion. He forages for food at odd hours in the kitchen, spending seemingly little time with others in the group. Natasha says only that he prefers to take things in from a distance, and she seems to view his behavior as relatively benign — although Charles thinks Natasha’s definition of non-threatening is much more broad in scope than essentially anyone else’s.
On occasion, Charles has woken from sleep and realized that Barton is in the attic window directly across and up from Charles’ bedroom window. He’d wondered, at first, whether he should be concerned, but the slightest brush against Barton’s mind reveals only a quiet but fierce protective impulse, as though Barton thoroughly expects someone to invade Charles’ bedroom via the rose lattice outside, and is prepared accordingly.
It is perhaps symptomatic of too much time spent with Erik that Charles finds that rather soothing, and falls asleep again soon after.
Erik, of course, does elect to climb that rose lattice to slide open the window to Charles’ bedroom. When Charles is startled into waking at the noise of the window sash rising, he realizes that Barton has already attempted to perforate Erik and failed, due to Erik’s use of his powers. Barton is also plainly on his way to wake the rest of the mansion, and that is a recipe for disaster, because SHIELD has a certain interest in the mysterious mutant named Magneto, and it’s a conversation Charles would just as soon not have, thank you.
“Charles,” Erik says casually, as though climbing in through the window is a perfectly normal mode of gaining access to someone’s bedroom.
“Are you an idiot?” Charles hisses. “Erik, get out of here. There are going to be five very cranky, very armed people here in under a minute.”
“I’m not going without you,” Erik says stubbornly. He’s wearing — good lord, a black catsuit, not altogether dissimilar to the wetsuit Charles met him in once upon a time. It’s terribly distracting.
“I told you, I’m not being held hostage,” Charles says. “You really should go, these people have some professional interest in Magneto, and I’m not about to hand you over.”
Erik’s eyes narrow. “Like the interest they have in you? How long do they intend to keep you here? This is a lovely prison, Charles, but a prison nonetheless.” He goes to Charles’ dresser and starts packing a bag.
“What are you doing?” Charles moans. “Erik, for god’s sake, stop that.”
“If you don’t want me to, feel free to stop me,” Erik says. He’s not wearing the helmet.
As if Charles would resort to that so quickly, although he’s running out of options, because Tony and Steve are going to be in the room in a matter of seconds, and the rest aren’t far behind. This is going to be a disaster.
“Erik,” he says firmly. “Come here.”
Erik drops the bag he’s packed, and comes up next to the bedside table.
Charles crooks his fingers. “I have something to tell you,” he says, lowering his voice so that Erik will be forced to lean down to hear him.
Charles times it perfectly — just as his bedroom door bursts open, he grabs Erik’s face and kisses him for all that he’s worth.
Erik makes a noise against his lips, somewhere between surprise and pleasure, and he attempts to pull away but Charles just grips the nape of his neck and holds him there, kissing him insistently.
“Oh my,” someone says. Charles thinks it’s Steve.
Banner clears his throat. “I thought you said he was being attacked.”
“With tongue, it looks like,” Tony says dryly. He’s correct, Erik has taken the liberty of coaxing open Charles’ mouth. Not that it took much coaxing at all.
If this is the only chance Charles gets, he’s going to make the most of it — he ends the kiss by sucking on Erik’s lower lip before releasing him. “If you’re all quite finished gawking,” he says in his frostiest, most offended tone.
“We’re going,” Natasha says. Charles is not entirely certain, but he thinks she actually winks at him.
“Tell your beau to come in through the front door next time,” Tony grouses as they all tramp out, pulling the door shut behind them.
Erik still has one hand braced on the headboard, and reaches down with the other to brush his thumb against Charles’ lips, uncertain, hesitant, terribly tender. Charles’ breath is unsteady, and he wishes — oh god, how he wishes — that Erik had come to him like this all these months ago and never left.
“The front door, he says,” Erik murmurs. “So you are free to come and go as you please.”
“I told you,” Charles says. “I’m no prisoner.”
“But you feared I would be,” Erik says, damnably perceptive. “Is that what’s behind this?” He strokes his thumb against Charles’ lower lip again, a slow, spine-tingling rub.
Charles has all the plausible deniability in the world — he can have his proverbial cake and eat it too, send Erik on his way with a taste of what’s he longed for, without any of the consequences.
“No,” Charles whispers.
He’d thought he’d known Erik down to his very bones, but he’s missed something vital, because Erik rests one hip on the bed and leans forward to kiss him again and again, until Charles is nearly drowning in it, and it’s only the realization that Barton has resumed his watchful post that makes Charles push Erik away.
Erik can feel the metal in Barton’s bow and arrows, and requires no explanation for the halt in proceedings. “In that case, may I visit you tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” Charles repeats, feeling a little dazed.
“After your physical therapy,” Erik says, and of course he knows about that, he probably comprehensively staked out the mansion for days before making a move. “I thought we might take a chess set to Central Park.”
Charles swallows. “Oh. Yes. I’d like that. That is, if you don’t mind—” he looks at the wheelchair at his bedside.
Erik gives a short, dismissive shake of his head, as if it doesn’t even bear mentioning — and astonishingly, Charles knows that to Erik, it really doesn’t.
It’s ludicrous, because Charles knows they have fundamental issues that can’t be easily solved, but when Erik kisses him again, he knows it’s good night and not goodbye. Erik leaves the mansion via the front door, and Charles can sense him striding down the ramp and out into the night. And for the first time in months, Charles thinks he feels hope unfurling inside him, and the echo of that hope from Erik is sweet and full of promise.