The news spreads across the school in a wave, trickling from student to student. Charles can feel their fear and concern echoing down the hallways and through the classrooms. He has to build his mental walls stronger and higher than usual to keep his wits about him. He spends far too much of his time contemplating what exactly would constitute 'day drinking'.
Ororo is the first to ask him about it. She approaches him in the middle of the day, slipping into his office while Charles has a free period to write up tomorrow's lesson plans on Punnett Squares. "The president announced the Sentinel program during a press conference this morning," she says as she settles into the chair across from his desk. She does this when she's wants to have a serious conversation, when she wants to look Charles in the eye.
"Yes," Charles says as he lays his folder flat on his desk. "They have."
She continues, "We've -- Hank and I -- increased the number of Danger Room training hours for all of the X-Men. We have a few months before the program goes into full effect. We'll need to prepare for when..." Her voice trails off, and Charles is so proud of her, of how far she's come, how strong and capable she is. She's doing what needs to be done. If only Charles could say the same for himself.
"Yes," Charles says. The words get caught in his throat, but somehow, he manages to get them out. "We will."
"Professor..." Her careful concern and uncertainty bleeds into the air around them.
"I'm sure you'll do a wonderful job," Charles says. He smiles, and he does his best to make sure it reaches his eyes.
The rest of the day goes as scheduled. The students are more subdued than usual. They look to him for answers, but Charles doesn't have any to give. The weight of their expectations is almost a physical burden. He can only feel relief when he can retire to his own rooms after dinner for some peace and quiet -- as much as he can get in a bustling school filled with so many young and eager minds.
It's a warm spring night, almost summer now. Charles has left the windows to his bedroom open. It's almost silent here, except for the chirping of crickets, the hoots of a few owls that take residence in the forest that surrounds the estate.
A breeze wafts in, thick and humid. Charles closes his eyes and breathes it in, feels it fill his lungs, and wonders what it would be like if this was his last night here, in this house. It carries so many memories, both good and bad. He's worked so hard to make something of it, something he no longer felt shame over. And what has it all been for?
He opens his eyes at the sound of a soft thump next to his wheelchair.
It's Erik, dressed in full Magneto garb, a splash of dark purple against Charles' sedate decor, his helmet partially hiding his face and completely hiding his thoughts.
"Hello, old friend," Erik says. "I suppose you've already heard the news."
"Yes," Charles says. "It's been rather hard to miss."
"What have you been doing in preparation?" Erik asks, getting straight to the point.
Erik frowns. "Charles," he says. His voice is laced with a stern disappointment that Charles has become all too familiar with over the years. "I told you this day was coming."
"It isn't here, yet," Charles says. He knows he sounds petulant, despite his best efforts.
"But there isn't any stopping it all the same. I know we've had our differences, but even you have more sense than this." Erik shakes his head, and Charles still can't read the expression on his face without access to his thoughts.
Charles takes a deep breath. "As always, it's a pleasure to see you again, Erik." It's a polite fiction. He suspects he knows what Erik will offer this time, and Charles suspects he knows what his own response will be.
"I didn't come here to fight," Erik says, voice growing serious and somber. He kneels in front of Charles's chair, placing a hand on Charles's knee. If Charles didn't know any better, he would think Erik was trying to be seductive. Charles can't feel the touch.
"Then what did you come here for?" Charles asks. His fingers itch to reach out, to touch again, but he can't quite bring himself to do so. Erik has always been the brave one out of the two of them.
Erik pauses for a moment, head bowed, before taking off his helmet. "You know why I'm here," he says. His hair is still a shock of white. His eyes are still very blue. His mind is still full of the same anger, the same righteousness. Erik is the same as he ever was, and Charles hasn't changed either. Charles should turn him away again, as he has so many times before. Their relationship still remains fractured and broken.
But this time, the world has fractured and broken with it. "A war is coming, yes," Charles admits, "I had hoped it wouldn't come to this."
Erik smiles, thin and cruel. "And now that you've woken up from your fantasy, we must decide what to do next. Your school won't protect you for much longer."
Charles closes his eyes, lets himself sink into the force of Erik's convictions. Erik never doubted himself, not for a moment. Charles was always the one to second-guess his decisions. For all that Erik mocks Charles's idealism, Charles has always been a pragmatist at heart. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. The X-Men were an insurance policy he wished he never had to make use of. "I know," Charles says, opening his eyes.
Erik watches him, for once unguarded in the face of Charles' power. To Charles, Erik's mind an open book, all his hopes, all his sorrows, all his fears, all his desires. There is nothing hidden any longer, no barriers between the two of them. Charles cups Erik's face in two hands. There's a strangeness to it, with two older, worn, aged bodies, but a familiarity also. Charles traces his thumbs along the curves of Erik's cheekbones, and he draws Erik's lips in for a kiss. It's not much more than a press of skin against skin, there and gone again in an instant. They are both tired, both at the end of long days. "So what next, Charles?" Erik asks. He leans his forearms on the armrests of Charles' schair, and he stares right into Charles's eyes.
Charles breathes in, breathes out. So many years, so much heartbreak, so many things that have worked to bring of them to this place, to this very moment. Fate has a cruel sense of humor. "We fight, of course," he says, and he feels the echo of Erik's smile before it appears on Erik's face.