Between the pain and the noise and the light, Charles doesn't trust his senses. His body and mind alike are on fire, while simultaneously parts of him are numb and there's a space the shape of Erik's mind that's echoingly empty. All he can think is that he wasn't prepared for this. All that worrying, all that training, and he never could have been prepared for this. Death, he thinks, would have been more forgiving.
He wants to share that with Erik, even knowing it's a cruel thing to think and a crueler thing to share. He can't, though. He can't pass anything on to Erik through that helmet, and that's, perhaps, the cruelest betrayal of all.
Stay, he thinks at Erik. Stay, stay, stay don't leave me here, you can't leave me here.
He's gone in a puff of smoke.
I love you, Charles thinks, but maybe he was a fool to think that was ever enough.
Moira and the boys take shifts. He doesn't know if there's any rhyme or reason to them. He wakes sporadically and infrequently, different minds surrounding him each time. The drugs slow everything down, bleed his consciousness across the space around him so he knows someone is in the room, but can't determine where and can barely open his eyes to find them. Moira pacing and Sean sleeping and Alex staring out the window and Hank hidden in the corner in a big black coat. Maybe it's all at once. Maybe they're all there. Maybe no one is there and he's dreaming this all in the moments before his death.
No. He knows he's not dreaming. If he were dreaming, he'd be seeing someone else entirely.
He becomes more lucid as the days pass, or maybe just more aware of his compromised state. He can hold a half-hearted conversation with whomever he wakes to see at his bedside. He can sit up enough to sip water from a plastic cup. He's conscious enough to realize he can't feel the blanket draped over his toes.
He's aware enough not to ask after Raven and Erik. He knows he won't like the answers they have for him.
He wakes once in the middle of the night, and instead of slipping back to sleep in the silence of the room, he focuses his telepathy on the cold blank nothingness in front of the window.
"Am I dreaming?" he asks. He knows he isn't. If it were a dream, Erik wouldn't be wearing that helmet.
He opens his eyes.
"Go back to sleep," Erik says. He's wearing slacks and a turtleneck and of course the helmet. Charles wants to tell him he looks ridiculous, but his throat is slick and sore. Charles wants to touch him.
"It isn't enough," he says. His voice catches on the words. "I love you, but it isn't enough."
"Not right now," he admits. "But one day. Go to sleep, Charles."
He does. When he wakes in the morning, he rings the nurse.
"I think I'm well enough to start to talk about rehabilitation," he says to her.
He sees Erik. Again and again he sees Erik. Metaphorically, he sees Erik in the tougher approach he needs to take with some of his new students. Literally, he sees Erik once a year, sometimes twice, usually in his office or bedroom. They don't talk much, not about anything substantial. The world, politics, the state of mutants--those things are all well and good, important in their own way, he supposes, but they don't talk about the things growing between them, the things that even a bullet couldn't kill.
In 1971, Charles throws open the drapes on his hotel window and nearly has a heart attack when he sees Erik floating outside of it. It's evening in Bern, and Erik is in the shadows, invisible from the ground, but illuminated by the lights of the city here at Charles' sight line.
"Well, come in," Charles says, rolling backwards so Erik can warp the sturdy window frame, separate it enough to bend it outwards so Erik can float inside. The window seals neatly behind him.
"I saw your speech," Erik says.
"Moira made me cut out some of the better jokes," Charles says. "She claims that punchlines that rely on obscure scientific facts don't go over well with crowds." He's not surprised that Erik came to the conference--Charles sees him sometimes, hiding in the corners and crowds, keeping tabs on the development of the mutant community in his own private way, while Charles takes the public route and delivers keynotes and hosts symposiums. They don't interact or even acknowledge each other, though Erik must know that Charles knows he's there. No, he's not surprised Erik is at the conference, but he is surprised Erik is here, in his room.
This isn't them. This isn't what they do. He's seen Erik at the mansion for a few stolen hours maybe a dozen times in the past nine years. They don't speak to each other outside of that. Magneto and Professor X may meet on the battlefield, but Charles and Erik stick to well-trod familiarity.
"Why do you do this?" Erik asks, crossing his arms. "Why do you kowtow to them? Why do you sit and listen to them denigrate our entire race in the name of scientific inquiry, as if we're something to be studied?" He drops his arms and clenches his fists. "You're brilliant. You're worth more than this."
"I'm protecting us in my own way," Charles says. "I'm paving the way for understanding."
"You're letting them use you!" Erik says.
"I'm using them just as much," Charles tells him. Erik glares at him. When it becomes clear that he won't be speaking further, Charles gentles his tone. "Progress doesn't happen overnight. We need to take small steps." He pauses for a moment and decides, to hell with it. It's not as if he's ever had any real secrets from Erik. "You said a lifetime ago that one day, our love would be enough. I believe that too. I'm doing what I need to do to get the world to that place."
Erik's expression smoothes out into blank indifference. Charles longs to read him in the same way he longs to walk again--absently and with only a touch of regret. He's learned new ways of getting around on his own--it's not worth the expense of energy to wish for something so beyond him, now. Better to put that energy to good use fighting battles he has a chance of winning.
The same is true with Erik--Charles has learned the planes of his face and the twitch of his mouth. He's not fluent, not yet, and he could study Erik's face for hours and never know him the way he did while they were sharing psychic space. Still, best not to waste energy yearning for those days, but instead to keep working towards a future where he might once again know the touch of Erik's mind.
"I thought you were sleeping," Erik says. "When I said that--I never imagined you'd remember."
"It's not a lie, though," Charles says. "You meant it. And I believe it too--one day, either your method will win or mine will and all of this will be over. When that day comes, I'll still be waiting for you."
"Romantic," Erik says, dismissive. He frowns as if the taste of the word offends him.
He means it, of course, as an insult, an accusation. Charles ignores that--he knows a compliment when he hears one.
"When you're ready," Charles says. "I can wait a long time, you know."
Erik leaves out the window, back into the cool Bern night. Charles watches him go and looks to the future.
Charles wakes in his own bed, which is a change from the past few nights. He spent those in a cell, strapped into one of those dreadful inhibitor collars. He'd seen them before, but never up close, and he had certainly never had one used against him before. They were stronger than he'd imagined, but he'd gotten his off eventually, just in time to freeze the leader of his captors before he could detonate the bomb beneath their base.
It was insane, really. Like something out of science fiction. Men like that maniac gave mutants and humans both a bad name, and Charles was more than happy to put the rest of them to sleep and let his team sort it out. He nodded off himself, lulled into sleep by the psychic cacophony around him after three days of hearing nothing more than whispers in his head.
He's awake now, though. Erik is wearing the helmet, but Charles' eyes find his in the dark anyway. Almost twenty-five years since the beach and Charles is starting to lose hope that he'll ever feel Erik's mind wrapped around his own ever again.
Maybe this is it, though. Maybe this has been one attack too many. Maybe Erik is tired of seeing Charles targeted as the lynchpin that might just be enough to bring the X-Men down.
"He was a mutant, Erik," Charles says. "Mad with power and obsessed with obtaining the abilities of others."
"He took you," Erik says. "You've done more for the mutant cause than anyone and he took you."
"There are just as many corrupt mutants as there are corrupt humans," Charles says with a sigh. He rubs his forehead. He's tired. He would quite like Erik to climb into bed with him, though he knows that's little more than a fantasy. "Will you take that as a sign of the equality you've been fighting for? That we're all equally demented by power?"
Maybe the future they've been working for is as much a fantasy as the more immediate thoughts of getting Erik into his bed. Maybe they're destined to die like this: waiting for the moment that will make their personal failings acceptable.
Except that's the exhaustion talking--love isn't a failing and acceptance isn't impossible. He's too tired to think about their larger philosophical debates without becoming melancholy, and he says as much.
"What does that mean?" Erik asks.
"It means either come to bed or get out," Charles says. "I love you, but I'm tired. I need to sleep."
He expects to hear the window slipping open, or maybe an angry rebuttal from Erik. He doesn't expect the sharp metallic click of Erik's helmet being placed on his desk, or the feeling of Erik's arms surrounding him.
He doesn't say anything, nor does he betray their fragile trust by stealing into Erik's mind. He simply projects his gratitude and closes his eyes. He's asleep almost instantly.
He wakes alone, of course. He hadn't thought for even a second that he wouldn't, but he's still oddly disappointed.
Still, it had been something. Erik may not have stayed, but he hadn't left right away, either.
Perhaps they're making progress after all.
After the first week in bed, they put him on an IV, solely for fluids.
"You keep getting dehydrated," Hank explains during one of Charles' more lucid moments, one of the afternoons he's sure the fever has broken and he's ready to bathe and dress and face the day.
"So it will be off as soon as I'm hydrated?" Charles asks, eyeing the pitcher of water next to the bed. He can probably down that reasonably quickly and be up and about again in no time.
"As soon as you can stay hydrated," Hank says. It's a distinction that Charles ignores, sure as he is that he's on the mend.
The IV stays for another week. His hand itches where the tape has been peeled off and reapplied multiple times. He's still tired and weak, but definitely feeling better. Even Hank agrees, though he wants Charles to take another week off to let his body heal from the ravages of pneumonia. Charles wants to protest, but he's exhausted, despite the fact that all he's done for the past two weeks is sleep for hours and hours every day. He insists that his books and grading and paperwork be brought to his bedroom, but he doesn't try to escape himself, other than to finally have a shower and shave and to take short trips around the room in the chair, slowly reacclimating his arms to pushing his weight around after so long in bed.
He's returning from one such jaunt down the hall and back when he notices the open window in the corner of his bedroom.
"Erik?" he calls out. His voice is still a touch weak, which bothers him.
"Not dead yet, I see," Erik says. He steps out from the shadows, and though his tone is light, there's worry etched into the lines of his face. When did Erik get so old? They're both old now, he supposes. It's well over thirty years since Cuba--they're not the young men they once were.
"Well, I've not survived terrorists, rogue mutants, possessed students, and crazed supervillains to be taken out by something as silly as pneumonia," Charles says.
"I wonder which one of those you believe me to be," Erik says.
"None," Charles admits. "You've always been something else altogether. You must know that."
Erik hums under his breath, his eyes watching sharply as Charles rolls slowly over to the bed and transfers back into his nest of blankets. His arms are shaking after only a few weeks of inactivity. He'll have to increase his workout once he's feeling up to returning to the gym.
"I'm in one piece, Erik," he says, pulling the quilt up over his shoulders. "I'm fine." He figures his illness has earned him enough sympathy that he can add, "If you were here, you'd know that."
Erik sighs and looks away. He doesn't flee and he doesn't protest and he doesn't argue. Times have changed.
"We're old men," Charles says. "Surely it's nearly time for us to rest?"
Erik crosses the room slowly and perches on the edge of the bed. His hands trace up Charles' arm, the quilt warm between them.
"Not yet," he says, "but soon."
Charles sleeps alone that night, but he sleeps well all the same.
The day dawns clear and bright as any other July Tuesday. Charles takes his tea on the patio, watching some of the older students on their morning jog around the grounds. It is perfectly pleasant, a quiet moment to himself before he plans out the rest of his day, dragged in five directions as always, even during the school's off months.
He doesn't mind being busy. He doesn't mind being needed. He rather likes it, actually.
He's thinking about a hiring decision he has to make and whether the time has come to finally increase the kitchen staff, when he feels a beckoning he's not felt in years.
He looks up from his tea and pulls himself out of his reverie. Erik stands at the edge of the patio. He's holding a suitcase in one hand. The helmet is tucked under the opposite arm. He's smiling.
"Good morning, Charles," Erik says.
I've missed you, Erik thinks.
"Good morning," Charles says aloud. He can't form coherent words in his mind, terrified to project more than the barest emotion for fear Erik will rescind the invitation.
He's been waiting for this day for a few weeks now. He'd wondered, when Sunday came and went, whether he'd been wrong.
"You're here," Charles says. Erik nods.
"It's time," Erik says. "These days, I find myself thinking of the world, of the ways it needs to be changed, still, of what we've made of it, and I find it doesn't matter to me. Not any longer."
"What does matter?" Charles asks, his lips curling up into a smile. Erik huffs and shakes his head.
"Never one for subtleties, were you?" Erik says.
"You should talk," Charles says. "That uniform--that ridiculous helmet."
"You have a secret jet hanger in the side of a mountain," Erik says, his lips twitching, and soon they're both laughing. Charles feels both infinitely younger and every second of his seventy-four years.
Erik leans over and places his suitcase on the ground, then drops the helmet next to it. It clangs discordantly on the stone, but Erik seems unconcerned. He's walking towards Charles with no mind for the helmet, with no word on his mind save for Charles' name.
"I love you," Erik says, leaning over to press their foreheads together. "And today, tomorrow, this year and the next and the next--it's all I need. It's enough."
Charles knows they'll kiss to seal their marriage--maybe in two days, maybe in two months--but this kiss, this one that taste of time and distance and salt--this is the kiss that makes it real.
"Welcome home," he says to Erik.