"Erik, he's your son."
Charles ached to say it, or send it, in any way that Erik could hear.
After Cuba, Charles had promised he'd never get into Erik's head ever again, and he’d had every intention of keeping that promise. But Erik was going to leave for good — believing he was alone in the world, his wife and daughter gone forever; believing he was responsible for their deaths — and he deserved to be told he had a child still living.
Charles didn’t know whether Erik harbored any suspicions about Peter’s parentage. He thought it unlikely. After Magda and Nina had been killed, there had been no room within Erik for anything other than grief and deadly rage.
Of course Apocalypse had seized on that rage, had convinced Erik that the new world in which mutants would be safe — a world in which mutant children wouldn’t be murdered by men’s prejudices against their kind — could only be built upon human bones.
Charles couldn’t blame Erik for believing it at first, not after having tasted Apocalypse's powers of seduction first hand.
You know exactly what would make this work, the thing called En Sabah Nur had murmured; you could save them all. Is this not a small price to pay for peace? and Charles shuddered. For he did know, and he could save everyone, and, when he thought about it, truly the price wasn't very great at all.
In the end, Charles had managed to resist, and En Sabah Nur had peeled open his mind and body and taken casual possession of him, like an invading horde that set fire to the villages it conquered, that raped and killed all inhabitants and left nothing standing.
Charles had been gutted like the Mansion had been gutted: turned inside out, razed to the ground.
Eventually, he had managed to gather himself together. Eventually, he had returned to the body that couldn't walk or get an erection reliably and barely remembered who it belonged to.
It had taken longer than it should have, to recognize where he was — in the infirmary, in Westchester, which seemed like the only thing that belonged to him that Apocalypse had left unscathed. Somehow the X-men had made it back to the States, and their comatose headmaster had been put into the nearest hospital bed with a tube in both arms and one up his cock.
He felt as if he'd been asleep for decades, that the years had scoured him to the bone and turned him into an empty wilderness, blowing off the top of his head and stripping him of all the hair on his body. He could barely remember his name; he was nowhere near strong enough to rebuild the walls that protected him from the outside world.
He did, however, recognize the man sitting in the camp-chair by his side.
Erik looked as if he'd spent those decades watching over Charles as he slept. He had taken off his helmet. There were lines in his face that hadn't been there before Cairo, caverns in his cheeks, gullies bracketing that familiar mouth.
His mind was a wasteland of anguish. Charles almost wanted to ask him to put the helmet back on.
When Erik realized Charles was awake, he clasped Charles’s hand as if it were fragile. His voice shook. "I thought I had lost you, too."
There wasn't anything Charles could say to this. He was still too vulnerable, and Erik's loving relief was a flare in the otherwise unremitting bleakness of Erik’s thoughts.
When Charles squeezed back, Erik climbed into Charles’s hospital bed and gathered him in his arms, tubes and equipment and all.
The bed was too small to hold both of them, but Erik didn't let him go. They managed to sleep like that, eventually, pressed skin to skin, and Charles let himself be lulled into slumber by the echoes of Erik's familiar thoughts, by the rhythm of Erik's beating heart.
In the morning, after Erik helped Charles take care of himself, he started kissing Charles as if he couldn't stop. Even though Charles knew it was a very bad idea, he found himself allowing Erik to seek the comfort he craved.
After more than a decade, they comforted each other, surrendering to the current that ran as hotly between them as when they'd been young in Cuba and less young in Washington. There was the familiar embrace, then the desperate strokes, and that conflagration of desire, Erik cursing and coming as quickly as he'd always done. These days, Charles’s infirm body didn't always get hard, but that morning it roused itself for this man, the years falling away, and before long he was crying out and coming too.
The guilt and recrimination caught up with Erik later.
What had happened to Magda and Nina, the slaughter Erik had committed in the name of his grief ...
"... I shouldn't have come to you," Erik had said, dully. "I shouldn't have done this."
We did this, Charles sent, but he was still too weak. Erik was turning away from him, pulling up mental walls as irrefutable as steel, and Charles couldn't hold on to him; God knew he never could.
"It can't happen again," Erik said, climbing from Charles’s bed. "It's not safe." He meant, I’m not safe; Charles didn't need to be a telepath to read that.
Charles ground his teeth as he watched Erik go, staggering a little, picking up the helmet on his way out of the door.
He imagined he would have slugged Erik if Erik had said I'm sorry. Ten years alone would fuck anyone up, let alone a man whose family had been destroyed in the Holocaust and who kept losing the people he loved.
Of course, if Erik knew he had a son, that might change everything.
The too-open vulnerability didn’t leave Charles in the ensuing days. He continued to feel as if someone had left the lid off the top of his newly shorn head. Hank was rebuilding Cerebro, and Charles was both looking forward to and dreading testing the range of his powers again.
The children were themselves recovering from their own experiences with En Sabah Nur. Despite the resilience of youth, their emotions still felt too-loud and raw to him: Jean's fears, Kurt's struggles to fit in, Scott's own helpless grief.
The loss of Alex was a gulf wider than the rubble where the mansion had stood.
Once Charles was up and about again, they held a memorial service for Alex — on the grounds next to the oak tree where Armando's marker was still erect. Raven was the only one who stayed dry-eyed throughout. She held Charles’s hand and held him up, her voice rock-steady whenever Charles’s faltered. Alex hadn’t left them a body to bury, and they would not bury the courage he'd shown, and they would, by God, live up to the legacy he'd left the school.
Even Peter had been affected by Alex's passing. It would have been easy for Charles to still see him as the wise-cracking teenager he’d met ten years ago, because for the most part Peter acted as if he was the same kid who had done whatever he wanted and taken whatever he wanted, leaving a trail of destruction behind that nobody ever saw coming.
Of course, that wasn’t true. This young man, who seemingly shrugged off both joy and sorrow as if he could outrun them, the same way he outran everything — even Peter Maximoff had been affected by Alex’s death, and by En Sabah Nur.
And then there was the matter of Erik.
Erik wasn't going to stay long in Westchester. He hadn't said so explicitly, hadn't said much of anything after the morning he'd run from Charles’s bed, but it seemed like he was planning on helping Jean and Hank rebuild the mansion and re-establish the school and then he was going to move on. He would leave the States and go underground, the same way as he had always left once he'd decided he couldn't be around Charles and his dream any more.
Charles had left Hank to supervise the re-building of the mansion. True to form, Hank drew up a detailed schedule that didn't put undue strain on Jean and the other kids, coordinating everyone's talents so as to erect the steel superstructure and restore the bricks and cladding, to re-wire the fibre-optics and cabling, and re-tile bathrooms and waterproof the walls.
Everyone pitched in. Kurt worked with Kitty on the wiring, sometimes upside down; Colossus heaved beams and frames with his massive arms; Ororo tended the grounds and gardens and murmured to the plants. When the kids weren't on shift, Raven led them in drills to keep them sharp.
Everyone had a job — except Charles, who Hank clearly figured was still too weak to do the heavy lifting, or any kind of lifting. He managed to insist on a supervisory role, which really meant he was left to wheel himself around the massive site, under the 3D images of architectural plans that Hank had rigged to help the teams visualize the work and keep on the right track. He could see the mansion slowly taking shape around him, the reality of bricks and steel and mortar rising like a phoenix against its projected ghost-image.
Some of the kids were staying at the nearby hotel, but most of them had pitched tents on the grounds, and as night fell an almost slumber-party-like atmosphere arose across Xavier's Academy.
There were the expected ghost stories and sing-alongs. Jubilee would start a fire, and the smaller kids would toast marshmallows and drink hot chocolate and try to convince the teachers that they'd already had a bath in the lake. Bedtimes were elastic. Eventually the kids would head to their sleeping bags in groups, until it was just Hank and Raven and him left to clean up and go to bed and then to rouse and start the day afresh.
At the end of the first week, Charles realized Peter wasn't involved in the construction efforts either. Peter's leg had been shattered in the battle, and although Hank assured Charles the boy was healing preternaturally quickly, Peter wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry for a while.
It was almost 2 am on the night that Charles encountered Peter in the first floor room which the kids had been using as their den. Someone — probably Kitty — had rigged a mostly-operational wide-screen TV together from scrounged parts. Charles remembered Peter being a fan of video games, but he hadn't managed to rig together a video game console; instead he was sprawled on a camp chair, watching an old Paul Newman Western on the makeshift TV, with a very young Robert Redford as Paul's swaggering sidekick.
"Having problems sleeping?"
Peter raised a lazy hand in salute. "Looks like you are, too, Prof."
It hadn't been so long ago that Peter had called him all manner of things: my man, and Daddy-O, for starters. After Charles's life-altering encounter with Apocalypse, Charles had been secretly afraid Peter would coin some other nickname like Cueball. He figured Peter started calling him Professor when Peter had decided to stick around the school after all.
Charles wheeled himself over. "I'm not a particularly good sleeper at the best of times," he said. "Telepaths tend not to be. It's harder to block out other thoughts when you're asleep, and more open to attack."
Peter thought about this. "Huh," he said. "That must suck. There's nothing like total oblivion, man."
"Well, I get to watch a lot of late night TV." Charles paused. On screen, Butch and the Kid were making their way up the side of a mountain, trying to keep one step ahead of the posse of lawmen who were on their tail. A beat, then he said, "So it's been like this since Cairo, then?"
Peter laughed; there wasn't much humor in it. "Can't keep anything from you, right, Prof?"
"Lots of the students do that, at first." Charles shrugged. "But I usually end up finding out anyway," which was, in fact, mostly true.
"You could just read their minds, of course."
"I could. I don't, though, not when I'm not invited. Not like other people." Charles didn't shudder at the thought of En Sabah Nur, but it was a near thing. The sensation of Nur inside his mind, inside his body, hot and insistent and taking whatever he wanted, was never far away.
Peter turned from the TV to stare at him. "Does it still hurt?" His eyes conveyed a complex sympathy.
"Enough to keep me up at night. You?"
"Yeah." Peter shoved an awkward hand through his silver hair; he was also suppressing the urge to shudder. "Never met anyone I couldn't outrun. Scared me half to death, to be honest. I get that there's a first time for everything, but usually people's first times aren't this bad."
"And it's not just him," Peter added, and Charles didn't need telepathy to know who Peter was talking about.
"When did you realize you were Erik’s son?"
Peter turned back to the TV so he didn't have to hold Charles’s gaze. "I put it together after we broke him out of prison? I mean, Mom never really made a secret of it. And when her sperm donor ex-boyfriend was on the news threatening to blow up the White House, she made sure to tell us how she felt about him."
"I have a twin sister."
So Erik had a daughter as well as a son. Charles didn't know how to feel about this, had no idea how Erik would react. "She lives with your mom?"
"Yeah. And before you ask, she's one of us."
Of course Erik's daughter would be a mutant, as powerful as this silver-haired boy with Erik's blue eyes and restlessness. Charles couldn't suppress a twinge that was equal parts fondness and jealousy at the thought of his irrepressible Erik sowing his homo superior seed across America and Poland and God knew where else.
Peter interrupted this less-than-appropriate reverie. Abruptly, he demanded, glaring at the TV screen, "Does it bother you, knowing what he's done?"
"Of course. Of course it does. It bothers him too." Charles had promised to stay out of Erik's head, but he'd heard the carefully-hidden anguish the first night he'd slept with Erik, and he'd continued to hear intermittent echoes even though Erik was now keeping away. Charles and Peter weren't the only ones having trouble sleeping — at least they weren't tormented by ghosts; at least they weren't begging for forgiveness.
Peter picked angrily at his cast. "You're his friend, of course you'd say that."
"I'm not sure whether he still thinks I'm his friend," Charles said, honestly, remembering Erik saying I shouldn't have done this. "And even if so, I'd only say that if I knew it was true."
Peter turned to stare at him again. "Of course he still thinks you're his friend. I've seen the way he looks at you, Prof, even now, after everything that's happened."
Charles was surprised — the young man seemed too self-absorbed to be this observant about other people's relationships. But he supposed Peter had reason to keep a close watch on the man he knew to be his father, and Charles’s and Erik's complicated history was probably not difficult to pick up upon.
It was Charles’s turn to gaze at the movie. "We've not been close for a long time. It was as much my fault as it was his. He is a very difficult man, and so, I suppose, in my own way, am I."
And there was the crux of it. Erik couldn't live with Charles’s dream or his refusal to compromise, yet couldn't deny the connection between them that had been forged in their shared and splendid youth. He couldn't stay, and at the same time couldn't manage to stay away.
Peter frowned, digesting this. Had this carefree young man ever had a serious girlfriend or boyfriend? He was certainly old enough, although he didn't much seem the staying type, either. "Nothing important’s ever easy, huh?"
There didn't seem much more to discuss. Instead, they watched the movie. Butch and Sundance were arriving at the standoff at the mountain gorge above the river, with the Super-posse hot on their heels.
"You've always been the brains, Butch, you'll think of something," Sundance commented on screen, in a touching show of faith.
Butch's brainy contribution: "Next time, I say let's go somewhere like Bolivia."
Peter laughed approvingly at the bravado. Ever the educator, Charles hoped Peter knew where Bolivia was.
In the movie, the men were tussling at the edge of the gorge. The lawmen drawing closer, they needed to jump into the river to escape — only thing was, Sundance couldn't swim.
"I'll jump first!"
"Then you jump first!"
"No!" It came out as a wail, and Sundance's desperation fueled Butch's creativity and courage. Butch whipped off his gun belt, and held it out to Sundance. Sundance gripped hold, tight and trusting, and tethered together, they moved to the edge of the path and stepped off.
Charles watched the men fall through the twilight, landing in the stream with the largest splash imaginable. They spun and turned in the current, clinging to the gun belt and each other, as the Super-posse looked on helplessly overhead.
After a while, Charles ventured, "You know, you should tell him."
"So should you," Peter pointed out. Charles wasn't sure what Peter was suggesting that he should tell Erik, although deep down Charles could not pretend he did not himself know what he should say.
They finished watching the movie in silence, and then Peter wheeled Charles back to his tent without saying another word.
It was obvious Erik was keeping away from him.
He had pitched his tent beside the lake, away from everyone else’s; he would eat his meals alone. He showed up for his shift and worked hard, driving the steel foundations deep into the ground, reinforcing the walls, reconstructing the underground tunnels and facilities and rebuilding the adamantium framework and complex metal structures of the Danger Room to Hank's specifications. He labored until the sweat dripped off his face and stained the shirts he refused to ask whoever was on laundry duty to wash. But afterwards, he'd head off-shift by himself and wouldn't say a word to anyone.
After that disastrous first morning, Charles tried to give him a wide berth. Erik needed the space to mourn; Charles would have realized that if he hadn't been so foolishly blinded by his own need for comfort.
From time to time, Charles would see Erik talking to Raven. They sat together by the lake, and Erik occasionally joined her on her endless runs around the property. Charles supposed he should be grateful Erik was talking to someone, even if Erik was refusing to talk to him.
When she wasn't running or drilling with the kids or supervising the building work, Raven would also seek Charles out — the two of them had a lot to catch up on. She fixed his meals in the reconstructed kitchen; she kept him updated on the ongoing work.
"What's the deal with you and Erik?" she asked, finally, one evening the middle of the second week, when the work on the Danger Room was more or less complete.
Charles fiddled with his bowl so he didn't need to look at her. "It's the same deal as it always was," he said.
Raven took the bowl away with some finality. "Don't you think he should stay?"
"Of course." Charles focused on keeping his voice clinical and measured. "It would be safer for him. Also, the students would really benefit from his experience in the field."
"If you want him to stay, you should tell him," Raven said, her voice equally casual, although her yellow eyes flashed dangerously.
Charles said, more bitterly than he'd intended, "I believe if I said that, it might just encourage him to leave."
Raven stopped what she was doing and took Charles’s hands, so that he would be forced to look at her. "Charles, Erik's grieving, but that just means he needs us all the more. It means he needs you."
"Maybe so. But that's never stopped him from leaving before," Charles said softly, and this time Raven had to look away, because she knew it was true.
Erik might have been trying to keep away from them, but the students kept seeking him out.
Erik had developed a connection with Ororo when they'd both fought alongside Apocalypse. Charles watched as Erik and the girl took to sparring with each other, practicing aerial maneuvers that lifted them high above the mansion in dueling air and magnetic currents. Charles noticed Jean going out of her way to speak with Erik, too, and as far as he could tell, Erik had not been unhelpful, because Jean kept at it, and the others followed her lead.
Frustratingly, Peter didn't engage. Ever since their night with Butch and Sundance, Charles had been keeping an eye out for his young friend, and he noticed Peter lurking on the fringes of Erik's orbit, hovering on his crutches along Erik's exercise route and around the part of the house where Erik was working, and on the side of the lake where Erik had pitched his tent. Peter always pretended he had something to do: he would feign napping, or he'd arm himself with a comic book or some project and look occupied — one day he'd used his gift to braid friendship bracelets out of yarn and fine metal wires for all the students — but he wasn't fooling Charles.
Erik was oblivious to this blatant stalking, though, cocooned by his grief and guilt. He spent his days working on the site as diligently as anyone there; he ran his solitary circuits around the grounds; he spent his nights not sleeping. There was no space in his bubble for one young man who was feigning disinterest in every one of his movements.
Raven came over to Charles one afternoon. Peter was lying on his back by the lake, not-watching Erik and Ororo go through their paces in the last of the sunlight.
"What's the deal with Pete and Erik?"
Charles sighed. "I have no idea," he said, which wasn't as untrue as it might have first seemed.
The three of them watched Erik as he swooped down from the sky, helmet under one arm, shooting across the lake in a slipstream that made waves leap up on either side of him. Ororo followed him more slowly, describing a graceful parabola through the air, the waves dancing around her, to land at his side. She was laughing with the sheer joy of flight, and despite himself Erik was smiling as well.
"Nicely done," Raven called, and Peter sat up and started a slow clap.
Ororo grinned. "Did you like it? I've been working on that this morning with Professor Lehnsherr."
"I liked it very much. Good job. And to Professor Lehnsherr, too," said Raven gave Erik a meaningful look that for once seemed not entirely lost on him. To Ororo, she said, "Hey, aren't you rostered for dinner duty? So am I, and we're late."
"Not yet, we aren't," said Ororo, reaching for Raven's hand, and a gust of wind picked them both up and swept them away.
Peter turned to Erik, faux-casually. "That was pretty cool."
Erik mopped his sweating brow and then he squinted at Peter as if seeing him for the first time. "Thank you," he said. He paused before saying, "I could show you, too, if you wanted."
"Can't fly like you guys. Plus, my leg's still like this."
Erik dropped to a squat on the grass beside Peter. "It's not flight, nobody's flapping their arms. Storm draws the air currents to lift her, I use the magnetic fields. And you would just slide your molecules quickly over the molecules of the atmosphere, to propel yourself upwards as well as forward into the air. I know you've done it before, more or less, when you helped me in Washington." He rapped his knuckles on Peter's cast. "When this comes off, I can show you."
"I'd like that," Peter said. He'd gone red, for some reason. Charles could tell he was considering whether he could outrun his own emotions.
Erik said, almost absently, "You know, you can do the same kind of thing without running? Look, you could lift this helmet by just moving your hands."
Erik held out the helmet, and slowly Peter cupped his hands directly underneath.
Erik said, "Move your hands, just your hands," and Peter frowned in concentration. At first his fingers began to blur and the helmet rocked in Erik's hand, then they stopped again.
"I’m not getting it!"
"Yes, you are," Erik said; "Let the speed move out of your fingers and only your fingers. Focus on a single point — pick something, a point between rage and serenity — and let your power flow out of you like a hose."
Peter frowned again, and so did Charles, who remembered the same words that he had told Erik a lifetime ago.
Peter's fingers blurred once more, and this time the blur spread up his wrists and forearms, and the heavy helmet lifted out of Erik's hands and spiraled up into the sky. The sun had started to set, and its red rays slid across the metal, turning it to a blaze of gold.
"Well done," Erik said, and Peter pulled his power back, letting the helmet fall to the earth.
"How about that."
Erik put a comradely hand on Peter's shoulder. "Rage and serenity, my boy. It always worked for me."
Charles could see Erik's casual words go through Peter like a knife. There was a slight quiver in his voice when he said, slowly, "Say, it's dinner-time. Do you want to come with us, grab something to eat with the guys?"
Erik turned to look at Peter, and then saw Charles watching the both of them. His blue eyes turned guarded, and Charles could not fail to see the walls come back up once again. He removed his hand stiffly from Peter's shoulder.
"You go ahead," he said, and Peter turned away.
Charles ached to say something, to tell him — about Peter, about Charles himself — and knew he couldn't.
Erik was silent as well. He stayed beside the lake, watching the sun set, and Charles watched it with him, the air between them thick with the words neither of them could say.
Someone was screaming.
Charles sat bolt upright in bed — he flung himself off the side of the bed, he hurtled onto his feet —
— and of course, he wasn’t doing any of it. His spine was shattered from L2 to L4; his legs hadn't moved on their own for two decades.
He struggled awkwardly onto his elbows, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
Someone was screaming. A boy whose family had been ripped from him, whose mother had been killed in front of him because he'd been too weak to save her. Who had had a number tattooed into his skin, who'd seen his people loaded onto trucks and trains and destroyed without mercy.
A boy who had grown to adulthood having learned first-hand that it was necessary to always strike first.
Forgive me, the boy begged, now, and Charles canted himself out of the camp bed and into his waiting chair.
It was very late. Everyone was asleep, even Jean; the psychic screaming hadn't woken anyone except Charles. He maneuvered the chair through the silent camp, the wheels crunching the grass underfoot.
The moon was bright enough to pick out the path to the lake.
I'm coming, he sent, before he could debate whether this announcement would be welcomed, or if it would make Erik turn him away.
The rudimentary magnetic safeguards around Erik's tent had been disabled. Charles lifted the flap and wheeled himself inside.
Erik was still asleep. He'd managed to hurl himself partially out of his sleeping bag, his bare body half-hanging from the camp bed. His helmet had been tossed in one corner of the tent. In the silver of moonlight, his eyes were open and unseeing and filled with horror.
Charles didn't need to get into Erik's head to hear the screams. They were the screams of the policemen in Pruszków, of the steelworkers in the factory, of the faceless humans who had died when Erik had pulled metal from the earth — whom Charles didn't recognize, but who plagued Erik's dreams nonetheless.
Then, there were the people Charles did recognize: Nina, Magda, Shaw. Charles himself, as a young man, broken on a beach in Cuba.
Erik's lips moved. Forgive me, he mouthed, silently; disregarded tears glinted silver on his cheeks.
"Erik," Charles said. He leaned down and grasped Erik's out-flung hand; he reached out very carefully with his thoughts. Erik, wake up. You're dreaming, old friend.
Erik made a sobbing sound. He closed his eyes and his hand convulsed around Charles’s painfully.
"At the school," Charles told him. "You're safe."
Erik pulled himself into a sitting position and scrubbed his free hand over his face. He said, shakily, "Maybe. But are you safe from me?"
Charles was silent as Erik's mind was filled once again with screams — the enemies to whom he had shown no mercy, the humans he had counted as collateral damage; the beloved family whom he might as well have killed with his own hands.
The man Erik loved, whom he'd put in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives.
All these people. I see them every night. Erik bent his head. Everything I did... I ought to be put down for good.
Charles felt his throat close. Was Erik really suggesting— There were extenuating circumstances, he sent, finally, not knowing how to soothe the pain, the self-loathing. You weren't in your right mind.
You would never have done it, Erik sent, bitterly. And there's the difference between us. I can't be trusted, Charles. Even when I try, especially when I try... He broke off, struggling to hold back his grief.
Finally, he said out loud, his voice thick with weeping, "When I try, I harm everyone I love."
Charles realized Erik was still holding his hand, fingers locked in a death grip. Saw Erik's memories of him, impossibly young, paralyzed in Cuba at Erik's hands. Saw how Erik had been running from the guilt ever since.
He'd fled from Charles again in Washington, but he'd tried on Charles’s dream for size anyway. He'd let Magda love him, had let her convince him humans could be trusted, had tried to live his life as an ordinary man, as Charles would have wanted.
It wasn't his fault that the world they lived in had taken it all away.
Charles put his free hand at the nape of Erik's neck, feeling the fragile bones of his friend's skull under his fingers. Throat aching, he reached for levity. "Well, I'm not dead yet."
Erik looked at him, entirely unguarded in the moment, filled to the brim with desperation and regret and an even more desperate love. "You will be if I stay. This is what I do, Charles; this is what I am."
Charles wanted to break something. He'd tried so hard, over so many years, to reach out to this man, with so many arguments of logic and with love, and it had never been enough. He didn't know how to make it enough this time.
He knew, though, that he had to try, like he had tried every time before.
He cupped Erik's neck and drew him forward; he rested his forehead against Erik's.
"There's so much more to you than that; more than you know. You're not a killer. I know what you've done, Erik, but more than that, I know what you are, who you are, how much good there is in you. How much love."
That wasn't enough to save them, Erik sent, bleakly. He curved his hand around Charles’s cheek so gently it made Charles’s teeth hurt. His defenses seemed to have evaporated like moonlight; in the darkness Charles could see all the way down into his friend's mortally wounded heart. How can it be enough to save you?
I'll take my chances, Charles sent, and leaned in before he could change his mind.
He was half-expecting Erik to pull away, and Erik did at first. He stared into Charles’s eyes with a gaze that was entirely opaque. And then need crashed through him and both of them, and he grasped Charles’s shoulders and kissed him back — as if he had been thinking of nothing else over these weeks he had spent rebuilding Charles’s house, as if he had been desperate for Charles to touch him in all this time he had been keeping away.
Charles groaned aloud when Erik slid his hand into Charles’s pajama bottoms and curled it around his hardening cock. It seemed he, too, had been thinking of nothing else.
There were many reasons not to do this again: Erik was mourning his wife and child, and sex had never changed anything. Somehow, in Erik's arms, none of these reasons seemed to matter.
Charles let Erik lift him from the chair and lay him down on the camp bed; let Erik open him gently and then gather him onto his naked thighs and take him far less gently. He didn't want to ask where Erik had gotten the lube he'd summoned to hand, and then in very short order he could barely say anything as Erik held him down and fucked him in a way that sent sparks up his damaged spine and made his fingers twist helplessly, fucking him with all the longing and surrender of the past days and weeks and the years they had spent apart.
It was only after they'd both come, one after the other, shuddering and groaning like teenagers and hopefully managing not to wake the entire student body, after Erik cleaned them up and fitted his arms around Charles in the narrow camp bed and fell into an exhausted sleep, that Charles realized what had happened.
Erik had only done this because he had decided to leave, as he had decided so many times before.
Charles watched Erik's sleeping face in the darkness, and tried to convince himself that he would survive it this time, too.
In the morning Erik couldn't look him in the eye, and Charles was also having the same trouble. They both got dressed in silence, Charles commandeering Erik's dressing gown in lieu of other clothes. Then Charles wheeled himself decisively from Erik's tent.
Despite the early hour, Charles wasn't surprised to see the familiar figure lounging on the grass verge on the lake path in full view of the tent, comic book in one hand.
"Good morning, Peter. You're up early."
"Could say the same about you," Peter said casually. "You spending last night there means you must have told him, right?"
Charles considered informing the young man that his personal life was no one else's bloody business, but he didn't. Besides, if anyone had the right to know about Erik and him, it was Erik's son.
"There isn‘t anything to tell," he said, finally. "Nothing's changed. I want him to stay, he knows I want him to stay, and we both know he won't."
"Bullshit," Peter said, his mouth in a straight line. "There’s a difference between him getting that you want him to stay, and you telling him how you really feel about him."
"How I feel has never been reason enough." Charles paused. "But how you really feel could be."
Peter looked away. He scratched under his cast, awkwardly: it looked as if that thing was ready to come off very soon.
Charles pressed the point. "You told Raven and Ororo about him, didn't you?"
Peter shrugged. "Yeah. Not exactly making a secret about it."
"Then you shouldn't make it one to him, not anymore."
Peter pulled a blade of grass and held it between his fingers as if it was fascinating. "I might, one day, when I decide to stick around for good."
"Are you planning on going somewhere?"
Peter shrugged again. "Thinking about it, you know? Maybe somewhere like Bolivia, like in that movie. Somewhere far away, anyway."
"The mansion is almost ready," Charles said, gently. "If you’re going to tell him, you should decide soon."
The house was rebuilt, the school was completed. Erik's duffel bag was packed.
Erik stood at his side in the doorway to the reconstructed Danger Room, as he had done so many times before. Dressed in a sharp grey suit, he looked like everything Charles could ever want and could never have.
Of course they would speak about work in their last moments together. Charles said, "You know the world's already begun re-assembling its arsenals."
Erik shrugged, a gesture that reminded Charles of Peter. "It's human nature."
"I still have hope," Charles said. He wasn't just speaking about his hope for the human race, and they both knew it.
Erik made a scoffing sound. "Oh yes. Hope," he said, and he, too, wasn't just speaking about humans.
"I was right about Raven." Charles looked up into Erik's face. "I was even right about you." After all, they both had returned to the school, although in slightly different circumstances than one would have hoped.
One corner of Erik's mouth crooked, less than willingly. "Maybe you were. But being right about me didn't protect you, in Cuba, or in Cairo." He clenched his jaw. "What happens when they come for you, Charles, for your children?"
"I pity the poor soul who comes to my school looking for trouble," Charles said, grimly. "And if you were so concerned, Erik, you would let us convince you to stay."
Erik squeezed his shoulder. "I'd allow you to convince me of anything, Charles. But I can't stay. It always ends this way, I always destroy everyone who trusts me. Truly, you'll all be safer without me."
Charles’s throat ached. Erik wasn't wearing his helmet, but his mental defenses might as well have been made of adamantium.
Then again, Erik's shields may have been impenetrable, but Charles knew underneath there was a man who believed he had lost everyone he loved, a man who believed that, by staying, he endangered everything he had left. Who believed he had nothing left to live for any longer.
Charles didn’t know where Erik planned to go, but he wasn't sure Erik would survive it. He almost wasn’t sure Erik planned to survive at all.
There was one way to convince him.
Right on cue, Peter and the other senior students clattered down the corridor toward the Danger Room. They were dressed in the black reinforced armor that Hank had created for them to wear in battle, a team uniform of sorts. Peter's leg had finally come out of the cast, and he was doing a little shuffling quickstep while laughing at something Ororo said.
They all pulled up short when they saw Charles and Erik and realized what was happening.
"Peter, Erik's heading out today," Charles said, meaningfully.
Peter sidled over to them, looked for all the world like he'd rather be elsewhere. Bolivia, maybe, or Australia, just as Butch had said right before they stepped into a hail of bullets. Charles wondered if stepping into a hail of bullets would be easier. It would be faster, at any rate.
Like a Band-Aid, it was best to do it fast. (Erik, he's your son.)
No. Charles knew it needed to come from the boy.
"I think Peter has something to tell you, Erik."
Quick as lightning, Peter got to his knees so he could get into Charles’s face. "Uh-uh. The Prof has something even more important to say."
Perplexed, Erik looked from one of them to the other, his brows drawn together in a deep frown. "Now's not really the time for this," he said.
"It really is, though," Peter said; he gave Charles a broad wink. "Professor, you jump first."
"Oh, for... Fine. But then you need to tell him yourself, too, or I will."
Peter patted Charles on the shoulder. "Fine, I'll do it. As long as you don't let go of that belt."
Charles snorted. "Just like that?"
"Yeah. Just like that."
"Right, then." Charles took a deep breath, and reached for Erik's hand, in front of Peter and the other students who were watching in the distance. To his credit, his friend didn't pull away.
And now, to do it quickly. "Don't leave, Erik. It's not just me you're walking away from. Here you have the chance to be part of something much bigger than yourself. It's all of this: the school, the students, our kind, everything that's here. And it needs you."
He paused. This was the argument he'd made before. It hadn't been enough. Today, he needed to make it enough.
"It needs you, and so do I. It's always been us, Erik. I don't want to be without you. Please stay with me."
Erik's eyes widened; he was temporarily at a loss for words. Charles spared a glance for Peter, who looked equally surprised. Charles couldn't blame either of them. He wasn't sure when he'd ever been this unguarded in front of Erik or his students, or this honest with himself.
Erik took both of Charles’s hands. "I can't," he said, finally. "I meant it when I said I'm a danger to the school and to you. I'm a mass murderer; they'll come after me and won't stop coming. I'd be the death of you, Charles."
"Jackass," Peter said, hoarsely.
They both turned to look at him. He had gone very red in the face. He pointed a trembling finger at Erik.
"You're full of shit, aren't you? The master of magnetism, running away like a scared little kid."
Erik let Charles go as Peter shoved himself forward, going toe to toe with Erik and glaring up into his face.
"Let me tell you this, okay," he said. "It was the late fifties. My mom decided to drop out of college to join some folks who were driving across America. One night they nearly ran over some guy sleeping rough near Seal Beach in California. Said he'd been hunting Nazis who'd escaped after WW2, along the rat-lines to the States and South America — who knows, maybe it was even to fucking Bolivia. They let the guy ride with them; he'd told them his family'd been killed in the camps, and in those days my mom was a sucker for a sob story... Anyway, after a month with them, he told my mom another bullshit story about how he needed to leave her for her own good."
Pete continued, darkly, "According to Mom, a couple of weeks later, she realized the jackass might've left her, but he'd left something else with her as well, and she wasn't ever able to contact him — to ask for help, or just to let him know — until she saw him on TV twenty years later, trying to kill the President."
Peter jabbed his finger into Erik's chest. "So maybe when I told you in Cairo 'I'm here for my family too,' I really meant, 'I came because I wanted to stop my father from killing everyone on the planet,' except that you were really killing everyone on the planet, and I didn't know how to stop you, and I didn't know how to tell you then, and I still don't."
He shivered as the flood of words thinned to a trickle and he ground to an abrupt halt. "Except maybe I just did it anyway."
Charles looked from Peter to Erik. Erik had frozen in place, looking for all the world as if he'd been stabbed in the gut. Looking the same way he'd looked when he’d realized he'd sent a bullet into Charles’s spine and crippled him for good.
His eyes were glazed, he began to shiver. "What —? Why did you —?"
Peter took a deep breath. "I said..."
"I know what you said. Why would you," and tears started to stream down Erik's face, "why would you tell me this now, of all times?"
Peter was silent; he'd run out of words. It was up to Charles to say it for the both of them.
Because it's the truth. Because the boy needs you to stay. And because you need him.
For an instant, Erik looked like he might slug Peter, or Charles, or both of them. He didn’t; his legs couldn't hold him; he staggered on his feet, like he was about to collapse weeping across Charles’s chair, and he put his arms around his son.
Peter stood rigid for one moment more, and then his arms came up around Erik, and he was crying too.
Charles held his breath. He had no idea what either of them would do, and, from the outpouring of their thoughts, it seemed neither did they.
"I'm sorry," Erik said, finally.
Peter sobbed into his shoulder, "I'm sorry, too, and my mom never wants to see you again, but I think you need to meet my sister."
Erik said, in a voice that shook, "I have another daughter?"
"Yeah, her name's Wanda." Peter rubbed his hand under his nose. "She might slap you too, I don't know. But we've been waiting to meet you since before we knew who you were."
"I would like to," Erik said, softly. "I never knew. Truly, I was afraid Shaw would find your mother and hurt her if I had stayed. If I had only known... "
He fell silent. If he had known, would he have given up his revenge and stayed to help raise these twins in small-town America? Conversely, had staying away helped these children survive to adulthood, the same way that Nina had not?
"It's okay," Peter said. He let Erik go and took a step back. "You know now."
Charles could feel the emotions that gripped Erik: the grief and guilt and self-loathing, the frustration over all this wasted time, and underneath, the conflicted stirrings of a father's love.
You can't change the past, he told the both of them. But you can change the future. Erik, you can help your children, you can help all these children, and you can help yourself.
He took Erik's hand again, and again Erik let him.
You can help me. Because I need you to stay, too.
Erik let out a shuddering breath and wiped his wet face with his free hand. Out loud, he said, to Peter, "Maybe that's true, maybe it was an excuse then, and now. Maybe you're right about the running away."
Peter nodded. "I know. It's all I know how to do, too." His feet made a restless, running movement underneath him. "Or at least I did, before this place."
Erik attempted a shaky laugh, and Peter said, "No more bullshit, okay?"
Erik said, "No more running," and he held out his free hand to Peter. He looked wrecked, his eyes wet, his hair standing on end; he was no less wounded than he'd been when the morning started, and at the same time, beyond it — like a gutted house being rebuilt from the foundations up, brick by brick — there were the beginnings of healing.
Charles watched them hug again, and then Jean and Ororo and Raven came running over. There were excited exclamations and embraces and even a tear or two, and Erik started grinning despite himself. The man might have lost his family twice over, but beyond the grief and regret, perhaps he would come to see that there was another family right here after all.
Perhaps Erik would still leave in the end. Perhaps even the school and this new family wouldn't be enough. There would always be enemies to fight and countries to conquer, and nobody could truly know what was within Erik Lehnsherr's heart, not even the most powerful telepath in the world. But Charles did, in fact, have hope that Erik would see his way to the right path, as his son seemed finally to have done for himself.
After a while, Charles sent, quietly, You don't have to make any final decisions today. After all, the most important decisions couldn't be rushed into or coerced by force or guilt: like love, like trust, like a commitment to stay. Except about one thing.
Erik extricated himself from the excited kids. He looked down at Charles, a corner of his mouth quirking in that familiar half-smile. It was his turn to hold out his hand. "And what's that, old friend?"
Decide to live again, sent Charles, and Erik leaned down and kissed him as if they were nowhere else in the world but here.