He tilts his head back and lets his mind wander, touching each of the minds in the mansion. There are so many of them, and just the mere thought of it all fills him with a sort of dazed wonder. There’s Abigail, shifting restlessly in her shared bed with Hank. Kitty, soft in sleep. Ororo, tasting faintly of lightning. Jean, her mind subconsciously reaching out to touch his. The list goes on. New recruits, all of them, teachers and students both. It’s been years since the mansion has been this crowded, and it’s been even longer since he’s used his telepathy so freely.
And of course, there’s Hank, Charles’ anchor through those terrible years. He’s coming towards Charles’ room now, and his mind is alight with purpose. Charles touches his mind in wordless inquiry, and Hank tells him grimly, Professor, he’s here. Do you want to see him? I can punch him in the back of the head if you want.
Well. There’s only one he that could possibly be. Charles sighs. Don’t, he says tiredly. It won’t do any good.
He opens his eyes, settling himself back into his physical body. There’s the plastic of the chair, hot and sticky underneath his clenched hands. There are his legs, deadened and useless. There’s the door swinging open with melodramatic purpose, and Charles looks up to see Erik sweeping grandly into the room. He’s wearing that ferociously ugly cape, but it’s the helmet that most stirs the resentment in Charles’ stomach. Hank’s behind him, and Charles can feel his irritation without even reaching out. “You really need to be more careful,” Erik says as calmly as if he belongs here. “The security here is abysmal.”
Hank bristles. Though Charles is feeling none too calm himself, he reaches out, brushing Hank’s mind. It’s fine. I’ll handle this.
You sure? Hank’s thinking about the helmet and how Charles can’t hope to beat Erik in a physical fight (remember Cuba, the jet, even when the Professor can walk he can’t fight Magneto), and Charles gives an inward sigh. I’ll throw him out if you want.
It’s fine, Charles says firmly. Hank gives him one last dubious look but leaves, closing the door behind him. He’s lingering outside the door, though, and Charles has to give him one last push before he finally leaves, grumbling mentally all the while. It’s touching in a tiring sort of way.
He waits until Hank has made it to the end of the hallway before shifting his attention back to Erik. Erik is still standing by the door, possibly looking intimidating in his cape (Charles prefers to think of it as being overdramatic and absurd). Erik’s mind is an empty void by virtue of that helmet, which is an equally apt metaphor for the silence stretching on. For someone who broke into the mansion in the dead of night, Erik seems to be remarkably content to wait in silence.
“You’re not subtle at all, you know,” Charles says finally.
Erik crosses his arms. “If I were trying to be subtle, you wouldn’t be conscious right now to tell me otherwise,” he says. There’s an ironic look on his face (or what face that Charles can see through the helmet, which really isn't that much) as he taps the side of his helmet. “Hank should stay in the lab, not moonlight as a security guard. And you—you’re out of practice. You’ve relied on Hank’s treatment far too much; it’s made you soft.”
Charles bites back his first reply—and whose fault is that?—and settles for rolling his eyes. “And you’re far too inclined to show off after being locked up for so long,” he says instead. He wheels himself forward to face Erik, and it’s a confrontation that feels alien and familiar all at once. He tries to keep his next question casual and probably fails horribly. “I don’t suppose you’re here to tell me happy news about Raven?”
“You would know the answer to that question better than I, wouldn’t you?” Erik says.
His tone is surprisingly gentle, but there’s an unspoken implication in the words. Charles bites his lip and looks away. “She asked me to give her space. So I’ve been giving her space,” he says. He looks up at Erik. “So I’m going to take that as a no.”
Erik shakes his head, and Charles sighs. It’s hardly unexpected, really—relationships can be a bit hard to repair after mutually shooting each other (so does that mean he should shoot Erik now?)—but it’s still disappointing to take. He takes a breath, composing himself. “All right, then. I suppose you’re back to recruiting your merry little band of minions. What was it, the Evil Brotherhood of Evilness?”
So it’s not his snappiest line ever. But it’s late, he’s tired, and he’s definitely not in the mood to cater to Erik’s ever-shifting whims. Erik, for his part, actually looks amused, the bastard. “If I were, do you really think I’d tell you, Charles?” Erik asks him. “I know how you disapprove of my tactics.”
“How considerate of you,” Charles says sarcastically. “Excuse me while I swoon at your chivalry.”
“I never thought you the fainting type,” Erik says.
Charles snorts. “For all you know, I’ve developed the habit. It’s been nearly a decade, Erik, and a lot can change in ten years.”
“Yes,” Erik says. “I know.”
Erik’s tone sounds almost resigned, and Charles frowns a little. Now that is distinctly un-Erik-like. Erik doesn’t give up: he charges into the fray bullheaded and uses the most grandiose techniques possible to catch the most attention possible (Exhibit A: the White House). But then again, he did pretty much lie down and let the FBI lock him in prison for a decade. The plane notwithstanding, they’ve barely spoken to each other since that day when Charles let him go, and in an ironic echo of what Charles just said, a lot can change in ten years…
It’s far too late to be thinking about this.
Charles lets out a slow breath. “So, so, so,” he says, feeling exhausted. He looks up at Erik, studying his face through the helmet. There are lines there that didn’t exist the last time they met, or maybe those lines were there and he just didn’t notice. That means something, doesn’t it? “You look terrible.”
“Is that concern?” Erik’s voice is dry. “I’m touched.”
“Fine, then, keep your secrets,” Charles says testily. Whether it’s irritation at himself or Erik, he’s not sure. “At least can I know the reason for your presence here?”
Erik pinches the bridge of his nose. He really does look kind of terrible, and Charles finds himself feeling like a bit of a jerk. Which is stupid, really, because whatever the reason for Erik’s weariness, he probably brought it on himself. “Can’t I just drop in on an old friend?" Erik asks. "We’ve barely had a chance to properly speak ever since…well, ever.”
The next words leap easily to mind: good, and if only we could have kept it that way. And prior to this summer, they would have been so very true, but Charles likes to think that he’s not nearly as hopeless as he once was. “Fine. And now you’ve seen me,” he says instead. “Hello, happy Thanksgiving. There’s leftover turkey if you want some.” He jerks his head at the door. “In the kitchen. If you’ve forgotten, it’s down the hall, take a left. You’ll find it eventually.”
“I’m not American,” Erik says, sounding blank. “And neither are you.”
Charles groans. “I’m half-American, thank you very much, which is not the point. That was my not so-subtle way of saying get out,” he says, enunciating the words clearly. “Either that or explain what you want. I’ve had a very long day.”
Erik continues to stay silent, during which Charles considers very seriously calling Hank and asking him to throw Erik out. Just when he’s about to alert Hank, though, Erik says, “You’re starting up the school again, aren’t you.”
It’s not a question. Charles smiles, and it’s a measure of how much things have changed that the smile is only faintly tempered with bitterness. “I’m trying once more,” he acknowledges quietly. He looks down at his hands, and he’s only a little bit surprised to find that they’re clasped together in an unspoken desperate hope. He unclenches them with an effort. “It’s going quite well. Surprisingly so.”
Erik shifts his weight from one foot to another, and it’s only with the movement that it occurs to Charles just how still Erik has been. “There’s no better chance than now, seeing that there’s no more war on the horizon to steal your students away,” he says.
“No thanks to you,” Charles mutters. He looks up at Erik. “Are you here to give me advance warning about your next display? I’d appreciate being able to go in and out of the mansion without a stadium blocking the way. It's hard to maneuver around debris on a wheelchair.”
Erik’s jaw tightens. “I’m not trying to—” he begins, and it’s almost a relief to get a rise out of him. Charles watches as Erik seems to almost force himself to relax. His shoulders straighten and his head goes up. “Charles,” he says, sounding formal. “I’m here to ask you if I can stay here.”
“You,” Charles says, feeling a surge of sudden, absurd hilarity. “You want to stay here. You want to stay here. You want to stay….here.”
Even in the dim light, Charles can see Erik roll his eyes. “Very good,” he says, sounding sardonic. “Yes. Just for a couple of days.”
Charles raises an eyebrow. “And I would let you do that because…?”
“Why did you agree to break me out of prison, Charles?” Erik asks.
It’s such a non sequitur that Charles has to take a minute to cast his memory back, because frankly, he doesn’t have the faintest idea at the moment. “Future-me said so,” he says. “Or at least, Logan made an excellent case for it.” He gives Erik a pointed look. “I can assure you that it wasn’t out of the goodness of my heart.”
Erik lets out a huff. “Never mind,” he growls. “I knew it was a mistake to come here,” he adds in what’s no doubt to be a last retort before he imposingly sweeps out of the room once more.
If Charles were in his right mind, he would let Erik flounce out. Charles of just a few months prior would have been perfectly happy to let that happen, and probably thrown something after him as parting gesture. Charles of those harrowing months right after the Kennedy assassination would have demanded that Erik stay and explain himself. Charles of the naïve year before that, the Charles who lived with Erik and trained with him and so very desperately loved him near the end…well. He would have downright begged.
Charles isn’t sure which Charles he is now or which persona is more appropriate. He certainly doesn’t have the energy to figure it out, and some part of him tells him that he doesn’t want to. Not yet, at least.
“You know where your old room is,” Charles says to his back. The room that Erik had barely used after that first week. “It’ll be dusty, but that’s what you get for breaking in.”
Erik halts. His back is still turned towards Charles, and not for the first time, Charles wishes that he were telekinetic as well, if only to get that hideous helmet off. “Thank you,” he says, and Charles want to laugh at how stilted those words are. “Your hospitality is appreciated.”
Isn’t it just, Charles projects testily at him. Erik doesn’t react, not that Charles expected him to, as he turns the doorknob with his power in preparation to leave. As Erik steps out into the hallway, Charles calls after him, “You look extremely tacky in that helmet, by the way.”
Erik pauses in the doorway, turning slightly to face Charles. “Precautions,” he says over his shoulder, and Charles can just see the edge of his mouth turn down. “In case of mishaps.” And then he’s gone, the door swinging shut soundlessly after him.
“Is that what they’re calling it these days,” Charles mutters to the silent room. He blows out a deep breath as he leans back in his wheelchair, reaching out with his mind. Hank.
Hank responds instantly, his mind bright and alert. No doubt he’s been pacing his room, ready to come hurtling down the halls at the slightest sign of trouble. Yes, Professor?
Erik’s staying here tonight, Charles says to him. Alarm spikes in Hank’s mind, and he sends back a sharp inquiry. Charles sighs. He’s surly as ever, but I don’t think that he’s here to hurt us.
Did you…Hank says, the sentence ending in a mental image of Charles reading his mind. Find out what he wants?
No, Charles says.
Doubt laces Hank’s thoughts. Professor…how can you be sure? He asks dubiously.
Hank’s lack of faith stings a little, but Charles can hardly deny that it’s very justified. Charles has nothing but an instinct to go with this, and if history is indication, his instincts are hardly the most trustworthy. And let’s face it, the drugs and alcohol really haven’t helped over the years, either. Perhaps he should revoke the invitation. If Erik resists, they’ll tag-team him, get the helmet off long enough for Charles to…
Hank is still there, waiting patiently for an answer. Charles takes a breath. Everyone deserves a chance to earn some redemption, he says. Dryly, he adds, He has been fairly quiet for the past couple months. That should earn him a trustworthy point or two, I think. Besides, it’s only for a couple nights, and I’m too tired to deal with this right now. Erik won’t hurt us between now and morning.
Hank hesitates, and Charles can feel his thoughts splintering into a dozen directions: a replay of the past summer’s events; contingency plans should Erik prove malicious; and a tiny, fragile tendril of uneasy hope. Okay, he says at last, sounding monumentally unenthusiastic. You should let the others know, though, before they all wake up to him walking the mansion.
Fine, Charles says. Let Abigail know, will you?
Will do, Professor. Hank hesitates. Are you all right? Do you need me to…
Just let Abigail know. I’ll deal with the rest, Charles tells him firmly, and reluctantly, Hank subsides.
As he’s practiced his powers more, he doesn’t really need to focus himself using a physical gesture anymore, but he does it now as he sends out a dream suggestion to the other inhabitants of the mansion: Erik Lehnsherr is here. Do not attack. Unless he’s being antagonistic, leave him be. The suggestion folds itself more or less seamlessly into the dreams of the sleepers. If there are any questions—well. That’s a matter for the morning.
Now that he’s in the wheelchair again, his bedtime routine is ridiculously long. He takes his time going about it, and by the time he’s done, the weariness has settled in every limb, bone deep. He casts his mind in one last sweep before going to bed: Hank’s still awake, but his thoughts are edging slowly into sleep now as he curls around Abigail in their shared bed. The others are still dreaming, their thoughts enviably peaceful. Besides Charles himself, only one person is still awake: Erik.
Charles’ eyes snap open upon tasting that strange yet familiar mind. He’s taken off the helmet. The helmet that he rampaged through the archives to acquire for the express purpose of keeping Charles out. He’s taken it off.
Charles sucks in a deep breath and yanks his mind away from Erik’s, feeling almost as if he’s been burned by the touch. He reaches down to the rims of the wheelchair, running one finger over the smooth plastic surface to steady himself. All right then. Well, Erik does look dreadful in it, so really, it’s just about time, and no one should sleep in a helmet anyway…
Not his problem. Charles will deal with it in the morning.
Kitty’s the only one in the kitchen when Charles enters in the late morning, sitting with a bowl of cereal at the kitchen counter. “Hi, Professor,” she says, waving him a greeting.
“Hello, Kitty,” he answers. “How did you sleep?”
“Just fine,” she says. “Got your dream last night. About Erik Lehnsherr…”
He nods absently as he wheels himself to the refrigerator and pulls out the remains of the turkey, and it takes him a long minute to realize the mental question hovering in the air. “Oh!” he says, looking at her. “Er…”
Kitty looks back at him, her eyes curious and inquisitive. Whatever Kitty may have been in the future that Logan described, right now she’s all of twelve years of age. Unfortunately, while the political machinations of the past summer would’ve hopefully gone straight over her head, every single child in this generation knows about the infamous Erik Lehnsherr: in the slightest chance that they missed the Kennedy assassination, no one on earth could have possibly ignored the White House incident. Curse the annoyingly alliterative “Master of Magnetism” and his dramatics.
“Er,” Charles says, trying to figure out how best to handle the situation. He takes a peek at her mind and sighs a little. “Yes, it’s that Erik Lehnsherr,” he says, resigned. “Yes, he really did levitate a stadium. Yes, he dropped it on—well, around, I guess, if you want to get technical—the White House. And yes, he did try to kill Nixon.”
Kitty’s eyes widen. “That’s really neat!” she exclaims. He raises an eyebrow at her, and she ducks her head and blushes a little. “I mean, about the stadium part, not the killing people part. But you’re letting him stay? Professor, what if the police come after him?”
It’s kind of charming that that’s her foremost concern. “I think we can handle the police,” he says gently.
Her eyes are still wide. “But he’s a criminal,” she says. “Shouldn’t we throw him out or something?” She looks uncertain. “But he’s on our side, isn’t he? So I guess we shouldn’t. Right?”
And right there in a nutshell, Charles muses, is the eternal paradox that’s Erik Lehnsherr. “We’re letting him stay temporarily,” he says. “He’s…well, I’m not going to call him reformed, but he’s not going to hurt us. There’s nothing to worry about, Kitty.”
She doesn’t seem assuaged by his less-than-stellar argument, which is only appropriate as Charles has hardly convinced himself. “But he tried to kill people. He did kill people. Didn’t he kill President Kennedy?”
“Well,” Charles says, “He didn’t actually kill Kennedy. He did a lot of other things, just…not that.” He clears his throat, balancing the plate of turkey in his hands. “How much do you know about Trask Industries?”
Kitty chews her lip. “They made those giant shooting robots with the big hair-dryer vents,” she says, and that’s probably the best description of the Sentinels that Charles has heard thus far. “Because people hated mutants for a while, and then President Nixon was going to show them to everybody how they could kill mutants, but then they shot up everyone, and then Mr. Lehnsherr tried to kill the president, but then the president shot him and it turns out it was actually the blue lady all along, and then things changed. People stopped hating us.” She pauses. “As much.”
That’s surprisingly well-informed. “You’ve got the general gist of it,” Charles agrees, ignoring the pang that the mention of Raven brings. “Trask Industries also did quite a lot of other terrible things, but yes, Erik did all of the above. He also effectively made a laughingstock of their prized invention.” He pauses. “And then he escaped.” Because I let him escape, he doesn’t say. Some things are better left unsaid.
He can feel her pondering this new information as he sets about making himself a sandwich. He wheels himself to the counter, sets the plate there, and starts eating. The leftover turkey really is quite good, and it’ll be Erik’s loss if he continues to turn his nose up at it. He can feel Kitty's mind bubbling with curiosity, but at least she waits until he’s set the half-eaten sandwich back down before she speaks again. “So,” she says, “he’s not going to try to kill us or anything, is he?”
It took her that long to get to that particular worry, he thinks with mild amusement. “He won’t hurt us,” he says, and he wonders how he can be so certain about that. But it’s true—Erik won’t harm his students, not here in the sanctity of the mansion. “He’s just here to talk. I think.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Really? About what?”
Your guess is as good as mine. “Adult business,” he says, which is a bit of a cop-out, but it’s better than unloading her with the whole tormented history of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. She pouts, clearly unconvinced, and he gives her a smile. “Sorry, Kitty.”
“You know, I’m not a kid anymore,” she says, and he very carefully does not laugh. “I’m not! You’re like Mom and Dad—they just want me to be happy and not have to worry about anything, but people out there are still going to be hurting others. They think I don’t know about the mutant prejudice out there, but I do. And even though they try to pretend it’s not, they know and Grandpa knows that it’s going to end up like how he and the other Jews were treated in Auschwitz.” She looks at him defiantly. “I can’t hide forever.”
Her words are like a splash of cold water to the face, and he sobers abruptly. Her words about Auschwitz strike a truer chord than she’ll ever realize or, with any luck, that she’ll ever have to realize. “You’re not hiding, Kitty,” he tells her, and her frown deepens. He pauses, skimming her mind. “This isn’t about Erik, is it.”.
She stabs her spoon into her cereal as if it’s offended her. “Sort of?” she says. “I mean, what he did was bad, but…at the same time, it kind of made sense.” She looks up. “I mean, I don’t think you should try to kill people, but we shouldn’t have to hide, either. That’s not asking too much, is it?”
The uncertainty in her voice is a painful to hear, and in a way, she’s very much like Raven. She wants to be mutant and proud, an ideal that Erik practically waves on a banner, but Erik’s way is just not the right way. Charles takes a breath, carefully considering his reply. He’s not going to mess this up again.
“You don’t have to hide,” he tells her at last. “People are starting to accept us, and the best way to continue that acceptance is by communicating what we stand for. You saw what happened this summer—if Erik had killed everyone, the mutant hunt only would have gotten worse. But it didn’t, because people saw that X-gene or not, we’re all still people.” He takes a breath. “If you show them that we have common ground, that’s a foundation that we can build together.”
She kicks the counter, looking sullen. “But that takes forever.”
“Yes, it does,” he says softly. “But you’ll never change people’s minds with violence. You’ll only scare them, and people hate what they fear. Talking, understanding—that’s what really matters."
He can feel her mind whirling in circles, her frustration warring with the reason in his words. “Talking is hard,” she says finally, but the words sound less like a complaint and more like an observation. “Is that really the best way?”
“That’s the civilized way to do it, I’m afraid,” he tells her. “Part and parcel of being an adult. A proper adult,” he adds when her mind lights up with an image of Erik from the news. He smiles at her, trying to lighten the mood. “Sure you don’t want to go back to being a child?”
She studies him for a while before shaking her head resolutely. He can feel the heartache almost like a physical pain—innocence is something so desperately underrated. The tally of names lost over the years is long, far too long, and he hadn’t treasured his own innocence nearly as much as he should have when he had the chance. “No,” she says. “I can’t stop learning about the world just because it’s hard.”
He looks at her with a renewed perspective. She glares back at him, chin held high. She’s twelve, yes, but in the future, Logan had said that she saved them all. He’s reminded powerfully of the potential that every person has—the capacity for pain, true, but also for growth and change. “Fair enough,” he says. “Then education—that’s the first step. Becoming an informed individual is key to being able to change anything.”
She’s quiet for a moment, brooding over his words. He lets her think as he works through the rest of his sandwich. While he doesn’t try to look, the thoughts that leak out lead to an inevitable conclusion. He sighs a little inwardly, but doesn’t let any further expression show on his face. Maybe he really should throw Erik out, but…wouldn’t that be thoroughly hypocritical of him? Kitty can’t hide forever, and neither can he.
They all have to make their own choices.
“I’m going to go do some homework now,” Kitty announces, and he feels very faintly amused at the blatant lie. She stands up and drops her bowl in the sink before starting to phase through the wall. Halfway, she stops, and he looks up at her. “Professor,” she says, and he looks up. “I’ll see you tonight?”
He must look a bit blank. “For the first candle,” she clarifies. “It’s the first night of Hanukkah, remember?”
Ah. “Of course,” he says, giving her a smile. She nods, looking reassured, before disappearing through the wall.
Right. Hanukkah. He’d almost forgotten about that, what with the whirlwind of paperwork and classes. Well, at least that puts a distinct time limit as to how long Kitty can interrogate Erik, although he really should probably stop the man after an hour or so. He can be powerfully charismatic, a fact that Charles knows with painful intimacy.
He reaches out in a habitual sweep of the house, another one of those things that he hadn’t realized how comforting it was until he hadn’t been able to do it anymore. Hank’s in the lab, Ororo is in his office, Abigail and Jean are in the garden with the handful of students who elected to stay over break. As for Erik…well, he’s awake. And still helmetless, which is perhaps the biggest mystery of all. Charles tracks Kitty, following her as she phases through the mansion to surprise Erik in the garage. Her mind is alight with curiosity.
He looks at his watch. One hour, then he’s coming in.
He actually does have a lot of work to do, even though the school is officially on break for Thanksgiving weekend. The second incarnation of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is less than a year old, and while his current rotation of teachers is far better than he could have ever hoped for, there’s still a long way to go before the school is ready to, well, be a real school. He has approximately several forests’ worth of paperwork to fill out; he needs to see how Scott and Alex’s latest recruitment mission is going; he wants to check on Hank’s progress in the lab; he’s promised to train with Jean...
He’ll do some paperwork, he decides. That’ll fill up the time nicely. He can feel Ororo hard at work filling out some of the government licenses, and he gives her a brief mental tap to let her know that he’s coming. “Hi,” she says as he enters the study, not looking up. “What’s our expected eventual enrollment? The forms wish to know.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Charles tells her wryly. “I can tell you off the top of my head that this mansion can fit over a hundred people easily, and if we renovate a bit then I wouldn’t hesitate to say two, three hundred.”
“Mmm,” Ororo says. She jots something down on the paper. “Well, Scott called, he says that he and Alex found two more recruits. So we can put them in the empty bedrooms of the west wing when they get back, bringing our live-in total up to...nineteen.” She signs something with a flourish before looking up at him, her eyes sharp and clear. “Or is that twenty?”
“Erik’s not staying long,” Charles says firmly.
“I didn’t think you would let him stay at all,” she remarks.
He sighs. “Neither did I,” he confesses. “But he was, ah, persuasive.” He coughs, hoping that the lie isn’t too obvious. “Let’s get to work, shall we?”
She looks at him with narrowed eyes. Charles meets her gaze, hoping that he looks far calmer than he actually feels. Ororo and the others mostly know of Erik in a secondhand fashion from the less-than charitable news coverage. These days, Hank is the only one who knows the whole sorry story of Erik and Charles from beginning to end—and Raven, but that’s another matter entirely—and Charles isn’t really in the mood to play storyteller.
“Do we need to be concerned for the safety of the students?” Ororo asks at last.
Her question is plain and direct, and Charles has never been more grateful. “No,” he says. Erik’s style is more to lure his students away and then put them into danger; he won’t hurt them directly. Besides. Charles can take Erik on, no matter what Hank thinks.
“Okay,” Ororo says. She thumbs through the stacks in front of her and passes him a folder. “These forms need your signature…”
“You are a treasure that I don’t deserve,” Charles says fervently as he picks up a pen.
“You better believe it,” Ororo answers, flashing him a smile as they get to work.
With precisely five minutes to go, he puts down his pen, thanks Ororo, and wheels himself down the garage where Erik is lurking. To his surprise, Kitty’s nowhere in the nearby vicinity, and a quick mental scan puts her in her bedroom actually doing homework. Huh. He gives Erik a curt warning before he arrives, and as he approaches the door, Erik opens it for him with his power. “Charles,” Erik says, not looking up. He’s working on a metal sculpture of some sort. It’s rather abstract, but there’s a curved sort of beauty to it.
“Erik,” Charles says in greeting. He folds his hands together and watches Erik work in silence for a moment, his eyes tracking the other man’s movements. Erik’s hands are graceful as they manipulate the metal, his fingers moving almost like a dance. His power has always been a sight to behold, and Charles finds that he likes the delicate work much more than the dramatic.
“I suppose you’re here to ask about the virtue of your student,” Erik says, eyes still focused on his work.
“I do appreciate a warning before you try to corrupt them unduly,” Charles tells him absently. The dance of metal is almost hypnotic.
“If you’re so wary, why’d you let her come?” Erik murmurs. “Don’t pretend like it’s beyond your power to nudge her in a different direction.” His hands still for a fraction of a second before beginning their careful work again. “And you could force me out at any moment. You know that, I know that, and in the end, I wouldn’t know anything. So why don’t you?”
The last question cuts to the crux of the matter. Charles rubs a palm across his face as he suppresses a sigh. “I wonder that myself,” he says finally. “I suppose because…well…”
Erik’s hands stop moving entirely, and Charles does sigh this time. “What’re you working on?” he asks instead.
Without looking at Erik’s mind, he can’t tell if Erik is disappointed, angry, relieved, or some combination of all three. Erik’s back gives no indication which option it is. “Your student helped me get the base set up,” he says, indicating the wooden box at the bottom. “It’s supposed to be an a Sentinel on a platform.”
Charles looks at the sculpture dubiously. Now that he’s looking at it, it does look sort of like a Sentinel, just, well, not. “Ah,” he says. “Was she asking you questions?”
Erik turns his head and gives Charles a dark smile over his shoulder. “If you’re so worried, why don’t you just look?” he says, one hand coming up to tap his temple. “You don’t have to ask these questions, Charles, you know that. No helmet.”
Charles remains calm. “That’s unusually generous of you. You’re aware that I don’t intrude unless I absolutely have to.” He pauses. “Everyone makes their own choices, Erik, even if you seem to think that I influence them somehow.”
Maybe it’s just Charles’ imagination, but Erik’s eyes soften just the smallest bit. “I know.” He turns back to his Sentinel sculpture, and Charles observes how he twines copper with iron, forming snakelike tendrils. “I didn’t try to corrupt her, so rest easy. I’m not so heartless as to throw a child into war.”
Charles exhales, the words loosening the knot of tension in his shoulders. “Thank you,” he says quietly, and Erik’s head moves in a jerky nod. That’s charitable of Erik, although Charles supposes that it’s not entirely unexpected. He’s not a monster, after all. Charles wheels closer, and Erik moves aside wordlessly to allow him a better view. The sculpture is recognizably a Sentinel now, albeit much prettier than the real-life ones. “I suppose she asked about Sentinels?” Charles asks.
“I told her stories about really amazing explosions,” Erik says, his voice dry. “And then she told me how you said fighting was bad. So I distracted her with art before I received one of your lectures by proxy.”
"I don't lecture." Erik doesn't respond, but his posture says it all, and Charles huffs softly. "Much."
"Of course not," Erik says.
“Well,” Charles says. “You’d make an excellent teacher.” He blinks with surprise at his own words. “You know what I mean. You’ve quite the talent here, and back when…before…well.” He coughs and trails off, feeling awkward. Right. Before everything. “Anyway.”
“‘Anyway,’” Erik echoes, looking sardonic. "We’ve had quite a few arguments about methodology before, old friend. I don’t think that either of us are in the mood to rehash those.”
“No,” Charles says softly. Erik hums in agreement, and for a while longer, they sit in silence as Erik finishes his work. When Erik lets his hands fall to his side, there’s the Sentinel standing a platform, poised to rise and attack. “Charming.”
“Long live the machines that tried to wipe us all out,” Erik says, giving an imaginary toast with a distinctly ironic expression. “May we celebrate their downfall.”
“Not before you put them to good use, if I recall correctly,” Charles says. Erik shrugs, clearly unrepentant, and it's not really an argument that Charles feels like having at the moment. He lets the subject drop. “But you didn’t come here just because you were feeling the artistic itch.”
“Do you think Raven should have killed me?” Erik asks. His expression is unreadable.
Charles raises an eyebrow at the sudden topic whiplash. “Isn't that a bit macabre?"
"That's not an answer."
Charles regards him steadily. "Erik, if I wanted you dead, you would be dead,” he says. Erik says nothing, and Charles sighs. “No. Like I told Kitty—violence isn’t the answer. Raven would be irrevocably different if she had killed you.”
“So you’re happy for her sake.”
Charles snorts. “I’m hardly happy. I’m barely even content. I’m just not hopeless anymore, but that’s surprisingly more valuable than you might think.” He pauses. “You really haven’t heard from her?”
Erik shakes his head. “Again, Charles—if you wanted to find her, all you have to do is look. Your telepathy is beautiful.” He studies Charles intently. “You should use it more often.”
“That’s incredibly poetic of you,” Charles remarks. “And unexpected, certainly.”
“So I’m getting sentimental in my old age,” Erik says with a shrug. “It doesn’t make it any less true. You could do anything if you wanted; you know it’s true.”
Except that if I do, it doesn’t mean anything, Charles thinks. You can't force people to stay, and this is never more true than for the people that we love most. “I would be the worst kind of dictator, Erik,” he says instead of explaining. “You don’t want a telepath to seek world domination. Trust me on this one.”
“Mmm,” Erik says. “Good thing for all concerned that I’m the world-dominating one, then.” He gives Charles a tiny smile. “When I leave, I’ll have to resume those duties. It’s not easy, taking over the world.”
Charles smiles despite himself, but the levity quickly fades. “So why are you here, Erik?” he asks, and shadows darken Erik’s eyes. “Is this some misguided attempt to pretend things are normal? Because I have to tell you, Erik, I’m not sure what normal is for us.”
Erik turns away partway, one hand reaching out to trace the smooth curves of the Sentinel. He doesn’t say anything for the longest time, but when he does, his voice is hoarse. “Your time-travelling friend said that he was sent back from the future from both of us.” He clears his throat. “Working together.”
Charles looks down at his folded hands. “If this is an invitation to join you in world domination, I’m going to have to decline,” he says finally. “You know that. You knew that before you came.”
Erik doesn’t say anything for the longest time. “Maybe I’m not asking you to leave.”
Charles carefully takes a breath at the implication. He closes his eyes for a long moment before reopening them again. “If this is some kind of long-term plan to invade my mansion and destroy my school, you’d best say so now,” he says, his voice perfectly level. "I'll even let you walk out of here with your mind intact."
Erik is very still. Charles watches him for a moment, uncertain if he’s even breathing. “Would you believe me if I said that it’s not?” he asks at length.
Charles considers this. Erik has any number of flaws, but lying isn’t one of them. The man is stubborn and overdramatic and prideful to extremes, but lying—no. He doesn’t lie. “Yes. But why don’t you tell me why you’re here.” He watches as Erik’s hands curl into almost-fists before slowly unclenching. “Do you need help hiding from the police?”
Erik snorts. “I can handle the police.”
“Of course you can,” Charles murmurs. “I wonder, though, what you can’t handle.”
Erik bows his head, hiding his expression. “Why don’t you look, Charles,” he says finally. “If you’re so very curious.”
Charles raises an eyebrow at the unambiguous invitation. “You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I lived with you for weeks,” Erik says, sounding wry, and his words are a painful reminder of days long past. “I think I know how intimate telepathy can be.”
Charles’ cheeks flush red at the unspoken insinuations, and he looks away. “I said that I didn’t want to ever get into your head again.”
“You didn’t have a problem with that at the White House,” Erik points out. “Why hold back now?”
“Oh, please. I barely scratched the surface of your powers, “ Charles says dismissively. “And I only held you long enough to get myself unpinned. Again, Erik—if I wanted you dead, you would be dead.”
“Kind of you,” Erik says, sounding thoroughly unimpressed. He turns back to Charles. “But it’s easy to kill, isn’t it? It’s not so easy to talk.” There’s a damnably smug curve to his mouth, and Charles winces at hearing his words thrown back at him. “And now we’re talking. Isn’t this fun?”
“You bastard,” Charles mutters. He looks up, studying Erik. “Can I at least know what brought on this bout of sentimentality? Considering that you rampaged through the archives to acquire your helmet, I really think that you’d want me to be out and stay out.”
Wordlessly, Erik taps his temple. Charles bites his lip. “You really want this.”
“I wouldn’t say want,” Erik says cryptically, and Charles groans a little at the obtuseness. “But maybe it’s more a case of—” he breaks off.
“A case of…?”
Erik gives him a sliver of a smile. “Go on, then.”
Charles considers it for a moment more before slowly reaching out with a tentative mental touch. Erik’s there, shielded as always—except, well, not anymore. Charles makes sure to meet Erik’s gaze before letting himself sink into Erik’s mind. Erik has always had a very distinct taste to his mind, unyielding and bright and sharp. It’s always been strangely comforting, and Charles finds himself falling into that familiarity with frightening ease. It’s been years, and yet—it’s home. It’s what he imagines Raven’s mind would feel like, if she ever lets him back in.
I’m sorry about Raven, Erik tells him.
The words are backed with a wave of regretlosssadness. If they were using words, Charles might ask whether the apology was for: taking her, changing her, or shooting her. Here, though, while wrapped in the clarity of Erik’s mind, he knows that it’s for all those incidents: for Charles’ pain, his loss. Erik's said it before, but now Charles feels it, and the sincerity is relentless in its power. It’s powerful and thick, clinging onto every fiber of Charles’ being, and he grits his teeth and fights it off only with a titantic force of will. An apology isn’t that simple, he says.
I know, Erik says. And he does know, and Charles knows too. There’s too much anger between them, too much shattered love and despair to be fixed with mere words. Are we beyond hope?
Charles laughs out loud, the sound broken even to his own ears. Why do you care? he asks. Tell me why you want this, Erik. Don’t tell me you’ve suddenly given up your ideals, because I’ll never believe that.
I had a lot of time to think in prison, Erik tells him. A dozen memories unfurl, strikingly murky and gray unlike the rest of Erik’s mind. The slow monotony of the five walls, nothing but white upon gray upon dark. The endless silence, both external—the isolation—and internal—in his mind. Charles closes his eyes as the emptiness settles upon him, heavy and thick as a blanket. Ten years, Charles, Erik whispers. And Charles wants to say that he deserves it—and he does, really, if not for killing Kennedy then for every other horrible thing he’s done. There's a lengthy list just waiting to be ticked off, Charles knows.
But ten years is a hell of a long time to be completely alone, and being muffled in that quiet suffocation is a kind of torture all on its own.
With a massive effort, Charles wrenches free, pushing himself back to the brightness of Erik’s mind. He takes a deep breath and sends Erik a pointed image of a dozen guns, held hovering in the air and ready to fire at the men in the White House. You can’t have thought about it that much, he says sharply.
Erik’s mind responds with a torrent of images, and Charles jerks back in his wheelchair as the images flash by, layered with rage and love and hopelessness. There are the lines of the dead, seen both as a child in the concentration camps and as an adult. The names, read out like some grotesque mantra. Friends and family lost, blood spilled. The sheer, impotent rage of being unable to stop any of it. The images spin by faster and faster, and Charles finds himself gasping for breath in the flood. I couldn’t save them, Erik’s thoughts spill out, unconscious but no less powerful for it. I’ll avenge them. I’ll do anything to protect my family (and you’re a part of it). Sometimes violence is the only way to make them see. I had to do it, Charles.
Had to. Right.
Anger swells within Charles, sudden and intense and vehement. Had to. Such meaningless words, as if Erik had been imparted some irrevocable mandate from heaven that he didn’t have the free will to disobey. This is what your violence has brought you, Erik, he says fiercely, opening his mind and pushing it onto Erik, his years of loneliness and pain and anger. The mansion: finding Raven in the kitchen, a shared childhood, the wrenching gone gone gone when she left. His attempts to try again, only to be burned by war and loss upon loss. He’d cut himself off from other thoughts because there was just too much pain, and here Erik is, determined to rip him apart even more as if once wasn’t enough. You tried to kill Raven, Charles snarls. You tried to kill a dozen others. You left me on a beach in Cuba with a bullet in my spine. I should hate you. I did hate you—
Here in the mind, there are no lies. Charles pulls back sharply, but the words resonate inside their shared minds, undeniable in their truth. Did, not do—what does that even mean? He opens his eyes, his physical eyes, to see Erik’s face bare inches from his. Their hands are joined—he’s not sure when that one happened—and Erik’s grip is very warm. He blinks, and his vision blurs with tears. How long have they been like that, hands and minds joined in some strange tableau?
“This can’t happen,” Charles says out loud, unable to voice the words in their intimacy of their shared minds. “You’ll continue your crusade, and I’ll continue fighting you, and it will never end. It’ll be the same damn future again and again because both of us are stubborn, and as much as I understand you and love you, we can’t work. We’ll never work.” He tries to pull away, but Erik holds him fast. “Don’t. Please.”
“Why are you saying this out loud?” Erik asks. His voice is as ragged as Charles, and as Charles wipes his eyes with his sleeve and looks at him, really looks at him, he can see that Erik looks nearly as ruined as Charles feels. Do you think this? Erik whispers in their minds. Do you really, truly believe it?
Does he? Can he believe otherwise? In the future—a desolate, apocalyptic future—they were together. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that extreme. Maybe they can work together. He brushes against Erik’s mind, desperately searching for a sign of hope. As much as he curses Erik for his stubbornness, Charles knows that he’s the same. That’s what inevitably drew them together, those first whirlwind weeks, and that’s what inevitably ripped them apart. They made their choices, and that can never change…
A memory flashes in Charles’ mind, sudden and sharp: his older self, worries carved into his visage that were clear even through the haze of Logan’s mind. They'd spoken, in a way that only a telepath could understand, of pain and empathy: it’s a telepath’s greatest blessing and greatest curse to be able to walk so intimately in others' minds, and for years, Charles had shunned his gift. Talking. Understanding. Talking is hard, Kitty had said, and oh, she was more right than she would ever know.
Charles looks down at their joined hands. He carefully takes a breath, and when nothing untoward happens, releases it and takes another. “You are being incredibly forward,” he says inanely.
“And you are being incredibly English,” Erik says, and Charles laughs softly despite himself. The sound feels like it’s been torn from his chest, but the wound left behind is clean. “Charles. I..."
Charles shakes his head, and obediently, Erik falls silent. Charles takes a ragged breath. He shouldn't do this. He doesn't know if he'll ever become his older self that he saw through Logan's mind. He doesn't know if his school will succeed like the X-Men of the future. He doesn't know if he'll ever find Raven, or if Erik will destroy him again, or if any number of terrible things might happen.
But if he doesn't try, then there's no hope at all.
“Erik," Charles says, and there's Erik's gaze upon his, alert and intense. Charles feels his way through the next couple of words with great care, laying out the words with meticulous precision. "If this is going to work, you need to understand that I will shatter apart if you break me again,” he says. He takes a breath and fails to keep his voice from cracking. “I can’t go through the past ten years again. I can’t. I will not. Do you understand?”
Erik exhales, his breath warm on Charles' cheek. I’m not asking you to, he says, and Charles believes him. God help him, but he believes Erik. Relief and quiet conviction color Erik's thoughts, and Charles closes his eyes, memorizing the firm press of Erik’s mind against his. He’s missed this. He hadn't known how much in the years of silence, but now he does: he’s loved and hated and desperately, painfully missed Erik.
Charles opens his eyes. “One day at a time,” he says softly. Erik’s eyes flutter shut, and he nods in acceptance. It’s all he can promise for now. It’s all either of them can promise for now.
But maybe, it’s enough.
Kitty’s setting up the menorah by the windowsill, but she turns around as he enters the room, her eyes widening as she sees Erik trailing behind him. “Oh!” she says, and she looks nervous. “Um…”
“Kitty, this is an old friend of mine,” Charles says, and it feels almost natural, the way the word friend slots itself into that sentence. “I believe you’ve already met,” he adds dryly at her guilty expression, and she bites the nail on her thumb.
“About that,” Kitty says. “Sorry?”
“I’m not mad, Kitty,” Charles says gently. “I told you that you had to go forth and learn, and that’s precisely what you did.” He looks at Erik and Kitty and back. “I take it you had a good time together?”
“I finished the Sentinel,” Erik says as Kitty stares at him, wide-eyed. “It’s in the garage.”
“Oh,” she says faintly. “That’s nice.” She looks down at the candles still in her hands and moves as if to put them down. “I guess I should go…see…it?”
“It’ll still be there in the morning,” Charles tells her. He nods at the candles. “I said that I would light the candles with you tonight, and I was hoping it was all right if Erik joined us. It’s been a while since he’s celebrated Hanukkah, but he would like to celebrate with us.”
Kitty bites her lip. “Uh,” she says. Her eyes focus on Erik. “The newspapers never said that you were Jewish.”
“I…I've not celebrated any of the holidays for a very long time,” Erik says, sounding hesitant. He pauses, and then adds, “I don’t know what you’ve read, but probably about ninety percent of it isn’t true. Hopefully.”
She looks at Erik, doubt still clear in her thoughts. Her eyes flicker to Charles, asking a silent question, and Charles nods in reply. It’s all right.
And if not, at least there’s hope that it will be. It’s a powerful thing, hope.
Kitty exhales out a deep breath and nods, her mind made up. She sets most of the candles down the windowsill, and with her free hand, picks up the lighter. Lighting the first one, she hands it with great ceremony to Erik, who takes it as if it’s made of gold. “Professor,” she directs, and Charles obligingly takes a second candle from her and places it in the rightmost position on the menorah. She takes a deep breath and nods at Erik, who carefully lights the candle on the menorah before placing his in the center position. “Um, well, I don’t know all the words exactly, but here goes…”
Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who made miracles for our forefathers in those days at this time. Blessed are You, O Lord Our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this season…
Erik says the blessings with her, his voice sustaining hers when she stumbles over the words. He’s a little out of practice himself, but the intent is clear as they voice the words together: strangers who barely know each other, but over a ceremony that with any luck will be repeated for year after year.
Charles closes his eyes and listens to them, voices and minds alike, letting them carry him into peace.