The cats were a surprise. Despite having never visited Genosha personally, Charles had had a general idea of what the place looked like, mostly from the blueprints and plans Erik had shared with him when he’d helped Erik arrange for the sovereign land, and partly from the few photographs he’d seen in the papers. But he honestly hadn’t expected so many cats.
“Careful,” Erik said, glancing over his shoulder. “That one bites. She’s still young.”
“Ah.” Too late for the warning — she’d already flung herself at him. Wincing, Charles carefully extracted his finger from the kitten’s lethally sharp teeth. She rolled in his lap, tail lashing, and attacked his hand again. Charles swore. Erik laughed softly.
For the hundredth time since he’d arrived three days ago, Charles wondered if this was really happening.
“What?” Erik said.
“You have that look on your face again.”
“I was just thinking…” Charles shrugged helplessly. How could he explain how surreal this all was? He was sitting in a makeshift shelter a thousand miles from the only home he’d known for the last thirty years. He no longer had any responsibilities beyond feeding a pack of cats. There was no one here relying on him, needing his guidance, his direction. He woke when he wanted, slept when he wanted. His days were utterly unstructured.
And Erik was here. That was perhaps the most startling part of it all.
“It’ll take some time to get used to this,” Charles said at last. “That’s all.”
Erik smiled. And oh — that was going to take time to get used to, too. Charles couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Erik smile like that, gentle and content. He couldn’t remember the last time Erik had looked at him like this, as a friend.
“Well,” Erik said. “We’ve got time.”
We. Charles couldn’t explain how dizzyingly good that sounded.
After a few minutes, Erik came over with tea. He plucked the kitten out of Charles’s hands and replaced it with a warm mug. Charles ran his finger over the chip on the handle and murmured, “Thank you.”
Erik made a sound that meant, Of course. Not for the first time, Charles wanted to ask, Why are you doing this? Why are you being so kind? It was one thing to invite Charles to come to Genosha; it was another thing entirely to move Charles into his own home, to make him tea in the mornings and afternoons, like clockwork, and to look at Charles with such…calm expectation. As if waiting to see how he could be of use.
“There’s that look again,” Erik remarked.
“There’s a lot to get used to,” Charles replied, sipping at the tea slowly. It was hot and a little too black but still good. He cupped the mug between his hands to warm them and asked, “So what are you doing today?”
“Putting the roof in on the new house. It shouldn’t take long. After that’s done, I’ll help with repairs by the coast.”
“That area was the worst hit, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” Erik’s mouth tightened briefly, then eased. Charles watched the anger flicker through his eyes and then fade without a fight.
Genosha had changed Erik. Charles had known that, but every day, he saw more and more evidence of it. Gone was the man full of rage and pain and vengeance. Gone was the man who had once threatened to tear down all of humanity, city by city. In his place was a man who had settled into his own skin, who had built himself the peace he had once sought so desperately, whose control over his emotions and his temper was now greater than Charles’s own.
Once, I thought to teach you balance, Charles thought with faint, bitter humor. How could I have taught you something I never had?
“Anyway,” Erik said eventually, “the work down by the coast should be done in another day or two. The house should be done by then, too, and we can move out of here.”
“I’ll be glad. Not,” Charles added wryly, “that I’m not enjoying this place.” He glanced around at the dim interior of their shack — and it was a shack, there was no way around that. It had four walls and a roof, and that was pretty much all that could be said for it. “It has a certain rustic charm.”
Erik snorted. “That’s one way of putting it.” One of the cats twined around his legs and he bent to stroke its back. “Don’t worry — this wasn’t what I meant when I asked you to come back here with me.”
Charles hummed softly. “When do I get to see the house?”
“You can come see it anytime you want. It isn’t a surprise. Or,” Erik tapped his forehead, “you can look.”
Charles glanced away, resisting the urge to rub at his temples. Ever since what happened with Jean, his telepathy had been…unwieldy. It was easier not to use it for now, not while it still felt raw and damaged.
It took time after Apocalypse, he told himself. It’ll take time now.
“I’m in your home,” he said, forcing some levity into his tone. “I figured I should respect your boundaries.”
Erik frowned slightly. After a moment, he gestured at his head and said, “No helmet, in case you haven’t noticed.” Straightening, he waved the door open and paused at the threshold. “And it’s our home now, not mine.”
Unable to muster up a response to that, Charles simply watched as Erik left. Our home now. As much as he liked hearing that, he still couldn’t decide what it meant.
Not a minute after Erik was gone, the kitten started to claw her way back up into Charles’s lap. Smiling, he set her on his knee and said, “Come on, darling, let’s get you some milk.”
The cats, Erik had told him, were community cats and wandered freely around the island. They had no natural predators here, so they roamed in fearless packs. Everyone here had a few they fed regularly, and Erik was no exception. His pack included a big orange tabby, a couple of calicos, a skinny gray with one eye, and two brown kittens that had to be no more than nine or ten weeks old.
Our pack now, Charles thought, rubbing the kitten’s spine. Perhaps he ought to start naming them. Erik only called them that one and this one, though never without affection.
After he settled the kitten beside a bowl of milk and set out kibble for the others, he wheeled himself outside. It was a pleasant morning, warm and sunny but not hot. The air here was more humid than he was used to, but it wasn’t yet unpleasant. That would change come summer though. He’d have to figure out how to survive that.
It was strange, to think that he would still be here in the summer. It was strange to think that he’d be here indefinitely, until he found something new to do or until Erik tired of him. How long before their old arguments resurfaced and they remembered how irritating it could be to be around each other? How long before Erik realized sharing a space in a small house was entirely different from sharing a space at the Westchester estate, where there had always been room to get away from each other if they wanted?
They had been such different men back then, thirty years ago. Would they ever fit together the way they once had? Could they?
What are you doing here? Charles thought to himself. What are you looking for?
He didn’t know. He didn’t know what Erik could offer, and he didn’t know what he wanted, or needed. But, he thought, he might stand a better chance of finding it here than anywhere else.
Slowly, he wheeled himself along the path Erik had laid out in front of the shack. When they’d first arrived here, there had been very few sidewalks or paved walkways; almost every part of the city had been connected by grass or dirt roads, carved out by use over time. As soon as they’d landed though, Erik had immediately set about laying down flattened sheets of metal that were easy on Charles’s wheels. It was a temporary solution until more wheelchair-friendly infrastructure could be planned, but at least it allowed Charles to traverse his way from their shack to the city proper.
He’d seen the city before in photographs and, briefly, through Erik’s eyes as he and Hank had tracked Jean. Some of it was the same — the jungle gym, the communal garden, the water wells — but other parts had been trampled and destroyed in the brief, violent struggle here. At the same time the Mutant Containment Unit (the mere thought of them still made Charles shudder in fear and anger) had been collaring Erik in New York, the U.S. military had been here in Genosha, preemptively attempting to corral one of the most densely populated mutant havens in the world. Of course, that hadn’t gone over well — there had been a fight, a few soldiers had been injured, a load of property destroyed. Thankfully, the attack had been called off soon after, but the damage had been done.
Later, the president had sent reparations — most likely, Charles thought with dark humor, in hopes of keeping Erik from razing the White House to the ground. Ten years ago, Erik would have gone to war without hesitation. Nothing short of taking his eye for an eye would have appeased him.
But Erik hadn’t done that. He’d stayed here with his people and coordinated the rebuilding effort, stone by stone, wall by wall. If his list of priorities still included revenge, it ranked after restoring the greenhouse and rebuilding the docks.
How strange it was to see him as a measured, mature leader. He had become to these people what Charles had always wanted to be for his students: a protector and provider, a source of strength and confidence. Watching him work with the others here, Charles felt…unsettled, almost. This was their home. He had been invited, but he still felt like an intruder.
Well. It would take time. He had to keep reminding himself of that.
The morning was still fairly young, but the city was already bustling with activity. As Charles approached, he could see Genoshans busily tiling roofs, digging foundations, painting walls, installing plumbing — hard at work putting their homes back together. Nearby, a man waved his hand, stirring up a breeze to keep off the heat. Across from him, a woman dug several holes in quick succession with thick claws that easily shoveled earth away.
Everyone here used their powers so freely. Charles couldn’t help but admire that. Even at the school, there had been rules. There had to be rules with so many children around, and with so many of them untrained in their gifts. But it was different here, with adults who had had years to master their mutations. As far as he could tell, there were no limits on using your mutation, just so long as you didn’t destroy anything.
He turned to find a young, dark-haired man glancing his way. It took a moment to recall his name; Erik had introduced them when Charles had first arrived here. “Paul, isn’t it?”
The man ducked his head in acknowledgement. “Yes.”
“Well.” Charles wasn’t quite sure what to say. Since he’d come here, most of the Genoshans had steered clear of him. Whether by Erik’s order or by their own will, Charles didn’t know, but he was hardly going to force them to interact with him if they didn’t want to. He couldn’t imagine many of them looked very kindly on him; after all, it had been one of his X-Men who had turned the military’s eye on this place.
“Well,” he said finally, “I’m not a professor anymore.”
Paul wiped his dusty hands on his shirt. “What do we call you then?”
“Just Charles, I suppose.”
“Charles, then. Are you looking for Erik?”
“I just came to see how things were going here. You all look very…” He let his gaze wander across the various construction projects taking place on either side of the street. “…productive.”
“There’s a lot of work to do.”
Charles winced. After a moment, he said, “I’m sorry.”
Paul shrugged. “For what? You didn’t do this.”
Didn’t he? He hadn’t put the Phoenix in Jean, but perhaps if he hadn’t meddled in her head, she wouldn’t have been so easily destabilized. If he hadn’t broken her trust in him, she might never have turned away from him, from her family. Hank had been right, as he always was — this was a mess of Charles’s own making, and he would regret it until the end of his days. So many had paid for his mistakes, the Genoshans included.
“Is there…anything I can do to help?” Charles asked after a long moment, hating how inadequate the offer was. But what else could he say?
Paul’s eyes flicked down to the chair. Charles controlled the surge of unease and annoyance with years of practice; this was hardly the first time someone had looked at the chair and dismissed him, and it wouldn’t be the last. True, he couldn’t help with most of the heavy lifting, but there were other things he might be able to do. He had two good hands, after all.
“Do you know anything about gardening?” Paul asked at last.
His experience with gardening was rather limited to hiring professionals to do it for him. “Not particularly,” he said. “But I can learn.”
“The communal garden’s that way.” Paul pointed further down the path. “Danica runs it. She could probably use a hand. She usually always has some work to do.”
“Alright. Thank you.”
Following Paul’s instructions, he wheeled himself down the path until he reached a fence. The gate was open and the dirt path that ran through it seemed relatively compact, so Charles took himself off the road and tentatively entered the garden.
It was more extensive than he’d expected, with crops in various states of growth springing up on either side of him for at least twenty yards in either direction. But of course it had to be extensive — the community relied on this garden, and a few farms scattered throughout the island, for the majority of its fresh produce. Out here, it wasn’t as simple as ordering shipments of supplies from downstate. Despite its constantly-growing population, Genosha remained almost entirely self-sufficient.
That was Erik’s mark, Charles thought. He would never want Genosha to be dependent on an external source for resources.
After a minute of wandering aimlessly down the center aisle of the garden, Charles swept the area with his telepathy and located a mind a dozen yards to his left. Carefully, he turned onto a narrow path that led between tall rows of corn and called out a soft hello as he approached.
A head appeared from between two stalks of corn. When she spotted him, she stepped the rest of the way out, knocking a trowel against her leg. She was tall and broad-shouldered and about forty, if he had to guess an age. The bright blue headband that held back her thick afro was the only spot of color on her; the rest of her clothes were gray and nondescript, and stained in places with dirt. There was a wariness in her eyes that reminded him of Ororo. She looked at him and frowned. “What are you doing here?”
He tried not to wince. Perhaps he should have asked Paul first if Danica would even welcome his help. “I’m, er — I’m Charles. I was told you might have something I could help with?”
Her frown deepened. For a moment, he was half-sure she was about to tell him to get the hell out of her garden. But she only scratched her brow and said eventually, “You can fill some planter boxes if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty.”
Relieved, he smiled. “I’d be happy to.”
She showed him several small, wooden planters and gave him a packet of seeds for each one. After a brief demonstration, she left him to it without further comment, which he hoped meant she was confident in his abilities — or at least in the fact that the task was simple enough that he couldn’t do much to fuck it up.
It wasn’t difficult work, but it kept his hands and mind busy. Over the last few weeks, he’d discovered that one of the few downfalls of retirement was how much time his mind had to sit idle, and when it was idle, it was prone to wandering. At least when he had a task to focus on, he had less room for reminiscing.
Filling the planters took perhaps an hour and a half. Since the main greenhouse had been destroyed in the fighting, Charles assumed everything in it had to be replanted and regrown, so there were plenty of planters and plenty of seeds. Before long, he was sweating in his light jacket and had to pause to shuck it off. The day was growing warmer by the hour, and Charles could practically feel himself developing a sunburn. He’d have to find himself a hat as soon as possible. He had a feeling he’d be spending much more time outside these days than he was used to.
After he finished with the planters, Danica set him to watering several rows of freshly-planted potatoes. It was slow work, switching between holding the hose and wheeling his chair, but Danica hadn’t asked if he could handle it and Charles wasn’t about to complain. Besides, it was good exercise for him, though his wheels were going to be a pain in the arse to clean later.
By the time he was on his way back to the temporary house, it was late afternoon, and Charles ached with a good sort of tiredness. When he reached the house, the door was cracked open, and he could feel Erik moving around inside.
“There you are,” Erik said as Charles pushed himself inside. “I didn’t expect you to wander so far.”
“I was helping Danica with the garden,” Charles replied. He stopped just inside the doorway, not wanting to track dirt and mud further into the house. “I figured I should lend a hand where I could.”
“The garden?” Erik studied him for a moment, his expression thoughtful. Then he said, “Good. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there.”
One of the cats materialized and rubbed itself against Charles’s left wheel with a purr. Reaching down, Charles stroked its spine and smiled when it squinted happily up at him. “Hello, Locke.”
“I’m testing out names for them.”
“Are they all going to be philosophers?”
“No.” Charles smiled over at Erik. “Only the philosophical ones.”
Erik smiled back. The sight of his grin sent a familiar old thrill down Charles’s spine, and — oh. He’d forgotten what it was like to be the target of that grin.
“Do we have a brush?” Charles asked as the cat — Locke, now — mashed its face against his hand. “Or a damp cloth of some sort? I need to, ah — I should clean my wheels before I come further inside.”
Erik had three boxes in the corner of the house that contained all of his worldly possessions. From one of these, he pulled out a square terry cloth towel. Going over to their water barrel — every morning, they pulled drinking water from a well nearby — he scooped out a cupful and dipped the cloth in.
“Thank you,” Charles said, but instead of handing the towel over, Erik knelt and began to scrub at the wheels himself. When Charles started to say, “You don’t have to,” Erik gave him a severe look and continued.
It was slightly awkward, wheeling back and forth a couple of paces so Erik could make sure he’d gotten every inch of wheel, and the whole time, Charles felt self-conscious in a way he hadn’t in years. Over the last couple of decades, he’d gotten so used to the chair, and to Hank helping him with it. But this was different. This was Erik, and he was on his knees cleaning Charles’s wheels with enough care to make Charles feel oddly like crying.
“I think that’s all of it,” Erik said finally.
Charles swallowed down the lump in his throat. “Thank you.”
Standing, Erik wiped his hands on the cloth. “Do you clean the wheels after every time you go out?”
“Usually, yes. I give them a cursory wipe down at least to keep from tracking dirt and gravel inside.”
“Would a doormat help?”
Charles thought of the mat Hank had built for him at home, the one with the bristles that had rotated autonomously, cleaning his wheels without any effort on his part. He should have thought to ask for it before he’d left for his retirement. Perhaps he could ask Hank to mail it over sometime, if he wasn’t so busy.
“Yes,” he answered after a pause. “Preferably one with decent bristles. ”
“I’ll find one tomorrow.”
It was almost surreal, discussing the particulars of his wheelchair with Erik. For so long, it had been a source of awkwardness and guilt for both of them, a reminder of that awful day when things between them had gone so terribly wrong. It still was awkward, in a way, but Erik seemed determined to move past that. At least he no longer radiated guilt every time he looked at the chair.
“Thank you,” Charles murmured.
Erik merely nodded and moved over to the kitchen area. “I made tea, if you want it. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes as well.”
“Some tea would be wonderful.”
Erik poured him a mug and handed it over. After taking a sip, Charles said, “You’re back early today. Normally you don’t finish working until after sundown.”
“It’s Friday.” When Charles only gave him a puzzled look, Erik clarified, “Shabbat.”
“Oh. Oh.” Charles cocked his head curiously. “I wasn’t aware you were observant again.”
“I wasn’t for a very long time,” Erik said. A brief darkness roiled at the surface of his mind as he turned away toward the spice rack for a moment. It didn’t take telepathy to guess that he was thinking of his wife and daughter, nearly ten years gone now. Charles’s gut knotted with sympathetic grief.
“I’m still not entirely observant,” Erik said finally. “But I try.”
“Well, is there anything you need from me?”
“You don’t have to — ”
“I’d like to,” Charles said firmly. “It’s important to you, so I’d like to. Though if you’d prefer that I not take part, then of course I won’t.”
“No.” Erik shook his head slowly. He had that thoughtful look on his face again, like Charles had surprised him, but not necessarily in a bad way. “You can keep the cats off the candles.”
Charles laughed. “Alright. I can do that.”
Once Erik finished making dinner, he retrieved two candles from one of the kitchen shelves and set them down on the coffee table. As he drew out a box of matches, Charles corralled the two kittens and settled them both on his lap.
It was a quiet, quick affair: Erik knelt, lit the candles, covered his eyes, and murmured a low prayer. Watching him, Charles realized that this was the first time he had ever seen Erik observe his Jewish faith. So many years ago when they had first met, Erik hadn’t been observant. He’d been so full of rage and hatred and pain, there hadn’t been room for anything else. He’d made room for Charles, briefly, but…well, that certainly hadn’t lasted.
After a minute, Erik rose. Returning to the kitchen, he pulled out a bottle of wine and poured a glass. Charles stared at it for a long moment, mouth going dry. Then he looked quickly away.
“Would you like one?” Erik asked.
“No, I, ah…I probably shouldn’t.”
He thought about saying more, thought about saying, Never mind, pour me one if you please, but he focused instead on the kitten batting at his hand and forced down the craving. After a moment, Erik said, “Alright,” and, thankfully, didn’t press.
He spoke another prayer over the wine and then served dinner. The fare was simple but delicious: a spicy chicken soup with carrots, potatoes, and a thick, creamy broth. They ate at the low coffee table because it was the only table they had, one of the few pieces of furniture in their sparsely decorated home. They would have to get more furniture when they moved to the new place, Charles supposed. A proper kitchen table at least, a larger couch if they could find one, and…
Well. The bed situation.
He glanced over at the spare guest bed he’d been using, which was little more than a flat, unyielding cot. His back was decidedly not enjoying the cot, and he couldn’t imagine that Erik liked his any better. They would have to acquire a bed for sure, two beds probably — Charles certainly didn’t want to presume, and they hadn’t discussed…well, the issue of them, their relationship, what Erik had meant beyond the obvious by offering Charles a home.
It’s been over a decade since you last shared a bed, Charles thought to himself. His feelings may no longer be the same. Yours might not be either, for that matter.
But no, that was a lie — his feelings, though long buried, remained the same as they had ever been. He knew himself well enough to admit that much. So much had changed between them, but somehow, when Charles looked at Erik, he saw that same man he had pulled out of the water in 1962, the same man who had loved him once.
It was strange how, thirty years later, they had somehow returned to the sort of amiability that Charles hadn’t thought possible anymore after Cuba. It was equally strange how he felt himself once more teetering on that same precipice he had fallen over as a young man: subdue his feelings and perhaps protect himself, or give his heart over to Erik entirely.
When Erik tilted his head, Charles realized he had been staring again. Quickly, before Erik could comment, Charles asked, “How was the work today?”
“Good. Another day or so, and we’ll be done with the repairs down at the coast.” Erik blew gently on his spoon before taking another mouthful of soup. “Then I’ll finish the house. Did you see it today when you went into the city?”
“No, I wasn’t looking for it.”
“I’ll take you to see it,” Erik said decisively. “There may be things you want modified.”
Charles was surprised by how pleased he was by the idea. Erik wasn’t merely opening his home to Charles; he was building a home for both of them. It would be Charles’s as much as Erik’s, and the thought filled him with warmth. “Alright.”
Stirring his soup, Erik gave Charles an inquisitive glance. “And you? How was your day? You met Danica?”
“Yes. She’s…” Not exactly welcoming. But she hadn’t been hostile either. “…very dedicated. And she was kind enough not to mind me mucking about her garden.”
“I’ve known her for three years, and I don’t think she would ever have allowed you into her garden if you weren’t at least slightly competent. At least you know which end of a trowel to use.” Erik’s eyebrow ticked upwards. “I assume.”
Charles laughed. “I’m not that hopeless. Though I don’t believe I’ve earned trowel privileges yet.”
“Yet. So you’re planning on going back.”
Charles hadn’t quite decided on it yet, but…well, why not? It wasn’t as if he was doing anything better with his days. “It’s a good way to pass the time. Besides, I feel like a right arse sitting around while everyone else works. I ought to pitch in where I can.”
“There are other things you can help with, you know.” Erik took a sip of wine. “There’s a library here.”
Charles brightened. “A library?”
“Nothing so extensive as your collection in Westchester,” Erik said, “so don’t get your hopes up. But we’ve been working to expand it over the last few years, so there’s a good number of books there. Still, we don’t have a full-time librarian, only volunteers. It could use some attention.”
“I’m hardly a librarian, but I’d be happy to take a look.” It had been ages since he’d indulged his inner scholar, and he didn’t think he’d get a better opportunity than this. Genosha didn’t have much by way of academia, after all. “Is it near the garden?”
“I’ll escort you tomorrow if you’d like.”
“That would be lovely, yes.”
They lapsed into a comfortable silence. Charles polished off the rest of his soup and wheeled himself over to the kitchen for seconds. Once they’d both finished eating, Charles washed the dishes and set them in the drying rack as Erik put out the candles.
This was all frighteningly domestic, Charles thought. He wasn’t entirely sure how they’d gotten here, but he was suddenly, overwhelmingly glad that they had.
As Erik took his turn in the bathroom for the night — and thank god for that, rudimentary indoor plumbing even in their temporary house — Charles fed the cats. “There you go, darlings,” he murmured as he poured kibble into their bowls. The cats scrambled over in a rush, meowing discordantly. “Come here, Locke, and…hmm…Voltaire, now there’s a name…and Kant, perhaps…”
The bathroom door creaked open. “Are they all going to be Enlightenment thinkers?” Erik asked as he moved toward his cot.
“Well, they should be peers,” Charles reasoned. Then, after a moment’s thought, he offered, “Of course, you’re welcome to name one or two yourself.”
“How generous of you,” Erik said dryly.
Once the cats were satisfied — or mostly satisfied anyway; some of them were truly bottomless — Charles wheeled himself into the bathroom. It was a small chamber, an outgrowth of the main four walls of the house, and there wasn’t much room to maneuver within. Still, Erik had made adjustments, and Charles trusted that the new house would have a much more spacious ensuite. For now, he could make do with this.
His bathroom routine had never quite gotten easier over the years, but he’d grown accustomed to it. The motions were automatic now, and what had once taken him an hour or more now took under twenty minutes. Once he was done with the toilet, he brushed his teeth (and there was a new, small delight, the sight of their toothbrushes laid neatly beside each other) and washed his face. Then he wheeled himself back out to the main room.
Changing into his pajamas was a slow, awkward affair on the cot, and Charles was deeply relieved that Erik never watched. As he adjusted his legs more comfortably, he wondered for the first time how he would wash his clothes here.
“Is there a laundry service?” he asked. Then, realizing how foolish that sounded, he amended, “How do I do my laundry?”
“The old-fashioned way,” Erik replied. “We have washboards and soap.”
“Ah.” Yet another luxury he’d taken for granted. He was starting to realize that life here in Genosha would be an adjustment in more ways than one.
“I normally do laundry once a week or so,” Erik said. “Put yours with mine, and I’ll do it, too.”
Charles was silent for a long moment. On the one hand, he found it unexpectedly sweet of Erik to offer. On the other…
“I think we should clarify something,” he said. Best to get this out of the way with now, right at the beginning.
Erik turned to look at him. Something in Charles’s tone must have put him on guard because his expression was wary. “Yes?”
“I have limitations,” Charles said evenly. Somehow, even all these years later, his pride still smarted a bit at the admission. “I won’t deny that. But I’d prefer it if you didn’t assume what they are.” When Erik continued to regard him with an unreadable look, Charles added, “What I mean is, I appreciate it when you offer to help me with something. You’ve been…very generous with me already, and I’m grateful. But if you’re offering to help because you think I can’t do something myself…”
After a moment, Erik nodded slowly. “Alright. I understand.”
Charles exhaled. He hadn’t realized he’d been braced for a fight until it hadn’t come. “Good.”
“But…” A small smirk tugged at Erik’s mouth. It was maddeningly attractive, and distracting. “I have to know: have you ever done your own laundry once in your entire life?”
Charles flushed. A very long time ago at Oxford, he’d washed his own clothes, but they’d had machines there, not washboards. Still, he couldn’t imagine it would take much effort to figure out. “Surely it can’t be hard.”
Erik laughed. “I thought not. I can teach you, if you’d like.”
“It seems,” Charles said, heroically burying his pride, “that you’ll have to teach me quite a lot.”
“Perhaps you should call me Professor.”
Charles smiled. “I don’t think it would suit you.”
“No, it probably wouldn’t.”
Erik’s eyes lingered on him, warm in a way that made Charles feel oddly…shy. This was new. In the early days of their relationship, in those brief, happy weeks in 1962, Charles had been brimming over with confidence, entirely sure of his own charm and appeal. Erik had been the shy one, unused to his feelings, uncertain of how to go about being together. Charles had reveled in that, in getting to be the one to introduce Erik to something new. It had seemed like the whole world was laid at Charles’s feet then, and there wasn’t a thing in the world he couldn’t face, so long as Erik stood by his side.
How naïve he’d been then. How impossibly young.
“Goodnight,” Erik said finally.
Charles suppressed a sigh as he lay down. Pulling the blanket up to his shoulders, he murmured, “Goodnight.”
Erik turned the light out with a flick of his hand. Charles listened to his breathing for a long while before he finally fell asleep.
When Charles woke, there was a warm weight on his chest. Blinking blearily, he squinted for a moment before Locke’s orange face came into focus. The cat was curled up neatly on his sternum, all fifteen or so pounds of him. Charles wheezed for his next breath.
“Should I rescue you?”
Turning his head, he saw Erik standing over in the kitchen, stirring a mug. It was morning, Charles realized — sunlight was coming in through the half-covered window by the door. He must have been sleeping very deeply indeed if Erik’s rising hadn’t woken him, not to mention Locke’s arrival.
“No, I quite like suffocating,” Charles said.
Erik smiled and came over. Locke opened his eyes and gave a disgruntled yowl as Erik scooped him up, but he settled quickly enough as Erik cradled him close and scratched his ears. Yawning, Charles sat up and found both kittens nestled in between his legs, snoring by his knees. Reaching down, he stroked one of their heads and said, “I’ve never been so thoroughly cuddled in my life.”
Erik raised an eyebrow. “Never?”
A memory flashed across the surface of Erik’s mind, lightning quick: a hotel room, a single bed, the two of them curled close to each other, Erik’s arm around Charles’s chest, his breath soft and sweet against Charles’s ear.
Eyes wide, Charles stared over at Erik, who only looked back calmly. Had he meant to project that? Had he wanted Charles to see it?
“Erik,” he said, a bit unsteadily.
“Charles,” Erik said, much more evenly.
Charles looked away first, trying to parse the sudden tangle of emotions in his chest. That had been as obvious a signal as any, hadn’t it? No one could ever have accused Erik of subtlety, after all. He’d purposefully shared that memory. But why? As a test? Or…an offering?
“You still aren’t reading my mind,” Erik said. It was a statement, not an accusation.
“No…” Charles paused, wondering what Erik wanted to hear. For so many years, Erik’s mind had been inaccessible to him. Even when they’d been on good terms, which hadn’t been often, Erik had never explicitly given Charles permission to read his thoughts. He hadn’t been welcome in that achingly familiar steel-and-iron mind in thirty years.
That wasn’t the case anymore though, was it? Just yesterday, he’d invited Charles in. He’d told Charles he could look if he wanted, and he hadn’t listed any terms, any conditions. For the first time since they’d met, Erik’s mind felt entirely open to him, and for some reason, Charles couldn’t bring himself to step inside.
“Old habits are hard to break, I suppose,” Charles said finally.
Erik raised an eyebrow. “Am I an old habit?”
Charles couldn’t help but smile at that. “Yes, I do believe you’d qualify.”
“Not,” Erik murmured, “one you want to break, I hope.”
His gaze met Charles’s intently. There was no mistaking his meaning now, no way to misinterpret that look. Charles swallowed hard.
“No,” he said honestly. “Maybe once but…no, not anymore.”
Erik exhaled softly. Charles hadn’t realized how rigidly Erik had been holding his shoulders until they relaxed, tension bleeding out of his frame. “I wondered…When I asked you to come back here with me and you said yes, I wondered what you were saying yes to.”
Charles gave a disbelieving laugh. “You brought me all the way here and built us an entire house without knowing what I really meant by agreeing to come here?”
“Did you know what you really meant by agreeing to come here?” Erik countered.
“Well, I…” Charles struggled for a confident answer, but nothing came to mind, not even a convincing lie. What was he trying to lie for anyway? It wouldn’t get past Erik, who seemed to be able to read him with ease these days. Once, it had been the other way around, hadn’t it?
“No,” he said eventually.
“I thought not.” Erik hesitated for a moment, then sat down on the cot beside Charles. There wasn’t much space for him on the narrow bed, but after a pause, Charles shifted back a bit to give him more room. Smiling, Erik let Locke down out of his arms and reached up to…touch the top of Charles’s head.
Charles hadn’t expected that at all. He stilled.
“I thought your hair was gone for good,” Erik said.
Ah. Charles should have known this would come up eventually.
He reached up, too, and ran his hand over the light stubble growing on his scalp. “I thought so, too, for a while. Eventually it started growing back though, after what happened with — Apocalypse.” Even after all this time, his name stuck in Charles’s throat. He took a moment to carefully suppress the memories that threatened to surface, then continued. “After that, Hank and I discovered that Cerebro worked more effectively without my hair interfering. Of course, Hank had hypothesized that from the beginning, but I was always…well, truthfully, I was vain about my hair.”
“What?” Erik murmured. “You, vain?”
“Oh, sod off,” Charles said, but he couldn’t help but smile when Erik did. “After Apocalypse, it was easier to keep it shaved so I could use Cerebro. I suppose being bald for a few months there got me used to the idea. Besides, the children seemed to like it. It gave me a certain…gravitas.”
“I missed your hair,” Erik said, scratching his fingers lightly over Charles’s scalp. It took an effort not to purr embarrassingly: the petting felt even better than Charles had expected.
“I, ah, I did, too,” Charles said. “And now I’ve got no Cerebro to operate so…it made sense to let it start growing back out.”
After a minute, Erik dropped his hand, looking faintly embarrassed. Charles eyed him for a moment, then said, “That was fine, you know. It was…nice. Made me feel a bit like one of the cats, but nice.”
Erik laughed. “You’re as demanding as they are. It’s an apt comparison.”
“I’ve seen the way you look at this place,” Erik said dryly. “It’s clearly not the life of luxury you’re accustomed to. Before long, you’ll be making your demands, I’m sure of it.”
“If by demands, you mean a working toilet, indoor plumbing, and other necessities,” Charles said, “then yes, I suppose I will be demanding when it comes to the new house. I hope you’ve taken those needs into account.”
“There’s plumbing. There’s a toilet.”
When Erik didn’t go on, Charles stared at him. “Is that all?”
“What other amenities were you hoping for?”
“Well — have we got any furniture?”
“Surely we need places to sit!”
“There’s the floor.”
“The — the floor?” Charles spluttered. Oh dear, this house was going to much less move-in ready than he’d expected. Still, he strove valiantly for optimism. “That’s hardly…ideal, but I suppose we can acquire a couch and chairs later, once we’ve time to decorate the place. I assume there are beds at least?”
“Yes.” Erik patted the cot. “I’ll move these over once the house is finished.”
Charles tried not to show his horror. “Not that I haven’t been…grateful…for a place to sleep these last few days, but have you really got nothing better than cots in this whole island? Does everyone sleep on cots?”
“Not everyone.” Erik paused. “Some people prefer sleeping outside under the stars. They’ve got sleeping bags for that, if you’re interested.”
Charles wondered despairingly if he could somehow convince Hank to send him a proper mattress with bed springs and cushioning and actual substance. Surely Erik would see the sense in that. Charles’s back couldn’t handle this cot forever; he had no idea how Erik’s back was faring.
Then he saw the tiny grin tugging at the corner of Erik’s lips. It dawned on him abruptly that Erik was teasing him. “You lying wanker!” Charles exclaimed.
Erik gave him a look of wide-eyed innocence. “The mouth on you, Professor!”
Charles shoved him in the shoulder. “I’m no longer a professor, so I’ll say what I like. Wanker. Bastard. Bloody prick.” Unexpectedly delighted, he laughed, irritation sliding away. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve cursed, even mildly?”
“Too busy setting a good example for the children, I imagine.”
Charles grinned. “There aren’t any children here.” For the first time since he’d left the school, that fact felt quite freeing, rather than melancholy.
“There are a few actually,” Erik said. He scooped up one of the kittens trying to climb his trouser leg and settled it on his knee, stroking its ears. “Not many. Most of the people who come to the island are loners. Society’s rejects. But some of them come with families.”
“I haven’t seen any children around.”
“There aren’t many of them, only twelve. The families live on the other side of the main city, deeper inland.”
“What do they do?” Charles asked. “I mean, is there a school? Do they have lessons?”
“I thought you weren’t a professor any longer,” Erik said wryly.
Charles huffed. “As I said, old habits die hard. And I’m only curious — I’m hardly going to meddle.” He’d retired for a reason, after all. He was in no hurry to get involved in another school, or in anything else more serious than a bit of gardening.
“Why do I doubt that?” Erik muttered. Despite his frown, there was an undercurrent of amusement in his voice. “Yes, there’s a school. As far as I know, they’ve organized regular classes there, though they’re out for the summer right now. It’s run like the library, on a volunteer basis. I’m not involved though — you’ll have to ask Thierry about it if you want to know more.”
“He came here from Lyon. He was a schoolteacher there, at a school for young mutants. Nothing quite so large or famous as yours, but it was similar.”
In the last twenty years or so, more and more mutant schools had cropped up across the world. Some of them had undoubtedly been operating in secret long before then; others had been founded only in recent years, in communities that were just now beginning to entertain the idea of human-mutant coexistence. Over the last few years, Charles had tried to liaison with some of those schools with mixed results. They’d eventually built a loose network of academic centers across the globe, sharing resources and information, but most institutions operated independently of one another. Still, it had always heartened Charles to hear about these other schools, to know that mutants were gaining acceptance around the world, slowly but surely.
They should have a proper school here, Charles thought. It was the world’s only exclusively mutant sovereignty. It was only right that they had decent infrastructure to support young mutants.
“So we’re cut from the same cloth, Thierry and I,” Charles mused.
“He’s not quite as irritating or as stubborn,” Erik said with half a smile, “but yes, mostly.”
“I’ll have to meet him then.”
“I’ll introduce you to him later if you’d like.”
After a visit to the bathroom, Charles came out to find that Erik had thrown together a quick breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs, and tea. They ate in companionable silence, interrupted occasionally by a questing paw from one of the curious cats. Charles watched as Erik fended them off with infinite patience, gently pushing them aside whenever they tried to claw their way up to his lap. Eventually they came and crowded up around his feet, sitting and meowing insistently until he slipped them bits of egg.
“I always knew you were a cat person,” Charles remarked, sipping his tea. When Erik gave him a questioning glance, Charles said, “You’re just like them. Prickly and mercurial and slow to warm up.”
“They warmed up to you immediately.”
“So did you,” Charles pointed out with a smile.
Sometimes it still amazed him how quickly Erik had opened up to him when they’d first met. Of course, it certainly hadn’t seemed quick at the time — Charles had felt rather like a cautious archaeologist, chipping meticulously away at Erik’s walls one millimeter at a time, taking infinite care not to damage the precious artifacts within. Ever-so-slowly, Erik had allowed Charles to see parts of him that no one else ever had, to share secrets and stories that had never been spoken aloud. At the time, gaining Erik’s trust had felt so very tentative and gradual. One wrong move could have cost him Erik’s trust and friendship forever.
Only years later did he begin to appreciate how lucky he’d been with Erik, how Erik had trusted him nearly from the very beginning. If he hadn’t liked Charles from the start, he would never have allowed Charles to convince him to stay that night he’d stolen the CIA files and attempted to leave the compound. If he hadn’t trusted Charles, he would never have agreed to help him find other mutants for their cause, and he wouldn’t have embarked on that blissful, dream-like, six-week road trip across the States. He certainly wouldn’t have allowed Charles to kiss him that first night in their dark, dingy motel room, the night that had changed Charles’s life forever.
Charles couldn’t decide if it was funny or tragic that so many of the turning points in his life seemed to involve Erik in one way or another. Both, perhaps.
“You made it hard to resist you,” Erik said gruffly, leaning down to give one of the calicos a little piece of toast.
Charles grinned. “I am quite charming.”
“You had enough practice with the coeds, I imagine.” When Charles cocked his head quizzically, Erik said, “Raven told me about some of your adventures at Oxford. Honestly, it’s a wonder that you ended up as the headmaster of a school.”
Raven. The name burned through him like an electric shock, rattling the mental walls he’d erected months ago. Fighting down a spike of panic, he clung tightly to his shields, layering on more stone, keeping them steady. Hold, hold. Don’t break.
Erik frowned. “Charles?”
He forced himself to look Erik in the eye. “Hmm?”
Erik’s frown deepened. “I felt something up here.” He tapped his temple.
Charles suppressed a shiver of surprise. How had Erik sensed that? Charles was sure he’d been shielding adequately, and his walls had barely faltered. Even if a flicker of emotion had slipped out, Erik shouldn’t have been able to detect it.
But then again, hadn’t Erik always been strangely perceptive? Hadn’t he always noticed things about Charles no one else did?
“Don’t,” Erik said quietly. “I can see you trying to think of a lie.”
“Not a lie,” Charles said a bit weakly. “An excuse at best.”
Erik pinned him with a stern look. “We’re going to be living together, Charles. This isn’t going to work unless we’re honest with each other.”
Charles gazed at him in surprise. Somehow he hadn’t expected Erik to be so…mature about cohabitating. “When did you become so reasonable?”
“I’ve always been reasonable. You’ve just never noticed because you were too busy thinking you were being reasonable.”
That was so patently untrue that Charles couldn’t hold back a laugh. It came out faint and tremulous, but it made him feel steadier somehow, like unexpectedly finding solid ground underfoot after treading water.
He let out a slow, quiet breath. “A lot has happened over the last few months.”
“A lot…” He had to stop there, feeling a hard lump rise in his throat. His eyes burned, but he wasn’t going to cry. He was not going to cry, and certainly not in front of Erik.
When he was sure his voice wouldn’t shake, he said, “A lot has changed. It’s hard sometimes — ” always “ — to think about that. So I try not to. But sometimes I remember and…” He took a harsh, shuddering breath. “It’s easier not to remember.”
Erik studied him closely, pale eyes narrowed in consideration. After a long minute, he said, “You shut them away, didn’t you? Raven and Jean both. Just like you did to your stepfather, and your stepbrother.”
Charles flinched. He hadn’t expected Erik to land a blow like that. He hadn’t expected a blow from Erik at all. He stared across the table at Erik, unsure if he was hurt or betrayed or simply furious.
“I’m not saying that to be unkind,” Erik said softly. “But locking away the memories of your family didn’t stop them from hurting you again, years later.”
Hot embarrassment spilled across Charles’s cheeks. Apparently even now, decades removed from the incident, he could still be embarrassed by it. It had been their second night at the Westchester house, and Charles had woken up with a scream trapped in his throat, caught in the throes of a nightmare — a memory — and Erik had held him and soothed him and coaxed the full story out: about Kurt, and about Cain, and about why this house held so many ghosts that haunted Charles still.
Returning to Westchester had eroded all the barriers Charles had set up around the memories of Kurt and Cain. Erik was right: for all of Charles’s defenses, for all his ruthless suppression of the past, none of that had been able to stop the distant horror of his childhood from flooding back in an instant of weakness.
“This isn’t the same,” Charles said through gritted teeth.
Erik met his gaze steadily. “Isn’t it?”
“This was — ” Charles gripped his fork tightly, needing to hold onto something. The admission felt like it was being torn from his throat, jagged and bloody. “This was my fault,” he grated out, “and I can’t think about that, Erik. I can’t. If I do…”
He couldn’t finish. He heard himself breathing shakily, loudly. All he could think of in that moment was that he would kill for a drink. Anything, just something sharp and painful, a burn that hurt worse than whatever was tearing at his insides, threatening to rip him apart.
Erik reached over and laid a hand over Charles’s, steadying it so that it no longer trembled. “You made a mistake.”
“A mistake that killed two people I loved.”
Erik snorted. “You give yourself too much credit. You didn’t command that force to possess Jean, and it was that force that killed Raven, and consumed Jean in the end.”
“But I sent them on that mission in the first place,” Charles whispered. “If I had never done that — ”
“They made their own decisions.”
“They were children — ”
Erik barked a laugh. “Hardly. You were never quite able to consider Raven her own woman, but she was. Jean, too. If you so desperately want the blame for something, blame yourself for not seeing them as they truly were. But not for killing them. You have more than a few mistakes to own up to, but not that.”
Charles could muster no reply to that. After a moment, Erik lifted his hand from Charles’s and stood. Summoning the half-empty water barrel by the metal bands that encircled it, he swept out the door and let it fall shut again behind him, leaving Charles alone.
With a soft groan, he bowed his head to the table, covered it with his hands, and just…breathed. It was all he could do for a very long time.