Work Header

The Winter of Banked Fires

Chapter Text

Erik hates getting lost.

He never had been before last month, never once in his life. The difference between Earth’s magnetic north and south poles had always been as obvious to him as the difference between up and down. He was an adult before he understood how it was even possible for other people not to be able to find their way. (Before that, he’d thought pretending not to know where you were was some odd social affectation.)

Now he gets lost constantly.

He’s taken up residence in Boston, a city large enough to hide one aging man whose face was well known on the news – but only when he wore a helmet now cast aside as useless. However, Boston has winding side streets, no grid to speak of. Erik finds himself wandering from block to block, confused, back-tracking. He’s learning human tricks – memorizing directions, finding landmarks – but slowly. Today he’s sitting in a park at a chessboard as if inviting a game; really, Erik hopes to be left alone long enough to figure out his way back to the cheap “men’s hotel” where he currently rents a room by the week.

(Erik owns fortunes – in banks around the world he can no longer reach, in strongholds without keys he can no longer melt open.)

Originally he hated the Wolverine and Beast for his condition, but that hatred has dimmed. He first attempted to use the Cure against them, after all; he understands the need to strike back with equal force. Erik has been forced to live as the thing he feared most – as a human – and even in his darkest temper, he can appreciate the irony of it.

Charles would have had much to say on the subject.

“Hey, man.” It’s Juan Pablo, a skinny kid who often comes to hustle the newcomers at chess. He tried to hustle Erik once. Erik made ten dollars that day, an amount of money he can no longer scoff at. To Juan Pablo’s credit, he not only took it well but also has had the good sense to ask Erik for pointers. “You gonna show me the opening gambit you were talking about?”

“The variation on the Budapest,” Erik reminds him. “Not today, I think. But soon.”

Juan Pablo shrugs, takes a slurp from his McDonald’s cup. “That friend of yours coming to play sometime? The one who taught you that Owen’s Defense?”

He should just say it. My friend died. He won’t be playing any more chess matches. But Erik gave in to a terrible temptation the first time he spoke to Juan Pablo about Charles Xavier; he pretended Charles was still alive.

“How about this,” Erik says. “Next time we meet here, I’ll show you the variation on the Budapest and another of Charles’ best tricks. That one’s a surprise.”

“Cool.” With a wave, Juan Pablo lopes off.

It would not be precise to say that Erik likes Juan Pablo – Erik will never be that open, and Juan Pablo’s habit of speaking with his mouth full is off-putting. But he does not hate the boy. Erik recognizes him as an individual, the first human being he’s allowed himself to acknowledge in many years.

What does that mean for him? He doesn’t know. Doesn’t care enough to find out.

Erik is lost now in more ways than one. His pole stars have vanished in an inner sky that’s gone blank white. He can no longer measure himself against humanity. He can no longer weigh his decisions versus those Charles would make. Sometimes he looks back on the past decades and feels true horror; it seems impossible that he would do those things, make those choices. Other times, he thinks he didn’t do enough. He thinks the war is coming and he cannot fight. He imagines himself an old man trudging through mud toward wire gates that cannot be moved. They will close behind him, and lock, and he will be turned to ash.

Sometimes it seems to Erik that his entire life has been one long walk through that gate.

Charles, if only I could speak with you just once more. You wouldn’t mock me. You would listen. You’d give me advice, and it would either be wise and good, or so ridiculous that I’d know to do the exact opposite.

For a moment Erik imagines himself a young man again – fancying himself so jaded and hard, and yet still so new, so vulnerable to the world. He imagines sitting in the study at the great house on Graymalkin Lane, lying on the Persian carpet with his head pillowed on one arm, Charles next to him, with their bodies just inches from touching. Charles had been reading THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING aloud, and Erik had felt himself suspended between the beauty of the story and the unmistakable timber of Charles’ voice.

The sexual frustration had been killing him, the suspense of not knowing whether he should act, and at the time he’d thought he couldn’t bear another second of it – though really that was one of the most exquisite hours Erik would ever know –

Erik leans his head in one hand. He is so very tired.

His mind searches for Charles – a habit, one he’s never lost, not even after decades apart. They never lost the old connection. Even at the height of their enmity, Erik took comfort from being able to brush against the tethers that bound him to Charles. He was a touchstone … a compass point, not unlike his lost north.

Erik reaches his hand out toward the metal chess pieces. Once he could have made them dance. They used to have a set like this at the mansion, and Charles would joke that Erik was moving the pieces whenever he turned to pour them another glass of wine. It was his way of not admitting that Erik played better chess.

Charles, he thought. If you were here, I’d let you win.

It seems to him that he hears/feels/smells/knows the echo of Charles’ presence, for just a moment. The illusion of happiness ghosts around him, almost a kind of serenity.

And that’s the moment the queen rocks on her square, the tiniest wobble.

The moment Erik knows he will find north again.