Erik arrived in the middle of the children's Science class. He had the helmet on — of course — but in the two years they were apart, Charles taught himself to sense that specific quality of null-space. Erik never seemed inclined to share his anti-telepathy advantage with the others in the Brotherhood, but... Charles paused for a moment, casting his telepathy out to the nearest minds: ah, the postman. Who was staring at Erik's very distinctive helmet with puzzlement and not a bit of alarm. Identity confirmed, then.
He planted the suggestion that the postman should leave as soon as possible, then sent a telepathic message to Alex, whose turn it was to collect the mail that morning: Erik's at the gates. Don't be alarmed. Please ask him in if he seems benign.
Alex's mental snort choked with disbelief.
Charles smiled to himself, then turned back to Ororo. "I'm sorry to be distracted, my dear, but we have a visitor. I've just asked Mr. Summers to let him in."
Ororo tilted her head, the winter sun catching the bright white of her hair. For all that she was only eleven, a year on the streets of Cairo had imbued her with a certain shrewdness in judging people, and Charles felt the full intensity of her regard.
"Is he a friend?" she asked, curious and suspicious at once.
"I hope so, Ororo," he said lightly, and carried on with the lesson.
Despite himself, the sight of Erik caught Charles with the force of a gale, leaving him feeling breathless and unsteady. Erik stood at the window of the old library, where they once played chess and made plans to change the world, now converted into the headmaster's study. The lurid colour and styling of his helmet were incongruous against the tasteful, English cut of his suit, in somber dark grey wool.
He wheeled himself closer. "Hello, Erik."
"Charles." The two years hadn't been entirely kind to Erik: there were new, deep lines at the corners of his eyes; the set of his mouth less forgiving. "You're doing well, I presume."
"As well as I've ever been. How is Raven?" He thought he'd injected the right amount of neutrality into his words, but clearly not, if the irritation on Erik's face was any indication.
"Mystique," Erik corrected chidingly, "is where she should be. Why must you persist in believing that her separation from you can only end in her unhappiness?"
"Forgive me for caring about my sister," Charles said, every syllable icy-sharp. "That aside, you didn't come here to rehash old arguments, so: why now, Erik? Why are you here?"
For the first time in a long, long while, Erik looked uncertain. The chink in his armour closed swiftly, but Charles knew Erik too well to miss the flicker of anxiety and indecision in his eyes. Charles forced himself to relax, folding his hands casually on his lap. Erik took one step towards him, then another, close enough that Charles could smell smoke and a faint tang of sulphur on his clothes, over the layers of beeswax polish gleaming richly on every furniture in the room.
"I may have two, possibly three students for you," Erik said.
Charles blinked, feeling his wits deserting him. "I see." He didn't, not really. "I would've thought you'd prefer to take them in yourself — assuming they're mutants."
"Not these children."
He considered the closed, forbidding cast of Erik's face. No questions on motivation were to be entertained, then. "May I ask when I will meet them?"
Erik gave him a smile, startling in its rarity and unpredictability. "First, I want to be certain that here is where they should be."
Charles put the matter to vote in the teachers' common room.
"Fuck, no," Alex said, crossing his arms.
Hank looked chagrined to be on the same side as Alex, but he argued firmly, "Charles, he's been our nemesis for two years. He appears out of nowhere, no explanation, and won’t even tell you the names of the children. If they even exist. He hasn't let you read his mind to determine whether he's telling the truth."
"I agree," Amelia said dryly. She'd removed her nurse's cap from her grey-streaked red hair, and kicked off her shoes to fold her feet under herself as soon as she sat down on the most comfortable sofa, but out of all them she seemed the least dishevelled.
"I don't know, I think we should give him a chance," Suzanne said, and when the rest looked at her in surprise she merely shrugged and spread her hands. "Look, Charles's telepathy isn't our only weapon. I can stop time. Amelia can disassemble that helmet into atoms. Why are we so afraid of him?"
"Because, the Professor aside, he knows best what we can and can't do," Armando replied. His form faded in and out, ghostly — an unnerving sight but for the months they’d had to get used to it, since he made his way back to Alex. "But I just don't think he'd stoop this low."
Alex looked mutinous. "What did Sean say?"
"He said, and I quote: 'I don't trust him. Decide what you want, let me know if I need to help evacuate the kiddies.'" Charles sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I called Tessa and asked for help, but she'll need time to unearth what it is that Erik is keeping from us."
"So we're at impasse," Suzanne said. "I'm not saying he's not dangerous, all right? I've met his minions and came off the worse for it. I'm saying: look at this logically. He knows the school grounds as well as any one of us, so he doesn't need to turn himself into a Trojan horse. We'll keep him away from the labs and Cerebro and the things in the buildings we don't talk about. He can be managed."
Alex scowled at her. "What's with the enthusiasm for Helmet Head, Suze?"
"Three new students, that's what I'm thinking."
"She's right," Charles said, restlessly turning his teacup around in its saucer. "We can't risk driving away three children who might need our help. Erik is many things, but this kind of cunning is not in his nature. He would sooner overrun us with force than slip in by the backdoor like a trickster."
"If he wants to stay, he has to leave the helmet off," Amelia said, in a tone that brooked no dissent. "All agreed?"
Erik took the ultimatum as well as can be expected: badly. Charles watched the tectonic plates of Erik's face shifting, rearranging his handsome countenance into the very personification of rage. Spoons rattled against saucers, the fire grate moaned in its hearth. Once upon a time, Charles thought, he would've tried to assuage Erik's anger, persuade Erik to come around to his point of view with carefully-honed words.
Not now, possibly not again for a long time, not since he failed when it mattered most.
"I refuse to have you dictate terms to me," Erik said.
"The teachers have decided," Charles said, carefully moving the steel sugar tongs away from where they had shaken their way to the table's edge. "It wasn't my doing, though I didn't disagree with them."
Erik's grey eyes raked over him. "I find it difficult to believe you didn't have a hand in their decision."
"They're my colleagues, not my followers. I'll thank you not to assume that I want to read your mind, or what I would have you do for my sake — you were well on your way to being booted out the door had I not made arguments in your favour."
"You said I would always be welcome here — that this would be my home," Erik said, going for the jugular and, by the looks of it, not caring a whit.
"I remember what said and I meant it. I will always open my doors to you. I give you my word that should you agree to our condition, I won't actively read your thoughts," Charles said evenly. "But things have changed, Erik. I am no longer talking to you only as your friend and former lover. I am now the headmaster of a school. The guardian of 12 minor children, all of whom I will protect against every possible threat, even against myself. Even against what I wished for the ones I love, if ever they might present a danger to my students."
Erik stared at him for a protracted moment, expressionless, then raised his hands to wrench away the helmet from his head. A few strands of silver now threaded through his hair, flattened to his scalp by the weight of his helmet. Charles tried and failed not to drink in the sight, feeling something loosen in his chest. There were no new scars or wounds on Erik, save for the half-scabbed one he already knew about, across the back of Erik's right hand.
It was futile, at any rate, to try and find his way by the cartography of Erik’s body. More than ever, Erik wore his hurts and aches on the inside, kept in storage as fuel for when he lashed out.
"I'll introduce you to the staff and students," Charles said, wheeling around to the door. For the first time in two years, he felt Erik at the back of his head, following after him. A long-lost piece slotting back into place, only it wasn't as perfect a fit as it once was, warped by time and the elements.
He led Erik past the new library, then into the sitting room that now served as the staff common room, utilitarian cabinets and a newly-built pantry displacing the old Queen Anne furniture. The teachers looked up as they entered, not bothering to disguise the way they were sizing up Erik. Amelia's eyes were worryingly calculating as they flicked from Erik to the window, and to the frozen lake beyond.
"You already know Alex, Armando, and Hank," Charles said, smoothly overlooking the hard spike of hostility in Alex's thoughts, laced through with bitter betrayal. "Armando was accepted into Howard University's Economics programme in the summer, but he kindly deferred for a year until we find a replacement History teacher."
"And until I'm more corporeal," Armando said with a grin.
Erik's gaze met Armando's briefly, then flitted away. Charles rushed into the silence, saying brightly, "May I introduce Amelia Voght, Matron — she was an Army nurse in Korea — and Suzanne Chan, who teaches Mathematics. She graduated from Barnard with a double major in Mathematics and Philosophy."
"Yes, we've met briefly," Suzanne said, all cool lines and Mona Lisa smiles. "One of the Brotherhood tried to stab me with his tail while Mr. Lehnsherr watched."
"Charmed," Erik gritted out.
That night, Charles dreamed.
He dreamed rarely but vividly, fragments of true memory easily recalled upon waking. His night dreams, though, were always a vague disappointment next to the visions and plans he built in his head during his waking hours — not for him were Coleridge's Xanadu and Rossetti's swollen Euphrates, but lives already lived by himself or others, experienced through his telepathy.
In this dream, he was back in 1962, suffering through the hot stickiness of the southern summer. He remembered it well: the anonymous motel room with wallpaper the colour of gruel, cotton sheets worn thin with age. He and Erik had just become lovers, were just beginning to learn the quirks and wants of their bodies cleaving against each other, yearning for completion.
Charles was peeling an orange in one long strip, the acrid oils filling his nose with the anticipation of tartness. Erik sat up in bed, nude, crushing the stained pillows against the headboard with the weight of his body. Charles remembered frowning, just a little — he hated sleeping on flat pillows. Spoiled, that was what Erik called him, fondly.
The peel he dropped carelessly on the bedside table, where it curled like a snake. Juice trickled down his arm as he fed an orange segment to Erik, watching Erik's lips close around the fruit and the tips of his fingers, sucking in a breath at the warmth of Erik's mouth and the sharp warning of his teeth. He sank into Erik's mind, slow and gentle, tasting the orange as if he'd bitten down on it himself. It was sweet, after all, as sweet as Erik's trembling gasps against his skin and the unyielding grip of body-warm steel around his wrists.
Charles woke up angry, the sheets crumpled in his fists. He bit his lip and lay back, casting his mind out like a net over the school, reassuring himself that all was well despite the disruption to their hard-earned peace — and found the students largely untroubled, though subconsciously picking up on the tension among their teachers. Alex was wide-awake and so was Armando, at the tail end of a long and thankfully civilised argument.
His only consolation was that Erik seemed to be having as bad a night as he was, tossing and turning in bed, dreaming dreams out of Charles's reach.
Charles found Erik in the kitchen the next morning, making coffee and roundly ignoring the steadfastly frivolous chatter between Amelia and Hank. Even engaged in the most mundane of tasks, Erik carried himself with a predatory, matter-of-fact grace that still had the power to enthrall Charles. He let himself indulge in an idle fantasy for minute, then looked away to find Hank watching him, glasses perched primly on his broad, blue-furred nose.
I hope you know what you're doing, Hank sent him.
Only time will tell, I suspect.
Charles took his usual place at the table, which was covered in toast crumbs and milk rings, a sign that Alex's early morning Phys. Ed. class had come and gone. He tutted to himself, making a mental note to impress upon Alex — again — that kitchen clean-ups were mandatory, short of one of his students setting himself or herself on fire over the cornflakes. Amelia smiled over the table at him, wry and knowing, a private joke shared even without literal mind-reading.
An arm came down in his line of sight, accompanied by the gentle thud of a mug hitting the table. He looked up at Erik glaring down at him, then at the steaming mug of coffee, placed to the left of his breakfast plate. Except for Hank, the teachers and students usually offered him tea at breakfast, though he generally preferred a cup of coffee to start the day.
He wanted to say: I didn't think you'd still remember.
He said instead, "Thank you, Erik."
The coffee was unsweetened and perfect, as he knew it would be.
Erik wandered out to join him on the school grounds after lunch, watching the younger children tear around in the snow under the distracted supervision of the teenaged students. Petra raised a miniature mountain from the earth with a thump of her hand, much to Ororo's delight. Immediately, Ororo waved a small cloud over the mountain, snowflakes whirling around its peak.
"How old are they?" Erik asked without preamble.
Charles glanced at him. Erik seemed genuinely curious, but he was after something more as well.
"Ororo is eleven. She and Kevin are the youngest of the current students. Sarah, Mark and Paul are next up at twelve. Most of the others range from fourteen to seventeen: Petra is fifteen, Scott is fourteen, as you know, and John and Remy are seventeen." Charles couldn't help smiling as Ororo ran up to Remy, whose red-on-black eyes distinctly softened as he twirled her around. "Well, we assume that Remy is seventeen. He was rather vague on that score — I suspect he doesn't truly know."
Erik regarded Remy with unhealthy interest. "I see you haven't broken your habit of picking up unknown strays," he said, sounding as if he was attempting a sneer, only for it to come out with far more ambivalent affection.
Charles laughed. "To be fair, it was Ororo who adopted him. You remember, don't you, the last time the Brotherhood encountered us? Ororo was among our party and she went missing. We were terribly frantic, but she turned up two days later with Remy at her heels like her sworn knight, smelling rather unfortunately of sewers."
It was almost a pity, that Erik didn’t react to the not-quite-congenial teasing. If nothing else, perhaps he could be baited into using the Brotherhood’s connections to track Remy’s trail back to his origins.
"What happened to Sean?" Erik asked instead, scrutinising the students and visibly checking off a list in his head. Charles decided not to take offense.
"In college, majoring in Music Education," Charles said. "By his own choice, though we do desperately need more teachers for subjects in humanities and the arts. Between Hank, Suzanne and myself, the school is well-served in science and mathematics, but the students deserve better than my fumbling attempts at Shakespeare and Whitman."
Oh, how he'd been tempted to poach from Erik's inner circle, when he found out that Emma Frost had an English degree.
"Alongside her nursing duties, Amelia teaches French as our sole language option other than Latin. She and Armando are already splitting the social studies classes between them, and I fear she's over-working herself."
Erik leaned against the stone balustrade. "Despite your much-proclaimed desire for reconciliation with the humans, not one person here is a non-mutant."
"We had one teacher, but Tom's in Vietnam now. Alive, as far as we know, though I don't know if he's still the man he was," Charles said, after a long silence. "A war is upon our doors, my friend, and it's not the one you prophesied."
"Do you still truly believe peace can be achieved with a few soft words and hope, Charles? Will it ever be enough to hide these children away in your mansion and teach them to assimilate into an ignorant, uncaring society?" Erik was pale with anger, his shoulders taut. "You are teaching them to be small. Useless, unable to defend themselves."
"And what would be the alternative, Erik? Are we to train them to take up arms against their own families? Not all of the children arrived here because they were rejected or abandoned. Not all of them will want to fight. Am I to force Petra to bury armies under her feet when she would rather paint dancers?"
Erik drew in a harsh breath. "I thought you would know better by now than to think we can ever be safe, with humans holding the reins of power."
"Erik, please, listen to me: I'm not disagreeing that conflict is inevitable. Even if I wasn't a telepath, the bombings in Birmingham were a clear lesson in how civilised we aren't, the limits we place on our understanding with fear and hatred," Charles said, lowering his rising voice when several heads at the nearest windows turned their way. "Where we part ways — our true disagreement — is the world you and I want to see upon the resolution of that conflict. I will not, I will never have my students inherit a peace predicated on the subjugation of a class of people."
But of course, you already know too well what it is to be on the wrong end of subjugation. Repentant, Charles reached out a hand, saw nothing in Erik's face except wary attention, and placed it atop Erik's, squeezing tenderly. "I'm sorry, I can't see an end to this argument between us as yet. I cannot accept preemptive violence as a strategy any more than you can accept any form of cruelty against mutants."
Except when they happen to be on the opposite side, it seems, Charles thought, biting back the words. But Erik still knew him better than anyone else except his sister, and heard nevertheless what Charles left unsaid. Their fingers curled around each other, warm in the winter chill.
The tranquility, if ever it could describe a mere suspension of their most immediate disagreement, was short-lived. Actions bore consequences, Charles thought, as below them, shocked into tense stillness, Scott finally noticed Erik's presence.
It's all right, Scott. Alex has talked to you about why Erik's here, hasn't he?
Scott gave a stiff nod and ran off, Mark and Paul trailing after him. Erik watched them go and said, haltingly, "I shouldn't have tried to recruit Scott Summers — he was a child, and he's still one now."
It took Charles a second to realise that this was Erik's version of an apology. "No, you shouldn't have. I don't think Alex will ever forgive you."
Dinner was a solitary affair, Charles pleading a headache to escape the rambunctiousness of the students and the persistent tension that welled up whenever Alex and Erik were forced within an arm's length of each other. He read through an issue of Philosophical Transactions B from last year as he ate, composing a letter in his head to the author of one of the articles, whom he'd met at a symposium. It hadn't been so very long ago, he realised, only four years since he'd had a drink with the woman, talking about tissue cultures and the evolution of sea-stars until they were kicked out by an irate publican. She had a most remarkable mind.
He felt Erik moving about as he got ready for bed, sensing blurry thoughts in German and the faint, musty scent of old paper. There was a time when Charles would let himself be carried in Erik's mind, looking at the world through Erik's eyes and marvelling at the surety with which Erik always knew where he was, the resonance of metal snaking within the walls and arching around filament bulbs. He missed it but didn't let himself dwell on it: mourning an absence he'd already accepted would entrap him in a never-ending cycle of regrets.
A part of that old connection must have remained, because Charles wasn't surprised when Erik let himself into the bedroom, the door locking behind him. His bedside lamp clicked on. He wasn't surprised when Erik sat down on the bed, tugging the duvet away from Charles's body as if uncovering a secret that could delight or kill. Erik leaned down, arms braced at either side of Charles's face, and there was the discordant note he was waiting for: Erik himself, smelling of cheap soap and an unfamiliar cologne.
But Erik still kissed like a man long denied, trying to hold himself in check but greedy for it, stealing the breath from Charles's lungs for himself. Erik still made that noise, high in his throat, when Charles ran his fingers through Erik's hair and pulled, forcing them apart. Lust and frustration chased each other on Erik's face and the surface of his mind, but there was something else lurking deep within, something not unlike fear. He wondered at it, remembering the last time they were together on this bed and how Erik had pinned him to the mattress, playing at being the tyrant.
Charles touched the tip of his tongue to Erik's chin. "If we're having sex tonight," he said bluntly, "then it will be under my direction." Erik barked out a laugh that's just this side of derisive, but Charles, undeterred, bit him in rebuke. "Remember what I said yesterday, Erik: things have changed. We're going to have to learn again how to please each other as we are. You, my friend, will be a student once more."
Erik stilled, then drew back, sliding his hands up Charles's arms. "I could hurt you."
"Yes," Charles said. "And, should that happen, be so kind as to note that I have fewer compunctions about retaliating."
Erik's hands tightened around Charles's wrists, then relaxed. His face was open, speculative. "Very well, then. Your call, Professor."
"Thank you, I suppose." Charles smiled up at him, and tugged his hands free to pull himself up. "First, don't be afraid."
The second night they spent together after Erik's reappearance, Charles was the initiator. He held Erik in check on the chessboard, daring to send a waft of smug satisfaction and challenge against Erik's mind, and the sudden rush of heat and desire jolted in his chest. He admired the parting of Erik's lips, the sudden urgency in that lean body, and thought, yes.
Erik disappeared sometime during mid-afternoon the next day, whilst Charles marked his students' assignments in his study. Sensing agitation, he trailed after Erik's mind to the front gates, where he felt it disappear from his telepathic eye. Erik must have put on the helmet, then, an unmistakable signal of leave-taking. Charles capped his pen, giving up on work for the afternoon — or, he thought, eyeing the clock on the wall, at least until after he made himself a cup of tea under Alex's seething disapproval and I-told-you-so.
In the two years past, he often asked himself when he would give up hope in Erik. The answer thus far leaned heavily towards the possibility of never, not for as long as there was still something of the Erik he loved and respected. And Charles knew better than to think he would ever cease to believe in that possibility, no matter how deeply buried, no matter what Erik would do in the future. May there be time enough, and space, to create something more than bittersweet nostalgia and stolen nights between them.
He would've liked a proper goodbye, at least, he thought ruefully.
Charles wheeled towards the shelves of books, running his fingers across the spines. Perhaps he should assign Helen Keller's writings for his students to read, or ask if Suzanne would include them in the Politics syllabus she was putting together. He pulled out a slim volume of essays, flipping it to the page he now knew by heart.
Optimism that does not count the cost is like a house builded on sand, he read, thinking of warships upon an ocean, Frankenstein's monsters, and loves found and lost. Of the world around him, on the brink of things both wondrous and terrible. A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him.
An hour later, he knew he was right.
Three children stood at the front door, a suitcase at their feet. Their clothes looked newly-bought, and Charles knew the shoes were pinching the boy's feet, because he was broadcasting his misery loud enough to be picked up by every telepath within ten miles. He looked to be the same age as one of the girls — his fraternal twin, Charles determined — no older than twelve.
"You're like me!" Ororo cried out in glee, pointing at the boy's hair, white like her own. "Are you a mutant too?"
"He is, love, and his twin sister too," Charles said mildly. The older girl, who'd held the twins' hands in hers, looked about fourteen. She was wholly and completely baseline human, to his surprise, though he suspected half her parentage wasn't. "Hello, come in. My name is Charles Xavier and I'm a teacher. What's yours?"
"I'm Anya," said the girl. Her English was awkwardly enunciated but grammatically perfect. Charles tsked, inwardly, at the clumsiness with which Emma had dropped a knowledge of the language into Anya's head. "These are my brother and sister: Pietro and Wanda."
"Pleased to meet you." He smiled. "Who brought you here?"
She peered at him with expressive grey eyes — Erik's eyes — unsettled and doubtful. "Our father. He said you'll take care of us. We— we didn't even know him until he found us. Last month."
"It's all right, Anya," Charles said. He held out his hand. "You are and will always be welcome here."