It was raining. Or, to be more precise, it was absolutely bloody bucketing down. Erik paused inside the door to his block, taking a moment to push his rain-slicked hair off of his face, before beginning the climb up the two flights of stairs to the studio apartment he'd acquired. There was a rattling old elevator, a cage in the centre of the stairs, but Erik was eternally dubious of it. No doubt he would be fine, as the entire thing was made of metal, but he was trying not to use his powers where possible. He didn't want anyone to find him.
His shoes squelched against the linoleum covered stairs, and he grimaced. Wet socks were not to be desired. As soon as he was inside – and had locked the several deadbolts, just incase someone had realised who he really was – he intended to have a scalding hot shower to chase away the cold. Albeit a very short scalding hot shower, as the water tank was dismally small, but even so. Then a warm meal, a shot of scotch and sleep.
But all thoughts of showers and food vanished when he reached the door to his studio. Something wasn't right. He could sense the presence of a large metal object that had definitely not been inside when he left that morning to work. It wasn't a gun, or even guns plural, because he knew all too well what they felt like. No, there were no bullets, of that he was sure. Erik glanced around, hoping for something he could use to defend himself, just in case whoever it was that had that metal object was hostile. He could, of course, have easily ripped apart the metal casing of the elevator and bent it to his will, but that would have been rather obvious to his neighbours, and pretty quickly two and two would have been added together, and then he would be discovered. So instead, Erik yanked a single, loose spoke from the bannister, confident in the knowledge he could turn it into whatever he needed if necessary.
He realised now, key in hand, that the light was on inside, the glow visible under the ill-fitting door. Carefully he slipped the key into the lock, tightening his grip of the bar in his hand and placing his other on the handle. Using his powers he turned the key slowly, flinging open the door the instant the lock was free.
"Is this how you greet all your guests?"
Erik blinked. Surely his eyes – and ears – were playing tricks on him. Of all the people sitting in his ratty studio, it couldn't be...
"Hello old friend."
Charles looked the same as he did four months ago in Washington. Well, maybe not exactly the same. He wasn't bloody or dust caked from being trapped under the remnants of a stadium on the lawn of the White House from one. The dark circles under his eyes had receded, and his hair, while still long, looked much more kempt. But other than that, there were not many differences. In fact, Erik could almost swear he was wearing the same sweater and tweed jacket.
"What are you doing here?" Erik asked.
"Are you going to put that down?" Charles nodded towards the bar still raised in Erik's left hand. He'd quite forgotten about it, his attention had been so thoroughly taken up with the fact that Charles was here, in Poland, in his apartment. But now he instantly tossed it out into the hallway, closing the door behind him and locking the deadbolts securely. "Isn't that being a little excessive?" Charles smirked.
"Incase you've forgotten, there's an international arrest warrant on my head," Erik retorted with a smirk of his own. "It's prudent to be careful."
"If it's gotten rid of that bloody cape, it's not all bad."
Warmth spread through Erik's chest at the oh-so-familiar way they fell into easy banter. This was the way their reunion should have been, only they were both too caught up in anger and betrayals of the past.
"Why are you here Charles?" Erik repeated.
Charles held his gaze firm.
"I received your letter."
Erik fought the urge to swallow and look away. Some people may have defended it as a moment of weakness, or as a desperate attempt to beg forgiveness for all the unforgivable deeds he had committed. But it was none of that. He'd simply wanted Charles to know, and expected nothing in return. It was why he had excluded a return address, which did rather beg the question of how Charles had known where to find him.
"Telepath, remember? And no, you're just projecting."
"You came all the way to Poland because of a three paragraph letter?" Erik frowned.
"Yes," Charles smiled.
"I love you too, you idiot."
If it had been a sappy romantic movie, they would simply have declared their love, fallen into bed together, and lived happily ever after. But they were both acutely aware that this was not a romance movie, and that they actually needed to talk to each other, particularly as the last time they'd been face to face, Erik had dropped a stadium on Charles, and Charles had violently invaded Erik's mind. There were things that needed to be cleared up.
So Erik ordered Chinese, because his brain was too busy trying to catch up with the fact that Charles loved him too to be able to cook without burning the building down, and they sat opposite each other at the fold out table.
"I'm not going to apologise," Erik declared. "Not for everything, although you think I should."
"Are you reading my mind now?" Charles teased. "Erik, I don't expect you to apologise. Besides, I forgive you. That doesn't mean I'm not still bloody pissed – I most definitely am – but this can't work if I'm always... holding on to old hurts, waiting for apologies. And it's not entirely your fault. Mostly, but not totally," he added.
"I am sorry however, Charles," Erik admitted, "For Cuba, for that bullet."
Charles shook his head, "It was an accident."
"But you said-"
"Oh it absolutely was your fault, but I know you didn't hurt me intentionally. And Moira and I hold just as much blame as you do."
"Thank you," Erik nodded, relieved that was off his chest. "So, Mystique and Hank willingly let you leave to come after me? That's a surprise."
"Actually," Charles replied, skewering a wonton with a chopstick. "They think I'm dead."
The spring roll fell back into the box as Erik's grip tightened reflexively on his own chopsticks. He stared at Charles in disbelief.
"Are you serious?"
"Deadly," Charles grinned.
"Charles, this isn't a joke. They really think you're dead? Why?"
Charles sighed and set down his chopsticks, leaning forward and holding eye contact with him.
"I'm not an idiot Erik. You're the most wanted man on the planet right now, so even if Raven and Hank did let me come, there would always be a chance someone would read their minds to find you. Or worse, hold them hostage to draw us out. I want them safe, to live the lives they want. It was for the best."
"But they think you're dead," Erik argued.
"Yes," Charles nodded. "It was a lovely service. I was very touched."
"You're mad," Erik declared.
"I think I proved that the night we met my friend. Risking drowning for a stranger is not usually considered entirely sane."
Erik managed to chuckle a little at that. He watched Charles reach across the table and take Erik's hand in his own.
"Listen very carefully my friend," Charles said. "I will not try to change you. I know I have tried to in the past, but I promise that I will not try to force you to change, if you promise not to make me change. You have just as much right to your opinions as I do. But Erik, if you don't change your methods, you will lose me. I cannot stand by and watch you go down that road."
"You're asking me to choose," Erik frowned.
"Yes," Charles nodded. "I've made my choice. I love you, and I will deal with whatever that entails. But the one thing I cannot do, is sit back and watch you kill."
Erik pushed his chair away from the table, and crossed the room to the single window, moving slowly so Charles didn't get the impression he was angry. Yes, when Charles had started speaking, the familiar burn of anger had flared. But then he'd continued, and Erik understood what he was saying. He wasn't entirely unreasonable after all. He took a deep breath, staring out of the rain splattered window at the virtually empty lane below. No one was foolish enough to voluntarily go out in this weather. He pushed his hands into his pockets, leaning his forehead on the cold glass. And for a moment he allowed himself to picture the life he could have if he agreed with Charles.
It wouldn't be easy. Homosexuality was still illegal in many places, and while Poland wasn't one of them, public opinion was far from favourable. They would have to be doubly careful, careful about revealing their relationship, and careful about revealing their mutations. But it would be worth it, for the nights of chess games and scotch and sharing the same bed. For the mornings waking up together and Charles' frankly amazing pancakes which he hadn't forgotten the taste of even after eleven years. For the days coming home to each other. For one brief, shining moment, he could even imagine children, although that path was denied to them biologically and socially.
And the alternative? A lonely life, with dramatic speeches and even more dramatic costumes, inciting actions with the aim of advancing mutant-kind, constantly running from the authorities, moving from each prison sentence to the next. It didn't really compare. But... It was what he believed in, what he'd fought for for so long. He didn't know if he could just... give up, just like that.
In the reflection on the glass, Erik watched Charles behind him. It was a testament to how well Charles knew him that his friend didn't try to talk to him, indeed wasn't even looking at him. He knew how much he'd asked of Erik, and he respected him enough to give him the time to make the choice on his own. Charles had chosen him. No one had ever done that before, not like this. He turned slowly.
"I can't promise anything," Erik said. "But I will try. For you."
The smile he received in return made those ten words worth it.
"That's all I ask," Charles said softly.
It should feel weird, Charles mused, the thought of sleeping in the same bed as Erik. Although technically it had happened before; one night on their way to meet Alex for the first time, the only hotel room was one with a double bed. They'd been exhausted and Erik had been in a foul mood as a result, and even Charles' infinite patience was reaching its limit, so he'd given in and made the desk clerk forget there were two of them to avoid any raised eyebrows or unwelcome attention and told Erik not to be a prude. But they were only friends back then; now they were... Well, something more than friends. Not that it had a label yet.
But ironically the thought of sharing a bed with Erik didn't embarrass him in the slightest. Charles' only embarrassment came from the knowledge that it would be the first time Erik would see him properly confined to his wheelchair. What if he realised exactly how limited Charles was now and quickly retracted his admission of love?
Stop it, Charles scolded himself.
Erik was not that shallow.
Back before Hank's serum, Charles had become quite adept at lifting himself from his chair to the bed. In the four months since he'd given up the serum, he found the knowledge was still there, although his muscle strength had waned somewhat. But the bed here was lower that his one back home which made the manoeuvre much easier.
Erik took a moment when he stepped out of the bathroom to drink in the sight before him. Charles caught sight of him out of the corner of one eye, quirking an eyebrow in his direction.
"Just... You're here," Erik shrugged. Then with a grin, he added, "In my bed."
"I'm not that easy," Charles quipped.
"I'm sure there are several Oxford graduates who could dispute that," Erik teased, slipping under the covers.
Charles swatted him with his book. Erik snorted, settling down.
"Do you mind if I...?" Charles raised his book. Erik shook his head. "Goodnight Erik."
"Sleep tight Charles."
When he woke, it took Charles a moment to remember where he was. The room was unfamiliar, particularly in the grey half light of morning. He closed his eyes again, rubbing the sleep from them. Then the mattress shifted behind him and he remembered. He was in Poland, in Krakow, with Erik. He shifted himself onto his back – easier said than done thanks to his paralysis – to get Erik in his eye line. Charles knew he should feel some amount of trepidation and nerves at what he'd done, at all he'd risked to be here. But strangely he didn't. Instead, for the first time in... well, ever he supposed, he felt peaceful. The decision hadn't been an easy one, and it hurt to leave Hank and Raven and Alex behind, but ultimately, something told him that it was the right decision to make.
Erik shifted again, then two bleary eyes met Charles' own. He smiled.
"Morning," Erik replied, his voice thick with sleep. He squinted at his watch. "I have to get up for work."
"You working; I'd like to see that," Charles teased.
Erik swiped feebly at his arm, seemingly unconcerned when he missed him entirely. Then he frowned.
"What are you going to do today?" he asked.
Charles frowned. He'd never really considered what he would do once he found Erik. It wasn't as though he could go back to genetics; Charles Xavier was dead, so it would look pretty suspicious if he suddenly started publishing academic papers from beyond the grave. Suddenly he had an idea.
"Is there a library nearby?"
Erik stared at him, before shaking his head in laughter.
"You'll never change, will you?"
"Probably not," Charles grinned.
Erik chuckled, rolling over. His hand ended up next to Charles', and after a moment's hesitation, Charles covered it with his own. When he looked up again, he found Erik staring at him, the laughter from a moment ago gone.
Suddenly Erik blurted out, "I'm glad you're here."
"Me too," Charles replied. He rubbed the back of Erik's hand with his thumb and couldn't understand why it felt like they'd been doing this for years. The feeling of familiarity lingered through the morning routine. Without discussing it, Erik took the bathroom first, while Charles started breakfast. Then they swapped, before eating. Even though they didn't really talk, it was comfortable, the kind of comfortable silence that only came from knowing someone for years – even if there was a ten year gap due to imprisonment – almost better then you knew yourself.
"What's wrong?" Charles asked when they stepped into the elevator. Erik was eyeing it angrily, the same way he'd glared at Moira actually, right before trying to strangle her with her own dogtags.
"I don't trust this thing," Erik muttered.
"The man who controls metal doesn't trust a machine made entirely of metal?" he teased. Erik glared at him, but after a few minutes of Charles' smirk, his face relaxed into a smile of his own. But then he stepped out of the elevator and it disappeared completely.
Charles recognised the woman as the landlady he'd convinced to let him in to Erik's apartment the day before. She chattered away to Erik in Polish, and Erik replied, clearly tense. From the glances both were sending his way, Charles could guess he was the topic of conversation and realised Erik would have to teach him Polish PDQ.
You speak German right? Erik projected suddenly.
Ja Charles replied.
Instantly Erik switched to German, introducing the landlady to him. Charles smiled and nodded, wishing her "Guten Morgen" and Erik introduced him as his newly-arrived friend from Germany.
"What's your name dear?" the landlady asked.
"Max Eisenhardt," Erik blurted before Charles could draw breath.
Really Erik? Max?
An old alias of mine. I can't very well introduce you as Charles Xavier, can I? One, you're supposed to be dead and two it doesn't sound very German.
Charles smirked, but agreed. Of course he would need a new name now. He'd discovered the day before that Erik was now Henryk Gurtzsky. Max Eisenhardt would have to do.
"I'll see you tonight," Erik murmured once they managed to escape the landlady's grip.
Charles nodded, waving as Erik walked away. Then he turned and followed the directions Erik had projected to him to the library of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences.
For all the problems the serum had brought him, it did give him one advantage: he'd used his leg muscles like an uninjured person over the past few years, which meant his muscles were not atrophied. Which meant that he was in a much better place to start focusing on rehabilitation again.
He was lucky, really. His spinal injury was 'incomplete', meaning there was a chance he could recover some mobility. His spinal cord could still send signals past his injury. He would never be able to walk completely normally, but if he could regain even a little of his mobility – and with it his independence, because relying on a wheelchair still felt like relinquishing his independence even if it was only to an inanimate object – it would make all the difference in the world. Particularly now, at the start of his new life with Erik.
So when Erik had asked what he planned to do with himself, Charles had made it his mission to study all the latest publications on spinal cord injuries and the developments with physical therapy. Treatment had changed so much, even in the eleven years since his injury. Back in 1962, an injury like his was seen as a death sentence, which was why he'd been driven towards the serum in the first place. But now, in 1973, things were changing. There was hope.
It was more than that however; it gave him something to work towards. While he could still read papers on genetics and follow the latest developments in the field, he couldn't contribute anything himself. And it was frustrating to know that the research he and Hank could have worked on was miles ahead of anything else currently in the works. But it was one of the many sacrifices he'd made to be with Erik. And while he might not be able to publish any genetics work, if his research and physical therapy plans helped him re-gain mobility, he could always publish the results as Max Eisenhardt.
He pillaged the library, requesting every possible medical journal, and set himself up at a table, notepad and pen at the ready and began to study. Although not his original area of expertise, before specialising in genetics, he'd had to study a variety of medical sciences. He was familiar enough with the terminology, and with the help of a medical dictionary, soon found himself enthralled by the work. He became so absorbed, he didn't even realise when midday rolled around until his stomach stared growling. Glancing at his watch, Charles realised he'd been working for over five hours without noticing. If Raven was here, she'd say it was his thesis all over again.
Charles wondered how she was doing as he ordered a sandwich in a mixture of German and bad sign language. Without Cerebro, there was no way for him to check in on her, or Hank and Alex. Not from this distance. He hoped she was okay. Hurting, or course, because she believed her brother to be dead. But together the three of them could pull each other through, of that he had little doubt.
At the end of the day, Charles left the library with a collection of journals and books, prepared to throw himself into the study of spinal cord injuries in earnest, ready to see Erik again. It had been a lonely day, particularly since he could only communicate in German. Erik would have to teach him Polish, although he found an English to Polish dictionary in the library to assist with his learning. However, on his way back to the apartment block, he was distracted by an item in the window of a shop. With a smile, Charles made a quick detour into the shop.
"What have you got there?" Erik asked when they met outside the building. Erik had made him promise not to use the elevator alone unless absolutely necessary.
"Books," Charles replied.
"I can see that," Erik rolled his eyes. "I meant that."
"Never you mind," Charles scolded. He jerked the bag away when Erik tried to sneak a peek. "It's a surprise."
"Another one?" Erik smirked, opening the apartment.
"Honey, I'm home," Charles quipped. Erik rolled his eyes, tossing something small and metal at him which Charles caught expertly. Although perhaps it had less to do with his hand-eye coordination and more to do with Erik's powers. He turned over the piece of metal in his hand, revealing it as a key.
"Yours," Erik explained. "Your home too now."
Charles felt a rush of warmth and anxiety; a heady mix. It was real now, what he'd done. This, not Westchester, was home. With Erik.
"I like the sound of that," he murmured.
"Me too," Erik agreed.
When Erik stepped out of the bathroom after his shower, towelling his hair dry, Charles had taken over the table with what appeared to be half the library, notepad balanced on one knee and pen in hand. Erik smiled. He reached out and squeezed Charles' shoulder on his way past to the kitchenette, loving how right it felt to have Charles back in his life as an ally instead of an antagonist.
"Erik?" Charles called.
"Yes?" Erik replied, placing his glass of water on the table. Suddenly Charles couldn't meet his eyes, and Erik found himself gripped by fear.
"I spent two days travelling, and it's been another twenty four hours since then," Charles explained. "I would love a bath."
"So?" Erik asked, relaxing. Charles was not leaving him already.
"So," Charles made eye contact nervously. "I'm going to need a little help."
Erik frowned, trying to process what Charles was telling him. Why would-
"Oh. Oh," he realised, noticing Charles' wince. Erik swallowed. "Okay," he said.
The bathroom was tiny. Erik struggled to move in it, so frankly he was amazed that Charles could cope at all with his wheelchair. The one patch of floor was, he supposed, just large enough for the chair to turn, surrounded on three sides by the washing machine, bath, and toilet respectively. The fourth held the door. There was no window, and only an intermittent fan, which left it steam filled and more than a little oppressive after every shower.
Erik flicked off the taps, after checking the water had reached an acceptable temperature, pushing himself upright. He heard Charles in the doorway and gathered every piece of inner strength he possessed before turning around. If not for Charles' obvious mortification, Erik would've suspected it was a test for him to pass. Even so, he was determined not to fail.
Charles had stripped down to his underwear and was decidedly not making eye contact. Erik forced himself to stand steady. Charles needed his support. He could do this. This was an uncomfortably clinical moment, nothing remotely arousing about this moment. Still, Erik noted – objectively of course – that Charles had a surprisingly athletic physique.
"Ready?" he asked.
"As I'll ever be," Charles sighed.
Erik averted his eyes while he removed his underwear, keeping them as far away as possible for the sake of Charles' modesty even as he crouched to slip one arm behind Charles' waist and the other under his knees. Using his powers, he sent the wheelchair out of the room, utilising what little space there was available. The water was warm against his forearms. He focused on that. Once he was certain Charles was seated properly, he removed his arms, retrieving a towel to dry them off.
"Okay?" Erik asked, keeping his eyes fixed on Charles' face.
"Thank you," Charles nodded with a tired smile.
"Shout if you need anything," Erik replied.
Closing the door behind him, Erik collapsed onto the bed, dragging his hands down his face. That was more than he'd been prepared for so soon, but he'd known there was no way around it. He sighed. Now reality was beginning to set in, he realised. The honeymoon period had swiftly come to an end.
Eventually he felt a gentle push against his mind, instantly recognisable as Charles. Erik pushed himself off the bed and returned to the bathroom. He offered Charles brief but hopefully reassuring smile as he crouched down. As before, he tried to keep his eyes averted as much as possible. Charles was radiating discomfort with this whole situation. Erik ensured Charles was settled in his chair, passed him a fresh towel and left him to it.
By the time Charles emerged from the bathroom, Erik had settled on his side of the bed, sitting against the headboard with a book in hand. He dropped it when Charles joined him, seeking out his friend's eyes to check if he was okay.
"That could've been worse," Charles admitted with a wan smile. "Thank you."
"You don't have to thank me," Erik shrugged.
He watched Charles retrieve the mystery bag from earlier before lifting himself from the wheelchair to the bed. Erik couldn't help but marvel at how adaptive Charles was; whatever the situation demanded, he could always find some way to integrate himself. Part of Erik wondered if it had some connection to Charles' mutation; another part suspected it was just Charles.
"Ready for that surprise?" Charles grinned.
Erik shifted so he was sitting more on his side, facing Charles. He couldn't deny the delight that adorned his face when Charles pulled a chess board from the bag, nor the way his smile grew when the set of metal chessmen followed.
"I'll go easy on you," Charles smirked. "Might even be a fair fight."
Erik flicked one finger, sending his first pawn sliding forward. He met Charles' eyes.
Charles smiled, taking a moment before moving a pawn of his own. Erik settled back against the pillows, finding himself more comfortable than he'd been in years. Anticipation thrummed in his veins, for the game, but also for the future ahead of them.
"Checkmate," he declared eventually. "Game over."
"No," Charles replied softly. "I don't think it is."
Charles was right.
It wasn't the end.
It was just the beginning.