A/N: Jesus, this came out way angstier than I thought it would. No more cute fluffy times for Charles and Erik!
Warnings: language, angsty ending, Charles/Alex friendship, Alex being the profane but wise voice of reason, Charles/Erik, almost no fluff.
Disclaimer: If I owned X-Men, Charles/Erik would be canon and I wouldn't be obsessed with writing angsty stuff for them.
Please note that this is a sort-of-sequel to A Ring For Your Finger, so you may need to read that one to fully grasp this one.
"Alright. You sure you're in good, Professor X?"
"Quite sure, Alex – trust me, I'm in no danger of falling out," Charles reassured him, "Although your concern is appreciated."
The handsome young man smiled and said, "Just making sure, Professor." Don't want to get into a wreck and paralyze the rest of him, Charles heard Alex think, but he detected no malice behind the thought – it was merely Alex's curt way of being concerned for him.
"I should go off with you more often, then – you're more worried about my safety than I've ever seen you worried about anything," Charles said once Alex had headed to the back of the van, hefted in his wheelchair, and proceeded to the driver's seat.
"I don't worry much about anything," Alex informed him, cranking the van. The radio immediately blared to life, and Charles jumped slightly, startled. "Sorry," Alex apologized, quickly turning the knob down to a slightly more bearable level.
"It's a wonder you and Sean don't go deaf," Charles said. "How can you stand it that loud?"
Alex grinned. "It's because we're young. Not that you're old . . . You just feel like an old man today because you're twenty-nine now."
Charles rolled his eyes. "You hit the nail right on the head. I'm tragically depressed. Twenty-nine is extremely old these days."
"It's one year away from thirty, sir – also known as the hill. After that you're –,"
"Let me guess, over the hill?"
"Yep," Alex said. Then, he seemed to remember that he was not razzing Sean or Hank, but rather his landlord (not that he paid rent). "Just kidding – sorry, Professor."
Charles smiled and looked over at Alex. "It's okay. I may be almost to the hill, Alex, but I can still take a joke."
The blond smiled back, absently drumming his fingers on the wheel as he drove – Charles resisted the urge to tell him to slow down before they ended up getting killed, but he realized that that really would make him sound like an old man and he kept quiet – before he asked, "So what made you want to come with me? You almost never leave the mansion, and you definitely don't come with me and Sean."
"Well, as Sean is sick, I figured you'd want company," Charles explained. "And I felt like getting out of the house on my birthday, seeing as I was there for Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and New Year's." And every day in between, he thought a little mournfully to himself. Not that he'd ever been the type to go for a drive just because, but he did miss being able to leave the house as he pleased. He was a bit used to it now, but the fact that he'd never be able to travel without a companion did still wound his pride occasionally.
"Well, it's no skin off my nose," Alex replied. "You're pretty cool to ride around with – Sean's always goofing off and trying to make me run off the road . . ."
"What?" Charles exclaimed, horrified as an image floated by in his mind of Alex and Sean in a mangled car on the side of the road, bloody, maimed, and dead.
"Never mind," Alex said hastily. Close call, the other mutant thought as he reached over and tuned the radio, paying no attention whatsoever to the road. Charles merely shook his head with a slightly indulgent if worried smile and looked back out the window.
It was indeed very nice to get out of the house, and especially to be away from his students for longer than five minutes at a time. Oh, of course, he loved that handful of children more than he loved anything, but they were kids, prone to silly melodramatics, playing pranks, and things of that nature. And he could only discuss science or the arts with Hank so many times before he started to feel himself going stir-crazy. It was so good to get out of the mansion, in fact, that he actually found himself tapping his fingers in time with Alex's loud rock-n-roll music and chuckling as the other boy sang along, his voice more than slightly off-key.
They drove into the city, and Alex managed to find a parking spot with relative ease. He got out, retrieved Charles's wheelchair, and helped him into it, before saying, "Where to first, the grocery store or the post office?"
"Which is closer?" Charles asked, allowing Alex to wheel him up the street. He was no longer bothered by the passing thoughts of random strangers (he's handsome enough, but he's in a wheelchair, I couldn't deal with that – wonder what happened to him? – too young, poor guy – he almost ran over my foot), and instead focused on taking in the general atmosphere, the hustle and bustle, the noise. It was a little foreign to him, as he spent most of his days in a country manor with only a small group of other people, but he enjoyed the challenge of trying to hear Alex's voice over the din of thoughts pouring into his head.
"Post office's a block or two up from here," Alex replied. "Grocery store's a bit farther."
"Post office it is, then," Charles said. "When did you get to be such an excellent navigator?"
"Since I've been running your errands for a year," Alex joked. Charles smiled.
"That would explain it."
"Or call it a natural talent. I'm just full of 'em – fail-safe navigation skills, flawless good looks, effortless charm."
"And such humility," Charles said, completely dead-pan, smirking a tad at Alex's faux-offended noise.
Alex continued to push him up the sidewalk, and after a moment Charles said, "I hope I'm not slowing you down too much."
"Actually, you're speeding it up a bit. Normally I've gotta dodge people and dogs and stuff, plus wait on Sean, but some of these idiots at least try to move for a guy in a wheelchair."
Charles chuckled as they arrived in front of a building that he dimly recognized as the post office, before he stopped laughing, searching for a ramp.
"Aw, damn, I forgot," Alex said apologetically. "Stairs. Sorry, Professor . . ."
"It's quite alright," Charles assured him, keeping his voice light. "Not everywhere is wheelchair accessible, unfortunately. I'll just wait there by that bench."
Alex wheeled him over to the bench, promised to be back very quickly, and darted off, his long legs easily bounding up the stairs to the doors as Charles watched with carefully buried jealousy. Charles followed Alex's mind until he got inside, then sighed and settled in his chair for a long wait when the other mutant thought, Shit. I know it's right after Christmas and all, but really? All these people had to get their mail NOW? Ugh, the lines are all miles long . . .
Shivering in the cold January air, Charles adjusted his thick, dark red scarf around his neck, pushing it up so that it covered his earlobes, which were icy cold.
Just then, he sensed a man approaching him – a bum. Sighing to himself yet again, he prepared to be forced to listen to some lie or another (and subsequently have to lie and say that he, a man wearing an expensive dark suit, thick coat, and shiny loafers, had no money on him, sorry, terribly sorry), but something drew his mind back to this man almost instantly.
This man was half-blind and missing a foot, and he had only one shoe, which he wore on his remaining foot. The other leg ended in a stump, which he had wrapped a ragged scarf around.
"Oi, sir . . . don't mean to bother ya, really, but you haven't got any change, have ya? So sorry . . ."
Charles dipped into his mind, scanning it carefully. This man was around sixty-five years old, with a wife at home ill with pneumonia – two grown children, both daughters – he'd lost his job after he'd lost the foot – diabetes caused it, couldn't be saved . . .
Before he fully registered what he was doing, Charles pulled his wallet from his pants pocket and opened it, withdrawing a fifty dollar bill. "Here," he said. "It's a fifty," he added kindly, as the man peered at it with eyes that couldn't make out the sun in the sky, much less the small numbers on a bill.
The man was stunned. "Oh – thank you, sir – thank you . . ."
Charles smiled. "No need to thank me. I have an idea of how you feel."
The man looked confused, and then squinted again at Charles. Charles entered his mind again, seeing the blurry picture the bum saw – a mostly faceless young man with blurry dark hair, dark clothes, sitting in a chair with wheels.
"Oh," the man said, suddenly horrified. "No, I can't take this from ya – you're worse off than me, here –,"
"No," Charles said, raising a hand to halt the man. "I don't need it. Take it."
The man (another slip into his mind tells Charles that his name is Frederick) sticks out a cold, raw hand, and Charles shakes it, smiling. "Now get inside, please – it's awfully cold out here," Charles continued.
"Thank ya, thank ya, sir . . . happy New Year, by the way . . . thank ya . . ." said Frederick the beggar, before he hustled away, his retreating form disappearing into the throngs of people and his thoughts quickly slipping back into the stream of other minds, becoming indistinguishable from the masses of cold, tired people around him.
Alex stepped up beside Charles. "Was that old guy bugging you?"
"No, not at all," Charles said, reaching for the mail Alex had clasped in his gloved hands.
"You gave him money, didn't you?" Alex asked, giving Charles the envelopes and a raised eyebrow.
"I did. He needed it, so I gave it."
Alex shook his head, but his thoughts proved to be admiring – Professor X is really the nicest person I know, too nice for his own good . . .
Charles smiled slightly but didn't comment – instead, he allowed Alex to push him again on the longer trek to the grocery store and flipped through the mail. Two letters for a student, a letter for Hank from someone at NASA, the usual birthday note from his cousin Carol, and a thick folder that had nothing written on it but his P.O. box address and a couple of stamps.
Charles stared at the folder for several seconds, disbelieving. No. Surely not.
But it was, it had to be – the writing on the outside of the folder was the handwriting of none other than Erik Lehnsherr.
Charles's heart seemed to rise up to his throat at the same time his stomach swooped to the area of his useless feet, and he was halfway to tearing open the package when Alex said, "Hold on, professor, you dropped an envelope. Shit, the wind'll get it . . ."
"What? Oh," Charles said dumbly, watching as Alex hurried to grab the envelope – it was Hank's NASA letter, now slightly smudged with dirt from the sidewalk, but Charles couldn't really bring himself to care, not when he had a package from Erik sitting in his lap.
Oh, right, he thought, blinking. It's my birthday – and last year he sent . . . ah.
They were only a block down from the grocery store, according to Alex's thoughts, and Charles didn't think he would survive waiting to open the package until they'd finished shopping and he was holed up at the mansion in his study. "You don't mind if I open this now, do you?" Charles queried. "It could be urgent." Which isn't a whole lie, he told himself. Erik could have written something pressing . . . what if there's something wrong with him?
"Nah, of course not," Alex said. Charles skimmed his mind lightly, but found that Alex was not at all interested in Charles's package – he was more interested in spotting any attractive girls who might be braving the weather, and reaching the interior of the grocery store, away from the chilly winter breeze.
Charles stuck the other envelopes in between his thigh and the arm rest of the chair so that he wouldn't drop them, then tore open the padded folder with a quick, hard rip (ordinarily he wouldn't be quite so rough, but Erik seemed to seal all of his packages with a solid inch of wax). He turned the large envelope over in his lap and out tumbled a sheet of crisp, white paper and a heavy box, larger than the one from the last year (the one that had held within it the shiny silver ring he now wore on the ring finger of his right hand) but covered with the same soft black silk.
He quickly grabbed the paper before it could flutter away with the wind, and dipped his head over it, both to provide a block between the letter and prying eyes and so that he wouldn't miss a single word Erik had written.
This letter is intended only for the eyes of Charles Francis Xavier, Ph.D., of Westchester County, New York – as always with hopes of his physical and mental wellbeing.
Firstly, happy birthday. Secondly, were you expecting this letter? I'm going to assume you weren't, although since I sent you a gift last year I hope you're not too shocked. I hope you liked the ring – it took quite a bit of time but I think it was worth every second. As for this year's present – you know the rule, don't open it until you finish reading.
As she was at this time last year, Raven is perfectly fine. She wishes you a happy twenty-ninth and she bets you can't wait until thirty (this was said with sarcasm, as I'm sure you can tell). Don't worry, thirty is really no different from twenty-nine, or twenty-eight, in my personal experience. Not that age has ever meant a great deal to me.
I myself am quite well. I could tell you a little about what I've been doing for the past year-and-a-quarter since we've seen each other, but it's too dangerous here on paper, and besides, you wouldn't want to know, anyway. I will only say that my associates and I are hard at work.
It's rather odd, Charles. I often wonder if my helmet is defective – you have the oddest way of working yourself into my mind sometimes. All it takes is a checkerboard pattern for me to think of our games of chess, or the sight of a pair of blue eyes to make me think of yours (I have yet to find a pair that perfectly match your own; I suspect yours have their own color in the spectrum). Strangely, these sorts of things, these little memories of you that rise up, seem only to increase as time goes by. As overly-dramatic as this must sound, I think I really do miss you.
Your gift this year took some professional craftsmanship other than my own, but I made the basic structure and did the engraving. As in my last letter, I will not tell you what it is – only that it has a special meaning. The ring had a meaning as well, but it's a bit difficult to explain in a letter. Or maybe I just can't come up with the proper words to express what I mean. Your guess is as good as mine.
And a reminder, Charles, before I am gone until next year – my offer is still on the table. It remains on the table until you accept or until the day you die.
Happy birthday, my friend. Enjoy the day and your gift.
"Professor? Professor X. Charles."
Charles jolted at the use of his given name. "Yes, Alex, what is it?"
"Pick out your birthday cake – sorry, but you'd have seen it in somebody's head eventually. Ooh, chocolate. Oh, sorry. Your choice, totally your choice." Please pick chocolate, please pick chocolate . . . wonder what's his problem . . .
"I'm alright," Charles said, shaking his head to clear it. "Get the chocolate one, then, if you want it," he told Alex, feeling a bit too much like a father with a small child than he was entirely comfortable with.
Alex grinned and picked up a large German chocolate cake (somewhere some deity or another was laughing at the irony of that) from the small shelf of baked desserts, placing it in the cart he'd been pushing. Charles blinked, a little startled – he hadn't noticed Alex getting anything off the shelves.
"I left you here by the cakes so I could go get the rest of the stuff . . . I was hoping you'd figure it out and pick one out by yourself, but you were still reading that letter when I came back," the younger mutant explained. "You look kind of . . . dazed. Is everything okay?"
Hope it's not about the school . . . I haven't got anywhere else to go except back to solitary confinement if the government shuts the place down. I wonder if Professor X would let me stay with him if they did close it . . .
"Calm down, Alex," Charles said, making an effort to appear less out-of-it. "It has nothing to do with the school or the government. And you needn't worry – you are always welcome in my house, whether you have another place to go or not."
Alex smiled, actually blushing a little with embarrassment. "Thanks . . ."
"You're welcome," Charles said, sliding the letter underneath his scarf and into the breast pocket of his coat. He found himself fiddling with the black box, desperate to open it but having more sense than to do it right there. He slid the box into the deep pocket of his coat, where it was out of sight but not nearly out of mind. He was aware of its weight every time he lifted his arm and caused the jacket to shift, and it seemed to be calling to him, hurry, Charles – hurry and open me.
"Are we done here?" Charles asked, keeping the eagerness he felt out of his voice as he wheeled himself towards the cashier.
"Yep," Alex said, rolling the rackety cart up to the counter and letting the shop-girl total their purchases. However, she was incredibly slow – Charles didn't need to be a mind-reader to know that the pretty redheaded girl was flirting with Alex, but since he was, he was forced to sit there, waiting for Alex and listening to the various hormonal teenage thoughts floating from them (hers being mostly silly and girly, while his were leaning more and more towards dirty as the conversation progressed).
Alex, he thought reproachfully, projecting this into Alex's head. That's hardly appropriate or respectful.
Sorry, Alex responded, guilt and resentment in his mind now.
Charles softened. No, I'm sorry. It's only that I need to get back to the school, Hank must be going crazy dealing with that lot.
You're welcome to get her phone number from her, though. She's quite interested in you – according to her, you're like 'that Roman god Adonis or someone' . . . she's hardly correct, Adonis is Greek, but I suppose the two are easily confused . . . oh, and she also thinks you're a 'total dreamboat'.
Alex grinned at Charles, causing the girl to falter slightly in confusion, but she began to beam again when Alex asked for her phone number. Charles merely smirked and took as many bags as would fit in his lap (feeling rather like a pack-mule as he did so), waited for Alex to finish taking down her phone number, and then wheeled himself out the door and into the street.
"Do you want me to push you?" Alex asked, although it was hardly possible with him holding a grocery bag in each arm.
"No – thank you, though. I could use the exercise," Charles responded, wheeling himself along much more quickly than he normally would have – the sooner they got to the car, the sooner he could get home and open the mysterious box from Erik.
Alex hurried to keep up, although Charles eventually had to slow his pace (mostly because there were even more people on the streets now, and it was difficult to move quickly without dumping the bags and papers in his lap all over the place). Finally, though, they reached the car, and Charles waited with impatience growing in the back of his mind for Alex to load the groceries securely. He debated whether or not to attempt climbing in solo, but decided against it with a look at the cold, unforgiving pavement (if he was using both hands to lift himself, there was little he could do to save his face from making contact with the ground, a prospect he didn't relish in the slightest).
Alex finally sauntered around and helped to lift Charles's body up so he could climb into the seat, before he rolled the wheelchair around to the back and placed it in carefully, so it wouldn't tip and squish the groceries. After what felt like fifteen minutes but was really only about five, Alex was in the driver's seat and cranking the ignition.
They were just outside the outskirts of the city when Alex looked over at him and said, "So, you gonna open it, or not?"
"What?" Charles queried, but Alex's mind was a wide open book – he had seen Charles slide the gift into his pocket, and Charles merely hadn't noticed.
"Oh," he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the black box. "I don't know if I should. I don't know what it is."
Alex just looked at him. You might be able to read minds, Professor X, but I'm pretty good at reading faces. I think you know what's in the box.
"Really, I don't have the faintest idea. I know it's a birthday gift, but that's it. And Alex, please pay attention to the road. You can talk to me without looking at me."
"You can open it," Alex repeated. "I won't look, promise. I know you're dying to, I can tell by how evasive you're being."
Charles sighed and said, "Alright. Keep your eyes on the road – I'll know immediately if you don't."
Alex just said, "Go on, open it!"
Sighing, but admitting to himself that he was maddeningly curious, he popped open the box – and gasped.
"What?" Alex crowed without missing a beat, turning his whole body to see.
"Alex, the road," Charles said, forcing his voice to stay normal. Oh my.
Alex ignored him, instead giving a low whistle and announcing, "Day-ummmmm. That's pretty fancy."
"It is," Charles said, lifting what appeared to be a silver pocket-watch from the box. "Oh, wow." He popped it open, gazing at the clock inside with a small smile playing at the corners of his lips. He could tell this was the place where Erik had needed someone else's help, but it was wonderful nonetheless.
On the inside of the watch, not on the clock's face but on the backside of the front cover, was an inscription, much bigger than the one on the inside of Charles's ring but reading virtually the exact same thing.
to cfx, xxix, from eml.
"Ah. 'To CFX, 29, from EML'," he read aloud to Alex, closing the watch with a click to look at the outside of it again.
"Okay, so CFX is obviously you, but who's EML?" Alex questioned, glancing over at Charles.
Charles pretended to be focused on the beautiful pocket-watch, and merely said distantly, "A friend of mine."
He felt it the exact moment when it hit Alex, and winced – this could be very, very bad.
"Erik Lehnsherr," Alex exclaimed, shocked. "Erik Lehnsherr, that's who it is, isn't it?"
Charles immediately started wondering whether or not his conscience would let him just erase Alex's memory, but he knew the guilt would irk him forever if he did. "Alex –,"
"God, we all knew you two were all over each other, but we didn't think it was – you know, for real," Alex said, more stunned than anything at that point.
"You all knew?" Charles said. He'd known of the suspicions of his friends (they'd all started wondering when Charles and Erik had begun exchanging glances constantly and playing hours-long chess matches together every night), but no one had really thought of it since Erik had left – mostly because Charles himself rarely mentioned the other man.
"Well, I worked it out after he ditched us – I saw you out on the grounds with Moira, about two days after you'd come home from the hospital. She was talking to you, and it looked like she was upset, but you were just kind of staring out at the trees, not paying her any attention. And then I knew – the only reason you would have ignored her is if you were thinking about him."
Charles was stunned. He'd always known Alex was more perceptive than he showed outwardly, but he'd never been deep enough into Alex's mind to see just how observant the blunt, oftentimes rude young man really was.
Finally, Charles spoke. "Alright, you're right. Although I don't really remember the incident you're talking about – you have no idea how blurry those days were for me – I can see it in your mind. The pocket-watch is from Erik, and this ring, as well," he said, lifting his right hand where the silver ring rested. "They're gifts from a friend to a friend."
"He's your friend, after what happened?" Alex asked sharply, and Charles could see it in the boy's mind – that day on the beach, missiles, Moira running with her gun held out, firing, Charles suddenly arching forward and hitting the ground, Erik's dash to him, Erik holding him, then rising and vanishing with Raven and his own worst enemy's henchmen.
"I have forgiven him for what happened," Charles said calmly, ignoring how much the memory shook him. "He has not done anything intentionally harmful to me yet."
Alex looked at him – he loves him, he loves that traitor, I can see it all over his face – and said, "But you know he could. You know he will."
"You don't know what I know, Alex," Charles said, sliding the pocket-watch into his breast pocket with the letter, so that they both rested firmly against his chest.
"I think you can't see the truth because of your feelings. You're blinded when it comes to him."
He's right, said inner-Charles to himself, the deepest part of his psyche speaking the truth that the greater consciousness could not see. He's completely right. Erik has blinded you, made you think he will never hurt you. You are fully under his thumb.
The pocket-watch against his chest felt suddenly as heavy as a lead weight, and the ring on his finger seemed to be scalding his pale, soft flesh. "You could be right, Alex."
"I know I'm right, Charles," Alex responds, proving how serious he is with the use of Charles's first name. He takes a turn while barely glancing at the road, but Charles can't bring himself to worry about silly things such as cars or roads right now.
"I can't give up on him. I just can't," Charles said softly, heavily. "Not yet."
Alex just looked at him for a moment, seemingly unaware at first that Charles was listening to his every thought as it entered his mind. This is a hopeless cause . . . Professor X, why the fuck can't you see reason?
I don't know, Charles projects back, baby blue eyes meeting gray ones. I know you're right, but I don't want to believe you. It's matters of the mind I'm experienced with, my young friend, not matters such as this.
"I only hope you figure out how to deal with it," Alex said aloud, finally looking back out the windshield. "Before you get hurt."
Alex means well, Charles realized. And oh, God, he is so right. Erik, he is so right.
"I hope so, too," Charles told him. "I really do."
But I don't know if I can – I can't let go of Erik. Not right then, at least. As the rest of the way home passed in silence, Charles wondered if he'd ever have the strength to forsake Erik as Erik had forsaken him.
A/N: The next and final installment (which I'll post either tomorrow or Monday) should hopefully be a bit more romance-y, but will probably contain angst and be rated M (it's not gonna be smut). Thanks for reading, please review!