So, wow guys. I looked at the last updated date for this and realized that it's been over a month. How did that happen?
Sorry about that. "Fairly soon-ish" was not meant to be this long, I swear. Thanks everyone for your patience. And I'm sorry this is so short. A month and a half and I don't even have a respectable update for you. I fail at life.
Anyway, on a better note, I have sequel of sorts up for The King's Gambit. It isn't much, just a three-shot, and fairly simple, but hopefully it will entertain you guys. The first part is posted. It's called Shelter, if anyone wants to check it out.
In case anyone is interested. The title and inspiration for this chapter come from Bon Iver's song Blindsided. Like all their music, it's absolutely gorgeous, so I recommend giving it a listen. :)
As always, feedback is welcome!
Erik Lehnsherr is standing on his doorstep.
For a long moment, the world holds its breath as he struggles to wrap his mind around that fact—stands there gaping wide-eyed at the ghost who has decided to grace his doorstep.
"Hello, Charles," the phantom says finally, sounding pinched and nervous and not like Erik at all.
"I'm dreaming," Charles decides brokenly, clenching his fingers on the edge of the door until his knuckles bleach as white as the snow outside. "Over I've finally gone mad."
Because Erik looks almost normal—helmetless and clad in pressed pants and a familiar turtleneck. All he's missing is his leather jacket, but that's thrown over the armchair in the study—dust coated and just about forgotten. Erik looks normal and if it weren't for the throbbing pain in his leg and the fierce ache in his chest, Charles would wonder if the beach had been the dream and he's just now waking.
"You haven't gone mad," Erik is saying when he focuses again, still sounding like sandpaper over gravel.
Charles' fingers start to tremble and he wonders what he should feel. Anger? Hate? Hope? Joy? "What…" his voice dies in his throat, forcing him to swallow and start again. "What are you doing here?"
"I have to talk to you." Erik sounds desperate and now that he's looking, Charles can see dark circles set deep in too pale skin and clothes that hang off a frame far skinnier than he remembers. "Just for a little bit."
He should shut the door, the rational part of his mind tells him. He exorcised the ghosts, he said good-bye, he forgave and he moved on. This should be over. Over and finished and dead. He doesn't owe Erik Lehnsherr anything.
And yet … yet … "Alright," he whispers in surrender, swinging the door open wider.
He's never been good at saying no to Erik.
The metal manipulator steps across the threshold cautiously, as though he's entering a lion's den, and it's so ridiculous Charles wants to laugh. Erik Lehnsherr, who drove a coin through a man's skull, lifted a submarine, beat him into submission, and then drove a bullet through his leg, is afraid of him.
Except, that's not really funny at all.
He closes the door behind Erik, watching as the other man tries to hide a flinch at the echoing sound.
The silence is oppressive as Erik lingers in the entryway, crossing his arms over his chest and looking anywhere but Charles' face.
Charles reaches desperately for calm. "Why are you here, Erik?"
"I…" Erik jerks to a stop, running an agitated hand through his hair. He cut it recently, Charles notes with a jolt, and there's stubble dusting his jaw. He looks so different from the man who played chess with him, from the man who betrayed him, and he's not sure whether to be thankful or cautious.
Erik regards him with a frown, dropping his hand back to his side. "You cut your hair," he murmurs, sounding desperate for a distraction.
"Yes." It comes out clipped and just short of vicious.
Erik flinches and Charles berates himself. He's better than this. Taking a deep breath, he tries again. "Why are you here, Erik?"
"Did you mean it?" Erik blurts out, curling his fingers into fists that tremble at his sides. "All those things you said?"
Charles sucks in a sharp breath, feeling as though he's been slapped. "T-things?"
"Yes," Erik's voice is wrecked— impatient and full of emotion. "About forgiving me and moving on and…" Another crack, gulping breath of air, and there's something shattered in Erik's eyes. "Did you mean it?"
Charles wants to cry, or laugh, or scream until he can't breathe. Erik heard him. Dear God, Erik heard him. "Yes," he chokes out around the tears pricking at his eyes. "Yes, I meant it."
Erik looks like he doesn't know whether to run away or break down sobbing. The silence hovers again, thick enough to choke on, and Charles wishes he knew what to say.
At last, Erik shakes his head with a hint of desperation. "No. No you can't have meant it." His eyes blaze with an emotion Charles can't define, but he doesn't dare reach out and try to look. Everything is so fragile now, so surreal, and he's afraid that the slightest mistake will shatter this beyond repair.
He can't pick up the pieces all over again. He's not that strong.
He wants to hate Erik for this, but he can't bring himself to do that, either. Not when his old friend looks as lost and broken and frayed as he is.
"You can't have meant it," Erik repeats, sounding more certain now. "What are you playing at?"
Charles feels a rush of familiar irritation. "Erik, I'm not…"
"Sean, be careful with those!" Raven's voice carries through the closed door, followed by car doors slamming and feet crunching on the gravel drive.
Erik freezes, looking remarkably like a deer caught in a hunter's light. Charles swallows nervously, fighting down the urge to make the others leave again – at least until he figures out what to say to Erik. At the same time, the familiar hum of their minds is a welcome balm to the storm raging through his soul.
However he wants to act, it's too late. Hank is throwing open the door, freezing as he catches sight of Erik. There's a moment where everything hovers, suspended with disbelief and shock. Then, the world explodes into violent motion.
Hank drops his bag of groceries and lunges for Erik with a deep, primal snarl. Erik doesn't fight back as he's grabbed by the throat and slammed into the wall hard enough to force a gasp of pain from his mouth.
"Hank!" Charles shouts, though he expected nothing less. The others have gathered in the doorway, gaping in stunned incredulity as Hank strangles Erik.
"What are you doing here?" The scientist growls viciously, pressing Erik harder into the wall.
Erik's hands come up, instinctively grasping Hank's wrist as he struggles for air. Charles hurries forward, wondering frantically why Erik isn't fighting, isn't lashing out with his powers in order to defend himself.
"Hank, stop!" Charles reaches for his shoulder, clasping onto cloth and blue fur and pulling. "Let him go!" He extends his telepathy, hoping to use it to force Hank into releasing Erik, whose hands have fallen limp and lifeless to his sides again. "Stop!"
Hank roars again, furious, and throws Charles off. He tries to catch his balance, but with his bad leg it's impossible and he hits the carpeted floor of the entryway much too hard. White-hot pain surges through his leg, blacking out his vision, and a scream punches free before he can stop it.
"Charles!" Raven, and suddenly there are warm hands on his face, smoothing over his brow.
Distantly, he can hear Erik coughing and Hank babbling horrified apologies, but everything is drowning beneath the pain rapidly setting his veins on fire. He manages to raise a trembling hand, brushing his fingers across Raven's. "I think…" he forces out around the screams still lodged in his throat. "…I need to lie down."
He can't tell if Raven laughs or cries in response to that.
Raven watches Hank carefully lay Charles down in his bed, pulling the covers up over her unconscious brother. She half suspects Charles put himself under, to escape the pain, and if Hank didn't look so guilt-riddled she would hit him.
"Everyone out," she barks, feeling the anger sparking through her, begging for release. The boys exchange hesitant glances, looking more shaken than she's seen them in a long time, and she shoots them a dark glare to motivate them. "Now."
They frown in protest, but shuffle out together, shooting furtive, disbelieving glances at Erik as they go. Erik moves to follow, but Raven quickly turns her glare on him. Speaking of someone she wants to hit. "Except you. You stay."
He freezes in the doorway, staring at her like he can't quite believe what he's hearing. He looks pale and haggard, barely cobbled together, and the part of her that has always wished she took his hand wants to hold him.
The rest of her is furious.
Before she's fully aware of what she's doing, her feet are carrying her across the room in swift strides. With a frustrated, broken snarl of anger, she punches Erik in the face. Her fist connects with his jaw hard enough to send him staggering back several steps, and he instantly clutches his bleeding mouth, staring at her with incredulous eyes. She wants to hit him again—punch that look away because, yes, she's grown up, but that doesn't give him the right to stare at her like he's never seen her before—but she manages to hold herself back.
Attacking with words will work just as well. "That was for Charles," she spits at him, relishing his flinch. "Now, tell me what you're doing here, you bastard."
He takes a deep breath, dropping his hand from his face. There's blood on his fingers and around his mouth and she can't help but remember the bloody hand he held up to her on the beach, promising a future she couldn't take.
"I suppose I deserved that," he says evenly, voice laced with steel.
She crosses her arms and glares, silently demanding he get to the point.
"I just …" He tugs idly on one of his shirt sleeves and shifts his weight almost nervously. Heaven help her, Erik Lehnsherr is fidgeting. That would be hilarious under any other circumstances. He gets himself under control quickly, though, stiffening his shoulders in an old, familiar show of defiance. "I just needed to ask him something."
"Ask him what?" She presses.
Erik glances at the bed—an emotion she can't place in his blue eyes. "I … what's wrong with him?"
"What do you think?" It comes out a half yell and Erik flinches again, paling another shade. When he looks at Charles again, his gaze is full of horrified denial.
"Yeah." There's months of anger and grief packed into the single word, and she really thought she was moving past all of this—growing up and leaving Erik and all his big, sweeping plans behind—but maybe the wounds ran deeper that she realized. "You sure did a lot of damage, Erik."
Erik keeps his gaze fixed on Charles, but Raven can see the tremors rattling his hand—the dismay and guilt pulsing through him—and strangely enough, it gives her hope. "When … when will he heal?"
The ever-present ache in her chest stabs at her again and she has to close her eyes against the pain. "Never," she whispers and feels Erik's startled gaze jerk to her.
"What?" He chokes.
She forces her eyes open to take in his stunned expression. "He'll never heal."
Erik makes a wounded noise deep in his throat, whipping back around to face Charles as he frantically shakes his head. "No … no … there must be…"
"There's nothing we can do. The doctor said there was too much nerve and muscle damage. He'll be in pain for the rest of his life." Her voice shakes in spite of the calm mask she's trying desperately to project. "It's a miracle he can walk."
Erik looks ready to collapse and Raven is sure that his grip on the bedpost is the only thing keeping him upright. The image isn't right—nothing like the Erik she expected him to be by now, confident and self-assured, ready to conquer the world—and she's not sure what to do.
"Why are you here, Erik?" she asks again.
"I don't know," Erik whispers in reply, sliding his gaze from Charles to the floor.
"You said you had to ask him something?" She takes a hesitant step forward, wondering if she should rest a hand on his arm, if he would shrug it off if she did. "What is it?"
"If he forgives me." It's spoken so softly she almost doesn't catch it, but it still blindsides her.
"For months now … whenever I'm not wearing the helmet … I've been … I've heard his voice, in my head. And he said … he said he forgives me. I have … I have to know if that's true." He rests his head against the bedpost, looking caught somewhere between laughing and crying.
Oh, Charles. Her stupid, incredible brother with a heart too big for his chest.
"I'm sure it is," she says, sparing a fond glance at Charles' sleeping face. "Charles has always been good at forgiving."
"He can't," Erik grits out. "Not for this."
Raven isn't sure what to say to that and so the silence settles in. Erik looks worn and haggard, leaning against the edge of the bed. He's lost weight, Raven can tell, and his hair is nothing like she remembers—short and messy, with the beginnings of a beard across his jaw.
No, this isn't the Erik she imagined at all.
Still draped in silence, she watches Erik reach out a hand as though to touch Charles' face, but he stops a few inches from her brother's skin, quickly pulling his hand back to his side. "I should go."
His quiet declaration sends a jolt of fear down her spine. He can't leave—not when there's so much hope lurking beneath his guilt, so much promise for a future where he belongs again.
"Erik Lehnsherr, if you walk out that door I'll never forgive you," she declares.
He turns to her in surprise. "Raven…"
"I will never forgive you," she repeats firmly, crossing her arms again and pinning him with her best glare.
"I don't belong here," he protests with a shake of his head. "I'm not welcome anymore." He raises a hand to his neck, where she's certain bruises are forming beneath the protective cover of his turtleneck.
She wants to tell him that isn't true. That even though she's mad at him, she wants him back in their lives, back home, safe and sound where he belongs. But she can't speak for the boys.
"I want you here," she says instead, smiling inwardly at his blindsided look.
He opens his mouth, only to clamp it shut again when no sound comes out, and runs an agitated hand through his hair.
"Why did you come back?" she asks again, following her gut instinct that's always made it easy for her to read people.
He makes a frustrated sound, scowling at her. "I told you."
"That's not the only reason." She layers her voice with a certainty she doesn't feel and watches his expression crumble slightly.
"No," he admits reluctantly. "I wanted … I had to know that you were safe. All of you. I couldn't … I couldn't stop wondering. No matter what I did." When he looks up at her the defiance is back. "But you are fine. You don't need me here."
She laughs incredulously—a mirthless sound that makes Erik wince. "Erik, you're blind if we look fine to you. We're getting better, yes, but we're not fine."
"I'll only complicate things," Erik insists. "You're better off without me."
He hasn't mentioned his cause yet, she notes, the grand purpose he laid out for them on the beach, and she wonders why. Now hardly seems the time to ask, though. "Don't play the martyr, Erik," she says instead, frowning at him. "It doesn't fit you."
Erik glares at her with tightly restrained fury that can't completely mask his panic and doesn't offer a retort. Raven takes a cautious step forward. "I want you here," she repeats. And there is one person she can speak for. "And so does Charles."
Erik shakes his head again—the panic welling in his eyes as glances from her to Charles and back again. "No. I can't stay here…"
Two more quick steps and she's wrapping her arms around him. The words die in his throat and he goes still in her hold. She grabs onto the back of his shirt as tightly as she can manage without hurting him and buries her face in his neck.
"Stay." She tries to sound demanding instead of desperate, but she doubts she succeeds. "Please, Erik. Just for a little while, at least."
There's a long moment of silence before Erik surrenders. "Okay," he murmurs. "For a little while."
She pulls him closer and if she feels a few tears wet her hair, she doesn't mention it.
Charles wakes up to the sight of Erik fast asleep in the arm chair by his bed—bathed in yellow lamplight. It's … surprising, to say the least.
"Oh," he says, watching as Erik jerks awake and blinks at him with wide eyes, "I wasn't dreaming, then."
Erik leans forward swiftly, reaching out a hand. "Are you okay?" He pulls up short, grimacing slightly before withdrawing, and Charles can see the chasm between them—spider-web cracks in a glass mirror.
They splinter in the silence and Charles sits up, puts his hands in his lap and wonders what he's supposed to say. "You stayed," is the first thing that comes to mind.
Erik sinks back in the chair—hands fluttering briefly, like wayward butterflies, before he settles them stiffly on the armrests—and nods. "Yeah. Raven asked me to." There's an unspoken question lurking beneath his words.
Charles tries to force a smile, because he's glad, he really is, but nothing comes and he curls his fingers into his palm instead. "That's good."
Erik's eyes drift to his leg and dread forms a lead ball in Charles' stomach. "Raven told you," he guesses, voice flat and hard. He didn't want Erik to know about this, didn't want the pity he can see blossoming in the other man's eyes.
"Yes," Erik stammers, looking away. Another crack mars the mirror and the chasm widens. Charles wants to scream.
"Stop it," he snaps—fingernails scratching at his pant legs.
Erik flinches, jerking his gaze back to meet Charles' eyes. "Stop what?" he asks with forced calm and Charles fights against the rage waiting to boil over.
"You don't get to pity me, Erik. I don't want it from anyone, least of all you."
Steel layers over the guilt and pain in Erik's eyes, even as he tries to hide a flinch. "Fine," he says—tone clipped and mask perfect. "Wasn't my fault anyway."
There are still so many cracks. Charles can see them all—chinks in Erik's armor, iron and steel slowly melting away. This isn't the Erik from the beach, even though he's pretending to be.
"Yes it was," Charles whispers, watching the shadows contrast with the gleaming blue of Erik's eyes.
Erik's fingers scrap against the armrests and he swallows sharply. They're on the edge of something, Charles can tell, be it compromise or the end of everything. He keeps himself silent, because he's never been good at saying the right thing, and watches Erik wage a familiar war against himself.
"Yes," the metal manipulator murmurs after a tense moment, thick and heavy with defeat. "It was."
Charles lets go of the breath he's been holding and tries to keep himself from weeping. How did it all come to this? What course did they set for themselves that resulted in being so broken? He wants to fix this, fix Erik and the boys and Raven—everything—but he's not sure he can. Has Erik really come back or is a mere shell occupying the armchair—existing only because of leftover guilt, ready to vanish again in a blaze of revolution as soon as the guilt is gone?
He's never wanted answers more in his life.
He can't look into Erik's mind. He won't.
"I'm sorry," Erik says and somehow, Charles doesn't cry. "I'm so sorry."
"No," he replies, finally managing a weak smile. "I've already forgiven you."
Erik looks puzzled again—a mixture of shock and doubt darkening his face. "How can you mean that?"
Charles shrugs, wondering again if this is some kind of dream. Any moment, he's going to wake up to the others returning with the groceries and life will make sense again. "Revenge and hatred is a waste of time."
"I don't believe you," Erik grits out—eyes sparking with familiar fire. Maybe there's something left of Magneto in Erik, after all, and the thought makes Charles' chest hurt. "No one's that forgiving."
Charles laughs because that's so typical Erik—stubborn to a fault and so terrified of trust it's tragic—and for moment it almost feels like nothing's changed. Except his laugh sounds bitter and frail even to his own ears, and Erik is too-thin and jagged-edged, and everything has changed.
"Charles…" Erik sounds more uncertain that Charles has ever heard, and that's even funnier, so he laughs harder.
"I should have expected this," he chokes out around the laughter, feeling a few tears run down his face. "Of course you would show up the minute I've let it all go. That's how life works, isn't it?"
"Charles…" Erik shifts and suddenly there's a hand on his shoulder—warm and solid and full of old memories.
The laughter cuts off and Charles jerks away like he's been burned. It's reflexive, more shock that Erik was the first to initiate contact than disgust or revulsion, but Erik backs up so quickly he nearly trips over her own feet.
"I'm sorry," he says again, stiffly. Charles can sense him pulling away, feel the retreat of his mind—the intent to leave that is broadcasting so loudly not even his multitude of barriers can block it out—and he panics.
Surging off the bed, he grasps on Erik's sleeve, yanking the other man to a halt. "No," he grits out as Erik turns to him in surprise. "You don't get to do that either."
"Do what?" Again with that forced calm, and if Charles were a more violent person this would be where he punches Erik in the face.
Instead, he tightens his grip on the other man's sleeve. "What you did on the beach. Run away."
"I'm not running away." Charles hears the sharp edge to Erik's voice and wants to laugh. Some of Erik's pride is still intact, it would seem.
"Yes, you are," he argues back. "I said before I could make you stay, but I wouldn't. Now, I'm not so sure."
Erik's jaw clenches and he glares fiercely. "You wouldn't." It's a barely controlled snarl, meant to intimidate, but Charles is angry enough not to be affected.
"I would," he bites back, tightening his grip to bruising. "You came back for a reason. A part of you must want to fix this." Erik looks ready to protest, but Charles doesn't give him the chance. "I want to fix this." Erik's mouth snaps shut. "Believe me or don't, but it's true."
There's another moment of hovering silence before Erik sags in his grip, sighing out in his anger in one long breath. "Yes," he admits. "I want to fix this."
There are a thousand questions Charles wants to ask: why now? What about Erik's crusade? The other mutants who left the beach with him? Emma Frost, who he broke out of the CIA? The helmet and Magneto and the promise to destroy humanity? Is this game? A dream?
Does Charles still really matter to him, after a bullet and a beach and a coin?
But now isn't the time. Now, he merely nods in exhausted, amazed relief and squeezes Erik's shoulder. Erik doesn't smile at him, but his eyes have softened into a look Charles remembers, after a satellite dish and a victory.
It isn't much. In fact, it's barely anything at all. But it is a start. Somehow, impossibly, it's a start.
Okay, guys, I'm swear I'm going to try to have the next update posted sooner than a month and a half. I've got it all planned help, so hopefully that will make things go faster. Now to just sort of the issue of an appalling lack of free time...