Well, I have to say I'm not really sure what this is. While on holiday, I visited the North Sea and thought, "Well, this would make a great setting for a story." So, I went home to my computer that night and started a small drabble about Erik and Charles and the North Sea.
Twenty-five pages later I have this. Yeah.
It fits into The Last Train Home universe, but I think it could probably stand on it's own if you wanted. The next chapter of Last Train is coming. I'm sorry about the delay. I just go back from holiday yesterday and I'm sick, so it might be a couple more days before an update. Thank you all for your patience.
For now, I give you this monstrosity. Make of it what you will. Feedback is always appreciated. :)
P.S. I recommend listening to this marvelous song by David Gray. It fits the mood of the story well.
P.S. 2 I went completely AU on Charles' back story. Hopefully, it's acceptable to everyone. The back story will probably be explored at bit further in Last Train.
If you would hold still
Could make a clean incision
Then we could sit back
And watch the demolition
- From Here You Can Almost See The Sea, David Gray
It is Charles who suggests it one day, when the rain is beating against the windows and the mansion is shrouded in shadow. When they haven't spoken in days and all the unsaid things hang heavy between them, filling up the spaces they don't know how to.
"Let's go to the sea."
Erik says yes, because he wants to fix this, he really does—even though he's packed his suitcase three times in the past week and walked out the door twice, and Charles hasn't stopped him once.
They are fraying and tattering again and he doesn't know how to stop it, so he says yes, yes, let's go away, to the sea, to anywhere, to make sense of it all.
He packs his suitcase for the fourth time and meets Charles out by the car. Charles gets behind the wheel and they drive for hours in the wrong direction. He frowns, watching the road signs whip past and asks where they're going, the sea is east not south, and they really should avoid New York City this time of year.
"Not that sea," Charles says without taking his eyes off the road. "That isn't the right sea."
He doesn't understand, but his words are drying up these days and he doesn't know what to say. The silence stretches between them, just like all those unsaid things, and it feels heavy against his chest, his lips, his heart. Charles' fingers are tight on the leather of the steering wheel and there is steel in his eyes where there used to be serenity, and he should say something, anything.
He wants to fix this, he really does.
But he's a coward and so the silence sits as they approach the airport, park the car, and stride up to the kiosk.
Charles books them two tickets to London without so much as a blink.
He gapes a little, but keeps the suffocating silence. There is something surreal about all this, and he's wary of breaking the strange spell that's fallen over them.
They board the plane and sit near the back, right by the bustling serving station, full of pretty flight attendants with starched uniforms and fake smiles. He's a little surprised that they're not in first class, considering Charles' wealth, but Charles closes his eyes and turns away, so he doesn't ask.
The plane takes off ten minutes behind schedule, just as the sun is going down over the city. Charles remains still—chest rising and falling in the even rhythm of sleep. He tries to sleep, too, but finds he can't. His mind is spinning with too many things—the past, the present, the future and all those stupid unsaid things that weave through them all.
He wonders if he should have never come back. He wonders if he'll be able to stay. He wonders if Charles has really forgiven him. He wonders if the sea will fix anything, or just tear them apart one final time. He wonders if he really does like Magneto better than Erik and how Charles would look as an enemy.
He glances at Charles—serene in the window seat—and hates himself for even considering that possibility, so he stops wondering and stares past Charles into the black night and the blinking lights on the plane's wing.
A stewardess comes back with water and peanuts and more fake smiles. He accepts both with a fake smile of his own and she bustles away, leaving him to his silence. Charles doesn't stir. He eats the peanuts, drinks the water, and stares at the ceiling instead of out the window.
The hours tick by in slow procession and at last—after about two of them—his eyes drift shut.
Charles shakes him awake just as the pilot's voice crackles over the intercom, asking them to please put their tray tables and seatbacks in an upright position to prepare for landing. He obeys, stealing a look at Charles out the corner of his eye. Tired blue eyes set in too-pale skin catch his gaze with a knowing look and he swiftly turns away, wanting to tell Charles to stay out of his head but not really having the courage.
Besides, Charles doesn't owe him anything—even if the part of him that thinks Magneto is a better name than Erik would like to believe otherwise.
He steps out into the aisle and pull his bag down from the overhead compartment. After a moment's consideration, he takes Charles' down as well, handing it to the other man. Charles accepts it with a tight-lipped nod, slinging it casually over his shoulder.
He cut his hair last month and stubble is starting to grow along his jaw. It makes him look older and younger all at once, and not like Professor X at all. As Charles brushes past him into the aisle, he tries to decided for the thousandth time if he likes it or not.
After all, Charles would not make nearly as good of an adversary as Professor X.
They are among the last ones off the plane, and as they stride down the walkway toward customs, he takes a moment to look around like a wide-eyed tourist. Though he traveled to many different parts of the world in those Nazi-hunting years, he never came to England and the sight of the buildings glinting in the morning light is incredible.
There are people all around him dressed in drab colors and sporting pale skin, and as Charles presents his passport to a bored, equally wan-faced individual, he can't help but note how absurdly well the telepath fits in.
He doesn't. Not with his blond hair and blue eyes and strong, German features. People stare as they pass and he finds himself focusing on the ground, hunching in a little to make himself as small as possible, and he hates his weakness.
Magneto would never hide.
Charles is giving him a knowing look again, but he stubbornly ignores it as he hands his passport to the official. The young man gives him a precursory, curious glance, but stamps his passport quickly and efficiently, handing it back to him with an unenthusiastic "Have a nice day, sir."
Clouds are rolling in as they step out of the airport and head for the rental car lot. In the distance he can hear the low rumble of thunder and he marvels at the swift change in weather.
"England," Charles says as if that explains everything, and maybe it does.
Still, as Charles' first word in nearly a day, it's woefully inadequate, and Erik responds with nothing more than a faint grunt of agreement.
It takes them nearly fifteen minutes of walking, but they finally reach the car rental just as rain is beginning to tumble from the overcast sky. Charles and the man behind the counter converse in low tones with almost matching accents, and after a brief discussion Charles is handed the keys to a simple black car.
They cram into it, reminding him of how small European cars are, and Charles sets off on the opposite side of the road.
It's a little disorienting at first, but he gets used to it as they slowly leave London behind. The English countryside spreads out before them in rolling hills and cloudy skies that leak rain at sporadic intervals. It's depressing, in a way, and he wonders how someone as cheerful and optimistic as Charles could come from such a dreary land.
Though Charles isn't really cheery and optimistic these days and right now he looks as sad and downcast as the landscape.
He shifts gears deftly as they pick up speed, and Erik takes a moment to marvel because they don't own a manual at home and he's never really seen Charles drive. Then again, there are thousands of things he's realizing he doesn't know about Charles Xavier and he isn't sure he wants to know them—isn't sure he wants Charles to stay Charles and not Professor X.
He resolves to stop thinking and watches the hills slide by as they wind their way toward the right sea.
They reach it an hour later, just as the rain has stopped falling. The wind digs rough fingers into his face when he steps out of the car, and finds himself looking at an old cottage perched amidst the rippling dunes of the North Sea. The ocean roars in the distance, rough waves breaking harshly against the wide strip of sand.
On the other side of the car, Charles closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "This," he murmurs so softly it's almost lost to the howl of the wind, "is the right sea."
Erik wonders what's so special about this desolate place—what is here that couldn't be found in America, what makes this the right sea—but again he doesn't ask. Charles pulls his bag out of the trunk and he follows silently up the winding path to the cottage. Inexplicably, Charles fishes a key out of his pocket, and, holding his wallet between his teeth, he wrestles with the lock on the door for a few minutes before it clicks loudly and swings open on creaking hinges.
A few things fall into place and Erik feels a quiet pang deep inside, because he isn't meant to see this. He doesn't want to know about Charles Xavier now—not when he can't decide if he wants to be Erik or Magneto and if Charles should stay Professor X in his mind, cold and distant, an enemy.
Inside the cottage is simple and dust-coated. Cobwebs hang from the corners and lamp fixtures, and the weathered glass windows are layered with filth. It's an old place, full of memories. He can hear them whispering through the air, circling around Charles who stands framed in the weak light of the English afternoon. He watches as Charles ventures further into the house, running his hand along the surface of the dining room table and leaving a clean trail through the thick covering of dust.
"It needs a bit of cleaning," Charles says unnecessarily, but he still nods in agreement. Even from the doorway he can feel the dust-laced air trying to suffocate him.
Or maybe that's the ghosts and the memories.
They clean draped in their usual silence, slowly clearing away the dust and the cobwebs. Charles heads outside to attack the windows while Erik perches atop the dining room table and battles the network of cobwebs with an ancient broom. Most of them stick to his skin and tangle in his hair, making him curse soft and furious in German, but he can't hate this place. Not yet. He's still Erik and he wants to fix this, so he cleans and watches Charles scrub at the windows from a precarious ladder and cleans some more.
Charles finishes the windows and heads into the kitchen, pulling chipped china dishes from the cupboards and washing them methodically in the sink. He strips the faded sheets off the bed and washes them by hand, using the rusty pump he finds just outside the house. Once he has finished, he discovers that a clothesline has somehow survived the elements, so he begins pinning the sheets up the same way his mother used to in Germany, a lifetime ago.
The air is still cold and the wind still strong so he finds himself shivering, even in his heavy jacket. It's July and the clouds are thick in the sky overhead. The sea moves to its own rhythm and he wonders if he's dreaming. He feels like a boy again, helping his mother with the laundry, and he's not sure if he likes it.. But cleaning, doing laundry, is soothing in a way he didn't expect and he leaves the sheets drying in the cold wind while he goes to tackle the lone bathroom.
The clatter of dishes in the kitchen and the low sound of Charles humming an old melody is comforting and for the first time in a long time, he hopes.
It's dark by the time they finish, but the house is almost spotless and he feels absurdly proud as he puts the last of the sheets back on the bed. Outside, the rain has started again, drumming steadily against the roof and windows.
Charles is sitting at the table when he emerges from the bedroom, staring out the window with a distant expression. There's two bowls of steaming soup in front of him and as Erik sits down in the chair across from him and reaches for a spoon, he learns something new about Charles Xavier.
Apparently, he can cook. Very well.
"You made this?" He blurts before he can stop himself. It's the first thing he's said in forty-eight hours and Charles starts a little at the sound of his voice.
It wasn't the right time, he knows. The weighty silence breaking is too jarring, throwing them both off-balance, but Charles still answers.
He feels like he should add in a compliment, but the words lock up in his throat. He doesn't really know how to talk to Charles anymore—especially this Charles, with short hair and weary eyes who looks nothing like Professor X or even the man who saved his life. The silence hovers, waiting for him, but when he fails to speak it settles in again, heavy on his shoulders.
Charles looks away and the moment is gone.
Erik hates himself a little bit—for letting it go and for caring in the first place—and wonders when these two sides of him will stop warring with each other. And more importantly, who will win: Erik … or Magneto.
Charles glances at him—the cursed knowing look boring into him. He wonders if Charles is simply waiting for him to break, but pushes the thought away and eats his good soup while the silence keeps pressing in.
When he wakes up the next morning the clouds still hang low across the sky, but the rain has finally stopped. He pulls on three layers to fight the chill morning air, marvels again at British weather, and ventures into the main room. Charles is nowhere to be found, but there is oatmeal on the stove and a bowl and spoon at the table for him.
He wonders how Charles can be so kind to someone he should hate, then tells himself to stop wondering about things before he drives himself mad, and sits down to breakfast. Surprisingly, the oatmeal has just the right amount of sugar in it and he should be angry at Charles, for poking around in his head, but he can't muster the energy.
He washes his dishes and puts them in the cupboard once he's finished. His boots are sitting by the front door, and he pulls them on and takes the scarf that is hanging on the peg in the wall. It's his size and black, just like most of his turtlenecks.
He wishes Charles would stop making this so difficult and contemplates throwing the garment away. His hands betray him, though, wrapping it around his neck securely. With a deep breath, he throws open the front door and steps out into the cold.
The sand is soft beneath his boots as he tumbles his way down the dune to the shore. The ocean is quieter this morning, but the surface remains choppy and shaken up with the wind that's trying to pull him in a thousand different directions at once. He buries his hands in his pockets, squares his shoulders, and sets off down the beach.
There's a single set of footprints marring the smooth surface of the damp sand, and he can easily recognize the tread of Charles' boots. He follows the tracks until he finds their owner, standing on a small rocky peninsula that juts out into the sea. Charles' face is turned toward the sky once again and the wind is tugging at the ends of his scarf, flapping them up and down vigorously. Charles doesn't seem to mind and with his hands in his pockets and his eyes closed he is the very picture of serenity.
On the surface, at least, and Erik has learned never to trust the surface Charles Xavier projects.
He stops at the juncture of rock and sand, debating whether or not to approach Charles. Will this be a silent day? Or will this be when they attempt to fix things? Can they fix things? Or is it better to leave now and let the wounds heal with time? Can they really make it as Charles and Erik or should they go back to being Professor X and Magneto?
Is any of this worth it or…?
"Stop thinking so loudly," Charles says, firm and sharp, and Erik jerks in surprise, pulling his gaze from the roiling waves to the telepath.
Charles is still looking at the sky, but in his pockets, his hands have clenched into bulging fists. "Stop," he repeats. "Please."
He doesn't know whether to be angry or accommodating so he settles for neither. "Why am I here, Charles?"
Charles finally meets his gaze. "Because you decided to come."
"That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean, then?"
"I shouldn't be here."
"It's not that simple."
"You make it sound like it is."
He sighs sharply. This is why they hold on to the silence. They are both so terrible with words.
"Why are we here, Charles?" He repeats, taking a few steps forward. Rocks crunch loudly beneath his feet.
"This is the right sea," Charles answers blithely, facing the horizon.
"Stop going in circles," he barks, finally settling into familiar anger.
Charles shoulders sag with silent surrender. "I grew up here, for a time." He turns to point back down the beach, at the cottage barely visible through the grey mist of morning. "That was my grandmother's house. She used to say that this place, the sea, could heal things. Maybe, a part of me wanted to believe that." He pauses with a bitter, sad smile that Erik immediately hates. "Or maybe I just wanted to remember something good."
Erik doesn't know what to say, because he never asked to see this, to learn all these little things about Charles Xavier. He shouldn't know these things, not when he can't decide if he wants to stay, who he wants to be, and what Charles Xavier is to him.
But he wants to fix things … doesn't he? Honesty, he thinks, honesty would be good.
"I never should have come back."
Charles blinks at him. "They why did you?"
He shrugs. "I don't know. I was stupid."
"We're not meant for this, Charles."
"What is 'this,' Erik?"
"This," he gestures to the space between them and isn't sure what he's trying to say. "Being together. Being on the same side. We're too different."
"Is that what you think?"
"Yes. You're better as Professor X, and I'm better as Magneto."
"Then why are you here, Erik?"
"I don't know!" Erik yells and it's loud enough to startle nearby seagulls into the windy sky.
Charles stares at him again—a little wide-eyed—and for a long moment there is nothing but the deep rumble of the North Sea.
"I think Professor X is a stupid name," Charles says at last. "So is Magneto."
Erik laughs incredulously and doesn't know what to feel.
Charles cooks again that night—meat and bread he'd picked up in the village down the shore. Erik sits at the table and feels useless as Charles hums to himself. It feels like an old melody and when Charles begins to whisper words, he realizes with a start that they're not in English.
"What language is that?" There has been silence between them since the beach, because it's easier that way, and his voice sounds too loud in the small room.
"Gaelic," Charles answers after a long pause, chopping vegetables with precision. "My grandmother taught me. She was from the old country."
"Do you speak it fluently?" It feels like a stupid question, but this is another new fact about Charles Xavier and he wants to examine it, wants to make up for the sinking realization that he doesn't know the man across from him at all.
"I used to." Charles' voice is tinged with sadness. "But it's been a long time."
"Oh," Erik says inadequately, and they go back to the silence.
After a few minutes, Erik gets up and sets the table with chipped china plates, trying not to wonder about the memories they hold.
He doesn't want to know more about Charles Xavier. He's decided that already. But the burning curiosity is hard to ignore.
His eyes fly open and he sits up in bed with a jolt. Outside his open window, the sky is just beginning to lighten, and the clock on the wall reads five a.m. There is a long string of curses coming from the direction of the bathroom, and as he throws the covers off and shivers at the chill morning air—how can it be July?—he marvels at their creativity.
Apparently, Charles Xavier can swear.
He pulls a sweater on and stumbles out into the hall. The bathroom door is ajar and through the wide crack he can see Charles slumped on the floor between the toilet and the tub. He's dripping wet and shivering, clad only in a pair of boxers, and his clothes spread around him as his hand cradles his leg.
Erik is across the threshold before he can second guess himself.
"Are you alright?" He hovers, overcome with a wave of uncertainty. He doesn't know what he's allowed, or how to help, and he's afraid of crossing a line.
Everything about them is fragile right now, and he doesn't know if he can watch it all shatter. He's still too much of Erik for that.
"I'm fine," Charles hisses and he's a little taken aback at the anger in the blue eyes that glance up at him.
He tries to remember if he's ever really seen Charles angry. Nothing comes to mind.
"I fell," Charles continues. "And hit my leg. I'm fine."
His eyes drift down then and he blanches when he catches sight of the ugly web of bright red scars marring Charles' left leg. It's the first time he's seen the physical result of his mistake and it knocks the air out of his lungs like a blow to the stomach. Everything freezes and he can't tear his eyes away from the mess spread across pale skin. It looks brutal—the wide, red hole and the jagged surgical lines surrounding it—and he can imagine it fresh and raw too easily. If he were to close his eyes, he would feel the warm blood coating his hands and taste sand and salt on his tongue. He would look into a face twisted with agony and then he would stand and walk away.
Or would he stay now?
He doesn't know and the silence is gritty like sand on his tongue and Charles is glaring at him.
"You don't have to stare," the telepath mutters and there is red shame tingeing his cheeks.
"I…" Erik starts only to have the words die in his throat. He coughs and tries again. "Are you angry with me for it?"
It's the wrong thing to ask, he already knows, and Charles' eyes darken. "No. I already told you I'm not."
"I don't believe you."
Charles sighs—sharp and angry—and slowly hauls himself to his feet, grimacing in pain as he puts weight on his damaged leg. Erik tries and fails not to stare again, and wonders if he hates himself or really feels nothing at all.
"I'm not angry with you," Charles says again.
"I don't believe you," he repeats, because Charles' eyes are sparking and even on the beach, even trying to wrestle the helmet from his head, Charles never looked at him like this.
"Fine," Charles growls. "I'm not angry with you over this."
"Then what are you angry at me for?" He has no right to demand this, but he does anyway.
The frustration hovers in the air around Charles—pointed and bitter. "If I told you, Erik, it wouldn't matter anymore. Figure it out yourself."
He limps away into his bedroom and the door slamming echoes through the house.
Erik stands in the hallway and decides he hates Charles Xavier. Or maybe it's Charles Xavier's scars he hates.
Maybe, he needs to stop thinking in so many shades of grey. It's driving him mad.
The silence lasts for two days.
In those two days, Charles cooks and leaves him notes and takes long walks down the beach even though it hurts his leg. Erik sits and reads the notes with a mixture of fondness and frustration and tries to sort through the multitude of shades, maybes, and uncertainties his life has become.
When he finally follows Charles down the beach once more, he isn't sure how much progress he's made, but the silence is suffocating him.
He finds Charles sprawled out in the sand, staring up at a flock of seagulls circling overhead. The stubble on his jaw has increased into the makings of a goatee and he hasn't worn tweed in days. It's strange and off-balancing, and the vengeful part of Erik wonders if Charles planned it that way—is consciously trying to make it difficult for him to see Professor X instead of Charles—but he doubts that's the case.
It seems more like Charles is simply letting himself unravel.
"You're thinking too loudly again," Charles murmurs.
"Stay out of my head," Erik orders—more out of reflex than actual annoyance.
"I'm not in your head."
"You have been."
"Perhaps. But I hardly think figuring out much sugar you like with your oatmeal is a dangerous invasion of privacy."
"It's still an invasion of privacy. I don't like it."
"Well, you did plenty of things I didn't like, so I guess we're even."
"You're still angry."
"No. This isn't me angry."
"Then what is this?"
Charles huffs, throwing an arm over his eyes. "I don't know."
"The great Charles Xavier doesn't know something?" It comes out sounding a little more vindictive than he intended and he can see Charles tense.
"Yes. As shocking as it may seem." His voice drips with sarcasm.
Erik mentally adds that to his list: cooking, grandmother who lived by the sea, Gaelic, swearing, and sarcasm. He wonders if all these things will add up to something important.
"How can you not be angry with me for hurting you?" Charles uncovers his eyes in time to catch Erik's pointed glance at his leg and scoffs.
"Please, my leg was the least damaged thing that day."
"Leaving. That's what you're most angry with me for." A pause. "Or is it coming back?"
Charles seems lost in thought for a long moment. Then, cautiously: "I hated you for leaving. I was thrilled when you decided to come back. Now, I just wish you'd make up your bloody mind."
Erik laughs dark and bitter. "Me too, Charles. Me too."
The spines of the books are worn and faded beneath his fingers as he trails his hand along them. The wall in the living room is stacked with them and he's impressed with their variety.
"My grandmother liked to read," Charles says from his place on the sofa, nursing a cup of tea.
"She seems like a remarkable women," he replies as he pulls a copy of poems by Edgar Allen Poe from the shelf.
"She was." Charles sounds wistful. "I learned a lot from her."
He can't remember his own grandmother, but he doesn't mention that as he puts the book back on the shelf. This is the first normal conversation they've had in days and he's not going to ruin it.
"How long did she live here?"
"Decades." Charles sets his cup on the table with a soft clink and joins him at the bookshelf, touching the manuscripts with reverence. "She loved the sea."
Charles turns a copy of The Old Man and the Sea over in his hands with a slight smile. "She said it was without memory."
"What?" Of all the qualities of the sea to name, that wasn't one he'd been expecting.
Charles replaces the book and glances out the window, to the water lit by glimmering moonlight. "The sea is always shifting and changing, she said. It doesn't hold on to things. It sweeps them away and forgets. The sea is forgiving, she said. It buries the past and never looks back." He glances back at Erik and the moonlight from the window makes his eyes shine like the water behind him. "She wanted to be more like the sea, she always used to say. Without memory or regret."
Erik swallows, not sure how to respond. It seems a bit silly, wanting to be like the sea, but he can see the appeal. Maybe if he could forget, let go, he wouldn't need Magneto anymore.
He could be Just Erik. And Charles could have short hair, and wear something besides tweed and cardigans, and swear, and get angry, and exist in a thousand shades of grey. Just Charles. Just Erik. It sounds so simple, and yet …
"Erik?" Charles whispers, and there's too much understanding in his voice.
Stay out of my head, he manages not to say.
"That would be nice. To be like the sea."
Charles smiles, sad and old and silver-painted like the ocean out the window. "Yes, it would be."
Erik frowns and the moment dies softly. Without looking at Charles, he heads to the kitchen to make coffee. As he sets the timer on the machine, he can hear Charles sink back down onto the couch with a weary sigh.
It feels like they've taken steps forward and back all at the same time and Erik slams the cupboard shut in frustration.
One day, out of the many that are blurring together, he accompanies Charles into the village.
It's small and quaint—full of thatched roofs and weathered faces. Charles smiles and waves to people like he's known them his whole life and they smile and wave back because Charles has that effect on people. Erik trails along in silence, debating whether or not to ask the question that has been burning in his mind since their discussion about the sea, maybe even since they first came here.
If he asks, he's certain Charles will answer, because Charles can be as obliging as he is polite, and that might lead him down a road he doesn't want to walk. He's still wary of learning too much about Charles Xavier, still warring with himself over who he wants to be.
In the end, as Charles is examining vegetables at a street stall, the question asks itself, slipping from his lips unbidden.
"How long did you spend here? I thought you grew up in Westchester."
Charles pauses in the middle of reaching for a cucumber, and the midday sun throws dark shadows over his face, making it nearly impossible to read his expression. A part of Erik wants to snatch the question out of the air where it's hovering in the silence and stuff it back down his throat, but the curiosity is strong now and he isn't disciplined enough to resist.
At last, Charles seems to come to a decision, picking up the cucumber with a quiet sigh. "No. Not really. I was born in London, to wealthy parents, as you've probably figured out. Sharon and Brian Xavier. My father was a doctor and my mother was a socialite. They both came from old family, and they were rather public figures in London at the time. Then the war came."
Charles pauses to pay for the vegetables, thanking the man with an amicable smile that sharply contrasts the topic of their discussion. They continue down the main street, side by side, and gradually Charles continues talking.
"My father was called to the front as a medic. I was only seven years old at the time. It was 1941. Shortly after my father left, I began hearing voices—mainly of people dying around me. I thought I was going crazy. My mother did, too. But she didn't want to have me committed, because it might cause a social scandal. So she sent me to live with my grandmother, my father's mother, by the North Sea."
Another stop, this time to the butcher, and Erik struggles to process this new information.
"Your ability manifested when you were seven?" He doesn't know much about the scientific mechanics of mutation, but that seems early, very early.
"A pound of this please," Charles tells the butcher before turning to him. "Yes. Early, I know. I'm not sure why." The butcher holds out the meat, wrapped in neat paper. "Thank you."
"How long were you with your grandmother?"
"A year and a half. I think my mother would have been content to let her raise me, but she died from illness the winter of 1942." Charles shifts his bag to the other shoulder and sighs sadly. "I loved her very much. She was a remarkable woman, and the one who taught me that I wasn't crazy, just special." A quiet laugh. "In fact, I highly suspect she was a mutant herself, though I can't be certain. Anyway, my mother came to collect me and we went back to London. In the early spring of 1943, my father died in the war. I have to go in here." Charles points to a candle shop. "We need oil for the lanterns."
Erik nods and they venture into the shaded shop. Candles of all shapes, sizes, and colors line the walls—some carved with elegant designs and others plain and practical. Charles moves to a far shelf, near the register, that is stacked with cans of lantern oil, and begins perusing the jars as he continues the story.
Erik still isn't sure he wants to hear it.
"I felt my father die. It drove me a little mad again. By that time, my mother had decided that England was too dangerous. A few years before the war, her grandmother had died and left her an estate in upstate New York…"
"Yes. Exactly." Charles selects two cans and pays for them, exchanging pleasantries with the shopkeeper. The pleasantries turn into a ten minute discussion about the man's daughter, who wants to leave the village and move to the city—something he does not approve of.
Erik watches Charles lean against the counter in rapt attention and wonders how the telepath can still be so interested in people when he can learn everything about them in seconds. It's a bit of a paradox, but then again, so is Charles.
At last, Charles bids the man good-bye and they duck out into the chilly summer air.
Speaking of paradoxes, Erik thinks with a scowl as he pulls his jacket tighter around himself. Charles doesn't seem to notice the cold.
"Where was I?"
"Oh, right. Well, my mother used her considerable wealth to purchase us passage to America, even though it was in the middle of a war. In the winter of 1943, when I was nine, we moved to Westchester. Now, at that time, my powers were a little out of control. Not only was I being overwhelmed by all the voices I was constantly hearing, but I tended to unintentionally control people, as well—mostly my mother. I found her saying yes, when she had meant to say no, and coming to sit with me when I was lonely. My mother never remembered these things after they happened, and that scared both of us. She thought I was cursed and I thought I was crazy and so we kept out distance."
Erik thinks of his own mother, who had been the center of his world until Shaw cruelly ripped her away, and tries to imagine being so distant with her. He can't fathom it. Charles glances at him, and his blue eyes are sad and knowing, as if he can see the thoughts running through Erik's head.
"Stay out of my head," Erik demands reflexively.
"I'm not in your head," Charles replies without any of his earlier venom.
Erik snorts, but lets the old argument drop for the time being while Charles ploughs ahead in his tale.
"In early 1944 I met Raven. She was scavenging for food in our kitchen. When I saw her and realized I wasn't alone, I felt a little less crazy. By that time, my control was getting much better, and I used my ability to convince my mother she had always had a daughter."
"You tricked your own mother?"
"I wouldn't put it like that. My mother had always wanted a daughter, even more than a son, and I …"
"You're justifying, Charles."
"Fine. Yes, I tricked her. I was ten years old, for heaven's sake. Everyone's allowed mistakes at that age." Charles glances away with a clenched jaw and Erik decides to be sensitive.
"What happened after Raven was adopted?"
"Hold on," Charles says. "I'm going to get some fish."
This time, Erik waits in the street as Charles enters the shop. He can't stand the smell of fish. Five minutes later, Charles emerges with a second bag slung over his shoulder. As he approaches, Erik frowns.
"You smell like fish."
"Sorry. That tends to happen when one enters a fish shop."
"Why do you need fish? You already bought meat."
"I was thinking of making fish for dinner tomorrow night. You do like fish, right?"
"You found out how much sugar I like in my oatmeal but you didn't bother to see if I liked fish?"
"I didn't want to invade your privacy." More oozing sarcasm and Erik fights the urge to roll his eyes childishly.
"I like the taste, hate the smell."
Charles chuckles. "So does most of the general population, though most of them aren't too afraid to enter a fish shop…"
"Just continue the story, would you?"
"Fine," Charles acquiesces with a slightly teasing smirk. He points to a side street that winds back into the village. "Let's head down there. We need eggs and milk."
They thankfully leave the fish shop behind and as they amble down the narrow road, Charles' mood quickly turns somber. With a steadying breath, he continues. "About a year after Raven became a part of the family, when I was eleven, my mother met a man named Kurt Marko. She was instantly smitten with him, and on the surface he seemed like nothing more than a charming, widowed scientist. But I could tell otherwise. The man only wanted my mother for her fortune. I tried to convince her of this, but she refused to listen. A mere three months after meeting him, she married Kurt and he came to live with us at Westchester along with his son, Cain."
Charles stops in front of a storefront covered with advertising for dairy products. "Could you wait here a minute? I need time to … rally myself, I suppose. This next part is never easy to tell."
Puzzled, Erik nods and accepts the bag Charles hands him. The telepath quickly disappears inside, leaving him alone in the street with his stormy thoughts. He has a sinking feeling about the next part, because he can remember clearly that morning in the bathroom when he saw Charles' damaged leg for the first time.
As the telepath had stormed away, then, he'd caught a glimpse of other scars, older ones, painted across Charles' back.
He briefly considers asking Charles to stop. He wants to hear the rest of the story almost as little as Charles wants to tell it, and besides that, it will shatter the mental picture of Charles that he has constructed. In his mind, Charles had an idyllic childhood—a safe, innocent one, free of the pain that so destroyed his own—and he doesn't know if he can watch that perceived innocence die.
Before he makes up his mind, Charles is stepping out into the street again. There is a determined look on his face, and he starts speaking as soon as he reaches Erik's side.
"Kurt was abusive. To both Cain and me." The words tumble out of him so quickly they run together—as though he had to say them right away or he would never speak them at all.
Erik, though, has no words at all. Not for this.
Charles doesn't seem to mind his silence, and the words keep spilling out in a torrent. "He beat us. A lot. Cain blamed me for it, mostly. Said it was because I was a freak. So, he beat me up, too. It was mostly to make up for his own pain, though, so I never hated him for it. Not like I hated Kurt. There were days when I thought Kurt was going to kill me. My mother turned to alcoholism to escape it all, and shut herself away. Raven was sent off to school and I used my ability to keep her from finding out the truth."
"You manipulated her, too?" It sounds accusing and he didn't mean it to be. Really.
Charles turns to glare at him. "I didn't want her involved! I needed to keep her safe. I was terrified that Kurt would hurt her, too. Tell me, Erik, wouldn't you have done the same?"
Yes, he would have, and he would tell that to Charles, if he could get the words out around the growing lump in his throat. Charles rakes a hand through his hair and shifts the bags on his shoulders. His fingers are trembling, Erik notes with a pang, and he feels like he should do something to make up for the Pandora's Box he's opened.
"You don't have to tell me any more, Charles," he whispers.
"I want to," Charles' voice is hoarse but resolute. "I need you to understand."
What am I supposed to understand? He almost asks, but stops himself and nods mutely instead.
They wind their way slowly through the back alleys toward where they parked their bikes and it's a few moments before Charles summons the strength to speak again.
"This went on for five years. Looking back, it's mostly a blur and I've tried to forget as much of it as possible. I'm not entirely sure how I survived, but I did."
Erik frowns in sympathy, because sadly, he can relate. Charles just described how he feels about the camps and this new understanding between them is something he didn't expect. But it's not unwelcome.
At least, he doesn't think it is.
"Anyway, when I was sixteen I graduated high school and that same year Kurt found out about my ability." Charles takes a shaky breath and his hand clenches into a fist at his side. "He was a scientist, and one without many scruples. He decided that he was going to make money off of me. Through experimentation."
Erik's eyes widen and horror begins to freeze the blood in veins. No, this can't be possible. Charles can't have gone through the same trauma he did. They've reached the bikes, and Charles deposits the groceries into the pouches on the back of his, bending to unlock it in a series of deft movements. Erik follows suite, and the chains rattle loudly as he fumbles with the lock. His fingers are white and trembling and he isn't sure what he's supposed to feel. He isn't sure of anything anymore, and he hates it.
Instead of mounting his bike, Charles begins to walk, pushing it forward by the handlebars. Erik understands. It's easier to talk this way, and he knows there is much more to the story. It's a good five kilometers back to the cottage. Plenty of time. Breaking into a jog, he pulls even with Charles and waits for the other to speak with a heavy sense of dread..
Like before, it takes a long moment. The wind howls over the ocean and tugs persistently at them as they amble down the deserted road back to the cottage.
"I saw what he wanted to do to me," Charles says abruptly—barely audible over the wind and the sea. His voice shakes as he continues. "And I panicked. I just … I couldn't live through that."
Erik grits his teeth and Charles sends him an apologetic look. "You're much stronger than I, Erik."
Most days, Erik doubts that, but he keeps his silence. After a tense minute, Charles bites his lip and pushes forward. "Anyway, I lashed out at him. I didn't really know what I was doing I just … I wanted to keep him from hurting me. I…" Charles swallows and his knuckles bleach white across the handlebars. "I … I killed him. With my mind."
Erik's footsteps falter and he stares at Charles with wide-eyed shock. "W-what?"
Charles is stopped, too—bent over the bike like it's the only thing holding him up—and his eyes are closed tight in shame. "I ripped apart his brain. S-shut it off, I guess. I never meant to, I just …" Charles trails off with a shuddering breath
He deserved it, Erik wants to say. Or maybe: it wasn't your fault. But he isn't good with words, with knowing the right thing to say. Still, silence isn't appropriate. Not now. So he summons his courage.
"Cain was furious," Charles cuts him off, still refusing to look at him. His voice is rough like sandpaper over hard wood, and Erik feels the ache spreading in his chest. "He tried to kill me." The telepath resumes walking—the bike rattling as he guides it over the uneven road. "I used my ability to make him believe his father had died in a lab accident. But my mother … she knew the truth. She was furious, too. In spite of the monster he was, she had loved Kurt Marko. So, she gave me an ultimatum: leave and never come back, or she would have me institutionalized."
Erik sucks in a sharp breath, wondering furiously how a mother could do that to her son. Charles glances at him with a sad smile, before returning his gaze to the road. "I saw little choice. I boarded the first plane to England and returned to London to continue my education at Oxford."
"What about Raven?" Erik manages to ask. He doesn't know if it's the right question—the proper response to the shocking information he's been given—but it's the only thing that comes to mind.
Charles doesn't seem offended—a small smile ghosting briefly across his pale face. "She was at boarding school at the time. When she came home and found out what had happened, she wanted to follow me to England immediately, but my mother insisted she stay and finish her education. Four years later, as I was just starting my doctorate program, she came to find me."
"Does she know about…"
"She found out." Charles' face darkens. "She was furious that I had kept it from her, and even more furious that I had manipulated her. She made me promise never to read her mind again. So far, I've mostly kept good on that promise."
Erik is out of words, and meeting Charles' sorrow-tinted eyes is difficult, so he turns his face to the sea and struggles to process everything he's learned—the fact that the picture he'd painted of Charles Xavier is completely and utterly wrong.
He didn't know the man walking next to him at all.
Now he does, and the question is: what will he do with this new information?
But Charles isn't finished. "You know, Erik … I've always seen my mutation as a bit of a curse. It's … it's dangerous. I killed a man, Erik. With nothing more than my abilities. I could probably crush your brain without breaking a sweat."
Erik frowns darkly. "Charles…"
"Let me finish," Charles demands and Erik obliges, tightening his grip on his bike and trying not to worry about the direction the conversation has taken. Charles seems to be bracing himself, stealing a tentative look at Erik, before blurting out, "I went to Oxford to study genetics and mutations in order to find a cure for mine."
Erik feels like he's been punched in the gut. "You want to be normal?" He spits out in disbelief.
"Yes," Charles spits back.
Erik jerks to a stop, kicking the stand on his bike down with a loud rattle. Letting go of the handlebars, he turns to Charles with fury coursing through his veins. Charles stares back with a clenched jaw, blazing eyes, and too short hair. He doesn't know who he's looking at anymore, but it isn't Professor X and it isn't the Charles Xavier he's been friends with for over a year.
This is a stranger and it hurts.
"You would betray our kind?"
"I'm a telepath, Erik. My mutation is reading people's thoughts. That's as natural to me as moving metal is for you. But what's the first thing people, you, always demand? Stay out of my head." His mouth tightens in dark scowl and this is Charles Xavier angry."So forgive me if I don't buy all the "Mutant and Proud" rubbish you and Raven preach. Telepaths are feared, even among mutants, or do you deny that?"
Erik's arguments dry up in his throat because Charles is right. Charles is right, but he wants to be human—to be a part of the world that is trying to exterminate them. It feels like a betrayal, by the one person he never expected it from, and he can't…
Charles sighs, running an agitated hand through his short hair. "I'm going to go make dinner. I need … some time. So do you." Turning away sharply, Charles swings a leg over his bike. "I'll see you tonight."
He pedals off down the road, leaving Erik alone with a hurricane running through him.
The days string together in a blur, marked by more silence. They've run out of words again, it seems. Maybe for good this time.
Charles still cooks and leaves notes and takes walks down the beach, but Erik stops reading them—crumples them as soon as he finds them in the morning. He goes running until his lungs and mind are empty and he tells himself that all of Charles' scars—so similar and different than his own—don't hurt him.
Charles reads his grandmother's books and stands looking out at the ocean as if it holds the solution to their problems, while Erik just wants to scream until his voice drowns out the crash of the waves against the shore. Charles remains closed and distant but glances at Erik when he thinks the other won't notice, and Erik broods and struggles to decide what to do with the stranger that has suddenly occupied his life.
Above it all the silence hovers, oppressive and suffocating and beneath it Erik's anger simmers like embers in a fire, growing hotter and hotter with each passing day.
He's angry at Charles for wanting to be human, for selling out on his own kind, the dream that he's trying to make them all believe. He's angry at himself for his indecision. He's angry at the Sebastian Shaws and Kurt Markos of the world who have made Charles and himself into the people they are now. He's angry at the lines in the sand they can't seem to cross.
He hates Charles' silence and sad glances and stupid compassion that is still there, even amidst the widening chasm between them.
And as he runs—faster and faster, his feet pounding against the sand like the waves hit the shore—he realizes he can't live like this.
He doesn't know how to fix this. And he's not sure he wants to.
Magneto beckons, offering a life free of this inner debate, free of Charles Xavier and all his layers and hypocrisy—a life of purpose.
Erik runs faster and wishes he could leave it all behind.
On one ordinary day, it all finally breaks.
The hurricane inside of Erik spills over as he stares down at another one of Charles' notes, stating he took a walk and will be back later, but there is breakfast for Erik on the stove. Before his brain catches up, he is out the front down and stalking down the beach after Charles.
He finds him near the same rocky peninsula they met at days, weeks ago, with his hands stuffed in his pockets and his face tilted toward the sky.
"You are such a hypocrite," he snarls with clenched fists and trembling rage.
Charles turns to him with wide eyes. "Excuse me?"
"Oh don't play innocent with me, Charles. How could you? You preach about equality and acceptance for mutants, helping people accept themselves, but you're just like Raven. You can't even accept yourself! You want to be just like them. You want to be human."
"I'm the hypocrite?" Charles steps off the peninsula with an arched eyebrow and dark eyes. "What about you? Mutant and Proud is all well and good but when someone comes along with an ability that makes you uncomfortable, you demand that they suppress it."
"This isn't it about me."
"I don't demand you suppress your ability."
"Yes, you do. You do every time you ask me to stay out of your head."
"That's merely protecting my privacy. You don't see me jerking you around with the metal on your shirt, do you? It's called being polite, Charles. You can't just force your ability on someone without their consent."
"You don't think I know that, Erik? I've lived with this my whole life. I know how to control it. You just can't seem to trust that I do."
"Oh don't start! You've never trusted me. You put that bloody helmet on your head and forced me to become a murderer all over again! You shut me out, suppressed me, hurt me, worse than anyone ever has, even Kurt Marko, so don't you dare tell me you trust me, Erik. Don't you dare."
"I thought you said you weren't mad at me for what happened on the beach."
"I'm not! I'm mad at you now."
"Because you still don't get it."
"Get what, Charles? What am I supposed to understand?"
"You claim to want to help mutants, but in the end you use them, even hurt them. Just like Shaw!"
"How dare you…"
"I begged you to stop. Begged, Erik! You didn't listen. You drove a coin through my skull! It was the worst pain I've ever felt in my life and it came from you—the better man. When I looked at you and Shaw that day, I couldn't tell you two apart. You were both monsters."
Erik takes a threatening step forward, shaking from the fury coursing through his veins. "I. Am. Nothing. Like. Shaw."
Charles raises his chin in angry defiance. "Yes, you are. Don't you get it, Erik? It's not as simple as Mutant and Proud, Us vs. Them. Being the better man has nothing to do with how powerful we are, it's how we use that power. When you had the power you used it no differently than Shaw."
"Life isn't black and white, Erik!" Charles shouts. "Humans, mutants, we're all made up of good and evil, layers, shades of gray. You can't divide life into Stars and Swastikas! And yet you're trying to! Don't you see how much of a hypocrite you are? You want to do the same thing to the humans as the Nazis did to your people!"
"Shut up!" Erik roars and punches Charles in the face.
The telepath hits the sand with a startled gasp, catching himself on one elbow. Tremors run through Erik's fist as he lowers it and he shoves aside the guilt pinpricking at his conscience.
"I never should have come back," he says with broken finality.
Charles doesn't look at him and his shoulders heave with his uneven breaths.
"We're too different," Erik continues. "That much is obvious. We'll only destroy each other." He swallows—mouth dry and gritty. "Goodbye, Charles."
With that, he turns on his heel and walks away, leaving Charles behind on the beach for the second time. Charles' grandmother was wrong. There are some things the sea cannot fix, and he has made his decision.
He just wishes he felt more sure of himself.
He makes it back to the cottage and stalks inside. He feels emptied out and hollow, but this is for the best. It is.
As he brushes past the kitchen table on his way to his bedroom to collect his things, the note Charles left him that morning flutters to the floor. On an impulse, he stops and picks it up, reading it one last time.
I've gone for a walk on the beach, but I made breakfast. It's on the stove if you'd like some.
Something else catches his eye. A small postscript on the back he'd missed the first time.
P.S. I'm sorry about how I've been these past few days. You see, I told you things I haven't even told Raven and it left me a little bit shaken up. I'm not good at this, Erik—at words or relationships or knowing the right things to say—and I apologize for that.
Maybe we can talk later?
I want to fix this, my friend. I really do.
Erik crumples the note in his hand and feels something inside him break. Realization hits him like a wave crashing against the sand.
He and Charles aren't perfect. They are both awful with words and they never know what to say to each other. They have vastly different ideologies and views on life, shaped by vastly different upbringings. They argue and damage each other like no one else can.
And yet …
He's happy when Charles is around. As difficult and painful as rebuilding their friendship has been, he realizes with another jolt that these past few months at the mansion have been some of the best in his life. Life with Charles and Raven and the others is good. And maybe it will take time to figure out where to go from here, how to address the human vs. mutant conflict and maybe Charles is right or maybe he is or maybe neither of them are, but he wants to find out.
Together. Yes, together.
Dropping the note, Erik leaves the house at a sprint.
Charles is still sitting on the beach when he returns, chin resting on his bent knee and face crestfallen as he stares out at the gray, roiling sea.
Erik keeps running—afraid that if he stops, he will leave again and make the biggest mistake of his life. He falls to his knees in the damp sand as he reaches Charles and the telepath jerks in shock.
"E-Erik?" He stutters out—eyes almost comically wide.
"I want to fix this," Erik pants. "I want to fix this, Charles. Tell me how to fix this."
Charles smiles at him sadly, but not without affection. There is a livid purple bruise on his jaw, but he nudges Erik good-naturedly. "Don't you see, Erik? We are fixing it. It won't all happen at once. It's a process. A long one, considering how rubbish we are at this."
"I'm sorry." Erik reaches out to touch the bruise. "I shouldn't have…"
"It's okay," Charles replies with another faint smile. "I was out of line, too."
Erik laughs then, a little brokenly, and drops his head onto Charles' shoulder. "You're right. We're awful at this."
"But we're trying," Charles points out, slinging a casual arm around Erik's shoulders. "That's what matters."
There's a pause, then, as they both contemplate the tumultuous events of the past hour.
"Thank you," Charles whispers at last. "For coming back. I'm glad you found that note."
Erik chuckles and doesn't say stay out of my head, because in some things, Charles is right.
"And thank you, Charles. For everything."
The silence that falls between them in neither suffocating nor distant. It's warm, thrumming with companionship—the most beautiful silence Erik has ever experienced.
Later, they both lie in the sand—side by side looking up at the clouds and the hints of blue poking through them.
"You're right," Erik says with the first smile in what feels like months. "Magneto is a stupid name."
Charles laughs, clear and bright. Erik drinks it in and decides: Erik. He wants to be Erik for the rest of his life. After all, Erik isn't so bad as long as Charles is there.
Erik and Charles, he likes the sound of that far better than Magneto and Professor X.
Yes, Erik and Charles is perfect.
Fingers, knees and knuckles scraped
All of the rubbish heaped
A piece of cardboard taped
Up where the bedroom window pane used to be
From here you can almost
From here you can almost see the sea