Okay, so...they're just too darn cute, okay? I can't help it. And OMG James's HAIR. (And yes, I was just in Chattanooga, too. I love it. Again, couldn't be helped. :P)
But anyhoo...just some fluff. I hope ya'll like it. Let me know. :) Thanks!
"Charles, come on."
A swishing sound accompanied the sudden light that cut into his consciousness, bright even through his eyelids, and Charles could feel the warmth of the sun on his face. In response he clenched his eyes shut more tightly shut and groaned.
"Charles. It's seven thirty," Erik said a bit more insistently. "You're the one who said you wanted to be up by seven. "
"Are the others even awake?" he asked groggily.
"Well, no, I don't think so, but you made me promise to make you get up."
Charles let out a breath and scrubbed a hand over his face, eyes still closed. "Right...I did, didn't I?"
"Are you getting up, or would you rather I left you alone?"
Finally he opened his eyes just enough to see Erik standing at the window of their hotel room, arms crossed in amusement.
"Would you leave me alone?"
"Unlikely. You did make me promise," he smirked.
Charles chuckled. "Yes, well..."
"After how late we got in last night, why do you want to be up?"
He shrugged a bit from where he lay. "I thought it might be a good idea to get an early start, before it gets too hot. There is plenty enough to do and see here."
"In the middle of Tennessee," Erik deadpanned. "Really? Have I told you that I think you may be a bit crazy?"
"Several times. Though you didn't have to."
Erik, still dressed for sleep, moved away from the window to snatch his bag from the floor and drop it onto his bed. "So you want the kids to bond more-get back on track. That's all well and good. Maybe we all need that. But you could have picked somewhere a little less in the middle of nowhere."
"Somewhere else would have been entirely cliche. You'll see, Erik; this place has its own charms. It's a beautiful area."
"You've been here before, then?"
"A school trip, as a boy. Raven was here, too. Chattanooga was just beginning to really become a more major tourist attraction then. It's even more so, now."
Erik glanced up at him with a raised eyebrow from digging through his bag for clothes for the day. "But still not major enough to be cliche, apparently."
"That was the general idea..."
Erik let out a small huff of indulgent laughter. "And there wasn't anywhere less cliche closer to home? Or for god's sakes, we could have at least flown. It isn't as if we can't afford it."
"Flying would have defeated the purpose of coming this far. Half of the point of the trip is the long car rides-all of us cooped up together."
"I see." Erik pulled his t-shirt over his head and reached for the polo he'd retrieved from the bottom of his bag. "And where are you getting the idea of this point? From all of the perfect family vacations you had as a child?"
Charles made a face and let his head drop back onto his pillow. "The vacations I wished we'd had. Before my father died, anyhow. I wouldn't have cared much for a vacation including my stepfather."
He sensed rather than saw Erik pause in remorse. I...
Don't worry about it, my friend.
Charles sighed and started to sit up, and was abruptly reminded of why he had been reluctant to wake. "Ah..."
It had been more than eight months since Cuba, but his back still pained him. It wasn't incredibly awful, but it was there. According to his doctors, it always would be, in some form. Charles supposed it was better than being unable to walk, but it was taking getting used to.
Still, he knew he was lucky. He could walk, but it had taken experimental treatment and hours and hours of surgery to make it possible. From what he had been told later, such things were rarely successful. Treatment of spinal injuries was a burgeoning science, still almost more trial and error than anything, as far as he could tell from what hadn't-quite-said. And some of it had been said before everything, about not getting his hope up...but they hadn't gotten very far into that bit before Erik had grabbed one of them by the lapels and started shouting.
So Charles didn't complain. Not only because he was grateful to have the use of his legs at all, but because he didn't want the others to worry about him.
With Erik, however, that was nearly impossible.
Erik pulled his polo shirt into place and turned to look at him in concern.
"I'm all right. It uhm...it was just a long drive, that's all. I suppose I'm a bit stiff."
"We're all stiff. You're hurting." He came to the side of Charles's bed and offered a hand in helping him up. Charles looked at it for a moment before he finally relented to taking it.
"Thank you," he grunted, as he made it to his feet. He had to simply stand there for a moment, for his back to adjust to being upright and for the sharp ache to recede.
It didn't recede as much as he'd hoped it would. Sighing, Charles gave up and went stiffly for his own bag. Before he could attempt bending down to pick it up Erik had grabbed it for him and set it on his bed. Charles nodded in thanks, but the other man was avoiding his gaze now.
"You shouldn't have driven the whole way," Erik said gruffly. But Charles knew where his thoughts really were without having to read them.
"I let you drive toward the end there."
"For all of three hours out of about fifteen," he growled.
"Erik..." he repeated gently.
Erik still blamed himself for what had happened to Charles on the beach. For what he went through every day now. It was likely that he always would, and all Charles could do was make it clear that no ill will was held. He was glad enough that Erik was still here, still with them.
The only answer he received was Erik moving in behind him to wrap his arms around Charles's waist.
"I'm all right," Charles told him.
But the warmth against his back helped, as it always did, as Erik knew it did, and when Erik didn't let go Charles let himself lean back a bit into the soothing body heat.
After a long minute or two of companionable silence Erik spoke up. "Is that any better?" he asked quietly.
Charles nodded. "It is." He didn't need to thank him; Erik knew he was grateful for the gesture. It had become commonplace enough in recent months, since they had discovered quite by accident how much it usually helped him.
Erik stepped away and went back to his own bag, leaving Charles to find clothes. He found what he wanted, but by the time they were both dressed Erik's face was only a little less downcast.
"Erik, I'm all right," he insisted.
Erik smiled a bit. "Fine, but wherever we go today, I'm driving."
"I suppose I could allow that."
"Allow that? I could drive the car without touching it."
"And I could stop you."
Erik really smirked now. "Do you want to get this early start you're talking about or not?"
"Of course. Come, let's wake the others."
"Why did I agree to let you drive?" Charles questioned from the passenger's seat.
Erik grinned at him. "Because I wouldn't have taken no for an answer." They were curving up the side of Lookout Mountain now, probably faster than they should, with Raven, Hank, Sean, Alex, and Angel in the two bench seats behind them.
With Shaw dead Angel had been left without a compass, and she had reluctantly returned with them. It probably had to a bit to do, too, with the fact that Azazel and Riptide had quickly teleported away without her. It had been months, but she still was not adjusting well to being with them again. It was hard for Erik to tell whether or not the others had forgiven her for going with Shaw in the first place, and he imagined the girl felt the same and was left insecure.
If so, Erik could understand. He had known from the beginning that Charles forgave him...it had just been that he couldn't forgive himself. But sometimes he wondered if the others had really forgiven him. Raven didn't say anything because she knew Charles cared about him, but she was certainly still cool to Erik most of the time; she didn't seem able to get past the fact that he had nearly paralyzed her adoptive brother, all in the pursuit of vengeance.
Erik couldn't believe what he'd done now, either. He didn't know what he would have done if Charles hadn't been able to walk, or...or worse. If the bullet had found a home somewhere else.
He shuddered inwardly and shook himself out of those thoughts, and ended up taking a curve too sharply. Not that he minded. He enjoyed his kind of road immensely.
But there was a chorus of gasps and "whoa!"s from the back seats, and everyone grabbed for something.
"Erik, slow down!" Charles said quickly. "You're scaring the children."
"They shouldn't be so easily scared," Erik smirked in good humor. "They're X-Men, after all. Whatever the hell that means."
"I'm not certain I know yet, either. The name was Moira's idea."
"You do realize it's based off of your name, don't you?"
"It's isn't," Charles insisted. "It's in reference to the mutant gene."
Erik rolled his eyes. "Whatever you want to tell yourself, Charles."
But then he realized that Charles had been white-knuckling the passenger-side door's inside handle this entire time, and he subtly obliged to the request from a moment ago and slowed down a bit.
Charles replied quickly. No, I uhm...well, heights in general are not necessarily a problem for me at all, but this winding-road-on-the-side-of-a-mountain bit...
Then why did you decide we should come here?
Charles sighed aloud before continuing silently. I don't know. I truly don't. I only know that I want so badly for this trip to help. Look at what Cuba nearly did to us, Erik. We can't afford to be divided.
Erik grunted quietly in assent and focused on the road.
Already being on the mountain, it made sense to start at the top. Rock City, then, was their first stop, and after purchasing tickets and finding the start of the trail the children started off immediately.
"Don't get too far ahead!" Charles called, but they already were. They couldn't hear him. "I can't...run to keep up..." He trailed off and huffed. "And there they go, of course."
He could have called to them telepathically, but there was no point. The bit about being unable to keep up they wouldn't understand, anyhow. Only Erik knew how much the pain his back gave him had the potential to interfere with his life now. Raven knew a bit more than the others, but all the other four knew was that the repair was not perfect and he needed to be more careful now.
Erik was at his side, frowning after the others. "You want me to fetch them?"
"No, no. Let them be. This is supposed to be about them, after all. I don't suppose there's too much trouble for them to get into, anyhow. "
"They could fall off a cliff."
"I seriously doubt that, though if someone were to either Sean or Angel could do something about it."
"If Angel would."
"Oh, don't say that," Charles frowned, troubled. "I know she's had trouble re-integrating, but-oh, never mind." But he did decide to reach out to Raven, and ask her silently to make sure that Angel felt included. Raven agreed, if she wasn't the happiest about it.
Erik chuckled. "Come on. I hear there are a lot of rocks to see here."
"Just a few," Charles confirmed wryly.
The trail and the sights along it were more fascinating than Charles remembered. At times the rocks swallowed them, and there were times when they were looking down over the valley. Occasionally they did catch up to the others, but usually only because they had stopped to stare or to wander off the trail despite the signs that asked visitors not to.
"Dude. Are those gnomes? Seriously?" Sean was asking. Charles and Erik had caught up to the group, crowded on a stone walkway that overlooked a small valley between the rocks that was set up to looks something like a mini settlement. The inhabitants were none over than a collection of garden gnomes.
Raven, a hand on her hip, pointed to the sign. "It says Gnome Valley. I would hope those are gnomes, or we might have a problem."
Hank spoke up next. "It's widely known that gnomes are the reason you never get both socks back once they've been put in the dryer." Raven laughed at that, and he smiled sheepishly.
"Uh huh," Angel deadpanned. But Raven grabbed her hand and pulled her on.
"Let's go; I think I remember a tunnel up here."
Angel looked like she might want to drag her feet, but she followed, and after a moment Charles noticed a small smile on her face before they were out of sight again. They caught up to the children again at the bridges, and he and Erik took the stone bridge and watched while the others fumbled and laughed their way across the swinging bridge. Erik was shaking his head at them.
"Somebody really might fall off."
"They're only having fun."
"Remind me not to use that bridge while they're having fun," he snorted.
Charles grinned at him. "Are you afraid of heights, Erik?" he teased.
But Erik only rolled his eyes and walked on, eyeing the space below the bridges and the valley beyond. When they reached the midway point soon after that, though, the point where signs claimed one could see seven states if the air was clear...Erik finally did seem impressed. He'd looked around appreciatively enough before, but Charles knew that the fact that there was little metal out here made him uncomfortable, and he wasn't as focused on the sights as he might have been otherwise.
"Amazing, isn't it?"
Erik's eyebrows were up as he looked out over the view. "I don't think there's a way to disagree with that."
"You would have found it if there was," Charles agreed in amusement.
They had no choice but to wind their way more slowly through the second half of the trail-or Charles didn't. His back was aching again, and when he slowed down Erik stayed with him. All of the up and down was doing him no good; there was more of it than he remembered. As a child this place had been nothing to navigate, but now...
He had to stop, finally, finding the nearest bench and lowering himself onto it.
"I'm fine; I just need a moment..."
Erik paced for a moment, seemingly unsure of what to do, before he took the other end of the bench. "Your back?"
Charles nodded wordlessly as he leaned forward and let his head drop into a hand, more aware of how much it hurt just now because he was sitting and not focusing on anything else.
"You're so damn stubborn," Erik growled.
"And you aren't?"
"You know what I mean."
Charles shrugged a bit. "Just because this may not be the easiest thing for me to do anymore would have been no reason not to come. You've seen the others, Erik; they're enjoying themselves. I think it's well worth-it."
He only heard a quiet huff in response, and he was vaguely aware of movement-of Erik sliding closer on the bench-and then a warm hand spread over his back, just at the base of his spine where the pain was.
He let out a quiet grunt of surprise, but said nothing. The warmth pressed in just enough to for the pressure to be soothing, but not enough to make it worse, and after a moment or two Erik began to rub gentle circles, massaging the pain away.
"Feels good," he murmured eventually.
Erik huffed. "It shouldn't be needed." Thoughts crossed Erik's mind then-thoughts Charles had heard before but hated just the same.
"Erik, stop it," he said, looking up sharply.
The motion of the hand against his back stopped. "Stop what?"
"What you're thinking. Stop it right now."
Erik's eyes narrowed. "You-"
"I hardly had to read your mind, Erik. You were all but broadcasting those thoughts, and I don't want to hear them."
The hand at his back disappeared entirely, and Erik got quickly to his feet. "Which ones? The ones where I know what you have to go through now is my fault, or-"
"The ones where you think about leaving."
That shut him up, and Charles continued before he could change his mind or decide he hadn't the courage to bring this up after all.
"Every time the others whisper about you-every time my back hurts me a little more than usual-every time. You think about it. I can't help but notice."
Erik glared at him. "I did this to you. You could have been paralyzed, and did you not hear the part where they tried to warn you that could still happen someday if you're not careful enough?"
"We've had this conversation, Erik."
His expression softened. "You would be better off without me, Charles," he said simply. Softly.
Charles got up now, and went to him, looking his friend in the eyes and never letting his gaze waver. "Don't think that. I never want you to think that. I can't start this school on my own, and I can't keep these kids together on my own." He paused. "I need you, Erik."
He was right in front of Erik now, maybe a little too close, even, looking up at him, and a different thought crossed Erik's mind.
Charles smiled a little. What's stopping you, my friend?
Erik's mouth opened, but nothing came out. He thought back, instead. I don't deserve you, damnit.
What makes you say that?
You've taken care of me for months, Erik. Ever since I came home from the hospital. I know we've had our differences-still have, if we're to be honest-but at the moment there is no-one to whom I owe more.
No...you don't owe me anything. Not after what I did.
We could call it even.
Erik reached out tentatively, letting a thumb and the heel of his hand brush lightly against Charles's cheek. I'd like that...
But now he hesitated again, and Charles chuckled a bit, silently, and sent a gentle push of encouragement his way. It took another moment, but Erik finally took the last step to close the distance between them. It was Charles, however, who leaned up to brush his lips to Erik's. Erik made a muffled sound of surprise, but he responded, and the brief tender kiss became something more.
What are you doing? Erik thought suddenly, pulling back to look at him. Public place...
I'll know if someone is coming.
So Erik gave a mental shrug, grinned, and kissed him again. It was deeper this time, stronger, more Erik's style, and Charles reveled in it. They had been so close before Cuba...so. damn. close.
But then it had happened, and beyond anything to help care for him after his return home Erik had seemed afraid even to touch him. Seemed afraid that if he did Charles might crumble to dust.
Now one of Erik's arms wrapped around him to pull him close, while the fingers of his other hand wove their way into Charles's hair. Charles almost regretted the human need for air when Erik pulled back again, glad that he didn't pull back far-only far enough to breathe. His fingers still carded slowly through Charles hair, over and over, and Charles knew it was something Erik had wanted to do for a long time now. He also knew it was something he had wanted Erik to do.
Another kiss, and Erik's arm around him tightened possessively, interrupting them when Charles gasped at a flash of pain through his back.
Erik loosened his grip immediately. "Are you all right?"
Somehow that squeeze had hit everything in just the wrong way. For a moment the pain was blinding, but when he could see again he was braced against Erik's chest, and Charles knew he would be fine.
"I'll always be all right...as long as you're here," he answered, a bit breathlessly.
He sensed rather than saw Erik swallow hard. "I'm not going anywhere, Charles."
No hesitation, for once. "I swear..."
It was what Charles had wanted to hear for months now, but he had to be sure. "You're certain?" he asked quietly. "I-It...it won't be easy. Perhaps I can walk, but there are still things I can't do. You know that. I-
"I don't care. I never cared. I just wanted you to be okay."
"I am. I am..."
And Erik held him, more gently his time, and silently buried his face in Charles's hair. "Well this trip was useful for something," he chuckled softly.