A/N: Wow it's been awhile. I'm very sorry for the delay; I know how frustrating it can be to read a WIP. But to those still following this story and new readers, Happy New Year! And don't worry, the action will be starting up soon xP
Dinner that night is a lively affair, and Charles smiles to himself at how his Jedi are allowing themselves to relax, to sink into the Living Force and let it guide them. To trust in it. He shouldn't have been surprised though. They're a hardy bunch, this mismatched group of lost souls that had become as much Charles's family as Raven was. Moira along well with them, as Charles had suspected she would from watching her interact with his charges on the ship. So Charles puts aside his thoughts for the time being, enjoying the moment and the laughter and bonds of friendship glowing in the Force.
Erik watches them all with a sort of lofty amusement, not quite joining in their easy conversation, but not holding himself aloof either. He corners Charles after they've washed the dishes, placing an arm on either side of Charles's head and leaning in close. "You don't get to skip out on training, you know," he says.
Charles keeps his breathing steady with an effort. "Now why would I want to do that?" he murmurs, and Erik's eyes might have darkened a shade.
He shoves a little with the Force and Erik steps back a pace. "I haven't been truly challenged in a duel in a long time," Erik says, the dare obvious in his voice. His voice dropped lower. "I trust you won't disappoint me."
Charles gives him a lopsided grin. "You're on."
It is not long before Charles realizes he is outmatched in the sheer power that Erik is able to put behind his blows. Every clash of their lightsabers sends a jolt through his arms, as Erik is not holding back at all. He supposes he should be flattered.
The bright colors of their blades swirl and clash with each other in a dazzling display of blue and red. Better than I had expected, Erik thinks, and the eavesdropped thought fills Charles with giddiness as they whirled together, more a dance than a duel. Erik fights like he thinks and acts, fast and ruthless and wily. Charles matches his cuts and lunges, but he's being forced to the defensive as he tires. He finds that the hum of the blades, the swirl of color, and the glint of concentration in Erik's eyes are all he needs to ground him, to shut out the world around him in a way he's never managed before Erik had helped him end the riot on Ryalagra. It's silent in all the ways that matter to him.
Charles finds that he is at peace.
A moment later, Erik sweeps his legs from under him and he lands flat on his back, dazed. The sounds of the world rush back into his mind and he lies there blinking blearily at the ceiling and the sudden onslaught of thoughts. A hand comes into view, followed quickly by Erik's face. He looks worried and Charles grins, taking the offered hand.
Erik is studying him thoughtfully. He's barely broken a sweat, Charles noted ruefully as he grabs his water bottle.
"Not too fast," Erik cautions as soon as Charles considers guzzling the entire contents. Charles reluctantly sips at the water instead, closing his eyes as the cool liquid soothes his throat.
When he looks up again, Erik has turned away from him and is pacing restlessly facing the wall, but looks up at the clunk of Charles putting the bottle back down on the table.
"Again?" Charles offers, but Erik shakes his head.
"Today was just a test to see how much you know," he says.
"Did I pass?" Charles asks, smiling.
"You did well," Erik admits grudgingly. "I thought you said you'd never learned before."
"I mostly just studied the texts I found in the library," Charles says. "They had diagrams and holos and such, but I've never had actual training."
Erik tilts his head. "Then you did very well," he amends.
"I let the Force guide me," Charles says and Erik looks up with interest. "But you didn't," Charles hazards to guess, something he had sensed during their spar.
"No," Erik trails off, looking away.
"Why not?" Charles asks curiously, although he can hazard a guess at the answer.
Erik hesitates before replying. "If I had, I would have hacked you to pieces. The Force that I command is not light like yours. It's always a struggle not to go too far when I access it. It's different when I'm moving metal because I have all my concentration on it, but when I'm dueling, it often overtakes me."
At Charles's slightly disbelieving look, he says with a twisted laugh, "You don't believe me. But it's true. I couldn't risk hurting you."
"You wouldn't have," Charles says firmly. "You are no longer what you used to be. You are…more."
Erik flinches when he reaches out a hand to touch his face and then goes still when Charles cups the side of his jaw with his hand. "You don't know what I'm capable of. I don't know what I'm capable of," he says hoarsely. "You don't know what I've done."
"No I don't. But that was Darth Magnetus," Charles says, ignoring Erik's shudder at the name. It's important that he understand this. "You hear me? That wasn't you." He lets his hand drop and picks up one of the clean towels hanging from a rack nearby. Wiping the sweat off his face, he turns to leave, heading for his room and a shower an sleep. After a second, Erik's footsteps fall into place behind him.
Only you can decide who you want to be, he thinks to him.
What if I can't be trusted to make that decision? Erik counters. Would you really see the galaxy burn just because I made the wrong choice?
Charles doesn't let any of the images his mind conjured up at Erik's words leak through his shields. Images of genocide, whole planets burning, his Jedis' life energy seeping out of broken bodies to join with the Force—no. He would not think about that. There is no point dwelling on it, he tells himself firmly. It is not the Jedi way. Concentrate on the Living Force, he says to Erik. It will guide you in your choice.
Erik barks out a laugh. "You've mentioned this Living Force before. What exactly is it?" he asks aloud.
"It's a difficult concept for me to explain," Charles says slowly. "Your—the emperor never taught you about it?"
Erik's eyes darken for a moment. "He taught me nothing except pain and how to cause it."
Charles hesitantly puts a hand on his shoulder, wanting to comfort but not knowing how. You can stay with me tonight, Erik thinks in response to his unasked question. Not—I don't want to do anything. I just want—not to feel so alone.
Charles realizes he's gaping at him and looks away, flushing. Erik steps out from under his hand. "Forget it," he says. His door slides open. "Sorry I asked."
"No," Charles says, gathering his wits and stopping the door with a flick of the Force before Erik disappeared behind it. "I want to."
Erik's eyes widen a fraction, but he merely steps aside so that Charles can enter. "Are you sure?"
"Quite sure," Charles says. He drops down on a chair and then groans when he remembers that he still needs to shower.
"What?" Erik wants to know.
"I stink," Charles says. He cracks open an eye to find Erik grinning. "Don't laugh. You stink worse than I do." He catches sight of Erik trying to surreptitiously move something with the Force, a whisper in Erik's mind, and rolls his eyes. "Erik, you haven't even slept in here yet. Why do you have a knife under your pillow?"
"Old habits," Erik shrugs, shoving the blade into a drawer.
"In fact, I didn't even know you had a weapon other than your lightsaber," Charles mutters. "Please tell me you're not actually bristling with knives."
"I didn't have a weapon," Erik admits reluctantly.
"Then what—?" Charles catches sight of the missing arm on the chandelier in the room. No wonder it had looked different when he stepped inside. "I'm going to go shower," he sighs. He waves a hand at the ceiling. "You can stay here and fix this."
Charles catches a wisp of thought when he forces himself to his feet—I don't get to join you?
"Some other day," he says with a chuckle and Erik blushes, just a little.
"Sorry. Didn't mean for you to hear that."
Charles just smiles at him. "Like I said, Erik. Some other day," he says. A wave of exhaustion suddenly hits him. "Go fix the chandelier. I want to sleep."
He thinks he hears a muttered "Yes, dear" as he leaves but can't be certain.
Charles jerks back awake when Erik slides into the bed beside him. He feels the silent apology he offers and gives him a small smile to show him that he doesn't mind.
Still, he doesn't fall back asleep until Erik's breathing evens out to soft snores. The brief rustle of cool air when Erik had joined him has dissipated into comfortable warmth. If he raises his head a little, he can see moonlight and shadow flowing in a dappled pattern over Erik's sleeping form.This is nice, he has time to think, before sleep hits him like a rampaging bantha.
Everyone is already up the next morning when Charles wakes up. Their thoughts are loud in his head and he takes a moment to fully awaken, letting his mental shields fall back into place. Last night's events suddenly surface and he looks to the side. Unsurprisingly, it's empty. Charles flops back onto the bed, reaching out for the Force but sensing no negative emotions. Just calm and what feels like routine—except it isn't, not yet. He smiles slightly and gets up, changing out of his sleep clothes.
The kitchen smells like food when he walks in. Hank is seated at the table, looking half asleep, mechanically shoving toast into his mouth. Darwin yawns as he sips hot caf, almost choking when he tries to swallow and laugh at something Alex had said. Alex slides off from his perch on the table when he sees Charles's mildly disapproving look and drops into a chair instead. Moira is chatting amiably with Sean at the corner of the table. Charles catches Raven grinning at the scene before them and knows how she feels. It brings a warm feeling his chest at how the mansion is feeling more and more like home. Certainly not the way it used to be.
He sits down at the table and accepts the plate of toast Hank hands him. "Here," Raven says, handing him a cup of caf when he absentmindedly starts looking around the kitchen.
"Thank you," he says, even though caf hadn't been what he was looking for. He'd much prefer some tea anyways, which she well knows.
She just smirks at him as Erik walks in, damp from the quick shower he takes after his morning runs. His eyes fall on the steaming hot caf in Charles's hand and then up at Charles hopefully. Wordlessly, Charles passes it over, enjoying Erik's soft sigh of contentment. When he looks back down at his plate, someone has placed a cup of his favorite tea next to his plate.
Erik snags a piece of toast from Charles's plate and walks outside, the door closing quietly behind him. Charles frowns. Surely that's not all he's going to eat this morning? He grabs some more toast from the seemingly endless piles and puts it on his plate. "I'll take this to Erik," he says to nobody in particular. The sound of muffled laughter follows him out the door.
He finds Erik tinkering with a droid in the garden. He hadn't been difficult to find; his presence shown out with a unique blend of light and shadow to anyone who cared to see.
"What are you doing?" Charles asks.
Erik doesn't look up as he answers, hadn't even jumped when Charles spoke. "Fixing this droid."
"It'll fix the rest of them," Erik says. He screws something into place with a thought and gives it a pat. "There we go."
"I never thought of you as a mechanic," Charles says. Although now that he thinks about it, it makes more than a little sense.
Erik shrugs. "It's all metal. And I'm not. A mechanic I mean. I just like to tinker with things." As if in answer, the droid whirs to life, beeps a polite greeting at them, and rolls away, creaking slightly.
"I'm sure all the old droids here in need of repair will keep it happy," Charles says, watching Erik's eyes follow it. "…Is something wrong?"
Erik looks up, surprised. "Something wrong?"
"You seem distant today," Charles says.
Erik laughs. "I feel fine today. Better than fine, actually. No nightmares," he explains. "Better yet, no dreams either," he adds as an afterthought.
"But how are you holding up?" Erik asks before Charles can question him further.
"What do you mean?"
"I sense that this isn't exactly a happy place for you," Erik says carefully.
Charles feels a familiar denial instinctively well up before he catches hold of it and slowly releases it into the Force. He looks up to see Erik watching him and wants to shrug it off, except there's a look of quiet understanding in his eyes, and who would have thought he'd ever be standing in this familiar garden with the old shadow of his ancestral home looming over them, while a Sith Lord watched him with compassion? He owes it to Erik to be forthright.
"My parents weren't the most caring of people," he says. He recounts the death of his father, the cold withdrawal of his mother, the arrival of his stepfather and stepbrother, getting lost among the army of servants and droids that maintained the estate, managing throughout the story at least the appearance of detachment. He tells Erik of meeting Raven one day when they had been off-planet visiting friends, and she had tried to pick his pocket. He'd befriended her in the days that followed, slipping away from the boring parties that his mother and stepfather enjoyed attending. She had come back with him.
"I'd already begun feeling whispers of the Force," Charles says, smiling faintly at the happier memories once Raven had become his family. "It wasn't all that difficult to suggest to my mother and stepfather that she'd always been here." He pauses. "It's not like they ever saw us clearly enough to be suspicious.
"You figured out how to do Force suggestion at that age?" Erik asks with surprise. His voice dropped lower, musing. "An untrained Force suggestion. It's a wonder those people retained their sanity."
Charles flushes, just a little. "I know," he murmurs. The thought of what he had done, the danger involved that he hadn't even realized still fills him with guilt.
"I'm not judging you," Erik says easily. "Force knows I'm the last person who should." He waits a moment and then gently prompts, "Where did everyone go then?"
"Dead," Charles says evenly. Erik's not fooled by the tone though. He doesn't reply, but he kind of settles a little, as if to show he's willing to wait for eternity if that's how long it took for Charles to get the words out. "I had left home by then, taking Raven with me. I was the only one tying her to this place anyways. We traveled together for a year, following the faint and broken trail of a mysterious Order that had served the Light long ago."
"The Jedi," Erik interjects.
Charles nods. "I was fascinated by the histories and bits of information that I found, and Raven humored me enough to join me, although she was interested in the things we found about the Force as well. And then one day, the family lawyer tracked us down. There had been a shuttle explosion, he told us. No survivors. I was shocked to learn that it had been over two months ago. He told me I had inherited all of my family's holdings. That he was sorry for my loss." He looks down at his feet and then back up to meet Erik's eyes. "I hadn't felt a thing. All that time getting closer to the Force, learning the old ways of guiding it. I hadn't felt a thing."
Erik places a hand on Charles's shoulder. It's warm through the cloth. Warm like the sunlight on his face. "People die all the time," he says, not unkindly. "You don't feel all of their deaths do you?"
Charles frowns. "Of course not. But this is my family—"
"Were they?" Erik cuts, the harshness of his tone not directed toward Charles. Charles looks away.
"We don't get to choose who our parents are. We don't get to choose what happens to them, what happens to us," Erik says and Charles feels the shadow in his words. "But we do get to choose our family."
Distantly, Charles hears the laughter of his Jedi as they spill out into the gardens in search of their errant Master. Erik hears them too and his expression goes more shuttered. He stretches and says, "Time to start training. Empires aren't going to fall by themselves, you know."
Charles nods but makes no move to leave. "Give me a minute."
Erik shrugs but pauses before he disappears behind a hedge. "Do not mourn for your family, Charles," he says. Gesturing in the direction of young voices, he says, "They're still alive." A hesitant motion. Erik's voice is light, and his mind is as shy as it could ever be, when he continues. "If I died, would you feel it in the Force?"
He's gone before Charles has a chance to answer.