A/N: Ridiculous Charles is ridiculous. And this is the last chapter.
For five days Charles doesn't speak, nor wake up, nor even move.
For five days he is left alone except for Raven's short visits when she changes his IV-drip and does the necessary nursing. Raven insists. She says he'd want it that way, and that he'll be fine, not to worry, he just needs a bit of time. But she is fraying around the edges.
For five days they tiptoe around the house, so numb with the memory of Charles' pain and power that not even the official government appreciation of their efforts manages to cheer them up.
It seems that in fusing them together as he did, Charles has singlehandedly managed what he'd dreamed for and what Erik has always thought impossible. In that moment, he has indeed touched the minds of humans all over the country, among them the President himself, more of them and further away than should have been possible even for Charles, and the experience has been as memorable for the humans as it was for the mutants.
Moira has been appointed as the official liaison between mutants and the government, and her first act has been to demand explicit inclusion of their kind in both the Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights. She's sending them daily updates from her new office in Washington.
Kennedy has issued a statement in which he calls the mutants friends and fellow-citizens, and thanks them for defending their country in its darkest hour. The speech touches on the sacrifices they willingly made and stresses their common nature. It does not mention identification, or control, or danger. Not with a single word.
He calls for a dialogue between mutants and humans, to discuss peaceful co-habitation and the many ways they can help each other.
He's invited them to the White House.
And Charles is not conscious to witness it.
For five days, Erik is consumed with guilt. He knows he has caused this, and he knows he can probably never make up for it. He wouldn't even know where to start.
Even Raven begins to look as if she's slowly losing hope.
And then, on the sixth day, as they're making their way to the kitchen for breakfast, Charles is suddenly there, sauntering down the stairs, clean-shaven and groomed to perfection, his hands in the pockets of his soft grey flannel trousers.
Looking as if he's never had a care in the world.
"Good morning," he calls out cheerfully, as if it was just any morning. "Is that breakfast I smell? Excellent, I'm positively famished!"
They can only stare at him.
He stares back, and for a moment there's actual confusion on his face.
Then he lowers his eyes, and twitches a bit, and is that an honest-to-God blush tingeing his cheekbones?
He looks uncomfortable with all the attention, as if the earth and sky hadn't listened to him six days ago, and bowed to his wishes.
"Look" he says sheepishly. "I realize that I caused a few breaches of privacy this past week, and I can't say how much I regret that, but I have every hope that it won't happen again, so if you'd accept my apology…"
Raven barrels into him so hard that he nearly loses his balance. She holds on for dear life and presses her face into his shirt, but they can still hear her.
"Shut up, Charles," she says very clearly.
Erik can only agree with her.
Charles is every inch the bewildered professor now, and the way he pats her back and presses a kiss into her hair is endearingly helpless.
"I'm alright, Raven," he says. "I promise. Not a scratch on me, see?"
That claim is so outrageous that Raven actually reaches out and punches him in the shoulder.
"Ouch!" Charles complains, sincerely shocked.
"You nearly died!" She cries out, and he has the gall to scoff at that.
"Nonsense, dear girl," he protests. "I was perfectly safe the whole time. I'm just a little hungry. So if we could go and have breakfast, please? Now?
They trail after him in stunned silence, unable to believe that this is it and he'll act as if nothing at all happened.
But it seems that is exactly what he'll do.
"This looks marvelous," Charles exclaims as sets eyes on the laid table, settles himself at his usual place and reaches for toast and eggs.
They join him slowly, and by general assent food consumption seems to hold very little interest in comparison to watching Charles Xavier eat truly impressive amounts of scrambled eggs.
They don't speak, or, as Erik corrects himself almost automatically, they don't speak out loud. Charles is probably listening to a tumult of thoughts right now.
But he barely acknowledges them until he's drained his second cup of coffee and reaches for a cup and saucer and the obligatory china teapot instead.
Then he looks up from the table, blue eyes glittering with amusement (oh yes, he knows exactly what he's doing), and meets their eyes in turn.
"You have questions, I presume," he offers, and that is all they need.
There is an initial barrage from the younger team members, which includes questions about his health, exclamations of awe and the request "not to explode our heads, please" (the last one from Sean, naturally). But it is Hank who finally asks the most important question, and for once the other team members willingly fall into line.
"Professor," Hank says slowly. His stutter has vanished entirely these past days, but he can't quite meet Charles' eyes. Erik hopes it is respect that stops him, not fear. "Were you aware that you could…"
Crush us all in your hands, his face says. Wield the powers of a god. Change the world.
But Hank isn't a man of grand words, so he ends the sentence rather weakly with "…do that?"
Charles crosses his legs, cradles the teacup in his hands, and shakes his head.
"Not entirely," he answers, and what kind of answer is that, Erik wonders.
Could you be any less clear? He asks silently, waiting for a smile, a silent reply, any sort of reaction. But Charles doesn't even blink, and Erik realizes that his shields must be as high as they can get. Charles cannot hear him right now, and to his surprise Erik finds that this fact disappoints him.
But he still gets his wish. Charles sighs and continues.
"I have always known that considerable parts of my power went into shielding myself. I've never experimented with expanding myself the way I did, and I am honestly as surprised by the results as you are, although I assume your headache wasn't quite as bad as mine, nor that you've been out of it as long – how long have I been asleep, by the way?"
"Five days," Raven answers quietly. She cannot meet his eyes.
Charles looks a bit shocked.
"Dear God," he murmurs. "I'm so sorry, Raven, you must have been terribly worried."
Terribly worried doesn't even come close to how Raven's been these past days, nor any of them, to tell the truth, and from the look on his face Charles is very aware of that. For a moment, his chipper surface cracks a bit; he reaches up to rub his temples, brush his hair back, and suddenly looks old and worn. But then he pulls himself together and is all puppy-enthusiasm again.
"But things are going well on the mutant publicity front, I gather?" He asks, sips his tea and grimaces with revulsion.
"Honestly," he complains, jumping from his chair and rooting through the kitchen cupboards. "I am asleep for a few days and the standards of civilization slip to unacceptable levels in this house. Who brewed this tea? And where is the marmalade?"
"The President is calling us heroes, man!" Alex says, and Charles chuckles heartily.
"He is, isn't he?" He asks, visibly chuffed. "The Saviours of America – not a title I would have chosen for myself, but what can you do."
Raven doesn't say anything. She just gets up, walks over to one of the cupboards and hands Charles the marmalade. He answers this gesture of sisterly affection with a warm hug and a kiss on the side of her head, unscrews the jar and begins spreading obscene amounts of FruityOrange over his toast.
"One thing I'll say about heretofore unheard of acts of telepathy," he comments absently. "They create quite the appetite."
Sean and Alex laugh at that, Raven walks by and punches him again, but lightly, and even Hank relaxes enough to smile.
Erik is still staring.
That's it? He thinks. That can't be it.They won't just accept a half-cocked explanation and a joke and forget about everything that happened. It's just not possible, not even when a telepath is involved.
But Charles keeps teasing Raven and asking Hank about his progress on the Cerebro plans and telling Sean that he had this groovy new idea how to use his powers.
He just keeps talking and smiling and chuckling and eating, and by his third cup of tea, no one seems to remember that he shaped a necklace out of their minds and saved the world with it.
He's just good old Charles, after all. Nothing to see, here.
Nothing at all.
"I won't let you get away with it that easily," Erik tells Charles later, as he confronts him in his study.
Charles sighs and raises his hands in a gesture of apology.
"I am truly sorry that I used your powers without your consent, Erik," he says softly. "I shouldn't have. In fact, I'm sorry about a lot of things. But I lost control. I promise it won't happen again."
Erik just stares at him in disbelief, just as he has that morning.
"Do you think that's funny?" He demands.
Charles' face falls.
"No, of course not," he hastens to answer. "I can only imagine how uncomfortable and invasive that must have been, and after I promised you to stay out of your head… I took a decision from you that you should have made yourself. I am truly apologetic, I assure you."
He chances a smile, just a small one, but he doesn't look up to meet Erik's eyes.
Who suddenly, shockingly, understands.
"You aren't joking," he states flatly. "You're serious."
Now Charles' eyes snap up to him in something akin to panic.
"Of course I am serious!" He answers very quickly. "I know how you feel about being in control, and I shouldn't have stolen that from you. You're my friend, the only friend I have apart from Raven, but I've hurt you so badly in so many ways that I wouldn't be surprised if you never talked to me again, so… yes… I'm not joking."
There are too many things in this rushed little speech that Erik can't understand yet, not least of all the way his chest tightens when he hears Charles talk like that, too high-pitched and entirely too nervous.
"Let me get this straight, Charles," he says slowly. "This past week, you've been attacked by Frost and had your shields shattered, but still faced down Shaw and two Fleets while you were barely able to stand, then had your shields shattered again and brought about understanding between mutants and humans single-handedly, while saving all our lives. And you're worried that I'm angry because you used my powers without asking first?"
Charles reacts to this outpour of words with puzzlement.
"Yes?" He tries carefully.
Erik growls with frustration.
"And I'm very sorry?" Charles tries again, and this time Erik can't help himself. He crosses the room in three long steps, takes Charles by the shoulders and shakes him.
"You are an idiot!" He growls. "I'm not angry because you… oh, just go ahead and take a look, for goodness sake!"
He grabs Charles' hand and directs it to his temple in an impatient effort of making him understand.
Charles hesitates. His eyes narrow in concentration as he enters Erik's mind (not completely, not the way they were, inseparable and one, he's just skimming the surface and Erik can barely even feel him). Then they go very wide.
"Oh," he says. "You're worried about me? I didn't realize, I'm sorry…"
"Would you please stop apologizing, Charles?" Erik grinds out. "Because I am really, truly at the end of my patience here. What makes you think that everyone is worth consideration but you? You nearly died out there, several times, and I caused you enormous pain, and still you think it's necessary to playact around me? You're not alright, you were hurt terribly, and you need to acknowledge that."
Charles' face softens.
"It has been acknowledged, and dealt with, and I've moved on," he answers calmly, then smiles. "But thank you for caring, my friend. Thank you."
There is appreciation in his voice, honest warmth, and perhaps a bit of amusement about Erik's fairly melodramatic retelling of the week.
Erik can't help but answer that smile. It is true, not everyone sees the world as black and white as he does, and while the last days were harrowing, it's been difficult for them all, and problems with one's power are certainly something they have all learned to deal with.
Charles has had it bad, sure, but it's nothing compared to what Alex has gone through, again and again and again. Charles is an adult, he knows his own limits, and anyway, he has Raven, who's probably chewed him out about this already and is far easier to talk to than Erik.
"Now, could I interest you in a game of chess, my friend?" Charles asks and Erik has already nodded his agreement and turns towards the table…
… when he realizes that the need to let things slip, to settle back down into their routine and accept that Charles is alright – he said so, didn't he, so why should Erik question his friend – that the urge to just let it go is not coming from him.
He looks back and meets Charles' eyes, openly, properly, not for the society-approved one or two seconds, but as long as it takes. What he sees makes his chest tighten in that painful way again.
Because Charles' face may be calm, the way his head is tilted may be confident and self assured, but then there's his body language, the way he's fairly vibrating with tension, and his eyes are pleading, they are begging him to just take the bait, to simply let it be.
"Oh no, Charles," he growls. "This is not how we're going to do this. Not today."
"I have no idea what you're on about, my friend. No chess, then?"
Charles' eyes are so very blue. The soothing whisper of thoughts at the back of Erik's mind gets stronger and stronger.
Let it go, Erik, just let it go, it's not worth it, trust me, let it go.
It should infuriate Erik, this casual and subtle invasion of his mind. It's a breach of trust, and he's punched men in the face for considerably less, but he knows Charles, knows him so well, and so he understands the things his friend is hiding carefully, the way his shoulders are hitched, the overly casual way he's not facing Erik.
Charles is frightened. He's frightened of this talk and this moment, and after the last week, after what they experienced together, this fear is both ludicrous and painful.
Charles has faced down Shaw, and a sky full of rockets, and the damned US government. He shouldn't be afraid of anything, least of all Erik.
"It's not going to work, Charles. And, by the way, the thing you're doing right now? That is taking control from me and abusing your power, and you had better stop it right this moment."
Charles' face goes white, and for a panicky moment Erik thinks that something has happened to his shields again, but then the whispering in his head ceases abruptly, and Erik realizes that Charles didn't even notice what he was doing.
"I'm so sorry, Erik," he whispers. "I can't even begin to apologize… Perhaps I'm not entirely well yet. I'd better…"
"You had better tell me why the hell you're so afraid of having someone look out for you that you need to manipulate me into not caring, Charles," Erik takes over the sentence. "Are you too arrogant to admit weakness even after what you did? Or can't you face what happened to you? Is that why you're trying so hard to tuck it all away and hide it out of sight?"
Abruptly, Charles turns away from him and walks over to one of the French windows. His hands are clenched to fists in the pockets of his trousers, his back stiff and noncommittal. He averts his face. He goes completely still.
But it's too late, because Erik has already seen the shudder that has overtaken his friend, the way his face contorts into a grimace of hurt, and no stiff-upper lip or fake smile will make him forget.
And suddenly it's the night before Cuba again, and Erik is lost in Charles' memories, and Erik realizes that he has been here before, has witnessed this moment of withdrawing, of Charles curling in on himself and letting out nothing of how he feels, even if it's close to breaking him.
He's been there with the five-year-old that hid in his father's closet to breathe in the familiar scents and just misses, that walks such a long, long way across the grounds, until he's sure he's alone and then screams and screams and screams, because he's six and Lisa has just been raped, and he can't understand where all this pain is coming from.
He's been there with the eight-year-old who forces himself to withstand the blows of his stepfather, meeting the man's bloodshot eyes, because he's heard that bullies respect strength of character. He's been there while Raven forbids him to read his mind and the rejection hurts so much more than the bruises he hides.
He's been there as Charles perfects his mask, becomes the pleasant, charming, unapproachable Englishman that is so self contained people won't think twice about his needs, because he's clearly a happy person, so obviously beyond and above all the problems normal human beings wrestle with.
He's there when Charles turns from alone into lonely, and no one even notices.
He has lived it from the inside a hundred times. He knows how awful it feels, this terrible struggle to regain control, to stay aloof and let nobody see how he's hurting, even though he's spent the night crying over loneliness, a broken arm, memories that are not his, even though all he wants is to let go. But he can't.
But only now that he sees the same thing from the outside, is not the one suffering but the one causing it, does Erik truly understand.
After all the secrets his telepathy has shown him and taught him, after all he's been through, the one thing Charles Xavier has never learnt is how to be himself.
"Charles," he says, and some of that understanding must show in his voice, because Charles shudders again, hunches down, withdraws so far into his own mind that he's barely there anymore, only a cardboard figure with clothes on.
"You don't need to do this, Charles, not with me."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Charles whispers, but it's as if he's not even trying anymore, and Erik counts that as a sign of success and ploughs right on.
"Yes you do, Charles, you know exactly what I'm talking about. But the thing you haven't realized yet is that this, what we are building here, this friendship, this family? It isn't a one-way street. It's not about you protecting everyone. It's about us protecting eachother. Hiding yourself away from everyone around you like you've done – it's not healthy – you know enough about the human psyche to be aware of that. You are not alone in this, Charles."
This knowledge – not being alone – is perhaps the greatest gift Charles has given to him, but while it exhilarated Erik and changed his life for the better, it only seems to frighten Charles more. He turns away from the window, towards Erik, but the tension in his slight frame doesn't lessen. He carefully avoids Erik's eyes.
"But I am alone. I have to be, Erik. There's no choice. If I stumble, if I lose control, people do not simply get hurt. I don't just push people away, I obliterate them. Nobody should get too close to that. You've felt it yourself – I've nearly driven you insane, and if I slip, if I'm not careful enough, that sort of thing could happen again."
"I am willing to take that risk," Erik answers, not allowing a hint of doubt to creep into his voice.
And Charles is startled, no, he's shocked, disbelieving, as if he can't imagine someone would be ready to risk himself, not for him. Erik is mesmerized by the dance of emotions across Charles' face, the way hope creeps into him slowly, lighting up his eyes, curling his lips, and he wants to answer that smile.
But before he can, Charles shakes his head, harshly, painfully, and draws himself back from the precipice he's been balancing on for just a second. He takes control of his blooming hope ruthlessly, with the precision only someone as versed in the human psyche as Charles could ever possess.
And crushes it to nothing, cruelly, deliberately, leaving his face empty like a deserted stage.
"No," he says. It's a very final no. "I am sorry, my friend. You may be willing to risk your life, but I am not."
And here's where privilege comes in, Erik thinks absently. Because despite all the hardships that were, in fact, hardships, Charles has ultimately grown up in a world where people will accept his word for it, are, simply put, too polite to dig deeper. Whereas Erik's always had to take what he needs from unwilling hands, because no one would give to him freely. Politeness is a burden he's never had to bear.
"You don't get to do this to us, Charles," he therefore says, sharply, brushing aside Charles' finality with ease. "I won't allow it."
Charles chuckles. It's a very weak sound. He's still not looking Erik in the eyes.
"Won't allow it? I'm sorry my friend, but aren't you overreaching yourself a bit? It is still my choice whom I trust and with what, isn't it? If I decide not to talk about this with you, then I expect you to accept that decision."
"But this isn't a decision you're making, Charles. Don't fool yourself on that account. It's a gut reaction, born from fear. You don't even know how to deal with somebody caring for you, because you've always been on your own in this, and you think that's the way it has to be."
Erik pauses, touching Charles' shoulder, trying to somehow connect to the man that is locked up inside this stranger.
"I know how that feels, Charles, I've been there for most of my life, but you've changed that, and how can you expect me not to reciprocate? How can you expect me not to look out for you in turn?"
Charles takes a deep, shuddering breath, and meets Erik's gaze. Erik can see the exhaustion in his eyes, the fear, and when Charles speaks, it is as close to begging as his friend has ever been.
"Erik, please - just let it rest. You don't know…"
"I do, actually," Erik interrupts him, because he can't let it rest, he won't. "I know everything. Been in your head, remember? I know you, Charles Xavier. Probably better than anyone else does. I know that you blame yourself for your mother's alcoholism, your stepfather's death. I know that you love Raven deeply, but would rather let her leave you forever than taint her with your pain. I know that right now, you want nothing more in the world than to reach out to me, but that you can't, because you're afraid this isn't even real, that your desire for contact has somehow tricked me into caring."
Charles is staring at him with wide eyes, and he looks so young right now, so vulnerable, so utterly shocked that someone has found him out.
"But this isreal, and I won't let this go. If we're to be friends, if this is to work, then you need someone at your side with whom you can be yourself, Charles. No one can be perfect all the time, not even a twenty-something telepathic genius with a mansion and a handful of doctorates. You said to me that I could do with friends – isn't that true for you as well?"
For a moment Erik worries that this won't be enough. That Charles will simply turn around and leave, anyway, make Erik forget this whole conversation and that they ever were friends, return to Oxford perhaps, to the safety of his lonely studies.
But there's the hope again, not quite as dead as Charles had thought. The knowledge that they have something truly precious, here, and that letting go of this would mean giving up a lifetime's chance. Erik knows these are the things that clamour and contend in Charles' mind, because it is what he himself wrestled with during that long night at the CIA facility.
"We've built this together, my friend," Erik whispers. "I want you by my side. Don't leave me now."
Charles is still staring, frozen as if Erik's eyes were the headlights of a speeding car. His breathing is shallow, quick and slightly panicky, and already his body is turning away from Erik, closing him off, reconstituting the distance he so desperately needs.
"It's not that I don't want to, Erik… I can't… I don't know how to do this…"
Erik grabs his shoulders again, forcing Charles to face him, forcing him to accept what Erik will say as truth, and their closeness is a rush of relief that makes him feel giddy.
"Then let me help," he says roughly, his voice painting the future in the air around them. "Let us work this through together, Charles. It would be my honour."
And Charles, stripped of his masks, his tricks, his shields, all those walls he's erected between himself and the world, Charles nods, and reaches out, and touches Erik's chest, lightly, just above his heart.
It is enough for now.
A/N: And that's it, folks. Thank you for all your feedback and comments!
Now, a few of you have been asking about sequels. There is a vague idea building in my head, but I'm not quite sure if it will work out. Would you be interested at all?
Also, my evil brother has put the idea of an "Wanted"-"X-Men"-fusion into my head. I know there are a few of them out there already, but the storyline I have in mind would work quite well. What do you think?