Epilogue: Try, Try Again
5 months later
"How far does the tunnel have to go?"
"Far," Papa answers, tracing an invisible path on the map of the house and grounds. Max clamors into his Papa's lap, garnering an amused chuckle and a gentle hand carding through his hair. "The tunnel needs to extend from here all the way to the edge of the property. Maybe beyond."
"It's an escape route right, Mr. Erik?" Ororo pipes up, and Papa smiles at her, his eyes going soft like it does when he looks at Max. "In case bad people come to the school? And we have to get away?"
His Papa frowns then, and Max can feel a simmering anger radiating from him at the question, though it's not directed at either of them. Papa is always just a little angry at the fact that there are people out there who want to hurt them, just for having the powers that make them special.
"Only very unwise people would come here, looking to cause trouble," his Papa says, his expression easing back into a slow smile. "But I have found that the world doesn't lack for very unwise people indeed. So we need to prepare for extenuating circumstances, just in case. Our priority is to keep you and the other children safe."
Ororo laughs. "You sound just like the Professor."
Papa grins and flicks Ororo gently on the nose, making her giggle. "I think you might be right," he teases, before swiping her last cookie right out of her hand and taking a bite. "But I bet Charles wouldn't do that!"
Max can't stop laughing at the sight of Ro's indignant scowl and Papa's attempts to ward her off by holding the stolen cookie high above their heads. It makes him happy to see how much his Papa has warmed to the other students at the School in the past ten months – especially Ororo, who Max loves so very much. He hopes that Papa will come to love her as much as he and Daddy both, since he knows Daddy can't have any more babies, so Max will never have a sibling of his own.
But Daddy also told him a long time ago, that family is not just the people who are related to you by blood; sometimes, the family you make can mean just as much.
"How's the construction coming along?" Charles asks, his fingers rubbing absently against the armrest as he considers his next move. "Max tells me you've been helping him train, letting him move some of the rubble in the tunnels with his powers."
They're in Charles' room tonight, the study having been commandeered by Hank and Sean after the School's welcome dinner for the new staff. Charles had retreated from the impromptu party soon after breaking out the ten year old Scotch – much to Ms. Braddock's approval – and headed up to join Erik for their usual chess game.
"He's perfectly safe, Charles, I would never-"
"I know that," Charles interrupts, sounding fond and exasperated at the same time. "I know you would never let him get hurt under your watch. It was just a question, not a criticism, my friend."
Charles punctuates his assertion with a nudge of his telepathy, letting Erik see glimpses of his earlier conversation with Max and the boy's excitement; to sense Charles' own regard for Erik's care and his continued efforts to bond with their son. In the months since Erik decided to stay, Charles has been slowly warming to his presence, both in their lives and in his head, giving him hope that their relationship could eventually return to the way it was before Cuba.
Or perhaps, to something less ephemeral and built to last.
"It's coming along," Erik answers, choosing to move past the misunderstanding, letting Charles feel the weight of his appreciation from his thoughts instead of his words. "A few more weeks to finish digging the tunnel and reinforce the walls. We'll have three exits leading into the escape route; one in the corridor by the students' rooms, one in the lab, and one through the library."
"Hmm," is the only response, which is in line with the balance of Charles input thus far, whenever Erik updates him on the status of this particular project. He suspects that he knows Charles' reason for keeping his distance – in large an attempt to keep him busy and invested in the welfare of the School. And as much as he finds Charles' manoeuvring to be both obvious and infuriating, he can also be grateful for his former lover's efforts to help him integrate into this new life.
"I didn't realize I was so obvious, Erik, or infuriating," Charles teases, as he takes a slow sip of his Scotch. His eyes linger on Erik's face as he swallows, and the heat of his gaze makes the air around them suddenly sizzle with unspoken tension. "Would you like me to stop?"
This moment - the anticipation, the intense rush of desire – is reminiscent of so many nights they've spent in one another's company, both before Cuba and since Erik's return. His body is tuned to Charles like it's been with no other; he can recall with perfect clarity the taste of his skin and the press of his fingers, though it's been almost a decade since the last time they made love.
But he remembers, every glance and every touch, signalling Charles' attraction as he offers himself to Erik for the taking.
And Charles is clearly, unequivocally sending him a signal now.
He moves, his legs carrying him out of his seat and around the chessboard, dropping to his knees in front of the wheelchair as Charles drags him practically into his lap. They've been building to this, over the course of weeks and months now, a delicate dance of soon, but not yet where Charles leads and Erik willingly follows.
"No," he breathes, "don't stop," and Charles kisses him in response, strong, thick fingers carding gently through his hair. Erik's wraps his arms around Charles and tugs him close, while Charles grips Erik's face between his palms, mouth opening to deepen their kiss with a desperate, ragged sigh.
They stay like this for a long time, locked together in a tight embrace, fingers and mouths clutching tight as their bodies reacquaint themselves in old, familiar ways. Erik has never forgotten what it means to be with Charles; how it made him believe in a happiness he didn't even know was possible.
Help me, darling, Charles says, and Erik obliges, lifting him out of the chair and carrying him across the room to his bed. It's a testament of just how far they've come in these past few months, that Charles would allow such liberties and let Erik see him without his metaphorical armor; a man with needs and vulnerabilities like any other.
Charles pulls and Erik follows, as they topple breathlessly onto the bed. This – he knows this, knows where to bite and where to lick as he traces the smattering of freckles hiding under Charles' collared shirt. This is where he wants to be – needs to be – and he can't help but whisper the words into Charles' skin –
I love you.
It's you and me.
"Stop, stop, stop," Charles mutters, surprising Erik by shoving him over onto the mattress and sliding backwards on the bed, propping himself up against the headboard with a grimace. "This isn't…it's not what you're thinking. It's not."
"Charles," he murmurs, "what are you talking about?"
"This." Charles punctuates his answer with a wave of his hand, indicating some combination of Erik, the bed, and their state of dishevelment. "This is not us getting back together, Erik. This is not 'forever', and 'you and me', and any of the other things you're thinking in your head. It's just sex, alright? Can it be just that? And nothing more?"
Erik pulls himself up into a sitting position, and scrubs his face with both his hands. "No, I don't think it can be 'just sex', Charles. Because it's never been 'just sex' between us. Never."
"Then I'm sorry for leading you on, but I think it's best if you go back to your room and we forget about this," Charles insists, and Erik's expression must be thunderous, because Charles at least has the wherewithal to wince.
"It's fine, if you don't want to have sex with me," Erik begins, doing his best to keep his temper in check. "I would never want you to do something you don't want to do. But clearly, something is going on in your head that I'm not privy to, and I'd appreciate hearing what it is before you kick me out of your room."
For long moments, Charles just stares at him, and Erik thinks he might actually refuse to answer. But then, he lets out a sigh and tips his head back against the headboard, and what follows is soft and hesitant, like the words are being dragged out of him unwillingly.
"You came back for Max."
"You came back, because you found out we had a son together. You wanted to see him; to know him."
"Yes," Erik agrees. "What does this have to do with us?"
"Everything," Charles says, with a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "You didn't come back for me, Erik. If it wasn't for Max…you didn't come back for me."
He said it.
It had been there all along, a tight, hurt thing burrowed deep inside his chest from the moment Erik and Raven stepped back into the mansion again, after eight long years.
He knows that Erik is not a man who takes his feelings lightly; knows that Erik loves him, perhaps more than anyone he's ever loved since his family was brutally taken from him. Charles is a grown man and not a child to want promises and pretty words; actions they say after all, are louder than words.
And Erik is nothing but a man of action.
It isn't as though Charles doesn't want the things Erik is whispering like oaths against his skin. But he doesn't trust it, because he doesn't trust Erik's love for him; knows better than to think that the love he holds for Charles is enough to keep them together.
That it's enough for Erik…because it's never been enough.
To welcome him back, in the way they both want, whole and complete and more than they had before Cuba is to open his heart and let Erik back in. And though Charles is capable of bearing the loss again he's not sure it's worth it, well aware of the toll it took on him the first time they parted ways. Charles has Max and a school full of students who rely on him for comfort and support; he can ill afford to let his feelings overwhelm him as they did in the days and months before Max was born.
He looks up to find Erik watching him, expression as indecipherable as ever when Charles is deliberately shielding himself from Erik's thoughts. It might be annoyance, or perhaps anger that is slowly making Erik's lips narrow into a thin line and his jaw clench, Charles isn't sure, but he is not prepared for what happens next, for Erik to just get up off the bed, turn around and walk out the door.
Slumping back against the pillows, Charles closes his eyes, and lets the hurt and disappointment wash over him. He can't say that he's all that surprised at Erik's reaction; that he wouldn't – or couldn't – bother to deny Charles' claim. He should have never let his attraction to Erik complicate an already complicated situation, and wonders if they've effectively wiped away the progress they've made repairing their friendship these past few months.
But the door opens again, and Erik strides in, startling him as he takes a seat next to Charles and places a sealed metal box on the bed. He looks expectantly at Charles, nudging it closer with his powers, and then flips the lid open to reveal what looks like dozens of letters, sealed and unopened.
"No," Erik replies, as he lifts one of the envelopes out of the box and hands it to him. "These aren't the letters you wrote to me. I wrote these…I started writing them to you, after I got your first letter."
Charles turns the milky white envelope over in his hand, and reads his name written on the front in Erik's bold and elegant script. "I don't understand. Why did you write me letters? And why didn't you send them to me?"
"Charles," Erik says, voice intent, dragging his attention from the envelope to Erik's face, his expression warm and fond. The way he used to look when he thought Charles was being particularly obtuse. "I wrote them because I never stopped thinking of you. It helped me feel closer to you, even if I could never bring myself to send them. I love you. More than you know. More than I've ever been able to tell you."
"Please, let me finish," Erik interjects, twining their fingers together as Charles heaves a reluctant sigh. "You're right. I did come back because of Max. I don't know if I would be here now if it weren't for our son. But Charles, I would have come back, eventually. I always meant to come home to you…you're my home."
It's the way Erik sounds when he says the words, not harsh like a rebuke, or smug and biting when he's trying to prove a point. No, Erik says it like a statement of fact; like the sky is blue and the earth is round, and that, more than anything is what convinces Charles of his sincerity.
He swallows the lump in his throat and lets Erik take his hand. "I believe you, and I do want to make this work. I just…I don't know how long it's going to take for me to…"
"To trust me?" Erik murmurs, as he squeezes Charles' hand. "As long as it takes, Charles. And as long as it takes for me to trust this, that there are no more secrets between us. That you're not going to keep Max from me."
"I would never-"
"No, I know that too. But the fear is there, and it's going to take time. For you and for me. So we'll just take it day by day, until it feels right."
Charles lets out a soft chuckle and smiles. "What if it never feels right? Couldn't we just have sex anyway? Until we figure it out?"
He watches as Erik shifts and kicks off his shoes, floating the metal box of letters to the floor to make room for himself next to Charles on the bed. They sit side by side against the headboard, holding each other's hands like they never did as young lovers, on the cusp of something exciting and new.
"Whatever you want, Charles," Erik replies with an answering smile. "However long it takes. I'm here. We're here. We'll make it work."
"Erik," he whispers, hours later, the two of them curled against each other in Charles' bed. "I have an idea."
"There's a girl, a telepath and telekinetic, like Max. I found her with Cerebro and she really needs our help. I want to find her. Speak with her parents. Bring her here."
Erik shifts and wraps his arms tighter around Charles, lips pressed against the nape of his neck. "You want me to come with you?"
I do, he sends. It'll be like old times. Just you and me, on the road. Finding others like us. Bringing them home.
I'd like that, Erik answers. I'd like nothing more.