A Gift For: brilligspoons (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Length: 3,004 words
Summary: Some wounds never seem to heal, especially for Charles, and sometimes grief seems like an ever-present companion.
Notes/Warnings: Obviously I don’t own the X-men in general, or Erik and Charles in particular. Similarly, two quotations which frame the piece are both by C.S. Lewis - from A Grief Observed and Out of the Silent Planet respectively. Warnings for the fic include mild mind-manipulation (it’s Charles - are you surprised?), secrecy, mild exhibitionism, brief homophobia and ableist themes, setting appropriate allusions to racism (Harlem, 1960’s).
“Her absence is no more emphatic in those places than anywhere else. It's not local at all. I suppose if one were forbidden all salt one wouldn't notice it much more in any one food more than another. Eating in general would be different, every day, at every meal. It is like that. The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
The post card arrives somewhere between the city’s heating bill for the mansion and the ACLU newsletter, a simple square of laminated paper decorated with a picture of the Lincoln Memorial with a few words in a clean, sharp hand on the back. Because it’s addressed to Charles and the note avoids being threatening or irritating by being so cryptic as to be bland, Sean doesn’t give it a second look before dropping it with the Professor’s other personal mail and dragging it upstairs with the breakfast tray and the New York Times. He and Alex more or less trade doing that, right now, but he has a feeling he’s going to wake up one day to discover that Alex has vanished out the front door of the mansion with some of the house’s silver in his pocket. Sometimes he thinks about going with him. But then Hank would have to carry the tray up in those clever, oversized claws of his, and Sean doesn’t think he can stand the idea of leaving the Professor and Beast alone in this big, rambling house.
Charles knows all of this the same way that he knows that Alex is still here because he hasn’t figured out where to go next, and the same way that he knows that Hank would be happy to carry a tray but is secretly pleased that Sean cares enough to carry it for him. Sometimes, he thinks wearily as he drags himself upright in bed, being the next thing to omniscient is no bloody fun.
He imagines what Raven would say to that, the dry petulant crack of her wit, and is suddenly so choked with bitter anger that he has to fold his hands together under the covers and squeeze them into painful fists to keep from smashing his knuckles on the bedframe.
He cannot walk to the kitchen to fetch bandages if he does.
When Sean drops off his breakfast - eggs, lightly burned bacon and insufficiently burned toast - he remembers to smile for the boy. He has spent a lot of time remembering to smile in the last year. It is as if his face lost the knack, sometime after Cuba. After his legs lost the ability to support him, no matter how much the doctors examine them. After Raven left home to become a terrorist.
He thinks he has never felt so useless in his life.
That he does not allow himself to cry in Sean’s presence is an act of will, and to distract himself he sorts the day’s mail. Bills, invitations, a few strangling and vastly belated letters of consolation that he will burn without reading because his tolerance for well-meaning pity has been worn down to a nub and then ruthlessly snapped off. His fingers find the postcard, flick it out of the stack to check the sender, and then he sees Lincoln on the card and his breath stops.
He remembers sitting downstairs a few weeks ago, watching Martin Luther King deliver a speech that nearly drove him to tears - not the caustic, aching tears that haunt his mornings and the hours when he ought to be sleeping, but raw warm tears of relief at the sudden certainty he was not alone in imagining a better world. A world in which every child, no matter the color of their skin or their fur, could be judged on their character and not their genetics. He remembers, vividly, wondering if Erik was listening to that speech. If, perhaps, the words of a great man might move him where the words of a friend had not.
The postcard is cool against his fingers, the laminated surface slightly damp, and he realizes that his hands are sweating. He tries to turn it over, nearly drops it, and has to focus to make his fingers obey him. Even then, they shake.
The past has been a mint
Of blood and sorrow.
That must not be
True of tomorrow.
10 17 10 31 63
The hand is Erik’s. He knows every hard line and crisp loop of the words, knows how Erik’s hand would move to make them, and the sudden impulse to press his lips to the paper as if to catch up the echo of Erik’s touch is almost more than he can bear. He turns the card instead, running his fingers across the columns that cross the front of the monument like a cage, and then turns it again to read the message a second time.
Langston Hughes. One of Erik’s favorites. That much, he understands. The string of numbers, though... is Erik taunting him? Reminding him of something he’d somehow forgotten? Or has the only man who’s ever beaten him at chess simply been too clever for his own good?
He reads them three more times, chewing at his lip, and is on the verge of throwing it away and cursing himself for a fool when he glances down at the paper in front of him and sees the clean, sharp numbers of the date in the corner: October 20, 1963.
Ten thirty-one sixty-three.... A date. He sent me a date, and a time. The idea is so outrageous that Charles nearly laughs aloud. Preposterous, but even if that were true, how does he expect me to find him? He could be anywhere... anywhere at all.
The blood drains out of his face, and he’s picked up the telephone and dialed the number of his travel agent before the decision to do so has actually percolated all the way to his brain. He is aware, distantly, that his heart is pounding.
“Valerie? Yes, it’s Charles. I need to arrange a car to Harlem. A bit over a week from today. Yes, of course, that will be fine. Seven. Yes. Thank you.”
The phone clicks in his ear, and he buries his face in his hands to muffle another wild burst of laughter. I must be mad.
The card rests half-hidden under his paper, like a secret treasure, and he knows he is going to keep hiding it the same way that he knows Hank and Alex have begun arguing again.
His driver is nervous. Harlem after dark is not the kind of place that a respectable gentleman like Charles Xavier goes on the most raucous night of the year, much less the sort of place where he expects to be ordered to drive around a block for half an hour or more without explanation. Charles has thought quite hard about smothering that nervousness the same way he smothered the driver’s curiosity about who his customer might be meeting, but it seems wrong to interfere any more than he has to. In another few minutes, he may change his mind.
He checks his watch again, and finds that it is a quarter after ten. Two minutes. Always so punctual, Erik.
Precision is not a fault, Charles.
The familiar steel brush of Erik’s mind leaves him shaking and breathless, too stunned to speak, but Erik seems to feel no need to spare the driver’s feelings - the car stops as abruptly as if a giant hand has reach down from the sky to pin it in place, and the door beside Charles pops open a few seconds before the tall, hard-featured man in a long coat and fedora reaches it and climbs in. He doesn’t look at the driver. He doesn’t look at the car, or the street.
He looks at Charles, and those piercing blue-steel eyes take up all the air in the world.
Drive, Charles thinks at the man panicking in the front seat, and the force of the thought smothers the driver’s fear and everything else except the reflexive action of putting his foot down and guiding the car down the road. He’ll feel bad about that later. He’ll probably feel bad about a lot of things later.
Erik’s lips curve upward in the subtlest hint of a smile, one that’s so private and intimate that it almost breaks Charles’s heart then and there, and then he has his hand against the back of Charles’s neck and their lips come together with a greedy violence that leaves room for absolutely nothing except the hot metal taste of Erik in his mouth and the burn of Erik’s desire inside his skull. He ought to protest, or at least demand an explanation, and he promises himself that in a moment he is really going to do that just as soon as the thunder in his chest dies down far enough that he can hear himself think.
When Erik draws back enough that he might have a chance to remember that they’re in a moving vehicle in a densely populated area where someone is nearly sure to see them, he sees himself reflected in Erik’s mind - wide-eyed like a schoolgirl and lips bruised, open, wanting - and knows he’s lost. He’s done. Whatever happens next, here in this car or anywhere else Erik wants him tonight, is as likely to have anything to do with should and ought to and I really think we should reconsider as the sun is to fail to rise in the morning.
If you continue looking at me that way, Charles, we are not going to make it to the hotel I chose for us and you are going to have to make the monkey in the front seat ignore the sight of your mouth quite emphatically wrapped around my cock. I planned something a little more dignified, but if you are going to sit there and make an offering of yourself like that, I am going to use you.
Erik’s voice in his mind is rich with dark, layered hunger, and he watches with Erik’s eyes as his cheeks start to burn. His tongue flicks out against his lips - just trying to wet them, he tells himself without believing it - and he shivers like he’s sixteen again. Swallows. “He won’t notice.”
You really are a wanton boy, aren’t you? Erik breathes into his skin, less a whisper than a thought, and he doesn’t even try to restrain his moan. The metal frame of the car hums with Erik’s approval.
He hears the jingle of Erik’s belt over the soft rumble of the engine, and he looks up into those beautiful, merciless blue eyes for a long, long moment before he sinks down and braces his hands under his shoulders to make himself useful.
The morning light stings at Charles’s eyes like unwanted antiseptic, and the harshness of it brings him upright in the rough cotton sheets with a gasp that shakes his whole body and a violence that nearly tumbles him from the bed. Strong, slender-fingered hands wrapped in cold leather catch him before he can fall, and he blinks the tears from his eyes so he can see Erik’s face half-silhouetted in that harsh, grime-streaked light. If he looks around, he know he will see a grimy little hotel room in a half-ruined corner of one of the greatest cities in the world and that he will feel regret on the back of his tongue like the acid aftertaste of cheap whiskey. Regret for the bright hot joy last night that’s left violet bruises across the pallor of his skin, and for the empty bedroom waiting for him back at the mansion. Regret for the impossible gulf between him and the man who holds him up without scratching his dignity.
He doesn’t look around. He presses himself into the soft, rough wool of Erik’s expensive suit, burrowing his face against the hollow of Erik’s throat, and fills his lungs with Erik’s scent until he is all but certain they are going to burst. Leather-clad fingers stroke the back of his neck silently, and Charles can feel how carefully Erik says and thinks nothing about the dampness soaking into the fine fabric over his shoulder.
Except for one secret, sacred moment on the grounds of the Xavier mansion, Erik has not wept since his mother died.
You could come with me, Charles, he thinks but does not say.
You could come home, Charles does not whisper back.
It shouldn’t surprise Charles that Erik has brought a bucket and a sponge, or that it is already filled with warm water. Erik has always been ruthlessly efficient about planning the fine details. From anyone else, it might have felt like pity or a patronizing accommodation, but there is nothing of pity in Erik’s mind - only practicality.
In the end, Erik is always practical.
By the time Charles is clean and dressed, Erik has paid the black boy in the hall for their breakfast. They sit and share the food in silence, saying and thinking nothing, both drinking in the sight and sound of each other like men preparing for a long journey with scant supplies. It is possible - more than possible - that they will not meet again in this life, and yet today they have nothing to say to each other.
Everything they have to say was said on a beach a year ago, and in this damp, sweat-stained bed last night.
Erik finishes the last of the food on the plate - he never wastes any, no matter how easily he can get more - and flicks his hand, sending the metal tray floating to the unsteady wood table by the door. He looks into Charles’s eyes, as if searching for something there, and when he does not find it he reaches out and runs his gloved fingertips along the bruise that is just visible above the fine silk collar of Charles’s shirt. A low, trembling sound traps itself against Charles’s teeth, as if in the morning light he cannot bring himself to let it pass.
Erik smiles like the bright steel edge of a razor, and Charles cannot find the tears to weep.
They do not say good-bye. Erik simply stands, sending the chair from its place in the corner to a more convenient place beside the bed with a thought, and walks from the room without stopping in the doorway to look back. Charles wonders if he will ever be strong enough to be so ruthless with himself.
He wonders if Erik will ever feel strong enough to allow himself a last look.
By the time the creaking elevator in the hall deposits him in the lobby, he is firmly convinced he ought to be ashamed of himself. The boys will be worried about him - if they’ve ever noticed he was gone, the bitter voice in his heart whispers - and he will have to hide the bruises on his skin for days until they fade. That he does not want them to fade is an idea he is not prepared to entertain. He stops in the desk and reaches for his wallet, then realizes he will have to call the desk boy with his mind because the bell is soundly out of reach. He will have to see the disgust and the contempt for the rich white men using his hotel rooms for unmentionable acts, for the cripple in the chair, and he will have to choke down his own rage at being seen with such ugly eyes for something as natural as breath.
When he finally braces himself and touches the boy’s mind, he finds Erik’s face looking back at him. The crisp German accent, the impeccable suit and the polite smile beneath the wolf’s eyes as Erik took a few bills from his wallet and paid the bill. The subtle shudder of fear in the boy’s mind that crushed any contempt he might have mustered beneath its heel. It makes Charles want to weep, knowing how little that implicit threat will help the boy to learn to think better of his fellow man in future. It makes him want to laugh, too, and that ought to shame him far more than it does. I can’t imagine how I ever thought I could change you, Erik.
Erik pauses in the boy’s memory, wallet already closed but not yet put away, and then reaches up to the rack beside the counter and takes a small bundle from it, tucking it into his pocket before taking a few more bills and laying them on the counter. Then he adds his wallet to the same inner pocket carrying that square bundle of plastic and paper and walks out into the street, his shoulders square and proud in the long wool of his coat.
Charles looks up at the rack beside the register where the bundle of postcards is missing, and his lips remember how to smile.
“‘A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hmān, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. The séroni could say it better than I say it now. Not better than I could say it in a poem. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then–that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.’”